Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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Algorithms

Do you get emails from Amazon?
I do.
About once a week, I find in m y mailbox a mail that says, more or less…

Greetings, Consumer!
based on your previous purchases, we think you might also like…

And what follows is a list of books I have already purchased from Amazon, plus maybe one or two of my own books. On special days, the algorithm also throws in an esoteric kitchen tool and maybe some instant noodles.

But the latest “you might also like” mail was special, because the Amazon algorithm decided I might be interested in this…

Yes, it’s a book of mine (available in Italian only, sorry rest of the world!)
You know, ancient Rome, Aegyptian curses, conspiracies, legionaries… the usual.

And yes, it’s out today.

And no, I did not know anything about it.

I was not informed the book had been published – and indeed already sold during the Lucca Comics & Games fair this past Halloween.
I did not see the galleys.
I did not get a complimentary copy.
Or an ebook.

Google reveals that the book was also presented during a live streaming panel, in November – but I was not informed, or invited to participate, and when the panel was announced on Facebook nobody tagged me, and therefore another algorithm decided not to show me any notification.
And no, there was nothing in my spam folder, either.

And yes, the cover is great, and carries my name and the IP house name, so that it looks like I wrote this with someone else.

And finally yes, this is deeply humiliating, because the book I spent the whole summer of 2022 writing has been out there three months now, and I only learned about it because the Amazon suggestions algorithm sucks.

I will not put a commercial link here, because as I said the book is only available in Italian.
It’s likely to be my last novel to be.


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Real Writers and Rumours

This morning I was told I am not “a real writer” because my last works published had been tie-ins, works that are part of other properties. The Raiders of Bloodwood is part of the Descent, Legends of the Dark franchise, as is Dreams of Fire (the book I should be writing instead of writing this post); I have stories in The Devourer Below and Secrets in Scarlet, both part of the Arkham Horror franchise.
And in the past two years I have published a few Sherlock Holmes stories.
So you see, not a real writer.

Now, it could just be bad faith (like when a guy accused me of plagiarism because I wrote a scenario for a TTRPG of which I was a co-author, and thus had “plagiarized” the game IP), or it could be this weird belief in “pure art” and “absolute originality” – whatever those can be.
But one way or another, it is not the best way to start the week – and therefore instead of ignoring that observation, I replied to it.
And here is my reply…

You might want to go out to your local record store – or maybe on Amazon – and buy yourself a copy of Rumours, the 1977 Fleetwood Mac album. Yes, you can listen it on Spotify, or Youtube, or whatever, but it would be better for you to go out and buy yourself a copy.
Vinyl, possibly, but the CD is also OK.

Once you’ve got the record, you should play it, and listen to it.

You will notice that the record includes some songs by Lindsay Buckingham (such as the opener, Second Hand News), a few by Stevie Nicks (such as the closer, Gold Dust Woman), and a few by the late Christine McVie (the classic Don’t Stop, for instance, or You Make Loving Fun).
Now, no one, but no one, would mistake a Buckingham composition for a song by Nicks or McVie, and any other way around – each of these songwriters is absolutely distinctive.
Their musical structure, their themes, their approach to the composition and execution – each one is perfectly individual and unmistakable.
Yet all the songs on Rumours are also, undisputedly, Fleetwood Mac songs.
Once again, you listen to them, and you can’t mistake for anything else.
And at this point you might want to check out Stevie Nick’s The Wild Heart, or Buckingham’s Go Insane or Christine McVie’s eponymous 1984 album – and you will find in them songs that are unmistakably Nicks songs, or Buckingham songs, or McVie songs, but are not Fleetwood Mac songs. There’s something different – not less or more, just different.
Rumors is also interesting because it features The Chain, a song that was credited to all the members of the band. It is indeed a Fleetwood Mac song, you can make no mistake placing it – and it is not exactly Nicks, or McVie, or Buckingham.

Writing tie-ins, playing in someone else’s universe, maybe adopting someone else’s characters, is akin to playing in a band – you are an individual, but you are also part of the band.
When your work is done, it is both yours and the band’s.
No sane individual would claim Lindasy Buckingham, Stevie Nicks or Christine McVie were “not real songwriters” because they were operating as part of an outfit, as cogs in a larger machine, working (hopefully) to move in a certain direction.
The same can be said of anyone working inside a franchise.
You are working as part of a larger outfit, you’ve got to be part of the band, but you should be able to maintain your individuality, your style, your personal quirks.

