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New Release: Blood Sin

BLOOD SIN banner 3

Zander Sin is the bad boy of rock-n-roll, known for his wealth, his temper tantrums, and his love of hedonism, but to K&R expert and newly born maran vampire Jackson Pastor, Zander Sin is something else: murderer, monster, and kidnapper. After Zander’s Whore of Babylon tour comes to Los Angeles, Jackson also learns that Zander Sin has a grudge with Jackson’s family that goes way beyond money or power, and stretches all the way back to ancient Rome.

Zander may be on everyone’s hit list, human and supernatural alike, but when Jackson learns that Zander’s keeping his younger sister Monika prisoner, he finds himself face-to-face with the most objectionable of outcomes: being forced to help Zander Sin get what he wants.

Even if it means Jackson may have to betray everyone he loves to do it.

You all can rest easy. I am done publishing books for 2014.

(I published 3 books this year. If you went back in time to tell 20-year-old me this information, 20-year-old me would have mocked you for telling unbelievable lies.)

So let’s talk about Blood Sin.

First, damn but this book was fun to write. I’m sure part of that is just due to familiarity: it’s becoming easier to write some of these characters as I’m no longer lost in the wilderness of world building and character study, allowing me to play a bit more. I think it might also be a matter of one of the main villains of the story, Zander Sin, whose villainy is so unapologetic, so removed from anything resembling guilt or remorse, so purposefully and deliberately cliche, became my equivalent of Du Champ’s ‘Fountain’ except with the word ‘vampire’ written across his chest. (I love that he all but holds up a sign that says ‘I am an evil vampire’ — and I really love that he does this hoping someone will notice.)

There are other parts of the book that fill me with unholy joy as well, but I won’t spoil them for you.

I do hope you enjoy the book. (I’ll be starting on the next one very soon.)

You can order Blood Sin direct from World Weaver Press or from Amazon or Kobo. And if you do? I would be ever so grateful if you left a review.

Thank you!

Monsanto Wants Your Soul (book reviews)

Or, reviews of two dystopian novels: Karen Faris’s Grumbles the Novel, Part I: Take a Pill and Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky. (Note: I purchased both books, and was not asked to review them.)

So a few weeks ago my business required me to do a fair bit of airplane travel. In a perfect world, that would mean five or six hours of solid writing, but coach airplane chairs are so small it’s almost impossible to do any real typing without smashing my elbow into the poor bastard sitting next to me. So instead I read a couple of books.

In hindsight, I was amused to discover that I had unwittingly chosen books of a THEME, that theme being: GMOs are going to eat you.

In both cases, literally.

The first book I picked up was part 1 of Karen Faris’s Grumbles series. Now, I’m going to start with what I hated about this book: it’s not a complete novel, but ends just the story is starting to ramp up. Now, trilogies can be tricky this way, and sometimes the first book ends just as the quest is really getting started, but I felt this ending was jarring, and this book did not feel complete to me. I actually approached the writer about this, and she admitted that breaking up the book was the publisher’s decision, because they had felt the original novel was too long.

I thought we were past the age when publishers would pull a Tolkien on writers and force them to break up books, but apparently NOT.

So if you start to read this and are really liking it? Realize that you’re going to want to buy parts 2 and 3 at the same time, so you don’t have to stop. All three books are available.

But what about the book? Okay, so picture if you will a book as the love child of Terry Pratchett and Corey Doctorow. And that love child would be Grumbles the Novel. Set in the future in a United States where it’s illegal to grow your own produce (more on that theme later) and where the wild flora is both toxic and carnivorous, the novel follows the exploits of Pettie Grumbles, one of the last postmen in a world where the only ‘safe’ nutrition comes from vitamins and the post office is the last bastion of mystery men and spies.

One of the things I found so fascinating about this story was the lack of modern judgement values. Many of the people in Pettie Grumbles world are cheerful, not because they think their world is fantastic, but because it’s often human nature to make the best of things and (important) because they frankly don’t know any better. In a world where mandatory education has been eliminated as an affront to civil rights and where the most beloved political party are actual pirates (they run on a platform of total honesty about their motives,) the idea that it has ever been different is a topic most people simply cannot grasp. Drugs are cheap, the sky is always blue, and whatever you do, don’t drink the tap water.

It’s the most light-hearted, fun, grim dystopian cautionary tale I’ve ever read, frankly.

If potatoes are the mandatory staple crop of Grumbles’s world, corn is the demon plaguing the Heartland of Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky, specifically a strain of corn called Hiram’s Golden Prolific, so aggressive that the local farmers don’t raise it so much as desperately try to control it. The lowlander farmers who are forced to raise the crop for the Empyrean elite who float in city-ships overhead in a Morlock/Eloi relationship can’t even eat this corn: it’s only good for bio-fuel, plastics, and manufacturing, and is toxic for human consumption. It’s illegal to grow anything else, any idea which is harshly enforced by flame throwers and drone strikes. The farmers are provided food they can eat in exchange for the corn harvested, but that means if they’re under quota, people starve. There’s also a very interesting hint of Mother Nature’s revenge in a feared disease called the Blight.

Wendig’s Heartland is a grim place, as grim as any farmer who knows he’ll lose the farm with the next poor harvest, as grim as any dust bowl cluster of hopeless migrant farm workers. Hiram’s Golden Prolific is an unsustainable crop: besides depleting the soil with the next decade, the chemicals used to keep it under control are horrifically toxic and cancer causing. Into this world is born Cael (I see what Chuck did there) McAvoy, a teenage leader of a scavenger gang who has to deal not only with his own enemies, but his father’s as well. Cael means well, but he’s a typical seventeen-year-old, which means those good intentions are laced with healthy doses of hormone-driven stupidity. But when he discovers strains of edible crops that seems to be capable of overcoming the growth rate of Hiram’s Golden Prolific, the stakes become much higher than he can imagine…

If Cael is a straight-forward farmboy Destined For Great Things, his friends (and enemies) deserve a call-out for being so fantastically articulated. Wendig skillfully balances POVs to make sure that no character is ever completely two-dimensional, and to make sure we realize that even bullies are made, not born. Cael’s first love Gwennie may make some choices that Cael can’t understand, but we the reader certainly can, and she quickly proves she’s not just some princess who’s only role is to be rescued. Indeed, I find myself wondering just who will end up saving whom by the time this story ends, or if Cael will grow enough to make up for his own poor decisions.

Both books definitely left me reaching for the next in the series.

Disclosure: When I originally wrote this, Karen Faris and I had only the most cursory contact with each other, although we did have a common friend. I bought this book with my own money, and Karen did not ask or pay for this review. However, since then we’ve become friends who both write for http://www.rewritingmarysue.com, and Karen and I have started reviewing books together for that blog.

