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Archive for June, 2013

Carrie Vaughn is well known for her urban fantasy series about werewolf Kitty Norville. Because of her success with that series, she’s been able to branch out and try new things. She’s published several YA genre novels, including After the Golden Age, with superheroes, and Steel, time-travel with pirates. The one that caught my eye is Voices of Dragons.

The setup is that nuclear bombings at the end of WW II brought dragons out of hiding. War ensued, and ended in a peace treaty which granted dragons sovereign territory in the Russian arctic and the US/Canadian Rocky Mountains. There’s been virtually no contact since.

Kay, the heroine of this book, is the teenaged daughter of the woman who administers the treaty and the sheriff who enforces it. Naturally, she’s the one who breaches the border with Dragon and makes friends with an equally rebellious teenaged dragon named Artegal.

Unfortunately for these new besties, the US military has secretly developed some anti-dragon weapons, and they’re itching for an excuse to try them out. The secret of their friendship becomes harder and harder to maintain when Air Force jets keep “accidentally” crossing the border.

I liked this setting very well, with the dragons having their own territory and culture. I would have liked to see much more of that. Artegal was maybe a little too inscrutable. The human baddie was also a problem for me. There wasn’t a compelling reason for him to trash 60 years of diplomacy, just so he could play with his new toys.

Unfortunately, I also had trouble relating to Kay. In the first chapter, she’s off doing dangerous extreme sports, but in the second chapter, she’s all jittery about whether she likes a guy. These are both a little bit stereo-typical, and not what I remember my teen years being like. I guess I was looking for her to be more consistent.

I did appreciate the message about not having sex too soon. It’s a nice slap-back at the rampant, irresponsible sex in so much urban fantasy. But messages are not what we read books for. We read to fall in wonder with a brave new world. Despite the good ideas in Voices of Dragons, I just didn’t like it as much as I wanted to.

The ending makes it clear there should be a sequel, but I haven’t seen advance notice on bookselling web sites.

Because it’s clean, and not terribly angsty, I’d recommend it for kids 10 to 14, or adults who can live without the sex scenes.

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The Magic 200

This will be just a quick check-in. Quite a relief, I’m sure, after my lengthy posts over the last two weeks!

I’m working hard on second-draft revisions for my current novel, The Grimhold Wolf. So close to being finished! Too close to take my eye off the ball.

However! I recently got a note from WordPress that Wyrmflight has received its 200th “like.” Coincidentally, this comes at roughly the 1-1/2 year anniversary of Wyrmflight. So I’m taking this moment to thank all of you who’ve become friends and blog-hoppers and whatever else we want to call it. Thanks for following my blog.

Now back to that novel…

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I hope you’re still with me as I continue my trip back in time, following some of the connections that have made contemporary fandom what it is. We’ve walked backward from Yu-Gi-Oh! to Magic: the Gathering to Dungeons and Dragons, and how each of these would not have been created without the one before it. There’s just one more stop on our journey.

Lord of the Rings was written as a single massive epic, but printed as three volumes between 1954 and 1955. Author J.R.R. Tolkein is sometimes dismissed as a bookish Oxford scholar, but his work was visionary. It won an International Fantasy Award in 1957. That hardly begins to describe its impact.

With paperback publication in the 1960s, the series became much more affordable. It swept college campuses all over the world. The humble Hobbits were seen as counter-culture protesters against forces of industrialization. (This was also the era of Rachel Carson and the first modern action against air and water pollution.)

When I first read them, in the early 1970s, the books were like the Harry Potter series. Smart kids read them, because you had to be smart to understand Tolkein’s vocabulary and follow the multi-threaded plot.

All of us had grown up reading fairy tales and legends such as the Norse mythology Tolkein loved. What electrified aspiring writers was the idea that we didn’t have to be content with the dusty tales of dead cultures. We could write our own! Not only that, Lord of the Rings introduced us to an incredible world with several cultures and a complicated history between them. This is world-building, a bedrock of fantasy today. It’s Tolkein’s great gift to the genre.

