Saturday, December 27, 2014

Review: Mockingjay, Part I

I watched this movie about two weeks ago now, and I've been busy. It will be out of theaters soon, if it isn't already. *slaps own wrist*

I'm going try to be more careful in the future.

Mockingjay Part I was, at least for me, equal to Catching Fire, which I found to be several times better than The Hunger Games. 

In Catching Fire, the main weakness was the last fifteen minutes, where it was unclear as to how and why everything was happening. They under-explained some crucial pieces. In Mockingjay Part I, the main weakness is the first five minutes. It starts a bit awkwardly, and takes a bit to build up steam. 

The main problem I see people having with Mockingjay is that it is a very different movie than its predecessors. The previous movies had moments of drama, then building suspense and mystery, and finally, the long action set piece of a third act. Mockingjay is nothing like that. It is slower, more deliberate, more evenly paced. Some people may be thrown that in many ways, it feels like a Drama more than anything else. But I want to emphasize that slow and dramatic does not mean bad. 

The directing is good, if a bit workmanlike. I seem to remember being impressed with the directing of Catching Fire, and that initial "Ooh" was lacking from my watch of Mockingjay. However, there were two major improvements I noticed--continued improvements from the last.

In the original, you actively notice in every action scene that the action is being edited for content so that teens can watch it without losing their lunch. You still get a bit of this in Catching Fire, mostly after the games start. But in Mockingjay Part I, I didn't really notice this, with one understandable exception. There is very little if any distracting shaky-cam, which was the main editing tool of the previous movies.

In addition, the scenes that are without Katniss are as much joy to watch in this film as the scenes with her, and are an integral part of the movie. In the first, they felt like an intrusion, and in the second, they were a distraction. But in Mockingjay, every scene that strays from the main character is an improvement, and the best way that the story could be told on screen. 

The acting was good. Jennifer Lawrence continues to give the same Triple-A performance that has rocketed her into superstardom. Josh Hutcherson goes through a powerful physical transformation over the course of the film that leaves me wondering to this day how much effects might have been involved. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman turned in a nuanced performance. Julianne Moore, while doing marvelous work, failed to give me the same chills that I got from reading the character in the book. 

But the real star of this movie was Elizabeth Banks as Effie. She stole every scene she was in, to a degree that I haven't seen in a film since Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker in the Dark Knight. She deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination for what she's done in that film. 

The music works well, and I would even venture to say that it's very good, but I don't remember much of it now outside of the song that has gone wild on the radios. 

The plot is almost a tight political drama, with maybe some war drama thrown in, all on a background of Dystopian Sci-Fi. After the first few minutes, the plot is a constant, driving force, building toward the conclusion. And what a conclusion! Even knowing what would happen, I found myself completely on edge.

Overall, I was very very happy with the movie! True to Catching Fire, I walked out completely satisfied, which is such a rare and wonderful experience in a trip to the movies. 8.5 it is. 



Willow Shields, as Prim. I originally found her very wooden, and worried about her ability to pull off her slightly larger role in Mockingjay. Thankfully, she's improved by orders of magnitude. I found her good in this, if not great. 

Hoffman as Heavensbee: Watching him onscreen was eerie. I've seen his career from an episode of Law and Order and Red Dragon, through Capote and Doubt, and after Robin Williams, he is the celebrity whose loss I most acutely feel. A selfish part of me wonders how much he'd gotten done in the second part, and how that will affect the final plot of the second part. We see some instances of him manipulating President Coin in Part I, so I'm assuming they haven't dropped/cut that subplot. 

"Are you, Are you, Coming to the tree?" The scene with the dam was jaw-dropping. Better-implemented than the book. And I don't say that often. 

They cut Cinna's assistants out altogether, which I think was a big mistake (one of the few gripes that kept me from saying it's better than Catching Fire). In the book, Cinna's assistants have been prisoners of District 13. They haven't been well-treated. There's suggestion of torture and abuse. District 13 is more than meets the eye. I think they meant to replace this with Effie and Heavensbee's dialogue in her rooms. When he suggests that she is no more a prisoner than anyone else in the district, one has to wonder: If they wanted, could a citizen from 13 leave? Or, in the end, is 13 as tyrannical in its own way as the Capitol?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Short Scary Story Read: What's YOUR Zombie Contingency Plan?

It's been awhile, but I've still got it! ;)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Short Scary Story: MONSTER

by Nathan Hall

Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this piece. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.

Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.

"Mommy! There's a monster under my bed!"

With a patient sigh, I follow my son's cries into his bedroom. There he is, curled up under his blanket, shivering.

"Peter, what did I tell you?" I ask, shaking my head.

"N-No such things as monsters," Peter says, peeking out from under his blanket.

"That's right. But if you're so scared, I'll check for you anyway, ok?"

Peter nods, biting his lip to keep it from trembling.

The hardwood is, well, hard, bruising on my knees. I flip the sheet and blanket up from over the side of the bed, and look underneath.

Lurking in the darkness under the bed is a creature with red eyes and sharp fangs.

I sigh again, flipping the covers back down. "See? Nothing there. Now get some sleep, mister. The morning's gonna come awfully early for one sleepyhead."

I kiss my son on the forehead and tuck him in.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Author Interview: R.A. McCandless

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with (via Facebook) and interview author R.A. McCandless, author of Tears of Heaven published by Wild Child Publishing. Our discussion was as follows (give or take the occasional typo).


Was there a certain book that got you into Science Fiction and Fantasy? Could you describe it, and why it connected with you so strongly?

Tolkien’s The Hobbit was given to me as a gift and really opened the castle gates of fantasy to me.  Suddenly, there was a whole world of swords, magic and fantastical creatures to meet.  Immediately after I finished, I took all the money I had and biked down to the bookstore to buy everything else Tolkien had written.  I had no idea I was getting the seminal fantasy series: The Lord of the Rings.

I’m compelled by any world where dragons can make an appearance.  They don’t have to show up, but the idea that they can?  Please and thank you.  I also like any world where a woman is as strong or stronger that most of the men around.  Personally, I prefer a woman who can go toe-to-toe and sword-to-sword with anyone else.  So my preferred genre is fantasy, but I’ll take urban fantasy, science fiction and even historic fiction off the shelves for those reasons.

I have a similar story. The Hobbit was a childhood favorite. 

It and LOTR remain in my top ten despite numerous excellent authors over the years.

They both have a lot to offer, even after all these years. There's a reason he's the first name people think of in Fantasy.

. . . . .

What is your work about? Would you care to describe it? 

Telling a good story well and hitting some epic high note moments.  It’s hard to not to get carried away from the reality of, say, a sword fight or a battle scene, and into the unrealistic.  Keeping the physics of actions and reactions on target is something I really strive for and enjoy.  This is especially enjoyable when readers catch the effort that went into making a fight scene exciting, but still within the realm of the real.  I have to say that my favorite is when a reader comes to me and says, “You bastard, I can’t believe you killed this character.  He was my favorite.”  They really aren’t mad at me, but it means that I connected with them through that character, and I achieved a realism of life between their mind and the book with that character.  That’s magic right there.

Haha I've heard that a writer's job is to  make the reader go through things they'd never willingly choose to go through on their own. 

Or things they can't go through.  It's really tricky to get on the back of a dragon and go for a ride these days, what with all those damned knights riding off to slay them all the time.

But there's JK Rowling, writing about Harry Potter and his friends climbing on board a dragon in the underground vaults of Gringotts, riding a dragon to freedom.  Wow

That was a good one! 

Yeah, amazing ride!

Such a great scene.

Iconic really, if you think about it.  If you talk fantasy, you think about dragons, but how many fantasy novels actually have dragons in them?  That's not a slam on authors or fantasy as a genre.  Too much, and we'd get tired of "another dragon in another fantasy book".  Rowling did a good job of showing us dragons in her fantasy, but not overselling the creatures.

She did, very much so. One of her greatest triumphs, I think.

