Tag Archives: fantasy

Book review: The Six-Gun Tarot (R.S. Belcher 2013

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters.

Rating: 4/5

I chose to read The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher for two reasons: one, I’ve read more western-based science fiction since I moved west, and two, I met Rod Belcher and heard him speak about the book twice. Belcher was such a pleasant and interesting person that I made note of his book, even though Six-Gun Tarot is more fantasy than I usually read (my friend Stephanie Hunter called the genre “paranormal western”). I really enjoyed Six-Gun Tarot and want to read more in this universe.

Six-Gun Tarot is set in a small 1880’s mining town in Nevada called Golgotha. The reader sees through the eyes of a dozen characters. The cast is refreshingly diverse for a western tale; we meet a teenage boy fleeing his crimes in West Virginia, an American Indian deputy, a death-defying sheriff, a housewife who’s more than she seems, a German butcher with a terrible burden, a Mormon mayor struggling to accept himself, and more. From the get go, you know that Golgotha is abnormal. The deputy is part coyote, the boy has a Chinese talisman; everybody is magic in their own way, and watching them work together was fun. I sometimes find fantasy snobbish: Harry Potter is special and muggles aren’t; Piers Anthony’s Xanthians are just plain better than the mundanes. I suppose the reader is meant to imagine themselves as one of the special ones, but so far I have not discovered magical acumen. Anyways, I felt that Six-Gun Tarot handled this aspect of fantasy well. The characters cared about action, not a sense of personal destiny or power.

Golgotha is one hell of a place; it was my favorite part of the book. The characters casually mention previous disasters; babies getting drained of blood and people going mad. And there’s something just not right up under the mountain… Golgotha feels wonderfully western and weird. It made me think of Carrizozo, one of the haunts of Billy the Kid, or of Tularosa, stuck between mountains and a desert of gypsum. For me, Golgotha was the protagonist. It draws odd people. We learn about its bars and its neighborhoods and its residents. We learn its geography. Belcher’s language really suits the setting. At one point, he describes the sunset as resembling a bruise. The only parts of the book I enjoyed less are the ones set outside of Golgotha.

Basically, Six-Gun Tarot was a fantastically fun read. If you like paranormal, you’ll probably like it. I almost exclusively don’t like paranormal. But great writing and memorable characters and setting can enliven any story. It was fun to enjoy a read outside my normal wheelhouse.



Book now with the Exoplanet Travel Bureau

(You may have a wait while the technology for your flight is developed.)

A lot of my first reading as a child was astronomy books and magazines. When I was little, my brother told me there was a black hole under his bed (to keep me from snooping—nerd children fight dirty), and after that, I had to know more about the enigmatic and alarming properties of the universe.

One of the things I remember was the hunt for the first exoplanet, that is, the first confirmed planet outside of the solar system. Scientists were quite sure they should exist (why wouldn’t they?), but the equipment and techniques thus far hadn’t shown them. I remember reading about some of the first exoplanets in the hazy early 90s. They were massive, close to their stars, and had outrageous properties that inspired wild imaginings.

Now confirmed exoplanets number in the thousands. And poking around the internet on an unrelated chore the other night, I found this gem: the Exoplanet Travel Bureau. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the extremely prestigious and awesome JPL) made travel posters for four exoplanets in the style of retro travel posters. Each of them features characteristics of their planet. I promptly printed out three and hung them in my guest room. I’m still ecstatic about them; these are the kinds of visions and dreams I had so long ago as a kid, and that I love to chase in my own art. These are awesome, and I love them, and you can download them at full size. Tell all your friends, and print your own! Here they are!

Click on the image for more image sizes. Images by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Click on the image for more image sizes. Images by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Click on the image for more image sizes. Images by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Click on the image for more image sizes. Images by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Book Review: Pandemonium (Daryl Gregory 2008)

Note: in this review, I avoid specific spoilers beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb. I discuss my reaction to the ending, but none of the specific events.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I chose to read Pandemonium because it was the book club selection for a book club meeting I failed to attend (sigh, moving). I devoured this book in less than 48 hours and I really enjoyed the process of reading it. For two reasons, this book forced me to contemplate the nature of science fiction versus fantasy: 1) because the book explicitly calls out the artificiality of the separation and 2) because I myself strongly tilt towards science fiction.

