Friday, December 4, 2020
Wednesday, September 30, 2020
If I were forced to describe this book in one word, it would be "Nice". Nice people doing nice things in a nice way, all told in a voice like that of a kindly grandmother telling her grandchildren a story. The small stakes make this a refreshing read, as you are allowed a reprieve from international incidents and global catastrophe that so often show up in adventure thrillers.
The action is extremely well thought out and precise, even if, as a reader, I never felt the characters were really in danger of being killed. In fact, the only principal character death happens off-screen and in a remote way. Far from hurting the narrative, it allowed other characters to have to wrestle with the feelings left in the wake of tragedy, though it would have been nice to explore those feelings just a tiny bit longer. Everyone in this book was so friendly and expressive toward one another it was almost too nice, and the dialogue suffered from “Nobody talks like that” syndrome. But, the book clipped along so smartly, with TONS of good action sequences. It was a total shame to have to step away from this world and it's characters. I would definitely recommend this to younger readers who could possibly get bored by the heavy amounts of research and talking heads present in other books of this genre. Also, younger female readers will have plenty here to look up to in the form of the several wonderful lady adventurers Ms. McNiven populates her story with. It’s got a lightning quick pace, an intimate setting, lots of fun maritime stuff, and a lack of the more smarmy or unsavory bits that make it into some of these adventure books. Great fun.
Note: Shark Eater the sequel to The Monkey Idol also by K. D. McNiven. It is followed by The Bermuda Conspiracy and Sheba's Treasure. She is also the author of the prehistoric thriller Bone Quarry and the crime thriller Blood Alley.
You can follow K. D. McNiven on Twitter at: @kady54033
Here is K. D.'s Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/K-D-McNiven/e/B07F3XQ7NV?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1601494569&sr=8-1
Friday, September 25, 2020
Monday, September 21, 2020
Confession: I love character archetypes. I love the "Gunslinger". I love the "Dashing Rogue". Hell, I even love the "Great White Hunter". However, my most favorite is the "Wild-man". Characters that are products of nature and wilderness as opposed to civilization's refinements. I aim to explore that here.
The story of Tarzan is a simple one, with an origin so well known, it is barely worth telling. The critical reception of the character's exploits, especially the latter novels, is interesting, especially when compared to the enduring recognizability (if not popularity) of the character. Through the two dozen original tales penned by Burroughs we see Tarzan (aka John Clayton aka Lord Greystoke) travel through Europe, Africa, Jungles, Deserts, Lost Cities, and beneath the Earth's crust. He meets all manner of people, from a diminutive tribe of Pygmies, forgotten Romans, to devolved Ape-things, and even Dinosaurs. Tarzan has appeared in all kinds of media, from novels, fiction written by other authors, television, radio, comics and film. Unsurprisingly, every iteration has it's own unique sensibilities due to the time and place of the particular creations. Despite these myriad differences, many simultaneously and contradictorily bemoaned by the various fandoms centered around each creation, the core of Tarzan as an archetypal adventurer remains intact.
When thinking of Tarzan as a character template, an RPG class if you will, we begin with an individual that has been separated from civilization. In Tarzan's case, this is jolly old England. During his separation, he learns various skills and ways of life from the beasts that he grows up beside. In the case of Tarzan, these manifest as all the things you would expect from being raised by fictional apes; he can climb with trees, communicate with various animal species, he is strong, nearly inhumanly so, and his physical features (especially his hands) have become malformed from living life as an "ape". After all of our pieces have fallen into place, this character now uses his skills in feats of daring, danger, and heroics.
In many ways, the "natural vitality" of the Wild-Man seems a progenitor, or at least influence on, the blood that runs through the fantasy "Barbarian" archetype. What we have in Tarzan and his ilk, is a hero/heroine more in-tune with the their wild side, not unlike Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian. In fact, while REH only mentioned Edgar Rice Burroughs in a single letter, his library was full of ERB creations. The concept behind this seems to be a contrast between what man "is", and what it "used to be". Tarzan, while wholly human, grew up an animal, in a more "natural state" than other products of civilization. While ERB himself draws many comparison between the contrasting states of mankind, I believe this culminates in Howard's "Barbarism vs Civilization" philosophy.
