The Circle

I saw her at the edge of the cliff, dancing with her arms extended, fingers grasped, to form a perfect ring.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“I’m dancing with my husband before I join him on the bottom.”

Worldbuilding Wednesday 11/14/18: Tarot Cards

Contrary to what you may have heard, the Tarot was not created for telling fortunes. It was instead a cousin of the regular playing card deck used throughout the Western world. Tarot cards date from 15th century Europe and are still used in the present day to play games such as the Italian Tarocchini. Note that the sheer size of the Tarot deck makes this a very complicated game.

Tarot cards were eventually popularized for divining usage in 18th century France. At that time it was believed that the cards had originated in the Egypt of the Pharaohs and thus were ascribed mystic meanings. Many in the occult still believe in these elder roots, but it’s more likely the cards came from the Medieval Islamic world. One story goes that they were invented by the women of the harem as a way to pass the time.

In the present day there are hundreds if not thousands of artistic variations on the deck, ranging from Fast Food to Cats to Gay Sex, though the suits (pentacles, swords, staves/wands, cups), face cards, and subject cards remain the same. You can get an idea of the diversity here  (no gay sex deck though).

If you want some Tarot-type fortune telling cards in your world, or maybe just individual cards for a game played by the characters in some gambling den, here are some ideas.

Tarot Cards

The Seven of Hawks:   Means a parent will die.

The Hippogriff and the Wyvern:   The two creatures are locked in mortal combat. In the background are two human twins held in a giant hand coming out of the sky.

The Sleeping Slave:   He is dressed in white rags and sleeps on a pile of straw in a stable. Through the open window a storm is seen to be brewing. Traditionally the card means ignorance in the face of destruction.

The Maid of Octagons:   The subject is going to heaven.

The Bat:   The bat flies within in a circle of yellow six-pointed stars against the night sky. Means death faced with bravery.

The One of Helms:   An armory will make one’s fortune.

The Brave Duke:   He wields a sword and faces the east. In the background is a stormy harbor with eight orange fish leaping out of the water.

The Wheel of Scandal:   A discarded shoe rests in the foreground under a golden wheel on which men and women are bound and weeping. Means a lover is unfaithful no matter how much pleasure they give.

Death:   Depicts a black-clad assassin being attacked by a bird. In the background an eclipse occurs.

The Six of Flames:   Means the subject is the target of a curse. But when near the Sea-Goat card, it means the discernment of a poisonous relationship.

The Virgin of the Violets:   Spiritual transcendence for the subject.

The Wealthy Prince:   A calm, bearded, luxuriously dressed man sits on top of a hill. It means treasure from the earth will come.

The King of Hexagons:   He rides a dragon treading flowers underfoot. His robes are scarlet trimmed with ermine. This card means conflict will soon present itself.

The Ten of Feathers:   A long and happy marriage or business partnership.

Infinity:   Shows a golden Sphinx looking into a set of mirrors so its reflection is doubled and re-doubled.

The Knight’s Gem:   A knight in full armor holds a purple gem to his eyes and marvels at it. Traditionally means chivalry but when reversed, a cheat.

The Seven of Hippogriffs:   Sickness lies ahead.

The Ten of Comets:   One’s betrothed is being duplicitous.

The Huntsman:   The huntsman bears a bow and his head is crowned with flowers. In the background is a many-towered castle and a sky filled with swallows.

The One of Flames:   A small gift is coming.

The Golden Strawberry:   Someone envies the good harvest the subject has had.

The Bridge of Temperance:   A small wooden bridge on which a golden key lays. It means a new spiritual beginning for the subject.

The Narwhal:   The creature frolics in the waves before a fishing fleet. It means business will be profitable.

The Twin Troubadors:   They are wearing red doublets and blue trousers, and strum lutes. The effects of the card before it are doubled.

The Two of Unicorns:   Beware of the rivers and lakes.

The Four of Wolves:   Victory in war.

