Book Review – Warriors of Understone by B.K. Bass

Medieval fantasy was never really my bag. I’ve only read a few books set in the classical fantasy world that caught my attention and those have been few and far between. Terry Brooks’s Shannara series, Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern series (although that almost tips into sci-fi. At the very least, it’s debatable), maybe handful of others. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the genre itself, it’s just harder for me to wrap my imagination around swords and sorcery than it is to wrap it around some epic battle between giant bugs and dudes in power armor. Even though, when you get right down to it, the differences are mostly cosmetic.

Anyway, I haven’t read much fantasy lately, which is really a pity. Maybe my tastes are changing and I hadn’t realized it, but I really enjoyed Warriors of Understone. Not necessarily because it’s fantasy, but because the genre becomes just the setting instead of becoming a character unto itself. Sure, there are elements of world building – you have to have those when you’re dealing with dwarves – but the world fades nicely into the background and allows you all the free time you need to focus on the characters and the action of the story. That, in my mind, is a hallmark of a great writer. It’s all too easy to spend page after page detailing the intricacies of a fictional world but, let’s face it, that can get tedious after a while.

What B.K. Bass gives us in Warriors of Understone is character-driven fiction that uses the fictional world and all its nuances as a jumping-off point for the actual meat of the story. And the story, for all its fantastical elements, is a very human story about very human things. That’s what makes it special and, arguably, what makes any fantasy story magical: Less time spent describing a feast from a thousand years ago and more time focusing on motivation.

Even if fantasy isn’t your bag, give Warriors of Understone a read. It’s a novella, so it’s not like you’ll have to dedicate the next several years of your life to one story like some other authors I could mention *cough Tolkien cough*, but it’s still a very filling story. You’ve got action, adventure, intrigue, and folk getting swatted in the face with battle axes. Plus, hey, it’s got dwarfs as the main characters and those folk are pretty damned cool.

Durgan must struggle to overcome not only his common birth, but also the prejudices of a stagnant and isolated society to become one of the warriors of Understone. The sprawling dwarven city lies deep beneath the mountains, at the heart of a kingdom that has not changed its ways in centuries. Plagued by threats both within and without, life is a constant struggle to survive and furious battle is around every corner. Durgan may overcome opponents with axe and shield, but can he change the very values of his society with the same tools?

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Book Review – The Clockwork Detective by R.A. McCandless

Steampunk was never really my bag. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of detailed explanations of how clockwork and steam power and mold the world. At some point in some Steampunk stories, the tech gets advanced enough that you find yourself reading about how tiny switches bring intelligence to artificial creations. When that happens, I often wonder why the hell the author didn’t just write a cyberpunk story and call it good. Maybe it’s the lusty allure of pocketwatches and good old-fashioned steam-powered cars. You know, all the stuff we see every day, only run by analog water vapor.

Those are the stories where it’s obvious the author was just trying to cash in on the steampunk genre rather than adding something unique to it.

I’m pleased to say The Clockwork Detective doesn’t fall into that trap. There are a few descriptions of a steam-powered world – Aubrey’s leg, the dirgibles that plow the skies like iron ships across an ocean of air – but mostly R.A. McCandless just lets the story be the story. As a result, it’s not the tedious read that some Steampunk falls into.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking the entire genre. There are some great stories out there that use the Steampunk world as a character unto itself, but there are others that just shove a story into that world and describe every gear and steampipe mercilessly while leaving the reader wondering why it was so important that the antagonist drove a clockwork El Camino.

R.A. takes the genre in a different direction. Some stuff clicks and clacks, but mostly the story is about the story. He’s also done something I hadn’t seen before in a steampunk novel.

Urban fantasy, as a genre, tends to blend the mundane world of right now with the magical world you only find when you’re tripping balls behind a 7-11. There are normal El Caminos, there are 7-11s, but there are also magical things like ghosts, devils, and all manner of bugaboos either lurking in the shadows or running hot dog carts on Central Ave down by the university. Again, getting stuck in the details in urban fantasy is easy trap to fall into and the best at the genre manage to make it work.