Previously, fantasy had been just a niche genre published in a few SF and men’s adventure magazines. Even those were withering. With Tolkein’s success, the genre exploded. First with a score of imitators, some better executed than others, but since about 1980 with more and more work that stands on its own merits.

Tolkein’s ground-breaking innovation led to a host of other ground-breaking innovations. Without Tolkein, we wouldn’t have D&D. We wouldn’t have video games like Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed. We wouldn’t have Magic: the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Bakugan. Game of Thrones wouldn’t be on TV. Lots of us wouldn’t even have a genre to write in.

All these things we take for granted. We forget there was a time when they didn’t exist. What would our lives be, as writers, as fans, without Lord of the Rings? This is what I tell people who don’t get the problem with film-makers massively changing Tolkein’s story in The Hobbit.

We owe Tolkein, big time.

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I mentioned last week how the card game, Yu-Gi-Oh!, would not have existed without the previous card game, Magic: the Gathering. Well, Magic: the Gathering also grew out of an earlier game. You might have heard of it. Dungeons and Dragons, affectionately known as D&D.

D&D swept college and high school campuses in the mid-1970s. The earliest editions, printed in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, were based on a miniature wargame called Chainmail, but players controlled individual characters rather than military units. The action took place in a fantasy world, like Middle Earth. Lord of the Rings was already wildly popular around the world. D&D took the epic scope of Tolkein’s masterpiece and made it interactive.

I was 16 years old when a friend gave me a copy of the primitive early rules, printed on the old green-and-white computer paper, with faded dot-matrix print. (I know at least a few of you out there will remember the kind of paper and printers I’m talking about.) This must have been in 1974 or ’75, right after the first release. It just shows how fast the game was spreading.

Well, this was made for me! I’d always been a reader, and I’d always loved fantasy. Now, here was a game all about fantasy, but I got to act it out and decide what happened next. I adored everything about it! Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t until I got to college that I found a regular group of players who weren’t thrown off by having a girl at the table. (I solved this problem by finding a whole bunch of girlfriends to play with. Eat your hearts out, you lonely men gamers. We had FOUR girls in our group!)

One of the many great things about early D&D was the inclusion of classic monsters from legend and myth, like Hydra and the Indian Naga. And were there dragons? Duh… The title is Dungeons and DRAGONS! For me, and countless others, this was our first chance to play with the concept of dragons and use them in interesting new ways.

In D&D, there was a basic division between Colored dragons and Metallic dragons. The colored dragons (red, green, black, blue and white) were uniformly evil. Metallic dragons (brass, copper, silver, gold and bronze) were good monsters who might actually help the players. Dragons were also ranked from the youngest, Hatchlings, to the largest, Ancient. Some dragons could cast spells, and they all had different breath weapons. There were even rules about how to train a dragon as your steed, if you should happen across a nest with eggs.

Although the dragons in D&D were monsters, they were also potentially characters in their own right, if the DM chose to play them as such. This was, for me, another huge step into the larger world of fantasy.

Like Magic: the Gathering, D&D was a huge success. The gaming world, which previously had consisted of board games and card games, made room for a sprawling, idiosyncratic new form — and really didn’t know what to do with it.

But us young ‘uns, we knew!!

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I talked last week about Yu-Gi-Oh!, the collectible card came and video conglomeration of the early 21st Century, but I’m well aware that the entire phenomenon would never have happened without a prior innovation — the collectible card game itself. The first of these, of course, was Magic: the Gathering.

If you didn’t live through it, you have no idea what an enormous event Magic: the Gathering was. Prior to this, gaming in SF conventions was all about role-playing: D&D, Champions, GURPS, etc., and a little bit of war-gaming with miniatures. At the time, I was involved with a small local SF convention called InCon. I was also involved in a Dragonriders of Pern fan club, Telgar Weyr. One of the other members, who became a good friend, was Cathleen Adkison. I learned that Cathleen was co-owner, along with her husband Peter, of a small gaming company, Wizards of the Coast. I suggested to the InCon board that we should invite the Adkisons to be gaming guests of honor, which we did.

