Streed of Consciousness [Part 5 – Vegetarianism]

(Reed’s Playlist for the day: Burning Love by Elvis Presley)

People who know me from high school but haven’t kept up with me in the past few years might be shocked to hear that I’ve gone vegetarian. I’ve always been pretty carnivorous – no, not in the actual exclusive definition of the word, but I always loved meat, especially a good steak. And I, unlike many vegetarians, don’t think there’s anything inherently morally wrong with eating meat.

So why am I vegetarian?

Well, the easy answer is because my girlfriend is vegan. And no, that doesn’t mean I converted for her – one of the most wonderful things about her is no matter how much she cares about animal rights and environmentalism, she has never so much as asked me if I would be interested in going vegetarian. She simply embodies the change she wishes to see in the world, and so when I saw how much it meant to her – and, more importantly, when I reconciled her beliefs with my own – I realized that it was something I wanted to do, not for her, but for me.

And if you think I have boyfriend goggles on and that she secretly brainwashed me with pro-vegan pillow talk and sneaky kale-filled cakes, you’re wrong. Because several of her roommates have also basically gone vegan since being with her. It’s simple exposure – like how it’s really hard to be racist when you’ve met an upstanding member of the race you’re prejudiced against.

So, why am I actually vegetarian? It was something I had considered in the abstract since late in high school, after one of my English teachers had us watch a documentary about factory farms. (Yeah, she definitely had that political slant, and I thank her every day for it.)

The thing is, there aren’t that many Americans (at least in my opinion) who would watch one of those documentaries and not be a little queasy about it. Not that it would instantly make them vegan, but the treatment of animals on factory farms is nothing less than deplorable. Let’s leave it at that.

And so I saw that documentary, and I told myself that once I got into a place where I was able to easily purchase my own food and make smart consumer choices, I would either go vegetarian or purchase locally-based meat products. Of course, promising myself that and doing it are two different things, just like watching a documentary and being disgusted is a completely different thing than cutting meat out entirely.

And then I went to college, and many late-night In N Out runs ensued, and I was in full carnivore mode until I met my not-quite-yet girlfriend. The funny thing was, you wouldn’t really have even known she was vegan unless she talked to you about it. She never complained at mealtimes about going places where there weren’t a lot of vegan options, and she never got in anyone’s face about her politics. But, as a boy who liked a girl, I started to ask her about what mattered to her, and I found out about veganism and how it tied into the environment.

I’m not going to get into a bunch of stats, because if you’re not sold on the point, chances are you won’t be, but I will give one – in California specifically, 45% of all methane emissions come from cows on meat and dairy farms. I had never really considered the environmental impact of these industries before, whether it be water and energy resources or greenhouse gas emissions, and that was a new factor to add in to my decision.

Still, it took me until after two and a half years of being with her to officially go vegetarian. Why? Because I, like any American consumer, am driven by convenience and price. I saw meat as being cheap and easy to consume to get the high-calorie, high-protein diet I craved. So, despite knowing that I had moral qualms about the treatment of animals on factory farms and environmental issues with the amount of resources sunk into and greenhouse effects produced by farms, I still ate meat.

Then one day I decided to stop.

It’s not a very sexy story. I didn’t have some grand revelation about things – and if that’s what you’re looking for to go vegetarian, just stahp, because it’s not gonna happen. All that happened to me was one day, I was thinking about how in the post-college life, I was now purchasing all my own food, and there was nothing really to stop me from going vegetarian. And it also happened that I was exactly one month away from my 1,000-day anniversary with my girlfriend, and I thought it would be kind of cute to tell her on that day.

The thing is, research in health psychology has shown definitively that people who are externally motivated to make a healthy change in their life – whether it be for someone they care about, or for a beauty standard, or because of societal pressure – they’re more likely to go back on their change than people who are internally motivated. If you’re trying to go vegetarian for someone, or because of something, you’re not going to want to stick with it.

Instead, if you’re interested in trying, just consider what I did. Come to the realization that vegetarianism is better for yourself and for the environment than eating meat. And if you’re concerned about how difficult it might be, I can only share my perspective – which is that I’m actually saving money on my grocery bill, and the only time I remember I’m vegetarian is when I’m going to In N Out (*cries*).

We all know the right thing to do, and we all find ways to not do it. It’s human nature to be a little bit stubborn, to have a little inertia when it comes to these things. But if you’re lucky, you might have someone who really cares about things – someone who is willing to make that change – in your life, as a positive role model for when you want to be better.

And trust me, you really won’t miss meat that much.

Yours, petting piggies and eating seitan,

-R.R. Buck

Story or Plot – What Do You Think?

(Reed’s Playlist for the day: Mr. Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra)

So I had an interesting experience the other day, and I wanted to gauge opinions of both readers and writers, but especially writers, on it.

I was kind of on a downswing a few days ago. Thank God I have people in my life who are kind enough to keep me positive when I can’t do it myself. But anyway, during that downswing, I took my own advice and looked back at one of my old writing projects, one I had dedicated a whopping 250,000 words to and then never finished. I remembered it being pretty bad.

I read back over it, and to my surprise, it was actually pretty good.

I could see the places where my writing hadn’t matured, but overall the tone and even the characters were pretty decent. And I was trying to remember what – besides burnout – had caused me to put the project down midway through a trilogy. I think I remember feeling that the plot was happening too glacially, that despite enjoying the characters’ journeys, I thought things were too slow on the macroscopic scale.