. . . . .

In the piece you're currently working on, are there any real-world issues that you're exploring? Would you care to describe it/them?

I’ve been writing (hopefully) strong female characters for a couple of decades now.  I didn’t set out to do so.  There was no conscious effort to make my work specifically male or female.  My very first, very immature story was about my group of friends.  Because I was, have been and always will be interested in fantasy, it was in a fantasy setting.  Everyone carried swords, everyone was heroic with their swords, and that was essentially that.  It was a story meant for my friends, and I thought highly of all of them, regardless of their gender.

HELL BECOMES HER is the follow up to my debut release TEARS OF HEAVEN and follows the further adventures of Del, a strong female protagonist, who faces demons, both real and inner.  This time around, she gets to face some classic bad guys, while at the same time confronting what it means to be both a woman and a mother.  Challenges that face any parent on a daily basis, even one that isn’t fighting supernatural forces.

Sounds really interesting!

I guarantee enjoyment!

So you'd say that the fact you write strong female characters is more a natural extension of your views than an intentional statement?

It’s 50/50.  I didn’t look around and start writing female characters because I wanted to take a stand on feminist issues.  I don’t know how, but my parents raised me to believe that everyone was equal, or at least deserving of equal treatment.  At the same time, I recognize that women around the world are not treated equally, and I am a feminist.  I think everyone should be.  Portraying women as something other than a pretty damsel in distress adds to the conversation.  That doesn’t mean I denigrate men to raise up women.  That’s also the wrong message to send.

I agree. The way I write women now is in response to weaknesses in the way I wrote them ten years ago as much as anything. I hope I've reached a similar point.

It's a process.  I think originally I felt that if women were physically stronger, that would be enough.  But that's just a superficial view.

By that I mean, that's how I wrote them.  Simply physically stronger.  That's overly simplistic.

. . . . .

In your opinion, is fiction useful in society? Does fiction reading benefit the reader? If so, in what ways? What benefits, if any, have you encountered from reading fiction?

Fiction and fantasy are really reflections of our world, only better.  Even dark fiction or dystopias tend to hand us heroes that rise up above the blackness and are able to make choices that sort out the good guys from the bad guys—they can decipher good and evil, right from wrong.  That’s not always true in our own world, and so it’s quite a relief to sit back and be transported to place where considerations over extremism, and Ebola and politics aren’t realities.  Or, if they are realities, they’re going to be handled, in one way or another, by the characters.

We also learn the most from stories, as examples of how to behave, or how we want to behave.  When confronted with similar situations, while we can’t use magic, and probably shouldn’t use violence, we still look to our heroes for a means for how to act.  How would Kvothe or Aragorn, or Katniss, or Dumbledore deal with this particular scenario.  Fantasy and fiction provide us with multiple perspectives for dealing with the realities of our own day-to-day lives.

That's a really unique perspective! I agree, though. Even a story that demonstrates the complexities of the issue eventually allow the character to be decisive, to do what they are sure is right. Which is an opportunity that we don't often get in this world.

Exactly.  And there can even be an exploration of bad choices too, although there is something to the idea that at the end of the day your hero, even an anti-hero, still needs to be somewhat relatable, or you'll lose your audience.

. . . . .

What responsibilities, if any, would you say a writer of speculative fiction has to their readers, and to society? 

Beyond telling a good, realistic story with compelling, relateable characters, none.  It's not our job to change the world, it's not our job to right all the world's wrongs, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles. We can be part of the discussion, and we certainly should be, but we're only one voice, one thread in an enormous social tapestry.  Fiction and fantasy are first and foremost about a good story well told.

. . . . .

What is your opinion about fiction's ability to change the world? Does it have such an ability? Or do you feel that's an overstatement of its power?

Star Trek.  It’s a perfect example of how fiction writers go about trying to solve actual, real world problems, not just through technological or philosophical advances, but viewing the whole history of humanity, extrapolating from our past, through our present and attempting predict our future.  Star Trek wasn’t alone in seeing some of the writing on the wall, but it’s a great example of how fiction writers can view problems, or see potential improvements years or decades into the future and present them as science fact.

Even if the result is a far-fetched or impossible outcome, that doesn’t remove the potential for inspiration on many levels.  If you ask astronomers, physicists, rocket scientists, etc. what inspired them, you often get back some science fiction show or writer that caught their imagination and prompted them to pursue a career in that particular field.  In return, the science that is developed, inspires new writers, and inspiration and change spin outward in an often beautiful spiral.

Yes! I actually recently heard of this story Nichelle Nichols (who plays Uhura in the original series), often tells...

I think they all have a story like that.  It's wonderful.  I'm sure there are actors from other, less well-known sci fi shows of the era who also have similar stories.  I can't imagine it not being that way.

Very true. I think fiction can often be on the forefront of those kinds of things, because it's far enough removed.

Exactly.  It's always based on a concept that is current, but solves a problem, sometimes just for the show itself, but extrapolated out, a problem that exists in our real world as well.

. . . . .

Is there a trend in the public's perception of fiction that you have noticed? A general opinion the public has toward fiction, and speculative fiction in particular? If so, what?

The internet and indie publishing has allowed access to stories on a scale that we’ve never seen before, let alone imagined.  In some ways this has been very good for storytelling in general (although it’s also had its bad/dark side).  I like to listen to fantasy/fiction podcasts when I go running, and that was something that didn’t even exists five or ten years ago.  Now, you can get them for free, and they’re wonderful, imaginative, innovative and amazing.

The storytelling is more intimate, too.  Even epic series like “The Wheel of Time” or “The Kingkiller Chronicles” tend to be about the characters, and are driven more by internal choices rather than externally by the plot (or the plot’s needs).  Even if the story is a sweeping epic, like “The Song of Ice and Fire” readers know a lot more about the characters and their relationships than in previous generations of fiction, even going back to Professor Tolkien and Lord of the Rings.  That’s likely borne out by fans and writers who loved these works, but wanted to know more about their favorites.  It’s wonderful to see that attention to detail, that realism in fiction and fantasy.


Again, I want to express my thanks to McCandless for taking the time to give these fantastic answers.

You can find McCandless's first book here:

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: The Equalizer

Let me start off by saying that I've never seen the show that The Equalizer is based on. I'm completely ignorant about it. So I can't speak for how well this movie does as an adaptation.

Basically, what I can speak for, is my experience in the theater watching the movie. And to tell the truth? I had nearly as much fun watching this as I did watching Guardians, which I didn't expect to say this year, let alone so soon.

Note that it's a very different kind of entertainment. The Equalizer is rated R, and the action scenes seem determined to earn that rating. But I was grinning like an idiot for the entire last third of the movie, and I walked out at the credits with that dumb grin still on my face.

When I first saw trailers for The Equalizer, I thought what most people probably think: Ok, a typical Denzel-led Action Thriller. But that's all right. I like typical Denzel Action Thrillers. So I'd probably enjoy this.

Then, a day or two before going, I learned that the director, Antoine Fuqua, last worked with Denzel on Training Day, the Ethan Hawke Suspense Drama about the new cop who's shown the ins and outs by the corrupt veteran. Hearing that Fuqua and Denzel reunited for this project got me a little excited. I was prepared for this to be a good movie, a prime example of what a popcorn flick should be.

I still wasn't prepared for how awesome this movie is. It's harsh, brutal, and no-nonsense. The plot is solid at its worst points, and managed to pleasantly surprise me more than once. It avoids typical cliche, for the most part.

I've never seen Denzel give a less than awesome performance, but even so, this is one of his better ones. The role has enough meat on its bones for him to perform. One might expect a typical "retired bad*** gets pulled back into violence" role. What is delivered is a deep, layered, dynamic character that outshines most characters of the type. Fuqua, in an interview on AMC Movie Talk, says that we don't truly meet McCall (Denzel's character) until we see that first fight scene (the one from the trailers). And it's true, in a way. There is a dichotomy between who McCall is at the start of the film, and who he once was. Denzel makes you believe that this man has put away his past, and as it slowly resurfaces throughout the movie, his performance evolves to reflect McCall awakening.