Conversely, the same characteristics that make Tarzan and Conan heroes, exemplars in a savage world, makes them outsiders nearly everywhere else. Tarzan, though born to English nobility, is not necessarily welcome in High Society. This culminates in his return to Africa with Jane and son. Conan too is seen as an outsider in a world rife with burgeoning civilization. Jane Porter, the eternal love interest of Tarzan, fears that their son, Jack, will be drawn to a life like his father, outside the trapping of modern civilization. This flip-side of the bull-strength, panther-like grace, tiger ferocity, makes for compelling interactions with the rest of the world. Does this character belong with humans? What of their bestial/barbaric family? Is there a place in society for such a creation of happenstance?
In recent years, I have seen what I deem to be a new spin on the "Wild-man", specifically within the realm of video games. Two pieces of media stand out to me in particular. The first is Far Cry 3 by Ubisoft, and the second is the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. In all actuality, I could understand the argument that these represent a different archetype, but at their heart I believe they are firmly rooted within the Tarzan family.
The first, Far Cry 3, is set on a tropical archipelago teeming with wildlife and vicious pirates. The protagonist, Jason Brody, is the nothing more than a spoiled rich kid surrounded by his rich kid friends. Essentially, the same kind of elite to which Tarzan was born in to. When things go south, Jason is left to "learn the ways of the jungle", save his friends, and escape the island. To do that, he masters skills taught to him by resistance fighters, CIA operatives, and the island's reclusive native warriors. By the end of his quest, Jason is no longer recognizable by the very people he once loved. He has essentially transitioned from a spoiled brat, to a Tarzan-esque killing machine, ultimately facing ostracization from the world to which he once belonged. In the end, the player is given a choice. They can either leave on a salvaged boat and attempt a normal life, or forsake everything they once knew.
Following a similar path, the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider set out create a new Lara Croft; one shaped by her ability to survive strange environments and impossible odds. Again, we see our character born with a silver spoon in hand, Lara being the daughter of a wealthy Englishman. After her father goes dies, she sets out to prove herself and her archeological prowess by accompanying a crew of adventurers on an expedition into the Dragon's Triangle. Bad weather rips apart her ship, and Lara finds herself stranded in the Japanese Bermuda Triangle analogue, Yamatai. Throughout her adventure, Lara is molded by harrowing encounters with wolves, insane cultists, inbred samurai, and an undead princess. Whether it's shooting arrows, creating makeshift weapons, climbing and jumping from tree to crag, or solving ancient riddles, her skills are developed through the trials of the island. All the while, she too becomes an obsessive killing machine hardly comparable to her past self. This all culminates in the third (and best) installment, "Shadow of the Tomb Raider", where Lara has essentially become the Predator.
While not one-to-one comparisons, the key notes of Tarzan still ring true in these examples. Our main character finds themselves in a stranger, wilder place, where they must adapt, or die. Perhaps not literally raised by animals, the settings into which they are thrust act as the beast. Upon choosing to live, to transform, they find themselves living a new life outside of their old reality. I too have played in this sandbox, twice actually, most recently in the main character of my first novel (Remnant due out in December and published by Primal Press!). I'm sure my fascination with this archetype stems from my love of Conan, who I obviously couldn't help but name drop, but also my love of the wild places that crafted Tarzan. You see, I used to be the kid that stayed inside and played video games. I was that teenager that would rather be somewhere virtual than someplace natural. But, as I slowly grew older, I found many things in nature that I once sought elsewhere, specifically, I found a sense of adventure. Climbing rocks gave me confidence, seeing natural wonders brought me curiosity, watching animals in their habitat brought me peace. Nature and the natural world had molded me, slowly, into a new person, the person I am today. Maybe not Tarzan, far from it, but someone new. I was alive. And there it is. Perhaps that is the most enduring aspect of the Wild-man, that, given the proper scenario, we too could find the King/Queen of the Jungle inside ourselves.
What do you love about the "Wild-man" archetype? Did I get something wrong? Let's discuss, I'd love to hear from you!
- L. D. Whitney
|Tarzan and the Antmen, Frank Frazetta|
There is a lot to like here for fans of the genre; it’s got ancient secrets, historical mysteries, fabulous treasure, acts of courage and hairsbreadth escapes. But there is something a little bit off about this book, and I can’t decide if it hinders the book or makes it innovative in some way. In the acknowledgments, the author states that this book was a work of ten years’ passion and dedication, and this is clearly evident with the amount of meticulous research and historical information on display. Where this falls short however, is that at points the book feels more like a history lesson with a tacked on narrative than a ripping adventure with historical mysteries, seeming like a paper on Ptolemaic Alexandria with some people doing some things just thrown in.
