Making a Soul Jar

September 3, 2015

image source: Wikimedia Commons. photographer: Muhammad Mahdi Karim.

image source: Wikimedia Commons. photographer: Muhammad Mahdi Karim[*].

The wheel spins between his knees. The clay spins beneath his hands.

“What are you making?”

“A commission,” he says. “A special piece.” A delicate, long-fingered touch narrows the piece’s neck near the top. He shapes the lip inside with a wooden Kemper tool.

“What’s that for?”

“That will hold the stopper.” On a nearby table sits a disk made of cork, perhaps two inches thick. It looks just about the right size to fit.

“Will it seal?”

“No. The seal is not part of my commission.” Always, always his fingers shaping as he works: a tall clay bottle, with that hourglassing of the neck.

“What’s it for? Wine?”

“You would have to ask the buyer. But if he is storing wine in it, then it must be very precious wine.”

“What makes you say that?”

The potter keeps working. “He is most choosy. He came to me because I am the best.”

“What if he just said that so you’d take the commission?”

The piece keeps turning, slowly. “It is still true.” The potter smiles. “This is a simple piece. Any potter could have done it. But he insisted.” The wheel stops. “He is paying too much, but he does not think so.”

[*] By Muhammad Mahdi Karim ( Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 ( or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

Book review: Archivist Wasp

August 31, 2015

Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel subverts genre expectations right from the beginning. Though fantasy and science fiction are Archivist Wasp covergenerally considered components of a single genre, it’s still pretty rare to see a novel where the supernatural and the super-technological exist in the same world.

The Archivist Wasp, the character for whom Kornher-Stace’s novel is named, knows that she lives in a fallen world, and so does everyone around her. They speak candidly of the time Before, and accept hidebound traditions–even those that are harmful and potentially fatal–as necessary. Even Wasp, who is constantly seeking to escape her position as Archivist, does not question the institution itself. So much is typical of post-apocalyptic fictional settings, and even when we learn something of this world’s technologically advanced past, we are on familiar ground.

But not so fast. The world of Archivist Wasp is one where the technological and the supernatural co-exist inextricably, upending reader expectations in some surprising and refreshing ways. It doesn’t quite have the uncanniness that I personally associate with magical realism; the story feels a little too concrete for that. It does mean that some reveals that I anticipated never occurred, but this does not make Archivist Wasp unsatisfying. Far from it; the story never loses its sense of concrete reality, even when wandering into territory that reminded me more of Michael Ende than of Suzanne Collins.

Speaking of Collins, readers will perhaps be tempted to compare Archivist Wasp to The Hunger Games. There are some similarities: a tightly controlled, post-disaster society whose viewpoint character is subjected to seemingly arbitrary rules that could harm or kill her; a frequently breathtaking potential for violence (the novel opens with a fight to the death and never lets up); a battle to subvert authoritarian rule that, as the story unfolds, we see taking place down two parallel tracks that may not be so parallel after all.

But there are important differences as well. I found myself reminded more of Buffy than of Katniss, particularly the later seasons of the show when we learned something of the Slayer’s origin and how violent and non-consensual was her original choosing. Wasp too is marked out and set apart, and forced to come to terms with her identity while seeking escape from it.

It wasn’t until I’d checked Archivist Wasp out of the library and set myself to read it that I found it was a YA novel. That it certainly is: not so much because the protagonist is young, but because of how it treats its theme of journeying and becoming, and the affecting, genuine voice of Wasp herself. Wasp is an appealing heroine, human in her flaws and ambitions, but there’s a bit of the mythical about her as well, and not just because in this world, the Archivist is a death-goddess’s avatar. That is only one of the many respects in which Wasp’s journey resembles that of Persephone, Inanna, and other goddesses who go to the world below and bring back knowledge. Archivist Wasp is an impressive book.

The Sculpture

May 7, 2015
dancer image

Dancer image from Pinterest, original provenance unknown.

She was a dancer. It was the thing that she loved most in life, and so what she most wished to show.

She came to me and said that she wanted to be a sculpture. She’d heard about me, about what I can do.

I’m good. Not really that good, though. Aesthetics isn’t my gift, life is. I don’t know how I do it–that’s wrong. I do know.

What I can’t do is explain it. There aren’t words. All I know is my sculptures live on after their subjects are dead. Yes, you might say that about any artwork. Isn’t that the point? I mean in the literal sense. There’s kind of…well, call it vitae. I don’t know how else to describe it, but trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. Like with this young lady.

