All posts by JoshVogt

Wondrous Wit Smackdown! The Pleasure of Witty Repartee

What is it about witty banter that thrills our souls so? How is it that some stories may be weak on plot, on action, or lack a compelling setting, yet they can still rivet us so long as a silver-tongued duo is at the center of the scene? Of course, it’s so much better if the plot and action and setting are all backed up or enhanced by character interactions. There’s something incredibly pleasing about the lobbing back and forth of subtle insults (or not-so-subtle) or the casual joking of characters as they dash headlong into danger, using humor as their way to avoid directly admitting that they might die at any instant at the hands of whatever monster or fiend they may be facing.

Banter often also can be a way that two characters who, on the surface, appear to have an intense distaste for one another, are still able to convey a grudging fondness or even admiration for one another that they would rather not have others pick up on overtly. Let’s admit that a battle of wits can often be more exciting and entertaining than a clash of swords! So let’s look at several stories where the banter brings a grin to even the grimmest of circumstances.
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Oh Ye of Little Faith – Stories of Belief

One god. Two gods. Red gods. Blue gods. Seems like gods are everywhere in fantasy stories (and some science fiction, yes). They tend to be a catch-all for the sources and styles of magic that characters often rely on, or can act as plot devices in themselves–though hopefully not actual deus ex machinas. Some love to slip into the story through dreams and visions, guiding people to their destinies, while others watch from the sidelines, pointing and laughing when the characters tumble and trip their way through the quest. Others bring the balefire once they get pissed off enough, judging anyone who forgot to slaughter a fatted calf in their name every half hour or so.

Whether possessing of inhuman personalities and intelligence or being all too human and fallible, whether they’re immediately active in events or just an annoying chatter in the characters’ ears, gods and the faiths they inspire provide fascinating backdrops and impetus for stories to unfold. Here are three books where gods play a significant role in some form or another.
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Love Them Landscapes: The Unique Geography of Speculative Fiction

It’s almost a given these days, especially with fantasy books–you open up the front cover and an enormous map sprawls out before you, denoting various continents, kingdoms, murky forests, coastal ports, and all the other bits and jots composing the world. Sometimes these locales have colorful names, such as Shadowlands of the Dark Lord, Bottomless Pit of Apathy, and Do-Not-Go-Here-istan. Other times, they’re a gibberish of glottal coughs and apostrophes.

However they’re named, though, so often these maps and representative lands are simply indicative of where the story happens rather than what the story is about. They’re just a reference point for those readers who dearly want to know if the heroine’s quest to save a hapless prince from a dragon took her through the pleasant town of Orcsg’utyo’u or not.

What if we tried a different perspective? Let’s strap on our Boots of Anti-Blistering, grab a wizard’s walking stick, and head off across worlds where the geography is as integral to the plot as the main characters themselves.

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Those Magnificent Minds: Enhanced Intellects on the Loose in SF

What would you do to make yourself smarter? Take a mix of illegal drugs, preferably injected straight into the cerebral cortex? Implant your skull with all sorts of black market tech that might burn out your gray matter and leave you drooling on the upholstery? Total brain transplant?

Funny thing is, if any those dubious intelligence enhancement techniques actually worked and you were lucky enough to survive the procedure, you’d likely look back and think to yourself, “Well, that was dumb.” 

But superior smarts do provide for a lot of fun and games, especially when it comes to dealing with alien overlords, tyrannical governments, and pranking tech support. Here are three stories where the main characters achieve superhuman IQs through various means and then go on to steer human evolution and generally make things difficult for the powers-that-be.

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Fantasy has Gone to the Dogs: Protags with Pets

What is it about dogs that hold such a special place in our hearts? Is it their undying loyalty? Their unceasingly wagging tails? The feral gleam in their adorable puppy eyes when they leap for the throats of our mortal enemies?

Probably a mix of all that, in varying degrees.

Whatever the reason, dogs cling close to our heels even in realms of fantasy and wonder, popping up alongside urban fantasies and epic fantasies alike. There’s something about a person–be they wizard, warrior, angel, demon, or otherwise–who has a faithful canine companion that makes them instantly more personable and sympathetic. After all, if the dog likes the guy well enough, they can’t be all that bad, can they? The opposite is often true, as one of the defining aspects of villainy is the mindless kicking of puppies or drowning sacks of them in the nearest river, is it not?