Pandemonium is set in a world where demonic possessions happen. They come in many flavors; there’s the Captain, who possesses soldiers and performs acts of bravery and there’s the Little Angel, who possesses little girls and releases old people from the pain of the world. Del Pierce was possessed as a child, and now as an adult he suspects that the demon never entirely left him.

Science wants to understand these possessions as much as it wants to understand cancer in our own world. Del wants to be freed of his demon, by science or otherwise. He’s damaged by what he’s endured. He talks to scientists and to their less-scientific groupies. Del’s condition isn’t considered possible by science, and he’s exasperated by the limitations of science. The characters criticize the way the scientific community regards the demonic possessions. It felt like the tired criticisms of our scientific process. Perhaps, as a scientist, I’m over-sensitive to such things.

People separate fantasy and scifi in different ways, and here’s my separation: fantasy is about exceptions to the rules and scifi is about inevitable outcomes of the rules. Harry Potter is an exceptional member of an exceptional class of people. Piers Anthony’s Xanth stories are about the people with the best magical powers. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is about one of many sentient programs that through a unique set of circumstances becomes something more. Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain is about the first products of genetic engineering. Both genres often focus on exceptional characters, but in scifi the character is exceptional due to circumstances and in fantasy the character is inherently exceptional in some way that cannot be explained.

In arguing a lack of separation between science fiction and fantasy, Pandemonium has the trappings of fantasy but makes several explicit science fiction references. Early in the book, a character (named Valis) quotes Philip K. Dick and asserts that “you cannot separate science fiction from fantasy.” There are references to AE van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon. I made a mental footnote to expect something genre-defying at the end.

After the book argued for the lack of distinction between the genres, the ending didn’t challenge my definition of fantasy. For me, this was a book about demons and possession and the human psyche. Which is fine. But like Chekov’s gun, after a lot of discussion about the blurred lines between two genres, you expect to partake in a book with blurred lines. I didn’t dislike the ending, but I didn’t feel affected by it either. I flew through the book, finished it, and shrugged.

Pandemonium is a lovely read. As a mild scifi snob, I am out of its core audience, and I can’t say how those with different genre sensibilities might feel about it. For me it just felt insubstantial, like a book that will fade from my memory.

Writing prompt: Driftless

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Driftless” (If anyone’s curious, the driftless region is in Southwest Wisconsin. It is indeed full of valley and caves and unwashed hippies. And Holsteins.)

They call this region the Driftless region, a region around which the glaciers split so they didn’t drift the soil. It’s rough and wild, unlike everything else around. As a kid, I always assumed driftless refered to the quality of the region. It didn’t drift. Nothing changed. You came to the region and didn’t leave, and the less washed you were, the more likely you were to arrive.

But the geological reason made sense, too. Still, I wondered, how do glaciers just go about splitting? It seems like you’d need some force to split glaciers. We don’t have high mountains or great volcanos.

We also have a ton of caves around here. I started to wonder, between massive glaciers splitting and rendings in the Earth, well, was there something below? So I read what I could on Wikipedia and packed for a journey under the Driftless region.

I’m stuck down here now. I’m writing down why I came here, as if I don’t make it, hopefully these records do. Small bipedal creatures are running up to me and stealing food from my bag. At least, I think that’s what’s happening. I have no light, and they glow, and either this is a hallucination or I’m onto something really exciting. Either way, I’m not sure about the odds of my survival.

Writing prompt: The enchanted dollhouse

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“The enchanted dollhouse”

The attic, a place of gloom and terror that Lillian only went as a last resort to hide from chores, was the last place that Lillian expected to find a dollhouse. It was under a dusty old sheet, and when she pulled it off, she had the greatest sense of delight. The little dolls were tucked in their beds, and all the details were just so—victorian wallpaper, delicately carved stair railings, a tiny loaf of bread on the table. Lillian sat all the dolls at the kitchen table and arranged plates with forks and knives, and it was amazing.

Why hadn’t mom told her about the dollhouse? Well, sometimes mom was weird, so Lillian decided not to say anything about it after she came back down from the attic. All evening long, she wanted to go back up and play, but mom would ask questions.