Of course, one hopes one’s part of Fleetwood Mac (or the Beatles, or the Stones, or Yes, or any of a million outstanding bands out there) and not the East Elbow-St.-John All Star Skiffle Band and Revue, but, well, that’s another story.

Not a real writer my foot, in other words.


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The first book of the year: Understanding Chinese Fantasy Genres

Two days back I finished a big translation job I was eager to get out of the way to clear my desk for the upcoming novel writing job I will be doing these next two months (more details soon).
To celebrate the conclusion of the translation, I awarded myself an ebook, and got me a copy of Jeremy “Deathblade” Bai’s Understanding Chinese Fantasy Genres: A primer for wuxia, xianxia, and xuanhuan.

Now, first of all, how cool it is to have “Deathblade” as a nickname.
I mean, me, my friends call me “Doc”.
Boring.
But “Deathblade”? Ah!

I first became aware of Jeremi Bai’s work through the excellent Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades roleplaying game, published by Osprey. A game designed to simulate the wild action of wuxia movies and novels, and a great alternative to the ubiquitous mock-medieval fantasy roleplaying game.

I was really impressed by the game, and checked out the authors (Brendan Davis collaborated with Bai on the game), and found myself going down a rabbit hole.

Now, I like Chinese fantasy, but I have experienced it mostly through “classical” texts – Romance of Three Kingdoms, the Water margin, Journey to the West etc – than through the more recent multi-volume serials that seem to be extremely popular. And of course I used to watch Hong Kong movies way before it became cool.
And I have often flirted with wuxia in my stories (I do not know how successfully or convincingly).
Jeremy Bai’s primer on the genre(s) of Chinese fantasy is exactly what I needed to put some order in my patchwork knowledge of the tropes, the themes and the trends of a HUGE world of stories.

The book is short (148 pages in ebook, that go for less than 3 bucks) and to the point, illustrating the basic ideas and the quirks of wuxia (basically Chinese sword & sorcery), xianxia (high-powered, universe-shattering Chinese high fantasy) and xuanhuan (that mixes Western and Eastern modes in its storytelling).
Short chapters provide cultural background, examples and historical context for the building blocks of the stories. It’s a useful primer for both readers and would-be writers, and has many interesting insights on the issue of translation that, as a translator myself, I found particularly interesting.
A light but highly informative read and yes, one that will lead to checking out more movies, more books, and who knows, maybe will lead to the writing of a few stories.

Highly recommented to anyone with an interest in Chinese and Oriental fantasy.


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Damask without Damascus: Duncan, Howard, Eddison and another style of world building

Last post of the year, and somewhat unexpected – I am suffering from a bout of insomnia, and about one hour ago, while exchanging new years greetings, I suggested to my friend Marina Dave Duncan’s novels in the A Man of His Word series.
This led to a quick search online – are they still available (they are!), are they affordable (more or less, yes), have they a good rating…?

And this leads me to a review of Magic Casement, the first book in the series – and the reviewer writing…

personal and place names, as well as cultural items such as furniture, fabric, dance types are a mishmash, a veneer that cannot make sense naturally in this world…how is there damask without a Damascus? How are there minuettes and ballet without French?

The reviewer notes that Duncan’s secondary word is filled with names pulled straight out of ours, and that puts a strain on their suspension of disbelief.
Fair enough.
It works fine for me, and actually I like it, but to each their own.

I remember Samuel Delany mentioning how Robert E. Howard’s penchant for dodgy names in the Hyborian world as a cause for a similar breach of suspension of disbelief – the obvious references to historical geography (Vendya instead of India, the Kozaki or the lands of Shem and Stygia) bugged young Delany, dragging him back in our own world instead of helping him settle in the Hyborian landscape.

