Weird Western and Me. New anthology project.

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Last year, I wrote and submitted my first Weird West Fantasy story “No-Sell” to an anthology project. I was fortunate enough to get it accepted.

The mastermind and editor behind the project is writer and SFWA Youtube master extraordinaire Diane Morrison, who has been a delight to work with on the edits and the overall publication of the anthology. The book is already for preorder at Amazon in Kindle format (it will be released in paperback at a later date). It will be at an excellent, low price just until the end of January, so be sure to pick up a copy.

About my story, without telling too much, it’s about a disillusioned retired military spellslinger traveling on the frontier of the land, visiting remote towns and carrying a new type of weapon called ‘rifle’. Think Algren from ‘The Last Samurai’ (the one with Tom Cruise) when he is sent to sell weapons to the Japanese. Except that no one wants his fare. Not like it matters to him. And of course, I managed to slip a small reference to Mexican Culture. Depending on how things go, I might write more stories in that new universe. I just got this book for further research: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.

The anthology has many good stories, including one by my archenemy Brent A. Harris.  And it will include a public domain story by Robert E. Howard (who kinda pioneered the genre). You shouldn’t miss this book.

Buried Sins: of regrets and lost memories

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This week is the official launch of the sixth anthology from Inklings Press (disclaimer: I’m a founding member and I usually do the cover design for their anthologies). This one is entitled ‘Tales from the Underground’, already available on Amazon. Unlike the previous anthologies were the theme was dictated by the genre (fantasy, science fiction, horror and so on), the theme dictated the stories and their genres. This time it was ‘Underground’ as if it wasn’t already obvious by the title. That kind of stories that take place in the worlds beneath ours, be it stories of adventure and exploration, or stories of space sirens, ghosts, and fairies. Or as in the case of my featured story, ‘Buried Sins’, of the titular sins buried both in ruined cities and inside the soul of the main character.

I don’t know if this is my darkest story yet (Bone Peyote might want to debate that), but I think it fits within the ‘dark fantasy’ subgenre. That said, this story has a special meaning for me, so let me tell you why.

For starters, it takes place in the same world of my WIP novel ‘Tempest Blades’, roughly during the time of the first chapter of the said novel, but in a different continent, with different characters. I know I have previous stories set in the same world (‘Silver Fang’, ‘Cosmic Egg’) but they take place in the past or the future. ‘Buried Sins’ is the first one that takes place at the same time of my novel. Second, it gave me the chance to recover and I would say, rediscover a character (or two) that I had liked from my very earlier drafts from ten years ago and who got cut from the latest iteration of the Tempest Blades story. I thought that character had got lost from that universe, but in writing this story, he got a new lease on life and also helped me to bring back another character that had suffered the same fate (such character doesn’t appear in the story per se, rather it is an ancestor). Why? Because of he will appear in the sequel of the novel as one of the main characters (so yeah, that’s a bit of a spoiler I guess).

Third, this story helped me to give him his own personality, backstory (which this story is) and unique abilities, rather than the generic expy of a vampire he was when I started writing in college. Now he has a really interesting take, I believe, on the ‘demon’ inside as weapon and means of protection. And he has as well a personality, several lost memories and a proper backstory, key ingredients for a good character I think. Even if he falls into the ‘broody’ side.

Joshua, the main character of ‘Buried Sins’, is a man with blurred memories. He doesn’t know when he was born or who he was before he was used in experiments that make him the ‘monster’ he thinks he is. But he does know where he was born and the dangers lurking in a buried city full of nasty things. And he has to return there if he wants to save a friend of his, coaxed by unsavory people, even if that means unearthing the sins that are hidden within the thing that makes him a monster.

And finally and fourth: this is the first story where I truly explore, in a subtle way my battles with depression. I’m by no means an expert on depression. I can only talk about my own struggles with it since I was a teenager.

I started writing as a mean to deal with my depression. It was my way to explore and deal with many of those feelings in a healthier way.  Depression, contrary to what many people believe, never truly goes away. It lurks, buried deep down in your psyche, waiting for the proper moment to spring a flood of memories, regrets, and anxieties to hit you back. It is the ‘beast’ that you learn to live with. Pretty much like Joshua.

Nowadays, thanks to my wife, a support network of friends and family, writing and some therapy back in the day I’m feeling a bit better these days. That doesn’t mean I don’t get depressed (and with the current status of the world no one could blame anyone for getting depressed and anxious), but now at least I have options to deal with it. Joshua is on his way to start that path and that experience in this story will color his interactions with one of the main characters of Tempest Blades that is going under his own struggles with depression.