This is not an uncommon criticism of my work, by myself or others. And without even reading any of my creative writings, you could guess from this blog that it takes me forever to get to a point. I guess I’m the kind of person who likes a long exposition and worldbuilding and a slow revelation of plot.

And I always thought this was a bad thing – I’ve written multiple times about trying to get things fast-paced by cutting out backstory and worldbuilding and other such things, because I feel like it’s making people bored.

But right now I’m reading a book (I’ll wait until I finish and post a review on here to disclose the title) which I am really, really enjoying. It’s from a small independent press, and yet the quality is pretty much equal to any of those huge bestseller fantasy novels I’ve read. It’s blowing me away.

But the thing is, I’m halfway through the book and very little has happened. The characters are trying to piece together what happened on a history-changing night a while ago, and they’ve done at least a little bit of that, but overall, the plot is relatively undeveloped.

However, the story is incredible. The characters’ interactions with one another are very genuine, and they’re all super likable (except for that one character you’re supposed to be annoyed with). They’re not doing anything, but while they’re doing nothing, they’re talking to one another and discovering little pieces of this world and exploring things as a group.

So what I want to know is, do you as authors think it’s bad when a book has a lot of character-driven story occurring, but relatively little plot expansion? In other words, is it okay to go slowly with the actual plot of the book if we enjoy what’s happening to the characters?

Because if so, maybe that old trilogy is worth digging out of the garbage, dusting off, and taking another whack at.

Please let me know in the comments! I’ll be continuing to explore this myself, and I’ll bring any new thoughts I have back to you.

Yours, feeling jammy,

-R.R. Buck

Untitled [Shitty Poetry]

I’ve tried to write you a song.

The kind of song that makes you understand

all the insignificant things

that make me love you

Do you remember what it was like?

That night we sat on the cornerstone

until our shoulders were numb

from hours of talk

and then when it came to the end

how uncomfortable it felt

to hug you, knowing it was

stolen

You told me you were afraid

that the people you loved

were going to die

and I think I might have fallen

I asked you what you wanted

most in this world

and you said

“Family”

I’ve tried to write you a song

so many different times

trying to find that perfect combination of words

but I swear to God they don’t exist.

I am

decidedly crap at poetry.

I wish I knew it the way I know you.

Maybe then this would be easier.

But I guess that’s the point

the poem is crooked and stilted

and confused

like me in the beginning

I threw the necklace into the fountain

and told myself

“I want a girl who adventures”

“I want a girl who climbs trees with me”

And there you were.

I cried into the grass on campus

and told myself

“I will never say ‘I love you’ until I mean it”

and I didn’t.

But you did.

Three days in.

And you meant it.

I’ve given up writing a song

because I’ve given up on finding the words

because no one, least of all me

can tell you how perfect you are to me.

You’re a fire, and a fear,

and enough fuel for my insecurities

but in the moments I need you

somehow it’s like you can sense it

like just now, when you said to me

that reading my blog makes you miss me less

and I was so tired of failure

but here I am again

I’ve given up writing a song.

It was a silly endeavor to begin with.

All I could ever say

could not be said in a flowery poem

nor a self-indulgent song

nor a ridiculous gesture

nor an expensive present

All I could ever say

I can say when I hold you

when I miss you

even though you’ve been gone one day.

It’s About The Little Victories

(Reed’s Playlist for the day: 1 Trillion Dollar$ by Anti-Flag)

125,115 words.

That’s an eighth of a million words I’ve now dedicated to Symphony of Legend. By now, with all the combined novels I’ve written since high school, I’ve gotten down a grand total of 958,633 words. If I added in previous unfinished projects, short stories, and rewrites, I’m positive I’d be well over a million. (If you don’t speak word count, that’s approximately 4,000 pages depending on page size, font size, etc.)

Why am I jerking myself off on this blog? Because I’ve been feeling pretty shitty the past week or so about my writing. I’m nearing the end of Symphony – I have about 28,000 words left, or about 9 chapters – and I’m slowing down incrementally. Usually, I have no problem putting down a 3,000 word chapter every day, but recently I’ve been struggling to even make it to 2k and I usually end up writing half a chapter.

I read a blog post this morning by a woman with many, many more followers than me, written in prose much, much better than mine, about how she couldn’t make it as a writer and how she keeps dreaming big and writing knowing something will happen. Ironically, this “lift-me-up” article made me feel pretty shitty. I look at the sheer volume of blogs in the world – I can’t even find mine if I google “reed buck wordpress blog” – and I think, “It’s honestly kind of amazing that anyone found my blog when it’s so hidden and unnoticed.”

And then I think about me as an author, and I realize my blog is pretty much a symbol of me as a writer.

One million words, and I have learned a hell of a lot about writing. But it’s not nearly enough. I still trip over the exact same mistakes I made four years ago, and while my writing projects have become palatable, that still puts them a far stretch from enjoyable.

It’s so easy to get discouraged as an artist. Especially when you’re a writer and you can see all the other writers struggling online, trying to make it into the big leagues, you have to ask yourself, “Why am I better than all these other kids fooling around? What makes me rise above the crowd?”

Sometimes I can’t answer that question.

I just posted about how you know you’re a writer, and I think this expands the answer. It’s not just that you continue to write and to struggle, but that you do so even when you think you’re the worst piece of shit that ever put pen to paper. Somehow, even hating what you’re doing, even looking back at the trail of broken half-finished projects and juvenile ramblings that account for your early writings, you still continue.

