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The Language of Magic (or the Magic of Language)

Note: this essay was originally published at BookTrib

There is a close and very special relationship between language and magic. Words are semi-magical things in themselves—intangible, weightless, and yet capable of real and drastic effect. Words have the power to wound, to uplift, to alter opinions and perceptions, and, when spoken by the right people under the right circumstances, change the world. Phrases like “I now pronounce you husband and wife” (or, if we’re being grim, “I hereby sentence you to death”) alter the state of reality simply by their utterance. It’s like—well, magic. And so it should come as no surprise that, with a little extra effort, language can be made to perform magic of the true, supernatural variety. The simplest example is probably the magic word (perhaps accompanied by the flick of a wand), the traditional “abracadabra” or “alakazam” (or, if you prefer, “expelliarmus!”), but the possibilities are almost as varied as the magicians that employ them—especially in fiction, which I’m sorry to say is where most of my experience with magic lies. (Though I do hope any real wizards, witches, and sundry practitioners reading this will contribute their opinions in the comment section below.) Sometimes the language of magic is merely a point of focus for the will and energy used to bring a spell about, as exemplified by the inimitable Harry Dresden of The Dresden Filesfame. In other cases, language is magic’s very essence, the means to command nature by its true name, as in A Wizard of Earthseaand its sequels. In my novel, Ninth City Burning, language and magic are closely connected as well, tied together by logic and illogic, and the interplay between the two.

A little background first. Ninth City Burningis set on a version of Earth that starts out very much like our own—that is to say, no magic (at least that we know of). And then Earth is attacked. We don’t know who the invaders are, or where they come from—they simply appear, as if from nowhere, and begin laying waste to the planet. We’re helpless to fight back, because the weaponry they use isn’t just advanced—it’s unintelligible, a power that lets them rewrite, even break, the laws of physics. A force that looks, and acts, like magic. All seems lost, until we discover something incredible: once this strange power has been brought to Earth, we can use it, too. It takes a little getting used to, of course—centuries of rationalism and enlightenment and industrialization have taught us never to accept “it’s magic” as an explanation for anything. Our solution: we don’t treat this force like magic. We deploy our all-powerful scientific method to study it. We experiment on it. We name it “thelemity”, because everyone knows there’s no such thing as magic. And it turns out this force doeshave laws, of a sort. They aren’t practical, dependable laws, like the ones that govern gravity or electromagnetism, but they’re a start. Ninth City Burningbegins roughly five centuries after that first invasion, and by then we’ve got a pretty good handle on this whole thelemity thing. We’ve devised a system to make it work for us, to build weapons and tools and vehicles—everything we need to defend ourselves, because even after five hundred years, the invaders haven’t given up on conquering Earth.

In Ninth City Burning, the study and use of magic—ahem, thelemity—is referred to as “irrational mechanics”. It’s a diverse field scholars have divided into a variety of smaller disciplines, in the same way we might distinguish between math, physics, and biology—or, if you’re studying something reallyinteresting (say at a hidden castle somewhere in Scotland), charms, potions, and transfiguration. Some uses of thelemity don’t require words at all, relying instead on a kind of metaphysical muscle (in our academic metaphor, this would be PE). The really powerful stuff, however, the techniques that will let you alter the weather, or build a suit of armor that makes you supernaturally fast and strong, or give your reflection in a mirror the ability to think and reason on its own—that gets a little more complicated. The basis for all that is a method called “infusion”, which involves writing out long strings of very specific instructions. The process isn’t all that different from composing a computer program, except instead of defining the parameters of some series of electronic functions, you’re rewriting the rules of reality. And as with computer programming, it’s all about using the right language. The techniques for writing infusions have been refined by centuries of study and theory—and also trial and error. It’s a delicate process, and the consequences are often disastrous. Crashing a computer is bad enough, but imagine what would happen if you accidentally caused the atmosphere to malfunction, or changed the behavior of light. On top of that, infusions don’t always follow the strict logic of computer languages. At times, they’re more about art than science—like composing a poem, or a novel. It’s a connection that made a lot of sense to me: as far as I’m concerned, writing a novel is about as magical as it gets.