We don't get to see that awakening for a good time, however. This is a slow-burning movie that takes its time establishing the characters and making you care, before the action commences. I applaud the decision to invest more than half an hour into establishing the characters. Unlike many action movies, the characters feel like people, and not just a checklist of necessary pieces in a script.

Chloe Grace Moretz plays a teenage prostitute who's trying to escape the life. She befriends McCall, but when she is brutally beaten and left in a hospital, it is the catalyst for McCall's ultimate return to violence.  In my opinion, Moretz has had a career arc similar in a way to Kirsten Dunst. She had a celebrated performance in her childhood (Hit Girl, to Dunst's Claudia), and seemed to coast on the spotlight that provided. In several other movies Moretz has been in, I have found her to be nothing special for the most part, giving acceptable if slightly lazy performances. But there's nothing lazy about her performance in this movie. Battered and broken by the world, jittery from a possible addiction, clinging to that one last strand of hope, her performance is by and large inspired. And while her character as a whole could be a cliche, it's executed with skill and care, and given the individuality needed to transcend the role.

Marton Csokas has been in a dozen pieces I've seen, but I didn't realize it until I looked at his IMDB. He's a wonderful character actor. He relishes his role as "Teddy", the Russian mob man and the main villain in The Equalizer. The writing for his character may be the major weak point in the movie; for the first two thirds, he's simply a typical, sadistic sociopath of a villain, who commits violent acts "For the Evulz" (more on that here: It's only in the last third that we really get a sense for who this character is, and by then, it's almost too late. Csokas, however, manages to sell this character to the viewer in a way that many couldn't.

The other problem that I had in the film was the inconsistent shooting. Most of the camera work was very good. It's obvious from the opening scene of the movie that the cinematographer knows how to frame a shot. But there were a few bits that seemed artsy for the sake of being artsy. For instance, one shot flips over Csokas to show off all of his character's tattoos (tattoos are a status symbol in the Russian mob, I've heard, so maybe someone who knows more about that would get useful information out of the shot). But it ends upside down, and fades to a rightside-up shot of the city. I don't have a problem with the director experimenting with style. But this shot was so weird and so out of nowhere that it pulled me out of the movie a little.

The shooting in action scenes is also inconsistent. Some of the shots are wonderful, making masterpieces of the blood and brutality put on display (I told you, this movie earns its R). My brother and I especially liked a slow-mo view of different elements in the room, showing the character assessing danger and forming a plan in a way reminiscent of Peter Parker's Spider-Sense. But then others use shaky-cam, or cut away far too quickly, so that it's hard to get a feel of what's actually happening. There aren't many of these, thankfully, but one is too many, in my opinion.

The action scenes provide possibly the second greatest strength in the movie--the sound effects. There wasn't one fight scene that didn't have a sound that made me flinch and wince. Whether its a man getting his head slammed into a glass table or a sharp object skewering, the sounds are gruesome, visceral, powerful, and effective. They add another layer to the movie. This goes all the way down to something as simple as raindrops or footsteps. Captured beautifully.

The writing is very good, and managed to surprise me by misleading and outsmarting me. The characters are well-established and consistent, the dialogue at once feels both realistic and streamlined, the plot is clear and well-thought-out, and it all leads to a fantastic ending that left me grinning like a madman.

Trying to compare The Equalizer to the other movies I've watched lately is like comparing apples to a blood-splattered nailgun. Is this better than Guardians? No, probably not. Is it as good? Possibly.

I think it's more accurate to compare this movie to the original Taken. Both are smart, modern Action Thrillers with real darkness and awesome heroes. But, while Taken maintains the frantic pace you expect of a thriller much more than The Equalizer does, I think that The Equalizer may be the better film, because it makes the viewer care about the characters.

The Equalizer gets an 8.5 out of 10. A few stylistic choices (and one under-developed villain) hold it back from being a 9. If you're up for a Thriller with surprising heart (and surprising gore), The Equalizer will leave you happy.


SPOILERS/random observations

My brother said that McCall is a combination of PsycheMonk, and Batman. I just feel like he's a slightly less psychotic version of The Punisher.

I'm really, really glad that they didn't bring Chloe Grace Moretz character back in order to either kill her or kidnap her to up the stakes. I much preferred that they took his fellow employees hostage. Very smart writing, and very satisfying for a conclusion.

The mob eforcer, "Teddy", kills a prostitute, one of Moretz's character's only friends, and the only person who could positively identify McCall as being involved. He knows all of this when he kills her. He also kills her in broad daylight, with open windows, an open door, where anyone looking in could see. It establishes him as a psychopath, but I think it goes a bit overboard.

The scene near the end at the restaurant, when McCall and Teddy meet openly? It gave me chills, it was so good.

In the ending, we get to see what my brother called Home Alone (to which I responded, Home Alone was only Home Alone because for some reason a 12 year old had read The Art of War); and that I called "Looking through the killer's eyes in a Slasher flick". McCall is an alpha predator, and he chews up and spits out the mobster enforcers sent after him.

My brother pointed out another issue with the movie: After the climax, McCall traces the men who had been hunting him back to the head of the mob family, invades the fortress that is the mobster head's residence, kills his guards, and then, after a brief discussion, kills the boss and walks out. We only see the tail end of that, which  was a bit unsatisfying. But there wasn't an easy alternative. The only other choices were to 1) Cut that out and deal with it in a sequel (leading to the problem in Taken 2, which is basically Taken all over again), or 2) Run the movie even longer than its already longer than usual 130 minutes. But I ultimately agreed that I would have happily sat through another 20 minutes to watch all the steps in between killing Csokas's character in the climax and taking down the mob head. Heck, I would have sat through another 20 minutes just to have another 20 minutes of movie!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Martha: A Short Scary Story

by Nathan Hall

Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this piece. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.

Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.


When I was a child I had an imaginary friend, as I'm sure most children do. She was named Martha; a girl who wore pink dresses and white ribbons and loved Gobstoppers so much that we once fought over her "stealing" the last ones. We did everything together. We played on the tire swing in the back yard. We colored. We had "sleepovers" at my house. We even did my homework as a team.

I remember Martha until about second grade. After that, I must have outgrown her. I made real friends in my classes and had a real social life, real sleepovers. Eventually, I stopped thinking about Martha altogether. I hadn't so much as spoken her name in more than ten years.

Then, helping my mom move boxes down out of the attic, I found a photograph. One of those old Polaroids that you had to shake to develop. Faded, yellowed, curled at the edges, it was half-covered by a box. I recognized myself as a child, in a blue dress with black frills, my hair up in ponytails, tied with those plastic "gator" clips. My bare feet were black, my hands were sticky from candy, and I had a gigantic grin as I waved for the camera.

When I grabbed the photo from under the box where it must have fallen and lifted it high enough to see, I almost dropped it. A chill slashed through the heat of the attic.

Sitting next to me was another girl, in a pink dress with white ribbons. She had a small bag of candies beside her, and she seemed to have been caught popping one into her mouth. I didn't have to look to know they were Gobstoppers.

I held tight to the hand rail as I made my way out of the attic. My mother asked me what was wrong; I handed her the photo. Her face paled.

When I finally cajoled my mom into telling me the truth, I wished I hadn't. Wished I'd never found that photo.

Martha wasn't an imaginary friend--she was a real one. We met in preschool, and were best friends for years. She would spend a good deal of the summer's days at my house.

 And I didn't simply outgrow her.

One fall afternoon, Martha went missing. She never made it home from school, her parents told the police. Somewhere between getting dropped off of the bus and their front door, something had happened to her.