The next afternoon, Lillian went straight to the attic after school, and straight to the dollhouse. Oddly, the dolls weren’t at the table, they were in bed again. Hmm, mom must have come up to play with it herself or something.

So Lillian asked her mother about the dollhouse when she returned from work.

“What dollhouse?” her mother said with intensity. She could be so weird.

“The one in the attic. The Victorian one. I found it yesterday.”

“You didn’t play with it, did you?” her mother’s face grew pale.

“Of course I did,” Lillian said. “Don’t worry, I was careful and I didn’t break anything.”

Her mother rushed out of the room. “Mom,” her mother said, “Lillian found the dollhouse. What do I do?”

Bizarre Tales from the Three Notch’d Road



Bizarre Tales from the Three Notch’d Road is a collection of  eight science fiction and fantasy stories celebrating the 5th anniversary of our SFF writing group. It’s now available for the kindle here.

All the contributors are local to central Virginia, with stories from tropical islands, snowy oblivions, the distant past and the distant future. The name for this volume honors the Three Notch’d Road, which runs through central Virginia and dates back at least 300 years.

So check it out! It’s the first anthology our group has produced, and we’re very excited and proud!


Writing prompt: world build for an in-progress work

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts. This prompt is related to the prompt “a door that goes anywhere“.

“World-build for an in-progress work, specifically for a magic system”

The main character’s parents have a door that goes anywhere. Through his childhood, the character didn’t know about this door, and he only found out about it by accident when he did. His parents are unhappy about him finding out. They didn’t want him to know because they didn’t want him to follow their footsteps and do what they did.

The door can go anywhere. The parents use this to gather scarce and special materials from all corners of the planet for special paintings that have magical properties. A portrait of a person with the right ingredients can improve their health or maybe their fertility. A different portrait can sabotage their health, or make the stressed or unlucky. Without the door, obtaining the right materials in the right purities would be nearly impossible, but it’s still quite hard as you must have been to the location before. The parents apprenticed to learn these locations and materials.

Naturally enough, there are people who use the paintings to control and harm people, and people who use the paintings to help and enrich people, and these two groups don’t like each other. The character’s parents are the nice group, but each group works hard to maintain the secrecy of their identity, since then the opposition could paint a portrait of them.

The paintings need not be only portraits. A painting of a volcano with the right ingredients might increase the likelihood of an eruption or a painting of a plane with the right ingredients might increase the likelihood of a smooth flight. A painting of locusts could either increase or decrease the likelihood of destruction by them.

The parents don’t want the character participating because the good side has been losing, and their own health has been sabotaged. The bad side has a sense of honor, and doesn’t generally attack unaffiliated people, but if the character were to become involved, his health and safety would be vulnerable.

Writing prompt: A door that goes anywhere

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“You discover a door in your house/apartment that will lead to any door in the world that you want it to.” (I found this writing prompt through the Reddit Writing Prompts sub forum. Check it out for hundred of writing prompts on all kinds of topics, including this one.)

It was strange coming back to my childhood home after so many years, but probably not so strange as living with my parents after I’d gone forth into the world, expecting my obvious greatness to be recognized. Instead, I was 30, in debt, and back with the folks in rural Missouri. It was humiliating. What I wouldn’t give to be back in Belgium at the chocolate shop or in New York in central park. But most of all, I thought, I’d like to be away from people—Moab. But I didn’t have money, so these thoughts stayed dreams.

In the five years since I’d returned home, mom had redone the kitchen and redecorated my bedroom into a hobby room and dad had given away a good portion of my toys to cousins kids. I don’t think they were thrilled to have me back either. The heavy bookcases of the living room were gone, and I realized I’d never seen that wall. The old wallpaper behind where they had stood was brighter, showing their outline.

Hold on, I thought to myself, noticing another line in the wallpaper. I went closer. It was a seam in the paper, about 7 feet high and 3 feet wide. A door? There was a dent at about the right place for a handle. I pushed, tentatively at first, but when I felt give, I pushed harder.

