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Building-Head Land

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Aug 30th, 2010
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Since today is the day I was born, I’m pulling out something totally random. Consider it an exercise in imagination. Driving back from Ft. Worth recently I said something to my wife about my head (I don’t remember now what it was, but I bet it was normal-sounding, I promise). She looked at me and said something that had the words “look” and “red barn”.

“My head looks like a red barn?” I asked.

“No.” She pointed out the window. “Look at that red barn. It’s cute.”

“Oh!” Of course. I knew that. Why would she say my head looks like a red barn? Scrolling past on my right was a stretch of farmland with, of course, a dilapidated red barn.

But that got me to thinking. What if my head was a building? Not just mine. What if we lived in a world where everyone’s head was a building? As one of my favorite smiths of curse-wordery, Vince Vaughn, would say, “Stay with me, captain.”

Imagine, instead of a head, your body was capped with a building that best represented who you are. Sort of like a totem. It’s your spirit building. Now, you can’t pick a building that’s something you like. For instance, you can’t say: “Ooooh–I like coffee, so my head would be a Starbucks.” No. If your head was a Starbucks, that would mean that you are a person who energizes others. Or that you’re a spaz. Or you overcharge for your services.

All kinds of fun can be had with this. Maybe your head’s a smoke-chugging factory: you’re very industrious and you work brutally hard (or you exploit people, either way). Maybe you’re a motel (we all know what that means.) I was kind of thinking of my head as some sort of ancient temple or philosophical academy. The kind of place travelers would visit to gain deep insight, spiritual understanding. The Oracle at Delphi. Aristotle’s Lyceum.

So, I asked my wife, “What do you think my head would be?”

“Something like a cave.”

“That’s not a building.”

She thought a moment. “But the inside would have man-made stuff. Like tunnels.”


“Dark twisty tunnels. Like a maze.”

“What? I sound like a psycho!”

So, basically I’m walking around with a mountain on top of my neck. A mountain with a cave people wander into, get hopelessly lost, and then get eaten by some hideous bull-headed beast. Awesome. I guess.

Cave Head

So, seriously, what would your head be if it was a building?

Writing Level-Up: Anthony Huso and The Last Page

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Aug 17th, 2010
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The Last PageMost of the books I read end up finding their way to Half-Price Books–even if I enjoyed them. But, I have a bookshelf (shoddily but proudly built by my own hands, I might add) reserved for my favorite authors and the stories that have lingered in my imagination long after I’ve read them, things like Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and pretty much anything written by Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny.

Anthony Huso’s The Last Page has earned a place on those warped timbers. Huso’s novel debuts today, and he’s kindly offered to subject himself to a few of my questions–readers and aspiring writers will find some gems in his answers. But before we get to that, let me tell you a little about why I like the book:

The Last Page stars Caliph Howl, reluctant High King of Stonehold, a backwater kingdom gnawed by external enemies and on the verge of civil war. Mix into that Sena Ilool, Caliph’s old college lover, now an agent of the Shradnae witchocracy. Despite the fact that she’s been sent to spy on him, Caliph is hopelessly obsessed with her, even when it becomes apparent that Sena is pursuing a personal agenda far grander and more monstrous than even the witchocracy could anticipate.

I’ve mentioned before that my favorite stories are those that have the power to transport me. The Last Page swallows the reader into a rich world that blends weird technology with a whiff of steampunk, cryptic blood magic, and a splash of lovecraft in the form of horrific creatures lurking in the sewers and the membranes between realities. Like Wolfe, Huso also delights in slinging neologisms that spark in the imagination, or unearthing crusty old words into the light of day. But beware: the story doesn’t do any hand-holding. Never does it pause to explain what a chemeostatic torch is, but that’s okay, if you’re attentive to the text, you’ll pick it up soon enough–even if the meaning is never laser-precise. And thats part of the draw: the edges of this world are always smoky and threatening.

Aside from that, there’s the pure action-coolness of airship battles, soldiers who ambush their enemies from giant bulbs of meat, and witches with skills that put Sam Fisher to shame.

Now, on to the questions:

1. Tell us a little bit about your path to publication.

Rugged and fraught with deep apathy.  How did I overcome?  Well, rugged, you can kind of gun the engine, and muscle your way through.  But deep apathy will screw you over, bottom you out and leave you hanging, unable to move for long periods of time.  Good news is that there are Samaritans that happen along the road and do nice things for you, anything from encouragement to  actively pimping your work to people they know.  I was lucky.  I had reached the point when I was about to chalk my writing up as a pipe-dream and abandon it forever when Marc Laidlaw, for reasons he’s unable to explain even to himself, agreed to look at my book.  He was my sterling champion, I shit you not.  He gets free chocolate milk shakes in my presence until the day he dies.  My suggestion: be friendly and open.  You never know when that magical connection will materialize.