The Suspicious Maid:   A girl in an apron eavesdrops at the door of her mistress. She holds a candle and listens with her ear cupped. It means someone in power is lying to the subject.

The Goat-girl:   She holds an arrow in her upraised fist while being chased by a bear. Her goats scatter before her. It means an upcoming wedding will not take place.

Insanity:   Depicts a motley-clad Fool performing alchemical experiments. He has a wide grin on his face.

Hansel and Gretel 2018

Art by Filip Hodas

Art by Filip Hodas

Modern witches design their huts differently to attract small children.


Worldbuilding Wednesday 11/7/18: Let’s Talk About the

In my art classes I was taught that the way to create a good caricature, whether for a political cartoon or MAD magazine parody, was to exaggerate the two or three most distinctive features of a subject’s face, because that is what the human eye takes in first. Such a depiction is grotesque, yet instantly recognizable.

Yet, in doing some research for this post, I found that this does not apply to any of the Kardashian sisters, because their features have been so smoothed and blended by plastic surgery that there’s literally nothing to exaggerate. So, I found a picture of an old Bratz doll that is more recognizable as Kim Kardashian than an actual bona fide caricature of Kim Kardashian. Strange but true.

I am sure everyone knows who the Kardashians are and has some opinion on them, and most of them can articulate their opinion better than I can, so I’ll say simply that I don’t like them, and that if they were all killed tomorrow in a freak jet ski accident, I wouldn’t be put out. Not that I hate them, or anything. I just think the world would be better if they weren’t here taking up time, attention, and resources.

That said, if a writer needs to come up with a Kardashian Klone for their own version of a reality TV star or fashion icon, someone whose name has the same ring but isn’t them, here are some ideas.

Kardashian Klones

Kendar Korrashian

Khydee Kardashamia

Kyla Kardathis

Kami Kardashimi

Khloö Kadashiels

Kady Kurtdtan

Klea Korkoddian

Keenanne Kaftwafft

Kathe Khamulian

Kanai Kasumbra

Kamoa Kidzukis

Kathiss Kardavite

Keely Kudashka

Kendess Kukushian

Kethia Kardaz

Kamet Khodashandri

The Giants

Were they being created, or destroyed?
Punished, or enhanced?
Monitored, or forgotten?

They look caught in motion, yet perhaps the liquid medium just holds them in stasis.

Don’t ask the worker at the lower right. He’s just doing his job.


Every Heart a Doorway [Review]

Every Heart a Doorway

by Seanan McGuire
Tor Books, 2016

Every Heart a Doorway is a book that spans genres. It’s part YA, part horror, part old-timey Portal fantasy, and part magical boarding school fantasy, with a dollop of LGBTQ. It’s disturbing, in ways both unintentional and obvious. It won a Nebula award, yet could have been a lot better.

The book has a hell of a concept. Portals into other worlds – described along an axis of Logic and Nonsense, and another of Virtue and Vice, actually exist, and manage to suck in the children who explore. Some have good experiences, some bad. When the Portal spits them out again months or years later, they’re older and changed psychologically. Their parents and loved ones, not believing their stories of fantasy worlds, pack them off to a special boarding school to “cure” them. But Eleanor West, the school’s owner, does the opposite… she also went through a Portal in her youth, and so helps them come to terms with it rather than denying it.

The story starts off being about Nancy, a teenage girl who spent a few years in The Land of the Dead and her struggles with adjusting to her present life in the real world, but it’s really about the concept of Portals and the odd worlds they lead to, and how they affect the kids who spend time in them. In the second half of the book there’s a murder mystery shoved in with some gruesomeness that doesn’t quite fit the beginning tone of the story, and acts as a spoiler to and repudiation of that first part of the novel (novella, rather, it was quite short) which was meditative and magical. Nancy helps solve the crime, and in the end, finding a secret message from one of the murdered victims, gets to go back to the fantasy land she loved so much. The End.

