14 December 2021

Endwalker via Derkholm and Detroit: Creation without conscience

Spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker (and previous expansions).  Read on with caution.

So I just finished Endwalker, a game expansion for an MMO I've been playing on and off for ten years.  Series have a certain power that few single-standing works can manage, adding weight and consequence to encounters that no shorter tale could achieve.  While each expansion has had a plot in itself, Endwalker brings to a close the overarching situation first set in motion in the now-inaccessable 1.0 version of the game.

Warrior of Light, Dark, and all the shades in between.
There was a lot of crying involved, for the lost, and those who mourn them.  Urianger meeting Moenbryda's parents particularly got to me.  And the score certainly brought home the weariness of the long struggle to reach this point, making friends and occasionally losing them.  Meeting enemies, and usually killing them - and hopefully not having them come back from the dead so that you have to fight them all over again.

The enemy - the antagonist - is often one of the most important factors in making an ending satisfying.  Fortunately, Zenos, the individual I ended up fighting most often in this series, was not that central to this expansion.  While I did appreciate that I got to ride him into battle, I was glad to abandon him at the edge of the universe, hopefully not to make a third coming.  I recognise he was created a monster, but for the most part I found him dull.

Not this guy again.

The other villians of the series left me a good deal more conflicted.

In Shadowbringers, Emet-Selch took centre stage, the architect of the death of millions, all in service of a plot to bring back a lost Utopia.  I found him entertaining, and was a bit sorry to see him go, but remained impatient of his insistence that all the people he was sacrificing in the service of trying to resurrect the past were less worthy than those who existed before, hardly people in comparison.  It seemed a weak argument, a typical bit of dehumanisation.

And then we went to Elpis.

Elpis is part of the lost Utopia, visited thanks to a bit of handy time travel.  And it gave me a better context for Emet-Selch's point of view, along with introducing the 'real' villains - both of who aren't really villains.

Villainy is often determined by who writes the histories, and we have all along been looking at the story from the end of 6000 years of determined efforts to undo past events.  An enormous pile of wrongs directed at 'us'.  Travelling to Elpis put us firmly in the shoes of 'them', and also brings in some echoes of two other places I've encountered in SFF: Derkholm and an android-facilitated Detroit.

The Utopia of the past is populated by 'humans' (Ascians/Ancients) who possess creation magic.  They are immortal (although they can choose to die/return to the lifestream), apparently peaceful, and devoted to the betterment of the planet on which they live (Etheirys).  This is all very strongly modelled on a Greek Utopia, given the names of some of those we encounter - Hades, Hermes and Hythlodaeus (the traveller in Thomas More's Utopia) - but is not apparently meant to be Olympus, since none of them act like the squabbling, hyper-sexed and petty family that were the Greek gods.

The primary occupation of the Ancients appears to be creating species to further improve Etheirys.  They create a concept for the species, test it out in Elpis, and then decide whether to release it into the wild, try to improve it further, or to give up on the concept and destroy the test specimens.  The specimens seen in Elpis are all apparently of animal intelligence, although the Ancients also create 'familiars', which appear to be intelligent enough (though certainly not regarded as real people, any more than Mickey Mouse's self-sweeping brooms are people).

This is where I was strongly reminded of both the game Detroit: Become Human (with the usual question of creating android life and then heartlessly discarding it, refusing to consider androids as people), and Diana Wynne Jones' Dark Lord of Derkholm, where the ('good') wizard Derk is quite happy to create non-human and human-mixed species, although he at least regards them as his children, and would recoil from the idea of unmaking or discarding them.

While Jones is my favourite author, I've always found Derk a very scary person: happily creating unique intelligent species without apparently considering whether that's a good - or kind - idea.

Hermes becomes the focus of this question when we visit Elpis.  He's a master of flight-related creation, but can't bear the thought of destroying any of the created species, no matter how unsuccessful or unviable.  Unlike the other Ancients presented, he seems to be suffering ongoing depression triggered by his doubts about what gives his people the right to create - and unmake - other species.  In order to answer this question, he has created a space-faring species (the highly-empathetic Meteia), who are able to tap into the vast power source of dynamis, an energy controlled by emotion and antithetical to the aether the Ancients use for their creation magic.  He wants to know how other worlds find meaning.

Unfortunately, the Meteia only discover dead civilisations, are overwhelmed by the negative emotion sparked by these ruins, and (like so many AI before her) fritzes out and decides life is suffering and it's time to put all life out of its misery.  She triggers the 'Final Days', using dynamis to cause the Ancients' creation powers to run wildly out of control.