Updates and Motivation

So I’m about 85,000 into the first draft of Making Shiva, and progress is slowing. Much of that is due to real life issues that I won’t get into and the release of Blood Chimera (which has required a lot more active marketing support than my self-published titles,) but at least the ‘wall’ has nothing do with actual writing this time. Still, what I’d hoped to finish in one mouth will definitely take two, maybe three (although hopefully not more than that.)

That said, I thought we might talk a little about motivation. You know that thing that actors are always asking? “What’s my motivation?” That.

I was recently watching a movie (it will remain nameless but it rhymes with Gorilla) where the primary motivation for the majority of characters was “what will advance the plot to the next action scene?” The characters had no other plausible motivation. They made decisions that seemed to be based solely on what the director needed, not what was internally consistent for their own histories and personalities. Self-interest wasn’t invited to the party: they performed actions which made zero sense from their own personal narratives but which did lead to awesome giant monster scenes. Needless to say, I wasn’t very impressed. Actually, I was flabberghasted.

Why am I talking about this as a writer?

Because this happens with books too.

Let’s discuss.

There is a meta-level motivation for anything that happens in a book, and it’s usually (although not always) ‘to advance the story.’ Why did the villain kill the hero’s brother? (So the hero would have a reason to be in conflict with the villain.) Why didn’t the hero just make the phone call/go online/ask someone so she might have found that vital piece of information she needed? (Because otherwise the book would only be 50 pages long.) Why did the villain kidnap the girl? (Because otherwise the hero wouldn’t go after him.) Are these answers? Yes. Are these good answers? …no. No, they’re terrible.

Seriously, don’t do this.

The main answer for why a character does something should always be: because it made sense for that particular character to do so, given their background, their needs, and their motivations. Why did Joe Chill kill Martha and Thomas Wayne? Because he was skittish, strung-out, and nervous petty criminal who panicked during a mugging. Why does Loki try to conquer Midgard? Because he’s never gotten over his own insecurities about being second fiddle to his brother Thor, pushing Loki to seek out ways to embarrass, corrupt, or screw up anything his brother loves. Their actions, and the consequences of those actions, are consistent within their frameworks.

If on the other hand, a character who only exists to prop up the main character’s back story might do something that’s bluntly suicidal, just because the writer needs them to do it.

So ask yourself why something is happening in your story. An event, an action, a choice. Is the primary answer:

  • Because otherwise it destroys the main premise of your story?
  • Because it’s neat (i.e. because explosions are cool?) [This one might be okay, but be careful. It’s still laden with traps.]
  • Because otherwise the story will be shorter than you originally planned?
  • Because you need this to happen to lay the foundation for the next scene?
  • Because if this doesn’t happen, the hero has no reason to move forward (often a cause of “fridging” a love interest?)

If any of these responses resemble your own answer, you need to give serious consideration to going back to the drawing board. A yes here means the odds are good that there is a core problem with your story, and you likely can’t fix it by piling on a lot of cool scenery or neat action scenes and hoping your audience won’t notice. (Your audience will notice.)

I’m not immune to the lure of an expeditious motive (no writer is.) My husband has a talent for picking apart a scene I’ve created and asking tough questions about the motivations behind them. “Why would this character do this?” He forces me to justify my characters’ actions, which is awesome.

For example, in one of my novels, the master villain kept throwing peons at the problem, and happily for the hero, the peons weren’t up to the task.  He was powerful enough that he could have easily handled the matter himself, and stepping back and letting his minions flounder around (or more to the point, tolerate any more floundering from them) just seemed coy (not a trait one associates with powerful villains.) There was no good reason the villain would show that kind of reluctance. I realized I’d been holding the villain back because I thought I needed to on a metaplot level (because that’s how it works in movies and books, right?) rather than because it’s what made sense for the villain, given his motivations and personality.

When I pulled off the self-imposed restraints, the plot sailed (and the hero was really in a whole lot of trouble, which was even better!)

Now, I’m a fan of figuring out the motivation first, the consequences second, but it can be done in reverse. Dwight V. Swain, his book Techniques for the Selling Writer, advises writers that they should decide where they need their plot direction to go, and make sure that the author gives their characters motivations which match that goal. If you need your villain to murder the hero’s father in the first act, make sure the villain’s motivation’s support that action and are consistent with that desire (did the hero’s father fire the villain? Steal his love interest? Turn him into the police? Mugging gone bad behind the Monarch Theater?) If you know you need your hero to do a given thing, work backwards and create the background or motivation which results in that action.

I admit I’m not personally a huge fan of this, but I put it out there because I recognize that just because something doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. For me, this feels a bit like begging the question, and runs the risk in a series of having characters whose motivations seem inconsistent. (I think this method might work very well for short stories though.)

My personal favorite is to create motivations for characters which conflict with each other, but are consistent to their own background, methods, and personalities. In my recently released book, Blood Chimera, there’s a man named Darius Temple who is trying to build up his community and eliminate the deprivations of both gangs and corrupt cops. That’s his motivation. He sees himself as a champion of the community — which puts him very firmly at odds with someone like gang leader Crazy Tez, who  would far prefer to destroy and dominate that same community, whom he views as an invading occupying force. Both of these men are presented as adversaries to the main character, but both men have consistent reasons for their actions. Indeed, both men would swear they are right to act as they do. The fact that their motives conflict with both the hero and each other? Perfect.

Just don’t have your character’s only motivation be getting to the next scene.

New Book: Blood Chimera

This has been a long time coming. I’m just a touch excited. A little. A smidge. To put it mildly.

Okay, fine: I’m so damn excited.

Here’s the cover for Blood Chimera, a paranormal mystery coming August 12th from World Weaver Press. [Correction: OUT NOW! YES!]

Warning: what follows is a whole lot of author gushing about how the hell this book happened and that includes some world-building thoughts which might be considered spoilery (at least as far as meta book details are concerned).

I’ve always wanted to write a vampire book (well, since I was eighteen and first read Dracula, or maybe since I was fourteen and first saw The Hunger? Back during the Triassic, in any event.) I was always told not to. “It’s been done,” I heard. “Anne Rice owns the genre. The publishers don’t want to look at that.” (Which later became ‘Laurell K Hamilton owns the genre’ or ‘Charlaine Harris owns the genre’ or ‘Stephanie Meyers owns the genre’ but always with the strong suggestion that vampires are overdone and nobody wants to read about them anymore.) And one evening, while I was discussing my frustration with this very fact to my then boyfriend, now husband, he said, “Write the story you want the way you want. Don’t pay any attention to someone who tells you that you’re wasting your time.” (He’s a good one, that guy.)

I was in the middle of not-finishing two other books at the time (later to become Marduk’s Rebellion and The Culling Fields) so I figured, sure, what could possibly make the situation worse than starting a THIRD BOOK.

I did this thing.

As it happens, the last book I started was the first book I finished.

Normally I start with characters, but not this time. This time I started with the vampires.