2. If you were a brand new writer, picking up the pen (or the keyboard) for the first time today, is there anything you’d do differently? Maybe pitfalls for others to avoid?

I would never (again) pay a middle-aged woman in a black and gold moo moo $350 to “evaluate” my manuscript that I wrote at the age of 23 and then sit quietly and despondently as she told me that one of her “readers” evaluated it and that, sorry—it has no real value.  She even thanked me for my business and suggested I keep on trying…bring it back and pay her another $350 to evaluate it again when I thought it was good enough.

Yes, we are stupid when we are young.

Also, when someone tells you that your story is horribly boring, don’t despair.  They probably don’t like gunfights, or mid-air collisions, or whatever.  That’s not your fault.  My favorite rejection letter of all time is, and I quote: “Seeing as how I find fantasy to be ridiculous and genre writing wholly without merit, I don’t think I’d be the right person to represent you.”  Well.  Not much you can say to that except “Thanks for the most memorable arrogance of all time.”  Then you move on.  Keep at it.  And above all, learn to accept that a lot of what you write really  is total garbage and will need to be rewritten: even the stuff you feel euphoric about right after you finish writing it.  Also, if you are not writing for yourself, you will probably fail.  You may fail anyway, but if you are writing for yourself, you are doing something right and something important.  We learn from our own writing, deep mysterious things about the universe and our place in it.  No I’m not being sarcastic.  It’s true.  Believe it or not.

3. What do you want people to know about The Last Page?

It is a story that I wrote for myself.  I always say it is the story I had to tell.  Fantasy allows me to pull real demons out into the light, in a semi-safe framework, where I can dress them up in other clothes and parade them around, let them wreak a little havoc and then try to shoot them through the left eye.  I always aim for the left eye.  It should be noted that sometimes I miss and the demons live on.  Some people wrestle with their demons directly, using the same sorts of characters and places where those demons first appeared.  Vietnam is a great example.  I prefer to transform my demons into something that *feels* the same but still manages to mask the origin.  Fantasy lets me do that.  The Last Page is about things much bigger than the characters, about the characters coping with those things and about how that coping affects the characters on the inside.  Yes I know this is vague enough to describe a library-full of books, but this is what all the best stories in the world are about.  And besides, I have red, tentacular oyster abominations in my book that will suck the juices from your body before humping grub-like back into the underworld.  So that’s sort of new.

4. What was the hardest part about writing The Last Page for you?

The hardest part of writing anything for me is figuring out how to cope with really dark concepts in a way that will still be palatable to the widest range of people.  I don’t want to whine or cry.  I want to have emotionally charged scenes without the bathos.  This has lead me to use a fairly terse voice in much of my writing.  As a result, scenes where the emotional content is delicate and nuanced take me many, many passes to get right.

5. If you had to inhabit body of one of the characters in your book, who would that be? Why?

Caliph Howl.  Caliph accomplishes things I never could.  He also has a hot girlfriend.  But I think, really, Caliph is a seeker of good things.  He wants to do what’s right, which is something I can get behind.  Even when everything is going wrong and the answers to the problems facing him are unclear, Caliph will stick to his guns.  He represents a kind of maudlin idealist perhaps, easily lampooned—and he has his weaknesses—but he is undeniably good.  He tries to hide his soft side under a rigorous pragmatic approach to life, but he can’t hide it from me.

6. Magic in The Last Page is esoteric and dangerous, consisting of an intriguing blend of blood sacrifice and reality-warping math equations. How did you end up with that approach?

Most fantasy today is what I consider canned fantasy.  That is, the book starts out saying that Jenny is a werewolf and that it’s kinda hard to deal with the vampires on the west side of town.  Or, Ernie is an acknowledged powerful sorcerer.  Everyone knows he’s got spells and he can sling them.  The mish-mash of fantastical creatures enters the picture and it soon becomes a dog’s breakfast of recognizable mythology crammed into a map that looks a lot like Europe, only upside down.   Not every book is like this, but the ones that are, I think are doing exactly what I don’t want my fantasy to do.  That is, they are making magic mundane.  You can feel it when you read the first few pages of X book.  The way the author treats magic is the way you or I would talk about a gun.  It’s an accepted, concrete element of the world.  It is banal.

My reaction to this is strong.  I say, what is the point of writing about fantastic things if you make them sound run-of-the-mill?

