What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part II)

Last time, I took some lessons from the first four volumes of The Unwritten. This time, I’m going to look at volumes 5-8. These volumes encompass some interesting turning points in the series. The heroes seem to have defeated the “bad guys,” even if it does come at a high cost. The mysteries deepen, a few new major characters are introduced, and some old characters come back.

What really makes these volumes great is that they don’t just continue the story that was started in the first four. They take it in new and unexpected directions. Each question that gets answered introduces yet more questions. All in all, it sets up the last three volumes so that you really have no idea what to expect as the story comes to its conclusion.

Moving the Goalposts Can Be Exciting

The first few volumes set up a shadowy cabal as the villains who cause all sorts of trouble for the protagonists, especially their chief henchman, Pullman. All of the bigwigs in the cabal are largely interchangeable and never characterized in much detail. It’s Pullman who is causing trouble on the ground for the heroes while the leaders of the cabal are safely hidden, and he’s the one they have to worry about. But Pullman is also the one villain who is given a back-story, revealed in drips and drops.

When the heroes actually have some success bringing the fight to the shadowy cabal, it might seem obvious that Pullman is just a Man in Front of the Man trope. But his motives turn out to be quite different from a “standard” villain. Almost exactly halfway through the story, the entire direction of the plot turns in a new direction.

Tropes are dangerous. If the reader thinks you’re just retelling a story they’ve heard before, they’ll quickly lose interest. However, tropes can be useful building blocks if you want to subvert expectations.

Tropes are just story elements that show up over and over again. They’re the canyons gouged by the flow of stories over the centuries, the comfortable shapes that stories like to fall into. A savvy reader will see parts of a trope and anticipate that the rest is forthcoming. However, you can make them a little less certain by including some elements that break the trope. Eventually, you can tear the trope apart in some unexpected plot twist, and it can be immensely satisfying. 

Sometimes these twists seem obvious in hindsight, but as a reader it’s very easy to get pulled into those deep currents that tropes provide. It’s a great way to disguise where the story is going.

Exposition Can Be a Reward

The Unwritten is great at introducing characters right in the middle of something. Tom Taylor’s dull life is turned upside down within the first few pages of the first volume. Lizzie sets those events in motion, but not in the way that she hoped. And Ritchie meets Tom in a French prison right before it explodes into chaos. The story forces the reader to hit the ground running. First, it shows you who the characters are and makes you care about them. Only then, and slowly, does it start to reveal their back-stories and the paths they took to get here.

By making you care about the characters first, the story makes exposition exciting. We want to know more about these people. How the heck did they get in these situations?

If these parts of the story were told in sequential order, they would be less interesting. They’re the lead-up to the exciting action that makes up the bulk of the story. But by withholding them for a while, they become a reward for the reader. Even better, they offer an opportunity to understand why the characters are the way they are. Learning about the events that shaped them provides new context to everything they’ve done so far in the story.

Epilogues Can Be Prologues Too

Almost every volume of The Unwritten, each major story arc, ends with a seemingly unrelated episode. After seeing the latest exploits of Tom, Lizzie and Ritchie, we might be transported to the Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired Willowbank Wood, to meet Pauly the lovable rabbit, who sounds a lot like a New Jersey mob thug and seems a bit out of place. We might be taken back a century or three to see the exploits of various famous storytellers and how they became entangled with the cabal. Or we might meet Daniel, a directionless young man with a degree in literature who finds himself taking a job that involves reading books all day with hundreds of other people in a featureless underground bunker.

Each of these little stories is an abrupt jump to a new time and place, with new characters. Each one eventually ties in to the main plot, but when the reader first encounters them, they seem like non-sequiturs. In this quiet lull at the end of an arc, when the story has just answered some questions and provided a small, satisfying conclusion, a brand-new big mystery is introduced. Namely, “who are these people and what the heck is going on?”

The next volume invariably jumps right back into the story of Tom et al., leaving these epilogues hanging unresolved for a while. Later on, when they tie back into the main story, there’s an “aha!” moment. These parts of the story are made more exciting simply by being told out of order. They’re also a great way of keeping up the tension in the parts of an episodic narrative where tension has just been relieved (at the end of an arc).

But Wait, There’s More…

The Unwritten is a big series, and I have one more post in me before we get to the end. Next time I’ll be covering the last few things I learned from the final volumes: 9-11. See you then.

What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part I)

The Unwritten is a Vertigo comics series published from 2009 to 2015, written by Mike Carey. I picked up the first few trade paperbacks by sheer chance, when my wife found them at a garage sale and thought they looked interesting. After devouring those four, I bought the remaining seven books in the series.

The Unwritten takes place in a world similar to ours, and follows Tom Taylor, whose father published a massively best-selling series of books starring a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor. Tom makes a meager living on the convention circuit by virtue of being the character’s namesake. Early in the story he becomes the target of a secret society that uses stories to manipulate and control the world, and finds out that his father was somehow involved with them as well.