I started with mythology, specifically with the word itself, ‘vampire’ and its etymology. The word’s not really that old, and its original meaning was a bit more all-purpose than what we think of today. It basically meant ‘monster’ — and that monster could have been any number of creatures, only one of which was what we think of as a modern vampire. Also, I became intrigued by the Romanian strigoi legends, and the idea that someone might become a vampire, not because they were attacked or killed by a vampire, but by accident of birth. Some other ideas collided with all of this. I threw a lot of things into my stew, from Lovecraft to ancient Babylonian mythology, because that’s how I roll.

When I was done, I realized that I’d created something wasn’t really a vampire — not the way Hollywood classically portrays them anyway — but which I could easily imagine being the source of various myths of supernatural creatures. It was also (and this was very important) not confined to European mythologies. The same beings responsible for myths of vampires in the Carpathians were also responsible for the wendigo of North America, Lamia of ancient Greece, and the nine-tailed foxes of Asia. If humanity was going to have a hidden world of supernatural entities, every culture got a slice of that pie, and those cultures wouldn’t necessarily get along with each other because they were all monsters any more than their mundane equivalents did. One culture’s angels were another culture’s demons.

Into THIS fine mess, I dropped my hero, Jackson Pastor.

Jackson has no single inspiration. He owes a lot to Nick Knight, but just as much to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He was, briefly, a police detective (I now cannot even imagine that working out now) before I finally settled on kidnap & ransom negotiator, a career path which seemed like an bizarre combination of traditional soldier of fortune and support therapist by way of Michael Weston.

I’m going to have so much fun with this series.

Blood Chimera Release Date Announced!

World Weaver Press

Alpena, MI (July 2, 2014) – World Weaver Press (Eileen Wiedbrauk, Editor-in-Chief) has announced Blood Chimera, the first novel in a new paranormal mystery series by Jenn Lyons, will be available in trade paperback and ebook Tuesday, August 12, 2014.

Some ransoms aren’t meant to be paid. Kidnap and Ransom negotiation used to be straightforward. The bad guys kidnap someone, and K&R expert Jackson Pastor negotiates their release, skillfully traversing a maze of bloodthirsty monsters: criminals, terrorists, police, and especially the FBI.

But that was before he met real bloodthirsty monsters.

When Jackson Pastor arrives in Los Angeles to help a new client recover his kidnapped wife, he finds himself dropped in the middle of a 500-year-old war between rival European and Mexican vampire clans, a conflict that threatens to escalate into a full-on public gang war. Worse, Jackson hasn’t been brought to Los Angeles to be a negotiator.

His new boss wants to turn him into an assassin.

With Jackson about to be caught in the middle of a clan war, his only hope of escape may lie with a secret FBI monster-hunting task-force led by a very dangerous, eccentric wizard. Which could be a problem, since Jackson’s a monster himself.

Blood Chimera will be available in trade paperback and ebook via Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Kobo.com, and other online retailers, and for wholesale through Ingram. You can also find Blood Chimera on Goodreads.

Jenn Lyons lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, three cats and a lot of opinions on anything from Sumerian creation myths to the correct way to make a martini. At various points in her life, she has wanted to be an archaeologist, anthropologist, architect, diamond cutter, fashion illustrator, graphic designer, or Batman. Turning from such obvious trades, she is now a video game producer by day, and spends her evenings writing science fiction and fantasy. When not writing, she can be found debating the Oxford comma and Joss Whedon’s oeuvre at various local coffee shops.

World Weaver Press is an independently owned publisher of fantasy, paranormal, and science fiction. We believe in great storytelling.

Glamour Review (plus a sale!)

One of the books my publisher World Weaver Press recently published is called Glamour (written by Andrea Janes), and while on the surface the book is about witches, don’t let that fool you. It’s really about how power corrupts, the contrast between haves and have-nots, judging books by their covers, and the dangers of getting what you wish for (especially when it comes at someone else’s expense.) Good stuff, wonderfully written. Really the kind of work that deserves to be shared, so where I am, sharing it.

So I wasn’t given an advance reader copy of this book but I actually went out and bought it myself. Because.

(Okay, I liked the cover art.)

I’m very glad I did.

As Hannibal Lecter once asked: What do we covet, Clarice?

Answer with me: we covet what we see every day.

In this case, the ‘we’ is a young woman named Christina, who grew up in, lives, and works in a small Cape Cod resort town that might once have been the set of a Lovecraftian group of cultists, but now plays host to rich tourists who whisk in during the summer months to spend a lot of money on smarmy tourist traps (which the town requires to keep afloat.) Christina has ‘seen’ these rich tourists all her life, and she resents them even as she relies on their discretionary income for her survival. Told (mostly) from Christina’s POV, it’s clear from the start that her own prejudices are blinding her, never so apparent as when one of the tourists, a pretty, perfect blonde named Reese, takes a job at the ice cream shop where Christina works.

Christina may be of legal age, but she has a lot of growing up to do.

When Christina discovers she has magic powers, real honest-to-goodness magic powers, it’s not an instant trip to Hogwartz. Indeed, when she discovers her magic is capable of granting all her wishes, including giving her life she’s always thought she wanted, Christina also finds out the hard and painful way that her real problem is her own attitude. Now that’s a life lesson I can get behind.

Basically? I loved this book. I recommend the hell out of it.

I should also mention that the book is going to be on sale, starting May 25th (that’s THIS SUNDAY) at 8:00 am PST. The book will be $0.99 on Amazon, and it will go up by $1 every 38 hours until May 31 when it returns to it’s normal $4.99 price. So if you want to pick it up, now’s the time.

Get your copy here!

Kumiho

Kumiho was a short story I wrote about 10 years back, and semi-autobiographical. I chanced upon it when looking through some old files and decided to share it.

_______________

Since my boyfriend lost his car last summer, I’ve been taking the bus a lot. You meet a weird lot riding the bus, especially in Los Angeles, where public transportation is the option of last resort. There are the people who hop on and immediately open up the cases of stolen watches, the homeless who haven’t bathed in weeks if not months and sometimes, the people like me who are just enduring the commute to work. These are generic descriptions, but there are some very specific characters I’ve encountered: one fellow who carries a white cane and pretends to be blinds so he can ride for free; an old sweet-looking grandmotherly woman who always wears the same tweed suit with lace gloves and is so terrified that there won’t be any room for her on the bus she always cuts in front of the line, even if she has to push others out of her way.  I remember less benign sorts too: the young man mumbling to himself, writing ‘kill’ over and over and over on the pad of paper in front of him; the crack-high gangbanger who tried to pick a fight with a bunch of scared high school kids and waved his gun around on the bus, announcing: “I’m a god-damned Blood, so you had better be showing me some respect!”

This isn’t about any of those people.