I was more than a little nonplussed by the book, and am still mulling it over. On the whole, though, I was frustrated by the directions it took. For example, the Portal worlds read more like video game scenarios than spoofs of literary fantasy worlds (Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, etc.) that the author seemed to be setting the reader up for. For example, there’s a Candyland world that recalls the fictional video game Sugar Rush from the Pixar movie Wreck-it Ralph, and a high Gothic one that recalls not Emily Bronte or Mary Shelley, but the Ravenloft universe from Dungeons and Dragons. There did seem to be a lack of variety in that all came across on variations of Faerielands or Looking-Glass world, rather than the familiar universes of, say, Talking Animal world (Native American myths, Pooh, Dr. Doolittle), Arabian Nights world, Celtic England world, and on and on.  Worlds from the books the kids in the story might have read. I could see these worlds functioning as archetypes, along the lines of the different theme parks in the Westworld TV series and movies, for example.

In the story they did, sort of, but the effect was off-putting. Most of the worlds came across as dull or dangerous. Only one character had grand adventures of the type the Narnia kids had. The others were damaged, or exploited. One character, Sumi, emerged as a near-schizophrenic speaking word salad, giggling and hiding in trees. Twin sisters in the high Gothic world were forced to serve a mad scientist and a vampire. Yet, in McGuire’s depiction, the kids LOVE it, so much they want to return, which is why they’re at the school being consoled by Eleanor. The more I think about it, and I’ve been mulling over this book for a few weeks now, the story is horror at its heart. Yet it pretends not to be.

The main character, Nancy, served as a living statue in the vaguely Grecian Land of Dead, which meant she stood still a very long time observing a lot of nothing (because the dead aren’t exactly full of energy) which would be frankly hellish for most people, yet she enjoyed it. Many times it was mentioned how she detests the “hot, busy” world, yet it was never convincingly explained why or how she vegged out 24/7 with no outside stimulation.

And, troublingly I think, some of the kids’ kinks for these worlds are linked to their real-world psychologies. Nancy asserts she is asexual (a lack of sexual attraction toward any gender) and the book hints their psychologies choose for them, or perhaps manifest, a Portal to a world where they can live them out – Nancy as asexual has a lack of engagement and passion, so she goes to a Land of the Dead where she can literally erase herself. Kade, another character, is a transgender boy, so he goes to a world of fairies to have boyish adventures, only to be kicked out when his birth gender is discovered. The twin sisters are vaguely sociopathic, so one becomes a mad scientist in Gothic world, the other a vampire’s foster daughter. This raises some questions the author may not have intended, as in, are these young people better off in their own worlds, or is it better for them to be integrated into society? Are their kinks eccentricities, or pathologies?

I have to say the story works as an examination of these issues, but it fails as a story. The characters were unpleasant, self-centered and stereotypical, and the murder mystery was distracting and awkward. Plus, the story started in a way that I hate. There’s probably a name for the trope: Main character arrives in a new place and stands there all confused, then another character waltzes in who spouts a lot of nonsense at them, making them even more confused, and also the reader, and even though what the insane character says actually makes sense, that’s apparent only in hindsight when the reader gets deeper into the book. It’s a very hard trope to write well, and 99% of writers don’t. The trick is to make the insane character amusing enough for the reader to tolerate them, which Lewis Carroll pulled off in Alice in Wonderland… but that was also because of the humor, puns, and Victorian caricatures. The schizophrenic character of Sumi was just irritating and my annoyance level jumped every time she came back into the story. In hindsight, I found her damaged and pathetic, but the story didn’t think so. It treated her as heroic in her madness.

Other tropes seemed imported wholesale from YA fiction, and popular fiction in general… showing the brainy, competent character in a room full of books, and the mad scientist character dressing like one in tweeds and bow tie. Really.

