The Big Idea: Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson

Alex Willging:

While I enjoy John Scalzi as an author (thank you, Redshirts), I’m a pretty big fan of his blog, Whatever. In particular, I’ve always enjoyed reading his Big Idea posts, where fellow authors get a little space to put in their own words the inspiration behind their latest novels or other creative projects. More often than not, these kind of posts have been a big help for guys like me looking for something new and interesting to read.

That’s why I wanted to share with you all this great Big Idea by Arianne “Tex” Thompson, whose concept for her debut novel rocked my world this morning. It’s a story that addresses both the issues of introducing magic to the real world and also dealing with historical real-world issues (i.e., racism, class struggles, industrialization, colonialism). I wanted to share her enthusiasm and her keen look into a 19th century world where magic and modernity intersect violently.

So please give her Big Idea a moment of your time and then give her story a chance, too. I know I will!

Originally posted on Whatever:

When you introduce magic into a real-world setting, you don’t only have to deal with the problems that magic introduces — you have to deal with the problems that already existed in that real world setting. When Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson wanted to introduce magic to an American milieu in One Night in Sixes, she took all of those problems into consideration. Here’s how she made it work.


All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

“I’m tired of Euromedieval fantasy!” I thought. “I’m tired of swords and castles and straight white monocultures. I’m going to write a fantasy about MY country, and MY history, with eleventeen kinds of people rubbing shoulders – like in real life! – and it’s going to be AMAZING.”

And by “amazing”, I must have meant “an absolute landmine of racism, imperialism, slavery and genocide.” Because…

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“The Hero’s Need” and Other Storytelling Issues

Stories are like opinions: everyone has one and some start to sound very much alike if you look close enough. Even with stories that seem like they have nothing in common, like Pride and Prejudice and Star Wars, there are fundamental rules that show why such stories resonate with the audience for generations to come.

One of those rules is perhaps the most fundamental of all:

A main character needs to achieve something despite several obstacles along the way.

Most people will tell you that conflict is essential for any story, like the heroic Rebels versus the evil Empire or the plucky young woman trying to escape the hideous monster. But a character’s need may be the most important thing to a story, and as I’m looking over several modern stories, I think I see why that is.

Now, I could ramble off a bunch of platitudes like “Human beings need things!” or expound on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But rather than do that, I’ll just ask this question. When you think about your favorite stories, what is it that the main character wants most and what do they do to get it?

In The Hobbit, Bilbo and the dwarves need to reach the Lonely Mountain and take back their kingdom from the dragon Smaug. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker wants to fight the Empire and protect his friends from danger. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone wants to stay out of his father’s criminal empire, but still keep his loved ones safe. All these characters have specific, tangible needs, even if they don’t always get fulfilled or come off with good results.

I’ve begun to notice in some stories, however, that this overarching need just isn’t there. For example, in the first season of the CBS show Elementary, we understand that Joan Watson needs to help Sherlock Holmes solve crimes and deal with his tragic past as a recovering addict. By the end of that season, we have a strong resolution about his failure to save Irene Adler—which led to his drug addiction—and his present-day battle with the criminal mastermind Moriarty. By contrast, Season 2 of Elementary meanders without any clear point. There’s a conflict involving Sherlock’s brother Mycroft and some intrigue with a British intelligence agency in the finale, but the rest of the season doesn’t bring us there. We have Watson moving out, but we don’t get a clear sense of how this was building up from the start of the season.

And perhaps we’re more familiar with another flawed story: the infamous Star Wars prequel trilogy. Despite the hype that was thrown onto seeing Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader, we never had the same tangible need that we had in his son Luke. Yes, Anakin is haunted by the loss of his mother and turns to the dark side for fear of his wife’s death, but that fear isn’t present throughout the rest of the trilogy. It would make sense if we saw Anakin taking more drastic actions during the movies in order to protect the ones he loved (especially if those actions put him in opposition to Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi Order). Instead, we got a podrace in Episode I, rolling in some meadows in Episode II, and some moping around (right up until he kills his first Jedi) in Episode III. There’s no real progression based on his need. Anakin just reacts to things and then becomes evil.