The Unwritten is a modern comics masterpiece that intertwines its own original story with real history and dozens of famous works of fiction. It starts with the classic idea that stories have the power to change the world, and then asks what would happen if that were literally true.

This is a big series of books, so I’m going to cover it in a couple posts. First, volumes 1–4.

Everything is a Gun on the Mantle

Callbacks are powerful, and The Unwritten makes liberal use of them. Characters  are often introduced in short scenes where it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. The story steps away, only to revisit them later and explore them more deeply. Scenes from the Tommy Taylor novels and from other works of fiction are shown early in an episode and become relevant later on. And some ideas keep coming back again and again, like the vampire, Ambrosio, never quite being dead for good.

These callbacks use the principle of minimum necessary information to pull the reader along without bogging down the story. But they’re not just one-and-done. In Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig calls this “echoing.” The gun on the mantle need not be thrown away as soon as it’s fired. It can be fired again and again. It can turn out to have historical significance and emotional significance. This layering of narrative makes the reader feel rewarded for simply paying attention, seeing these through-lines keep building and building.

The Unwritten covers a lot of history, back to the very first stories and ahead to the end of the world. But that history is doled out carefully, in small helpings. It takes most of the series for the reader to finally see the whole picture. Each new plot twist seems inevitable, because the groundwork was laid for it by the elements that came before.

Leave Breadcrumbs

I skimmed through the books again as I was writing this, and I immediately discovered several tiny references that I had missed the first time around. These were little clues about what was going on, and which mysteries would become important later. Missing them didn’t hurt my enjoyment of my first read-through, although I’m sure they’d add to the experience of a reader who caught them. Perhaps it’s even better to catch them on a re-read, and discover that I can still find new things in a story whose shape I already know.

Breadcrumbs like these also give the reader an important sense that the author knows where the story is going, which is particularly relevant in episodic media like TV and comics. Many of us have been burned by stories like Game of Thrones or LOST where the authors threw down exciting mysteries and conflicts, but couldn’t come up with commensurate payoffs because they didn’t have a clear plan for the end. Breadcrumbs and callbacks let the reader know that the author is leading them somewhere. It’s hard to enjoy a story until you trust that the author is going to bring you somewhere interesting.

Form Follows Function

The Unwritten plays with a variety of different forms. News broadcasts show up in several places as a series of small TV stills with a ticker along the bottom of the “screen” and the voice-over text just below. There are also times when the characters are browsing the web, and pages of various sizes and shapes are shown shuffled and overlapping, to give the sense of time passing in a jumble of scattered information.

Stories from ancient and recent times are interwoven into the narrative, and are illustrated in different ways. The medieval Song of Roland has washed-out colors and heavier line work. The Tommy Taylor books-within-the-book are slightly more cartoony. Dickens looks like woodcut. The Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired fictitious Willowbank Wood is all pastel watercolors. The Nazi propaganda Jud Süß is black and white, with the red of swastikas providing the only color.

Beyond the visual style, the prose itself changes between these different types of stories. Even more interesting are narrative jaunts, like the issue that reveals Lizzie Hexam’s past. Rather than give the reader a definitive version of events, we get a choose-your-own-adventure story, and different branches paint the characters as sinister or sympathetic, in their own control or manipulated by others. The result is a character whose back-story exists in a quantum superposition of different states.

Sometimes, the way the story is told is what makes the story worth listening to. Memento just isn’t a very interesting story if it’s told linearly. House of Leaves would lose its punch without the multiple frame stories and the parts where the text starts wandering around the page and turning back on itself. The ordering of the narrative and the presentation are the layers of the story that the reader directly interacts with. Even if they aren’t the “meat” of the story, they are responsible for a lot of the flavor.

More to Come

Next time, I’ll dig into volumes 5–8.

The Read/Write Report

These past two weeks I’ve been reading a wide variety of things and doing more thinking about writing than actually writing.

Finishing Dune

First up, I finished reading Dune with my twelve-year-old at bedtime. His reaction to the conclusion was something like, “Wait, that’s the end?” It’s a fair reaction. The book does wrap up the plot quite nicely, destroying or subjugating all the villains while the heroes essentially take over the galaxy in a massive gambit. But this is also a book that is constantly looking into the future. Paul has his visions. The Bene Gesserit have their centuries-long plans. And nearly every chapter begins with quotations from a character who is only introduced near the very end of the book. It sets you up to want more.

Dune remains one of my favorite science fiction books. Its feudalism-in-space style gives it a timeless quality, and it addresses certain themes that still feel pretty fresh today.

Guards! Guards!