When I stepped onto the bus this afternoon (after being elbowed out of the way by the old woman with the lace gloves), there was another old woman already seated. I sat down next to her, as most of the places were taken, and for some reason I was less than enthusiastic about sitting down next to she-of-the-sharp-elbows. I had my book with me. It was pretty close to a perfect arrangement: I could sit there and read, the old woman would just sit, and we wouldn’t have to so much as look at each other.

She had other ideas; she wanted to talk. Her English was quite good, but she’d never lost the Japanese accent.

There’s a hospital near where I work, and that’s where she was coming from. Her husband was there. She was coming back from visiting him, and she was very excited because today was the first day in six days that he’d been able to eat solid food.

I told her congratulations. That’s great news. I tried to read another paragraph from my tale of the Black Company.

No good. She wasn’t finished.

She told me the doctors said he probably wouldn’t make it. He’d had a heart attack and he hadn’t called a doctor when she told him to, and so she’d been forced to call 911 herself. They’d been forced to operate.

I told her I was sorry for her, and in the completely callous manner of a seasoned bus veteran, tried to go back to reading my book.

She smiled at me. Her eyes had the faint beginnings of cataracts, but they held no hint of sadness. No, she told me. He would survive. He had eaten today. He’d said he wanted to go home. From now on, she would make sure he took care of himself.

A third time, I tried to politely agree, ignore her, and go back to reading.

The old woman touched my hand. I startled, because well, she’d touched me. There’s some things you just don’t do. There was no threat to the touch though, no danger. It was just…unnerving. She looked at me and said: “You have beautiful hands. They are perfect. My hands were never so perfect.”

I stared at her. “Thank you, I…”

“Pretty hands. You don’t do anything to make them like that, do you? They look lovely all on their own.

I’d never really thought about it. I’m an artist, a writer. My hands are my life. Does sun block 50 count?

I was starting to feel embarrassed, so I said: “I’m just younger. I bet your hands looked just like this when you were my age.” She had a petite sweetness about her, a prettiness that suggested she probably had been quite stunning when she was young.

“I was your age when I met him in Japan,” she told me. “He was an American soldier.”

“Oh.” I resisted the urge to ask if he had been with the occupational forces. My ex-husband’s father had served there, after World War II. He’d come back to war trophies: a Japanese army officer’s ceremonial katana, two gorgeous silk embroidered tapestries, and two very beautiful, if somewhat unconventional, paintings of Mount Fuji painted with acrylics on silk. Frank had always claimed he’d paid for them, and I had no reason to doubt that, but I still didn’t think it would be very tactful of me to bring them up. Besides, she looked old, but she didn’t look that old.

“He gave me a diamond,” she said, holding up her hand. She whispered that, which I thought was prudent. She wore a wedding/engagement ring combo on her wedding finger. If it was diamond, it needed to be cleaned something fierce. She wore a string of pearls around her neck and another ring on the middle finger of her left hand, but the emerald was too big, too clear a green, to be anything but glass. The jade ring on her right hand was probably real enough. It was cut to look like a fox’s head. Probably made in China.

“He told me he would come back in five years to marry me. Five years can be a long time.” She laughed at the memory.

I looked at her. “Yeah. It can.” A damn long time, I thought. I didn’t know any American girl who would have waited that long, not for a soldier from another country, not in an age where there was no internet or cell phones to keep in touch. I wondered: had he written a lot of letters?

“Five years later, he came back, just like he said he would,” she explained. “That was when he was finished twenty years in the Army, you see. He retired. He said he gave me three things: his word, his heart and his time. This way, he could give all of himself to me.”

I started to get a funny itching sensation at the back of my throat. “Wow. That’s so sweet. How—how long have you been married?”

“32 years.” She smiled. “I love him very much. He’s a very good man. A very honest man. When he took a job, later, he would always come home the same time so I would know where he was, so I would know he wasn’t fooling around. When I think of our love, I feel very young.”

20 years in the military, with another 32 tacked on to that, and assuming he was 18 when he began…her husband was at least 70 years old. I couldn’t really tell how old she was. But him? 70 years old and a major heart attack? The lump in my throat grew.

She told me more then. How she had teased him, because he hated Japanese food but married a Japanese woman. How she preferred sticky rice, but she made him Minute-Rice, because that’s what his mother used to make him. How scared she had been at the heart attack, because she couldn’t move her husband. He was big man who weighed 200lbs, and she looked like she might break 100 if she was wet and holding the housecat. How glad she would be to have him home again. There was no doubt, no uncertainty, in her voice. How could he possibly die if he was hungry, if he wanted to come home?

It would be different this time. She would make him take care of himself. He’d always been too busy before. Too busy taking care of her.

I realized then, why she was telling all of this to a stranger on the bus: because she had no children, no family in the United States. Who knows? Maybe she had no family in Japan, either. In any case, she had thought her husband wouldn’t survive, that he was dead. The doctors had told her he wouldn’t likely make it, but here he was, opening his eyes, talking to her, eating real food and saying he wanted to go home. She was so full of joy she was ready to explode.

She had make someone understand. Anyone. Me.

Her stop came up before mine, and as she stood, she turned and asked me my name. Normally, I don’t give that out, but in her case I did without thinking about it.

She smiled and clapped her hand over mine. “Sweet girl. I’m Kumiho.”

I stared after her in shock as she walked down the bus steps.

Kamiho, I told myself. It’s the accent. You misunderstood her. Kumiho? That’s all wrong. That’s not even Japanese. A kumiho is a Korean nine-tailed fox. It’s something out of myth and legend, not real, and certainly nothing a parent would ever name their child. She must have said Kamiho. That’s a perfectly normal name for a Japanese woman, isn’t it?

I didn’t really know.

The bus moved on, and I lost sight of her. I never saw her again, even though I took that route every day for another year. Maybe we just missed each other.

When I stepped off the bus, I took the long way home, thinking about fox women, honor, and American soldiers, and how damn little I understand about love.

Being Pulled in Too Many Directions

As I make friends with more and more writers, I am often left appalled by the stories they have shared with me of their experiences, and how often they have been beaten down by the well-intentioned (or perhaps not at all well-intentioned) advice of people theoretically helping them perfect their craft. Sometimes friends, sometimes critique partners, etc. Everyone has an opinion on how your work would be better written:

  • Your writing has too much exposition (your writing needs more description.)
  • Your writing  is too dark and unsettling (your writing is too bland and nice.)
  • Your characters should be nicer (your characters have no conflict.)
  • There’s not enough action (there’s not enough discussion.)
  • etc., etc.

It’s exhausting, isn’t it? How many people are telling us that we’re doing it wrong? And I watch, I watch as people who really want to be better writers twist and contort to please these critical voices, only to scream in frustration as someone else comes along and tells them that they should do exactly the opposite. I watch as people follow instruction after instruction until they are left with a tangled mess of a manuscript that doesn’t work on any level because it’s trying to please too many masters, all at once.