Beautiful, isn’t she? That arc of arm and spine. She chose that pose. I insist on it. I’ll take reference photos, like this one, so they get an idea of how they’ll look. They don’t always realize how bodies translate. She did though. That’s a dancer’s business, that creation through movement. Even when perfectly still. You can see it.

She died. Not long after I finished taking the photos. She said they were just how she wanted the piece to look. It was a gift, of a sort. I don’t have to wonder whether she would have approved of the result. At least, not as much as I would have, otherwise.

But she’s there. In the finished sculpture. You can see it.

Go and look.

Batman at the Dojo

April 23, 2015

We all have a reason for coming here. I’m a bouncer, building up my toolbox. Daisy’s tired of getting hassled on the street. Kurt just wants to be a badass. Charlie’s a delivery driver who’s been robbed a couple of times.

It’s always been a small group. The core of it’s been the same for years–me, Daisy, Kurt, Charlie–but others have come and gone. The four’ve us have been around so long that none of us can remember when he started showing up. Nobody remembered his name for the first few days. Nobody knew quite how he’d found out about our place, either. You have to know somebody, but we never did work out who it was that he knew. We like it that way. There’s a certain kind of person who takes the time and effort to find an underground club. They’re persistent. Likely to stick around.

Of course, he’s got ways of knowing about things like that.

But nobody mentioned it. We know each others’ stories, and we don’t. It’s not a social club. I think that’s why he came to us. He knew we wouldn’t ask a lot of questions.

Why did he go looking for a place at all? He’s rich, he’s connected, I know for a fact he studied with teachers the rest of us will never have even the slightest hope of meeting, never mind learning from. But once I figured out who he was, it was obvious.

You can’t practice for a fight by yourself. That’s what all those movie training montages get wrong. Punching the air doesn’t tell you a thing about how those moves will work in a fight. You might as well sit on your couch and watch Youtube.

I think something happened. He’s cagey about media, you know. I mean for his vigilante activities. His other life, his public life, the more PR, the better.

I think he lost a fight. That’s the sort of thing you don’t hear about. But there was all this chatter about him going up against some crime boss, even videos and photos of the start of the fight, then it moved out of public view and nobody ever heard a thing about the outcome. You’d find something on Google and by the time you clicked the link, it was gone.

It wasn’t long after that he showed up. I mean, I’ve seen him fight. Not in real life, but I’ve watched the videos like everyone else. I’d call his style abrupt. Lots of jerking motions and quick sideways moves. No flow at all, but it seems to work for him.

But when someone’s been in a brawl they’re going to be a bit stiff afterwards, even if they won. And he was moving those first few days like someone had kicked him in the kidneys. That’s why it took us a little while to figure it out. We might not have recognized his face, but we’d have known him by how he moved. Everyone’s a little different there, and his style, well, it’s distinctive.

I remember the moment when I knew.

We were doing a sticking-hands drill. We do it to learn balance and control, and develop sensitivity to an opponent. It can transfer to being able to anticipate an opponent’s moves. Perfect for getting into a lot of fights with adversaries of unknown skill. I could tell it wasn’t his favorite thing to be doing–his patience is situational–but he went along with it. And there was a moment where I felt an opening. Just a little one, but we’re trained to exploit those, to open them up and use them to reach our opponent. So I did that, closing inside his guard and scoring a palm strike to his chest.

His reaction was extraordinary: a surprised grunt, a widening of the eyes, and then a turn to the side that, had I not anticipated it by the barest fraction of a second, would have ended with me flying across the room and into the wall.

I disengaged, with a nod to acknowledge, and went for my water bottle to cover my consternation.

Obviously he hadn’t wanted anyone to know. That’s the whole point of a secret identity, right? I don’t mean his public face, which all of us were careful not to recognize–it’s not like he was the first local celebrity to show up there, though usually they’re professional sports players or show fighters looking to up their game. I mean who he really was, the identity for which the playboy public persona was just a front and a funding source.

Why took me longer to figure out than it should’ve. I thought back to his evident physical pain those first few days, which we all chalked up to unfamiliarity with fighting, or an unpleasant experience with the personal trainer he could no doubt afford, or, mostly likely, getting mugged. Lots of people don’t try out this stuff until after the first time they could have used it.

But then I realized. He’d been beaten in a fight. The goddamned Batman had been beaten in a fight, and he didn’t want that happening again.

I just hope none of his nemeses show up here too.

Though I guess we wouldn’t know it if they did.