Moving on from Dune, we’re now reading “Guards! Guards!” at bedtime. This is one of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” books. There are 41 of them total, and I think I’ve read about half of those over the years. This happens to be one that I haven’t read, and I was excited to discover that it seems to be the first book to focus on the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork. The books tend to follow a few different groups of characters, such as The Witches, The Wizards of Unseen University, and the Night Watch. I’m looking forward to reading the origin stories of a number of characters who show up in many of the later books.

Pratchett is truly a treasure, simultaneously creating an amazing fantasy world and also infusing it with brilliant British humor. My closest comparison is Douglas Adams, although he wrote science-fiction comedy. I always find it sad how few books we got from Adams, and I take solace in the huge number that Pratchett was able to write before his death (which still felt too soon).

Reading a new Pratchett book is comfort food. The only sad part is that someday I will have read them all, and I won’t get to have that experience again.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Weeks ago, while cruising around writing Twitter I saw some recommendations for wuxia-inspired novellas. I bought the e-books on a whim, and now I’m working through them.

The first one I finished was The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. Although it’s a book that includes several fights and a little bit of magic, it is mostly a story that focuses on the tribulations and relationships among the members of a group of outcasts in the Tang Dynasty. It’s lighthearted and even funny in places without being straight comedy. It’s a fun read.

The author, Zen Cho, uses a fantastic trick that I plan to steal. Whenever the tension rises to a peak—an illegal sale goes awry or the group gets attacked by bandits, for example—Cho reveals one of the characters’ closely guarded secrets or a bit of their back-story, to the reader and to the characters. Not only are the characters in trouble, but their relationship is thrown into flux by this sudden addition of new information.

I think this is tricky to do in an organic way, but when it’s done well (like it is here) it takes an exciting scene and kicks it into an even higher gear. It also ensures that the characters have some new problems to work out as soon as they manage to resolve the mess they’re currently in.

I was a little disappointed by the end of the book; not because it was bad, but because it was short and it felt like it was only just getting going. The stakes never felt very high for the characters, and they never seemed to be in very much danger for very long. I was left wanting more of these characters and this setting, driven by a bit more danger and excitement.

What I’ve Been Writing

Not that much, if I’m being honest. I took a mini-writing-break, both from the blog and from my fiction.

I’ve got two short stories percolating in my head: one about using time travel for performance art, and one about the annoyances of reincarnation. I’m planning to work on at least one of those by the end of this week.

Of course, I also need to keep working on Razor Mountain, which remains my highest writing priority. Maybe I’ll try switching back and forth to stay fresh and motivated.

The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe

I wrote about The Stanley Parable a while back, as an exploration of the strange, non-linear storytelling that can be done in games, and how experience and participation can affect the player’s perception of a story.

I’m bringing it up again, because The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe has just released on PC and consoles, and I’ve had a chance to play a bit of it. Now I just have to figure out how to describe it in a way that doesn’t ruin all the fun.

What Is It?

First, let’s talk about the name—Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe (which I can only assume was purposely crafted for the abbreviation, SPUD). In a landscape plagued by remakes, remasters and sequels, SPUD has been cagey about exactly what it is. Something wildly new? Or a bare-minimum cash grab and excuse to release an old game on new platforms?

I fired up the game and discovered that it starts out exactly the same: the original experience with updated graphics. It gave me time to acclimate before I found anything new (or conversely, to wonder if the new content was really so paltry). I found myself squinting, asking myself, “Was that like that before?”

When I found the new content, there was no question about what it was. The game hit me over the head with it. “Look at this new content!” it said. “Isn’t it amazing?” It helpfully labeled doors “NEW CONTENT.” But was the new stuff very good? No, not really. Even the narrator was pretty let down. And then the game started over, because Stanley Parable is a game about

Rabbit Holes

What starts off as a little joke just keeps expanding. The game turns gags into running jokes into elaborate set-pieces, leaving you wondering whether you’ve seen the end of that particular through-line, or if you might turn another corner and pick up the trail again. It rides the line between absurdism and seriousness.

The silly bit about carrying around a bucket for comfort opens up storylines about addiction, murder, betrayal, and demonic possession. A standard video game scavenger hunt for pointless collectibles first gets a thorough mocking, then becomes an actual feature, then goes a little bit out of control.

SPUD is more of what was good in SP. As far as I’ve played, it doesn’t introduce anything radically new, but everything new fits right in. It’s happy to make fun of itself for being an expansion to a decade-old game. It realizes that its history comes with baggage, from awards and accolades to literal shipping containers full of negative Steam reviews. Eventually it shrugs it all off with a nihilistic sequence that seems to say “given enough time, the world will be ground down to dust, so maybe none of this matters that much.”

SPUD also brings some of the generic game sequel features like new achievements, while simultaneously making fun of those things. (The old game gave an achievement if you didn’t play it for five years. This one ups it to ten.)

Is It Worth Getting?