I will share a hard lesson I have learned: not everyone is going to love your book.

While one can argue that you’re only writing a book for yourself, that’s probably not true. Most writers want to share their stories. On some level, we have an idea of the sort of people who might enjoy our work, even if it’s just as vague as, ‘someone like me.’ For example: I don’t expect that a tea party conservative is probably going to like my Blood Chimera series. I could be wrong and I’m prepared to be pleasantly surprised, but I don’t write the books for them. Likewise, someone who prefers fantasy erotica will no doubt find my science-fiction series lacking in a certain kind of spice. That person is also not my reader, and that’s okay.

Let’s put this in a different context. A lot of relationship advice says that in a strong relationship, one partner doesn’t try to change the other to suit their own preferences, but encourages their partner to grow into the best person they can be. I feel this is also true of writers. A good critique partner tries to help you become the best writer you can be, not change how you write to suit their own whims.

I don’t need or even want my friends to write like I do.

I want them to write like themselves–to be the best of their ability.

 

How to Find an Agent in 4 Easy Steps

So here’s how to find an agent, as far as I’ve been able to piece together:

Step 1: Write a book. No, don’t just start writing a book. Finish it. Revise it. Edit the hell out of it. Then start on the NEXT book, because this whole process is going to take a while. Keep writing while you search.

Step 2: Craft an excellent query letter and send it out to agents who would be a good fit to your work.

Step 3: …

Step 4: Land an agent!

Okay, okay, so I admit it:  I have no idea.

Really, I don’t. I know the first two steps are important, but I haven’t a clue what step 3 looks like.

The fun plot twist? I now have an agent. So I should know. Right? RIGHT?

I find the whole thing especially funny because I’d pretty much given up on the idea of finding an agent. I have on several occasions described the process of landing an agent as being akin to trying to find a date for the prom using only encrypted postcards sent to other cities, blindfolded. Handcuffed.

I asked anyone I knew who had an agent their secret and pretty much unanimously they shrugged or politely smiled and suggested I hang out over at queryshark.com and keep trying. I remember being pretty frustrated.

It never occurred to me that maybe they didn’t know the secret. Maybe there is no secret.

But no! There has to be, right? I sent off emails and waited on responses and while those responses were polite enough, nothing ever clicked. I memorized Query Shark. I entered a bunch of twitter pitch fests. I also made some classic mistakes, including my personal favorite: getting into an argument with an agent because I felt her stated reason for rejecting my submission was invalid. (I won’t go into details, but let’s just say it doesn’t matter why an agent is saying no — once you’ve reached that stage, it’s done. Walk away.) I became comfortable with the idea I was going to be indie-publishing or self-publishing forever and ever.

Thank god for my friends. They kept pushing. “What’s the harm in sending out a few queries?” one told me. And I smiled and agreed and mostly ignored their excellent advice.

Then one of my friends decided to play matchmaker. She sent me a link to the web page of an agent named Sam Morgan (at the time he was at Jabberwocky) and said, “This is the one! This is it! He’s perfect for you!”

I laughed and read his description of the sort of work he was seeking and…stopped laughing.

Because honestly, he did sound kind of perfect for me. We liked the same sort of books and the same sort of humor and both of us had a deep love for insanely detailed fantasy novels (which was exactly what I was pitching.) So the first thing I did was read everything I could find on Sam Morgan, from his blog to any mentions of him on any forum I could find (apparently finding an agent is a bit like stalking,) and the second thing I did was throw out my standard form query letter, the one I’d been sending to everyone minus a name change and a few personalized touches to prove I didn’t have a standard query form letter.

I wrote Sam’s query letter from scratch, and he is the only agent who has ever received it. I broke all sorts of rules on writing queries: this was irreverent and informal and possibly the most honest and authentically ‘me’ query letter I’ve ever sent out. (Note that I broke all kinds of rules except the ones that Sam himself stipulated for query submissions. THOSE rules I obeyed.)

Looking back, I think the authentic part was important. I was very honest. Too honest? Maybe…but normally, I would expect to hear back in a few weeks or even months.

Sam wrote back within FIVE MINUTES to ask for more, and then again the next morning to ask for the full manuscript. And when he wrote back to me about that (which took longer) it was to ask for a phone conference.

…at which point, he asked me to rewrite the entire manuscript. THE ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT. Do you feel that scream in your soul? I did.

Ugh. Was he going to sign me? No. Not yet. He wouldn’t sign me until the manuscript was ready, and he felt it needed work. He warned me that it might take two or even three years to get it right.

My friends were appalled. Horrified. I mean, you do hear stories, you know? People who rewrite their work at an agent’s request only to have the agent decide they weren’t really interested after all. A lot of people asked me if it was a deal-breaker. And maybe with a different agent and a different request, it might have been.

The thing was: Sam’s reason for wanting rewrites–his advice on how to tighten up the story–was amazing. Great, fantastic critiquing. Every point he brought up was insightful and helpful constructive criticism. If I walked away from that, I’d be walking away from the best chance I had ever had to take my work to the next level.

So I rolled up my sleeves and rewrote the manuscript.

And then I did it again, because Sam insisted it could be better still.

Of course, he was right.

And the third time, he called to say he wanted to sign me.

But you see the problem, right? How do I translate that into four easy steps? How do I translate that into useful advice at all? What worked for Sam probably wouldn’t have worked for any other agent in the entire universe, and it was mostly chance and insouciance that lead me to send him the query letter I did. (Not such would have mattered if he hadn’t liked my writing.)

So here’s my advice: write. Keep writing. And while you’re sending your book out, write more books. Pay attention to the rules of querying, but also know that there may be times and places where you’ll want to break those rules.

Which really makes it a lot like writing the book itself.

 

 

 

On the Selling of Shovels

In any gold rush, it’s not the prospectors who make the most money: it’s the people selling the picks and shovels.

Writing scams are nothing new. Before I was even born, Jessica Mitford famously (and finally–it was years before she could find a magazine that would take the story) was able to publish her expose on Famous Writers School, a very much for profit institution that treated eager would-be-authors as a revenue stream and bilked thousands. Even besides that case, vanity presses had a well deserved reputation for leaving an author stranded with a thousand copies of a book they couldn’t sell sitting in their garage. The end result was the same: the author wasn’t the client or even the commodity. The author was the customer, the end of the sales chain.

Once you’ve sold the prospector his supplies, what do you care if he strikes gold?

One of the more recent forces of this type has been (formerly) Penguin Random House owned Author Solutions, which has an astonishing track record in this regard. They basically list as number one of Writer Beware’s list of publishers to be avoided at all costs, and for very good reason. The list of unnecessary or overpriced services that this company offers makes it very clear that they’re not interested in selling an author’s books nearly as much as they’re interesting in selling TO the author. Recently this article came to my attention. For those who don’t want to follow the link, it basically details how Barnes & Nobles’ Nook Press is subcontracted out to Author Solutions — and forwards its customers to them for the big marketing sales pitch.