So as you can see, this is a very personal story for me and I’m glad I have the chance to get it out into the wider world. I truly hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed it writing it. And if you think about it, it is a sample of what you can expect from my novel once I get the chance to publish it.

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P.S: If you want the full experience when you read it, I recommend listening ‘Hurt’ by Johny Cash for three-quarters of the story and the Theme of One Punch Man during the finale. Yes, it’s quite the mood whiplash, but I like the combo because it ends on a more hopeful note than intended. Joshua, like any of us that suffer from regrets, is a person in search of redemption. The story is just the first part of that journey.

Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 4: Freefolk religion & lost beliefs.

For Part 1: Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 1: an introduction

For Part 2: Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 2: Samoharo religions.

For Part 3: Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 3: Human Religions.

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Freefolk religion.

After the fall of the last great Kingdom, the Kingdom of Ulmo, most of the organized religion of the freefolk fell into disarray, becoming a varied collection of ideas. It’s the less organized of the religions but probably one of the oldest if not the oldest. However, all the clans believe in certain core beliefs:

The Eight: the main gods and goddesses of the freefolk, of which the Trickster Goddess is the main one, not in terms of power but because she has bestowed her full attention on what she calls her children. Of her, we will talk later in detail.  The Eight are considered the first generation of the children of the Great Maker, the being that expelled chaos (as in entropy) from the universe. The Eight are the leaders of the Children –whom according to some legends from the Grasslands are the akeleth themselves- and each represents certain aspects and in turn, is represented by a mythical creature. This will be expanded in future posts, but of the Eight, the most revered are the Guardian, the Trickster, the Seer, the Healer and the Jailer.

Magick: is the gift from the Great Maker to the freefolk people, it is the blood of the planet and the stars and should be used for neutral or good aims. Magick is the innermost connection a freefolk can expect to achieve with the world itself. When it is corrupted then it calls upon the Eternal Ones, the eldritch beings living in the deepest of the Infinity Pits, or Hell.

Pilgrimage: Every certain number of years, a freefolk, a family or even a tribe is called into the Pilgrimage, a journey of self-discovery that makes that person or persons to walk the earth inside the World’s Scar from the Yumenomori Forest in the westernmost peninsula of Auris to the easternmost hill in the Grasslands of Ionis  and Balakef. In that journey, they are often tested by the Trickster Goddess herself in order to learn something about themselves and thus enhance their connection with the world –understanding that as reality itself- regardless if they possess or not the ability to channel magick.

The Tempest: the conflux of energies that separate the astral or spiritual plane from the living plane. Basically, the astral plane is where souls go after death but before choosing a final destination. The Tempest is that manifestation when the Veil that separates both planes is ruptured and travel between both can be done. The Samoharo dreamwalking is similar in that aspect.

The communion: the main goal of the freefolk religion is for its adherents to be in communion with the world around them so when they die, they go to the spiritual plane of the world, joining a network of memories that can be accessed through the Tempest and said plane.

The Long Moon: the mysterious object that orbits around Theia in conjunction with its moon. The freefolk believe that their erratic apparitions are omens from the Eight warning freefolk of events of magnitude.

The religious leaders of the freefolk are shamans that claim to commute with the world or reality itself through the use of special powder, storytelling, and riddles.

Lost beliefs.

The beliefs of the Akeleth and the Montoc Dragons:  Little is known about the religious beliefs of the Montoc Dragons or the Akeleth. It is plausible, based on the few records left behind in the Grasslands that they shared beliefs about the Great Consciousness of the Universe that begotten them. The Montoc Dragons claimed to be born from the stars themselves, while the akeleth apparently believed to be stars themselves in mortal form. Both mention the struggles against the Great Enemy, the Original Sin or mistake born from the same event that created the Universe.

Some scholars believe that the ancient religion that both species followed was the source for the rest of the faiths in Theia.  Each species -or individual groups- took elements that fitted their vision of the universe. This discussion comes from the fact that higher and lower dimensions are not only shared between all religions in the world, they share the same names and experimental proof that they exist. They are called Last Heaven and Infinity Pits. They are real and people have glimpsed them through history. The most common version is when an ‘incursion’ occurs. An incursion is when a creature from the Pits, usually through magick, materializes into the world to unleash havoc. Each religion and science as well have found ways to deal with them, with more or less success. But they all agree that the spiritual plane, Heaven, and Hell exist, even if no one can be sure what they actually are.