And really, I get it.
I mentioned a few days back how characters using “OK!” while living in a psaeudo-medieval secondary world bugged me.
It’s OK.
Each one of us has a different degree of tolerance for this straining of the worldbuilding, these fractures in the coherence of the creation. What is OK for me may be unacceptable for someone else, causing the world not just to creak and shudder in a pleasantly reassuring way, but to crumble and collapse in dust and ruin.

In all honesty, Dave Duncan’s heterodox approach to his worldbuilding never caused me any stress – sure, it’s weird that he says “faun” and then describes an individual of apparent Celtic ethnicity instead of a guy with goat feet, but it’s OK. Similarly, Imps look Mediterranean and Djinns look Middle-Eastern. It’s strange, for the first five pages. But it’s also fun, actually.
To me, at least.

And I am also reminded of that old E.R. Eddison passage in Mistress of Mistresses, that I often use when discussing worldbuilding…

At least, I am fortunate. For there is peace in these Arctic July nights, where the long sunset scarcely stoops beneath the horizon to kiss awake the long dawn. And on me, sitting in the deep embrasure upon your cushions of cloth of gold and your rugs of Samarkand that break the chill of the granite, something sheds peace, as those great sulphur-coloured lilies in your Ming vase shed their scent on the air. Peace; and power; indoors and out: the peace of the glassy surface of the sound with its strange midnight glory as of pale molten latoun or orichalc; and the peace of the waning moon unnaturally risen, large and pink-coloured, in the midst of the confused region betwixt sunset and sunrise, above the low slate-hued cloud-bank that fills the narrows far up the sound a little east of north, where the Trangstrómmen runs deep and still between mountain and shadowing mountain. That for power: and the Troldtinder, rearing their bare cliffs sheer from the further brink; and, away to the left of them, like pictures I have seen of your Ushba in the Caucasus, the tremendous two-eared Rulten, lifted up against the afterglow above a score of lesser spires and bastions: Rulten, that kept you and me hard at work for nineteen hours, climbing his paltry three thousand feet. Lord! and that was twenty-five years ago, when you were about the age I am to-day, an old man, by common reckoning; yet it taxed not me only in my prime but your own Swiss guides, to keep pace with you.

Mistress of Mistresses takes place, of course, in fabled Zimiamvia, but here we are, with rugs from Samarkand and Ming vases…

For me, it works.
Soon we will leave the mundane behind and travel to the Mezentian Gates, but for the time being this mishmash of references builds anticipation, and wonder.
That’s what I am here for.
More, it is a form of fantasy creation that fascinates me, and that I’d love sometimes to imitate.
It gives me this impression of the secondary world as a sort of strange, dusty attic, in which bits and pieces from different times and places somehow came together, to form something that is new, and different, and still has ties, but weird and unlikely, with the Known World.
This form of continuity is more explicit and straightforward in Howard – his ancient lands and peoples are somewhere in the past of our own past.
In the case of Duncan and Eddison – but also of Lord Dunsany, I dare say – the echoes and the flotsam of our own world and history are less immediate, and come through the veil of fantasy – in the sense of fabulation and faery tale, or fairy story.
Just like in Peter Pan we have pirates and crocodiles and in Alice in Wonderland we have Victorian hatters (but mad) and hookah-smoking caterpillars, so in Duncan’s books Imps are basically your ancient Romans, and in Eddison you can have collections of Earth exotica and Zimiavian magic.
We do not question the provenance of the items contained in Red Riding Hood’s basket.

Pulling such a trick – building a secondary world with explicit bits and pieces of our own, in open disregard for what goes under good and proper practices of worldbuilding as exposed in no end of manuals – is no little feat.
And we are indeed talking great authors, with an immense zest and passion for their creation, a conviction that (usually) manages to grab the average reader, and drag them along in an adventure, but also, I believe, rests at least in part on the will on the part of the reader to go along for the ride without questioning page after page, paragraph after paragraph, the skill or the good faith or the intent of the writer.

And yes, of course there are some kind of stories in which such mishmash, to quote the critic, can grate and feel out of place.
But there are some stories in which it works just fine – if we let it work.