Horror does a splendid job of playing with the reader’s mind, making the thing that is or is not lurking in the darkness an entity of uncertainty and ill-conceived danger.  In fine, the beast in the horror short is probably far more fantastic than the talking coat rack in the fantasy novel.

Fantasists have much to learn from horror.  In horror, we feel the awe.  We feel the tension, the danger and the edge of the known, where it crumbles and falls into the void.  There are no recipes in horror stories for the one true way to break the witch’s curse.  Think about it.  Just saying that there is a recipe to break the witch’s curse somehow makes everything ok.  There’s suddenly a known solution.  Go get the golden fleece or whatever.  Sure you might have trouble getting there, but at least you know what you’re doing.  In Horror stories, the protagonist is often overwhelmed by things he or she has no means to understand, let alone fight.  It was critical to me that magic in my setting borrow from esotery.  It was important that people in the world could doubt in the power of magic.

Magic is therefore something unstable, dangerous, and of questionable value.  Businesses have an interest in it much the same way the US military experimented with psychics: if there’s a chance it will give them an edge they might as well try.

I could write for several pages on this.  Suffice to say that magic in the setting of The Last Page is designed to be more Lovecraftian , tapping into numbers and ratios that are above the normal systems of reality.  Like Neo bending the rules of the Matrix.  My hope is that this produces the kind of awe I would expect from a work of fantasy.

Many thanks to Anthony for stopping by! You can read more about Anthony Huso and The Last Page at his spiffy website.

Character Sketch: The Bridge Keeper

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Aug 9th, 2010
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In my novel, Jack of Hearts, all of the main characters eventually meet a creature in the wilderness named Vasti. Everyone refers to Vasti as a “dwarf”, but if you’re thinking about clever craftsmen who tinker beneath the mountains or “hi-ho-ing” shorties who befriend enchanted princesses–think again.

Here’s an excerpt from when Moribrand first runs into the creature. In this part of the story, Moribrand and his giant slave, Minnow, have come to a deep chasm. A rickety draw-bridge offers the only way across the gap. Unfortunately, the bridge is raised when they first arrive:

Moribrand called out, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Hello there!”

A man popped up on the other side, surprising Moribrand. He had been sitting behind a stand of spare barrels. He waved a long arm in response.

Moribrand frowned; he was the ugliest man he had ever seen, far uglier than Minnow. A nose like a worm-eaten potato clogged the middle of his face, the perimeter of which was shrouded by a wild reddish beard that extended down to his shirtless belly.

“You want to cross?” the ugly man asked. He had a rough grating voice that Moribrand found entirely disagreeable.

After some arguing and negotiating, Moribrand persuades the ugly keeper to lower the bridge, but when he crosses to the other side a surprise awaits him:

Moribrand let out an exasperated breath and began to cross, taking careful but quick steps. The bridge had no railing and some of the timbers were slick from the mist of the river below. He decided not to look down as he crossed, holding the hem of his robe up to keep it from getting damp, but he couldn’t resist one peek at the white line of water far below. The glance made his stomach twist and his knees wobble. Before his legs could fail him, he stumbled across the last few yards, catching himself on the giant.

With a great racket the keeper raised the bridge again. Afterward, he came out onto the trail to greet them. At seeing him emerge, Moribrand recoiled and cursed loudly.

The bridge keeper had no legs. Instead he walked on the palms of his hands. He’d been seated on a barrel the entire time, disguising his actual height. His shoulder muscles were over-developed and his arms hung down like long thick ropes, so that he could easily lay his elbows on the ground while resting on the end of his torso. Overall, the way he moved, his wild hair, and the length of his arms gave him the appearance of a legless ape.

Moribrand fought down another shudder. Legless men were ill luck. He thought he remembered something about that, some old story from when he had studied at Argent, but the specifics of the memory escaped him now. What was it? It buzzed in his brain like a fly, irritating him, warning him, but in the end he swatted the thought away. He had no time to dwell on the academics of this youth. The sooner he was gone from this place the better.

The keeper scowled at Moribrand’s outburst. “What’s with you? Never seen a crippled man before?”