What R.A. has pulled off with The Clockwork Detective is an effective blend of Steampunk and Urban Fantasy. I’d say Steamfantasypunk, but that’s a mouthful and no one would ever think it’s cool enough to become a thing, so let’s just say it’s a new direction in Steampunk and call it good.

And that’s exactly what this book is: It’s a great fusion of two disparate genres handled with the deft touch of a master who really believes in what he’s doing. That belief shines through in a text that draws you in and keeps you in its world even after you close the book. Well-written, engaging, and flat-out fun to read. This is a perfect summer book that doesn’t shirk its responsibility of taking the reader to new places and letting them wander around in a fleshed out world.

It’s like tripping balls behind the 7-11 without the fear of the dreaded brown acid.

Clockwork-Detective-400x600

Aubrey Hartmann left the Imperial battlefields with a pocketful of medals, a fearsome reputation, and a clockwork leg. 

The Imperium diverts her trip home to investigate the murder of a young druwyd in a strange town. She is ordered to not only find the killer but prevent a full-scale war with the dreaded Fae. 

Meanwhile, the arrival of a sinister secret policeman threatens to dig up Aubrey’s own secrets – ones that could ruin her career. 

It soon becomes clear that Aubrey has powerful enemies with plans to stop her before she gets started. Determined to solve the mystery, Aubrey must survive centaurs, thugs and a monster of pure destruction.

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Urban Fantasy

Back when my son was still wildly into dinosaurs, I found a book called Dinopix by Teruhisha Tajima. It was a bunch of photo edits that posited what the world would be like if dinosaurs had lived into the current day. It didn’t concern itself with the struggles early humans would have had to deal with when encountering a hungry T. rex or a pack of Deinonychus, nor did it deal with what evolution would have done with those creatures over the past 65 million year. Dinopix dropped dinosaurs, as they were before they went extinct, straight into the modern world.

Please clean up after your diplodocus. Carry a very large bag and a shovel.

The result was brilliant and enchanting. Although, as I recall, my son was less than impressed with it than he was with Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs, which melded two kiddo favorites into a fun little adventure complete with pronunciation guide for those of us reading aloud who had forgotten how to pronounce Giganotosaurus.

Both books did a fantastic job with melding the real world with the fantasy world that all kids and writers seem to inhabit. That’s the beauty of looking at the world through different eyes and rather than seeing a normal checkout counter, wondering what crazy thing has happened or will happen there. Maybe the person manning the cash register is a werewolf just trying to make ends meet. Lycanthropy, after all, doesn’t pay very well.

This kind of melding of the magical and the mundane is often referred to as Urban Fantasy, but I’d argue it could also easily fall into the magical realism world. Both deal with the idea of magical or extraordinary events happening in a predominantly realistic world. Werewolves running cash registers or vampires running night clubs. Or even a rogue Valkyrie trying to kick off Ragnarok. The differences are pretty trivial, but magical realism has been a thing in Latino literature for a very long time while the rest of us were only made aware of it when Narcos premiered on Netflix.

I recently read where someone said urban fantasy – as a genre – was for lazy writers. The argument was that urban fantasy was essentially fantasy without all the world building and was, therefore, easier to deal with than real fantasy.

In case you’re wondering, this is the gist of this post. I just felt like rambling on about dinosaurs, pirates, urban fantasy, and magical realism.

As an essentially urban fantasy writer, I bristled at that admonition. I have no beef with fantasy, I’ve even dabbled with it a bit, even though Greetings From Sunny Aluna would probably be better classified as wuxia than traditional fantasy. If we’re going to insist on classifying everything, that is.