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Literature, Young Minds, and Real World Conflict

Note: this essay was originally published at bookstr.com

When I was in fourth grade or thereabouts, my English teacher asked the class to imagine we were leaving home, and could take only a single backpack with us. We were to write down everything that would go into the pack, understanding that anything that didn’t would be gone for good. We had ten minutes.

I don’t remember what I chose exactly—or even generally—but I remember thinking hard about my choices. The question to me felt like an issue of priorities. Which of my things could I simply not do without? How many of my possessions really mattered, and how many were mere “stuff”? My guess, though, is that my list was one of favorites, a top ten or twenty roster of toys, books, gadgets and trinkets. I’d definitely have tried to fit in a videogame or two, probably without success. But as it turned out, this wasn’t the simple exercise in materialism I was expecting—it was an introduction to a book we were about to read for class: Number the Starsby Lois Lowry. Number the Stars—now a modern classic—tells the story of a Jewish family’s escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark during the Second World War. My imaginary backpack wasn’t a game or a puzzle, as I’d assumed, but a real choice real people had to make; it wasn’t about what I took with me, but what I’d have to leave behind. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid, to be sure. Fortunately Number the Starswas a damn good book.

I still think about my fictional backpack on occasion, not so much in terms of what it might contain, but in the context of news from around the world, of people in circumstances that force them to do what I (privileged American that I am) have only ever faced in my imagination. That old thought experiment, paired with Lowry’s superb novel, made the concept of fleeing home relevant to me in a way I sincerely doubt a discussion of geopolitics in the 1930s and ’40s ever could. It was a small step toward understanding, but it’s stayed with me, a frame of reference urging me to imagine myself in the place of people fleeing violence or instability—and there have been too many examples to list in the years since—all thanks to Number the Stars.

More than any other means of storytelling, literature—fiction in particular—is remarkable for its ability to foster empathy. In contrast to film and television, with their focus on the visual, books invite readers into their subject’s interior, to hear their thoughts, to relate and identify. Books aimed at young readers often feature characters of a similar age to that of their intended audience—an instant point of contact, given the many universals of childhood and adolescence—but that’s neither a rule nor a necessity. Sometimes a dramatic shift in perspective is just what’s needed to bring about a connection.

We live in a big, loud, chaotic world, and often it’s easy to miss, or outright ignore, conflicts going on in other parts of the globe, to dismiss them simply because they’re happening somewhere else. But circumstances that might seem limited to a particular time, place, or culture, both historically and geographically remote, can become universal through fiction. A war between fantasy kingdoms or space empires might not have any direct referent in the daily headlines, but can still provide a context for processing them, and of relating to the real people involved.

When I began writing the book that would become Ninth City Burningin 2013, the Syrian Civil War was gaining a new and frightening momentum. All across the country, people were being forced to flee their homes ahead of the spreading violence; I doubt many had time to fill a backpack first. My novel, an alien invasion story blending science fiction and fantasy, isn’t any kind of allegory for the war in Syria—still ongoing almost four years later—but that conflict was very much in my mind as I developed my characters, young people of varying ages and circumstances, pulled from different societies and backgrounds, but alike in that they lived in a world defined by violence. That violence isn’t an immediate presence, however, at least not as the story begins. War to them is something real but distant. They can depend on a basic level of stability and security: they have the familiar comforts of friends and family, of school or work. And then war comes calling for them, and they have to choose what to keep, and what to let go. I wanted to create characters in whom my readers could see something of themselves, whose thoughts and emotions and motivations would feel familiar, even if their world was completely alien (in some cases literally). 

I wouldn’t wish the kind of experience my characters go through on anyone—war, even fantastical war, is a terrible thing—but I can still hope that, when they watch or hear or read stories about people enduring the real thing, they’ll feel a connection, however basic, and think, This is happening to someone real, someone like me.

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Five Ridiculously Long Books Worth Your Time

NOTE: this piece was originally published at YA Books Central, sometime last year.