Back in the days of Eddison – but also much more recently, when Dave Duncan set out to write Magic Casement – readers were maybe less interested in the authors’ magic system rules, in the coherent syntax and grammar of their made-up languages, and in the fauxtentication of their worlds through accurate mapping and worldbuilding. They wanted fantastic imagery and high adventure, and as long as those were there on the page, it was fine.
Maybe modern readers are more sophisticated – or they just know more about the theory of the writing practice, and look at the way the pudding was cooked instead of just appreciating the flavor.
Or maybe I am just old, and I am shaking my fist at those pesky kids and their newfangled ways.

I really believe, anyway, that getting distracted by what I perceive as technicalities can often distract us from appreciating what is, basically, a damn good story.

I still believe fantasy has enough freedom to bend the rules – any rule – and as long as the writer gets away with it, be as anarchic and jazz-like in the building of the worlds, the characters and the stories.


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A Bloodless Origin

It’s the Christmas weekend, the countryside is silent and dreary under a blanket of cold mist, and there is very little to do but eat (in moderation), read (an old Warhammer Fantasy novel) and wait for New Year’s Eve.
In the general desert of the media landscape, I chanced upon the announcement of a new Netflix series, The Witcher: Blood Origin, and I thought… why not?

Now, I know very little about The Witcher franchise – I never played the video games, the stories always seemed to me to be extremely derivative of Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and I was not able to go past the first episode of the TV series – with all the sympathy for Henry Cavill, but no, sorry, I can’t stand the bard guy, and the series is clearly not for me.
So this new miniseries came as a complete surprise, and really, going blind into it?
Four episodes featuring Michelle Yeoh and Minnie Driver?
Why not?
I will probably miss all the connections and deep lore, but at least I’ll be able to enjoy the series on its own merits.

Right?

Now, The Witcher: Blood Origin is just what it says on the tin – an origin story, telling us how the world in which the main series takes place came to be. It features political intrigue, world-shattering magic and seven warriors that plan to take their revenge on the bad guys that have usurped the throne.

So, yes, it’s basically The Seven Samurai crossed with Chushingura, with added elves and magic.
And here’s where the problems begin.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 The Seven Samurai is a master class in writing economy and storytelling.
At 207 minutes, it clocks almost exactly the same as The Witcher: Blood Origin if we take away opening and end titles.
It takes about one hour to Kurosawa to set up the premise of the story, and introduce the main characters – and he does so in a masterful way (hey, it’s Akira Kurosawa!), handing us each character, their psychology and their style, their function in the band of warriors.
Once this is done, in an interesting and exciting way, we plunge into the action, and for the remaining two hours the action won’t let up, while still taking time to develop the characters in surprising ways.
The Witcher miniseries takes almost three episodes – that’s two hours and a half – to set up the story and bring the seven characters together. Which leaves about fifty minutes for the expected big action payoff.

That so much time is spent in introducing and bringing together such bloodless, flat characters, is the main let down, for me.
The actors are good, but they are given very little to work with. A lot of the development seems rushed, and a fair chunk of dialogue is below par. There’s a lot of walking around – with or without horses, animals that seem to have the uncanny ability to appear and disappear at will.
The seven heroes are your standard band of seven, with a characterization that does not seem to go deeper than your standard D&D character sheet.

The politics of the series is interesting, but underdeveloped – and while Mirren Mack in the role of the delusional Princess Merwyn is interesting (and often visually striking), once again she does not have much to do. We get there are social class issues at work, undermining the elven civilization, but it’s pretty sketchy.

And that much of the weight of the story ends up being carried by Minnie Driver’s voice-over is a sign of how underwritten and rushed the whole thing is.
We are supposedly looking at the end of a world and the beginning of a new one, but nothing feels as thrilling as it is supposed to be.
We follow characters we do not care about as they set in motion events we do not care about, in a world we do not care about.

Then there are some very minor pet peeves of mine, writing-wise – such as the fact that we get people that say “send them to the clay” instead of “bury them”/”kill them” (which is a fine if heavy-handed bit of worldbuilding), but then will answer “okay!” to some questions, the anachronism grating like fingernails on a chalkboard.
But that’s only me – it’s a silly detail, like the horses coming and going, or characters popping in and out of the story.