By contrast, in the original trilogy, we saw how Luke lost his family and what he’s sacrificed in fighting the Empire. We know how much he wants to become a Jedi like his father and also how he’s willing to abandon his Jedi training for the sake of saving his only friends. We know exactly what kind of pain Luke is dealing with by the end of the trilogy when he has to confront Vader and not walk the same dark road that his father took. In the prequels, we were just relieved when Anakin became Vader, but in the original films, we cheered when Luke stood up to the Emperor and redeemed his father’s legacy, even when he had every reason to hate him.

Finding a conflict for any story is easy, but it takes real effort and commitment to bring out a character’s need in storytelling.

My Personal Canon for the Star Wars Expanded Universe

With the coming of Star Wars Episode VII, many longtime fans were shocked to learn that the Expanded Universe of books, TV shows, video games, comics, and other media would no longer be viewed as canon. Naturally, there are some parts we’d rather keep and some we’d rather forget.

I’m probably one of the few who’s been okay with this development from the start. I mean, I’ve never needed something to be “canon” in order for me to enjoy it. One of my old complaints about the EU was that Lucasfilm and other producers were forever trying to retcon everything in a single cohesive universe, which often made for some glaring plot holes, especially when they were trying to fix previous plot holes. Allowing for more than one continuity allows for true imagination to flourish in what’s supposed to be a pretty fun and adventurous setting.

With that in mind, here are my 10 favorite works and elements from the previous Star Wars canon (now dubbed “Legends“) that I consider part of my own personal Star Wars saga.

1. The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: You get to see a good continuation of the Star Wars saga. It’s got the brilliance of Grand Admiral Thrawn, the complex character of Mara Jade, a look into the world of smugglers, and Leia’s own quest with the Noghri Death Commandos. A Star Wars series that’s both smart and loads of fun.

2. Hand of Thrawn Duology by Timothy Zahn

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: These books highlight both the issues of trying to bring a decades-long galactic war to a close and the struggle of the New Republic to stay in control while hundreds of cultures are retriggering their old feuds. Zahn also brings us a nice glimpse of the Chiss and Grand Admiral Thrawn’s legacy.

3. Shatterpoint by Matthew Stover

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Our hero is Mace Windu if Samuel L. Jackson played him more like Jules from Pulp Fiction (but with less swearing). Take one shining Jedi Master and throw him into the deadliest jungles and guerrilla warfare, all while trying to keep himself from straying to the darkness of war itself.

4. The X-Wing series by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Wedge Antilles and Rogue Squadron get to really shine in these novels, taking the fight to the Empire in new and creative ways. I also love Aaron Allston’s contribution of Wraith Squadron, a band of washouts turned into elite commandos who never got nearly enough screentime in the old EU.

5. Dark Forces and Jedi Outcast video games

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Instead of an idealistic farmboy, we get to see the Star Wars universe through the eyes of a cynical and sarcastic mercenary (and later on, a cynical and sarcastic Jedi Knight). Add to that some clever new Imperial superweapons and soldier classes, along with Kyle Katarn’s struggle to avoid the urge for revenge and his own grab for ultimate power.

6. Ulic Qel-Droma and Exar Kun

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: While the Tales of the Jedi comics were very melodramatic (and even a bit corny), the drama of two fallen Jedi is the real heart of the story. Exar Kun and Ulic Qel-Droma seem like the prototypes for the corruption that led to Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, right down to Ulic’s loss and his very poignant tale of redemption after Kun’s defeat.

7. The Jensaarai

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: It’s refreshing to get Force-using traditions outside of the Jedi-Sith paradigm. The Jensaarai are a mix of both sides, wearing awesome suits of armor and wielding lightsabers in the name of protecting their home star system. They blend aggressive fighting style with concern for the innocent, becoming a little-known band of samurai space warriors that would’ve worked well alongside Luke Skywalker’s New Jedi Order.