The police searched frantically, but it wasn't until almost two weeks later that they found her body. An autopsy report revealed evidence of both physical and sexual assault. Even more than her death, however, what sent the neighborhood into a panic was that there were signs that abuse had happened over the course of months, even years. Unexplained, healed-over breaks, half-healed bruises in suspicious places, scars from cigarette burns.

It was discovered--corroborated in the weeks to follow by the witness of several of Martha's friends--that her father had been abusive, both to her and to the friends who stayed over. He was sentenced to life in prison, and many were upset that he escaped the death penalty by pleading guilty.

When I asked my mother whether I had stayed over at that house, she refused to answer. But I saw it in her eyes. Of course I had; I was Martha's best friend, and she was mine.

I decided not to look up newspaper articles of the time. To this day, I don't remember a single thing about Martha's parents or her house. All I remember are those summer days playing in the back yard, and the sound of Martha's laughter.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sequels, Prequels, Reboots, and Tie-Ins: Why Care Should Be Taken

This was just thrown together as inspiration struck, so I apologize if it's not as coherent as some of my other posts.

I watch AMC Movie Talk, a channel on Youtube (find it here: It's a fantastic little show, with the most up-to-date information and some of the most thoughtful opinions on movies and movie news. It's hosted by John Campea, arguably an expert in the field of movie news and reporting.

Often, Campea expresses his personal views on subjects related to fiction (he's certainly not shy), and even when I disagree with him, I can't fault his logic, and I find him entertaining.

However, he recently expressed a viewpoint that inspired me. That is, he says that people shouldn't care if a movie they love is remade, or if there's some sort of tie in. His logic is that the original is not harmed in any way by this new material--you can still go out and buy A New Hope, for instance, even if the prequel trilogy disappointed you. A New Hope was not harmed by the making of the prequel trilogy; other than Lucas's alterations to the material itself, nothing has changed. He's often said as much.

I agree with that statement in a literal sense, but I have to argue differently, in effect.

I believe that substandard product (or one that strays dramatically from the vision of the original) DOES in fact harm the original. No, the physical copy of the original is not harmed in any way--I can still go watch Raimi's Spider-Man 2, and enjoy it, even if 3 was an abomination in my opinion. However, whenever I watch the Raimi Spider-Man movies, a part of me now thinks of emo-Parker, the rushed character arc of Harry, and the pathetic Eddie Brock/Venom. Every time I watch A New Hope, a part of me wonders if Jar Jar is still alive somewhere. What is the life expectancy of a Gungan, anyway?

So, although I can still watch my favorite works, my enjoyment of them is diminished. The experience has been forever altered.

The same is true of other forms of fiction. I can never read The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan again without, every time Mat reads or writes, thinking about the moment in a later book in which he writes as though he is illiterate. Was brain damage involved in the change? I can never read the Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist without thinking of how certain characters meet their end in pathetic, embarrassing ways. No matter how clever, resourceful, or powerful a character is or becomes, I remember them drawing their last breaths in helplessness and fear.

I wouldn't consider either of the previous two works I mention BAD, but even so, later work forever altered my perception of the original. Even should certain events be "undone" later by a retcon (as is often done in Sci-Fi and Fantasy), it's impossible not to think of them.

Why did I write this post? For two reasons.

One was simply to express my opinion. That's what blogs are for, after all, right?

But the other reason was to plead to writers of fiction: Put care into any secondary work that touches on the first. Put some thought into how this might change readers' enjoyment of the original. If you feel the need to expand on some aspect, and feel it could tell a good story, then by all means, feel free. I'm not saying that you have no right to the characters or the story. Please, just consider the consequences of what you're doing.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ah, Illness. Where Would I Be Without You?

Did anyone else know that pain from a bad gallbladder can be up there with a kidney stone? I didn't, but it sure let me know! I had emergency surgery to have my gallbladder removed on Saturday. 

It's why I haven't posted anything over the last few days. It's also why I might not post all that much for the next week or two. 

I hope it won't be long before I return, but falling ill also made me fall behind on college work to a terrifying degree. I'll mostly be offline for the next week, to keep distractions to a minimum. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Giver Review

The Giver is one of my all-time favorite books. It introduced me into dystopian fiction, into Science Fiction, into minimalist prose. It introduced me into complex morality and the question of whether the ends justify the means. I walked into the movie carrying those preconceptions (and others) with me.

I'll start by saying that the movie is much better than the trailers make it out to be. Yes, it draws some details in execution from the modern dystopian YA movies that have sprung up in the last few years--I'll get to a few of those soon--but it also makes an honest effort to retain the voice and the message of the book. It stumbles, but it never falls on its face. So if the trailers have made you CERTAIN that the movie will be a total waste of time, then they fooled you as much as they did me.

To tell the truth, I was lukewarm about even seeing this movie. Considering how beloved the book is to me, and how little I liked from what I saw in the trailer, I mostly came along for this because I knew we were watching Guardians of the Galaxy right afterward (I have a review of Guardians already posted).

The best thing I can say about The Giver is that it has heart. the people involved in this movie cared about it. Jeff Bridges manages to fit into the role of The Giver better than I expected him to, which is not to say that I expected anything less than his usual excellence in the performance, which he delivers. Meryl Streep is much less of a bland antagonist than she's at first presented; while understated, she is still a character with depth and passion--her character succeeds in a way that, say, Kate Winslet's character in Divergent fails. The three playing the leading teens in the story, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, and Cameron Monaghan, are all adequate at the very least.* Brenton gives a particularly strong performance in the lead. The supporting cast works as well, to a greater or lesser extent. Even the worst performance isn't bad enough to distract. 

The music is good, the drama is believable, the action is passable. The sets vary from forgettable to ASTOUNDING.

Actually, maybe the best thing I can say about it is: PART OF IT IS IN BLACK-AND-WHITE!!!!!

Ok, there's the good stuff. Here's the bad, and the "Huh?"

This movie has a telling problem. That is, rather than SHOWING the audience something, it tends to TELL the audience. They maintain the narration specifically for the purpose of spoon-feeding the viewer information or telling the viewer what to feel. Also, the dialogue has a lot of exposition that could have been delivered more realistically.

The director isn't a great fit. I noticed from the opening scene, which has an intentional "Leave It to Beaver" tone. The direction drew me out of the movie, occasionally. Not...bad, precisely, just odd. Out of curiosity, I looked into the director, and some of his other works. Phillip Noyce has many movies under his belt, including The Bone Collector and A Clear and Present Danger. Notice anything yet? Noyce directs very good thrillers. Of which The Giver isn't one. A talented man given something outside his specialty.

They age the characters by a good six years. Having seen some of the movies that try to get by with terrible child actors (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), I don't blame them for not wanting to gamble on getting good ones. But it seems as though it sometimes slips the writer's mind that the characters are older, as often their characterization lapses into childishness. And to be honest, having seen some movies elevated by capable child actors (Interview With A Vampire, Harry Potter series), I tend to think that they probably should have remained loyal to the source, rather than following the trend.

Speaking of which, the thing that damaged the movie more than anything else was the insistence to follow YA Dystopia trends in the adaptation. Late teen characters? Check. Overblown romance with lead male and lead female? Action ending? Check. Futuristic tech everywhere? Check.

Some of these are understandable. The romance is only one part of an overall larger part in the story for both Fiona (romantic interest) and Asher (best friend). The movie gives them more time to develop, and more importance in the plot, than the book, which I honestly consider an improvement. And the future technology was unavoidable--though I don't remember the tech level ever being a major focus in the book, the book tended to leave out any extraneous details and let you make them up yourself.

Some are less forgivable. The climax should be a character moment, but they turn it into an action scene that feels not only implausible to the point of absurdity, but unnecessary and BORING. The worst part about this isn't that it rips you out of the movie right when it should be at its most captivating, but that the time spent focusing on unnecessary, tacked-on teen trends, is time that should have been spent on small moments early in the movie that develop setting or character. 

