Paladin’s Hope, by T. Kingfisher

Paladin’s Hope is the queer continuation of Ursula Vernon’s paladin romances (written as T. Kingfisher). It does finally deliver the gay romance I’d asked for previously, and now I’m wondering what other stories we’ll get next given that I know there are a few paladins remaining without books about them.

For personal reasons, I enjoyed reading this one less than I enjoyed the others (Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength). I’ll try to dig into that, but I should add: if you liked the previous books in the series and still want “paladin romance,” this will still give you that and do it well. My personal discomfort has more to do with my own history than with some bigger critique of the book or series.

These books are all about paladins (often along with their potential romantic partners) being—in the words of friends who also read and enjoy these books—“total goobers.” The paladins these books revolve around all have lots of reasons for telling themselves why they’re not good enough for a romantic partner, or telling themselves that they’re doing everyone a favor by not pursuing or committing to a relationship, or etc. They are, in short, goobers. This goober-ness almost always drives the core of the relationship drama at the heart of each novel’s romance plot. There’s always other plot too, good fun stuff, often with intrigue and murder playing off the romantic tension to draw the story out and let everything feel right, narrative-wise. It’s well-written and does the expected romance novel thing, and it’s all fun.

But with Paladin’s Hope, Vernon very evocatively wrote some goober-ness that reminded me—painfully, powerfully—of my own previous episodes of goober-ness. And that hurt a lot. It hurt enough, was evocative enough, that I had to stop reading for a while and just meditate to keep myself from spiraling.

That’s the reason I liked reading this one less.

It’s still a good fantasy romance with murder and intrigue, like the others in the series. It’s certainly got some solid characterization and a good portrayal of relationship dynamics (healthy and unhealthy).

It wasn’t comfortable for me, and that’s okay. With any luck, you won’t have the same issues that I did.

The book also establishes the next step for the larger story world’s plot. I’m quite excited about that. I think the next few books in the setting and series will be fun, and big, and open up bigger overarching plot elements again. Those felt a little lacking with this novel, though I can’t say I noticed the lack until I reflected on it after the fact. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next one.

EV adventures

I was busy last Thursday. Very busy. I had a bit of an adventure, really.

My sib has finally replaced their ancient car with an EV, and we used it last Thursday to deliver our brother (the eldest) and his kids to the airport. From Burlington, Vermont, to Boston’s Logan Airport.

During the winter.

I, and my sib, learned a great deal.

We delivered our eldest brother and our niblings to the airport only twenty minutes later than planned, but the drive took approximately twice as long as I’d normally expect (seven hours, ish). It turns out that the quality of the charging stations available to you matters a great deal, whether that’s “do they charge quickly” or “do they work at all.”

The EV in question is not a Tesla, no superchargers for us.

This all meant that we stopped several times for recharging, with each stop taking about thirty to fifty minutes. We would stop charging before hitting full capacity because the rate-of-charge decreases significantly as the battery fills, so we tried to time our stops to only charge when we’d actually get faster charging. I can see a future where this becomes more normal, and the dominant “highway refueling” paradigm shifts from gas stations with little quick-to-use convenience stores to charging stations with diners, restaurants, or any place that can hold your attention easily for fifteen to fifty minutes. It’s not a bad feel, really, and if we weren’t under time pressure to deliver our family to the airport, it might have been nice to slow our journey and appreciate those stops. Not having COVID be a thing would help too.

But as best as we can tell, any charger installation needs someone nearby who really cares about whether it works and how well it works. The reliable chargers were near stores that might want them to attract clientele, mostly Whole Foods (though there was a Walmart with mostly-okay chargers). But other chargers, like one hidden behind a hotel, were often simply broken and only registered error codes or offered trickle charges that would take a whole day (or night) to refuel. Even the chargers in Somerville’s Assembly Square garage didn’t work reliably; if my sib and I are right, this comes down to no one establishment caring enough about the chargers to push for their regular maintenance, and no one establishment seeing them as clearly tied to their own reputation.

