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Fell Beasts and Fair
Fell Beasts and Fair is an anthology of noblebright fantasy short stories from Spring Song Press. Here’s the blurb:
In this exciting collection of noblebright fantasy, fresh new fantasy voices and award-winning authors explore grief and hope, sacrifice and heroism. Rediscover the best aspect of classic fantasy – the noblebright ideals that made heroes heroic, even when the world grew dark around them.
Thieves, dragons, nightmares, fairy warriors, pookas, enchanted bear-men, and other magical creatures will delight you in these unique tales of possibility, courage, and hope.
This anthology features stories from:
Leslie J. Anderson, C.A. Barrett, Terri Bruce, Aaron DaMommio, M.C. Dwyer, Anthony Eichenlaub, Francesca Forrest, Chloe Garner, W.R. Gingell, Lora Gray, Kelly A. Harmon, Tom Howard, Rollin Jewett, Tom Jolly, Samuel Marzioli, Amanda Nargi, Aimee Ogden, Beth Powers, Darrell J. Pursiful, Charles D. Shell, April Steenburgh, Alena Sullivan, and Troy Tang.
Edited by Robert McCowen and C. J. Brightley.
I’m honored to have been chosen as a contributor. My story, “The Pooka’s Day,” describes how Danny and Claudia from my Into the Wonder series first met. You don’t need to know anything about Into the Wonder to follow the plot, though.
Honestly, every story is a winner. You probably know that isn’t always the case with an anthology! Thanks to C. J. Brightley (gotta love that name!) for seeing fit to include my little contribution.
Book 5: Oathbreaker
Words have power. Just ask Taylor Smart.
Her people can shape reality to their whim with a word. But this power comes at a price: a broken oath can tear the Wonder apart. And the Wonder tends to fight back.
Two and a half years ago, Taylor promised a favor to spare her friend Jill from the wrath of Mara Hellebore, the Chief Matron of the Winter Court. But now the brooding noblewoman of the daoine sídhe has returned to call in her debt, and the price she asks is more than Taylor is willing to pay.
In this heart-pounding conclusion to the Into The Wonder series, Taylor becomes an unwilling accomplice in Mara’s twisted plan. Accompanied by a band of supernatural mercenaries, Taylor has no choice but to obey…for now. Still, she’s keeping her eyes open for the chance to put her own plans in play and be rid of the House of Hellebore once and for all.
The River of Night
When hostile ogres, goblins, and other faery beings start turning up at school, Taylor Smart is compelled to investigate. Why has somebody painted a target on her back this time? And why are they trying to drive a wedge between her and her friends in the Wonder?
Answers aren’t always easy to come by, especially when Taylor is thrown through a portal to a part of the Wonder that’s infested with monsters, the worst of which walk on two feet.
The River of Night has a way of testing the heroes who travel it. This is doubly true when someone behind the scenes is pulling strings for their own hidden purposes. One thing is sure: Taylor and her friends have once more been drawn into a deadly game of supernatural politics and intrigue.
And the Fair Folk don’t play fair.
Oak, Ash, and Thorn
Book 3: Oak, Ash, and Thorn
Who is Taylor Smart?
A smart-alecky eighth-grader at Bulloch Middle School? Check. A girl with barely-tapped supernatural powers inherited from parents she barely knew? Check. But truly answering that question—Who is Taylor Smart?—had only become more complicated once Taylor learned the secret of her own magical identity.
Now that the faery realm has heard Taylor’s story, people are taking notice—and not all of them are pleased. Will she be a symbol of resistance to rally around? A dangerous variable that must be controlled? A threat to be eliminated?
When competing factions of the Wonder come to the brink of war, Taylor finds herself in the middle, and everyone has the same questions, including Taylor herself: Who is Taylor Smart? What will she do? Will she even survive?
The Devil’s Due
Taylor Smart knew that living with one foot in the everyday world and the other in the faery realm wouldn’t be easy, but nobody told her it was a death sentence! When you’re only thirteen years old and a powerful sídhe overlord puts you on his black list, bad things are bound to happen. And as if that weren’t enough, somebody has also set their sights on her best friend, Jill.
In the unearthly world its inhabitants call the Wonder, people pay their debts…or live to regret it. And so, Taylor and Jill find themselves running away from home, forging new alliances, and facing unexpected dangers in hopes that maybe—just maybe—they’ll be able to soothe the wounded pride of the powers that are out to get them.
Children of Pride
Taylor Smart has a pretty good life despite her mean teachers and snooty classmates. Of course, that is before she is kidnapped by the Fair Folk and whisked into a world she never dreamed could be real.