The Ancients, not knowing what's going on, sacrifice half their population to create Zodiark, a godlike being who is able to 'fix the laws of nature in place' - effectively shutting out the influence of the Meteia.  But because the Ancients then want Zodiark to harvest the lives of various intelligent races that have developed on the planet to restore their Utopia, the Ancient Venat transforms herself into a primal - Hydaelyn - and splits the world into shards/parallel existences to both weaken Zodiark, allow her to trap him, and prevent the destruction of these races .  This 'sunders' the souls of all but three of the Ancients, turning them into immortal lingering existences, but also provides living beings a closer connection with dynamis.

The three remaining whole Ancients then begin their long campaign of trying to reunite the world, free a whole Zodiark, and reform their lost people and world (again, at the expense of the 'lesser races').

Going to Elpis gives the player a real appreciation of just what familiars and 'lesser races' mean to the Ancients (keeping in mind that their attitude is not unsimilar to the approach the dominant more human races use when dealing with the 'beast tribes' of the current world).  It's a little like you discover Mary Norton's Borrowers are living behind the skirting boards of your house.  They're so small, they live such short, unfulfilling lives, they're really nothing in comparison to you, ants.  Animals that can talk, and have a semblance of intelligence, like parrots.  And familiars are just constructs, after all, with nothing resembling a real soul.

And you, the Warrior of Light, the player and POV character, who has slaughtered countless thousands because they were on the wrong side, have come to understand that you, too, are an Ancient - or 3/5s of one, give or take a stray Ardbert.  Not only that, but Hythlodaeus, the new-old friend who has been so nice to you, was one of the people sacrificed to create Zodiark.  And Hades/Emet-Selch, that architect of destruction you killed off in the last expansion - that was the friend who was always there for the former you.  The one who always had your back.  Who would gripe and complain about the things you got up to, but would always come when you called, help when you needed it.

You, above all, are probably the thing he most wants to bring back.

Turns out I killed my best friend. He seemed okay with it though.

So I finished Endwalker with a new appreciation of the guy I'd recently killed, though I still fall on Venat's side of the argument - that killing off the 'lesser' races is not the solution.  I also am slightly less impatient with Hermes' face-heel turn when I put him into the context of Derk and his giddy creation of intelligent species for funzies, though it was a spectacular bit of whiplash to have a guy who couldn't bear to crush an ant being good with all life in the universe being wiped out.

I am sorry that forewarning Venat did not seem to to produce any kind of solution that prevented the first Final Days.  I was hoping to at least create an alternate universe where Amaurot still stood.  I do really appreciate Venet/Hydaelyn so much more than I did when she was a floaty crystal - that image of her, face black with blood, staggering through eternity, is one that will stay with me.  As will her beauty when fully realised as Hydaelyn.


The Hermes whiplash is the weakest part of the story, and there are some plot holes: like going to the moon to avoid the Final Days, when the moon isn't protected by the planet's rich aether and thus would be more exposed to the Meteia's attack.  But this is a story that stays with you and I recommend FFXIV for anyone who has a stray 300 hours and the cash to spend on an online subscription game.  Starts out slow, but that's because it takes time to lift a sledgehammer the size of a planet to hit you right in the feels.

26 October 2021

Fanning around

 Hey all - still working on Seconds.  It seems to have meandered off into a story about game development.  You never know what geeks your school hotties might be until you get to read the shared world book they've been writing since they were ten. :D  Their fans wouldn't recognise them.

On a related note, a kind fan (thanks, Susan) has set up a Facebook fan site for me.  I'm happy to answer any questions you might have there, or if you should happen to want a place to hang and debate which Setari you'd want to be stranded on a desert island with...

13 August 2021

Reverse Harem vs Visual Novel vs Menage

[Contains spoilers for The Book of Firsts.]

The first two reverse (female protagonist) harems I really recall encountering are Ouran High School Host Club and Fruits Basket.  In both of these, a relatively low-key but likeable girl encounters a whole bunch of attractive and outlandish people, and ends up with one of them (arguably Fruits Basket was only ever a choice between two people, but I think the even more common trope of love triangle falls into this discussion anyway).

In both of these stories, the eventual romantic choice was Not My Ship, and significantly lowered my enjoyment of the story.  The challenge with any of these romantic harems and love triangles is to get the reader properly invested in the 'correct' choice, so that they're not too annoyed at the ending.  Meanwhile, I rarely read harem/triangle novels because I get frustrated by the time invested in the 'wrong' choice.