If you’ve never played The Stanley Parable, Ultra Deluxe is the perfect opportunity to play it. If you played the original and enjoyed it, you’ll likely enjoy this new iteration. And if you hate the game…well, now there’s even more to hate?

Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is available for pretty much every major game-playing device. (To be specific, that’s PC, Mac and Linux, Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S)

What I Learned From Scott Pilgrim

I recently re-read Scott Pilgrim, a six-part comic series by Canadian author Bryan Lee O’Malley. It’s a silly slice-of-life about video games and indie music and trying to figure out how to be an adult. I’m pretty squarely in the target market for this nerd-comedy masterpiece.

As usual, rather than do a traditional review, I’m going to look at what we can learn from the series to use in our own writing.

Tell Your Audience What They’re Getting Into Right Away

You can’t please everybody. If you’re writing something that hits home for you, chances are it will work for somebody else, but there will also be readers who just aren’t interested in what you’re putting on the page. The clearer you are up front about what the thing is going to be, the sooner your reader will know if it’s for them or not.

The first few quick scenes of Scott Pilgrim introduce nearly the entire (sizable) cast of the first book. The very first words encapsulate the inciting incident. It starts with dialogue that is pretty representative of the banter throughout the rest of the series.

Pretty soon, we get into running jokes, like labels when introducing people (“Scott Pilgrim, 23 Years Old, Rating: Awesome), labels introducing scene changes (“The Next Day or Something”). The band starts to play, and along with panels showing close-ups of instruments, there are tiny lyrics printed in the gutters and chords in case you want to play along.

It’s clear this is going to be a goofy story that isn’t afraid to be a little weird, about a bunch of young adults whose idea of a good time is hanging out and making fun of each other.

You Make the Rules

Scott and his friends live in Toronto. Nothing special. Except in school you learn weapon proficiencies. And snacks and soda don’t have nutrition facts, they have stat boosts. Of course, America is a little different too—Scott’s girlfriend has to explain to him the standard American practice of traveling via subspace bypass (conveniently marked by doors around town with little stars on them).

Why not have a story populated by poor, mid-twenties indie rockers where someone occasionally punches a hole in the moon, or gets into an impromptu anime battle where the loser explodes into fifteen dollars (Canadian) in coins, and if you’re lucky you’ll get an extra life or power-up.

A lot of ink is spilled to talk about careful, consistent world-building in fiction. The truth is that sometimes you might just want to write something crazy, and that’s okay. Maybe it’s not entirely internally consistent. Maybe it doesn’t make a ton of sense. If it’s fun and entertaining enough, people will love it anyway.

Write What You Know

These words get thrown around a lot, but I think Scott Pilgrim is a great example of how to do it right. It’s an absurd, unrealistic comedy that borrows liberally from video games and anime. It’s also set (mostly) in very real places near where the author grew up. In fact, the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie went out and filmed at a lot of the exact places shown in the comic.

Bryan Lee O’Malley pulled from those real settings, used real friends and acquaintances as templates for characters, and then threw in a heaping helping of his indie rock, anime, and video game influences.

It feels like a crazy, unique mish-mash, despite pretty much all the individual pieces being heavily inspired by other things. It works because it’s the crazy, unique mish-mash of things the author loved, and we all have our own unique collection of influences that we can impart into our own works.

How to Get It

Scott Pilgrim was originally a 6-part black-and-white series (with a tiny bonus episode for free comic book day). It has since been collected into multiple box sets, most of them now the colorized version, which I would recommend. They are not that easy to find these days, and a bit expensive if you’re not used to the prices for manga-style comics. They are also available in a pretty excellent e-book format for Kindle/Comixology, including a lot of bonus material that is apparently not even available in some of the newer box sets.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 10

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Emotional Arc

This is the first time God-Speaker really feels like a leader. He doesn’t jump into it, he just steps up when nobody else wants to. (As an introvert, this is usually how I find myself in leadership positions as well. It just takes a small step forward when nobody else is willing.)

This entire chapter is a situation going from bad to worse. The rock slide starts it off with a bang, and then the entire landscape is set up to get in the tribe’s way. While things are looking up at the end of the chapter, the entire tribe is worn down. And even if everyone else is feeling better, God-Speaker still intuits that their troubles aren’t really over.

Making a Poultice

This felt like one of those writer rabbit holes that non-writers wouldn’t even think about. I was certainly aware of the idea of a poultice (medicinal herbs and sometimes other stuff pressed into a wound to help it heal). It’s a very old form of medicine. However, I didn’t know whether this was technology that ice-age Beringian people would be likely to have. I also didn’t know what particular plants would be available and useful.

Most of the information I found on poultices and their ingredients were Euro-centric (or at least included originally-European ingredients that were brought to North America much later. I settled on willow bark, which is fairly well-known for containing pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory chemicals similar to aspirin. Having never consumed it, I was surprised to learn that it can have a mildly minty smell. Along with that, I added Devil’s Club, a plant that apparently grows like a weed in parts of Alaska and has long been used in native medicine.