“Some people” is a perfect way to describe the characters in this book, who the author tries desperately to get us to care for with pretty flimsy and transparent emotion bait that feels like RPG backstory thrown on a character sheet to give at least some weight to the relationships therein. None of the characters feel like they do much, which is a problem in a genre that is built on pulpy tropes of good and evil. Daniel Knox, whom later books are eponymously associated with never seems to act heroic, rather he is acted upon and seems like a passenger borne along by the actions of others. This calls into question whether the other books bearing his name will include him learning new skills, and improving as a heroic character which is a very interesting thing to do, though in this tale he falls a bit flat. With every hero comes a villain, and the principle villain in this book doesn’t actually do anything villainous, merely acts with singular drive toward his goal (which is debatably a noble one) with no regard as to its effects, which ultimately lends a nice air of realism to the book. The secondary villain is definitively a scum bag that ends up not being stopped; in fact he ends up coming out the other side with even greater power and influence, adding realism to the book, because as we all know villains are never actually stopped in real life, they just accrue more power and influence after they escape justice.
This book was published in 2007, though some of the social attitudes feel a bit older, with the women either being rescue bait or coded as volatile and mean simply because they are career focused and driven toward their goals. There is also a tiny bit of completely needless homophobia in here as well, though I think it was inserted to give a character a bit of depth, though it just felt gross and dumb rather than any type of deep characterization. What was pleasant to see however, was the way the Muslim characters were handled. Because the book takes place entirely in northern Egypt, several principle characters were Muslim, and the author avoided treading on precarious ground quite well, never having characters dip into stereotypes or uttering buzzwords or catchphrases that made them feel like bad pantomime.
The singular greatest strength of this novel lies in its absolutely breakneck pacing. Three main story threads are snap cut from one to the next in such a well executed way as to leave you with a cliffhanger on nearly every other page, driving you to hustle on through the story to see what happens next.
I can’t decide if this was a novel of high adventure that just missed the mark or a clever piece of genre subversion that just missed the mark. I would definitely recommend it to someone looking for more grounded adventure, as it has zero elements of the fantastic or weird. No wild ancient technology, no ancient curses, no secret societies desperate to conceal ancient secrets; just people caught up in a treasure hunt. A very fun read, if not excellent or wildly exciting.
Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Before I start out here, I have to be up front. I am not an expert. I am not a massively successful writer of New York Times Best Sellers. I have a single short novel published by an Indie Press, and half a dozen short stories that have been accepted and are floating around out there. What I can claim, is to be a connoisseur of what I call "Adventure Fiction". This post is really meant to benefit not just you, the readers, but also me since it is little more than a brainstorming exercise. Now that my confession is out of the way, let us begin.
Trying to curate and publish a collection of short stories is a new undertaking for me, and while we are only beginning this process, I have already learned a ton.
We have received a decent amount of submissions so far. Quite a few of them good stories, to boot. The issue though, is that they aren't what I would call adventure, they don't scratch the itch, or have that "zazz" as my partner is crime would put it.
So how does one achieve said "zazz"?
To be perfectly honest it requires a fairly precise mix of just the right ingredients in order to create the ideal concoction.
But, before I get ahead of myself, I have to clarify something. I totally understand that Adventure means different things to different people. I acknowledge that there is adventure to be found within the realm of full on fantasy, and unabashed sci fi. That's not the kind of adventure I'm talking about. I would say the difference is that those examples are "fantasy and sci fi first", with adventure being secondary. I'm speaking specifically on a role-reversal that put adventure first and foremost. For my following discussion, I am going to rely on a formula that every adventure writer (and nerd) should be familiar with: Indiana Jones.
Let's forge some zazz!
I know that a lot of people are going to be surprised by this, but I really think setting is the first and foremost ingredient for a good adventure. Let's think about the most iconic and memorable "adventure" media from the last century or so. Indiana Jones (of course), Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt. What do they all have in common? They use a real world setting, anchored in time and place, where mystery, maybe even the supernatural, lurks just below the surface. In the case of Indy, he exists in a world very much like our own. In every way, except a few key details, his world is wrapped up in all the trappings of what we would see had we too been living during the 1940's and 50's. The "zazz" we are talking about shines because of these familiar and relatable trappings. When the Ark is opened, revealing it's true nature, that is a moment of awe and wonder. We are forced to question and reconcile our reality and how this new information fits into it. Which is the same thing Indy is doing in that exact moment. In a fantasy world, or a high tech universe, this sense of awe and wonder is diminished because the very world is filled with wonder when compared to ours. It is the juxtaposition with the mundane that sets the wonder apart.
