Because all of life is stories.
For a long time now I’ve been trying to improve my writing. Through practice, through editing, through trying to be a more conscious reader, I think I can slowly see progress. No place has been more helpful than the podcast Writing Excuses, led by some of my favorite authors. For ten seasons now, one of which even won a Hugo, Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and Mary Robinette Kowal have taught me how to write and helped me along my path. What started as three guys with a few good ideas turned into a brilliant four person cast that every week teaches me something new. They even have a writing retreat now! On a boat!
Last year they came out with an anthology of stories that they had been using as brainstorming exercises or thought up during episodes. What’s really cool about this anthology isn’t just the four stories in it, though they are all pretty good, but the fact that the anthology works as a writing tool. In addition to the four stories they also include their thoughts on brainstorming each one, the first and second drafts of each one, and a complete section of line edits for every story. Shadows Beneath not only gives you the stories, it lets you behind the scenes to see how some of the best writers in the business go about thinking up an idea, putting it on paper, and polishing it to a shine. If nothing else, it’s an interesting look at something new, with a few cool stories thrown in. For the aspiring writer, it’s a unique and frankly amazing tool to help you learn the craft.
I’ll ignore the edits and drafts for this review, and just focus on the stories. Should you pick up a copy though, definitely look through the whole thing.
A Fire in the Heavens
The first story in the anthology comes from Mary Robinette Kowal, award winning author, puppeteer, and podcaster. She’s by far the most eloquent and probably the smartest of the group, and her world to me is the most intriguing and unique by far. It begins in the cabin of a ship, several weeks into a voyage past the edge of the map. The world Mary has created has the protagonist looking for the lost land of her ancestors. A world unlike anything she’s ever seen. On her world, they’ve never seen the moon. The thought of such a thing is dismissed as superstitious fancies of religion. Even the protagonist isn’t sure that such a thing could be real.
But then they sail just far enough.
You see, the world Kowal has created is tidally locked, meaning the moon moves in sync with the planet, and always occupies the same spot of sky, rather than rotating around the planet as ours does. When the moon rises over the horizon as they sail, the crew and the priest/scholar protagonist can hardly believe their eyes. Needless to say, when they find living people on the far side of the world, culture has evolved in a far different manner than a place where there has never been a moon to light the night.
Considered heretics for refusing to bow down to the gods of newly discovered lands, our viewpoint characters soon find themselves by turns under arrest, under threat of death, and hopelessly confused when it comes to buying food in the local market. Of all the stories in the anthology, this is the one I am most hoping to see as a full length novel sometime in the future. And it sounds like Kowal may be doing just that.
A military unit fighting overseas is tasked with field testing a new technology that automatically disarms enemy IED’s before they can blow and kill soldiers. Upon finding that the “new technology” is actually a demon and that the handbook for handling said monstrosity is woefully unhelpful, our heroes find themselves fighting for their lives against both enemy insurgents and the incompetence of bureaucratic manuals. By far the most fun of the four stories, Wells crafts a tale that’s highly amusing on several levels.
An Honest Death
I know Howard Tayler has a book in him somewhere. It is going to be wonderful and dark and funny and terrifying. I know Howard Tayler from his webcomic, Schlock Mercenary. Recently though he’s been writing more and more short fiction. It is mostly dark and terrifying and wildly intriguing. This one features a team of bodyguards who are tasked with keeping secure a firm working on the key to immortality, and it’s all going fine, until a figure dressed like the Grim Reaper appears in the CEO’s office as if by magic. As the walls between this world and the next break down around the team, a series of questions arise.
Should we become immortal? Is it really worth it? Are we better off not messing with things beyond our ken?
If we decide to go ahead, are we prepared for a war against a foe that has been with us since the day we were born?
This is another one that has a lot of potential for a full novel, and it’s a good introduction to Tayler’s work. Seriously though, go read Schlock Mercenary. All of it. Forever and ever.
Sixth of the Dusk
I bought the anthology for this story. It’s another of Brandon’s Cosmere stories. If you don;t know, or haven’t read this blog before, Brandon Sanderson’s major fantasy worlds (Elantris, Mistborn, Stormlight Archive) all take place on different planets in Sanderson’s wider universe, the Cosmere. Eventually they will all intersect and meet for a grand Avengers style finale.
As far as we can figure this one takes place fairly far down the timeline of Sanderson’s Cosmere (Not all the stories are written chronologically across series) and it definitely encompasses a heretofore unseen world. The main character, Sixth of the Dusk, is a trapper on an island filled with plants and animals and insects all designed to give him the most debilitating death possible. Luckily, he has a trained bird that can show him his own death, corpse and all, before it happens. Unluckily, a scientist from a company looking to industrialize the island of Dusk’s traditional profession has secreted herself and a handful of others onto the island. This is both unthinkable to Dusk, and massively dangerous.
On the journey back to the woman’s camp they will encounter nearly every danger of the island, showcasing some of the very cool ideas and magical worlds that I’ve come to expect from Sanderson. For a new initiate into his writing, the story itself is fun enough, although a little bit abrupt. For the seasoned Sanderson reader, it contains several fascinating looks into the future of the Cosmere and the Shards that give life and magic to the universe. The fan favorite theory is that it even gives us a brief look into the future of the Mistborn world, nearer the sci-fi era trilogy that Brandon will eventually be writing. Either way, it’s enough to get me more excited for the next Mistborn book this October.
As a whole, Shadows beneath is a wholly unique thing that I found to be both an entertaining read and a really great writing tool for anyone that wants to see the entire process of a published author from brainstorming to final piece. Give the book a read and listen to the weekly podcast! I don’t exaggerate when I say it’s taught me more over the last few years than the aggregate of every college and high school writing class I’ve ever taken.