A few years back, I found myself looking forward to a long stretch of sitting around and not doing much. I won’t get into the details (they’re dull), but it involved something that required my presence but not very much in the way of mental involvement (and no, I had not been sent to the corner for a time out). Normally, I know just what to do when stuck in one spot for any lengthy period of time: bring a book. One of the few nice things about air travel, in my opinion, is that for a few hours there’s almost nothing to do but read. The sitting around I had to do this time wasn’t just a matter of hours, though—this sitting session would be measured in weeks. I could have just grabbed the top half of my to-read list and been done with it, but instead I decided to try something I’d been meaning to do for years: read War and Peace. That’s right, Leo Tolstoy’s great, grand opus, chronicling Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and a bazillion other subjects: romance, redemption, spirituality, a philosophy of history—also, you know, war… and, um, peace. Really, I just wanted to be able to truthfully say I’d read this masterpiece of world literature, this daunting pinnacle of oh-so-many “greatest books of all time” lists. And who knew when I’d have an opportunity like this again—so I found an English translation and jumped on in. 

And I loved it. When I was done, I felt inspired, exhilarated—and a little unnerved. No one needs me to tell them War and Peaceis an excellent book, but I still had to makemyself read it. Had I not been stuck with this long spell of sitting, I probably would never have even cracked it open, let alone made a serious of go of getting all the way through. There was just so muchof it. After that, I began making it a point to read a least one Ridiculously Long Book every year. Sometimes I’m a little hesitant to set out on another 1,000+ page adventure, but I’m always glad I did. Courtesy of my own reading list and the help of my buddies on Goodreads (hi guys!), here are a few more RLBs worth a look.

The Count of Monte Cristoby Alexandre Dumas.A normal man might give up after being framed for treason and left to rot in the dungeons of an island fortress, but not Edmond Dantès. Of course, Edmond has the good fortune to encounter a fellow prisoner who not only gives him a complete gentleman’s education, but also provides a means of a escape and the location of an immense fortune in treasure hidden—where else?—on the island of Monte Cristo. After reinventing himself as the titular Count, Dantès returns to exact sweet revenge on the scoundrels who betrayed him. At over 1,200 pages in some editions, The Count of Monte Cristocan stand with the thickest of RLBs, but hey—where else are you going to put all that swashbuckling? A thousand pages of revenge is a thousand pages well spent.

The Pillars of the Earthby Ken Follett. Set during a particularly chaotic period of English history in which conflict over the royal succession leads to widespread war, starvation, and generalized nastiness (so not all that different from Game of Thrones, but without the dragons), Follet’s novel chronicles the construction of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. Medieval architecture might not sound like the most exciting way to get through 800-ish pages, but there’s more to this story than dry facts about stonemasonry. Over the five decades it takes Kingsbridge Cathedral to grow from idea to reality, a sprawling saga plays out all around. There’s action. There’s intrigue. There’s triumph and betrayal and sheep. Plus a satisfying ending and a sequel (World Without End) if you’re looking for more.

Don Quixoteby Miguel de Cervantes.Even if you’ve never read the book, you’re probably at least a little familiar with the ingenious gentleman of La Mancha, Don Quixote. The image of a gangly knight charging after windmills atop his disheveled horse has become thoroughly iconic, referenced in cases of misguided idealism and when looking for excuses to use the word “quixotic”. But there’s much more to the story than the famous windmill scene. After having his brain addled by too many stories of gallant knighthood, Don Quixote comes to believe he is a knight himself, and despite being almost fifty years old and lacking any serious knightly qualities, he sets out in search of adventure. He finds it, too—well, misadventure mostly. Originally published in two parts, totaling roughly a thousand pages, Quixote’s wanderings are both funny and sad. Also a commentary on the powers and misuses of literature. In Part II, our hero actually meets people who’ve read about him in Part I, and they’re just as excited to join the adventure as he is to have them along—as, I’m sure, he’d be to have you.