The crime this movie commits is making The Giver feel like a knock-off of the Dystopian YA stories coming out over the last few years, when in reality, The Giver was one of the works helped to found the genre, 20 years ago. 

I want to be clear that I didn't HATE this movie. I didn't even dislike it, really. It is, however, flawed enough to keep me from truly endorsing it. I give it 6.5/10. 

SPOILERS ahead as I discuss in detail certain aspects of the plot. Also, rambling ahead. 

*I originally had Odeya Rush's performance as one of my gripes. I complained that she became MORE wooden after she stopped taking the emotion-suppressant injections--that she was MORE emotionless. But my brother pointed out that it may simply have been her not knowing how to react to everything going on. Jonas had a frame of reference, given by the memories, so that he could react to the events at the end. Fiona has no such help, so she shuts down, overwhelmed by the circumstances. 

The entire climax consists of: "Dead baby.........dead again.........dead......dead." I didn't try to count all of the separate things that would have killed the infant. But suffice it to say that adding an action scene to a baby-carrying scene isn't the greatest idea.

How much would it have cost them to flashback to the Apple?

Why are there so many memories that go back to our history (the last 50 years or so). Are they saying that the end of the world happens in our generation? Before the last people who were in, say, the Vietnam war die? 

I love how blase they are about demonstrating future tech. The only pieces of technology I remember reading about were the injections, and "a jet" that flew overhead into town. Either of which could be twenty or thirty years old. Meanwhile, the movie has Tractor Beams and Holograms?

The Giver and the Chief Elder (Streep) have an argument at the end that's supposed to represent the struggle the viewer should be having. Only problems with that? The arguments aren't presented fairly enough to make this scene resonate. Also, they have the argument in front of all the other elders, with the speaker on to the room where Jonas's dad is about to execute Fiona. At one point, he even looks out to them like, "Are you serious? Take it outside. I'm trying to kill someone here."

I love the scene with the piano. Also, the Giver's house in general (and particularly that view) is just fantastic.

The conflict between Jonas and Asher is nice. It shows them going in opposite directions, and Fiona being torn between the two paths. I would have loved another ten minutes to flesh this progression out. 

One of my favorite things about the movie is using color as a characteristic of viewpoint. That is, the movie turns to color VERY gradually, as the injection leaves Jonas's system. It's an indication that cinema is catching on to VIEWPOINT, or the fact that each scene can be from a certain character's perspective, as happens often in novels. However, shouldn't all of the scenes from the Giver's viewpoint technically be in color, then?


Have any thoughts about something I mentioned? Did I miss something you'd like to point out? Feel free to comment!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

Over the long weekend, I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy and The Giver. I'm going to review Guardians first, because one, it's been in theater for almost a month now, and two, my feelings about The Giver are much more complex. 

I loved Guardians more than I thought I would. And I thought I would love it a lot. It's easily one of the best Marvel movies to date, up there with The Avengers and Iron Man, and easily the best movie experience I've had so far this year. (Seeing as I watched this within minutes of The Giver, and considering I had a wisdom tooth to contend with  as I did so, that's saying something.) 

My brother and I have a long-standing habit of going to see the newest comic book movie when it comes out. We've only missed one or two since The Avengers. For months, I've been reminding him about this one, growing progressively more excited as I heard more and more good news (trailers, reviews, etc.). But he was reluctant. In the end, I almost had to find somebody else who wanted to go see it, though he came through at practically the last moment.

Why was he so reluctant? Rocket Raccoon. He didn't think he could take the vulgar little fur ball seriously. Anything that strays too far into Sci-Fi or Fantasy tends to lose him. 

I'd bet there are others of you out there who are the same way. Who haven't gone to see it specifically because of the more "out there" elements. Rocket, Groot, and so on. I'll say the same thing to you that I said to him. 

One, they expect that reaction. They anticipated it. And they account for it by giving you almost half the movie to laugh and get used to the setting and characters, before you really have to care. By the time they need you invested, you are. 

And two, there's a reason that they chose famous movie actors for the all-CG roles of Rocket and Groot. Bradley Cooper's performance as Rocket is as good as any performance by any voice actor I've ever heard. I don't hear the actor at all in the character. And Vin Diesel put more subtle inflections and emotion into three words than anyone ever. I'm willing to bet on that. It helps that Vin provided a good deal of the motion capture for the Ent-like bounty hunter. 

Chris Pratt gives a star-making performance, making Quill imminently likable despite his many, many flaws. Zoe Saldana is wonderful as always, granting a vulnerability to Gamora without ever letting you forget why she's known as "The most dangerous woman in the universe". Bautista disappears into Drax the Destroyer (save for the occasional blink-and-you'll-miss-it nod to his roots in the physicality of his action scenes), and gives a performance that reminds me why I always believed he could make it outside the ring. 

The visuals are fantastic, the humor is hilarious, the action is spellbinding, the drama is believable. The villain (Ronan the Accuser, AKA the kind of villain Thor 2 deserved) is terrifying. Thanos speaks, and is AMAZING. The soundtrack is one of the best in the history of soundtracks; there's a reason it had a stint as the #1 album in the US. 

If I had a single complaint, it would be this: Due to the format of the movie, our heroes do not get quite as much screen-time alone as they could use for character development. There was nothing to be done about that, and nothing to do about it, except maybe split them up for a while in the sequel, forcing them to develop by themselves. This isn't to say they're flat--they all have their own mannerisms, personalities, back stories, and motives, not to mention their own specialties and deficiencies. But I'd love to have more time with them, to know how they are apart.

Final thoughts: I'd give Guardians an easy 9 out of 10. I'll have to watch it again to decide if it 's a 9.5. If you have ten bucks and two hours, go see the movie! At the very least, you'll laugh throughout the entire thing, and you'll learn to love a tree.

My sister-in-law, who also went to see the movie, would probably add (with SPOILERS, because of course she would): 

"Howard the Duck? Really? But dancing Groot makes up for it."

As for The Giver... I'll post that in the next couple of days.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

"The Hanging Tree" Deleted Scene #1

Note: I'm freewriting this right on the "New Post" page. This is both a rough draft, and something I don't see making it into the main novel. I'm just trying to find the voice for the character, and worldbuilding in the meantime.

This will be rough. Both in grammar, and in prose. So please forgive me for that. 

Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this piece. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.

Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.


The Ishura River had always been the font of life in the valley, mother of the modern world. Not a day passed on their travels that Remial failed to see some marks of an ancient people.

Here, a few broken columns, made featureless by the scrubbing of unforgiving winds, all that remained of an ancient palace. There, blasted sandstone, stained even now with soot from the fires, the last remnant of a temple devoted to The Merchant, and the site of a grisly massacre. Here a half-broken statue in alabaster, little more than a torso with flowing robes and the suggestion of a beard. There, a monolith with words in a tongue even Mistress Vithia could not identify, worn to near-illegibility.

A dry moat where once there had been a canal.

Cobbled stone poking out from underneath the black soil.

A single aged oak where oaks were not known to grow.

A circle of large, jagged rocks.

Today it was a gigantic stone face, half-covered in thick skins of moss, with a circlet atop its head. Mistress Vithia pointed to it, sweeping long, silver-streaked bangs back from her face. "Remy, what material is that?"

Remy squinted against the sun. "Looks like marble, Mistress."

A brusque nod from Vithia. "What does that tell you?"

"Well..." Remy took a moment to think it through. Mistress Vithia preferred a delayed response to a thoughtless one. "Not much. Marble's been used for statues quite a while. But it's worn, and buried, and probably not in one piece."

Remy looked at the statue, whose good eye was a blank expanse that seemed either blind or all-seeing. The Old Gods had often been depicted without iris or pupil; since, it had become synonymous of divine wisdom, given to rulers more often than not. Remy's eyes traced the vine climbing up the lopsided form, reaching out from the edge of the moss to cross the figure's narrow, hooked nose.

"I'd say that this is is a statue of Choraa Lunn, Mistress. And the people would be Phoellen."