[Otome] visual novels/games are the complete opposite approach.  In these, any of the main characters encountered can be pursued, and it's simply a choice of which route you take.  The protagonist is often a cipher - sometimes even depicted as a faceless (though usually brunette) outline.  This works not only to allow for a better self-insert (for those who like their romances that way), but also allows the protagonist to not be an obvious mismatch with any of the widely diverse characters.  

Visual novels also reward players for following all the routes, sometimes unlocking hidden characters only accessible by successfully romancing everyone else you've met.  I occasionally enjoy visual novels/otome games (I prefer the ones with daily life task structures over ones that are pure text), but it's rare to never that I'll play all the routes because there's always likely to be one that just doesn't work for me (like a Shotacon route, for instance).

'Menage' gets me over 60,000 search results on Amazon, so it's not an unusual sub-genre, though a fair proportion of the stories seem to be erotica.  Most of the stories I seek out to read aren't focused around sex (though I did read an (at the time) fascinating series called "Blade" when I was in high school, which was basically 'go have sexy adventures' - and I thoroughly recommend 'Oglaf' for sex-based humour).  I think menage (sex-focused or not) combines a couple of the challenges of harems and visual novels (particularly believing multiple people could be the 'right choice').  Monogamy works for a lot of people, and cheating is a distinct issue for many readers.  You also need a reason why multiple eligible people would 'settle' for sharing their love interest.

Now, I won't pretend I sat down and thought all that out before starting Firsts, since my approach to writing tends to resemble the way the 'fog of war' clears from gaming maps - I start with a scene and explore outwards, and often don't even have a goal before half the map is cleared.  I wasn't even certain if I was writing a menage, or a monogamous romance that happened to have multiple partners on the way.  [I was even doing a bit of a feint with Carr, who could have been mistaken as The One.]

Anyway, I thought those who liked Firsts would enjoy detail of some of the more deliberate decisions I made during the process to make the menage ending more acceptable.

First Girl Wins

TV Tropes has a trope for everything, and First Girl Wins (gender flipped) is extremely common (especially in the Chinese web novels I've been consuming recently).  No matter who else is introduced, the first eligible (for your gender/sexuality) person to be introduced is by far the most likely to be The One.

Mika meets the Kings as a group.  That was very important, because if she'd met any of them first, you'd read the story differently.

The One

In this over-the-top (though not quite Ouran-level) frothy setting, Mika fits many of the tropes of the visual novel protagonist.  She's a brunette who is from a significantly less wealthy background than many of the people around her.  She's a newcomer, giving her a level of detachment and distance from past entanglements.

Mika also has some very specific traits that make it possible for her to fit romantically with any and all of the Kings.  She's so smart and self-collected it's hard for them not to respect her.  They align in a number of ways (gaming being important to all of them, sharing a tendency toward the cynical while remaining fundamentally decent people).  Mika is also adaptable, and is used to analysing and getting along with people, while also being possibly _too_ detached.  She's sociable, but primarily focused on her personal dreams, and inevitably has to keep some part of herself back in order to shield herself from constant separations.  She also enters a situation where she's supposed to treat Rin, Kyou and Bran equally.

But possibly most important is this song from The Whitlams (you'll know the line when you get to it - second half of the song), and this song from Tim Minchin, which leads us to our next point.


Meggan is very important to the story.  Rin, Bran and Kyou have been friends from infancy, and bonded in a relatively (pun intended) hostile environment.  They are inseparable, and that poses a problem romance-wise because when childhood friends grow up, they tend to go build separate lives (unless they end up marrying each other).  The situation with Meggan, who Bran has long regarded as The One, is the in-story demonstration of this problem, and since the reader is (hopefully) invested in the bond between the Kings, Mika suddenly becomes not someone trying to have her cake and eat it too, but a solution.  A way for three boys who are (primarily) sexually attracted to women to have a romantic relationship without their own bond diminishing.


Since I'm someone capable of publishing a book called Gratuitous Epilogue, it's probably no surprise to my readers that I'm enjoying exploring the 'what happens next' of the story.  Deciding you want something and making it work are two very different things, though the characters are at least all smart and motivated.  I am, however, 22,000 words in and on Day 2, so I am somewhat daunted by how much of what happens next I seem to want to tell.  [It'll speed up a lot - just need to get them settled in their new situation first.]