So, are urban fantasy writers lazier than traditional fantasy writers? I’d have to argue no. Even though urban fantasy takes place in a largely realistic world, snapping robot dinosaurs into it takes a lot more thinking. In a traditional fantasy world, seeing a dragon isn’t that far out of the ordinary. It’s fantasy; it’s supposed to have dragons.

Probably not run by actual dragons.

But the real world isn’t supposed to have dragons wandering around running hot dog stands or selling drugs on street corners. Making that kind of thing work takes finagling or it feels fake. Which means, the world that dragon inhabits has to be aware of at least the idea that dragons could not only be real, but they could also get a license to run a hot dog stand.

It’s that license part that requires world building inside of the real world. Twisting the mundanity of penetrating bureaucracy into something a dragon had to do means you have to build hooks into the real world that will allow things like that to happen. That’s world building.

World building is more than describing castles or various tribes running around stabbing each other. It means making the world of the book be internally consistent with itself. Or, at the very least, making it seem real enough that the reader doesn’t hit a page and think, “What the holy fuck just happened? How did we get from elves to zero point energy?”

Well, you see, elves have always been big proponents of not only zero point energy, but also cold fusion.

And, let’s not oversell the world building done in fantasy. Most of the fantasy genre sits plainly in the European Middle Ages, just with less disease and more magic. Sure, some people have done some amazing jobs with it – The Dragonriders of Pern series comes to mind – but a lot fantasy is just kings and dark wizards throwing down over land rights. Now, before you grab pitchforks and torches, yes, I know McCaffrey’s dragons are usually classified as Sci-Fi. Let’s face it, though, there are a lot of traditional fantasy elements to those books. Besides, it could be argued that sci-fi is fantasy that replaced the magic with technology and the dwarves with aliens.

Not amused.

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that. I enjoy sci-fi, usually more than I enjoy fantasy, but I’ve certainly enjoyed my fair share of fantasy stories, too.

So, is urban fantasy just fantasy for lazy writers? Hell, no. It takes a lot more effort to believably shoehorn dragons selling hot dogs into downtown Albuquerque than it does to have that same dragon snatching up damsels and swilling the blood of knights out of a very large mug.

What are you thoughts on it? Is urban fantasy for lazy writers? Do elves really have a thing for zero point energy? Is sci-fi just fantasy with technology in place of magic?

Book Review – Queens by Patrick Hodges

I reviewed book I of The Wielders of Arantha back in May. Now, a scant four months or so later, book II has dropped. I’m truly not sure how he managed to write, edit, and release such a complex story in such a short period of time, but I have it on good authority Patrick Hodges might not exactly human. It’s entirely possible he’s a reincarnation of one of the greats of the 30s, a new Walter Gibson or Lester Dent, a man who can manipulate words with the best of them.

Book I found an Earth ravaged by alien invasion. The hated Jegg had shown up and basically torn up the joint. A final, last-ditch effort by some of the few remaining humans sent a ship to a distant planet in search of something that might save the planet and drive off the Jegg. On Elystra, Maeve And Davin found more than they bargained for when they stumbled across a society where people could control the elements and armies marched with powerful magicians at their head.

That first book ended part way through the story, which was my only real complaint about it. Book II, Queens, picks up exactly where Book I ended and ups the stakes.

In addition to being a cracking good story to read, Hodges spends some time exploring the way our preconceived notions drive the way we do things. Most of Elystra cannot comprehend a woman that can wield the elements, while the women who walled themselves off from the world have difficulty imagining men who aren’t complete jerks. It’s kind of like the battle of the sexes on a global scale, except they come to the conclusion that there’s no real reason to be fighting, especially since a greater threat has arisen.

That’s another theme to the story, the idea that the things we do can have extremely long-lasting repercussions, the kind of stuff no one ever saw coming. Themes like these make for a resounding story and Hodges – originally a youth/YA author – handles the adult themes with aplomb.

All in all, an excellent read.

A cosmic game of chess is underway, and the planet Elystra is the board.