Apparently, the cuddly versions of those old faery tales don’t tell the whole story, and middle school never prepared Taylor for a world filled with bogeymen, trolls, dwarves, and spriggans. But that’s what she finds in the faery realm its inhabitants call the Wonder.
Taylor is thrown into a quest to discover her true identity guided by Danny Underhill, her erstwhile kidnapper. But will the shapeshifting trickster’s dark secrets spell her doom? And how will Taylor decide which world, fae or human, is truly her own?
Repost: Iroquois Supernatural
[In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, here is a repost of something I wrote a few years back. I am still very much learning about what is acceptable and what is not for a non-indigenous person to include in his fiction, but Bastine and Winfield’s guidance keeps me, I think, on the right track.]
I have great friends. One of them recently found a copy of Iroquois Supernatural: Talking Animals and Medicine People by Michael Bastine and Mason Winfield at a yard sale and was kind enough to pick it up for me as a gift. Bastine is an Algonquin healer and elder. Winfield is a European American who describes himself as a “supernatural historian.”
This is a really neat, informative book. It is chock-full of fascinating tales, keen historical and cultural insights, and a pervasive sense of respect for the Iroquois culture(s) as a whole. I’m mentioning it not to provide a thorough review. My review can be summed up thusly: If you’re the sort of person who is interested in Native American cultures and particularly Native American mythology and folklore, get this book!
I’m bringing this book up, rather, for the guidance it may provide for writers wanting to handle mythological material from outside their culture with reverence and sensitivity. This is a topic that has recently come up in an article at Fantasy Faction by Brian O’Sullivan with respect to Celtic, and particularly Irish cultural artifacts. (You can also read my observations.)
As when I wrote about the uproar over J. K. Rowling’s handling of Native American mythology, I still believe that there are situations where leaving elements of Native American or African mythology out of a story can be more colonialistic than including them. I’m thinking particularly of stories in the contemporary fantasy genre that are set in North America—which happens to be what I write. Populating North America with unicorns and griffins rather than naked bears and great horned serpents strikes me as a lazy and Euro-centric way to tell a story.
Still, the challenge remains to handle these cultural artifacts with care and not treat them as mere commodities. Here is where Bastine and Winfield’s concerns in writing Iroquois Supernatural intersect with my own admittedly different concerns. First and most basically, writers who want to include these kinds of cultural artifacts need to read lots of books like this one, written from a clearly sympathetic viewpoint.
Second, the authors draw a distinction between what they classify as “the sacred” and “the spooky.” This is a distinction that especially writers from outside a given culture need to keep in mind. In the introduction, they write:
Figuring out what to include in this book has been tricky. Where do you draw the line between miracle and magic? Between religion and spirituality? Between the sacred and the merely spooky? This book doesn’t try to choose. How could anyone? (p. 2)
But then they proceed to explain their preference for the spooky over the sacred:
All religions are at heart supernatural. Throughout history most societies have had both a mainstream supernaturalism and others that are looked upon with more suspicion. The “out” supernaturalism is often that of a less advantaged group within the major society. What the mainstream calls “sacred” is its supernaturalism; terms like “witchcraft” are applied to the others. Someone’s ceiling is another’s floor, and one culture’s God is another’s Devil. To someone from Mars, what could be the objective difference? (p. 2)
This comment reminds me of the privileged place Judeo-Christian supernaturalism has in my own culture. Perhaps it will remind you of something else in your own frame of reference. But the writers go on to admit that within Iroquois society itself there are distinctions between the sacred and the spooky. They conclude,
This book is not about the sacred traditions of the Iroquois. It is a profile of the supernaturalism external to the religious material recognized as truly sacred. This is a book largely about the “out” stuff: witches, curses, supernatural beings, powerful places, and ghosts. (p. 3)
Even so, the authors admit that it isn’t always easy to draw firm lines between sacred and spooky. The fact that one of the authors is a practicing traditional healer within a neighboring Native American community is bound to help in this regard! Later on, we hear Winfield explaining further about their approach to this cultural material:
This is not a book about Iroquois religion or anything else we knew was sacred enough to be sensitive. Not only is that not our purpose, but, as a Mohawk friend said recently to me, “If it’s sacred, you don’t know it.” And coauthor Michael Bastine would not reveal it. (p. 22)
So perhaps we can isolate the following touchstones as the beginning of an approach to including cultural material from marginalized or minority groups within our society:
- Aim for the spooky, not the sacred. Frankly, I’m not interested in writing philosophical or theological treatises on the spirituality of marginalized peoples. (I will admit to a certain interest in reading such studies.) But I love stories about ghosts, monsters, trickster figures, or what have you. As Bastine and Winfield themselves note numerous times, these sorts of things are common to every culture. That suggests to me that, with suitable awareness, writers can fruitfully explore them. If something gets too close to the lived faith commitments of others, however, I tend to want to shy away from it in terms of worldbuilding and storytelling,
- If it is sacred enough to be sensitive, leave it out. I’m well aware that one reaches a point of sensitivity sooner in some cultures than others, and with different topics in some cultures than in others. Still, is there a better place to start?