 

Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 3: Human Religions.

For Part 1: Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 1: an introduction

For Part 2: Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 2: Samoharo religions.

 

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The religions mentioned here are the current, modern ones and with more adherents. Or the one that has caused more mayhem through time. Others have existed, long gone or with little clusters over the populated world.

Universe’s Consciousness or Universality: The mainstream, modern religion in most human territories, particularly in Ionis and the Free Alliance. It has several branches and temples all over the world. Their core belief is that mankind can aspire to be one with the Universe Consciousness through acts that improve the Universe’s plan. Universality preaches that being parts of the legacy of the Universe it is the duty of a person to help others and create a balance of good acts that counter the evil or corrupt acts of others, often promoted by the Discord, the enemy of the Universe and source of evil. It preaches what it is called RAKs or ‘random acts of kindness’ to balance the scale. This balancing of the scales has the aim of cleansing the soul of the person so it can rejoin the Universe after learning about the reality. The main teachings were developed by the Wise Students, twelve followers of the two Great Masters that taught humanity about the universe in the past.  While the actual teachings of the Great Masters are lost to time, it is considered that the teachings of the Wise students codify enough of them. It is rumored that one of the Master later crossed the Core Ocean and developed the Kamisava of the Kuni, making it a distant relative.

The two mainstream versions of Universality are Gaian and Cosmo. Gain focuses their teaching in taking care of the planet where humankind lives, talking about some mysterious past that cost humanity’s their first world or paradise. This is the branch that has been more influenced by the Paths of the samoharo. Cosmo takes a more orthodox approach of balancing the scales in a general sense. Some scholars see a parallel between the Wise Students and the Eight of the freefolk. Other scholars conflagrate them with the so-called ‘Founding Fathers’, a mythological group that led humanity from their original land into Theia and from which most human nations arose.

The Kamisava of Kuni Empire: the official religion of Kuni Empire and the second most organized in the world. Similar to Universality in a few core concepts, the Kamisava preaches that living beings are already part of the universe and thus attaining ‘godhood’ is possible. In fact, they believe that some lesser gods walk among them as we speak. In ancient times, when the so-called ‘Mortal Gods’ -demigods of unclear origin- ruled Theia and mortals rebelled against them with the help of the akeleth, the Mortal Gods of the Kuni Empire sided with mortals. As such it is rumored that a few ones –including the Empress- live hidden lives with them. The most famous of such gods is the folk hero Storm God that lives in the God’s Eye volcano right in the middle of the Auris Gulf. Kamisava is also the religion with a more open approach to dealing with ‘incursions’, through the ‘demonhunters’*, warrior-priest that walk the land destroying any creature from or influenced by the Infinity Pits. Kamisava also believes in reincarnation although unlike Universality, in what one can reincarnate is more varied, the ‘Wheel of purification’. As result, they are more prone to carry out rites of the animistic kind as ancestors can exist as any part of nature, given that souls are already part of the universe and need only to be purified. There has been some overlap between Kamisava and the Paths of the stargazers due to the proximity between the Empire and the Hegemony.

The Straits’s religion: it doesn’t have an official name as in theory is a branch of Universality, given that the region was originally colonized by people from Ionis. However it is a very syncretic religion that adds elements from the Kamisava –the reverence to ancestors- and the Paths of the stargazers –mainly the dreamwalking-  and even the Tempest concept of the freefolk religion and mixes it with a peculiar outlook of the death –a few people from the Straits have the ability of ghostsighting- that makes them celebrate it during the days of the year when the Tempest manifest. Their approach to life and death mostly comes from the fact that the Straits are a dangerous place to live –due the extreme weather and the proximity to the Wastelands.

Assuran religion: in old times was one of the most important human religions. Now it is only followed by the inhabitants of the Western Wastelands and the Cursed City of Meteora. At its apogee, it was highly organized, with thousands of warlock priests carrying out rites in front of multitudes. It was polytheistic in structure and many of its deities have been compared to what other religions call creature from the Infinity Pits but the Assuran called the Great Gods. Major gods include the Crawling Chaos and the Golden King while minor ones included the Bestial and the Narsubanipal. It was the main human religion that granted its followers magick channeling abilities through the use of drugs such as the murcana. At some point in history, its priests called on a sacred war against the freefolk that caused a transcontinental war, which ended with the fall of the Empire from which Meteora was capital and transforming its territory in a wasteland full of buried cities, unforgiving deserts and mutated beings. Outside the wastelands, the religion is found in small clusters of cultists such as the Brotherhood of Gadol or the Cult of the Deep God in the catacombs beneath Portis.