More shovels. More picks.

Want to know who really struck gold in the Alaska Gold Rush? The fellow who set up a hot coffee stand on the trail up to the claim sites. HE ended up rich as Midas.

There’s a famous saying about this industry: money should always flow to a writer, not away from them. The emphasis on that is traditional publishing centered. Self-published authors know that’s all but impossible. Everyone wants their cut. Everyone is offering some indispensable service. People will tear you apart if your book isn’t edited and proofed to perfection, never mind that most Big Published books aren’t either. The cover isn’t amazing? Get out of here and stop wasting our time. There’s incredible pressure on indie authors to buy services to make themselves look professional. A better cover, a pass from a really good editor (story editor, line editor, proofreader). The costs add up fast. Then your first book doesn’t sell as well as you’d hoped and when some group like Author Solutions comes along and promises sales, you start to think that maybe that’s a good idea. You have to spend money to make money, right. Right?

It’s not a good idea. It will never be a good idea.

Stay away.

Want to know who made their first millions with the California Gold Rush?

Levis.

Cover Reveal: Making Shiva

So there it is: my cover for the second book in my science-fiction series. Here’s the stuff on the back:

THE NEW GODS HAVE ARRIVED.

Now that the Solar Independence War is over, retired war hero Mallory MacLain is busy partying away her career opportunities and ignoring her chances to better the universe through scientific discovery.

When a cult of personality rises up around a new leader in the nascent League, Mallory is too lost to her own self-destructive urges to recognize the danger: she can ignore the politics, but that doesn’t mean the politics will ignore her.

Now, with her research stolen, her reputation in tatters, and her most trusted friends turned against her, Mallory is sentenced to the most notorious prison in human-occupied space. What she finds on Sheol Station makes her question everything she believes about the destiny of the human race. With the League only just freed from alien rule and now on the cusp of becoming thralls to a new slave master, Mallory must answer the question of what she’s willing to sacrifice to put an end to a tyrant who has the power to demand his own worship as a god.

Especially since he may be one.

Needless to say, I’m pretty thrilled to be sending this out the door. Expected book publication will be at the end of March–I’ll keep everyone updated if that changes.

Manuscripts Sitting in a Drawer

So it’s been quiet…

It hasn’t been, but I admit I’ve been pretty bad about blogging, so how would you know what insanity has been in my life? 2015 was a dead year in that regard. There was a lot going on behind the scenes, but nothing showing on the surface.

Let’s chat a bit about what’s been going on, just between us. The first thing I want to mention is that the sequel to my science-fiction space opera, MAKING SHIVA, is on its final review rounds before an expected March publication. (I’ll post the cover here shortly.) I am anxious to let this one into the world, not only because it marks another advance in dear Mallory’s story, but because it also marks the last of the ‘old books.’

What are the ‘old books’ you ask?

Well, many years ago, I got this idea into my head that I was going to be a writer. It was a bit of a lark, but I love books, love them to an embarrassing degree, so when my husband suggested I tried writing one, I did.

Being who I am, I wrote three.

The books in question were called A Question of Honor, The Game of Empire, and Making Shiva. They were the sort of books that first time writers create, with everything wrong with them that you might expect, from overly long and unnecessary prologues to the most purple of purple prose. I queried them, failed to find any interest for reasons that are now painfully obvious, and put them in a drawer while I convinced myself I was many things, but certainly not a writer.

And later, after the divorce, when my now ex-husband made me promise that whatever else happened, I was not to stop writing, I pulled them back out again. I didn’t revise the books; I rewrote them completely, ripped them up right down to the foundation and rebuilt them from scratch. A Question of Honor became Marduk’s Rebellion. The Game of Empire became The Culling Fields (more on that later.) Making Shiva became…well…that one’s title stayed the same but very little of the original manuscript survived.

There’s plenty of wisdom out there that suggests one should just let an early career manuscript die, but I’m glad I haven’t listened to that advice. In all cases, I love the books that these horrid first drafts became and I can look back at them with pride. And having let this one fly out into the wild, I can now look forward to writing more.

On that note, with the release of Making Shiva, I’m also going to be updating the cover and contents of Marduk’s Rebellion (another edit pass is in the works.) I’ll let you know you when that’s available, but I’m aiming for March as well.

Some of you may have noticed that The Culling Fields is no longer available on Amazon. I’ve taken the book down.

Why would I do such a thing?

Several reasons. First, I rewrote it. Yes, the whole damn thing. Nothing quite as total as those first demolition jobs, but more than sufficient to be a new edition. The second reason is that I have decided that the Culling Fields is going to be best served with traditional publication, and I’m working to make that happen. Why? (Oh god, WHY?)

Well, it’s like this: Amazon Createspace is not a good platform for fat fantasy, and it’s REALLY not a good platform for a 650+ page book with footnotes (yes, the damn thing has footnotes) that is best read in physical print. I had a book that was prohibitively expensive in trade paperback (while making almost no money because the margin is nonexistent on a book that size), but an utter horror to read in mobi or epub formats.

So I’m going to see what I can do. As such, I can’t promise when the book will next be available again, but I can say that stuff is happening. STUFF IS HAPPENING. Super vague, but I promise I’m not just leaving the manuscript in a drawer.

Oh, and I’m writing the sequel, Demon Falls.

Cover Reveal: Fractured Days

When I asked to help out with the cover reveal for the new book by Rebecca Roland (one of my fellow writers at World Weaver Press) I thought: absolutely! Rebecca’s a sweetheart, as well as an amazing talent.

So a little about the new book:

Malia returns home the hero of a war she can’t remember. The valley burning under the Maddion’s invasion, the fate of her late husband, the way she resolved the long-time distrust between the Taakwa people and the wolfish, winged Jegudun creatures–all of it has been erased from her memory. Malia hopes to resume training as her village’s next clan mother, but when the symbiotic magic that she and the Jeguduns used to repair the valley’s protective barrier starts to consume more and more of her mind, she’s faced with the threat of losing herself completely.

A powerful being known as “the changer” might hold the solution to her vanishing memories. But the Maddion’s new leader, Muvumo, also seeks the changer, hoping the being will cure them of the mysterious illness killing off his people. Meanwhile, Muvumo’s bride hopes the changer can bring about a new era, one in which she and the other Maddion women no longer need to hold onto their greatest secret.

I must admit, that sounds like some pretty bad-ass world-building right there.

Ready for the cover? Here goes!

fractured days

Fractured Days will be available in trade paperback and ebook via Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Kobo.com, WorldWeaverPress.com, and other online retailers, and for wholesale through Ingram. You can also find Fractured Days on Goodreads.