- Strive to understand as much about the culture as a whole as possible. I don’t want to add a cultural element to a story without a firm grasp of how that element relates to others in its “native” environment. Understanding the ins and outs of a culture and its history is a great inoculation against a grab-bag approach.
Do you think it’s possible for writers to handle other world cultures with sensitivity? When have you seen a writer handle well the artifacts of a culture to which he or she was an outsider?
Sunday Inspiration: Terrified
I’ve been absolutely terrified every minute of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.
Musings on the Ecology of Vampires
So I’ve been putting some ideas about vampires together for my next novel, tentatively titled Dead of Night. And as usual, I’ve gone way overboard with the worldbuilding. I’m curious how many vampires a given human population could support? The answer depends on how often they feed and how much they want to remain hidden from the world.
Murder Rates and the Masquerade
Let’s start with staying hidden. To do that, the vampire(s) would have to keep their kills below a certain threshold—or at least be diligent in hiding the bodies. Too many unexplained murders will raise alarms. So the first thing to consider is how many murders is too many, from the vampiric point of view?
To answer that question, we need to find the annual homicide rate in a given locale. In large US cities, the average is about 5.5 per 100,000, but there is great variation. In places like Baltimore or Memphis, the rate is much higher. In Provo, Utah it is much lower. But what matters isn’t how many murders take place in a given year but how many go unsolved. You can probably find a breakdown of this online, but the bottom line is that roughly one-third of all homicides remain unsolved in the US. Maybe we can arbitrarily say that a vampire population that feeds at only half of this rate—one-sixth of the local homicide rate—will be in an ideal situation to remain undetected.
Mind you, I’m not assuming that every last vampire kill gets investigated by the police. I expect most of the time vampires take pains to hide or destroy the bodies and perhaps use a number of other strategies to reduce their ecological footprint: drinking from living donors (willing or unwilling), feeding on animals, raiding blood banks, etc. Still, one-sixth of the local homicide rate at least gives me a place to start.
By the way, you can find crime statistics for the US at the FBI’s website. Here’s a link to the 2019 data arranged by metropolitan statistical area. Beware, however, that some metro areas did not report data this year. (Looking at you, New York and Chicago!) If you back a few years, though, you’ll find what you need.
This is going to be a very small number: smaller than seems to be the case in most vampire-related fiction. So we can imagine that most of the time, a vampire population exceed this ideal. The more vampires, the more likely one of them is going to make a mistake and break the masquerade beyond repair. My guess is that 25 times the ideal threshold is the point at which the jig is up. I have no convincing reason for this number; it just suits the needs of the story I’m spinning! It does, however, seem to produce reasonable and fictionally satisfying results.
With those two numbers in mind, we can describe a number of different scenarios for vampiric activity:
• Ironclad Masquerade. At this threshold, the masquerade is virtually impenetrable. This represents the absolute safety threshold, where the vampire’s yearly kill rate falls below half of the total number of unsolved murders in a given area.
• Strong Masquerade. This threshold is arbitrarily set about 3 times the ironclad threshold (cube root of 25). The masquerade is robust enough to handle an occasional misstep without completely unraveling. Spikes in vampiric activity can still upset the balance, however. Any alpha vampires in the area will take forceful measures to preserve the masquerade.
• Moderate Masquerade. This threshold is arbitrarily set at about 8.5 times the ironclad threshold (square of the cube root of 25). The masquerade generally holds as long as everyone agrees not to do anything foolish. Mistakes are inevitably made, though, and there may be repercussions, especially if the vampires don’t have powerful connections, etc. Law enforcement officers and others in authority may know that something is amiss even if they don’t know what. Outsiders at best scratch the surface of the truth.
• Weak Masquerade: This threshold is arbitrarily set at 25 times the ironclad threshold. At this level, the presence of vampires is definitely felt. Many locals are in denial about what is going on, but the authorities know that something is amiss and strongly suspect the paranormal. This is the situation that seems to be depicted in Sunnydale, California in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (though the Sunnydale numbers are beyond explanation!)