Mistress Vithia paused, turning to face Remy. She smiled slyly. "You're getting harder and harder to stump, boy. But it wasn't Choraa Lunn, it was her great-grandaughter, Choraa Amee. Notice the pock above the temple; Amee had a scar there."

Looking again, Remy nodded. He'd first dismissed the flaw as damage from the years it had sat, but now that Vithia had mentioned it, it was too deep and too thin to have been accidental. A sigh escaped him.

"What's the matter?"

"I should have seen that," Remy said evenly. His face burned, as it always did when he did something foolish. He wished the feeling wasn't so familiar.

"Nonsense. You identified the people and the time. You were within fifty years, and it's been nearly six hundred since the people who made it were finished off."

"I suppose." Staring at his feet was easier than meeting his mistress's gaze. When Mistress Vithia started walking again, Remy followed, finally managing to bring his eyes to the pack on Vithia's back.

"I tell you, boy, you're far too hard on yourself."

Remy said nothing, plodding along in the unseasonable heat of the early autumn morning.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Doors: A Short Scary Story

by Nathan Hall

Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this story. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.

Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.


Doors were a constant source of horror to me as a child; it was my thing. Yours might have been different—a shadow under the bed, the basement, stairs—but you had one. One of those irrational fears that none of us can explain.

Mine was doors. I had night terrors in which things sneaked out from the gap beyond an open door, out of that inky blackness past my nightlight’s reach. Unspeakable things, things whose bodies blended into the midnight-dark silhouettes of my bedroom. I spent many long nights hiding under my blankets for fear that the doorway-creatures could get me.

My parents tried to console me, first with the aforementioned nightlight, then by leaving the bathroom light on, then by letting me sleep with my lamp on. But always, always there was that taunting void where light grew just dim enough to harbor secrets—to harbor dangers.

Don’t mistake me. Darkness never scared me—or rather, only ever a specific kind of darkness. Drop me in a closed room in the dark, and I’d be nervous. Drop me in a lit room, with a doorway that led to darkness, and I’d be petrified.

It wasn’t long before my child’s mind invented a history for the creatures. They were invaders from a universe in which light did not exist. They had no eyes, and they wanted mine, so they could see in this world.

In the end, the only thing that could calm me was that the doors were closed. Every one of them. At all times. If it was noon in the summer, and someone left a sliding glass door open, I would leap up to shut it. The very sight of an open door made my skin crawl. They were there, not watching me, but listening, sniffing, feeling for me, for weakness, for opportunity.

My fears carried into adulthood. When I went to college, my dorm mate learned about my phobia, and harassed me by leaving doors open wherever he went—knowing I would chase after and close them. Then, he started opening doors that I had closed. He never admitted to it, but I knew it was him. We argued bitterly for the last weeks of the first semester. I switched rooms after my first finals.

I found a dorm mate who was much more accommodating to my phobia, as long as I squashed the spiders wherever they appeared. My grades rose immediately, once I was able to focus on my studies. I met a girl, and we started dating. I even took up guitar, though I only ever learned to play as far as the first chorus in “Stairway to Heaven”.

But then…Then, my new dorm mate started leaving doors open. He made a point of closing them firmly behind him, where I could see him, but it seemed like every time I turned around a door was open. I didn’t do much about it, but close them, and start throwing him resentful looks.

I tried to resist closing the doors. I really, really did. Immersion therapy, it’s called—I took a semester of Psychology. But, after my foot started tapping, after my teeth started to grind, after I bit my fingernails to raw stubs, I could never resist closing them. I could almost swear I heard whispers, in some alien language. Was I hallucinating? Was my new dorm mate even worse than my old one? I moved out, onto near-campus housing with my girlfriend, before I could decide.

Finally, I’d found someplace to relax. Someone who was diligent in closing each and every door she came across. She would look at me, and smile, and we’d listen for the click that meant it was shut. I knew she did it for my benefit, but it worked. For the first in a long time, I slept well, and could concentrate on my studies and on the part-time job I’d taken on to help pay for the apartment.

I walked out when I found a door ajar. She seemed to almost understand, as I curtly explained about the door. She looked sad, pitying. I berated her that I didn’t need her pity, driving her to tears. Finally, as I walked out, she shouted the words I had expected. “I know I shut that door!”

The apartment I’m in now isn’t too impressive. A living room, bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom, with a little hallway in between. Four doors, in all. Cheap and thin, no good against a burglar. But they all have shiny little knobs, with nice new locks. No one was there to leave doors open, to open them up behind me. And I kept the keys safe, on my person. No chance of someone leaving them open. Not a chance.

Living alone for the first time is rough. I always worry. I can barely afford the crummy apartment on my salary, even after I switched to full time after college fell through. I can always hear my neighbors, whether they’re fighting, watching TV too loudly, or knocking their bed against the wall. I hardly ever get any sleep. When I do, it’s full of nightmares.

I’ve become absentminded, lately. Too much stress. Not enough sleep. Little things, mostly. Forgetting which key goes to which lock… Leaving coffee on to boil… Letting food sit spoiled in the fridge because I forget to throw it out. But it’s only in the last couple of days…

That I’ve been forgetting to shut the doors.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


by Nathan Hall

Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this story. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.

Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.


It was…Perfect.

Aliyah stood back for a moment, just looking at the sculpture under the light. A naked man in alabaster stood on its pedestal. Slim, wiry with muscle, its figure was sculpted with such precision that she could see fine white hairs on its arms. She could see the veins under its skin, could see its pores. Its face lined in exaltation and mourning, it cradled a nonexistent lover in its arms. Its hair rolled down its shoulders, mussed and wild. It didn’t glow, precisely, but Aliyah knew that it would still be visible in the darkest night, clear, bright, beautiful.

It had stood on its pedestal for more than four hundred years, seconds from weeping, seconds from falling to its knees. It looked the same, she knew, as it had on the day it was made, the same as it had every day since.

Perfection is eternal.

The Creator who had sculpted it was gone. All of them were. Penoctema, the Creator, had been pulled halfway across the Kingdom, to another of the endless battlefields. He waged war in her name, in the name of all who had yet to achieve Perfection. Most people never would. No, most would strive for it their entire lives, would die before achieving their goal. Perfection is demanding.

It wouldn’t be that way for her, or so Penoctema had promised. She would achieve Perfection, and would gain eternity. She would become like those rare Creators, sent to the endless battlefields, fighting the eternal wars. A kingdom counted its strength in its handful of the Perfect. Eternal, untouchable, they swept aside flawed blades, struck through imperfect mail. They cut elegant, bloody paths through the mortal enemy. She had witnessed such battles, seen such paths, tended such victims.

And that awaited her. Penoctema, her father, had promised.

A harp sounded on a stand to one side, each note clear, and clean, and sweet; each note plucked with a precision impossible for mortal fingers to manage. The melody didn’t sit in the air like normal music did. It caressed the air, instead, flowing on winds that weren’t there to whisper in the ear. Each note spoke to her, sang to her. This, it said, is Perfection.

The song reached its end, and the room stood silent for a second, two. Then the melody started anew, as it had for a hundred and seventy-five years. Its Creator had been buried in a mudslide three years ago. There had been attempts at rescue but she hadn’t been found. Aliyah couldn’t imagine the horror: buried, smothered, silenced. Still alive, though, always alive. Shivering, Aliyah turned from the statue.

She’d been in this museum a hundred times in the last fifteen years, had heard that song a hundred times that. She knew its every note, just as she knew every muscle and hair on the statue her father had crafted. She started down a long corridor lined with Perfect paintings, hung with Perfect tapestries. She passed more instruments playing other Perfect songs, each clinging to her mind in turn, each filling her to the brim with bliss.

A thousand creations filled these halls. This was the largest gallery in Svora, the largest in all of Millean. But it was only one. Each of the great cities had a museum; by definition, a city could not be great without one. All over the continent, all over the civilized world, Perfection was displayed in white-columned rooms and marble courtyards, surrounded by Nature’s own wild and fleeting Perfection. The number of Perfect works the world over baffled the mind, the number of Creators on the battlefields, beyond number.