Having delivered the fam to the airport, we then turned around and headed back north. Well, after stopping to charge again and eat. It probably would have been a better idea to stay the night in Somerville, all things considered.

But we retraced our steps, mostly without excitement (except for a surprise fireworks display), until we were nearly in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. That’s when the temperature dropped into the single digits (6F or so) and we both got real quiet, watching the battery’s gauge plummet.

We had to cycle the defroster, and turn off the car’s heat in general, in order to nurse the battery to the charge station… where we discovered that the charging capacity had been temporarily reduced (from earlier that day) due to an in-progress system update. It felt, in many ways, how I imagine early gasoline car trips might have felt. Remarkably functional, exciting, and just uncertain enough to keep us on the edges of our seats.

So we spent the next hour and a half or so waiting for the battery to charge. We napped (or lay still with eyes shut, in my case), and drank our extra coffee, and generally tried to pass the time as midnight rolled by. After watching the battery drop so quickly in the cold temperatures, we didn’t want to chance going up and over the Green Mountains without a nearly full charge, so we took extra time to be sure. Then, nearly full, we set out again.

The first leg of that trip was nerve-wracking. We kept eyeing the number of miles remaining, comparing it to the percent charge still in our battery. We planned out where we’d pull off the highway and ask for help, if it looked like we were losing charge too quickly. It wasn’t until we could tell that we were definitely getting slightly more than one mile per percent of battery charge that we relaxed—we knew we had another charger in range at that point, which would let us finally return to Burlington about seventeen hours after we’d left.

From there on, it was fun. We talked, listened to music, and generally enjoyed ourselves. Vermont is beautiful, and driving through it at night and watching the snowscapes pass by is still something I love.

It’s not a trip I want to make again in an EV though, not the way we did it.

I think that until the charging infrastructure is a little better—more reliable, faster, more omnipresent—I prefer to make shorter trips. Or I prefer to make long trips like that with more flexible time available on either end. I suspect that the trip would feel quite different in the summer, too, without the battery choking on the frigid temperatures.

But, for all that I have been raised to expect the convenience of a gas engine, I think the more languid rhythm of a long EV trip is quite nice. And I think it’s vital that we build out better charging infrastructure to make those trips easier, because EVs are the only practicable way to move car-culture and long range personal transport past petroleum. I don’t think there’s anything inherently different about what is possible with an EV, I just need to change the way I think about structuring my trips in them: what would be a three and a half hour trip will be longer, and I’ll want to plan for more rests and more layovers, as it were.

This makes me think of rural America, and of small towns.

I actually think there’s a lot to be said for EV charging, and building business offerings around that, as a way to buttress the small communities that are so often simply passed and ignored by people on highways. When you’re nearly guaranteed to spend half an hour in a spot charging your car, you’re far more likely to look around and be tempted to eat or buy something. Gasoline vehicles will pull into a station and be out again three minutes later, there’s no captive audience there. But EV drivers are far more likely to want something to do, see, or eat while their vehicle prepares for the next leg of the trip. If an EV charging network can collaborate with local businesses, or if local businesses can band together to offer a charging station… that would be great.

Despite the harrowing nature of some pieces of my trip last week, I think EVs are great. I think they’re vital to weaning ourselves off petroleum, and I think they could be another way to bring people to the small communities that have withered along the sides of the highway for so long. Maybe we’ll be fortunate enough to see them succeed.

Blood Bowl 2, for socializing with friends

This is not a recommendation, this is just me musing on a game that I’ve been enjoying with my friends for the past… COVID, really. We started playing together in the spring of 2020, when we realized that we weren’t likely to see each other for a long while. I’d never played Blood Bowl before, though I remembered seeing a couple painted minis for it when I was a little kid.

I thought those looked cool, like pretty much everything else that my older sibs touched.