So, what about the good stuff?
Well, as I said, the actors are good (Sophia Brown, Francesca Mills and the already-mentioned Mirren Mack in particular), and do their best with the poor writing.
The action scenes are few and far between, but they are not bad.
The locations are beautiful, and the costumes are fine (Princess Merwyn’s outfits and make-up are great, and more than compensate her Ikea-furnished apartments).
And talking about Ikea, I particularly liked the design of the elven civilization’s brutalist architecture. And the alien design of the monsters is excellent, if not over-the-top original.
And of course, I’d pay a first-class ticket to watch Michelle Yeoh breath, so I’m on board on this.

Sadly, the good bits sprinkled in the mix are not enough to grant this story the minimum of interest and excitement that would make spending almost four hours watching it.
But hey, it’s the Christmas weekend, and I had nothing better to do.
A missed opportunity.


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Belated Review: Tales from the Magician’s Skull, Issue #1

I am definitely late at the party, but recently the Bundle of Holding did a quick deal offering the digital “Starter Collection” for The Tales from the Magician’s Skull, for a very reduced price, and with the opportunity of doing a little charity on the side.
And so I went and bought the deal, and now I have the first seven issues of a magazine that I’ve been keeping an eye on for quite a while – both curious to read the stories, and hopeful to one day sell them one of mine.
So, now I have the opportunity to study the market, and enjoy hundreds of pages of good sword & sorcery.

How good, you ask?
Well, here’s the idea – I will post a quick review of each magazine, covering every story, as I read through this (digital) stack.
Starting now, with Issue #1.

Tales from the Magician’s Skull, Issue #1 is an 88 pages PDF file.
The cover is excellent, and the magazine is fully illustrated throughout with ink sketches.
Past the index, very reminiscent of old pulps in its layout, we get an editorial from editor in chief Howard Andrew Jones, and then a full listing of all the places around the world where you can get yourself a paper copy of the magazine. I am pleased … well, OK, “pleased” to notice that Italy once again stands out for its absence.
A page is dedicated to the supporters that Kickstarted the mag.
Then we get to the stories.

What Lies in Ice, by Chris Willrich
A long story set in arctic waters, and featuring a large cast of characters, offers a nice overview of a whole world through the different histories and personalities of the “heroes”. Presented as “A Gaunt and Bone” adventure, it promises more stories featuring the two adventurers. Echoes of Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock, which for me is reason enough to enjoy the ride.

The Guild of Silent Men, by James Enge
A new Story of Morlock Ambrosius is always good news. In this case, we deal with a murder mystery of sorts, and the plot is ingeniously handled.
The compact length of the story is also a plus. Morlock is his usual dour self, and that’s how we like him.

Beneath the Bay of Black Waters, by Bill Ward
“A Tale of Shan Spirit-Slayer and the Banner General Bao”, that is, an oriental fantasy story, with a nice touch of almost-Lovecraftian horror. Good action and an exotic, Wuxia-like feel, and a couple of quite interesting characters. This is one of the two or three favorites of mine in this issue (you figure out what the others may be).

Beyond the Block, by Aeryn Rudel
This is a nasty (in a good way), gruesome piece told in first person, with a plot reminiscent of both the old Roger Corman Poe Movies and the classic EC Comics.
What more could we wish for?

Crypt of Stars, by Howard Andrew Jones
A tale of vengeance and freedom in a conquered empire, this one features strong characters and an intriguing setting, that feels at the same time familiar and exotic.

There Was an Old Fat Spider, by C. L. Werner
Featuring a giant bug in the accompanying illustration, this story of revenge and witchcraft has a vague flavor of Warhammer Fantasy in its German-sounding names and early Renaissance feel. Not a bad thing in itself.
Feels predictable, until it is not. Quite nice.

The Crystal Sickle’s Harvest, by John C. Hocking
Grave-robbing, intrigue and betrayal for this last story in the magazine, a nice conclusion to a very solid selection.

All the stories are from quite good to outstanding, and offer a mix of settings, characters and atmospheres that guarantee that every reader will find something to really really like.

The magazine is rounded up by a hefty appendix providing D&D stats for all the creatures and most of the spells seen in the stories, turning the Magician’s Skull into a game accessory if you feel so inclined.

Quite a good start, and one that really makes me curious to see what will come up in Issue #2.