Harps and sitars, drums and violas and tambours, all faded away as she neared the small cove in one corner of the museum. Tall, well-tended bushes served as walls on two sides, the single cobbled stone path leading in and out of the corner. Finally, the last notes fell away behind her. She stopped for a moment, smiling at the silence. This cove, alone in all the museum, was a place of peace. The lullaby she hummed seemed a desecration of this place. But it was the only peace she had.

The lullaby Had been in Aliyah’s family for generations almost beyond number, passed mother to daughter, mother to daughter, like Aliyah’s mother had taught it to her. Dead for almost ten years, in full service to Nature by now, her mother still seemed to return when Aliyah hummed the tune. She could hear her mother’s voice, see her smile, feel her embrace. Even facing the prospect of failure, or the prospect of eternity, it was hard to be afraid when she hummed.

Slowly, she continued on, until she fell under the shadow of the centerpiece in the cove. The sculpture, carved out of the trunk of an ancient oak, was three fourths the size of a man, but resembled nothing else she’d ever seen. Sweeping lines borrowed from nature, bulging curvatures stolen from animal, several sharp spines for fur along what might have been its back. She could identify neither limb nor skeleton, and saw nothing resembling a face. No matter how she looked at the thing, it seemed to glow; like a candle, flickering, when you only watched the shadows. No matter how she looked, it hurt her eyes.

But the Silent Ladies had their own tastes, and when they touched a thing, humankind was not to disparage.

Aliyah knew the Creator responsible for this Perfect monstrosity. Cilora, from the south, where the wars now raged on the Plains. A hundred and fifty years younger than her father, a lover he had kept on occasion, Cilora was small, graceful, beautiful…and in a word, insane.

Sitting back on a small stone bench against the brick wall, Aliyah looked at the carving for a moment, as she often did, just trying to make sense of strange angles and nonsense edges that folded back into curves. She never could. There wasn’t any sense to be had.

This was the only work the museum had recovered from Cilora, though she had finished a handful of Perfect pieces in her lifetime. Usually, she didn’t work in wood. Usually, sand and clay were her mediums. Usually, she built them up directly on the ground, which made it impossible to separate, impossible to recover. It was against the regulations, of course; in fact, the very first guideline was to work from a movable platform. But Cilora didn’t pay any mind to the laws or fashions of the lands. She simply continued to create.

When Aliyah had asked her what she’d been meaning to make when she started this masterwork, Cilora had claimed she didn’t know. She’d said that she had never put in her years for Perfection, never served a true term of Apprenticeship. As a result, nothing she made ever turned out like she meant it to, and in the century between making it and being asked, she had forgotten entirely. Aliyah had laughed at that, sure the woman had been joking, at the time. But then Cilora had given her such an odd look…

Aliyah wondered even now whether it had been a joke after all.

She’d reached the end of the lullaby. Almost without thinking, Aliyah started humming another note, another, another. The first was certain, the second unsure, the last faltering. She did not hum a fourth. She never did.

Nine years had given her one note, possibly two. Her mother had added a dozen in her lifetime, which impressed Aliyah. She’d died while still relatively young, while Aliyah was hardly more than a child. She’d been gifted. Aliyah forced down the bitter thought that her mother should still be the one adding notes, rather than she herself, and started the lullaby over again.

Adding to the melody was a tradition as surely as was the passing of the melody itself. All the contributions of all the women in her line fit loosely, fluidly, rightly. It reminded Aliyah of Nature, and her beauty, her Perfection. There was none of that in the Perfection of man. Man’s Perfection was devious, dishonest.

Her eyes were again on that carving. Whatever else she wanted to say about Cilora, she had to admit: whenever something entered Cilora’s head, she wouldn’t be dissuaded from it. How had such a tiny woman wrestled this sleek, if twisted, form from the trunk of an oak?

When she looked at the carving, her eyes blurring in an effort not to trace nonsense lines, Aliyah thought of her father, of his telling her the story of how he met Cilora. It was one of his favorite stories to tell. He told it the same way, exactly the same way, each and every time. Aliyah had learned it by heart before her tenth birthday.

As fond as she was of the eccentric little woman, Aliyah thought she would go mad if she ever had to hear the story again.

“I found Cilora on the streets of the Compolien. It was a summer night, sometime—oh, going on three hundred years ago, now. Her feet were bare, her face and hands covered in dirt. She was begging alms from the sailors in her tattered pink gown. The most beautiful vision I’d ever seen. Ahem, this was before I met your mother, mind.

“Sailors on shore leave aren’t the company for a beautiful young woman to have of a night. A Creator was better, I thought. So I invited her to stay in my manor. I didn’t ask her to leave again for seventy-odd years.

“She wasn’t yet twenty, on those first few months, but she showed immediate promise.”

“Promise of what?” Aliyah had asked for a while, when she was between the ages of asking the question and being prepared for an answer. Her father always looked away, clearing his throat and almost seeming to blush. Not that that had stopped him from saying the same the next time he told the story. Eventually, she had started asking the question just to see her unflappable father flustered.

“In any case, I took her under my tutorage, taught her to create, provided her fees. She was more than worth the cost. For the first time in a hundred years, I had companionship that counted.  She had natural talent in the arts, more than any of my previous apprentices. But she frustrated me.

She painted these nonsense pictures. Every time I looked away, she snuck off to play in the mud! Her music contained no meter, her dances were wild and unrefined. She would never, I thought, be a true Creator if she did not learn to apply reason and moderation to her works.”

“But you were wrong,” Aliyah usually said. Her father always gave that roar of a laugh.

“I was wrong,” he acknowledged. “I returned from buying fresh bread—there was a place down by the corner, and it made the finest I’d eaten before, or have since—and I returned to find Cilora changed. Perfected.”

Aliyah had again reached the end of the lullaby. The first note came without thought, and then the second, slightly different than she had given it before, slid smoothly alongside. She managed a small smile, despite the memory she knew would follow, the rest of the conversation she’d had with her father about Cilora.

To armor herself against the memory, she tried to focus on the melody. How had that last note changed, and why? She didn’t know. To her father’s chagrin, she had refused to learn about music. Refused to taint the lullaby, and her memory of her mother, with the examinations that had so ruined other art for her, examinations that had allowed her to pick creations apart, piece by piece, to find imperfections.

Music would remain sweet, and gentle, and powerful, mysterious and beautiful, infinite and wise, her breath and her pulse. It was life to her. The whisper of grasses on her feet and the wind in her hair, the sun on her face and the cool spring rain. She refused to make something so natural cheap and ugly in straining for Perfection.

The memory sparked again in her mind, refusing to be rebuffed. She started humming more quickly, but memory intruded.

“Really?” Aliyah had retorted a year ago, just before her father had set off to his latest battlefield tours. “Is that why she gets drunk, covers herself in red paint, and dances naked under the new moon? Because she’s Perfect?”

“She’s from a different time,” Penoctema had blustered.

“She believes the Sisters will suck my soul out through my nose if I don’t eat an onion, whole, every month.”

“So she’s superstitious,” he said, less confidently.

“She bathes in leech ponds and drinks goat blood!”

“You don’t understand.”

“Then make me understand!”

“I can’t!” Her father’s face, usually bright and smooth and vital, was lined and aged with frustration. “I can’t understand the woman. How am I supposed to make you understand?” When he sighed, scrubbing his grey-speckled growth of a beard, he looked as old as an Age, if not quite as old as he really was. “I’m telling you this because I love you, Aliyah. I doubt any other Creators have told their progeny.”

Aliyah gave him a look that spoke every word she was too wise to say aloud. In response, he leaned close, patting her hand.