Other humans beliefs: There are other religions, such as those from the people of the Chains across the Core Ocean or the strange animistic religion of the people from the Grasslands or the lost religion of the Iskandar, however, those will be explored in another entry under minority religions further down the road.

Interesting fact(s): in Universality, the Universe or the consciousness that created it and maintains it is referred as ‘Her’, ‘Mother’ or ‘Kaana’ and considers it an actual being. It also preaches reincarnation and rebirth into a second or third human life as a way to balance the scales across ages.

*Universality has their own version of clerical exorcists, but they usually work undercover rather than in the open as demonhunters and usually are less ‘physical’ in combat.

Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 2: Samoharo religions.

For Part 1: Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 1: an introduction

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The samoharo, secretive as they are, live their reptilian lives mostly within the territory of the southwestern continent of Genis, naming their land ‘The Hegemony’. Few is know of their religious beliefs, but the generalities can be talked about.

Paths of the stargazers: the main religion (but not the only one) of the Samoharo Hegemony. It is deeply entwined with the magical beliefs of the samoharo and as such, their religious caste is as well their main –if not only- magical practitioners. It combines aspects of their more tribal customs such as pathfinding, dreamwalking and stargazing with the teachings of that who they call ‘The Prophet’ that in a far flung past united both samoharo races in a single nation in order to avoid extinction. Samoharos believe that they came from the stars, like the dragons before them and their destiny is to join the universe and the stars.

The prophet they follow, ‘the Child of the Wind’, also known as the ‘Feathered Dragon’ taught them the ‘Paths’, mostly composed of solidarity, honor and patience and communion with the planet as they see taking care of Theia (or any other planet) as part of the Path to reunite with the stars. Stars then take the role of deities, the ‘godstars’, of which the samoharo have several that represent certain aspects of time and space and thus have their own Path, explained by the Prophet. Some variants of the Paths found within the Hegemony practice bloodletting sacrifices -as in an individual offering a few drops of their blood to a particular star- as to empower certain spells.

Each samoharo tribe or clan tends to follow a particular Path of a godstar, each representing an element of nature. However, the Paths are flexible and individuals are welcomed to follow more than one. The Path or combinations of them tend to affect life’s outlook of a particular individual.

The Windstar or Star of the Morning: mostly followed by the royal clan, teaches flexibility, wisdom, and leadership.

The Rainstar: teaches foresight, healing, and cleansing.

The Firestar or Sun: teaches honor, combat prowess, and personal improvement. Most warriors tend to follow this path.

The Grassstar: teaches the value of handcraftsmanship, taking care of the land, fertility, and family.

The Ghoststar: teaches dreamwalking, lore keeping, respect to the death, the ancestors and the spirit plane. Most priests follow this path, mixed with the one of the Rainstar.

Cult of the Smoking Mirror: samoharos are by nature very secretive and reclusive, thus there is little information on what this religion practices, it is believed that most militaristic samoharo follow it, believing that blood sacrifices will awaken some hidden power within the samoharo genetic code. It is said to be taught on the principles stated by the half-brother of the Child of the Wind and a godstar by himself by the name of the Mirrorstar. It started as a Path unto itself, but a schism separated it and made it a secret cult.

Interesting fact(s): The Paths have influenced the religious beliefs of the humans living in the Straits, specifically the Ghoststar path, evolving in a celebration of the death.

Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 1: an introduction

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Talking about faith is always a tricky proposition, even if we are talking about fictional settings. However, I think that how a society relates to the greater mysteries of their world is a key element of world building because it affects how a character might react to certain events.

In the Tempest Blades universe, usually, there is little mention of religions and spiritual faiths, despite being a constant mention of a particular goddess. Even characters that don’t follow her cult mention her, but that is because she has been quite active in history. Other than her and perhaps the beliefs of fringe groups such as those sponsoring the villains, religion plays little to no role on how my characters act. There is a reason for that.

In most parts of Theia, religious beliefs tend to be a personal matter rather than something bigger. Religion is thus one of many defining characteristics but not a major one. There are, of course, organized religions and faiths. But in a world where magic can be used, where there are verified accounts of ‘demons’ & gods’, and certain degree of certainty about the existence of Hell & Heaven, religion takes a different role: instead of being used to explain random phenomena, it is used as a mean to find the place of a person of the universe or conversely, the relationship between a person and the universe. It doesn’t mean it has been always like that, in the past religious groups had a bigger impact in life, remnants of them can be seen in groups such as the Sisters of Mercy. However, by the time the stories take place, religion has become what I said, something more personal, even if a given person belongs to a particular congregation.