Earth pilot Maeve and her son Davin have joined the Ixtrayu, hoping to avert the destruction that their leader, Kelia, has foretold. But will Maeve’s burgeoning Wielding powers be enough to thwart the machinations of Elzor and his lightning-wielding sister, Elzaria, before everything the Ixtrayu have ever known is destroyed in Elzor’s quest for ultimate power?

Queens is Part Two in the Wielders of Arantha trilogy. If you love science fiction or fantasy, then this series will thrill and enthrall you!

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Final Covers & Blurb

There’s an old image of an iceberg that’s been floating around for a while that likens writing to ‘bergs. Of course, as everyone knows, most of the iceberg is underwater; hence the saying “tip of the iceberg”. The gist of the image is what people finally read is only a small portion of the whole process of writing the book, editing it, rewriting, more editing, beta reads, more editing, formatting, cover design, the hated blurb work, blah, blah, blah, blah. Blah.

My take on it is, sure, the final product is only the tip of the iceberg, but each part can be fun in its own way. Except writing blurbs; that just sucks.

Writing can be a slog sometimes, but I generally enjoy creating and telling stories. Editing can really be a slog, but it’s nice to go back and read what you’ve written and make it shinier. Formatting and cover design have always thrilled me, too. But, maybe I’m just weird that way.

Greetings From Sunny Aluna – the book I’ve been Tweeting snippets from for the better part of a year now – is almost done. It’s been written, re-written, edited, read, re-written, designed, and blurbed. All that’s left is to add my thank yous to all the people that helped out and do the formatting. Then it’s out the door and onto the marketing phase while I restart work on dysRupt.

It’s never easy to say goodbye to a book. I’ve heard people talk about how hard it can be when a book is over and they really got into it. Lord knows I’ve been there many a time, myself. Now, imagine being neck deep in that book for months and being done with it. It’s both terrifying and a relief. But it’s also sad to see it end because it’s almost like losing friends to moves or dropping your kid off at college – you know it has to happen and it’s for the best, but it still hurts.

That said, Greetings will likely be available sometime this week, depending on when I get off my ass and hit publish. For those of who’ve been wondering what the heck the book is about (other than badassery; that’s a given), here are the final print and digital covers, as well as the blurb.

Keep your eyes peeled for the buy link, which should be along soon.

Blurb:

Alunans say The Beast is a myth, a tale told by criminals to their kids about what can happen if they get too far out of line. Almost no one knows who The Beast is and the few who do refuse to talk for fear of repercussions.
Now The Beast has upped the ante and is seeking out a young boy from Earth with magic unlike anything else on Aluna.
In The Beast’s way is an alcoholic ex-cop, a famed Wushu master, and a young woman sent by a dragon. Together, they’ll navigate a city run by crime to find out who The Beast is and put a stop to him.
Unfortunately, they’re about to find out the war never ended.

Print Cover:

Digital Cover:

Preview

I don’t do this very often, largely because I don’t release books very often, but I’m getting close to finishing the second round of edits on Greetings From Sunny Aluna and wanted to share a bit of it. It’s a follow-on to the events of The Clock Man and represents a few firsts for me. For starters, it’s a true fantasy novel, which is something I’ve never done before. I’ve read fantasy works before, but never tried my hand at writing one. In case you’re wondering exactly what constitutes a fantasy novel (I was), it can usually be summed up by including magic, fantastic settings, mythical beings, and supernatural forms.

Most fantasy works I’ve written are set in a European Medieval setting with knights, sorcerers, and extremely bad villains. That’s all fine and good, but European Medieval history never did much for me, nor did the tales of heroism and knights in shining armor. So I dropped my story onto another planet, shifted a lot of narrative to Chinese martial history, and made my main characters basically normal people instead of knights. There is magic, it’s got a dragon, it’s even got a small dinosaur, combat magicians, and lots of morally flexible characters. Call it gutter fantasy if it helps. Greetings is fantasy from the street level and all kinds of crazies inhabit these streets.