The door popped open. Moab’s grand orange arch stood in front of me, the blazing hot and dry summer air pouring through the door. I stood and gawked, and several dozen tourists turned and snapped my picture, looking delighted. I pulled the door shut with a slam. Why was there a door to Moab in my childhood home?

The whole front of my body still seared. I could feel the beads of sweat form, half from apprehension I think. I pushed the door open again, bracing myself for the heat. Instead, a rocky coast full of fog and mist stretched before me. Canon Beach in Oregon. The air was refreshingly cool, and then it occurred to me that the door was taking me where I wanted to go. I closed the door.

“Prague, Wenceslas Square,” I said, and opened it again. The square stretched before me, with tinges of twilight falling over it and the National Museum and the Jan Palach memorial. I shut the door again.

“Gabriel, what are you doing in there?” My mother rushed in. “Get away from that wall!”

Writing prompt: the woods burst into flame

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“The woods burst into flame”


The sky seemed to darken in an instant. Heavy clouds swirled, and lightning flashed. Only a moment ago, it had been a perfect summer day. Around Nadya and Vanya, the woods burst into flames.

“How?” Vanya cried.

Nadya grabbed Vanya’s hand and ran. Vanya had such a habit wanting to know the why of things, and as the flames licked around the great trees, the why was not currently important. Nadya saved her curiosity for the relevant time.

Flames seemed to repel them on all sides. Above, dark clouds still swirled. Flocks of bird and animals also fled the uncanny fire too, and so the air and trees were full of frightened motion. Nadya and Vanya were encircled by flames. There was nowhere to run.

Vanya sat on the ground and began to cry. “It’s so hot, I just want to go home.” He was only six, and even in her frustration with her brother, her heart ached for him. As the big sister, it was her job to provide safety, but she too was tempted to collapse onto the ground and give in. It seemed inevitable at this point.

“Vanya, come with me,” Nadya said, a sudden idea in her mind. It might not save them, but it was something. “Climb this tree with me.”

“But—” Vanya tears paused as confusion took over, “Papa says we must never climb those trees. That children who do are never seen again, or fall to their death.”

“Vanya, look around,” Nadya said, suddenly manic with the idea, “we could use a miraculous disappearance. I don’t know where we’d go, but it couldn’t be worse than here.”

Nadya and her brother climbed the tree. The texture was odd under hand, untreelike. When they neared the top, she heard a sound. It was the piercing cry of an enormous bird. Nadya was so startled she almost fell as the six-foot bird emerged from the storm clouds. One bird grabbed Nadya, and the other grabbed Vanya. The two birds flew high into the sky, and the children looked down onto the burning forest. Nadya hoped that the birds were kindly disposed to children.

Writing prompt: The Little Viking

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“The Little Viking”  (this prompt inspired by a little Viking figurine in my office, as pictured.)

It wasn’t easy for Olie to be the littlest Viking in his boat. Big Thorvald stood two heads taller than him, and most of the others stood at least one head taller. Olie even had a special sword made to be lighter and shorter for him. The others were mostly polite to his face, respecting his moniker of “mad herring”, but they laughed when they thought he couldn’t hear. He heard.

There were advantages to his stature. He knew that, he just wished he could convince the others of it. Once in battle, his enemy, a great hulking man with braided red hair, took a mighty swipe with his sword. Fortunately, Olie was so low the blow only took one horn from his helmet. And then he stabbed the red-haired man and danced on his corpse. But did his boat-mates remember that? No, they laughed at his one-horned helmet.

Then one voyage, Olie spotted a tiny Viking on another boat. Here was a man who could understand him, perhaps teach him battle techniques. At the very least, here was a man who he could drink a lot of mead with. When the boats landed in the trading town, Olie immediately rushed to the other ship, neglecting his duties, but not caring.

The other tiny Viking turned around—it was a lady. Olie’s village used to have women on the boats, but when there were enough men, they opted not to. Here, finally, was a Viking he stood over. He smiled broadly at her.

“Don’t get any ideas,” the woman said, smiling back. “I might be as little as you, but you know as well as I do how hard we fight to make up the difference.”

Her eyes glinted, and Olie saw that she probably would punch him as easily and effectively as any of his boatmates. “This is true. Let’s drink now and save the fighting for later.”