Let’s give the dogs their day, then, and look at a few examples of fantasy series where these four-legged friends join in the endless adventures of speculative fiction.

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Gandalf Get Your Gun – Targeting Military Fantasy

What defines military fantasy as a subgenre? Is it, as the post title suggests, a wizard wielding a fireball in one hand and a shotgun in the other, drawling “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Well…maybe in some versions of the world. In others, it may be more an army marching in rank, overseen by magician-generals, with dragons as air corps and elves in the cavalry (and most likely archery ranks).

Many fantasies–especially epic fantasies–have enormous battles as part of the over-arching story, often as a backdrop to the hero or band of heroes and the main quest. However, for some, the battle takes center stage and the military tactics are just as important, if not more so, than the clever ways in which the plucky band will outwit the Dark Lord. Let’s form ranks, then, and march through several novels where the military maneuvers are on the front lines of the plot and your ability to lead a trained squad may be just as crucial as your ability to understand esoteric prophecies and wield magical talismans.
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It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! – Allies Who Make All the Difference

While there may be plenty of fantasy heroes who try the lone-wolf route during much of their adventures, it’s rare that they end up alone forever. Every hero, no matter how powerful they are or how much they try to avoid dragging others into the thick of it…sooner or later, they’re going to need allies. That band of friends (or temporarily aligned enemies) that provides critical support, be it physical, moral, or otherwise. The right allies can make-or-break a quest, being both assets and liabilities. Some protagonists try to avoid relying on offered allies because they can become vulnerable points antagonists can take advantage of. Other allies freely offer their support because they see something within the protagonist that is worth following…or protecting…or loving.

Allies can also provide a significant way to measure the impact of the protagonist’s actions. After all, no one adventures in a vacuum, and if one’s allies near-unanimously suggest that a certain course of action is about as wise as trying to stop a blender by sticking your hand in it…then maybe it’s time to reconsider. And in the aftermath of the crisis, one can perhaps weigh the success of the hero’s efforts by how those same allies react to the fallout. Is their faith in the protagonist stronger than ever, or have they been irrevocably alienated? Time to tally up three fantasy tales and see which allies you might prefer to have at your side through thick or thin.

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‘Ware the Grim Reader – Stories That Enter the Realm of Death!

Ah, Death. The cuddly, soul-reaping anthropomorphic personification of mortality that is ever humanity’s companion. Not sure what we did to get our collective selves handcuffed to his bony wrist, but we’re stuck with him…at least until we figure out a cure for aging, and then we’ll just have a whole new host of issues to deal with. Death certainly holds a prominent place in genre novels. With fantasy, you’ll encounter everything from styles of “death magic” to jaunts down to the Underworld to Death making appearances as a character him/herself. Science fiction often holds up Death as a specter to be conquered–with technology often applied to cheat or stall or cure that final fate. Horror novels? Well, no need to get too obvious.

Let’s stare the Reaper in the face and see how a handful of books portray life’s inevitable end.

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Oh, The Places You’ll Go…And Likely Die – Tales from the Pathfinder RP game

Fantasy novels based on a roleplaying game? You betcha. There’s no shortage of book series that suck money from devoted fans tie in to popular gaming franchises, such as the novels that accompany World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Warhammer 40k, and, of course, Dungeons & Dragons. Paizo‘s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game introduces the world of Golarion which, as many fantasy worlds are, is full of monsters, magic, dungeons, piles of treasure, plenty of traps, and–most importantly–an endless stream of “adventurers” who got conned into believing that the best way to make a living is to throw themselves headlong into danger and pray they come out the other side with all their wiggly bits intact. With Pathfinder Tales, Paizo has unleashed a growing variety of authors on the reality they’ve created to see what stories they can conjure.

So how do game dynamics and rule books translate into novel-length plot and characters?

Pretty durn well, actually. So strap on those boots, grab your walking stick, and prepare to journey through three such literary concoctions from the Pathfinder Tales library. Oh, and you might want to make sure your first aid kit is freshly stocked with healing potions. Just in case.