The other thing that’s new to me was a shift from writing the narrative in first person present tense, I shifted this to third person past tense. The change allowed me to explore the four main characters with greater ease than I’d have with first person present.

Anyway, this is chapter 1 (of 36). Comments and critiques are greatly appreciated. Other than that, I just hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 1: Information Extraction Techniques

Felix Crow was a badass.

He wasn’t a good man, or even a stable man, but his heart was in the right place and there was no doubt he was a badass.

Seen from behind he cut a mysterious figure as he stalked down an unnamed alley in the Fànzuì Hútòng district of Croatoa. He always felt it was loony to call an entire district crime alley, but he didn’t make the rules. Felix Crow exploited rules, or ignored them entirely.

His keen eyes scanned the alley, seeking out a hidden sign that he was assured wasn’t a joke. In a place like this, calling something Xīwàng had to be a sick joke. Hope, in a crumbling alley filled with the lowest echelons of murderers and drug dealers was, at best, a fresh box to sleep in. But supposedly there was a place called Hope that held a secret he would very much like to know.

Felix walked right down the middle of the alley. The brim of his hat hid his eyes and his long coat flapped out behind him. The hat was lifted from a body he left in an alley a few months ago and the coat was a gift from his sometimes friend, sometimes enemy Chan. The coat supposedly offered magical protection, but Crow had yet to try it out. The hat just made the ensemble look good.

Ahead of him, a shadow stepped into the alley and laughed. It sounded like the giggle of a schoolgirl who just realized she’d traded her life for an endless supply of Johns and synthetic heroin. Madness and anger echoed down the narrow lane. The pale light from Xiǎo Mǔqīn reflected off a long and wicked looking knife that had to have been made of discarded bits of metal fused together in one of the cheap magic shops nearby.

Little Mother’s light was pale compared to Dà Māmā’s light, but it was one of those rare days where Little Mother was up and Big Mother was down. The pale light did little to illuminate the alley, but at least it was daylight; travelling the alleys at night was risky even for people like Felix Crow.

Crow kept walking. He had more important things to deal with than petty thugs with cheap knives. He reached out with his mind and found the knife. His fingers snapped and the blade exploded. The would-be thug, a gaunt thing with more bones than skin stared at the handle in his fingers. Some remaining neuron knocked another neuron around and eventually the message got to the man’s voice.

“Crow,” he gasped.

Felix Crow paused. He knew his antics had spread his name around the city. It was impossible to kill the Clock Man and go unnoticed; even if he had gone out of his way to keep the dirty deed quiet, brother baiju loosened his tongue. The thing in front of him was hardly worth the time, but it was important to keep up his reputation. “Xīwàng,” he said quietly. “Where is it?”

“There’s no hope here, man,” the thug replied. His wide eyes darted around the alley. Shadows moved quietly, hiding in corners and behind trash cans. Maybe, just maybe, enough of them could take down the legendary Felix Crow.

“Not for you, anyway,” Crow said. “But that’s not the kind of hope I’m looking for. A place called Hope. There will be a door. Where is it?”

A trash can tipped over, spilling ramen and rotting vegetables. Crow spared a glance at a kid holding a stick before looking back at the thug with the broken knife. “Not the brightest idea you’ve ever had.”

The thug chuckled. His knife may be broken, but Felix Crow was supposed to have an arsenal on him. If he could get hold of the arsenal, he’d be a king. With that jacket and that hat, he could move out of the alley. Anyone who killed Felix Crow could write his own ticket in the underworld. Hell, it was rumored that the Beast himself offered up a fortune for Crow’s head.

All around Crow the alley came to life. The people, things really, had been here so long they’d started to look like the alley itself. Dark eyes, tattered clothes, and grimy skin rose out of invisible hiding places. Some had sticks, others had knives taken from the dead hands of souls who had lost their way and wound up in the alley.