Little did we know, a few weeks before our convention in October 1993, Wizards of the Coast would release something new. That’s right, it was Magic: the Gathering! The Adkisons kindly donated booster packs to put in our member bags. I can clearly recall on Friday afternoon and evening, people standing around the hotel foyer, looking at these cards and scratching their heads.

“What is this?” “A collectible card game.” “Collecta-what?” “Like baseball cards, but you can play a game with them.” A few enterprising individuals were going around saying, “I’ll take that if you don’t want it.” Because Magic: the Gathering was such a brilliant idea. Like baseball cards, but you can play a game with them! Better yet, the games are short, so you can play a few hands while waiting for your next program to start.

It totally changed so many things. Wizards of the Coast went from a basement operation to a star factory. The game won more than a dozen awards. The Adkisons became millionaires. But more to the point of this post, Magic: the Gathering changed the industry. Nowadays, you can’t run an SF convention without a Magic tournament. Most game stores have weekend tournaments. This game became part of everyone’s lives.

Now, like Yu-Gi-Oh! you can’t really point to a great dragon character in Magic: the Gathering. There are lots of dragon cards, and they tend to be powerful, but at the end of the day, these are cards and you use them to play a game. That said, here’s a great wiki on dragons in Magic: The Gathering, if you’re interested.

It’s interesting, how I can look back over my life in fandom and see how things grew out of other things. Next week, I’ll be looking even farther back, at some more influential paper dragons.

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After covering dragons in Lego’s Ninjago and Sega’s Bakugan series, I couldn’t pass up commenting on the card game/video game/anime/toy conglomeration that all the others want to be: Yu-Gi-Oh!

This is a series I know more about, since it was huge when my kids were in their prime Saturday-Morning-Cartoon years and I sat through innumerable episodes of card-playing swagger and drama. (I say this like it’s a bad thing, but the character arcs are what make the show — if you have the patience for long, slow “battle” scenes where young men characters bluster and brag about how brilliant their strategy is. Typical anime pacing, in other words.)

The framework of Yu-Gi-Oh! is a collectible card came called Duel Monsters in the US translation, Magic & Wizards in the Japanese. This card game exists in the real world, and it remains popular with kids 10-14 almost 20 years later.

As you might imagine, there are dragon cards in the set. Actually, since it’s a collectible card game, and they keep releasing more cards, there are dozens of dragon cards with interesting names like Collapsarpent the Ebony Dragon. Two of the best known dragon cards are Blue-Eyes White Dragon, key to the deck of antagonist Kaiba, and Red-Eyes Black Dragon, gambled back and forth between good guys Yugi and Joey.

Alas, cards is all they are. These dragons are not characters, and they mostly form an imposing backdrop while the card players taunt each other. Well, you can’t have everything.

What Yu-Gi-Oh! does right is weave a gripping story about the meaning of friendship and fighting for what you love rather than for glory. At the start of the story, Yugi is a school boy taunted by bullies, including Joey. Instead of being bitter, he reaches out to Joey, and their friendship becomes the bedrock of the whole saga.

This series also excels at motivating all the characters to play high stakes for the sake of something they desperately need or love. To give an example, the first season TV show focuses on Duelist Kingdom, an extended plot arc where a villain named Pegasus challenges/invites Yugi, Kaiba, et all to a private island for a grand tournament. They don’t trust him and refuse to take part, so Pegasus steals the soul of Yugi’s grandfather, kidnaps Kaiba’s little brother, and offers cash to pay for eye surgery needed by Joey’s blind sister. As Dark Yugi would say, “It’s time to duel!” But, by the end, it turns out that even Pegasus is battling for True Love. He needs to capture some items held by the other players, in order to revive his dead fiancee.