Normally, my friends and I would all see each other in the summer while we worked at LARP camp. We’re also quite close, emotionally speaking; being able to talk to them regularly was (is!) sanative and restorative for me. Given that I’m bad at staying in touch with anyone I don’t see regularly or intentionally schedule time with, playing a semi-weekly fake sports match in a league with my friends was pretty ideal.

The game, however, was not easy to love. Blood Bowl is a satirical mashup of soccer hooliganry, American football, and rugby, and it’s about as violent as it is tongue-in-cheek. It’s also a troublesome beast, full of non-obvious rules and capricious randomness. You can absolutely play an excellent game and still lose because you were sufficiently unlucky with your dice. And you can win a game with a mere tactical victory, while most of your team lies broken and bleeding on the pitch.

In a strange way, I think Blood Bowl was a very appropriate game for me to start playing during the early stages of a pandemic. You have to learn equanimity to play well, or at least learn to recognize when you’ve lost that balance. You can only play your best, try to control what you can, and understand that there’s always something that simply isn’t up to you. In that way, it was quite good at teaching me to let go of trying to control absolutely everything.

Useful, given the world’s circumstances.

For a long time, perhaps over a year of playing the game, I wasn’t even interested in playing with anyone besides my friends. No matter how much fun I had playing, it was often still stressful. And the thought of playing with anyone I wasn’t close friends with—anyone I wasn’t LARP-camp friends with—had very little appeal. A lot of the joy I got from the game came from naming my team and players after good bits, things that I could play to the hilt and which I and my friends could laugh about. It helped that some of my fellow players were into pro-wrestling and convinced us all to indulge in the kayfabe and the creation of faces and heels for our league.

But I think I’ve finally turned a corner. I can’t say I’m likely to start playing games with randoms on the internet, but I’ve finally reached a point where the game feels more rewarding and less stressful. Maybe that’s from growing skill and familiarity, maybe it’s a shift in mental health and brain weather, or maybe it’s something else. Suffice to say, I do actually enjoy the game these days. I don’t only engage with it as a way of maintaining regular contact with my friends (though that is still something I treasure).

For myself, I’m looking forward to more seasons of Blood Bowl to come. And I can’t wait to see whether the Skraghaven Squigbitas can take down that uppity bunch of varsity kids, the Kronar High Neandertals. I plan to watch, and heckle, and root for my friends this Saturday while we find out what wildly improbable inanity will happen this time.

I think I finally understand what people love about rooting for their teams in real life sports. I won’t say that you should try the game, or that you’d enjoy it, but… you might?

Under the right circumstances, you might.

Late-Posting Ear Infection Blues

The title says it, really.

I’ve got several things to share, notably: I just read Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston, I’m currently reading Three Ordinary Girls by Tim Brady, and on Tuesday I just put together the rough layout of my second World Seed (pre-art).

But I’ve got an ear infection, and the antibiotics I’ve been given are wreaking havoc on my guts and my energy level. And since today was far busier than I’d expected, here I am writing about this at 10pm.

I’m going to be out of the loop for a bit, but I’ll probably have posts for you about those two books at some point in the near future. And if you play RPGs and want ideas for scenarios, or want kits that will teach you ways to make any cool idea into your own scenario, check out Whimsy’s Throne on Patreon.

The Tower of Péng the Unprepared, and Whimsy’s Throne

I’ve started a Patreon for the Locations that keep coming to me! You can find it here, at Whimsy’s Throne. There’s a free version of my first finished World Seed there, The Tower of Péng the Unprepared. Here’s the cover art, from my friend Worsey.

The Ruins of Ghalburg

Nestled in foothills between the high peaks of the Sefghal Range, the lonely ruins of Ghalburg are only kept company by the wreckage of Ghalburg Keep on the slopes above. Though the burgeoning town was once known as a welcome stop on the way through the mountains, it has been shattered, pulled apart stone from stone, vast swathes of it put to the torch. Here and there, once-mighty timbers still stand as charred skeletons of formerly sturdy homes, memorials to their missing inhabitants.