What defined the way a particular region or civilization of Theia developed a faith and later a religion depends on of a few factors: their ‘arrival myth’ & species they belong*, their relationship with the precursors known as akeleths**, how they fared during the age of the ‘mortal gods’*** and a few other factors as cultural mores, extradimensional incursions and the use of magic. In the following weeks, I will briefly explain a few of the major beliefs in Theia.

For Part 2: Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 2: Samoharo religions.

For Part 3: Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 3: Human Religions.

For Part 4: Faith in the Tempest Blades Universe Part 4: Freefolk religion & lost beliefs.

 

*Unlike our world, most of the species have arrival myths on par of creation myths. That is, along their myths on how the universe came to be, they have (and it plays a bigger role in certain sectors) an arrival myth that explains how that particular race got to be in Theia, as most recognize or at least begrudgingly suspect that none originated on the planet, but instead were transported there somehow, probably by the akeleth aeons ago.

**The akeleths (more on them in another post), are the mysterious precursor race that inhabited Theia in times beyond recording. It’s  fact they existed because their ruins still pepper the surface of the planet and some of the current technology the species have is derived from it. Freefolk believe they are as the forefathers, almost lesser gods related to their main Eight deities, with their ruins being sacred places for them; while humans find them an inscrutable mystery to be solved -especially when it comes to appropriate their technology-. Samoharos for their part find them strange and on par of the oldest beings in the universe.

*** The mortal gods is an age when certain individuals, probably demigods born from the younger species and the akeleth or the Eight of the freefolk, with the aim of protecting the younger species at the Dawn Age. However most became corrupted and regular mortals, helped by the Montoc Dragons and a few good Mortal Gods, hunted and killed them. The only mortal gods rumored to still be around -mostly inside Kuni territory- are the Storm God, the Shadowbreaker, the Twins of the Forge and the Makin.

A review: Your Name

Reviewing this movie, without spoiling it is hard, because of the mix of elements it has. So there is no way around.  Read only if you don’t mind SPOILERS.

Your name. The title doesn’t evocate much, but beneath it, there is one of the best time travel stories I’ve seen in many years. It is also an alternate history story, but one that works on the departure point rather than the future consequences of that. All thanks to the powers of a comet and a Shinto deity. It is also a story about changing fate for love (to your special one, to your friends, to your estranged family) and what connects people. But you learn all of that halfway through the movie in such heart-wrenching way that makes you cry.

The first half of the movie is an anime take on body swapping. A provincial girl, Mitsuha, who is a Shinto maiden, yearns to get away from her small village and her politician father. she finds out that every other day she trades bodies with a boy from Tokyo, Taki, who works as a waiter, is in love with the restaurant hostess -a nice person by the way- and dreams of becoming an architect. Only the Mitsuha’s grandma and sister realize what’s happening. Most movies would dwell in the hijinks of the trade, but not this one. Here, both characters soon realize what is happening and create plans so a to don’t disrupt their lives, leaving notes and journal entries in each other’s phones and basically trying to help each other through their weird experience and also improve each other’s lives. Soon they start to grow fond of each other, to the point they become in love and just when they realize it, an overbearing sense of sadness overcomes them and soon the exchanges stop happening. Taki, helped by best friend and his former romantic interest, the hostess, goes on a quest to find the town and the girl that has conquered his heart and they find it…

… obliterated by a comet’s fragment that crashed in the town three years before, killing everybody. This is where the story goes straight into alternate history and fantasy. Even if it feels a bit Deux ex Machina (there is a subtle but logical divine intervention for the rest of the plot to work), the story is cohesive. Soon everybody starts forgetting about the girl, but Taki fights back and with the help of the Shinto god of the temple where Mitsuha’s worked, a god of time and connection, travels back to her body in an attempt to convince the town to evacuate before they are killed by the natural phenomenon. Even if that leads Mitsuha’s friends to commit criminal acts and her father to dismiss her as crazy. During the golden hour, both souls exchange bodies again and see each other, finally meeting in person. But before they can exchange names (hence the title of the movie) she disappears. The town is still destroyed and Taki forgets about her. It is devastating. But you are treated with a ‘what happened after’ and you find if Taki’s efforts saved the town. You get a happy ending, but you have to work for it.