I am unabashedly not a character guy. That's not to say I don't understand what makes characters good and bad, or that I don't try and write good characters. I do try. But that is not the reason I read or write. I read specifically to go on that eponymous adventure. That being said, of course the character/s play a role in that, but maybe not in a way that you would expect. When one goes on an adventure, whether it is real world hiking or travel, or the fictional quest for the holy grail, there is an element of danger. That danger needs to be conveyed through the characters we are following on the journey. When we watch Indy scramble across the top of tanks, or react to spreading flames, we understand that he is human. These hurt and are a danger to him. The reader needs to see (and ideally feel) every punch, kick, fall, and bullet graze. Feel that adrenaline pumping? That's the zazz talking. Now that our hero or heroine has fallen from the pan into the fire, do they give up? No! That would be lame! No matter the situation that they are faced with, our characters rise to the challenge, if only to find what new danger dwells on the horizon.
So we already talked about our characters reacting to, and overcoming danger. What left is there to talk about in regards to action? THAT IT NEEDS TO EXIST! Is the plot slowing to a crawl? GUNFIGHT! Is there no way out of your vital historical information dump? CHASE SCENE! How do you solve your problems when all intellect, reason, and logic fail? PUNCH SOMETHING! I am aware that there exists the literary idea of the "cozy" adventure, where problems are not solved with violence and no real danger is present. I reject that idea and push it into a pit of spikes! In my mind there are essentially four kinds of action: running, jumping, climbing and fighting. A good adventure should have at least two of them, because fighting is always necessary. The best thing about these categories is that they are extremely versatile. Swimming? That's running in water. Car chase? That's running on wheels! See? Easy peasey. On the topic of fighting, that is not to say your character has to be a mass-murdering psychopath. MacGuyver and Doc Savage are known for non-life threatening resolution. Indy himself has a fairly low body count, often resorting to fists, and whip. Creative resolutions to violence are always welcome, and a character that doesn't kill everyone he meets makes them easier to relate to.
ProTip: To ensure maximum zazz, use all four categories.
This, I think, is the hardest but most key thing to achieve in a good adventure. This ties a lot into the setting and what I said there, but you need need need to strike the right mixture of wonder, weird, and mundane. Indiana Jones is always faced with something out of this world, whether supernaturally so, or literally. The caveat is that it comes in small doses and doesn't hit full force till the climax of the episode. We may get small hints of weirdness throughout the journey, but the true nature of the universe isn't revealed till we reach our peak's zenith. This weirdness can come in all sorts of forms, from strange creatures like Sasquatch, Nessie, and El Chupacabra, it can come in the form of strange weird created by man with just the right application of pressure to bend fact, or the straight up supernatural and divine. This is not a 100% necessary ingredient, I admit, but there is something about these kinds of additions that push an adventure into a more elevated category. Maybe it is the human desire to discover, to explain? Our craving for answers to the unknown? Why am I asking these questions? Of course that's it. Much of our drive, our call to adventure, so to speak, is because humans have an innate curiosity and desire to see what lies beyond the next horizon. There lies the zazz at the heart of all of this.
Of course there are many more things that go into a really good adventure, and a good adventure doesn't necessarily need some of these items either. Conspiracies, both modern and historical, are common. Exotic locales and interesting people are almost always a must. I would argue that a treasure, like those Indy searches for, are not a necessity. Or maybe your treasure takes on another aspect. A war journalist on the heels of a war criminal, looking for just the perfect shot to expose the bastard. That's an adventure. Finding your way down from an isolated mountain top after an avalanche while being pursued by a clouded leopard. That's an adventure too. It is not necessary to have a treasure at the proverbial X, or a J.J. Abrams style McGuffin at the center of your plot. The best example of Adventure sans treasure that I can think of, would be the El Borak stories by none other than Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Cimmerian. Set in the days before WWII, a Texas Gunfighter lives and fights his way across untamed Afghanistan, helping friends and toppling foes. Good, rollicking stuff. Check it out; there is an amazing collection published by Del Rey.
Phew, that was a lot of brain power put into this. And you know what? If you didn't learn anything, I sure did. Do you think I missed anything? Am I wrong? Let's discuss! We love to hear from you!