Short fiction recommendation: Nebula edition

February 21, 2015

The 2014 Nebula nominees were just announced, so this seems like a good time to start something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, namely push more short fiction at people. Even people I know who are fairly well-read in the genre (i.e. have read, or at least heard of, most of the Nebula nominees before they’re nominated) don’t read much short fiction or have heard of the authors.

Though I’d hope that most have heard of Aliette de Bodard, whose On a Red Station, Drifting was a previous Nebula nominee. In any case, you can read her nominated short story “The Breath of War” at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. As is usual with de Bodard’s stories–some of which I’ve had the privilege of reading in draft form–the level of craft here is exceptional. The author weaves the details and functioning of this world into the story so that the seams hardly show, and the characters, their relationships, and their concerns remain front and center. Families are often a prominent feature of de Bodard’s work, and such is the case here, but this is no mere character study. There is a broader canvas here, as is also the case with her other stories, and it rewards close reading.

Away and Returning

February 15, 2015
(Image: Woman of the Ardennes)

(Image: Woman of the Ardennes)

Their children were grown.

“I love you,” she said. “But I want to see the world, before I am too old to walk more than a mile in a day, and too bent with toil to care.”

“I love you,” he said. “But this is home, and the wheat is high, the cows give milk, and apples hang in the orchards in autumn.”

She packed a bundle, kissed him goodbye, and set out on the road that ended at their village.

She was gone a long time. When she walked back up the road again, it was with a limp, and she leaned on a stick. There were lines on her face that there hadn’t been before, and at least one new scar. Her clothes were different, and the look in her eyes was different too.

Every day, he had made supper, and sometimes someone from the village had shared it with him, but more often he ate alone.

Now he welcomed her in, and set the plate before her, and opened the wine she handed him from some far land, and the room smelled of sunlight.

“Tell me all about it,” he said, and she did.

The Company: The End

November 8, 2014

The story so far.

It took some days to rejoin the main company, all the while keeping our captive secure, and watching for those of his former companions who had escaped and might try to mount a rescue. But we made it in the end, and the Jarl was pleased.

Olemilekan and his companion remained with the company, somewhat to my surprise. But they pointed out that under the Jarl, they had some protection in a land where the very existence of sorcerers was taken as an abomination.

The swordplayer, on the other hand, used her share of the prize for the capture to buy out her contract. I don’t know where she went. The last I saw, she was riding south.

As for me, after thinking it over for awhile, I decided to stay on. Some people weren’t happy about my bringing in a sorcerer, but more were happy at the capture we’d made with his help, and at the general rise in the company’s fortunes.

We’ll see if I still think so in a few months. I’ve heard there’s a war on.


The Company: The Warrior (47)

November 2, 2014

The story so far.

The other Ashadin in the troop followed me back to where the swordplayer lay. By the time we got there, she had lost consciousness. Olemilekan stood to one side, watching, but when the Ashadin formed a circle around their fallen comrade, he and his companion mounted up and rode slowly back toward the rest of the troop.

Our prize was bundled onto his horse and brought back as well. I helped with that, not without a backward glance or two at the Ashadin, who sat so still they might have become statues. After a short while they were lost to sight.

The Company: The Warrior (46)

October 31, 2014

The story so far.

I got up, went to my horse, and rode back the way I’d come as fast as I dared. I didn’t even look back to see what Olemilekan and his companion were doing without me. I encountered the troop leader just riding out of the trees, the rest of her riders behind her.

“What’s going on?” she demanded, as soon as she saw me. “Report.”

“Quarry’s taken,” I gasped. “He’s all right, maybe a bit bruised. But one of ours is badly wounded. She told me to fetch the other Ashadin.”

Surprise, puzzlement, and even fear raced across the troop leader’s face in quick succession. But finally she shrugged.

“All right. If she wants to die with her people around her.”

The Company: The Warrior (45)

October 29, 2014

The story so far.

I knelt by the swordplayer’s side. Her body relaxed on the ground. Her eyes blinked. She groaned, her hands reaching for the wound that speared her front to back.

“Don’t move,” I said, though I couldn’t think what could be done for her. We had a field healer with us, but anyone with the skill to save her life would be back with the main company.

Olemilekan stood back from us, his face expressionless. I wondered whether he’d seen this, too, or whether his vision had enabled him to save our captive at the expense of one of our own.

“Get…the Ashadin,” the swordplayer gasped. A trickle of blood ran out the corner of her mouth.

“What?” I asked, stupidly.

“The Ashadin…with the troop. Get them.”


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