Officially a Novel?

This chapter finishes just shy of the 40,000 word mark, so while we still have a long way to go, it’s at least up to NaNoWriMo length. It also tells me I’m writing at about 1/5 of NaNoWriMo speed.

After some adjustments I made to the outline, the next God-Speaker chapter will be the last one in the first act. Everything is about to get turned upside-down for God-Speaker.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 10.3

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

When everyone was done eating and resting, and nobody had any arguments left, it fell to God-Speaker to step first into the cave. Nobody said it, but he sensed that they were waiting for him. God-Speaker wondered if this was what it felt like to be Braves-the-Storm, or Makes-Medicine. It sat like a rock in his stomach. The feeling that others might speak, might argue or offer advice, but he had to take the first step. He had to start walking and hope or trust that the others would follow.

When he did take his first step into the dark throat of the ice, Finds-the-Trail and Braves-the-Storm came a few paces behind him. The rest gathered behind them. As God-Speaker looked back, Finds-the-Trail’s face was grim. He looked as nervous as God-Speaker felt. Braves-the-Storm looked more bent, older than God-Speaker had ever seen him. Far-Seeing was near the back of the group, his face hard to read.

The sounds of the world had been muffled in the ice cracks, but it was even worse in the cave. The soft shuffling of their feet echoed down the tunnel and came back to them. Every time the tunnel turned, God-Speaker expected to see other people, owners of these other footsteps. The ice itself was not completely silent either. It creaked and groaned. It even cracked once, a deep boom directly over their heads that made everyone jump.

Time was lost to them under the ice. It was lighter or darker only because of the thickness of the ice above. They could not guess the direction of the sun or how much of the day had passed. Cracks and tunnels intersected with their cave, but it continued in roughly the same direction, and God-Speaker saw no reason to change their course.

The people kept hiking without pause or complaint, longer than they would have if they were under the open sky. Each twist or turn of the cavern, God-Speaker hoped to see an exit, but the tunnel kept going.

Eventually, there was a change in the echo of footsteps. God-Speaker shuffled his own feet and felt gravel beneath them. He squatted and reached down, as did Finds-the-Trail beside him. It was dirt. Ahead, the tunnel turned again.

They both stood and moved toward the bend. The tunnel widened.

Around the corner, God-Speaker halted, shocked to see a hunched shadow rise up in front of him. There was a flash of movement to his left, and he realized that Finds-the-Trail had thrown his spear. It hit the shadow with a thud, and the shadow roared. More spears flew from either side of them as the others rushed toward the noise and movement.

Finds-the-Trail motioned for God-Speaker to wait. They all stood, watching for any sign of movement. When he was satisfied, Finds-the-Trail rose from a half-crouch and approached the shapes. The other hunters followed. God-Speaker came behind.

Finds-the-Trail retrieved his spear. “A bear mother,” he said. He motioned to a smaller shape pressed beside her. It had also been struck with a hunters’ spear.

Far-Seeing retrieved his own spear and ran a hand over the flank of the beast. “They’re lean,” he said, “she’s been struggling to find enough food. Usually there are two cubs, maybe one was gone already.”

Finds-the-Trail nodded. God-Speaker stood, distracted from their conversation by the feel of cool air on his cheek. There was another bend at the far end of the bear den. The floor here was all dirt, and the shape of the walls was different, rising to a triangular point instead of a rounded tunnel.

Around the corner, God-Speaker felt the wind blow. The tunnel opened out onto trees. It was night outside, and the air was thick with snow. Here, the harsh, echoing quiet of the tunnel faded into the soft quiet of falling snow. To God-Speaker, it was like the first breath in hours.

Braves-the-Storm came up beside him. “A good sign.”

“Makes-Medicine once told me that the spirits sometimes speak through the world around us,” God-Speaker said. “They may be guiding us still.”

The mood of the people changed in moments. They all gave thanks to the spirits of the bears, and set to work butchering them. With new energy, several of the hunters ran out into the snow and chopped branches from the nearest trees to start a fire. Everyone ate bear meat and enjoyed the light and warmth of the fire, and the feeling of breathing fresh air again.

God-Speaker saw smiles around the fire, but this was not the festive feeling they had shared after catching beavers and fish by the lake. This was relief more than joy. There were no stories late into the night. They talked, but they talked quietly still. Soon, they let the fires settle low, and they slept.

God-Speaker and two of the hunters remained awake. He sat with the stone god at the opposite end of the cave opening. The hunters kept watch for predators, though they were unlikely to be prowling in the blizzard, or near a cave that smelled like bears. God-Speaker worried about other, less obvious dangers.

He thought about the words he had said to Braves-the-Storm. They sounded wise, but he could not believe them. The people had made it through the dark cave. They had found meat in an unlikely place. Still, the stone god was silent, and the buzzing from the mountain was only getting louder.