Crow sighed. It would figure a simple in and out job would turn to lā shǐ on him. The whole alley reeked of lā shǐ, why shouldn’t the job follow suit? Maybe job was too strong a word. Job implied an exchange of services for money. Quest would be a better term. Mad quest, probably. Still, it would figure a simple in and out quest would turn to lā shǐ on him.

He spun in the alley and took in the motley rabble. None of them had eaten in days. Their eyes were full of the madness of Tiāntáng De Fěn. Heaven’s Powder was a new drug on the scene, something for people who couldn’t afford anything more. It was gaining a toehold in the city, and even on Croatoa’s streets it wasn’t uncommon to see burnouts trying to visit heaven. They described it as a religious experience, but like all religion it was an addictive lie.

“Fuck off,” Crow said. “I’m busy.”

“Nice jacket,” a voice said behind him. “Nice hat.”

Crow didn’t bother to turn around. He could see the shadow of the of the speaker waving something around. “I know,” he said. “Now fuck off.”

“I want the hat,” another voice said.

That was the problem with Tiāntáng De Fěn; it convinced people they were already in Heaven. First time users experienced a euphoric high and usually slept it off. But, like all drugs, the effects waned and soon people were constantly chasing the religious high they got from the drug until the heaven became real all the time. A person who thinks he’s already in Heaven will fight over anything. These guys had spent a lot of time believing they were already in Heaven and Nüwa‘s tits were in their faces.

“It wouldn’t fit you,” Crow said. “Now fuck off before I turn it loose on your skinny ass.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Crow saw the shadow move closer. Whatever the weapon was, it had pulled back into position. Crow shook his head. He hated dealing with amateurs. Turns of hard training with legendary Chan had made him cynical when it came to fighting. Crow would readily admit he was no Chan, but he was hardly something to be trifled with.

The shadow shifted slightly and Crow knew the attack was coming. Some young punk, looking to make a name for himself was trying to brain him with a stick. Crow spun and dodged the incoming attack. The punk hit nothing but air.

Crow didn’t hesitate. He was busy and these idiots were wasting his time. He twisted his body, flexing his legs and twisting his hips. Force worked its way up from the ground, through his legs, up his torso, and through his shoulder. A fist flew, fast as an arrow and strong as stone. Knuckles hit the punk’s face, twisting his head to the side. Teeth flew out of his broken jaw.

The junkies watched as their temporary friend staggered. His face went ashen and the punk toppled to the side. Crow didn’t care if the punk was dead or out of it. He kept moving. The punks became targets in his mind. It was one of Chan’s little tricks – it’s easier to punch the life out of a target than a person.

Crow moved with random precision, drawing on the harsh tutelage of the man who became one of Croatoa’s most feared and respected fighters. Never become predictable and hit exactly what you wanted to hit. Chan taught Crow to move and keep moving; a static target was easy to hit. While he moved, he watched for openings and struck at the places most likely to hurt. Another junkie stepped up to swing a piece of pipe at Crow’s head and almost immediately found himself kneeling on a broken knee. He started to scream out in pain, but a vicious chop to the throat silenced him permanently.

Like all drugged up hop-heads, the punks didn’t realize the danger they were in. They thought they were strong, but starvation and drugs had made them weak and Crow was a predator in their midst. For the time being, they worked together, but the alley was a place of constantly shifting alliances as each denizen tried to jockey for a better position. When a threat was great enough, like the time the police showed up looking for a rapist, the alley temporarily banded together. Felix Crow qualified as a threat and the added bonus of killing the guy who killed the Clock Man made Crow a delicious target. The hat and coat were nice, but the street cred from killing Crow would be overwhelming.

They attacked en masse, an uncoordinated mess of junkies wielding weapons culled together from trash or stolen from other junkies. Even with the mass attacking, Crow still had the advantage. He might not be able to work the same kind of magic that shattered the knife – that required focus and small amount of time – but he had the ability to sense when an opponent was about to strike.