I think I also posted about what to do when you’re down on writing, and so I wanted to do that for myself, right now, in my public sphere of the 41 people who care enough to subscribe to this (probably duplicate, probably completely unnecessary and repetitive and self-indulgent) blog.

I’m looking back on my own writings, at those flat characters and those silly plotlines and those unimaginative descriptions, and I’m saying to myself, I’m better than this. I’ve gotten better at this.

One million words may not be enough to make me great. It may not be enough to even make me publishable. But it’s a pretty damn good start, and it’s only been 8 years since that count was zero.

It’s a shitty job, being a writer. No one’s going to give you any breaks, and the few moments of pleasure – in completing a project, in seeing a reader reacting exactly the way you want to a scene – are few and far between. Mostly, it’s just a shitload of work and very little payoff. But we keep going, because it’s all we know how to do.

One million words, Reed. When you’re in that mood next time, think about it. One million words is a lot of words.

…Oh, you’re still here? Sorry, I guess I was muttering to myself. I… thought you’d left.

Or, in other words, GTFO so I can coddle myself.

Yours, riding those ups and downs,

-R.R. Buck

Life Counselor #2

(Reed’s Playlist for the day: Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin)

C-Quat and Tenacious D… the best “how I met you” story I could have. 

Hey there.

I keep writing sentences and then erasing them, because I don’t even really know how to begin this. I guess it’s hard to believe that we could have become such close friends in such a short amount of time. Is that just college, or is it because we’ve got something special? I’m gonna pretend it’s because we’ve got something special.

I’m afraid sometimes you don’t realize how important you are to me. Like, when you tell me you’re too clingy, as if I wasn’t just as clingy. And honestly my heart is hurting for you right now, because you’ve done so much for me and I know your situation is stressful, and you really don’t deserve it.

So maybe you can read this and understand that, in some small stupid way, it’s worth it to keep on struggling, because you do so much for the people you care about, and we really appreciate it.

Like how you taught me to not be embarrassed. It’s not like I needed a lot of help with this one (clearly), but still. Your exuberance of expression made me feel more at home than many of my quiet friends could ever do for me. Your laughter taught me to laugh more, to let stress come out in a way that is joyous and healthy.

You taught me a work ethic. I know it sounds weird to say, but besides myself and Neuro 102, you’re the only person I attribute that to. Our study habits were so bad, our struggles so real, that going through them with you made me realize (and I think you too) how much I wanted to change. I know if I’d been doing it on my own I wouldn’t have seen that need to change.

You taught me to be aggressively nerdy. You showed me how to love a fandom fully and without fear of judgment (well, mostly without fear of judgment). You let me be who I was, and you loved me for it.

You were the first person I felt comfortable with talking about some of my real, serious problems. It didn’t matter if it was family drama or friend drama or even my self-sabotaging my relationships – you seemed to always be there. And how you survived those hours of rants without exploding at me and calling me an idiot… well, I don’t think I’ll ever understand.

And speaking of which, you taught me to rant. You, more than anyone, taught me that at some point, it’s okay to just let it all spill out over somebody else, and that it’s not unhealthy to do it if it’s mutual. You’ll always be my rant buddy 😀

But there’s one thing that is most important that you taught me, and I don’t even think you’re aware of it. You taught me about the choice to drink, and how it’s not as black-and-white as I made it out to be. I was so frightened sophomore year in the summer – that first time you decided to get drunk with us, I know you remember it because I keep bringing it up – and I remember thinking to myself, I know people who drink are degenerates, so how is it that my best friend in college can be doing this?

You showed me that drinking and using recreational substances is a choice, and like any choice, it comes with both positive and negative consequences. You showed me how important it is for everyone to make their own decision, and never to feel pressured by others into making it, nor judged when they do make it. You showed me how wrong I was for judging people who drank, and you were one of the first people to make me feel comfortable in the scene after all my friends started drinking.

We’ve shared so much – Led Zeppelin, crazy late nights, ridiculously epic D&D sessions, and the entirety of our college experience. I feel like I know you better than I know myself in some ways.

That’s why it hurts me so much how stressed out you are. I can’t tell you everything’s going to be all right – God, I wish I could – but I want you to know I’ll always be here for you. When you need a hug, or a rant, or just someone to abuse for a while (c’mon, we both do it), I’ll be here. Fuck whatever you think about how clingy you are; even after we move away, you’re not going to be able to get rid of me, and that’s a swear (on Harry Potter).

I love you. I love everything about you.

Bye Terry! (…Bye Sheila!)

-R.R. Buck

How You Know You’re A Writer

Screw what anyone says. Writing – hell, any art – is one of the hardest things to do. It never ends up quite like you imagined, and trying to please everyone with your art is like trying to have an unbiased Intelligence Committee hearing.

But if, through all the struggles and the shitty drafts and the negative criticisms, something keeps drawing you back to writing… if you can’t stop yourself from putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard… that’s how you know you’re a writer.

-R.R. Buck

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

(Reed’s Playlist for the day: The Awesome Mix from Guardians)

Mehhhhhhhh.

So before I start I just want to say a few things. First, I’m not a film critic by any means. I took one class on film history and review in college and that’s all I’ve got besides some strong opinions. Second, every one of my friends thought Wonder Woman was great and that I was full of shit. Third, if you like the super hero movie genre, you’ll probably love this film.