[Aside: Brian Thomas, a real-live ecological scientist has actually run the numbers for the Buffyverse and finds that ~36,000 humans [Sunnydale’s population is 38,500] per 18 vampires is actually a sustainable figure. His analysis doesn’t account for secrecy, however. On the African savanna, the antelopes know all about the dangers of lions; in Sunnydale, people may whisper about the creatures that go bump in the night, but few people know anything for sure.]
• Broken Masquerade: Once the vampire population rises over 25 times the ironclad threshold, people definitely know that something sinister is afoot. This predator-to-prey ratio might describe, for example, a remote village that is actively being terrorized by one or more vampires, such as the peasants around Dracula’s castle in Transylvania.
So now we can describe the thresholds of secrecy that a vampire population might cross. But how quickly do they cross them? Folklore and fiction imagine vampires feeding at different rates. We won’t know how many vampires can exist within a given “masquerade” scenario without considering how much blood they need to consume. Once again, we can describe a number of different scenarios based on what I call the VPV rate: the number of victims per vampire per year.
• Parasitic Feeders (VPV <1). If a vampire needs a pint of blood per month, it can cultivate about three willing donors and none of them need die. (A healthy adult can safely give a pint of blood every two to three months.) More people means the vampire can live in secrecy in a larger population. At this feeding rate, even a very small population can sustain a single vampire. Whether or not it is discovered is more a matter of the creature’s intelligence than population size.
• Light Feeders (VPV 2.5). Some vampires feed only once every four to six months and fall into a state of torpor between feedings. A single light-feeding vampire will be responsible for two or three mysterious deaths or missing persons per year, possibly an inconsequential loss in a large enough community.
Cold-blooded predators such as snakes or crocodiles often feed at this rate, and it is likely the same for at least some vampires. Note, however, that a vampire that is particularly active will feed more often and thus potentially draw more attention to itself.
Most vampire types that live in remote places and prey on lone travelers feed at this rate, and those that find themselves in sparsely populated areas can subsist at this level, at least in the short term.
• Average Feeders (VPV 12). This rate splits the difference between “reptilian” model of the light feeders and the “mammalian” model of the heavy feeders described below, assuming vampires must feed about once per month. If more than one kind of vampire exist in a given locale, this rate is probably a fair estimate of the overall VPV level.
Most vampires that don’t fall into torpor between feedings but rather remain active all the time probably feed at this rate. It’s not a bad estimation for “generic” vampires.
• Heavy Feeders (VPV 52). This rate assumes a vampire has to feed once per week or thereabouts. Large warm-blooded predators such as lions usually feed at this rate, gorging themselves and then resting between kills. Only the most voracious vampires feed at this rate.
Example: The Vampires of Detroit
Here’s how this might work out in practice. Since I grew up in southeastern Michigan, let’s use it the Detroit metro area as an example. According to the FBI data linked above, greater Detroit has a population of 4.32 million people and a homicide rate of 8.4 per 100,000. In absolute numbers, that’s nearly 363 homicides per year.
This lets us calculate an ironclad masquerade threshold at one-sixth of that number or about 60 vampire kills. Remember: this number represents half the number of unsolved homicides in the area.
Now we have to compare that number to the feeding rate of our vampires. Let’s keep it simple and say the “average” VPV of 12 is accurate. If so, then we can predict how many vampires will living in the greater Detroit area at the various population thresholds described above:
Up to 6 vampires can exist here with an ironclad masquerade
7–17 vampires can exist here with a strong masquerade
18–51 vampires can exist here with a moderate masquerade
52–151 vampires can exist here with a weak masquerade
152 or more vampires can exist here with a broken masquerade
If I wanted, at this point I could fiddle around with the VPV to fine-tune my results. For example, I could raise or lower the VPV to better reflect how vampires work in my (or anyone else’s) fictional world.
Anyway, does this sound reasonable to you? How would your own favorite vampire fiction mesh with my analysis? What variables might you shift?
Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Giants and Ogres
Giants and ogres are found in practically every culture in the world. If you discount magically adept creatures like the frost and fire giants of Norse mythology (which I think are better accounted for as trolls), they are almost always savage, backward, and even cannibalistic. Their defining characteristics are incredible size and brutish demeanor. They aren’t truly members of Saynim society, but are sometimes pressed into service by a powerful master.
