Paradise at the Titan’s Feet

Twin buttes rise above sparsely forested foothills, close together and nearly parallel. Unlike other buttes, they broaden towards their rough tops, nearly touching. They’re known as the Titan’s Feet—their eerie resemblance of ankles and calves is made worse by the way their foothills only stretch in one direction, sloping down to end in smaller hills known by locals as The Toes. Though the resemblance isn’t perfect, no one denies it exists.

The mining town of Paradise lies nestled in the high saddle between the buttes. Everyone living there is connected with the many mines which dot the buttes, either as a miner themselves or as someone who supports the miners. Ruled by a junta of powerful locals, Paradise is beset on all sides. It has only remained under local control for so long because of the town’s natural fortifications, and through careful manipulation of its neighbors.

The products of the buttes’ mines are wildly precious and widely sought after. Reputed to have magical, mystical, and alchemical properties, the long veins of precious gems and rare metals command attention from all over. Unfortunately, that includes the attention of various warlords and pretenders to the throne. Originally a crown holding, Paradise’s independence has been tested constantly ever since the realm encompassing it fell apart in political crises and succession wars. Many say possession of Paradise is proof of legitimacy; certainly, controlling access to its resources and drawing from its wealth could sway the tides of war.

In better times, both learned folk and occult practitioners devoted their lives to studying the Titan’s Feet and their origins. The Feet rise out of a broad plain, some days’ ride from the nearest large rock formations. They are entirely distinct from the local bedrock. And though some have tried to explain the Feet as a natural phenomenon, most explanations simply cover speculation with a thin sheen of intellectual authority. Many scholars have acknowledged that they are better off collecting local folklore.

Some stories tell of a blessed woman who swore an oath to hold her ground in the face of a god’s wrath, a woman who grew in stature to match her obduracy, yet was petrified by the upset deity for having defied them. Other stories say that the Feet were built by unknown ancients, a beautiful statue of marvelous height now mostly-missing. Yet others claim that the Feet grow taller every year, bit by bit, and that one day they will finish growing the rest of their body.

Some miners who’ve spent too long underground in the Feet swear that they hear a heartbeat. Others tell of how the stone flexes around them at times, nearly like living flesh, or of how the buttes’ stone tries to close itself as flesh would a wound. These stories are shared around Paradise but often derided; few tell them while sober, or admit to believing them even when drunk. Regardless, everyone agrees that the Feet aren’t truly safe. Though they’re fabulously rich in gems and ores rarely found elsewhere (let alone in conjunction), they also contain strange things that scuttle in the darkness or which have made their own small tunnels. Much like the encroaching warlords, reports of these strange things in the mines have grown worse since the fall of the Crown.

Some people think that the problems are related.

The Wreck of the Lucius

Crystalline waves break on the shores of a large cove, water cool and deep green lapping up on white sands beneath the palm trees that mark the land’s edge. This cove once served a bustling merchant fleet; the old wooden docks have rotted and been blown away by vast storms, and only their piers remain. The city that stretched from the hinterland to the cove’s prominent hook lies abandoned, decaying and buried by time and tide. Only a few inhabitants yet remain.

A strange metal sight rises from the heart of the cove, recognizable to any sailor as a ship set prow-first into the cove’s depths. Its hull still gleams, metal untarnished but for bizarre scorched gouges that have opened its sides, and its masts jut proud and perpendicular from the brilliant brass of the deck. The ship dwarfs any galleon which once called this harbor home, its stern rising high above the waves. Letters in indelible white proclaim the ship “Lucius,” written in large script beneath the chromed gunwales.

The water around around the Lucius holds a strange consistency, gradually thickening from liquid to slime to gel as one approaches. The learned scholars of the dead coastal city once proposed that this oddity, brought by the ship’s arrival, was to blame for the sudden waves of plague and deformity which wracked the city’s populace. But rigorous avoidance of the cove’s water did nothing to slow the death which rolled through the city. This, on top of the destruction wrought when the metal ship plummeted from a clear sky into the harbor’s center, sealed the city’s end.

No life has stirred from within the metal ship—none that any nearby can see. Of the adventurous souls who have attempted to board the shining vessel, only two have returned. The first died within weeks of a terrible wasting disease, raving about the oceans between stars, the brave folk who dare to sail them, and the terrible things which stalk those sailors through the darkness. The other adventurer, perhaps more obdurate and dull, merely showed several small golden statues they’d retrieved and noted that the ship was filled with marvels beyond compare. That second adventurer disappeared soon thereafter. Many of those who heard their story died of ague.

The few fisherfolk that still make this cove their home claim that the Lucius sings on some nights, a keening dirge that washes from one end of the harbor to the other. On those nights, they say, lights and figures can be seen moving about aboard the ship, above and below the water. They claim it’s worst on the nights with no moon, and that the Lucius has been changing slowly over the years: that there are new scorch marks, that the “ghosts” struggle harder, and that the ship’s song has grown harsher. The oldest among the fisherfolk says she’s worried for the ship’s crew.

The Arena of Galch

Mad Galch, the wizard-architect of Jous, was commissioned to construct an arena for the Imperial City at the height of the Jousian Empire’s second peak. He did so, after laboring for a year and a day without rest, finishing it with a crack of thunder that shattered the heavens. All who saw the Arena of Galch praised it, once they had recovered their senses.