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Paragons of Violence and Vice – Anti-Heroes Among Us

Pfft. Who gives two figs about noble and courageous heroes with their shiny armor and white horses and unwavering devotion to all that is pure and noble? (Also, where would you get the two figs? What is this, a farmer’s market?) Here. Take this quick multiple choice quiz which is in no way biased.

Heroes are often:

  1. Overrated
  2. Unrealistic
  3. Able to make us cry into our pillows because we’re so weak and fallible in comparison
  4. All of the above

Fortunately, there’s a handy solution to your nightly bouts of pillow-weeping. The anti-hero. That rough-edged character with enough faults in their soul to qualify for earthquake monitoring. Who doesn’t play the good cop/bad cop routine, but prefers the “beat the living snot out of prisoners until they whimper for mercy” technique. Who is lured through life by greed, vanity, and a healthy appetite for the type of “medicines” you have to put in quotation marks. The person who still somehow dredges up enough begrudging morality from the muck of their being to do what’s right, even if doing so includes pit stops for binge-drinking bouts, swearing contests, strip-joint sleepovers, and plenty of other activities they don’t teach you in Sunday School.

The anti-hero. Ah, how we love to hate them, hate to love them, and whatever other emotional mishmash we can whip up. Shall we meet a few and see which one turns out to be the most beloved scoundrel of them all? Oh, let’s do.

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Those are the Rules – Magic Systems Showdown!

Once upon a time, in fantasy stories far far away, magic was a mysterious force that affected the characters and world in mostly unknown ways. If a character ever wondered how something impossible happened…magic. How’d we blip across an entire continent in mere moments? Magic portal. How does this steel sword burst into flames without melting? Magic weapon. How’d my head suddenly transpose with my buttocks? Transmorgrifying magic spell. (Or a particularly severe wedgie at the hands of a barbarian warlord.)

Nowadays, many fantasy novels have turned magic into, well, a form of science–in some ways creating a whole new form of physics or imagining alternate worlds where the laws of thermodynamics not only apply to entropy but also to the mass transference of shapeshifting dragons.

Let’s explore the properties of several fantasy novels that get downright textbook with magic systems and see which one is worth studying up on.

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Rock ‘em Sock ‘em! – Stories with Robots

01010100 01101000 01100101 01110011 01100101 00100000 01100010 01101111 01101111 01101011 01110011 ….what? You can’t read binary? Shame on you. Fine. Let’s start over.

Robots. How about ‘em? They provide an endless source of fascination for the human race–though mostly we wonder how soon until they wipe us out. Cheery, right? That little Roomba keeping your floors clean? Could tomorrow become sentient, get tired of sucking dust and spark the Terminator/Skynet apocalypse. Best to just take it out back with a shotgun and give it the Ol’ Yeller treatment before it’s too late.

Science fiction writers often envision worlds where robots abound, performing tasks anywhere from household chores to acting as personal assistants to spaceship piloting to detective work and beyond. Plus all the sex, violence, and mayhem that tends to go along with unruly bits of technology. The following three books put robots in the spotlight, where they can beep, sputter, spark, and overthrow humanity to your heart’s content.

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Some like it Bleak: Stories in Shades of Gray (Steven John’s THREE A.M. vs. Brian Evenson’s IMMOBILITY vs. Richard Kadrey’s SANDMAN SLIM

Ever read a book and the mental movie the words conjured was mostly in shadow? Where grit coats every surface and blood runs black instead of red? These are the stories that don’t promise happy endings. In fact, they make sure that the characters experience as much pain–physical and otherwise–as possible and are put through such a meat grinder of a plot that it’s a miracle even the reader makes it out alive. You know what sort of books I’m talking about. Where “morality” is a dirty word and violence is as inescapable as a black hole.

We come back to them again and again, lured by some masochistic (or would it be sadistic?) attraction to bleak landscapes and characters whose therapy bills alone would dwarf the national debt. To sate your twisted appetites for a little longer, here are three contenders for the title of Bleak Champion–which is akin to winning a rusty razor blade-eating contest.

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Duel of the Doorstoppers: Fantasy Books that Build More than Mental Muscle

When a novel is referred to as a “doorstopper,” it’s often both in humor and in warning. You might grin at the thought of an enormous fantasy epic being used to prop the door open for a fresh breeze…but take heed, otherwise you might tug a shoulder from its socket or crack your back trying to heft one of these dense tomes. Despite the danger, there remains an ongoing love for doorstoppers in genre fiction. It seems especially common in fantasy, where you have entire genealogies and dead languages and ancient wars that must be included, at least in the appendices. Not to mention a cast large enough to fill football stadium seating.