As I envision them, these beings all share a common ancestor in Homo erectus soloensis, a hominin from Indonesia that is a late variant of Homo erectus with a larger cranial capacity and an unusually advanced culture compared to other erectus subspecies. Giants and ogres share certain physiological features with soloensis, including:
- A have a wide, flat face with thick bones, heavy brow ridges, and large teeth. Their foreheads are shallow, sloping back from the brow ridges.
- A brain case is more elongated from front to back and less spherical than that of H. sapiens.
- Limb bones that are indistinguishable from modern H. sapiens.
- Differences in the upper respiratory tract, especially the mechanisms of breathing control, that result in a different approach to language. Generally speaking, these beings are not capable of uttering long sentences. Nor can they vary vocal intensity, pitch, or tone to the same degree that humans do. They are thus generally soft-spoken individuals whose voices don’t always convey emotion in ways that humans can decipher.
GIANT (Homo giganticus)
Giants range from 9–14 feet tall and are usually brutish and non-magical—although they may still have great resistance to magic being performed upon them. Apart from a far more robust, dense bone structure to anchor their impressive musculature, giants are anatomically much like humans, only larger.
To a greater or lesser extent, all large hominins (8’ or taller: mainly giants, ogres, and the largest trolls) share the same adaptations to extreme size. Working from the bottom up, one might mention the following:
• Short, stubby feet with a distinct leg structure. Long, plantigrade feet like a human’s prove inefficient for larger bodies. For hominins in the 7–10’ range, the changes to leg structure are minimal, but they become more pronounced as size increases.
Like elephants, the largest hominins have stubby feet that create a more columnar lower-leg structure that is not employed in lift and propulsion but rather is ideal for supporting their terrific weight.
This adaptation has several effects on limb structure and locomotion. The foot musculature (anchored to the shin) is reduced, lowering the overall weight of the limb and thus making movement more efficient. This structure also decreases foot mobility, however, limiting stride length and overall gracility. Some of these effects are countered by the elongated thigh region, which can swing the shortened lower leg over great distances with every step.
• Shorter, thicker legs. Compared to an average human, in which leg length is approximately half of total height, legs of the largest hominins are somewhat shorter. In ogres and large trolls, leg length is roughly 0.47–0.48 total body length. In true giants, leg length is roughly 0.45–0.46 total body length.
Despite their shorter legs, large humanoids have normally proportioned arms (0.34–0.35 body length), leading to a relatively higher intermembral index (forelimb/hindlimb x 100). A normal human has an intermembral index of 68–70; Australopithecus had an index of about 88; chimpanzees, about 106. By comparison, ogres and large trolls have an index of 71–74, while true giants have an index of 74–78.
• Maximized bone strength and stiffness with minimized bone mass and volume. Like birds, giant bones have greater density than normal mammalian bones, providing strong, stiff, but relatively lightweight support.
• A body frame that is wider at the hip than the chest. This puts more of the giant’s muscle mass in its lower limbs where it is most needed for locomotion.
• A higher overall percentage of muscle tissue. Giants are more robustly built than a normal human that has merely been scaled up to incredible height. This is a necessary adaptation to be able to function at all.
• A larger and more efficient heart and circulatory system. This is necessary to bring oxygen to every part of the giant’s enormous body in an efficient manner.
• A relatively smaller head. All animals tend to show a disproportionate reduction in skull length with respect to body mass. The same is true of giant hominins: the larger ones generally have proportionally smaller heads than the smaller ones.
As sizes rise above 10’ or so, certain weaknesses also come into play:
• Bone weakness. Giant bones are stronger than those of humans but must move around far more weight proportionally. By way of comparison, elephants have been known to break bones simply from tripping and falling over. The same can happen to giants.
• Slowness. Giants are unable to run—that is, to lift both feet off the ground at the same time—without incurring serious trauma. Their long strides make them capable of surprising speed at a leisurely gait, however. Giants can “speed-walk” at about 16 miles per hour for short bursts.
OGRE (Homo atrox)
Ogres are the only hominins to regularly prey upon other hominins. They are at least human-sized and often quite a bit larger—though not as large as true giants. They are distinguished from the other hominin species by their animalistic nature.
The tallest ogres range from 8–11 feet tall. They are neither magically potent nor overly intelligent, although most can use glamour on an instinctive level to alter their appearance, and some may have a single additional magical talent they can use to their advantage. Their linguistic capacities are largely the same as that of giants.
Human-sized ogres are sometimes called bogeymen. Distinct subspecies populations can be as small as pygmies or as tall as the Maasai of East Africa. Despite their relative weakness, they can still be a threat to unsupervised human children.