Here’s why I didn’t.

I am pretty exhausted of the superhero genre. When I was younger, I saw the Dark Knight trilogy and became infatuated with the genre, probably because Christopher Nolan, and I was excited when they started doing a new set of films with Iron Man. And to be honest, I liked the first two Iron Man films, the first Avengers, the second Captain America, and a few random ones here and there.

But dude, it’s getting to be too much.

If you need any proof, look at Batman Vs. Superman. There’s something about these films that feels so stereotypical, so formulaic, that it just makes me a little sick. (If I’m trying to see a conspiracy theory, I would say that Marvel’s buyout by Disney is when it started going downhill.)

The formula:

We see a semi-mythical person growing up, like, from the very beginning of their life. This person clearly has some cool powers and stuff, but they don’t know how to control them, and we watch them struggle with how to use their powers. Meanwhile, there’s a budding romance with a non-super, very attractive but only mildly interesting lead, and there are always a bunch of jokes made at the expense of the differences in their experiences.

Also, the hero is noticing how shitty human beings are, and whether or not they deserve a hero to save them. And for a while, it looks like they’re thinking, “Nah, screw this, I’m out.” But at the end, somewhere between the *awe-inspiring and sex-charged* totally cheesy kiss with the romantic interest and the epic battle with the villain (which now is augmented by ridiculous amounts of CGI and Michael Bay – level explosions and sound effects), they decide that humanity is, indeed, worth saving despite all its flaws.

Man, I’m so tired of that crap. None of it feels real – not the flaws of the superhero, not the accelerated romance with the eye candy who’s literally there to be a romantic interest, not even the struggle with whether or not to help shitty human beings.

THAT’S WHY I LOVE DEADPOOL AND GUARDIANS. Because, seriously, if there were any movies who made fun of the entire genre and somehow managed to be more serious without taking anything seriously, that would be those films. I love the irreverence, and I would argue that Wade Watts’ relationship is way more genuine than Thor and Natalie Portman (probably because they didn’t meet in the middle of the goddamn film and were ready to be in love an hour and a half later).

Wow, what a traditional long Reed introduction to the actual review.

So what actually went well for this film? For one thing, I thought the feminist overtones were totally tight. They purposefully put Wonder Woman and her boo in situations where she’s able to save his dumb ass and show off how strong she is. I seriously loved that. Also, the soundtrack was pretty great (which my friend told me is because someone from Hans Zimmer’s studio wrote it). Finally, a few of the action scenes feature some pretty sick acrobatics which I thought were really cool and unique to that film.

Bad stuff? I’ve talked enough about sterotypical plot structure, so I’ll set that aside. I found the side characters to be kind of flat and uninteresting, and I wasn’t a fan of what I saw as a few plot holes (hard to describe without spoiling, so I won’t). Plus the CGI was kind of janky and unrealistic at some points. And I wasn’t a fan of the pacing.

Overall, as I said above, if you like superhero films, I’d say you should see it. Let me know how much I’m wrong in the comments. But if you, like me, are exhausted with the superhero genre and all your friends are telling you that “it’s so different from the other films, and it’s getting really good reviews” – well, consider this your excuse to not go.

Reed’s Score: 6/10

Yours, YEARNING for that Deadpool 2,

-R.R Buck

Reed’s Top 3 – Favorite Things About Writing

(Reed’s Playlist for the day: Something I Need by OneRepublic)

So my daily schedule for the past month and a half now has been:

  1. Wake
  2. Shower, teeth brushing, and other hygenic practices
  3. Read for an hour
  4. Breakfast
  5. Write for at least an hour (at least 2000 words, preferably 3000)
  6. Write a blog post
  7. Breath of the Wild until I go to bed (just kidding, kind of, but not really)

Because I’ve been putting 2-3000 words into my manuscript every day, it’s getting close to completion. In fact, if I keep up with my current schedule, which is to write a 3000-word chapter every single day, I will finish Symphony of Legend in about two weeks’ time. That’s pretty exciting stuff.

When I’m done, I’m going to shut that shit off for two – count ’em, two – months and not so much as look at it or let an alpha reader look at it. Because I know I have to if I want to make this project good.

But I am way off track. The reason I bring all this up is because I’m coming to the exciting point in every novel where the character arcs begin to wrap up, the rising action occurs, and the story reaches its climax. It’s been a while since I finished a “project” (which I’m here defining as either an entire standalone book, or an entire series) such that I’ve been able to witness the entirety of character arcs. My last series before this died two books in, so I was only able to see the downswing of all my characters and not the triumphant upswing in Book 3.

So needless to say, this time it’s really hitting me hard. It’s difficult to explain without spoiling some stuff for my alphas who read this blog as well, but essentially I’ve invested a lot of things that are important to me – and a lot of my own personality traits – in my characters, and seeing those characters come so far is pretty inspiring.

But when I read through the chapter I wrote today, in which one of my characters makes a bad decision that I hope will make the audience cringe and scream at their books/computers/tablets when they read it, it made me think of the reasons I like to write. And hey, why not just slap a Top 3 on it and make it part of one of my series?