There is no way my brief description does justice to the movie. It is something you have to experience fo yourself. The message is clear, you can fight destiny, moreover if time is not as linear as we think it is, but you need a good reason to do so. Love and the desire to save others are powerful motivations. The closest referent I have for those that are not anime fans, in terms of similar feelings is “Somewhere in Time”, but with a happier ending. Hearts will find each other in time, against any obstacle, being an erased memory or a cataclysmic event.

Music wise, the main theme is beautiful, one of the best I’ve heard in years, and the animation is flawless, combining 3D rendered landscapes with traditional animation in a way I have not seen before. And the sequence following the broken comet’s fall is breathtaking.

The movie, I dare to say, is perfect. I can’t recommend it enough. You have to see it to believe it.

Watch it if: you enjoy good slice of life stories, character driven stories, romantic plots and Japanese mythology.

Don’t watch it if: if you don’t like anime or time travel stories where there is no science behind.

Grade: 6 out of 5.

Desirability: I will put it this way, since we watched it, my wife and I have been looking for the blu-ray. I loved it, my wife doesn’t have words for how much she enjoyed it.

Moana’s Quest and the ethereal villain

 

Let me preface this entry by explaining that this is not a review of Moana. I’m too late for that train. It is more of a reflection upon some comments my wife made me the other day about Moana. For better context: my wife and I grew up with a steady diet of Disney movies, so we are basically Disney children. However where things differ is that my wife is really into Dinsey animated movies, especially the Princess ones to the point that she and my sister in law can recite, word for word, songs included, most of the classics f the om top of their heads. Her all time favorite is the Little Mermaid by the way (and she knows ALL songs by heart. ALL). She tends to watch them with a critical eye I only use for comic related things or my own writing. She didn’t like Frozen and is warm luke to Moana, whilst for me, Moana is my second favorite Disney movie (the first one being the Lion King). Moana as well holds a special place in my heart, not only for the theme (Polynesian culture is quite interesting) but for the cast and the personality of the characters, is colorful, I’m learning ‘You’re welcome’, but most important, it reminds me of our first wedding anniversary last year, where we had the opportunity to go to Disneyworld and watch a featurette on the movie. That trip by itself was a magical thing shared with the love of my life. So for me, the attachment to Moana is more sentimental (which might make this reflection a bit biased).

Moana as well holds a special place in my heart, not only for the theme (Polynesian culture is quite interesting) but for the cast and the personality of the characters, it’s a sustainability parable  is colorful, I’m learning ‘You’re welcome’, but most important, it reminds me of our first wedding anniversary last year, where we had the opportunity to go to Disneyworld and watch a featurette on the movie. That trip by itself was a magical thing shared with the love of my life. So for me, the attachment to Moana is more sentimental (which might make this reflection a bit biased).

So it was a shock for me a few days ago, when I finally had money to buy the blu-ray edition, that my wife said that while she liked Moana enough, it wasn’t a good movie for her. I was aghast so I asked her to explain herself and in summary, her biggest complaint is that Moana, unlike other Disney Princess movies (or Disney movies in general) lacks a clear villain, taking away some of the conflicts from the plot. And that left me thinking about what I’m gonna write right now.

Moana, for the most part, is a kid-friendly approach to the Hero of Thousand Faces heroic journey or monomyth as author Joseph Campbell called it (which by the way, if you are planning to write fantasy, it would be a good idea to check that book). From the refusal of the call to the visit to the underground, Moana checks many of the items of the monomyth. However, my wife is right. It doesn’t have a proper villain.

Teka is more a force of nature created by the actions of men (this is important later for the sake of the post), looking for the heart of Te Fiti for spoilery reasons. Other than that it doesn’t have more motivation that just exists. The Kokomora and Tamatoa are not the main villains, they act more as obstacles. But they are not the main antagonist of the movie. And none of them spend time on screen beyond a few minutes to explain their real motivations. They are just there. Compare that to other classic villains like Ursula, Scar, and Jaffar, who are antagonistc villains and you can see that my wife has a point there.