Women of the Wasteland – Mad Max: Fury Road

It’s been many years since I watched the first Mad Max movie. Honestly, I don’t remember it that well. I recall it as a low-budget revenge tale in a quasi-dystopian urban landscape (unlike later movies, government and law enforcement still existed, society had not collapsed.) Max Rockatansky as played by Mel Gibson has such a strong accent he is almost unintelligible, and women are largely absent except to be rescued, raped, or killed at various points in the story. At no point in this tale do women have even the tiniest bit of agency — they’re victims, period. Most of the time, they don’t even have the dignity of proper names.

My main impression of that first movie is how stunningly post-apocalyptic it was NOT. Where are the crazy outfits, the mad nomads in the desert? Mad Max isn’t a lone ronin wandering the wastes, he’s a highway patrol cop with a boss yelling at him to do his paperwork. I think it can be argued that the first Mad Max movie is a kind of cinematic prologue, an origin story, but not properly part of the main series at all. Mad Max is a prequel that just happened to be shot first, a warm-up exercise for the movies that follow. This isn’t what we think of when we think “Mad Max.”

That is the second movie.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is so iconic to the flavor of the series that I know a lot of people who mistakenly believe it IS the first movie. This is the movie that establishes so many of the tropes we associate with Mad Max: the complete collapse of government and society, the scarcity of resources, the roving bands of increasingly violent and tribal gangs who dress in the most outlandish S&M outfits (in fact, many of the gang members for this movie were famously played by members of the local gay bondage community, who brought their play costumes to the set.) Everything is dirty, distress, recycled. There’s rape here too, and very few of the women have speaking roles. In fact, very few women have proper names; one of the larger female roles with a speaking part is actually titled “The Captain’s Girl.”

And yet…we can’t talk about this movie without talking about Warrior Woman. Warrior Woman (yes, that is her official title credit) is played brilliantly by Virginia Hey, and she is a stand-out in many ways. Not only is she a major character, but she is in almost all ways indistinguishable from a male in the same role. She is never raped, threatened with rape, never used as a sexual plot device, never killed off to further Max’s story. She isn’t there to train Max. Unlike Max, she goes on the final road trip knowing it’s a suicide mission, and she willingly (and heroically) sacrifices herself to save her community. Her death has nothing to do with him, and it’s entirely her choice.

That sounds suspiciously like ‘agency,’ doesn’t it?

That brings us to the third movie, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, where this whole ‘female agency’ thing sneaks into the movie so quietly most people didn’t even notice. Now don’t get me wrong: Beyond Thunderdome still has problems (it would fail the Bechdel Test, for example, as would the movies that came before it) but unlike previous movies, there’s not a single instance of rape and the women actually merit proper names (or in the case of Auntie Entity, proper nom de guerres.) Auntie Entity (played by Tina Turner) is fabulous and over-the-top, in much the same way that Lord Humongous was in the second film. She is female, black, and anything but set dressing — she’s one of the main plot drivers. More so, and hold on to your hats for this, by the end of the movie everyone in charge is a woman. Auntie Entity runs Barter Town (or presumably will once she gets the riots back under control,) Savannah Nix leads the Tomorrow-morrow Land kids after they’ve settled in Sidney. This is never called out as anything surprising or unusual. It’s not an upset of the natural order. Their right to be in these roles may be questioned (certainly Master didn’t much like Auntie Entity’s power grab) but it’s not because of their gender.

Both The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, by the way, use myth and legend as a narrative device: both movies are in fact oral histories being told around campfires years later, with the narrators people who claimed to have met ‘The Mad Max’ himself — Feral Boy in The Road Warrior, and Savannah in Beyond Thunderdome. This takes the stories and pulls them out of a strict chronology, turning Mad Max into a mythic figure similar to how the Greeks must have told stories about Hercules or some African tribes told tales of Elegba’s exploits. Which is important, because George Miller has refused to say exactly when in the time line the next movie takes place. From a mythic point of view, does it matter? It’s a Mad Max story, the same way we might have a Conan the Barbarian story or a James Bond story. It happens a long time from now. We hope.

Now we have the fourth movie in the franchise, Fury Road. It’s the first movie to not star Mel Gibson (which is fine: the storytelling dynamic of the series means that any man could star as its lead, just as any man could star in a film as Robin Hood,) with Max being played by Tom Hardy, and it is very nearly a non-stop continuous car chase. It’s also unabashedly feminist, if by ‘feminist’ you mean that some of the people kicking all the asses in it are also female (but note how that happens all the way back in The Road Warrior, mmmkay?) Regardless, I’m surprised (okay: not that surprised) by people who seem to think that the feminism of the most recent Mad Max movie is something new.

In point of fact, it should be obvious by now that George Miller has been working towards this for decades.

The plot of this movie doesn’t just skirt the idea of feminism, but tackles it with all the subtlety of a fiery exploding car crash: fertile women (that is women who can successfully bear non-mutant children) have joined the ranks of water and gasoline as scarce limited resources. Those women in turn are understandably not too happy about this turn of events when the Warlord leader of the Wasteland gathers five of these rare flowers together so he can breed perfect heirs to his empire. They want their freedom, and (in at least some cases) would rather die than be the mothers of his children. To this end, the women recruit one of the Warlord’s Imperator generals, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to smuggle them across the Wasteland to the Green Land where Furiosa grew up as a child, and where they believe they can live free of ownership.

Which means: the entire movie is a giant car chase exploding special effects fight for the rights of women to control their own bodies.

Never thought you’d live to see the day a Mad Max movie tackles the same themes as the Handmaid’s Tale, did you?

Now, this latest entry to the Mad Max franchise does depart from its predecessors on at least one point: the campfire storyteller narration with the voice over by one of the survivors has been dropped as a framing device. Also, the criticism that the movie is more Furiosa’s story than Max’s has some merit, although given that Max is just as much the wasteland wanderer here as he ever was, I can make the argument that Max is a man who will always be tangled up in someone else’s story.

I have to mention also that a lovely thing happens when you have as many women in a movie as this one does, something we hardly ever see in films that are supported by a single women in a cast of men: suddenly women are allowed to be different from each other. They can be cowardly or brave. They can be young, old, and everything in between. They can be peaceful or blood-thirsty. They can be flawed and cynical or they can be perfect and innocent. The depth and diversity of women in this film is wondrous and rare, not just for a Mad Max or Post-Apocalypse themed movie, but for ANY movie.

There were also explosions, fire tornadoes, and mutants playing guitar with electric flamethrowers while standing on top of a moving truck of amplifiers and kettle drums. And, as always there was a group of people trying to leave something terrible and make a new start, and as always, there was the Mad Max, the Psychopomp of the Apocalypse, there to escort them through the jaws of Hell to the gates of the Promised Land.

That should be all anyone needs or expects from a Mad Max movie. This one delivers on that promise with skill and fire.

Before the Dark Knight: Gotham

So this is coming a little late, but you need to understand: I really wanted to hate Gotham.