-L. D. Whitney
|Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark|
Monday, September 14, 2020
This is a tough one for me. I really want to like this book. It's not that I don't like it, but I want to like it more than I do. On paper, hell, on the back cover, it has all the ingredients that would make it a top notch read for me. It has glowing blurbs by Clive Cussler and James Rollins, with additional praise from James Cameron. That's a lot of hype for someone like me. And you know what? Maybe that's it. Maybe it was hyped too much for me.
But let's take a look-see, shall we?
Ostensibly, this book is about a zoologist-turned-adventurer that is tasked by the U.S. military to seek out intel on shady Nazi goings on deep in the Amazon. The Nazis and all their ne'er-do-well have awoken something better left forgotten by the world.
Sure sounds like it.
Temper that excitement though.
The protagonist, R. J. MacCready, is a rough and tumble zoologist that may or may not have inherited schizophrenia from his mother (at least I think that is what was being eluded to). He has a background in the military and isn't afraid to throw a punch, pull a trigger, or blow some stuff up. But unfortunately, there wasn't a ton of that. I always enjoy a protagonist with a science background. It allows for a lot of that good scientific detail to flow from the characters naturally as opposed to an omniscient narrator dumping exposition. I also enjoy the trope of a brainy guy/gal doing some butt kicking. I think what is most endearing though, is the 1940's slag that is bantered about between MacCready and friends.
The other two main supporting characters on the good guy side are Mac's friend Bob, a shroom eating botanist gone native, and his wife Yanni, a beautiful and adaptable indigenous woman with a unique gift. Bob and his friendship with Mac is believable, and the historically accurate issues that led Bob to leaving civilization in the rear-view add a lot to his character. Yanni should be more awesome than she is though. I love the idea of an indigenous character, and there is a lot about her that is eluded to, but I never felt like she had that much to do. Her special ability doesn't even really come into play until the (long) epilogue that is clear set up for a sequel.
The Nazis/Japanese have a a large cast of characters, but almost too many for me. There is the evil General Wolff, who is evil. The evil Japanese scientist who is also evil. A rocket scientist that is evil. A conflicted rocket scientist that is not evil, but works for the Nazis so he can go to space. And to round it out, a female Nazi pilot who is evil. The most compelling fictional character in this lot is the conflicted rocket scientist who gives the reader an interesting perspective on the state of science in that time period. There is also a lot of time devoted to him, a bit too much. The evil rocket scientist and evil woman pilot were actual people, people that ended up having a lot of impact on various parts of history post WW II. Unfortunately, none of that really plays into the story. I would have almost preferred fictional characters as opposed to historical personages that kind of move in and out fiction without any real gravity.
Oh. There is a Nazi captain that is also evil.
The real draw here for me, other than the glowing praise by some of my favorites, was the creatures. There are some interesting ideas in here, ones that I really love. Even some truly horrifying bits. But there's the rub. They only remain bits. I am not sure if it was the author's plan to subvert expectations, but mine were definitely subverted, just not in a good way. The best scene involving creatures doesn't even focus on the main species that is key to all of this mess. There is a lot ton of good speculation and bending of scientific fact that goes on in this book. The naturally occuring "monsters" were genuinely well done and could be quite creepy. However, when I read "Will haunt you long after you put the book down." as quoted by James Cameron, I have to disagree. I am not haunted. I want desperately to be haunted. I wish I was and was sooooo close to being haunted, but it just never came to fruition.
Haunt me, damn it!
Ultimately, I think this book suffered from a pacing issue. There were times when the action was ramped up to a 10, but only for like two seconds and then it was a 1 again. There were large spaces of this "adventure" that were dedicated to the sad backstories or relationships of people that just never resonated with me. Worst of all was the choppy and disjointed epilogue that went on far too long. I got it. I understood its purpose. But it wasn't satisfying to me. I really appreciate the later Marvel movies that understood it was bad to end a movie just to set up a sequel. That's what happened here. It wasn't a cliffhanger sort of thing, but a lot of pages throughout the book seemed solely dedicated to setting up a sequel. Of which there are currently two, I believe.
Now, can I recommend this book?
Yes. I can.
Especially if you need to take a break from Cussler or Rollins because their formula is growing stale.
Will I read the sequels?
There are some really interesting ideas present in this book, and MacCready partnered with Yanni have a lot of potential for cool things. I want to see them grow and I want to see what trouble they will stir up.
I have high hopes for the next titles, but I have learned to temper my hopes some. I am not usually one to fall prey to the hype machine, and this book has reminded me why one should always be wary of marketing.
- L. D. Whitney
Did I miss anything? Maybe my perspective is askew? Maybe you just want to talk about this book? Leave a comment!
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