Shōgun by James Clavell.Another one coming it at around 1,200 pages, this modern classic tells the story of John Blackthorne, an English seafarer who becomes embroiled in the upheaval surrounding the rise of a powerful Japanese feudal lord. Set during a time when European powers are vying for influence in the notoriously isolated society of medieval Japan, Shōgunis not only epic in just about every sense of the word, but is also an encyclopedic survey of Japanese history and culture (at least during the period depicted). And if you’ve already read Shōgunand can’t get enough, well, there are five more books in the series to keep you going.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenixby J.K. Rowling. You probably don’t need anyone to tell you to pick up our favorite young wizard, but at some 900 pages, this most lengthy of all Harry’s adventures still deserves to be on the list. It’s the first book after life at Hogwarts takes a new, dark turn (yes, I know the book was published in 2003, but I’m still not giving away any spoilers), and frankly there are too many magical shenanigans afoot to fit into a book the size of, say, Chamber of Secrets. And honestly, what sort of person would ever complain about too much Harry?

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A Hero Named Sue

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A Hero Named Sue

...in the tradition of Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue", as performed by Johnny Cash:

You might'a heard of me because
I'm the youngest cadet there ever was
to graduate the Space Academy,
and though I lost my ma and pa
I was top of my class in magical law
and slew me a dragon at the tender age of three.

Well I got me a sword and I got me a blaster
I got me a +10 Fender Stratocaster
I'm an ace fighter pilot and a blackbelt in ninjutsu.
Yeah it seemed my life was pretty keen
'till one stormy night down at the old canteen
when I heard a man say, "Hey, there goes that Mary Sue!"

I said, "Sir, I think you're mistaken.
I'm Arius Darkspur von Mandraken,
slayer of orcs and robots and ladies if ya know what I mean."
He laughed: "Naw, what I'm tryn'a say
is you're implausibly perfect in every way
and it makes folks want to punch you right in the spleen.

"Ya see, 'round here we're pretty bored
with you being contrivedly adored
for your genius, talent, wit, and derring-do.
The whole point of this stupid world
is for you to look cool and get the girl
and that, son, is what makes you a Mary Sue."

Well after that, my whole life changed:
It seemed no matter where I ranged,
someone'd be there with a bucket of bile to spew.
They'd serve me spit with every meal
and then they'd key my batmobile.
I tell ya, life ain't easy for a Mary Sue.

I found out that the man to blame
was some writer, Patrick Black by name,
who'd put me in a silly little song,
and I vowed one day, before I died,
I'd look that muggle in the eye,
and wring his neck for doin' me so wrong.

One August night, as the sun went down,
I was drivin' through Manhattantown
and my luck was almost too good to be true:
there in the window of some yuppie pub,
peddlin' his wares to a readin' club,
sat the funny-lookin' nerf-herder who'd made me a 'Sue'.

There was no mistakin' Mr. Black
with his picture right there on the back
of the book he wanted all them folks to buy,
so I got one and I joined the queue
and when he asked who he should sign it to
I said, "I'm Mary Sue! How do you do! Now your gonna die!"

He said, "I think you mean, 'You're gonna die,'
you neglected to apostroph-y,"
then he raised up his hands and shot out a fireball.
It burned the eyebrows off my face
but I drew my enchanted mace
and whacked him out clean through the nearest wall.

I been everywhere and I seen it all,
but I never had a tougher brawl:
he had laser eyes and an army of evil djinn.
But when he drew a plasma gun
and I just pulled a bigger one
he put his down and gave me a big ol' grin.

And he said, "Kid, sometimes life sucks, that's how it is,
even in the heroin' biz,
folks are mean, and they'll take things way too far.
You ain't the first I ever knew
to get some reductive label stuck on you
but don't ever be ashamed of who you are."

He said, "Now maybe you're idealized,
but in fiction that ain't no surprise,
just get out there and keep doin' what you do.
Let the haters laugh, but I tell you what:
not one of them ever kicked such butt
so screw 'em--I'd rather be a Mary Sue!"

That there's a moral to feel good about:
I dropped my lightsaber and we hugged it out
and since that day I've seen the world anew.
And whenever some kingdom's in distress
you can bet they're glad for my awesomeness,
and if I ever write a book, I think my hero's gonna be
some sad sensitive soul or poignantly precocious child, whatever, just not a Mary Sue, I still can't stand that crud!