“When I became Perfect, I gained more than you could ever know. Time. Authority. Acclaim. Freedom. Yes, freedom more than anything. No worries, no rules, no urgency. So much.” Her father’s eyes held hers, unwavering, unflinching. “But for days, weeks after I was transfigured by the Silent Ladies, I wept for what I’d lost.”

“Wept?” she’d asked. The word tasted strange on her tongue. Wept, upon gaining eternity.

Her father only nodded. “When we gain who we are—who we will be forever—we lose who we were. All of our imperfections, weaknesses, flaws… They are either polished away or grown to features in their own right. You see now? I don’t love her, Aliyah. Not for who she is. I love her for who she was, who she can’t ever be again.”

Aliyah realized her whole body had tightened with the tension of the memory. Her eyes were closed tight, her jaws clenched, her fingers balled into fists at her skirt. Slowly, she loosened, eased, straightened. She opened her eyes, smoothed her skirts. Standing, turning resolutely away from the masterwork monstrosity, she stepped into the shadows of the bushes, where she could see nothing but the greenery.

Nature. She called to Aliyah, soothed her. Beautiful yes, but never reaching for anything more. Nature was content. Nature was happy. Fleeting, yes, but also eternal, in her own way. And every life had been touched by her unplanned Perfection.

Nature had been wise when the Silent Ladies had ascended. In love with the grasping for Perfection as much as they were with Perfection itself, the Ladies had forestalled offering Nature eternity, waiting to see what such a creature could produce when at her most determined. When, finally, they knew that Nature did not deign to pursue them, the Ladies offered Nature their gift if she would only promise to continue her good work.

Nature refused. And when the Silent Ladies scolded her, reminding her that they would be present when her children’s children returned to dust, Nature laughed, and promised that those children would have children, too, and that her sons and daughters would continue forever to vex the Sisters with Perfection, and by living short, beautiful lives, rather than their own grotesqueries.

Aliyah found herself smiling, again. Humming, too. That third note wasn’t right. She didn’t think about it, not really, but she wanted the lullaby to be even more beautiful when she taught it to her own daughter, years from now, than it was. But she would have to try something else, with that third.

Nature’s Folly, the story was called. Wherein Nature is portrayed as a fool, for refusing a gift given freely. As a child, Aliyah had guffawed at the arrogance of that choice. After all, when the Silent Ladies touched a thing, it was not for anyone to disparage.

Now, however… She started toward the exit, but halted when she reached another masterwork, this one easier on the eyes, and on the heart.

A woman was drawn in charcoal with fine gray lines, her eyes dark and intense, her hair light, wispy, almost floating.  There was a tiny scar along the jaw, captured so precisely from the model to the paper that she could almost see how it had faded against the skin over the years. Her neck was graceful, leading to a necklace of pearls and gold, down to a fine silken collar at the edge of the paper. But while the lines of the drawing were always fine, the farther the artist drew from the face, the fainter and less detailed the sketch grew. The woman’s eyes drew all the attention, so deep with light and shadow, traced with reflections, as though they held the very woman’s soul inside. Her expression was bright and loud with the joy of the moment. She had fallen for this artist, this Creator.

Yes, this was a picture drawn by a master, yes. But almost as importantly, it was clear how much he loved his subject, how he had studied her every imperfection in order to capture them all Perfectly.

She only had one memory regarding this drawing. Well, two, but the second was just her father repeatedly recalling the advice he had given her the first time.

“You have to love what you’re working on. You’ve got to love it as if it were your child. Because until it’s finished, it is a child. Ever growing, changing. Vulnerable. Relying on you, as Creator, to shelter it, to raise it right. If you abandon it, like an infant, it will die of exposure. You must guide it into what you want it to be, what it’s meant to be.”

She had never told him the truth, but she was sure he’d suspected. She’d never loved anything she’d worked on to appease him. Not the paintings, not the pictures, not the sculptures, carvings, or dances. Nothing. She didn’t have room in her heart for that. She wasn’t strong enough to love something with all her being, and then be told, by dreaded silence, that it simply was not good enough. The very thought almost drove her mad.

It was then that she had decided that she would never attain Perfection. She wasn’t strong enough, or crazy enough. It was Nature who had been wise, who had been right. The true freedom was not in attaining others’ Perfection, but in striving towards her own.

Even so, the drawing was sweet, pleasant to her eyes, sweet to her mind. She hadn’t even realized she’d started humming, until she reached that dreaded third note, her voice climbing almost higher than comfort to reach the note that she felt might fit better.

The note locked into place, not with the smooth, fluid rightness of the others, but with a solid, rigid finality.

The world tilted under her feet, and her knees crumpled. A sting raced along her palm where she’d broken her fall onto the stone path; raising her hand to her face, she found a raw, red patch of scraped skin. Blood already sprouted to the surface. But her mind wasn’t on her pain.

The world was still turning, turning, turning. Beyond staying upright, beyond bearing. She fell onto her back, continuing to stare at her palm as the blood weighed heavier with each beat of her heart.

She could hear her pulse thudding in her ears, more quickly than any of the drums in their masterworks. She could feel the blood shooting through burning arms and legs, into pricking fingers and toes. She could feel that desperate, urgent vitality, that mortal thrum.

She could hear her breaths racing from her throat, heavier than any reed flute could manage, harder than any pipe. She could feel the air in her chest, swelling her with what sweet, new life. Her whole body sang with it, even as the world spun out of control.

And then it all…stopped.

She watched her hand until her eyes burned. The wound was gone. It wasn’t raw, like she had blotched it dry, or scabbed, like she had let it stop on its own. It wasn’t scarred, like it had happened months or years past. It was smooth, and clear, and soft, like it had never been.

The world stopped spinning more slowly than it had started. She didn’t trust the ground to stay where it was, yet, and didn’t trust her legs any more than the ground. But that wasn’t what kept her on her back on the cobbled stone floor.

Silent. It was all silent. From where she was, she couldn’t hear any of the motley melodies provided by the masterworks. But it was the absence of other noises, closer noises, that startled her.

Her blood.

Her air.

Neither filled her with their fleeting joy.

Instead, the joy just…was. Singing in her skin, her every inch alive with it. Alive. Like she had never been, like she’d never known what it meant to live.

And then, as the minutes passed into what might have been an hour, there was that other feeling, slowly building, like she had held her breath for too long.

She covered her face with her arm and gave in to the growing need.

The voice sounding the lullaby wasn’t her voice. Hers was quiet and shaky, reluctant to be at all. This voice was deep, for a woman’s, melodic and sure. This new tongue didn’t stumble over the notes as her old one sometimes had, instead navigating the intricacies of the lullaby with the familiarity that was due her. Her throat produced long, loud, clear notes, each one precise, each as it was meant to be. Each note Perfect.

And then she reached the end, and she… kept going. It wasn’t the end, after all, some new part in her whispered. Not like it had been that morning. Now, there were just those last three little notes to finish it off.

She hummed them beautifully.

Her daughter, whenever amid the coming centuries Aliyah chose to bear her, would receive the song to learn by rote. She would offer up a pale imitation of Aliyah’s own. She might add to the lullaby, and with Aliyah’s permission. But any addition would be an aberration, a detraction from the Perfect song that already was. Always there would be a small silence, a distance between the Perfect whole and the foolish effort to expand it. Never again would a member of her line work the lullaby like a puzzle, adding her own complexity to the whole.

Aliyah had stolen countless generations. She’d stolen her future from her ancestral past. This lullaby wasn’t hers. It wasn’t for her to Perfect. Who were the Sisters to decide she should have eternity, when it was unwanted?

At the thought, she remembered Cilora. Had this been what had happened to the madwoman? Had she been striving for Perfection at all? Or had she been deceived into achieving it?

Her next thought was of her father, and she laughed. No. She wouldn’t strain for Perfection her entire life, only to fall short. Her father had made sure of that, just as he had promised.

But she wouldn’t live an eternal life on the battlefields, either. She had promised that to herself.