8. The Aing-Tii

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Much like the Jensaarai, the Aing-Tii are monks from another mysterious sect with their own unique take on the Force. However, they’re deliberately alien, keeping to the Kathol Rift and using fantastic technologies as part of their enigmatic agenda. The only thing outsiders know for certain is their hatred of slavery, making slave traders a common target and putting them on the right side of justice.

9. The Charon and Otherspace

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Essentially, the whole concept of the Charon is what the Yuuzhan Vong from the New Jedi Order novels could’ve been. Hailing from the parallel universe called “Otherspace,” these massive sentient arachnids use organic technology to travel across the galaxy, following a twisted creed to eradicate all forms of life. They provided a genuinely alien culture, with the potential for further development.

10. The Han Solo Adventures by Brian Daley

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Brian Daley’s trilogy shows us the partnership of Han Solo and Chewbacca at their prime, long before they joined the Rebellion. They get into all kinds of adventures, from staging a prison break to hunting for an ancient treasure, all while trying to avoid local law enforcement and rivals like the gunslinger Gallandro. There’s no need for cameos from the Jedi Knights or the Rebellion here—just some old-fashioned, Western-style shootouts between rogues.

If you’ve got your own ideas for what makes your own Star Wars canon, let me know in the comments below and may the Force be with you, always.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reformed Villains

For the longest time, I found that there was a kind of story that always interested me: the story where a villain teams up with the hero in order to stop a larger threat. Usually, in these stories, we see the hero’s integrity and raw strength matched with the villain’s ruthlessness and cunning. While it often makes for great drama, I often wonder about the possibilities left open by their partnership. For me, those stories are a window to possible redemption tales, where you can see how Dr. Von Doominator could be genuinely heroic (or at least more effective) if given the chance.

I suppose it’s my Catholic nature that gets me interested in the concept of a reformed villain. If we let our sins and mistakes define us, how much more powerful will our atonement and salvation be? But I think there’s more to it than that.

For one thing, I often find the default protagonists and heroes of many stories to be, well… boring. Their victories are usually inevitable, so why bother giving them flaws or dreams or any kind of a personality? Villains, on the other hand, often get a more complex treatment (if any). They get to have vaulting ambitions, tragic backstories, and moral quandaries right before making the terrible decisions that lead them into conflict with our heroes. They get to have a meaningful past, even if they won’t have a future by the time the story comes to an end.

I suppose, in the end, that’s why I prefer a reformed villain over a default hero. Quite simply, when a former villain sets out to do good, it has more meaning, both for them and for the overall story.

Usually, a villain moves the story along by their immoral choices and actions, requiring heroes to react before it’s too late. So when a villain makes a moral choice at the right time, it can change the whole game. It’s why Darth Vader turning against his master in Return of the Jedi is the crux of the Empire’s downfall. It’s why the embittered Jaime Lannister asking Brienne to seek out and protect Sansa Stark in A Storm of Swords has more of an impact than getting the same task from the noble Lady Catelyn. That spark of hope from an unexpected source can really grab the audience’s attention and make us truly appreciate the act.

I’d also add that, unlike the wish fulfillment and easy writing that a typical hero can bring, seeing a villain struggle with their decisions and face the trial of redemption is more reflective of our everyday lives. We may not be tyrants or mercenaries or cruel stepparents, but we’ve all done things we regretted or hurt people unintentionally, even for our own gain. We can sympathize more with a flawed person trying to do the right thing than we can with an inherently noble person who never has to wrestle with right or wrong. That’s not to say those characters aren’t good ones (who doesn’t want a little fantasy now and then?). But when it comes to what feels more human, it’s easy to see why a reformed villain carries so much weight.

And that’s not to say that reformation is ever easy. It shouldn’t be. It’s a long and painful road. Darth Vader might atone by sacrificing his life and overthrowing the Emperor, but he’ll still leave behind a fearsome reputation and the scars he’s left on both his children. Jaime Lannister may aspire to do better with his life, but he still has to contend with the pain he caused to his brother Tyrion, the war he helped start, and his lifelong reputation as “The Kingslayer.”