It was a towering stadium, the deep bowl of its structure revealing a marvelous field at its heart. The field was widely recognized as a triumph in itself; no gladiator who fought upon it could call it anything else, and even the audience marveled at the way it shed blood and stains into gutters around its edges. Every whisper from the dying-ground could be heard anywhere in the stadium, and the structure quickly became a favorite venue for things besides blood sport—much to Mad Galch’s consternation.

By Mad Galch’s sternest warning, no one was permitted to dig below the stadium for any reason. This caused some trouble several years into the next Emperox’s reign, delaying the implementation of a comprehensive sewer system in the neighborhood surrounding the Arena. Mad Galch did not care, and refused to assist or permit any bending of his rules. His threats as to what would happen should anyone dig below were fierce enough to etch themselves in citizen’s minds for centuries after his death.

In accordance with his will, upon Mad Galch’s death he was laid in state in the center of his Arena’s field. The gathered audience of dignitaries, potentates, and commoners watched in shock as the field enveloped him, leaving only his shroud behind. Though many now regarded the Arena with fear, it was still constantly put to use.

After the Jousian Empire’s third decline, the Arena no longer held death matches of any kind. The gutters’ thirst was not slaked, and the Arena began to lose its sheen. Increasingly, attendees felt that the Arena’s doorways held themselves open as a matter of tightly bound restraint, a considerable exercise of will. It was not until the sack of Jous (and the execution of the imperial court on the Arena’s field) that the Arena was restored to its former glory. Those who took the city declared it a holy place, feeding it blood according to their sacred calendar.

These nights, though the sacrifices have not been made regularly for some time, the field illuminates the entire building from within. Its light pulses. The few miserable or crazed enough to still live nearby swear that they have heard whispers in the night air; some of them swear that Mad Galch visits their dreams, promising greatness soon to come.

Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

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I’ve seen Max Gladstone in person several times now, at Pandemonium Games and at Arisia, and I’ve enjoyed hearing him speak… and now I’ve finally read one of his books (besides the wonderful stuff he has on Serial Box). I’m glad to say that Continue reading

Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones

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At least this cover doesn’t make me want to devote another 500 words to critiquing it.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Diana Wynne Jones cribbed from Disney’s 1992 Aladdin, but Castle in the Air came out first (in 1990). Perhaps more strangely, I haven’t found anything about the making of Aladdin that confirms that they were inspired by Castle in the Air… but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some cross pollination.

As with Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps even more so, this is a book that I want Continue reading

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

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Layers. Layers on layers on layers, ploys on top of ploys, backstabbing all the way down. And somewhere, sandwiched between all those knives, a few people trying to make a tyrannical empire a better place despite itself.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series (of which I’ve read the first two books) feels like a reimagining of the fundamental critiques of Warhammer 40k—but instead of trapping his work beneath cynical satire and Poe’s Law, Yoon Ha Lee renders his critiques of empire transparently and with heart.

Ninefox Gambit is a new presentation of classic sci-fi military fiction, discarding the traditional fetish for the tools of war and replacing it with an exploration of the human cost of imposing and maintaining empire… and of resisting and rectifying it. It does this all with a setting in which the violent and malignant imposition of hegemony is part and parcel of the exotic technological base necessary for interstellar civilization, and in which heretical practice literally erodes the power and capabilities of the empire’s technologies; mathematical and spatial relations, punctuated by suffering and pain, form the bedrock of calendrical technology, and the embrace of this calendrical tech-base has trapped the Hexarchate in a never-ending cycle of violence and subjugation.

With the Hexarchate’s rulers a group of professionally inhumane paranoiacs, determined to retain their power and uphold the stability of their realm with no care for the cost in lives, it takes a very special kind of heretic to oppose them.

If you like science fiction, or military fiction, or anti-imperial explorations in uncomfortably familiar alien settings, this book is for you. If you want your books to explain everything to you and never leave you piecing together elements of a setting or story… I might suggest something else.

Also, if you’ve traditionally avoided sci-fi mil-fic because it’s one long paean to unquestioning support of cis-het male hegemony, don’t worry. This series radically normalizes queered gender and sexuality. I really appreciated that.

In case you couldn’t guess, I think this book (and series) is great. I don’t want to say more, because I want you to experience it for yourself. I strongly recommend Ninefox Gambit.

If you like this book, I’d also recommend Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant.

Wandering thoughts: Rare Earth Elements, Climate Change, and Fantasy Settings

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I had some grim thoughts about the future of our civilization today, and turned them into a fantastical exploration of alternate worlds… because that’s how my brain works, I guess. Join my escapade, and learn a little bit about Rare Earth Elements, modern technology, and climate change while you’re at it.

Rare Earth Elements are fundamental to Continue reading

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

 

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Howl’s Moving Castle is an excellent book. I’m indebted to my friend for recommending it to me; I knew the book existed, and I already loved the Miyazaki film, but it was her mention of it that finally pushed me over the edge.

Now that I’ve read it, I have to say that Diana Wynne Jones Continue reading

Light Years, by Kass Morgan

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Light Years is a fine book, nestled deep in the readily-identifiable heart of its genre. It never Continue reading

The Beast Player, by Nahoko Uehashi

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To someone well-versed in American (and more generally, Western) narrative expectations, The Beast Player is a bit of an odd duck. It is, however, a good duck.

Some of this oddness can be chalked up to the fact that Continue reading