Yes, that's Johnny Cash slaying a dragon. What of it?

artwork courtesy of Bre Duffy

(note: if you've never heard the term "Mary Sue" before, all of the above will make a LOT more sense if you quickly peruse what Wikipedia has to say on the subject!) 

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The Upside of Curmudgeonhood (or, Confessions of a Late Adopter)

Hello again, Dear Reader, and welcome to another edition of understructured reflections and meditations. Today I'd like to discuss a topic especially dear to my heart: uncoolness. I have long been, and continue to be, very much in awe of those special people able to discover the very latest and greatest amid the deafening roar that is modern media culture. It requires a remarkable awareness and unique aesthetic, not to mention a great deal of energy and patience and, as the French say, I don't know what. I have never pretended to be such a person--the early adopters, the tendsetters--but lately, as I took my first shaky steps into the realm of social media, I came to understand I've been living my life as their near opposite. A late adopter (I have occasionally heard the delightful term "laggard" applied) and, if not exactly a trendfollower, then someone who typically discovers trends only after they've fully petrified. And while it isn't as exciting as riding the crest of the new, I do think there is much to recommend about the un-new as well.

Growing out of touch with the cool and novel used to be a natural part of growing up, but so far as I can tell, the concept of adulthood as any specific set of attitudes or choices in lifestyle is, if not completely derelict, then crumbling fast. Certainly people long since exiled to the world of full-time employment, home equity loans, and other such trials of maturity can still keep up with Game of Thrones. No, for me the process was more like being almost imperceptibly buried in sediment. I lost track of developments in movies and TV and, before I quite knew what was happening, found myself living in a different epoch than just about everyone around me. Examination of the fossil record reveals this to have happened sometime during the mid- to late 2000s, probably around 08 ("aught-eight", as we from that era prefer say when recounting stories of those bygone days).

As is the case with many an unintentional life choice, school was to blame. At the time I was already writing more or less full time, but I also faced the task of not flunking all my courses, and sleeping enough to retain my sanity, and maybe seeing a friend or familiar relation every so often. So my television viewing suffered, which was too bad, because there was a lot of great TV going around just then. I remember being particularly envious of people I overhead discussing LOST (which was, as you might remember, everyone), of the way debating insights and reactions and theories seemed almost to match (and, during the more heated arguments, exceed) the pleasure of actually watching. But for me it was too late to catch up, not without resorting to some form of  self-administered spoiler, and I still held out hope of discovering for myself what all the fuss was about.

Flash forward a few years. I've finally got myself a decent TV and some time to watch it, but I have not tuned in to any flashy new series. I am not watching Caprica, because I have not seen Battlestar. I've got LOST on DVD, and it's everything I dreamed and more. When an episode ends, I already have the next one ready to go. Each time I hear that iconically ominous bong signaling yet another cliffhanger, I chuckle to myself and press play.

Citizens of modern society will surely recognize this as the activity today known as "binge-watching", but to me, in those ancient days, it seemed an unprecedented and exotic delight. When LOST was done, I still had an entire roster of television I had been hearing about for years but never seen for myself. It was about then that I realized need never want for good TV again. I could dispense with the flipping of channels, with the frustration I remembered when that new episode of The X-Files turned out to be a clip show recap. The same was true of movies--films I'd been sorry to miss in the theatres could now be had anywhere I chose, bundled in three-packs with a pair of sequels. So long as I didn't care what was popular at the moment, I had what was--at least given my rate of consumption--an effectively endless supply of quality entertainment.