And, actually, there are stories that play with the concept of Portal worlds better. One of these is The Cave in Deerfield, by an author known as Cofax, which is Narnia fanfic and available through the  Archive of Our Own fanfic site. This asks the question, were the Pevensie kids the first ones to travel through a Portal to Narnia, or only the ones who were successful in their mission? Now, you have to have read C.S. Lewis’s  Narnia series to get this, or at least The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I think most fantasy readers have, so I’ll include it in this link.

If Narnia was in public domain the way Oz is, The Cave in Deerfield should have won a Nebula.

Another is Ursula K. LeGuin’s beautiful short story The Pathways of Desire. A group of explorer/anthropologists travel to a planet that is superficially like a Polynesian island with beautiful native girls and brave warriors, only to discover it’s really the invented fantasy world of a high school boy. “But what happens if he wakes up and stops believing in it?” one character asks. The other responds, “Only once in a million million years does a soul wake up” implying that most young people prefer their fantasies to their realities, which is more of a heartbreaking point than anything Every Heart a Doorway came up with. It’s not one of the LeGuin’s most cited short stories, but I’d like to see it get mentioned more than it does, because of what it says to SFF readers and writers both.

In sum, Every Heart a Doorway could have been a creepy horror story, but failed. I didn’t get the meta-commentary on Portal worlds I expected to find, either, and what details there were served as background for the start of a longer book series that doesn’t sound as interesting as the initial concept is.

The Absolutely True Diary of a
Part-Time Indian
xxxx[Reading Challenge 2018]

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

by Sherman Alexie
Little, Brown & Co., 2017
(10th Anniversary Edition)

[Challenge # 5: A book by a local author.]

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-mythic coming of age story of a Native American boy’s freshman year. Arnold Spirit Jr. lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, an intelligent yet quiet youth whom no one notices much, and whose family is so poor that when they can’t afford a trip to the vet for their sick dog, they shoot it. He has a best friend, Rowdy, and a family that cares for him yet is crippled by alcoholism and apathy. At the beginning of his first year at the Rez’s high school Arnold receives a textbook and is excited to start learning. When he opens it, he sees his mother’s name inside, and realizes the textbooks have not been updated for twenty-five years. Angered, he hits his teacher in the face with it!

Thus starts his journey, in which he decides to attend a regular public high school in the nearest town rather than the Native community’s. This decision bears consequences: his friends and community turn their backs on him for betraying their own, for seeking a better education and better life.

Of course, Arnold doesn’t phrase it like this, because he’s a 14-year-old boy; he thinks instead in omens and intuition. His narration is the most charming part of the book, even if it’s a lot like Alexie’s “regular” writing tone. Yet, it feels like a 14-year-old, and he draws you into his world. I wish every YA writer attempting a first person teen voice would read True Diary, or something like it. It’s a wonderful how-to on writing a story true to a teen’s age and a teen’s narrative style, with none of the present voice over-scriptedness that’s so prevalent in YA published recently.

But, it is a strange book. It’s categorized as YA, but it is really more of a confessional autobiography, with a dash of magic realism. I enjoyed Alexie’s first short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, a lot, and True Diary has many of the same story themes of that earlier collection. The strongest of these is identity, how young Natives navigate a White world that still has many stereotypical notions about them, or a  patronizing, bleeding-heart sympathy that is almost as bad.

The book had a lot of twists and turns that I liked; it always surprised me. A chapter would start out in one tone, then switch to another when the narrator springs some revelation on us. I particularly like how the Geometry teacher who Arnold hits with the book becomes his savior and mentor, and a seemingly-clueless White basketball star a true friend. The cartoons by Seattle artist Ellen Forney scattered about the text  added to my enjoyment and gave the text an extra oomph, as Arnold intends to pursue a career in comics when he graduates. In the span of the book he experiences more than his share of tragedies and a few triumphs, and by the end he understands his accomplishment and what that will mean for his future. For he does intend to continue in the public school, which, despite being in a small town in Central Washington State, will give him a better education and more exposure to the world than the one on the Rez. Yet, he does not reject his roots. He embraces them still, for all their flaws.