It wasn’t much of a sense, maybe a half second, but a half second in a fight can be a lifetime.

The next junkie slashed at Crow with a piece of rusty metal that probably used to belong to a bed frame. Crow deflected the knife and snaked around the man’s arms. He drew the punk closer and head butted him. The punk’s nose exploded; his eyes started to water and he suddenly found he was having trouble breathing. He staggered back as Crow pressed his attack.

What the junkie didn’t realize was Crow could move forward far faster than the junkie could backpedal. Before he could take two steps, Crow had smashed the man’s ribs.

Crow assessed the fallen guy briefly before turning to find the next target. He found a burly man that had gone to seed when the drugs took hold. The big guy held long piece of rebar over his head. A fist hit the side of the man’s jaw and unhinged it with a sickening crack. A large boot slammed into the side of the guy’s knee, cracking bone and tearing tendon.

A lifetime of training, a hint of magic passed to him from a dragon, and a propensity for violence turned the junkies into a simpering mess in short order. Crow took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He looked around for the first guy and almost missed the terrified eyes looking out from behind a trash can overflowing with rancid meat and old noodles.

“Get your ass over here,” Crow snapped.

The eyes shook from side to side and disappeared behind the trash can. Crow muttered a string of Chinese curses and kicked a nearby crying mass in the ribs. “Now!” he yelled.

The junkie’s eyes were wide and his body shook as he slunk from his hiding place. Gone were all the thoughts of getting the jacket or the hat. He’d be lucky if he left with his life. “Please don’t kill me,” he mumbled. His remaining sandal slapped the pavement and squished through gelatinous puddles as he slowly made his way to Crow.

Crow’s arm lashed out and his fingers wrapped around the guy’s throat. With a slight grunt, he lifted the junkie into the air. “I promise I won’t kill you if you tell me where I can find Hope. I have a meeting there, and I don’t like to be late.”

Skeletal fingers grabbed at Crow’s hands. Fingernails that were trimmed like claws dug gouges in his arms, but Crow didn’t flinch. “I don’t have much time and if I have to kill you I’ll waste even more time looking for someone to beat on. So, do yourself and someone else a favor and tell me where I can find Xīwàng.”

The junkie croaked something that could have been anything from “it’s over there” to “go fuck yourself.” Crow squeezed. The man’s face turned blue and the light faded from his eyes. Crow pushed his face closer to the junkie, close enough to smell rotting teeth and a shallow diet of trash and whatever insects or lizards got too close.

“What was that?” Crow asked. “I couldn’t quite make that out.”

A feeble arm, more bone than anything else and shaking from lack of oxygen and food, pointed across the alley. Crow turned his head and peered, but all he could make out was decaying brick and the faintest hint of where a paifang used to stand. The outline of the archway was etched in shadow on the wall.

“Through that paifang?” Crow asked. “Is that there I’ll find Hope?”

The man nodded weakly. His skin was ashen and clammy. Crow knew the junkie didn’t have much time left, but also knew the man was barely alive as it was. When he’d been on the local constabulary, Crow had seen the same man in different skin time after time. It was only a matter of time before the Tiāntáng De Fěn caught up with him and sent him spiraling into a pain-wracked death.

“You’re not joking around, are you?” Crow asked.

The man barely managed to shake his head. Crow knew exactly how long it took to the kill the average person by shutting off the blood to the brain. He’d been counting to himself ever since he lifted the man off the ground. At one hundred and fifteen seconds, Crow dropped the man.

The junkie hit the ground like a bag of meat and collapsed in on himself. With a bit of luck there wouldn’t be any brain damage that couldn’t be made worse by living in this place and using Heaven’s Powder night and day. The drug was odious. Even Crow, hardly the paragon of virtue, eschewed the stuff. Had he still been a cop, he probably would have been stuck tracking down whoever was making and distributing the stuff. But, he was no longer a cop and would never get assigned to the Heaven’s Powder case.