So with that very long introduction out of the way, here’s Reed’s Top 3 Things I Like About Writing (man, what a catchy title):

NUMBER THREE: WORLDBUILDING

I got into fantasy as a writer for the same reason I got into it as a reader – the sheer, raw creativity of it. No genres, in my opinion, come nearly as close to SFF in their ability to be pure, limitless creation. You don’t just design your characters and your story – you start your world from the ground up. You have to make geography, history, religion, politics, currency, ethnic groups, moral systems, technology, magic systems, new animals and plants and resources and EVERYTHING. That’s probably intimidating to most people, but for me it’s always been the main draw of fantasy. I love playing, I love creating, and SFF has helped me do that.

NUMBER TWO: CHARACTER ARCS

Like I was saying above, it has really been inspiring for me (especially as my characters have gotten better and more realistic) to watch them go through their arcs. Like, seriously, watching a character stumble and fall over and over again makes it so much more satisfying when, towards the end of things, they get it right and have that perfect moment of self-actualization. I may end up crying as I write the final chapters of Symphony, because so much of it is so important to me and I’ve sunk so much into my main characters.

(Hopefully my audience likes them as much as I do, lol.)

NUMBER ONE: AUDIENCE REACTIONS

I say this as a shameless person who lusts for validation on a daily basis. When I put so much work into a project, I feel like I need other people to get just as excited about it as I do. So when someone texts me, “I just read chapter X, HOLY SHIT I DID NOT SEE THAT COMING”, it actually makes my life. It reminds me of why I struggle so hard to try to put an order to the thoughts in my brain and get them on a page. Getting those reactions, feeling that my readers really care about my characters and the situations they get themselves in – well, suffice to say it’s new for me. And there are still alphas whom I haven’t impressed with my newest characters and stories, and I’ll keep working in the future to give them better and better books.

But right now, the few people that are really getting into my book… every time they tell me their favorite character, or even share the mildest of praise like “it was a good read” – it just makes my day that much brighter.

Which I think is something that all of us as authors know and love.

Anyway, here’s to the best things about writing, and why we hunch over our computers for hours on end and give ourselves carpal tunnel syndrome. WHO SAID BEING A WRITER WASN’T A PAIN, HUH?

“Ugh, writing. What a pain.” – Sloth from FMA

^If you get that reference, you’re on my good list.

Okay imma stop writing now.

Yours, tingling with excitement (and wrist pain),

-R.R. Buck

Book Review – The Healer’s Legacy

You know I love a good opportunity to share a new read I’ve enjoyed, and I doubly love it when it lets me rep a small-time author from an independent publisher. Because, let’s be honest, that’s where I’ll probably end up.

So let’s get started with today’s book review!

Title: The Healer’s Legacy

Author: Sharon (S.A.) Skinner

Genre: High Fantasy

Premise: An apprentice healer is on a desperate escape attempt from the warlord who has enslaved her as his concubine for the past several years. The bruises he’s left on her are still fading as she makes her way across the country with her only three friends in he world – her horse, her wyvern, and her panther, with whom she can telepathically communicate. They’re the only reason she’s been able to escape, and they might be the only reason she survives what is to come.

So I picked this one up on a whim at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, as I was shopping through independent SFF publishers. It comes from Brick Cave Media, a great company with some pretty cool titles, this being one of them. I believe this was Skinner’s second novel, and it shows a little bit in the details, which is why my score isn’t as high as I would like it to be. But seriously, for a first (or second) novel, it’s a pretty damn good tale to pick up.

First I want to suggest a few types of people who would like this book. Because of the main character and the positive female role models throughout the book, I definitely think feminists would have a great time with this one. In addition, anyone who loves animals or wants animal main characters in their book will go nuts for this. Also, if you like fantasy but aren’t a particularly big fan of violence, this would be a good pick – since the main character is a healer, there’s really not very much fighting at all, but what little occurs is well done. And lastly, I think new authors or struggling unpublished writers should read this, as you’ll be able to see what Skinner did right to land herself a well-deserved publishing credit.

So onto the book. I had a few issues with her writing that I had with my own – some of the characters were a little flat, and you can tell that this is the first in a series (by which I mean the story is kind of expository in nature and not a lot happens in terms of overall plot). But honestly, although I’ve caught a lot of flak from my alpha readers for the same thing, I don’t think it totally ruins the story here. Instead, we get a nice, gentle introduction into the world and the characters.

And believe me, the characters are the high point of the story. I love me some cute animal companions, and they are extremely well done in this book. Each of them has a definitive personality that somehow remains animalistic while also personifying them, and you can tell Skinner either did her research or has a lot of experience around animals.

I liked that the animal personalities weren’t too in depth, which was one of the issues I had with the human characters. A few of them felt a bit stereotyped, and one or two of them had such strong internal monologues that I felt a bit jarred – I wished I’d been given the opportunity to draw my own conclusions about them, per my previous post on limited, shallow perspective. But regardless, their motivations were clear and their interactions genuine, and I found myself liking a few of them (and disliking the ones you’re clearly supposed to dislike). Skinner has some room to improve on making her characters more conflicted and deeper, but obviously I liked them enough to keep reading.

The world so far hasn’t really been opened up, but rather exposed itself in a series of small details and scenes that I find pretty cool. And the overall plot – which has been hinted at but not illuminated quite yet – has a whiff of allure about it. So I’m pretty happy with my purchase and I’m looking forward to reading the next one whenever it comes out.

It’s an easy read, even if you don’t like fantasy, so I’d definitely suggest you pick it up!