God-Speaker hunched over, exhausted. He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to the head of the stone god, straining to hear its voice. His chest and arms were chilled by the outside air. His back was warmed by the fire. He breathed in the smells of the cave, animal smells and roasted meat, the musty smoke of smoldering green wood, and the cold clean snow.

He was surrounded by softness. The world faded. The snow left everything silent and white.

He stood alone. The trees, the cave, the people, the stone god were gone. Everything was gone except for the flat white, empty world, and the looming black shape ahead.

The mountain leaned over him and buzzed. God-Speaker could hear it now. Not the buzz of insects. The buzz of voices, so many voices. More voices than he could imagine, far more than he had ever known. They spoke together, but they spoke in different pitches, different tones, some fast, some slow. They spoke in words he had never heard, but he felt their meaning.

They told him that he would come to the mountain, and they told him that his people would be destroyed.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 10.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

When morning came, the people ate cold smoked fish and packed their things in silence. They walked, one by one, along the ledge and through the gap, and they all dropped down into the snow.

There were no boulders or rock piles now, no going back to find another path, but the hike was no less miserable. The snow came up to their knees, and trudging through it was cold and exhausting, even wrapped in their warmest skins. The children who were too small had to be carried, and were passed from one tired person to another.

When they came to the blue ice, the snow had blown and piled up in drifts, so there were paths between where it was thinner on the ground and walking became easier. A biting wind began to blow into their faces. God-Speaker looked back. The gap they had come from looked far away and surprisingly high up. They were descending.

The smoking mountain slowly grew, filling their view. Its peak was sharp and split. The change in wind blew the black smoke over them, far above. The mountain reached out to cover them.

When they stopped to eat and rest, the people were mostly quiet: a few hushed conversations here and there; a crying child. God-Speaker heard a familiar tone and turned to see Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail sitting together. It was Far-Seeing he had heard. God-Speaker couldn’t hear the words, but Far-Seeing was grumbling, by the tone and the expression on his face.

If Finds-the-Trail heard the other hunter, he didn’t reply. He looked up at the sky, then at the mountain. Far-Seeing spoke again. Again, Finds-the-Trail was silent, his face blank. Eventually, he stood and walked away, leaving Finds-the-Trail sitting by himself, staring out at the horizon.

Whenever they rested, God-Speaker sat at the edge of the group with the stone god. It did not speak to him. God-Speaker wondered if he would even be able to hear it over the buzzing that he was now sure was coming from the mountain.

It took the rest of the day to reach the place God-Speaker had seen from above, where the smooth ice cracked and split. At first, they were able to walk across the small gaps, but the ice soon turned into a forest of jagged blue spikes with deep, wide chasms between. As night approached, they climbed down into one of these large cracks to take shelter from the wind.

It was warmer in the crack, but also dark and eerie, with only faint blue light coming through the ice and a narrow stripe of stars above, half-hidden by the smoke. Being without fire for so long did not help the people’s mood. The light was as important as the warmth.

They had come away from the lake with a bounty of fish and beaver meat, but that seemed like a long time ago in this desolate place. God-Speaker had noticed everyone instinctively eating less, already worrying how much longer the food would have to last. No trees or plants grew on the ice. No animals would live where there were no plants to eat. It seemed doubtful they would find more food any time soon.

* * *

Walking in the forest of ice kept the people out of the cold wind. It was blowing harder now, by the howling it made above them. It was still a dismal place. The light was dim and too blue, a blue that lingered even when they closed their eyes. They saw themselves, bent and twisted, looking back out of water-smooth blue curves; or a single feature, an eye or a mouth, repeated across cracked and broken ice.

The cracks deepened, and the sky seemed higher and higher above them. It seemed that they were going in the right direction still, but it was hard to tell without the horizon to guide them.

Then they came to the place where the ice pillars came together to form a roof high above them. There was a tunnel, smooth like a toothless mouth, black except for lines of deep blue where the curve of the ice gathered the light. To God-Speaker, this felt like the same darkness as the mountain. It was like the mouth of the mountain, hanging open, waiting patiently to devour them. It also went straight, as far as he could see, in the direction they wanted to go.

The people stopped there, to rest and eat. They faced the maw and the question was there among them, though no one asked it aloud. One by one, they finished eating and readied themselves. God-Speaker saw glances here and there, but when eyes met, each person turned away.

Far-Seeing stood and looked around at the group. He pointed into the ice cave.

“Are we really going into there?”

Braves-the-Storm, to God-Speaker’s left, sighed, but said nothing.

God-Speaker took a deep breath and forced himself to stand. Eyes turned to him.

“I have asked the spirits to guide us, but they do not speak. We all saw the snowless lands. Is there another way that we can take?”