Illustration from the book by Ellen Forney

Illustration from the book by Ellen Forney

Other parts of the book I was not crazy about. There was a bit about masturbation which went on too long and gleefully for a YA book, though I suspect that kids would love it. There’s also a throwaway line of “Indians like to talk dirty” which squicked me, considering recent criticisms against the author. I also felt the tone was belligerent at times, as if rubbing White noses in the dirt over the situation their ancestors created. But overall, it helped me understand my Native friends better. It also made me wonder if the author would be as lauded if he did not write about the subject matter that he does, which is a peek for Whites into a very private and guarded world which contains a lot of trauma.

In the end, I found it hard to separate the author from the art. I know I don’t want to be the kind of writer that mines (or uses, or transforms, or justifies….) their tragedies into subject matter. I’m too private for that. Perhaps that’s a shortcoming. I don’t know.

The new material for the 2017 edition includes interviews with both Alexie and Forney, an afterword by Alexie, bonus drawings, an alternate version of the first chapter, and a few chapters from the viewpoint of Arnold Spirit’s best friend Rowdy. It enhances the book and pulls it together as a whole, so I recommend reading the special edition if you can get it.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 10/31/18: Gothic Mansions

It’s Halloween. And what better way to celebrate than by visiting a spooky
old mansion?

Old castles, manses, and abbeys are a mainstay of Gothic literature.
Manderlay, in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, is practically its own
character, along with its housekeeper. And who can forget “The Great House
of Collinwood” mentioned at the beginning of each Dark Shadows
TV episode, narrated in deadpan monotone by actress Victoria Moltke?

Other houses are noteworthy by their evocative names: Gormenghast,
Thornfield Hall, Northanger Abbey. These don’t sound like places you’d go to
for a quick weekend getaway featuring red wine and down comforters, but
locations for dark secrets and ancient mysteries.

Through the magic of random generation, here’s a list for your gothic plots.

Gothic Mansions

Broodloss Plantation

Marpede Alders

Anglepont Abbey



Mannefell House


Lyretower Court


Breakwater Mansion


Blandscape Peaks

Hanloss Priory


Marmot Moor

Sarkwhistor Abbey

Penderang Keep

Castle Strabav

Swamptree Ranch

Leicester Coomb

Mount Loganheim


Castle Bletchwater

Coldfields Park



Margrave Mansion

The Great House of Lioncaster

Grendelay House

Staurieve Castle

Crullbar Rock

Handfeld Belfry


Gorinspun House

Reeveston Mansion


A Medical Student’s Nightmare

Vintage photograph, 1900s – 1920s

This isn’t the only antique photograph I’ve come across of a doctor surrounded by cadavers intent on dissecting him. It says a lot about gallows humor in the profession. The ghostly legs below the table add to the spooky feel, but it’s likely they were the result of a double exposure used to create the shot.


Worldbuilding Wednesday 10/24/18: Halloween Costumes

Vintage Halloween Costumes

Halloween was once freaky business.

Thinking up a new and unique Halloween costume can be a chore. Everything seems like it’s been done before, and done better. Pizza Rat. A Thousand Points of Light. A Stayfree MiniPad. But through the magic of random generation, it’s possible to combine costume ideas in new ways and truly create one that’s unique.

Unique Halloween Costumes

Riot Grrl Flapper

Undead Medusa

Death Metal Baby

Mermaid Clown

Headless Elvis

Medieval Aerobics Instructor

Biker Babe Banshee

Martian Nurse

Cyclops Gladiator

Pirate Geisha

Extreme Sports Alien

Zombie Belly Dancer

Mad Scientist Unicorn

Redneck Batman

Goblin Cheerleader

Druid Exorcist

Hula Girl Cousin It

Two-headed Witch

Steampunk Surgeon

Pumpkin-headed Punk

Prehistoric Wizard

Rocky Horror Ghostbuster

Alcoholic Deadpool

Muppet Professor