Reed’s Rating: 7/10

Yours, starting on an award-winning small SF novel next,

-R.R. Buck

Orientation – Draft 1 [Short Story]

(Reed’s Playlist for the day: Salty Eyes by the Matches)

I wrote you all something! 😀

 

From the moment the woman entered her office, Mistare knew she was an Antiquate.

It wasn’t the pair of golden gossamer wings on her back, or the aura of light wreathing her. It was even more subtle than that – something in her bearing, some way she carried herself.

Before the Antiquate could offer so much as a word, Mistare drew her rifle, flicked the setting to tranquilize, and put three rounds into her chest.

The woman dropped, her body falling to the floor like a sack of potatoes. Mistare glanced around, rifle shouldered, watching for signs of a trap. When none were immediately apparent, she hurdled over her desk and picked up the woman’s body. She was lighter than Mistare would have expected and smelled slightly of perfume. Mistare shook her head as she kicked open the back door to her Shrine and tossed the woman down into the center of the chalked circle.

Trembling hands flew to the door and latched it. Mistare let out a shaky breath and began to light candles around the dark room; their flickering glow illuminated the runes etched into the floor, the sterling silver basin that sat at the head of the chalk circle. The faint aroma of spice and incense wafted through the air as the candles began to burn in earnest.

Mistare slung her rifle back around her shoulder and pulled a silver dagger from her belt. Kneeling beside the woman’s unconscious form, she pulled the head up by the hair, lifting it so that the neck lay just inside the threshold of the basin. The hood of the Antiquate’s cloak fell back as Mistare held her knife to the woman’s throat and began to cut, muttering the words.

Gods fall, so we may rise. Let mine spirit flourish as –

She stopped, a trail of blood dripping from the cut into the basin. The face… the Antiquate’s face… it seemed so warm, so familiar. So…

Beautiful.

Mistare swallowed, set her jaw, and held the knife back to the woman’s throat. “Gods fall, so we may rise,” she started again.

The Antiquate’s eyes flew open. She unfurled her ethereal wings – the motion slapped Mistare back into the wall like a strong gust of wind – and stood, her hand flying to her neck. She and Mistare both noticed the silver knife, which sat quivering, embedded in the floorboard.

The Antiquate made eye contact with Mistare, slowly raised her hands. “Hello,” she said, ignoring the blood seeping down the side of her throat. “My name is Virtesa. Please don’t kill me.”

Mistare stood, rolling her shoulder to see how badly it had been hurt by the collision with the wall. “What do you want?” she said.

“Only to show you something.”

Her gun arm was injured, but Mistare was fairly confident she could shoot before the Antiquate could reach the ceremonial dagger. But the woman had been able to regain consciousness after three tranqs to the chest. Was it worth it, engaging her without knowing the extent of her powers?
“Get out of here,” Mistare said. “I won’t kill you if you leave right now.”

The woman smiled, and Mistare felt a strange pang in her gut. “What if I told you that, if you come with me and see what I wish to show you, you can kill me afterward?”

“I’d say you’re full of shit.”

“Please, Mistare,” the Antiquate said. “There is a part of you that wishes to trust me. Indulge it.”

Mistare stared at the woman for a long moment. Then she leapt to the side, rolled, and came up with her back to the corner of the room and her rifle in hand, aimed at the Antiquate… who had not moved in the slightest. Her hands were still up in a placating gesture, her smile still genuine.

Mistare felt all her nerves on fire as she slowly lowered the rifle. “All right,” she said. “What do you want me to see?”

* * *

The Cave surrounded them, engulfed them, diminished them with its vastness. It stretched on for as long as the eye could see, its ceiling a dim bumpy mess of stalactites above them, its bottom invisible in the shadows thousands of feet down, where the Risen lived.

The Antiquate – Virtesa – looked neither up nor down as she strode through the streets of Fit’s End, one of the more notable districts of the Plateau. She’d agreed to be cuffed with sterling silver restraints Mistare had fashioned herself, and every so often she threw a look back  to ensure Mistare was following her.

Above them, the massive links of Heaven’s Chains rose a seemingly impossible distance up to the cave roof, anchoring the Plateau to the bedrock there. Mistare glanced up at the realm of the Antiquates, feeling a sudden stab of hatred. She tore her gaze from Heaven and instead watched Virtesa, noticing how easily she moved through the crowd.

No one paid her any attention – although Mistare was the subject of many more looks. Likely none of the normal folk could see the wings on Virtesa’s back, marking her as an Antiquate. And luckily enough, too; Mistare didn’t want a bloodthirsty crowd on her hands.

Lost in her thoughts, Mistare almost ran into a little girl who was walking with her father. She muttered an apology and pushed past them, but the little girl clung to the back of her cloak. “Mistare Risen?” she said in a soft, awestruck voice.

Mistare grimaced, noticing Virtesa halting in front of her. “Yes, it’s me,” she said, crouching next to the young girl, whose eyes lit up. “I think someone wants a signature, is that it?”

The girl nodded, her mouth an open O. Despite herself, Mistare smiled, searching her pockets for a scrap of paper.

“Here.” Virtesa pulled out an old fountain pen and a sheet of paper, handing them to Mistare. After a moment’s hesitation, Mistare took them, scrawled her name on the paper, and handed it to the little girl, who clutched the thing to her chest before it had even had a chance to dry.

The father chuckled and shook his head, offering a hand. “You mean the world to her,” he said. “Thanks for your time.”