No matter. People could do whatever they wanted with their bodies. Crow had higher aspirations.

Felix Crow wanted the city. He wanted it in the same way that a man wants a woman he doesn’t respect. He wanted to slap it around and control it, keep it on his arm during the day and scream at it at night. The key to the city was controlling the underworld. No matter what people believed, the root of all power in any capitol was germinated by graft and tended by people with knives.

In the dim light Crow could barely make out the faded, dingy remains of letters: Xīwàng. The legends were true, then. Croatoa was an old city, not ancient, but old. Like all cities, it was alive. It breathed and bled and heaved in orgasmic revelation. Croatoa changed and grew after the Dragon Wars. This part of town was old and decayed, quite possibly the first part built.

Crow ran his fingers along the old stone and closed his eyes. The cold mind of the rock told him stories of dreaming gods and magic and dragons bigger than houses. He thought back to his little dragons and made a mental note to pick up some meat for them on the way home. Through his fingers, he felt the weight of centuries, through wars and strife and junkies puking and killing each other for hats or jackets. The stone lived on, quietly watching the world go by, unperturbed by the goings on of Croatoa’s transplanted children.

Xīwàng,” Crow whispered.

His fingers felt along the smooth stone. There had to be a switch or a lever somewhere. The legends of Hope had largely been forgotten, but a musty tome in ramshackle pawn shop spoke eloquently of the place. Hope, it is said, remembers everything, but cares about nothing. Things slide off Xīwàng’s back like baiju tossed in a drunk’s face. The only way to keep hope alive was to let the world move without letting it interfere. The monks that founded Hope dedicated their lives to providing hope while the world itself descended further and further into the madness of the Dragon Wars and the unpleasantness that followed them.

Crow’s fingers traced the whole of the stone wall and found nothing but whispered memories. He stepped back and scowled. There had to be a way in. If anyone in the city would know where to find the Beast, it would be the monks of Hope. He hadn’t come this far to be stopped by mere stone.

He reached out with his senses and felt the cold stone. His mind pushed aside the stories and visions and dug deeper. The stoneness of the wall gave way to increasing emptiness. Crow pushed deeper until he saw the first pinprick. Soon the world was filled with pinpricks of light, each vibrating in mad intensity. He didn’t completely understand exactly what he was looking at, but he knew how to make it do his bidding.

His mind gently pushed one of the vibrating things. Crow was no aetherist, but he knew enough to know what he was looking at was intensely tiny. In addition to being able to see very slightly into the future, the dragon in the North gave him a kind of magical power. The stone wall, immense though it was, was essentially the same thing as the knife that exploded earlier. It was matter and all matter was made up of the tiny pieces.

Crow nudged one of the buzzing things and watched as it collided with another buzzing thing. Soon they were all buzzing and knocking against each other. A final push set the pieces atwitter. The air in the alley buzzed and hummed. He’d never tried anything this big before, but like the dragon said, “Magic can create a gold statue or remove a mountain.”

The humming in the air turned in a deep basso thrum, the kind of thing the kids in clubs like to listen to. That music always gave Crow a headache; he was more of the traditional music kind of guy. He slowly backed away from the thumping door. Once the reaction started, it was almost impossible to stop it.

Thunder and smoke rippled down the alley. When the dust cleared, Crow found himself staring through the black and white paifang into an exquisite garden. He pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. The paifang was an archway to another country, one that shouldn’t be in the middle of an alley in one of the many worst parts of Croatoa.

He stood and stared at the garden and wondered where the golden light was coming from. The garden reeked of calmness and peace – promises too vague to be disappointing when they don’t show up. Felix Crow calmly stepped over the rubble of the old stone wall and into the garden. He didn’t need calmness and peace. He needed information and this was as good a place to start as any.