It all sounds a bit ridiculous, but it works. Yu-Gi-Oh! has spawned three or four related series and an array of toys, action figures, video games, etc. The card game continues to attract players and collectors. If you’re looking for ideas to take your story-telling to the next level, you could do worse than study the first season of Yu-Gi-Oh!

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Here I am, fresh from watching a batch of Bakugan episodes and ready to tell you about the dragons!

The setup is that the dimension of Vestroia exists alongside Earth and is inhabited by creatures known as Bakugan. A beam of light came down from nowhere and granted special powers and spiritual properties to all but a few of the Bakugan. Depending on their powers, they divided themselves into six kingdoms: Pyrus (fire and strength), Subterra (earth and toughness), Haos (light and wisdom), Darkus (darkness and lust for power), Aquos (water and cleverness), and Ventus (wind and speed).

Alas, a civil war broke out, which was ended by the sacrifice of several heroic Bakugan, “The Six Legendary Soldiers of Vestroia.” All evil and negative energy became condensed into the Silent Core, while all good and positive energy formed the Infinity Core. With these two cores in balance, Vestroia maintained its integrity.

Until… Somehow, Earth and Vestroia collided. Some Bakugan were shunted onto Earth, where they took the form of the familiar plastic critters and cards. Not knowing their “toys” were sentient beings, the Earth kids who found the cards made up a game to play with them. This allowed even more Bakugan access to Earth. The story, unfolding over the course of several seasons, tells how benevolent Bakugan convince humans to help them fight off the power bid of an evil Bakugan and the humans he has corrupted.

As I mentioned, the Dragonoids are key players in all this. They are Drago, Naga and Wavern. Naga and Wavern are brother and sister, rare White Bakugan not aligned with any particular kingdom. This made them outcasts (although not so much that Wavern and Drago couldn’t enjoy a deep and faithful love). Naga was bitter and craved control of both the Silent and Infinity Cores; Drago, the king of Pyrus, tried to stop Naga, but failed. Naga wasn’t able to control both cores, but became bonded with the Silent Core. In reaction, the Infinity Core bonded with Wavern.

Drago, stuck on Earth, is initially very proud and angry. He’s found by the feckless Dan Kuso, a teen Bakugan player who boasts about Drago’s power and has a habit of challenging players he knows nothing about. Over time, Drago and Dan develop a close friendship, and Drago reveals his true self: a great leader and knight of virtue who fights for peace and is willing to sacrifice himself for the greatest good. Drago becomes Dan’s conscience and moral guide. He appears in the anime as a huge, red and gold, humanoid dragon.

Naga, by contrast, is selfish and power-hungry. He finds several human partners, who he either deceives or dominates. His powers, when he has them, tend toward Darkus. Much of the action in the first season revolves around his efforts to find and control the Infinity Core. Naga appears as a huge, skeletal, dragon (not a humanoid).

Wavern, sister of Naga, was fused with the Infinity Core and ended up on Earth. She forged a bond with Joe Brown, one of Dan Kuso’s friends, and sent him mental visions warning of Naga’s evil intentions. Like Drago, Wavern is a good and pure soul. Her powers, when she has them, tend toward Haos. Ultimately, Wavern sacrifices herself to give Drago power to defeat Naga, but she continues to appear through the next three seasons in memories and visions that encourage Drago when things look bad. Wavern appears as a huge, white and lavender, dragon (neither humanoid nor skeletal).

Having seen these episodes, I can see why the series never reached the stature of its rivals, Pok√©mon and Yugi-Oh. The storytelling felt formulaic, and the characters are all very stereotyped. I know, I’m a really demanding viewer, and I’m also way above the reading level of the intended audience for Bakugan.

I give the creators props for making the dragons important characters, rather than just pets. Still, the show struck me as really flat in contrast to shows like Yugi-Oh, where they took time to build the character conflicts and relationships.

These shows are best for the twelve and under set, and may try the patience of adult viewers.

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