Now the movie does have a few antagonists, but not in the traditional good-bad dichotomy. One of them, in particular, is vital for the story. This antagonist is there to counter Moana’s views and help her with her personal growth. Notice that I’m not calling him a villain because he is not. He is for most of the movie an anti-hero at a crossroads and goes by the name of Maui. You will say: ‘hey he is the deuteragonist, the other hero of the story’. And for the last third of the movie he is. But on the first part of the movie he is there messing with Moana’s plans for his selfish/not-so-selfish reasons and is on a personal growth journey as well. It’s only when he realizes that both journeys share the same ultimate objective that he goes from anti-hero to bonafide hero. To put it simply, he is the Han Solo to Moana’s Luke/Leia, down to the last minute rescue in a falcon shape.

So if Moana apparently doesn’t has an antagonistic villain, where is the conflict? Well, I think that it does has a villain, but is not a physical one.

Stories like Game of Thrones have got us used to the idea that even villains have proper motivations, that deep inside, they believe they are right and that they are the true heroes of the story. Cersei, for example, does at first most things for the sake of her children. Only the Others/White Walkers haven’t shown a real motivation so far, acting more like a boogeyman or a force of nature. Long gone are the days of evil for the sake of evil villains, like Palpatine. But even so, we are still used to think of villains in terms of an actual guy opposing the heroes for nefarious purposes. And this is where Moana deviates from the norm in a clever way.

Remember when I mentioned the ‘acts of men’ as the cause of the crisis in the story of Moana? Well, it was their constant abusing of Maui’s desire for approval (the guy is still hurting from being abandoned as a baby) that pushed too far the balance, making him steal the heart of Te Fiti and creating Tekai as result. The ‘acts of men’ are also seen in the way of thinking uphold by Moana’s father about not venturing away form the island, forgetting completely his culture’s tradition of wayfinding. This is where Moana becomes a sustainability parable: the actions of our predecessors have caused a disruption on the futures of our descendants. I see Tekai as a symbol of Mother Earth lashing out against humankind for their excess, as a representation of climate change for example, or pollution, that withers the land and deprive us of nurturing elements.

It’s only when Moana understands this, that the ‘acts of men’, the loss of their traditional communion with nature, the close minded way of thinking and greed has caused this crisis that she is capable of reaching an agreement with Tekai to return the heart to its proper place and restore the balance. Of all the people of her island she was chosen  by the Ocean, that allied force of nature, because she is not only smart enough to realize this but compassionate and brave enough to raise up to the challenge of breaking with the societal conventions, the popular wisdom of her context to find a new way of life. In this case, the villain is not a physical one, is an ethereal one composed by many negative thoughts that mired her, her family and even Maui and take a final embodiment in Tekai.

Sometimes, the villains of a story, the real ones, are not the guys in black robes trying to conquer the world, but the inner demons, the preconceptions, the baggage that drags the main character down. Those are villains of equal importance if not more and only when the hero realizes that and is willing to overcome them is that they become able to solve the crisis at hand. So I contend that Moana does have a villain and a central conflict, but not in the shape we are used to from other Disney movies.  And for that,  and for having such a kickass female hero that breaks from the traditional role of a Disney Princess (that’s a topic for another post), I think Moana is superb.

A review: King Arthur: the legend of the sword

I’m a sucker for Arthurian cycle reinterpretation (one of my favorites versions is the one written by John Steinbeck). Now Guy Ritchie brings his own take to it.  Read only if you don’t mind SPOILERS.

There is not much to talk about this movie in terms of story. And I don’t mean that as something bad. Arthur’s story tells the most basic hero’s plot. Not for nothing, it has been the template for hundreds of movies, video games and fantasy stories (with a few sci-fi ones). Excalibur is the ur-example of the magical sword. In that regard, I would dare to call it one of the most faithful depictions of King Arthur’s story in years (more that King Arthur with Clive Owen at least). It mixes a vibe that could easily fit Lord of the Rings with that of Excalibur by John Boorman.

Now that I think about it, this movie feels like an updated version of that movie, through the lens of Ritchie, which means that true to his personal style, has running scenes in first person, slow motion in combat and a grittiness that made Ritchie’s brand in movies such as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Also, there is a London here, well Londinium (Down to some roman buildings as it should be at the time), it wouldn’t be a Ritchie movie without London. Sound hectic isn’t? I would say eclectic. But that’s what makes this movie such a good piece, one that has been underrated.