Oh god, I wanted to hate it with every fiber in me. Let me count the reasons.

  1. I wanted to hate it because it was, literally, the show that got Almost Human canceled (it has the same production company, and Fox decided they could only afford one show from them, which meant that Almost Human had to go.)
  2. I wanted to hate it because it seemed like far too cute and cliche an idea: let’s go see all your favorites of Gotham before they fight/start crime!
  3. I wanted to hate it because those first trailers made it look like Gotham High School, and they were clearly going to shoe-horn in every damn character who ever appeared in Detective Comics.
  4. I wanted to hate it because, as much as I loved that Renee Montoya was going to be in it, they were totally messing with her timeline and I resented that. I wanted The Question, not a throw-away easter egg.
  5. I wanted to hate it because I love Batman and I couldn’t imagine how they were going to make this work.

Except I don’t hate Gotham. I really, really do not hate this show. A lot.

I love Gotham, and it’s mostly because of, well, Gotham.

Specifically, I mean the titular character. The biggest star of the show is the city itself, and in case you ever had a moment’s doubt, Gotham is a villain.

In all the movies, in all the cartoons, in all the comics, never has anyone done as perfect of job of capturing why Batman exists. Batman exists because Gotham exists, and Gotham is the Heart of Darkness. The city depicted in this TV show is so corrupt, so morally bankrupt, so beyond redemption, that the creators of this show are answering a question I never even realized I was asking: why would Batman put on the cowl in the first place? What made him who he becomes?

Now don’t say because of Joe Chill. Don’t say because of his parents. It’s more complicated than that, and the fact this show has actually managed to capture the determination in a 10-year-olds eyes as he realizes that the decay and rot at the heart of GOTHAM is ultimately what killed his parents is pretty heavy stuff. There’s no going to the police. The police are corrupt (even if that Jim Gordon guy is pretty nice.) City Hall is corrupt. Wayne Enterprises is corrupt. This kid can count the number of people he can trust on one hand and not use up all his fingers. It’s not really a surprise that at some point in the future becoming a costumed vigilante who uses a bat as his totem will seem like a valid lifestyle choice.

Bruno Heller has crafted a story in which Batman is the only possible outcome, the only believable outcome. Batman is inevitable.

Damn, but this is how you do a prequel.

Now, the TV show itself doesn’t focus on Bruce to the exclusion of all else, which is good, because his story is somewhat simple at the moment (although it’s fun to see the occasionally glimpse of the dark knight he will become.) Most of the story is about Jim Gordon, the one honest, competent cop in Gotham (Renee Montoya and her partner Crispus Allen do seem to be honest, but the jury is out on their competence.) Also getting major screen time is Jim’s partner, the cynical and corrupt sleazebag with a heart-of-gold, Harvey Bullock.

Jim is trying to find out why Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered and also survive in a landscape that expects him to be on the take to various crime families as a matter of course. (The police are so corrupt that at one point when the local crime boss wants to kill someone under police protection, he sends down one of his chief enforcers to the police station and demands the person be handed over. HE IS.) Gordon has a fiancée, Barbara, who was formally involved with Renee Montoya, so Renee has an extra personal reason for hoping she can prove Gordon is corrupt, which she tries to do for for quite a few episodes.

It all works pretty well. Jim closes a lot of high-profile cases early, makes the papers a lot (in a good way,) and it’s clear that even if organized crime finds his honesty worrying, he’s a cop on his way up. Of course he doesn’t know it, but his bane and blessing are both embodied in a criminal with whom he seems inextricably linked.

Penguin.

Dear god, this man is a treasure. Penguin’s journey through the criminal underworld mirrors Gordon’s, which I’m sure is not coincidence. Both men are trying to find their way through very dangerous territory, but where Gordon’s ‘handicap’ is moral, Penguin’s is literal — a physical deformity that makes him walk with one foot splayed out in a waddle. Saddled with the nickname ‘Penguin’ — a name he hates — he is consistently the subject of ridicule and bullying, surviving largely because his obsequious fawning endears him to a variety of masters. He’s also a liar, a snitch, and a murdering sociopath, who has no compunctions against killing for the thinnest of reasons and is driven by insatiable ambition.

Penguin is a Shakespearean Richard III who manipulates everyone around him, plays the fool when he needs to, and has so far consistently proven to always be the smartest man in any given room. He has latched on to Jim Gordon and has determined that he will use Gordon to claw his way to the top of Gotham’s underworld. I almost feel sorry for his boss turned rival Fish Mooney, although with a name like Fish, it’s not exactly a mystery which way this fight is going to go. (I’m sure she’ll turn in a few good licks before the end though.)

There’s some occasional dark humor and silliness, a morbid macabre sense of the surreal that I’ve seen other reviewers mock but which is, frankly, completely in keeping with a city that would spit out the likes of the Joker and Riddler without batting an eye. Speaking of which, the Riddler (pre-question mark) is also making regular appearances, as Edward Nigma (oh, Gotham, you punster) the adorkably nerdiest of them all CSI tech who desperately wants to be taken seriously by the popular kids (i.e. Gotham’s police detectives.) We’ve all known people like this, who have no social graces at all but desperately want to fit in. Every episode brings him a little closer to snapping.

However…the show is not perfect.

Selena Kyle’s presence on the show originally felt like the producers felt obligated to include her because, you know, Catwoman. It didn’t completely work, and really felt downright stalker-like at moments, with her obsessing over Bruce Wayne for reasons that were unclear and poorly articulated. Selena thankfully becomes more important to the plot later, but I had a real problem with her early scenes, which seemed to revolve solely around Bruce Wayne and his story arc. At times it felt like she was only there for Bruce to crush on, which is an awkward/creepy subplot given their ages. The contrast was particularly jarring because she seemed so rudderless and adrift in comparison to little Bruce’s laser focus on goals and achievement. (Even as a child, he is the man with the plan.) I like the effect that she’s having on him — in many ways, Selina is shaping Bruce through her cynicism about the mean streets of their city as much if not more than Alfred Pennyworth and Jim Gordon. However, it took about nine episodes for her to stop feeling like someone who only exists for Bruce’s benefit, and frankly that’s just not Selina’s style.

Major Crimes Unit is also…weird, primarily because it has somehow been divorced almost entirely from the GPD. Who runs Major Crimes? It apparently isn’t the police commissioner which is pretty much contrary to how that works anywhere else. So that’s a little odd. In the comics (and in the movies for the most part,) MCU is the group that handles supervillain cases, but since supervillains don’t really exist in Gotham yet, they’ve ended up feeling like a very open-chartered version of Internal Affairs. I’m at a loss to explain how that’s supposed to work. I also find Renee and Crispus (both important characters in the mainline DC universe) to be oddly adrift and lacking any real personal motives or story arcs.

All and all though, this show is far better than I expected, and I’m genuinely excited to see where they go with this.