Monday, 13 October 2014

Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil

Good news!

Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil, comes out in less than a week.

Malevolence is an anthology of ghost stories featuring tales written by over 20 authors, including excellent sorts such as Jo Zebedee, Teresa Edgerton and Toby Frost, amongst others.

It will also include the short story ‘Saxon & Khan’, written by me (Thaddeus White). It’s my first traditionally published story, so it’s quite a nice milestone. Unusually for me, it’s set in the modern day real world, which was an odd place to write a story.

I’m not familiar with every author, but I’ve read (or sometimes beta-read) stuff from several of them and can attest to the quality of many of the writers.

There’s still time to pre-order a cut-price version here:

And there’s to be a signed edition, released a little bit later. They’re limited in number, so if you’re interested best to snap them up now:

I’ve got short stories in the pipeline (submitted but not yet accepted or rejected) for several other anthologies. Hopefully one or more of those will come out next year, and I’m also working on Kingdom Asunder.

In the meantime, enjoy Saxon & Khan's paranormal escapade.


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Cruelty and Clemency

Grimdark, as the grimmer and darker sort of fantasy currently very much in fashion has been dubbed, can often have lots of horrid things within. Rape, murder, torture, pain, woe and anguish abound.

Human history (and, sadly, the human present in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere) reveals that mankind has a quite remarkable capacity for inflicting tremendous pain upon itself. At the same time, it’s worth recalling even despicable groups can have a good member (Schindler for the Nazis, for example). Brutes can occasionally show clemency, just as kind men can sometimes erupt with rage.

The strength of the rule of law is critical to considering widespread levels of violence. The Romans were not exactly soft on crime, but the Roman legal system was pretty advanced for its time. Stability and low crime rates were important for the Empire, because stability made people feel more confident, happier to trade and spend, and less likely to hoard money ‘just in case’ something terrible happened. The economy worked well, everyone had a stake in peace, and those who tried to rebel got crushed by the Roman army. For a long time Roman authority was strong, and this worked.

But when the Western Empire collapsed, power ended up being devolved to such small levels that there was barely even the pretence of law and order. Brutality replaced civility, as proven by charming games such as nailing a cat to a tree and headbutting it to death. (I am, sadly, not making that up. The excellent By Sword And Fire, by Sean McGlynn, is really worth buying for a good look at cruelty and clemency in the medieval world, particularly warfare).

Lots of what went on in the medieval era was pretty brutal, and we would consider a leader who commanded such things (including the massacre of prisoners who surrendered on condition they be allowed to live) war crimes. But today’s tyrant was yesterday’s hero. People in villages, towns and cities welcomed a strong ruler. There was no police force, so when criminals were caught harsh measures were approved of and often reassured the people. In war, there was a conflict between brutality and mercy.

The Black Prince had a fearsome reputation, and he deserved it. But this cut both ways. People would often not surrender to him, simply because they preferred to fight (and perhaps die) to entrusting themselves to his care. By contrast, Henry V adopted a milder approach when he conquered much of France in the 15th century.

However, a reputation for being meek and weak could lead to problems. If every surrender is accepted then what penalty would there be (for example) for those rebelling against their lawful king? In the medieval era the lion’s share of a king’s duty was to be the chief warrior of the realm. His position depended upon being strong and being perceived to be strong, and a show of weakness could prompt rebellion, with ambitious rivals taking a tilt at the crown.

Not to mention the fact that if enemies were left alive to fight another day, they might be victorious next time, and not return the merciful favour.

It’s easy to look back and consider the medieval era to be thoroughly uncivilised and savage, but there were rational causes behind the cruelty sometimes enacted. In the same way, a surprising degree of mercy could sometimes be shown. It’s hard for us, with long-term nation-states, international law and well-established domestic justice systems, to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who lived almost a thousand years ago. Back then there was no police force, practically no disease could be cured by medicine and countries (most notably England and France) were just beginning to centralise power and impose order.


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The 100: first season review

The 100 is a new TV series that just finished airing (in the UK). It’s a sci-fi set a century or so after a nuclear war devastated the world, and charts the efforts of the few people left trying to return because their space station is beyond saving.

The first people sent (one hundred) are criminals. Because of the lack of resources all crimes are capital, but juvenile offenders are incarcerated until they reach the age of majority, when they get the special birthday present of a spacewalk without a spacesuit. The 100 are sent to see whether radiation has died down enough for the Earth to be survived.

I’ve got to admit, whilst liking the premise, I was going to give up on this roughly a third of the way in. A fellow from the internet, who had seen the whole series, suggested I reconsider, so I gave it another shot.

I enjoyed the latter half more than the first (bit like Supermodels of SHIELD. The 100 have also outlawed ugly women). There’s a nice diarchy situation going on, with two characters (Clarke and Bellamy) effectively leading the juvenile criminals. Clarke being more conciliatory and Bellamy more authoritarian/militaristic, though both have a certain pragmatism.

Early on, I felt that the episodes were sometimes not very engaging, and that the main storyline was taking a while to unfold. Later episodes did a better job of mingling the central storyline with each individual episode’s plot [I won’t go into detail for fear of spoilers]. Still room to improve, but it was entertaining.