For those willing to invest the time and mental real estate, doorstopper novels offer the chance to discover enormous worlds and get sucked into epic stories that span whole ages. What happens, then, when we take three such piles of pulp and see which one ends up with the crown? (Or, for a more scientific test, we could load them into over-sized slingshots and see which one flies furthest…)

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Today’s Special is Brainnnssss – Surviving the Hordes of Zombie Novels

Zombies seem to be the genre d’jour…ironic since zombie stories have inspired hordes of reading fans who endlessly prowl the shelves in search of the next big horror novel to gnosh on. Zombies have also broken out of just being a horror-genre trope, and now can be found in comedies, romances, and even appearing in remakes of classics such as Pride and Prejudice. If a zombie-style outbreak ever did occur, it likely wouldn’t last long because everyone is so familiar with the ways to destroy them (shovels to the skull being a popular tactic). The undead would go extinct within a few days–barring our turning them into grunt labor, of course.

How about we take a bite out of a few…okay, I cannot complete that sentence without my hands trying to beat each other senseless, so let’s just dive right into this zombie novel fray and see which one survives.
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Put This in Your Pipe and Smoke It – A Sherlock Holmes Genre Anthology Smackdown

What is it about the power of deduction that so fascinates people? The ability to spot a bit of dirt on someone’s cuff and instantly deduce that their second cousin’s dog’s vet is left-handed? The crime-solving applications? The fits of lethargy and cocaine usage?

Whatever the source, it has inspired one of the most enduring fictional detectives: Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes has been the epicenter of countless film, comic, and book adaptations beyond the original tales–such as the recent BBC Sherlock series, or the two Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (both the films and series are intense, clever, fun, and come highly recommended by yours truly). Holmes has also been transplanted many a times into the speculative genres, having his wits pitted against agents of darkness such as Dracula, zombies, and even Cthulhu.

So, how about we put a few of his more fantastical tales under the magnifying glass and see which ones lead us on the merriest chase?

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When Heaven and Hell Collide: Angels & Demons Novel Smackdown!

Authors love to salt their work with existing religious elements. Angels and demons are two such elements that pop up in countless genre tales, from novels to comic books to movies. These heavenly or ex-heavenly beings run the gamut from being shining protectors of humanity to red-horned beasts of despair to supernatural assassins to bumbling klutzes with wings. Yet whatever forms they take, they are often at the center of solid conflict, which makes for great stories.

So, polish your halos and sharpen your horns as we throw another batch of books into the fray.

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Stroll Down these Dark Alleys: Urban Fantasy Crime-Fighter Novel Smackdown!

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are rife with crime-fighting characters–and I’m not talking about comic book superheroes. Rather, consider more the many detectives, cops, or P.I.’s that crowd the pages. They just come so naturally to the speculative genres. What could make murder investigations, missing persons, and blackmail more interesting than a dash (or heavy dose) of magic or scifi whizbang? If a character is around violent and seedy segments of human, alien, or supernatural populations on a daily basis, it’s a good bet they’ll have some interesting stories to tell.

And boy, has many a tale been told. Let’s check out a few, shall we? Which ones would come out winners in a bare-knuckled brawl?

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One of These Things is Not Like the Others – Stories of the Multiverse

I get why the multiverse theory is popular for science fiction (and some fantasy) authors. When you’ve got multiple universes or realities to let your character run amuck in, anything is possible. You aren’t limited to worldbuilding for just one planet or even just one set of laws of physics. Imagination, ahoy! Cue the interdimensional travelers, the alternate histories where so-and-so actually won the such-and-such war and now the world is…well…altered in some significant way.

Bring on the newspapers with headlines about different presidents in the White House, or actors playing in movies that were never made, or one world having been sent back to the Bronze Age while another has vastly outpaced our technology.

This concept gives authors plenty to play with…which means that whenever an author gives it a go, it turns out vastly different than another author’s interpretation. Let’s take a look at three books (two from the past couple years, one out this December) that have multiple worlds/universes/realities as the centerpiece of their storytelling:

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