As it turns out, Vasti is anything but crippled. He may not be a craftsman, but he’s handy with a saw, and Moribrand’s slave  has the loveliest  legs Vasti has ever laid his rheumy eyes on. That’s all I’ll say for now. Here’s the sketch of Vasti I did recently:



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Aug 2nd, 2010
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I was on vacation a few weeks ago. Aside from mucking about with the kids on a beach gorged with washed up sea-weed and eating inordinate amounts of food, I also had the opportunity to read a handful of books. Some of these I picked up because I wanted to read them for my own enjoyment, and some were “research”. Here’s a quick run-down:

1. Heroes of the Valley, by Jonathan Stroud

Interestingly, I found this as an ARC (advanced reading copy) in Half-Price Books, so I snapped it up. Unlike a glossy-covered and arted-up officially published book, this one has a drab sand-colored cover. The back lists all kinds of marketing campaign info, and in the front is a warning from the publisher. Apparently, they aren’t fans of people selling ARC’s, and I’m not even sure the bookstores are allowed to do it, but there it was, sitting on the shelf like some weird orphan.

In any case, I liked the story, but I have to say it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as Stroud’s Bartimaeus series. There was something electric about those books, and this was just … solid. On the downside, the story starts off a little bumpy and the setting reads a little generic, in my view. However, once you get to know the protagonist, he’s fun and an unlikely hero type (he’s ugly and squat and nobody likes him … usually), and that’s really the best part of the book–Stroud does a great re/deconstruction on “heroic” figures.

2. Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer

I’ve always seen this book (or a member of the series) staring back at me when perusing the young reader section of book stores. The name is catchy, so I finally picked up the first book to see what it was about. The protagonist is a mastermind twelve year old, sort of an evil (but not really) Richie Rich who tries to blackmail the secret but modernized Faerie nation out of their wealth. In the end I didn’t really like it. There’s nothing wrong with it, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. The humor  and tone skews a little too young for my taste, as does the content. However, the best thing about the book is that the author does a great job with pacing and action. Worth the quick read for that alone.

3. Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling, by D.M Cornish

This rocked. My favorite kinds of books are those that transport the reader to a fascinating new world. Foundling delivers here: a strange flint-lock era world with ships driven by organic engines, monster hunters who drink dangerous chemicals or replace their organs in exchange for powers, and exciting characters (Europe, a monster hunter lady, is excellent).

The main character, Rossamund, is less interesting to me than some of his companions, but he’s still quite likable. Occasionally the writing swells with an encyclopedic explanation for a unique element of the world–but these little bumps only happen once in a while in what is mostly a great adventure. Can’t wait to read the next one.

4. The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene.

I saved the best for last. When people talk about “great Catholic writers” (or just great writers) Greene is often mentioned in the same breath as Flannery O’Connor, and since I’m a fan of hers, I’ve always wanted to read one of his novels.

The setting is interesting–a sodden West African colony around the time of world war two. The humid, sickly-hot weather is an apt mirror of what’s going on inside the novel’s main characters. On the surface everyone has that restrained British polite-society mannerism, but underneath they’re all miserable.

The book is a slow starter, sort of like pushing a boulder up a low-grade hill, but once I got over the hump, I couldn’t put it down. It’s the kind of book that has you dog-earing favorite passages. Later you go back and read all those passages, feeling their weight again (Everyone else does that, right?). The main character is a police officer named Scobie whose life slowly cracks to pieces. At one point the colony receives survivors from a derelict boat (can’t remember why the boat is messed up), but as the survivors come into to the colony for aid, the main character notices a little girl on a stretcher:

Scobie watched the bearers go slowly up the hill, their bare feet very gently flapping the ground. He thought: It would need all Father Brule’s ingenuity to explain that. Not that the child would die — that needed no explanation. Even the pagans realized that the love of God might mean an early death, though the reason they ascribed was different; but that the child should have been allowed to survive for forty days and nights in the open boat — that was the mystery, to reconcile that with the love of God.

Greene is making a biblical parallel here, not by talking about God, but by referencing forty days and nights. Noah endures 40 days and nights of rain, Israel wandered in the desert for forty years before entering the promised land and Jesus was tested in the desert for forty days and nights. Green makes us (or me anyway) think about those forty day episodes juxtaposed against this newcomer’s, and what her fate might be compared to theirs. Subsequent scenes between Scobie and the child are heart-wrenching.

Here’s another gem:

Men can become twins with age. The past was their common womb; the six months of rain and the six months of sun was the period of their common gestation. They needed only a few words and a few gestures to convey their meaning. They had graduated through the same fevers, they were moved by the same love and contempt.

About Me

Ricardo Bare
Austin, Tx

Ricardo Bare is a writer and game designer living near Austin, Texas. Currently he works as a game designer for Arkane Studios, which in 2012 released Dishonored. Ricardo started his career in the games industry working on the Deus Ex series, winner of the BAFTA and numerous other Game of the Year awards.

Ricardo is the author of Jack of Hearts and Fool of Fate, the first two books in a young adult fantasy series.


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