Aside from the aesthetic, what this movie brings in a interwoven tale of the main features of an Arthurian cycle for modern audiences. Let’s talk about the differences to the regular legend:

  • Humans share the land with a humanoid race named Mages, who are capable of controlling beasts and can enter a parallel world similar to our but with bestial creatures. It is reminiscent of the Underside of the Tuatha de Danaan in Celtic lore.
  • Uther Pendragon is a good king, owner of Excalibur that defeats the usurper of the Mage throne Mordred, to be later betrayed by his own brother Vortigern. He then becomes the proverbial stone where the sword is trapped.
  • Vortigen is in cahoots with dark powers and is a genocidal king. And can transform into a fiery demon wielding a double scimitar (very similar to a Frazetta drawing), through the sacrifice of his wife and daughter.
  • Merlin doesn’t appear in the movie aside a flashback, but his presence can be felt through others. For starters he is the one to forge Excalibur from the staff of the Mage King and with the help of the Lady of the Lake binds it to Arthur0s lineage. His bidding is carried out through a hooded female mage who….
  • …Is actually, Guinevere! Well, just in name, because power and character wise, she acts more like Morgan Le Fay (which makes sense since Mordred is already dead by then and bypasses the issue of the incest from the legend). She is also the one to guide Arthur through his quest.
  • Talking about Arthur, he is the one that suffers the most changes under Ritchie’s approach: after parent’sents deaths here he is left in a river (very Moses) and raised by prostitutes and criminals, learning martial arts and becoming a criminal boss with his own team. He is forced to pull the sword from the stone and then rescued by the Rebellion, formed by the old allies of his father (Djimon Hounsou as Belvedere and Aidan Gillen as Goosefat Bill/Lord Willian, who acts like Sir Kay mixed with Robin Hood). From there he starts a guerilla warfare against his uncle, while training to use the full power of Excalibur and finally things come to a head.
  • Excalibur itself has been changed here. It is more than just an unbreakable sword with glowing runes. Under the control, of Arthur it becomes a magical sword that can unleash gusts of wind and allows Arthur to achieve some sort of sixth sense (it’s when the camera goes into bullet time) that makes him invincible.

The movie ends when Arthur takes the crown, knighting his companions (you find there that his right hand in his gang is actually Sir Tristan), building the Roundtable and dealing with Vikings, while Guinevere looks from afar. It’s a good open ending that closes all the plot threads while leaving room for further adventures. Which we might not get.

Apparently, the movie is bombing (which considering that is going against GotG and Alien Covenant it was expected). But I think the critics are being too harsh with this movie. While it has some defects, it is a good movie. One that I think with time will become a cult movie. For me it is already a must for my collection.

On a personal note, watching Arthur’s fights with Excalibur in hand is exactly how I envisioned the fights of my main characters on my novel Tempest Blades. So if by any miracle I manage to publish the novel and becomes good enough to become a movie or a miniseries, I would love for Guy Ritchie to direct it. This is how Fionn fighting should look.

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Watch it if: you are a fan of Guy Ritchie signature style (like in Sherlock Holmes), you want a more high fantasy version of Arthur or you liked Excalibur.

Don’t watch it if: if you prefer more down to earth Arthurian movies, you can’t stomach Ritchie’s signature style or you are a stickler for orthodoxy in terms of how a movie based on King Arthur’s should be (although this is an oxymoron, considering that not even the medieval romances could agree how it should be and there are tons of versions already).

Grade: 4 out of 5.

Desirability: I will be buying the blu-ray when possible. Just because the photography is that good, and a dvd wouldn’t make it justice.

Top 5 badass mothers in science fiction & fantasy 

Since this May 10th is Mothers’ Day in Mexico, I thought in writing a top 5 list of badass mothers in science fiction & fantasy. Of course, every list of this kind is subjective but it is also a good icebreaker.

5. Lady Jessica (Dune): Bene Gesserit, mother of Paul Atreides, Reverend mother and possibly the only person that would try Voice on God.

4.  Sarah Connor: you have to be one badass customer if the most advanced AI ever created risk destroying the timeline over and over just so you don’t become a mom. John is a what he is because of his mom.

3. Molly Weasley: tell me that you didn’t cheer up with a raised fist when she offed Bellatrix Lestrange. Never mess with a mother’s children.

2. General Leia: granted Kylo is a brat but he takes after his grandfather. Leia is not just a rebel leader. It’s the embodiment of the Rebel Alliance. Luke might be the Jedi but Leia is the boss.

1. Daenerys Targaryen: seriously, you don’t earn the moniker ‘Mother of Dragons’ just for nothing.

Bonus: Martha Kent. It takes to be the mom of steel to raise and educate the most powerful being of the world, maybe the universe. Just imagine the temper tantrums.

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Do you agree with the list? Suggestions?