The keep, perched in the hills above the town, is no less desolate. While it was spared from the same vast devastation, it still was broken open like a raw egg, its innards tumbling down the hill towards the town. The outer curtain wall was shattered in several places, and one whole corner of the central keep is gone, strewn across the grounds and out of the bailey. Like the town below, all the keep’s defenders are missing. No bodies remain to be found in any of the wreckage.

Now, this ruined settlement lies as a fearsome warning and an unanswered mystery. What force laid waste to the castle and its town? Was it some unknown group of raiders from the steep, storm-wracked peaks above? Or did Baroness Ghal set this horror in motion with untoward experiments in her obsessive effort to resurrect her family’s fortunes? Rumors abound, but no story yet bears the imprimatur of truth. The only certain thing is that none of the town’s residents have been seen or heard from since, and travelers through the region now avoid the once-popular town like the plague.

The Lonely House

Nestled in the shadows of the trees, a small hut sits neglected and lonely. Fieldstone walls open around a squat doorway, a lintel of old timber splintering across its top. The door itself sags on cracking leather hinges, drags across the dirt when opened, and its ancient boards creak back and forth in the wind. Like the rest of the house, the roof has seen better days; the thatch has mildewed, and tufts have been lifted up by breezes and small animals until they stick out like recalcitrant cowlicks. What was once a window is now simply a gaping wound, and the hut is dark and musty within. It is not an inviting place.

But more than a few have sheltered there, nestled amongst the tired and rotten furniture within while a storm rages without. Most who do seek shelter move on as soon as their storm passes, thinking nothing of the sad little house someone put so much effort into making many years before. But others, whether because the world outside has been buried in snow, or because a more metaphorical storm of villains still hunts them, make themselves at home. And it’s these people who begin to learn the truth of the place: settling in, fixing small things around the home, replacing what one has used or storing more than one has found… this invites offerings from the house. Sometimes that means dry firewood in a previously covered basket, or the woodworking tools needed to fix a broken stool. At other times, it may mean the clucking of a hen brooding over her eggs out back, or a stand of improbably ripe grain in a clearing amongst the trees nearby. Indeed, the house often offers food, though any food inside the house may disappear, clearly eaten without any trace of whoever ate it. Cautious guests are sure to always make leftovers for someone else, whoever they may be.

There are stories of those who’ve lived comfortably in the small house for a month, giving over their time to repairs and little improvements, making it a better place to live as they clean it and fix its broken pieces. Those who live there for so long often grow nervous, eventually. The house offers up pieces of itself, places which should not have been missed before, until no one can pretend that the house is anything but magic. Some tales of the house swear that doors appear behind fusty old blankets, leading into well-appointed rooms too large for the hut’s exterior, while others speak of finding an old well-stocked root cellar full of marvelously preserved supplies. These new spaces are never as decrepit, but still they exude a lingering age and neglect, as though they yearn for the care of a meticulous and indefatigable housekeeper. Most who live there for long enough to find those spaces lose their nerve, leaving the house as graciously as they can, swearing out loud to whatever spirits of the place may listen that they mean neither harm nor disrespect but simply must be on their way.

Perhaps this is because people who are offered more by the house than they return, or who do harm to what they find, discover things going missing. Belongings they brought with them may vanish—and where once the house replaced such things with objects of higher quality and greater craft, now their things are simply gone. Rooms and passages they’d grown used to using may disappear, along with all their contents, only perhaps found again through diligent work and careful repairs.

There are horror stories shared by some, of people trapped inside the house. These ungrateful guests find their doors no longer lead outside, nor to anywhere else that makes sense. There are whispers of those who’ve fled through the house as though it were a vast mansion, but each chamber behind them disappears as soon as they’ve left it without even leaving a door… until the ungrateful guests themselves vanish without a trace, a small meal for the hungry house.

Of course, those stories couldn’t be true; no teller with first hand knowledge could have escaped to share them. But the little hut remains, lonely or hungry or both, shelter for weary travelers and wary prey, offering hospitality of some strange kind to any who show they’ll be good guests.