Far-Seeing clenched his jaw and shook his head. “We all saw the mountain too. That is a place of evil spirits.”

“Yes,” God-Speaker said.

Far-Seeing opened his mouth and paused. He looked at the bag next to God-Speaker, the bag that held the silent stone god. God-Speaker felt his chest tighten. Would Far-Seeing dare to speak to the god? To offend the god in a place like this would be terrible. They needed its protection now. Far-seeing closed his mouth, and God-Speaker let out his breath.

Far-Seeing turned to Finds-the-Trail. “What about you? You’re happy to let others lead now? To follow and be silent?”

Finds-the-Trail shrugged, eyes fixed on the ground. “I am not happy, but what other path would you have us walk?”

“Back the way we came! Let us try to find another path through the ice, or even back to the snow. There may be a place we can walk over the ice all the way across.”

“I saw no paths like that from above,” God-Speaker said quietly. Everyone had seen what he had seen, even Far-Seeing. There was no easy way across the broken ice. God-Speaker wondered why he had to be the one to say it.

“Who are you to say?” Far-Seeing asked, his voice echoing in the ice. “What names do you have for making ways and finding paths?”

“None,” God-Speaker said.

Far-Seeing looked around at the rest of the people. Nobody else spoke. He had hoped others would agree with him, or at least say something. They looked fearfully at the cave, but nobody else said they wanted to go back. What was back there for them? The same empty land they had just come through, hiking uphill instead of down?

Far-Seeing turned to Braves-the-Storm. “Tell me that we should go this way. If you say it, I will be silent.”

Braves-the-Storm shook his head. “I will not say it. If you need someone to tell you what you’ve seen, it will not be me.”

“Then you will all follow God-Speaker? What good is it to speak to the god, if you hear nothing back?”

“I have never told you which way to go,” God-Speaker said. “I have only told you what I think, and what I have heard from the spirits. Do what you want to do.”

Far-Seeing stared at him, then turned to look into the cave. “You’re going?”

“I don’t see any other way.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 10.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

The people left the basin and went down into the long and narrowing valley between two mountains. The path was easy where it came out of the basin, but as they went deeper, they were hemmed in by brittle and broken rock faces. There were shattered boulders everywhere, and the ground was covered in gravel and sand. It crunched and shifted under their feet as they walked. They often found the way blocked or difficult, and these sharp shards of rock could cut a misplaced hand, or even the hardened hide of a foot covering.

The little waters that trickled down from either side came together to form a stream that soon became a river. It was colder here than in the lake basin, and while the river ran clear of ice, there was snow nestled in crevices and beneath overhangs.

The people had all seen what God-Speaker had seen from the top of the hill. The sun-touched, snowless lands far in the distance. The shadowed, smoking mountain that stood guard off to the right, daring them to pass. There was no questioning the way now. They all felt the pull of that warm place, an idea that had almost become a myth, now brought to life in front of them. Their worries now came from the smoking mountain. They did not need to hear the spirits like God-Speaker to know that place was cursed. They now saw what God-Speaker had known already, what Makes-Medicine and the stone god had made plain to him: there would be danger and darkness they would have to pass through before they arrived at their destination.

Soon, the valley became enough trouble to busy their minds. It was slow getting the entire group across such rough terrain, and even slower when they found the way blocked and had to back-track. Strikes-Flint slipped and slid down a gravel slope, leaving a rash of red down her left leg. Then Black-Eyes-Staring slipped on a wet rock crossing the river, landing on his arm and leaving him wet and shaking even after he was wrapped in thick furs.

They came to a place where many boulders had fallen, leaving only narrow gaps for the river to flow through. It had backed up and spread to form a shallow pool that blocked the entire valley. The people sat and rested at the edge of the waters and ate. The hunters, once they had eaten, spread out and searched the huge rock piles for hidden ways. When the people were ready to travel again, they took a path found by Far-Seeing, around the edge of the water and over several long, flat slabs of rock. They had to help the young children and elders, but everyone eventually made it across.

Far-Seeing was the last one to come down, but as he did, he stepped on a head-sized rock in the pile, and it rolled out from under him. He fell back against one of the huge slabs. The others watched, not daring to breathe. It already felt as though this valley was cursed. Far-Seeing had landed flat on his back, but he moved himself into a sitting position. His face showed surprise, but no pain. After a moment he smiled in relief.

As he stood, the entire pile shifted beneath him again, more large rocks tumbling and sliding toward the gathered group. They all scrambled back. The rock-slide cascaded further and further up the slope to their right. Far-Seeing was once again on his back, riding the slab as it slid down smaller boulders. Fist- and head-sized rocks fell around them, shattering on impact. God-Speaker saw one hit the slab and shatter just above Far-Seeing’s shoulder. A line of red ran down his arm.