Mistare’s smile faded as she took his hand. “You’re welcome,” she said.

As the two walked away, she heard the girl say, “I’m gonna be just like her when I’m a grown-up!”
“Touching,” Virtesa said softly. “Everyone on the Plateau looks up to you.”

“Come on,” Mistare grunted, taking her by the arm.

“It’s the reason I came to you instead of another hunter,” Virtesa said. “The way you turned down a residency with the other Risen – I heard the speech.”

“Good for you.”

“Do you truly believe humans are equal to gods?”

Mistare stopped. Virtessa’s one eyebrow was raised, her face otherwise expressionless.

“No,” Mistare said. “I think humans are equal to Risen. I think Antiquate like you are miserable guttershites who should be purged from this world.”

Virtesa nodded slowly, starting to walk again. “Well, you’re doing a good job of it,” she said. “Twenty-five Antiquate in the past ten years? That’s unheard of. And twenty-three of them you rooted out and killed yourself.”

“It’s gonna be twenty-six if you don’t shut up,” Mistare said, placing her hand on the pommel of her dagger. And for the rest of their walk, Virtesa remained blessedly silent.

* * *

“What are we doing here?” Mistare said, glancing around at the line. She didn’t like being in lines, or crowds for that matter.

“Have you ever been to the Chain chamber?” Virtesa said. She was looking around at the massive domed room, the tourists stopping at pedestals to read the commissioning plaques, the spiral staircase upon which they stood in line to get access to the roof of the dome.

“No,” Mistare said.

“And why would you? You’ve gotten very lucky hunting Antiquate here on the Plateau. Why go up to their realm, right?”

Mistare said nothing. The line shuffled forward – there were several dozen still in front of them – and Virtesa stepped to the side of the staircase where one of the many plaques hung against the curved wall. “Here,” she read, “is one of the ten Heaven’s Chains which the first Risen, Hugo Ironarm, hurled into the realm of Heaven above to tie the Antiquate Gods down to the human realm. Visitors are welcome to attempt to climb the chain, which reaches a height of two hundred and sixty-three feet, to Heaven.”

She turned from the plaque, looking at Mistare as if expecting a response. Mistare gave none.

Virtesa sighed. “So let me see if I understand your lore. The Antiquate Gods create humankind in this dank, massive cave, while they enjoy Heaven aboveground, where the fields are endless and the food plentiful. The Antiquate Gods move between Heaven and this Plateau, spending time with their subjects and lording over them, until one day this Hugo fellow says, ‘No more.’ And he kills one of the Antiquate, absorbing his power of inhuman strength, which he uses to… chain Heaven to the Plateau? Is that right?”

Mistare stared. “What are you doing? Seriously, what are you trying to prove?”

“Doesn’t that story seem a little bit strange to you?” Virtesa said, stepping forward as the line moved up again. “I mean, this is a god of strength, and Hugo just happens to kill him?”

“Are you saying history isn’t true?” Mistare said.

“I’m saying no one as smart as you should refrain from questioning what is true,” Virtesa said softly.

Mistare turned from her. “Just be quiet until we get to the chain.”

“As you wish,” Virtesa said, as the line continued to inch forward.

* * *

At the roof of the dome, a janitor was cleaning up blood. He shrugged when he saw Mistare staring. “Most folks are here just for the experience, but occasionally you get an actual climbing attempt,” he said. “It’s impossible, though.” He gestured with his mop to the vast chain, each link as thick as a man’s trunk, stretching up an inconceivable distance to the roof of the Cave.

“Heaven above, Risen below,” Virtesa said, meandering across the stony surface of the dome, looking out over the edge of the Plateau. Far below, somewhere in the shadows, was the residence of the Risen. She turned back toward Mistare. “Have you ever wondered why the Risen need to keep a separate residence from the regular folk?”

Mistare shrugged. “They’re afraid people are going to try to kill them too.” She’d been subject to several attempted assassinations herself.

“They want to steal your powers, the same way you take the Antiquate’s powers?”

“You already know this,” Mistare said. “Why are you asking about it?”

“Just curious,” Virtesa said.

The janitor finished cleaning and left, instructing them he’d be back in a minute once they finished their climbing attempt. The door hatch swung shut behind him and they were alone.

“And why,” Virtesa said, “do you stay in the Plateau despite being a Risen? You’ve said yourself it’s dangerous, when people want your powers.”

Mistare sighed. “You said you heard my speech, right? I think people are better than that. I think if we as Risen live among them and show them how to hunt the true evil in this world – the Antiquate who locked us up underground and left us to suffer – then we can all live harmoniously.”

Virtesa smiled sadly. “If only it were the Antiquate who locked you up underground,” she said.

Mistare’s brow furled. “What do you mean?”

“Hold onto the chain tightly,” Virtesa said, walking towards her. “I’m going to orient you.”

Mistare grabbed onto the chain, flinching away when Virtesa put her cuffed hands on Mistare’s face. “Calm, now,” the Antiquate said. “Just trust me.”

Mistare looked into the face of this woman and was astonished to find she trusted her.

Virtesa’s eyes slid shut as she pulled Mistare’s face towards her. Her lips were cool and soft on Mistare’s forehead, and they sent an electric tingle down Mistare’s spine. She felt her own eyes shutting as some deep, dark realization unseated itself in her mind and clamored to be heard.

“Open your eyes,” Virtesa said.