Tel’s Spring

On a small mountain rising out of the rain forest, nestled in an opening amidst thick-trunked gray-brown trees wreathed in lianas, a cool dark pond bubbles up from the rock below. Barely convex with the force of its spring, the pool does not reflect the light of the sky overhead, only the undersides of trees’ leaves. When rain falls, as it does every afternoon of the wet season, the sky’s water slides off the quietly bubbling spring and seeps into the rocky earth around it. It is only in those moments, when that thin sheet of sky-water oozes away across the pool like oil, that one may see the gray clouds or spotty blues of the sky overhead reflected on the pool.

The spring’s water is uniformly cold to the touch. Soothing on a hot day, local animals sometimes swim in it, never fighting while sharing the spring’s waters. Indeed, the local wildlife is larger, healthier, and more frequently docile than others of their kind. But a careful observer will note that no animal drinks more than a single sip from the pool on any visit, preferring instead to dip themselves in the spring without drinking from it. But the trees around the spring, watered by it, grow strong and tall. And these local animals eat freely from the small fruits hanging on those thick-trunked trees, casting seeds far and wide.

The spring is reputed to belong to the jealous god of life, growth, and small beginnings, a formidable being who is not to be trifled with, taken for granted, or scorned. The story goes that anyone who drinks too fully from the spring offers themselves to this god of life, Tel, and invites Tel to work through them. Often, the story ends with an incautious and thirsty person clutching at their mouth in horror as mushrooms erupt from their skin and a small fruit tree with glistening gray-brown bark roots down through their feet and branches up through their skull. So it is that the spring is held to be both sacred and dangerous, a place to be venerated and, for the most part, avoided.

There are exceptions, of course. There are stories of some few more-favored by Tel who drank deeply from the spring and were blessed without becoming trees. And the people who hold the spring as holy do visit at certain times of year, as new growth burgeons and as seeds are sown, to make offerings and perform the rituals known to be pleasing to Tel. Those who are coming of age are bid to take one sip from the spring during these rites, in hopes of long and fruitful lives, while those whose limbs have been wounded, withered, or warped may sip in hopes that Tel will guide their limbs once more. But apart from these times, the spring is left alone on its mountaintop, a world apart from its surroundings, its strange reflections and turbulence unexamined and untouched.

The Softest Road

Beneath the kindest branches of the go-now trees, ushered on by a warm wind now at one’s back, now easing the sweat from one’s brow, the most fortunate travelers wander on the Softest Road. It is not, it’s said, a route any may find by hunting it. It is rumored to be the least helpful road of all: only those who wander without urgent need may find it, and only those who continue on their path without worry may enjoy it. The focus and drive to seek a place, to rush from here to there, will lead any traveler on the Softest Road away from the giving earth which springs beneath their feet to deposit them on the hard and rocky dirt with no way to return. Those who stumble off the Road can find no path behind them, no hint of the Road they had just trod.

In fact, the only way to seek the Softest Road or remain upon it is to lose oneself in the enjoyment of one’s journey. Those who fall into a beautiful day’s travel, who marvel at the wonders around them and give in to the enjoyment of their surroundings, may find the ground beneath their feet shifting one step at a time, the land before them coaxing itself into a more even semblance of good footing and gentle travel. Slight slopes gain even grades and good gravel. Steep ones have regular steps, seemingly natural stones set perfectly for the walker’s gait. Dust never rises from the Softest Road, never choking and cloying, never thickening to sodden mud. Traffic, such as it is, is infrequent and rarely hostile. Beautiful vistas open themselves to the viewer on either side (or both) as the Softest Road meanders through gorgeous dells and sunny copses.

Trips which should have taken weeks may only require days on the Softest Road, though any given day’s travel might see one deposited early in a new place apart from one’s final destination, if the traveler gives over to dwelling on time or anything besides the joy of the journey. And there are stories of the opposite, of those who find themselves on the Softest Road for weeks when a trip should have taken an afternoon, too entranced by the marvel and relaxation of such perfect walking to find their way out.