The slab slid to a stop among the rocks as the slide began to settle. God-Speaker moved forward, reaching out to help Far-Seeing stand, watching the rocks for any signs of movement. Suddenly, he stopped. His body froze, beyond his control. Sound was muffled. His eyes wandered, and the world became fuzzy and unfocused. Slowly, pain blossomed on the right side of his head. His own hand, no longer under his control, reached up to the place where the pain was, felt something wet.

God-Speaker felt he was floating in water. Then he was floating in the wind, somehow so light that he could soar like a bird. Then he felt sharp little rocks pressed against his back, and the pain in his head became sharp and throbbing. He found himself laying in the gravel. He realized his eyes were closed, and he opened them. The light was too bright.

He sat up, holding the right side of his head. Where the pain was, his hair was crusted. He looked at his hand. There was a smear of blood there, but it was dry.

The people were all sitting nearby, and God-Speaker realized that many of them were staring at him.

“We were worried,” Braves-the-Storm murmured. God-Speaker realized the old man was sitting close beside him. He could see that it was true. Worry and some relief were on the faces of the people around him. The sky was purple, fading into black.

“What happened?” God-Speaker asked.

“There was a rock-fall,” Braves-the-Storm said. He pointed to the place on God-Speaker’s head. “A rock hit you. Others were hurt too, but not so badly.”

God-Speaker looked at the people again. Many of them had scrapes and cuts on their arms or legs. They looked tired. He turned and found his pack and the stone god placed next to him. He began to take out the plants he would need to make medicine.

“Is there fire?” he asked Braves-the-Storm.

“There is no wood here,” he said. “We have only the little we brought with us.”

“I will need to heat a little water to make the medicine,” God-Speaker said. “A small fire should be enough.”

Braves-the-Storm spoke to others. His words faded against the buzzing in God-Speaker’s head.

God-Speaker found a bundle of dry leaves in his bag. He untied them and placed most of them in his lap, then retied a few to keep in reserve. Makes-Medicine had shown him the plant they were from, a tall shrub that grew in forests, its stems covered in tiny bristles, but they had not come across any so far this spring. He ground the leaves into a green-black powder. He set that aside and took out some thin strips of willow bark. He still had a good supply of that, at least.

After a time, someone brought God-Speaker a rough wooden bowl of water, hot rocks from the fire still in it. He placed the bark in the water to soak, and waited until the rocks  were cool enough to fish out without burning himself. Then he mixed in the ground leaves and stirred them with the bark until they became a thick paste. He added a small amount of animal fat to help it stick together. It smelled sweet and woody, with a hint of bright mint.

The injured came to him one by one, and he gently rubbed a thin layer of medicine on their cuts and scrapes, spreading it on with the softened willow bark as Makes-Medicine had shown him. Far-Seeing came last, with a long cut on his arm just below the shoulder. God-Speaker rubbed a thin line of the paste along the cut. Far-Seeing didn’t look at him, just nodded and walked away.

When he had finished tending to everyone, God-Speaker looked down at the sludge left in the bottom of the bowl. His head was still buzzing. Without a task, his head felt empty of thought.

“You should use it on yourself,” Braves-the-Storm said.

God-Speaker nodded and reached up to feel the swelling on the right side of his head. It was a big lump, but he ran his fingers slowly through the blood-crusted hair and found only a small cut. He scooped the last of the green paste out of the bowl and smeared it over the wound as best he could. It would help the swelling around the cut as well as the pain.

He sat, dazed, watching the light fade. Someone brought him smoked fish to eat. He drank cold water from the stream and chewed an unused piece of the willow bark. It had been a hard day, and many of the people were already asleep.

He stood, slowly and unsteadily, and made his way through the group. He hadn’t taken a good look at the land on this side of the rockslide. They were nestled in a narrow place between two high walls of rock, and it tightened even more ahead. Where the stream passed through, it cut to one side of the opening. The flat ledge along the other side was wide enough and flat enough to make a path.

God-Speaker approached and saw a spray of water. It looked like they had come to a cliff. When he peered over, he saw that the water fell only a short way, barely God-Speaker’s own height. The ground beyond widened and sloped down. They had reached the tightest point of the valley. Outside the shelter of the narrow pass, there was deep snow. Beyond, glowing in the last light, was the blue ice, a thick sheet that was smooth at first, then broke into a field of icy spines further out.

Once again, the shadow of the mountain loomed on the right, its black smoke melting into the darkening sky. The snowless lands were somewhere beyond that, lost in the smear of darkness just below the horizon. It all still seemed far away.

God-Speaker returned to his people and wrapped himself in fur against the cold. He sat with his back to the canyon wall and faced the stone god. There was only one path ahead of them, but now more than ever, God-Speaker wanted the god to speak to him, to tell him that they were on the right path.

The god remained silent, but as God-Speaker drifted into sleep he thought that the buzzing wasn’t in his head. It was coming from within that smoking black mountain.