Considerably less sex in this book!  Many more relatives.

Fun facts: When I was thinking up names for characters in Firsts, I named Kyou for Kyoya in Ouran.  Guess people get an anime feel from the story for a reason.  And Mika's dad's surname is Teyrn - which is Welsh for 'king'.

01 June 2021

Get the And All the Stars audiobook for as little as 1/3 the price!

It's June is Audiobook Month, and my contribution is And All the Stars.

You can get it (and other great audiobooks) for big discounts at Nook Audiobooks, and Google Play, (and Apple's audiobook store but I don't see the discount up yet).

And All the Stars is a young adult action adventure with aliens, musketeers, Sydney landmarks, fear, surprisingly little squabbling for a bunch of teens hiding out together, and one very surreal cupcake scene.

Narrator Coralie Bywater did a fabulous job with AAtS - absolutely couldn't be happier.

Check out AAtS and these others indie deals.

21 May 2021

The Book of Firsts - release today

 Yay - nice to get this one out there!  [Caution for those who like clean romance - I'm using a pen name for this one primarily because it contains so much sex!  Nearly sixty scenes, which seems a ridiculous amount when I write it down.]

The Book of Firsts

Three boys, the 'kings' of the school.  One cynical newcomer.  An outrageous competition.

When Mika Niles overhears the details of "The Book of Firsts" she's at first bemused, then scornful, then intrigued.  Judging which of three very handsome young men is best at kissing, and...? 

With no time in her final year for serious attachments, a series of lunchtime trysts is more than tempting – and an opportunity like this might never come her way again.  But this light-hearted game is also a scandalous secret, and few can play with fire and walk away unscathed.

Out now in the following stores (and more to follow as it slowly makes its way through the various distribution chains).  A note for paperback purchasers - this one's in 5x8 instead of the slightly larger TPB I use for the AKH books.  I'll keep the sizes consistent for the pen names, though.

It's a very pretty cover. :)


Amazon (US, AU, UK, FR, DE etc)

Kobo (CA, AU, US)


Google Play 

Barnes & Noble 


Amazon (US, AU, UK, FR, DE etc) 

My plan for the rest of the year is to work on Tangleways and the sequel to this (which at the moment I just call 'Seconds').

[So many books I want to write, so much procrastination...]

28 April 2021

Cover Reveal - The Book of Firsts

Because, as usual for me, I've produced a story that doesn't really fit the conventions of any genre (though I'm calling it New Adult because it involves 19 year-olds and a lot of sex), I've had trouble finding something that worked for my latest cover (for my pen name).

Fortunately I came across one I really liked over at http://goonwrite.com/index.htm, and so here at last is the cover of The Book of Firsts.

The book is in edits, and won't be out this month, but almost definitely in May.

And here is the (hopefully final) blurb:

The Book of Firsts

Three boys, the 'kings' of the school.  One cynical newcomer.  An outrageous competition.

 When Mika Niles overhears the details of "The Book of Firsts" she's at first bemused, then scornful, then intrigued.  Judging which of three very handsome young men is best at kissing, and...? 

 With no time in her final year for serious attachments, a series of lunchtime trysts is more than tempting – and an opportunity like this might never come her way again.  But this light-hearted game is also a scandalous secret, and few can play with fire and walk away unscathed.

03 April 2021

Hidden SF

Hi all - sorry for the long delay between updates.  I keep putting off posting until I have news about the latest book, and then not having anything significant to report.  Firsts is still a week or two before a full draft is done, and then it will be in editing.  This (New Adult) is a slower genre for me, in part because in my usual SFF books I have a lot more 'event' chapters, where there's a lot of action scenes.  Action is significantly easier for me to write than day to day conversations that show small emotional shifts.

While both Touchstone and Firsts are intended to have more of a 'slice of life' structure than the traditional rising action, denouement, etc, it's a very different feel when the slices don't involve monsters.

While I'm enjoying the story (and looking forward to working on the sequel), I have no intention of switching genres permanently, since SFF has some core components that I really love.  And, in fact, Firsts is an SF novel (though in a very low-key way).  After it's out for a couple of weeks, I'll put up a post to see if that element stood out for anyone.

Anyway, not too much longer now.  I won't promise this month, since editing sometimes brings up unexpected issues, but 'soon'.

Touchstone Trilogy - French Edition

Some news for the Touchstone fans. The wonderful Justine of Seraminda Editions has faced down the truly daunting task of translating Cass...