There are stories of those who’ve found impossible places on their journeys on the Softest Road, visions of worlds unknown, of improbable structures and fabulous landscapes and even vast star-dotted emptiness. None know whether such places might be reachable, or found again, for none who’ve left the Road in their urgency to explore such have returned—at least, none who might be believed.

If nothing else, it is a certainty that the Softest Road does not traverse the space between two places. Those on the road are not seen by those off of it, except perhaps as momentary glimpses of travelers in strange places: striding upon high cliffs, stepping from tree to tree, or emerging from vast waters. The longer one walks the Softest Road, the further afield one may go and the stranger the things one may see.

It is not known who made the Softest Road, or if it was ever made at all. Perhaps it is simply some diffuse spirit of the vast universe finding its way to share with those amidst it. There are stories, tall tales told of some few who learned to find the Softest Road in one step; these folk strode without a care or a worry, passing from place to place in a joyous wandering, never staying long. They brought with them bizarre myths and ancient legends, and left behind them little relics of other lands before stepping out again never to return. Some say they’ve learned the trick of it too, but even these folk may lose their way from time to time, becoming too attached to a desire to truly live the aimless, wondering, wandering way of the Softest Road.

Rewrites, Dying, and Seeing Beauty

I wrote a scene in my Protectors setting soon after New Years, one that resonated really strongly with me. It felt good. It was obviously either the emotional climax of a story, or one of two emotional climaxes. That scene just as obviously needed more material to support it. It was, in some ways, like finding out that I’d built the middle of a bridge’s span and still needed to build the rest.

As I wrote the rest of the story, I discovered that—to remain honest to the characters and story—I either needed to write something that felt depressing and which I didn’t want, or I had to find a very different way of reaching the conclusion I’d hoped for. My first attempts at this didn’t go well. I tried forcing the conclusion I’d hoped for, and it felt dishonest, jammed into place. Then I mapped out what would happen in the depressing version, and just felt sad.

So, rewrites. Rewrites and talking with my mom (and crit group) about my narrative struggles.

My crit group agreed that I probably had to write out both versions and see what happened. They also noted that writing the depressing version might be more in keeping with the setting. My mom, on the other hand, offered up some observations from a book she’d read recently about mortality and the experience of approaching death and dying (Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, by Sallie Tisdale).

A little context: my mom has done a lot of work with the elderly (and is now reaching elderly herself). When I was a kid she did a good deal of work with patients in hospice—palliative end-of-life care. Her second husband, my stepfather, was a good deal older than she was, and the two of them met because they were both working in hospice. They read many books together, especially about philosophy, meditation, and the experience of growing old and dying. My stepfather died last fall. What I’m trying to say is, it’s hardly new for my mom to share something from her readings about mortality.

If you’ve read any of my stories in my Protectors setting, you’ll understand what I mean when I say those stories are rarely about growing old but often about the experience of encroaching death. My mom’s contribution was pretty on point.

The bit she mentioned was an experience which is sometimes shared by those who are dying, one she said my stepfather had spoken of: the heightening of one’s appreciation for the everyday, and for beauty in the everyday world. Not that the world is itself different, but that—in the process of dying, faced with imminent death—the world’s vibrancy and glory are more evident, more accessible.

And that felt like the missing key.

Thinking on it now, this feels like part of the gratitude and joy, or the quiet meditation on beauty, which I see in some Buddhist meditative tradition. And that experience of beauty, gratitude, and joy was the second step I needed to follow the first emotional climax. The transformative nature of those feelings, the fundamental shift from despair and depression to wonder and awe, is at the heart of the emotional shift I needed.

I still have to write it and make it stick, of course. I’m part way through that. I’ve got to put together another few scenes, replace a few others with new ones, and then print it up and see whether it makes any sense. I don’t expect it to work on the first (second?) attempt, but maybe it will at least look a bit more like a finished bridge… something I can work with.

Thanks Mom.