Mistare opened her eyes and nearly fell from the chain in shock. The world had been inverted – the dome of the Chain chamber now a bowl above her, the length of chain running down to a floor below. She was dangling out over three hundred feet of empty space, with nothing other than her arms and legs keeping her from falling.

“You bitch!” Mistare screamed, her thoughts racing, her heart beating wildly in her chest. “What have you done to me?! What have you done?!

“Calm,” Virtesa said, hovering next to Mistare, her wings beating slowly. “I’ve just oriented you. This is how things are, not how you want them to be. Look around; what you thought was up, is down.”

Mistare clung to the chain, squeezing her eyes shut. She opened them again. She was still dangling.

“You need to start moving down the chain,” Virtesa said. “Even with your strength and your powers, you’re not going to be able to hold on for a very long time.”

“When I get down there, I’m going to kill you,” Mistare swore.

“We’ll see,” Virtesa said as they began to descend.

* * *

The very moment her feet touched the bottom – top? – of the Cave, Mistare pivoted, grabbed Virtesa by the throat, and slammed her to the ground, her rifle already unslung and pressed to the Antiquate’s temple. “Change it back,” she said. “Or I’ll blow your brains out.”

“I can’t do that,” Virtesa gasped. “Only you can.”

“How?”

“By choosing to orient yourself the other way. You have to believe that things are the way they appear, instead of the way they actually are.”

“Stop talking in damned riddles, or I swear I’ll – ”

“Look around,” Virtesa said, pointing. “Look at your heaven.”

Mistare kept the rifle pressed to the Antiquate’s temple and glanced around quickly. Then a second glance. And then a third.

The chamber – if that was what this flat, craggy space could be called – was dingy and slippery with moisture. All around them, the stalactites, or rather stalagmites, poked up from the ground around the many massive iron cages holding wretches of human beings. Humans, not Antiquates – and not even truly humans, but more like animals in the way they shied away from her stare and shuffled around in sodden rags. There were hundreds of them across dozens of cages, stretching back far into the gloom.

Mistare cast her eyes upward, back at the bright speck of the Plateau above them. “What is this place?” she breathed.

Virtesa shuffled underneath her, and Mistare grudgingly let her up. The Antiquate gestured to the cages around them. “This,” she said, “is an Antiquate factory. The Risen – the so-called ‘new gods’ of your realm – come here about once a month, bringing with them poor folk, orphaned children, anyone who is different or strange or might upset the status quo. And they put them in these cages for a time until they think the people on the Plateau are getting restless. Then they come back up here with their godly powers and they slap a pair of wings on us and give us a power or two of our own, and then they release us back into the Plateau to be hunted like rats.”

“I don’t… I don’t understand,” Mistare said.

“None of you do,” Virtesa said, crossing to one of the cages and tossing a crust of bread to the cowering man who sat in a pile of his own filth in the corner. “Those people you call Risen? They’re the Old Gods. They’ve been the Old Gods this entire time, sitting up there in the real Heaven making sure the people don’t rise up against them. And what better way of keeping humankind complacent than by giving them a target to pursue? Provided they don’t look too closely at the target, of course.”

“But I’ve seen people become Risen by killing Antiquate,” Mistare said, turning from the wretches in the cages. “They go down – I mean, up – to the Risen’s home. If the Risen were the old gods – ”

“Those people you’ve seen ‘becoming Risen’ – they immediately get killed when they reach Heaven. Unless they’re folk heroes, in which case they’re kept around for public events until their image fades, and then in fifty or so years, they’re tossed back down here to the cages to become new Antiquate for the people to hunt. It’s kind of like recycling gods.”

Mistare shook her head vigorously, feeling shudders all down her body. “How do you know about all this?” she said.

“Because I was one of those folk heroes,” Virtesa said, gesturing to herself. “You ever hear of Haneta Healer?”

Haneta…. Mistare’s mother had praised Haneta as the best of all the Risen. Mistare remembered hearing about her as a child.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry you had to hear all of this,” Virtesa said.

Tears leaked out from between her cupped hands and splashed to the floor of the cave. “What do you want?” she whispered. “Why did you tell me all of this?”
“Because I heard there was a Risen who refused to accept that people were so bloodthirsty that they would hunt their heroes,” Virtesa said. “You are the most powerful person in this world – most of those Risen, those old gods, have a few powers, but you have twenty-five of them! You and I, together, could mount an assault on the Risen in their home. We could actually destroy the old gods, and then we could move humankind to Heaven aboveground where they deserve to be.”

Mistare removed her hands from her eyes, letting her tears flow freely. “So you’re saying,” she said in a hollow murmur, “that humankind has been fighting itself for centuries on the whims of the Risen? That we’ve killed our own brothers and sisters for the Old Gods who have taken everything from us?”

“Yes,” Virtesa said, gripping Mistare’s shoulders. “But we can – ”

Mistare shot her through the heart.

Vistare’s face was less pained and more confused as she dropped to the ground, blood seeping from her far too fast for even a god to heal. Her face went pale and her eyes glazed over as she died.

Mistare dropped her rifle to the ground, closed her eyes, and focused on the way things should be, the way they appeared. She focused on the pleasant lie, forcing it to become a reality. And she felt herself reorient.

She didn’t make a grab for the Heaven’s Chain. Instead, she let herself freefall towards the Plateau, her arms spread wide to embrace it. As she hurtled down towards the city, impossibly fast, she thought to herself:

Anything is better.