There are exceptions, of course. Even I couldn't sit out when they made a seventh Star Wars. And a major caveat to all of the above is literature: I will take a good book anywhere I can get it*. But where moving pictures are concerned I remain gleefully backward in my approach to popular media. In fact, my experience with LOST and other fabulous storytelling of the last decade encouraged me to look back further, to all the cultural landmarks that, for whatever reason, had passed me by in my younger days. Freaks & Geeks. My So-Called Life. Shows now considered classics, but which don't get much advertising time nowadays because, well, they're classics (read: were cancelled twenty years ago). And then there are those decades I missed simply due to certain accidents of chronology, but could now access thanks to the wonder of everything-being-available-on-the-internet. While untold millions endure the awkward laughtracks of the latest fledgling sitcom, I get to watch M*A*S*H.

It's true, this edgy lifestyle of mine is not without its costs. I miss out on many of those proverbial moments around the water cooler, electronically stretched to worldwide proportions. But one of the nice things I've learned about modern fandom is that its terrain is so vast that, whenever I feel the need to obsess over something, there's nearly always someone around to join in, no matter how obscure the topic. No, my only real regret--thus far, anyway--is being without any easy or obvious way to support the people who are doing great things now. What keeps me up at night (to the extent TV can do so) is the thought that somewhere the next Firefly is foundering under some shortsighted network's neglect, and my eyeballs are needed to save it. One man can make a difference.

It seems like there ought to be a takeaway from all of this (even if it's something like "seven paragraphs is far too many to spend contemplating your habits of media consumption"). I'd love to have some wisdom regarding classic TV and cinema, but I'm no expert--I just enjoy living under a rock. So I'll leave you with this, Dear Reader: if you haven't already, try something old**. Try it under a rock (a metaphorical one, preferably). People have been telling stories for a long time, and the great thing about the ones that have been around a while is that there a lots and lots of eloquent opinions about which are not to be missed***. Aw, heck, I'll give you one anyway: try Harvey (1950, directed by Henry Koster). It's about a man whose best friend is a gigantic invisible rabbit. Now that's entertainment.

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The all-important footnotes:

*(and you should too: Ninth City Burning out September 6 2016 preorder now right now go go go yes buy buy get book please thank you very much)

**(and by "old", I simply mean something that isn't running right now; "try something old" just sounded catchier)

***(better yet, read a book; better still, read MY book, on September 6, when it is delivered promptly to your door because you have preordered it like the gorgeous genius you are)

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Adventures in Publishing: Zero to Sixty

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Adventures in Publishing: Zero to Sixty

Greetings, Dear Reader, and welcome to my first ever blog post. If you've found your way here, you'll probably have also figured out that I'm releasing a book this fall (September 6: mark your calendars, or better yet, pre-order now! That will be my only plug for today, promise). Selling something I've written to an honest-to-goodness publisher lands easily within the top ten best things ever to happen to me (several others of which are also book-related), but as a result I find myself on some very alien terrain--to wit, reaching out to the world at large.

A savvier writer, one more astute regarding the demands of today's literary world, would have laid the groundwork for all of this long ago, but I am not that writer. When NINTH CITY BURNING sold to Ace, roughly a year ago now, my entire internet presence consisted of a neglected Facebook profile. It wasn't that I didn't understand the value of connecting with the wide and varied community of readers and writers out there; I just wasn't very good at it. I had the notion I could cross that metaphorical bridge if I ever managed to get there. Well, here I am, and I still don't quite know what I'm doing.

It is sure to be an awkward experience for me, Dear Reader, but I find some consolation in the hope that you at least might be amused. I have always been the sort of person who keeps my thoughts and opinions to myself, and to be honest I haven't quite learned to calibrate them for public consumption (and what, I ask you, is more public than the internet?). There will be mistakes. I will likely overshare. It will be barrels of fun.

I discussed the above anxieties last night over dinner with a few bemused friends, and they advised me to avoid the common--and, I guess, controversial?--impulse to post photos of my meals to the popular forum. And so, to kick off what I hope will be a long career of tackling the hottest topics of the day, here is what we had for dessert, a rice custard topped with caramelized sugar: 

It was pretty great, by the way--about to crème brûlée what a muffin top is to a normal muffin (i.e. the best part). And now, for some expert-level sharing: with filter!

Until next time, Dear Reader.

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Welcome!

Hello! Thank you for visiting. Please check back for more posts from J. Patrick Black in the future.