It’s in our nature as a species to both make terrible mistakes and to strive for better. We’re noble, flawed, ignorant, wise, brave, cowardly, kind, and cruel—all at the same time, depending on what stage we’re at in our lives. Heroes and villains are no different, and that focus on internal change and seeking to do good can make for a more powerful story than a bland tale of Good vs. Evil and Good Triumphs Forever and Ever, Amen.

So, if you’ve got any reformed villains you’d like to discuss or debate, feel free to do so in the comments below. I’d love to hear what kind of redemption tales you like (or don’t like) the most.

Fading Magic Meets Murder Mystery: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

Copyright © 2014 by Leah Cypess

Copyright © 2014 by Leah Cypess

Despite my professed love for science fiction, I can’t argue with the fact that fantasy is still appealing even if the majority of those genre novels, films, shows, and games seem to be set in the same medieval context. As the likes of Umberto Eco and Kyle Kallgren have discussed, that medieval world provides a useful lens for looking at our own modern-day issues. It was on that line of thought—and with some help from a Big Idea post by John Scalzi—that I decided to pick up and read Death Sworn by Leah Cypess.

The story follows a young sorceress named Illeni, who arrives in the hidden camp of assassins with a mission to tutor them in the ways of magic. Both her people, the Renegai, and the assassins are dedicated to overthrowing the Empire that has kept the land brutally oppressed. However, Illeni faces a terrible dilemma: she is the third magic tutor, with both her predecessors killed under mysterious circumstances, making her stay with the assassins a precarious one. Furthermore, she has to teach magic despite slowly losing her own power, always conscious of the fatal end she’ll probably face once the truth comes out.

Illeni interested me because she was a female protagonist, but rather than cast her as yet another idealistic magic-user ready to save the day, she’s an embittered young woman whose connection to magic is fading and stuck in a cavern full of deadly assassins. That means she has to rely on her wits and more than a little bravado to survive, which makes her victories all the more satisfying.

Her relationship with her guide Sorin holds a lot of promise, always balanced on the fine line between suspicion and trust (if not outright love). With Sorin comes the thrill of danger, whether by his hand or by her enemies, who know how to cover their tracks. I also enjoyed the development of the intrigue within the assassins’ lair, which starts off as a murder mystery and soon grows into an elaborate political intrigue. With complex characters like Sorin around, Ileni’s story offers a mix of romance, drama, intrigue, and action for all to enjoy.

Speaking of Sorin, I feel like there was a missed opportunity to explore more of the Empire from his perspective. He hinted at wanting to be more than a professional killer, even if his loyalty to the Order’s leader is absolute. What hints we got about life in the Empire came from the assassins themselves, along with the odd mole or enemy assault. I know the story was meant to keep us locked in the underground lair, but I did want just a bit more out of this tyrannical regime before the story came to a close.

As for the fantasy element in this story, I like how the use of magic isn’t thrown around without a care like it would in other stories. It’s common to find fantasy stories where wizards use their spellcraft for everything from cleaning their robes to summoning a deus ex machina to save the day (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter). Here, because Illeni’s magic is fading, her plight is much more severe. She’s a sorceress trying to stay alive in a den full of assassins, where her life is already forfeit and she’s trying to see how much she can do or learn before her inevitable death. Not only does it make her every use of magic more meaningful, but it also highlights the overall struggle to adapt to the assassins’ world. Illeni has to think more like one of her own pupils, using cunning, stealth, and well-timed attacks in the service of a higher cause (namely, justice for everyone).

In the end, Death Sworn is a pretty decent fantasy novel, conserving its magic for opportune moments. It has the benefit of satisfying its audience with plenty of romance, cool action scenes, and engaging drama that sweeps through every layer of these mysterious caverns where only the deadliest may dwell.

Death Sworn is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Powell’s Books.

Bibliography: Cypess, Leah. Death Sworn. HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 2014.