The action on the Ark (the space station, where the parents and other adults still dwell) was usually interesting as a power struggle took hold as resources dwindled to almost nothing, and efforts to reach the ground hit a snag or two.

The finale of the season worked very well, I thought. Can’t go into detail, obviously, but it had been built up nicely and left some questions hanging for the second season.

I still don’t see why enforced American accents were the order of the day, though. The protagonist, Eliza Taylor (as Clarke), has a perfect American accent but what’s wrong with her native Aussie? Did those space fascists ban non-US accents as well as ugly women?

Pace, in the first half, could’ve and should’ve been faster.

On the plus side, there are some genuinely surprising plot twists, perhaps the most notable coming fairly early on.

I hope the second season builds on the first and the show continues to improve. I’ll be watching it.


Thursday, 25 September 2014

How long should a war last?

Wars are pretty commonplace in fantasy, for obvious reasons. They’re exciting, give a good reason to kill off lots of characters (creating danger, drama and tension) and are a perfect setting for heroism and the most vile villainy.

But how long should a war last?

There are several factors to consider. The difference in army size and skill (including any warmages present). The geography of the land (and whether navies matter). Whether any fantastical or geological factors are at play (volcanoes, firestorms, flying monkey attacks, etc). The competence of the rulers and generals involved. Is the technological advantage with besiegers or the besieged? And, last but not least, the nature of the constitution and peoples on either side.

History furnishes us with many examples. The Hundred Years’ War lasted quite a while. In fact, so long that the nature of warfare changed during its course. In the earlier period chevauchees (massive raids to seize booty and burn property) were commonplace, with the Black Prince carrying out many. The purpose was to show the French citizens that the French king was incapable of protecting them, and the cause was partly because it was hard to take a walled settlement by storm. Later on, the development of siege engines made it easier to conquer cities (during Henry V’s time). This also meant that the English policy changed, and instead of terrifying French peasants Henry V ordered that all civility and decency should be shown to them.

The Second Punic War would’ve had a different ending and been much briefer if the Romans had not been at the height of their pathological patriotism. When Hannibal’s victory at Cannae obliterated a Roman army four times the size of a normal full consular army, just about every other country in the world would’ve, quite reasonably, sought terms. The Romans, on the other hand, sold the land Hannibal’s army was camped upon for full market value and then carried on. [The Roman politico-military setup helped enormously as it enabled more armies to be raised despite the enormous loss of manpower]. In later centuries, Roman virtue was enervated by luxury, and they repeatedly surrendered to far weaker opponents.

In the opposite moral direction, in the same war, Carthage surrendered pretty quickly after Hannibal suffered his only defeat, at Zama. But decades later, during the Third Punic War, the city (whose territory was by then not an empire but Carthage alone) showed far more backbone and vigour when provoked by outrageous Roman demands into war. Yes, Rome won, but it took several years for a massive empire to subjugate a single city with very few resources.

Deus ex machina is generally frowned upon (and rightly so), but a real life equivalent happened around 1400. Ottoman forces were poised to conquer Byzantium, and would likely have succeeded, but Tamerlane (think Genghis Khan but a little later) and his massive army rolled into Anatolia, obliterated the whole Ottoman army and reduced the Sultan, quite literally, to a footstool [Tamerlane used him to stand on when mounting his horse]. Byzantium survived for another half century, due to this massive stroke of luck.

Brilliant generals can also play a significant role. Alexander the Great is the most obvious. He was personally heroic but also tactically and strategically astute. An underestimated advantage he enjoyed was that his father was probably just as good, and did all the hard work reforming the Macedonian army and transforming it into the most formidable military machine in the world. In addition, he enjoyed a significant number of highly talented subordinates, such as Craterus, Parmenio and Antipater. This allowed him greater flexibility, as he could comfortably leave Macedonia behind in safe hands (Antipater) and deploy forces under a competent general (Craterus) without worrying they’d either rebel or fail.

It’s also worth mentioning that battles are pretty rare in history (far more time is spent marching about). I do think this is an area where it’s legitimate to be a bit unrealistic on purpose when writing. Pre-gunpowder warfare often involved walking up to several hundred or thousand men and trying to stab them to death. Understandably, the men were not keen on this if it could be avoided, and leaders were wary of either outright defeat or losing so many men the victory proved Pyrrhic.

Not only that, but keeping a large army together required significant logistical foresight (if only for the food and water), and always ran the risk of disease breaking out.

Campaigns sometimes did happen over winter, but it’s more difficult to get food at that time of year, and to dig (fortifications, for example), so it often meant a pause in hostilities.

There’s also the difference between a war of conquest and a war of glory. Rome fought to permanently acquire new territory. In Ancient Greece, it was often the case that a single battle was fought and the victor would acquire beneficial terms from the loser, but neither city-state was at risk of extinction (as happened to Corinth when the Romans crushed them in the 2nd century BC). A war of conquest will be more bitter and hard fought, because people will fight the harder for their survival. If surrender is a viable option, it can weaken the resolve.

From a writing perspective, a war that lasts as long as The Hundred Years’ War would probably be the work of either a Silmarillion-like approach, or a mega-series (Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire etc). For a normal single volume or trilogy, a couple of years would seem a better prospect.