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Steel Crow Saga is brilliant, y’all. I had the phenomenal happenstance of meeting Paul Krueger in person back at Denver Pop Culture Con, and knew almost instantly that I was going to love his newest book. I thought that Seven Blades in Black was going to be the most anime-esque fantasy novel that I read in 2019, and I was happily wrong. Steel Crow Saga hits on a lot of classic anime tropes while still managing to be wholly original.

Jimuro is the Iron Prince, heir to the throne of Tomoda. He’s a steelpacter, like many of his fellow Tomodanese. By bonding his soul with metal, he can sharpen/harden/heat the blade of a sword he wields, and fire bullets with unerring accuracy. He is, however, a peaceful man at heart, and longs to return from his exile in Sanbuna, even if it means serving as a puppet king in his late father’s place.

Tala is a Sanbuna soldier, a sergeant assigned to ensure Jimuro’s safe return to the capital of Tomoda. Through the Sanbuna tradition of shadepacting, she has an animal soul bonded to her own. Her companion, Beaky, can be summoned to fight alongside her, or to provide aerial reconnaissance. Tala harbors a deep grudge against Tomoda for the deaths of her parents and her brother, Dimangan.

Xiulan, like Jimuro, is royalty. As the 28th princess of Shang, however, she is nowhere near the top of the line of succession. With her own shade, a white rat named Kou, she operates as a detective of the Li-Quan. She hopes to find Iron Prince Jimuro and deliver him to her father, the Emperor of Shang, in order to raise her own standing.

Lee Yeon-Ji is a thief from the streets of Jeongson. Her chief rule of looking out for herself has gotten her through until now, but she’s on the verge of being executed before Xiulan arrives. The princess needs her help to track Jimuro. At the promise of a shade of her own, something no other Jeongsonese has ever had, she leaps to the detective’s aid.

En route to Tomoda, Sergeant Tala is forced to take drastic action to ensure Jimuro’s survival when a splintersoul attacks her. This man has done what was believed to be impossible, and bonded to more than one shade. Now a walking army unto himself, he seems set upon destroying Jimuro’s guard, and Tala and her team are quickly overwhelmed. Soon, she and Jimuro are left to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, Xiulan and Lee are attempting to intercept Jimuro so that they can turn him over to Shang.

This book was an utter joy to read. Brilliant action sequences, a Pokémon-esque summoning system, and heartbreakingly beautiful characters make Steel Crow Saga an absolute treasure. I can’t wait to see what Paul writes next, even if he never returns to the blend of Asian cultures that is this world. Check it out.

2010 was a terrifying year.

I was loving my life, the end of my senior year of college rushing at me. I had no idea where I was going to go. I had summer employment and housing lined up through my university, and I was throwing job applications at anything and everything I was remotely qualified for, but the dread of having to move back to my home town, even temporarily, was looming.

It’s been nearly 10 years since I finished my undergraduate career. I got through 7 years of underemployment, balancing part-time jobs and substitute shifts. I’ve had roommates come and go. I’ve struggled to make rent (and struggled to ask for help with rent). I’ve seen an employer file for bankruptcy. I’ve been in a car accident. I’ve attended the funerals of my father’s parents, and those of too many friends.

But there has been joy. I’ve reconnected with old friends, and made new ones. I’ve fallen in love. I’ve gotten married, had children, bought a house. I’ve found a career that is fulfilling. I’ve traveled around the world (Korea, Hawaii). I found a pirate crew. I’ve won trivia competitions. I’ve expanded my horizons beyond what 2010 me ever would’ve believed possible.

And now, in 2020, I’m going back to school. I’m a full-time library specialist, full-time dad, and full-time student. I’m reading, writing on the side (as, well, always), and running pretty much exclusively on caffeine. So really, not all that much has changed. But I have. I’m a better person than I was ten years ago, and I can only strive to continue the trend in the next ten years.

2020 is a terrifying year. But I’ll get through it, and so will you.

Look, it’s late, and I know

That you still have big plans

About everything you’re going

To accomplish tomorrow.

I want you to remember that

I believe in you, and your

Ability to take on life one new

Year and one new day at a

Time. I wish you health and

Happiness, and I wish you

Knowledge and acceptance.

I wish that you might find it

In your heart to see me again

On this night, when we welcome

The spirit of progress.

And then, as always, I’ll wish

You a Happy New Year.

You

are allowed

to write things

that are not

Profound

Today, I’m sitting in my recliner with my toddler, listening to his nonstop chatter about the Duplo car in his hands.

Tomorrow, I am hoping that the weather will cooperate enough for me to make a painfully short trip back to my home town.

Wednesday, they will bury my grandmother, my Oma, my father’s mother. Both of his parents are gone now, reunited in the afterlife they believed in. I do not want to miss her funeral. I was a pallbearer when my Opa died, and I will be honored to do the same for his wife.

Thursday, my wife and her parents will celebrate Thanksgiving, a rare occurrence that they get to spend that particular holiday together, though hopefully more frequent in the years to come. I hope to be there, again, if the weather cooperates, and my travel from home is not impeded.

On Friday, I will go back to work, putting in as many hours as I can to prepare things for the inevitable arrival of our second child together. I am hoping that he doesn’t attempt to make an appearance too early. Because right now, that’s my big fear. Not the impending blizzard, not being able to get to my parents’ house in between waves of storms. I’m afraid that if I go, I’ll get stuck, and new baby will decide that’s the time to show up.

So, yeah. I’m going to make the most out of today, because there’s a lot of joy and sorrow to be found in the days ahead.

“Hallowe’en”

 

In distant times, it is said,
People would gather to
Be near to one another on
A cold night, and reflect
On the warmth of those
They had said their final
Farewells to many years
Before.

And on that cold night,
Halfway through the fall,
We remember those no
Longer with us, and we
Bid them to come near,
That we might learn
From them even in
Absentia.

While I’m not sure if it will disprove foolishness, I am, in fact, headed back to school for the first time since 2010. I recently applied to and was accepted at Clarion University for their online Masters of Library Science program.

Registration for classes for the Spring 2020 semester starts on Hallowe’en, so I’m currently in the process of creating my “road map” to my degree. Clarion’s program requires 36 credit hours for graduation, and 9 hours per semester for full-time student status (in the grad school tracks).

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about tackling grad school, especially since V and I are expecting another baby in December. However, this is the best time for me to push a little harder for a better position with my library, and the MLS degree is really the only practical way to do that. Thankfully, Clarion allows me to pursue the degree from the comfort of home, without requiring travel (since the University of Denver is the only in-state option for the program).

I chose the path toward librarianship with my first work study job at UCCS when I was a freshman, and I continue walking it today. Thanks to everyone who has supported my work along the way.

So, over the last few months, I’ve been playing D&D again, and it’s been the best thing. Since 5th edition first released, I’ve only dabbled in it, occasionally running games for some of the local teens (though usually only a couple of days out of the year). I’d only gotten to play in a couple of one-off sessions, never really going beyond the basics.

Then my in-laws mentioned the possibility of a game. Between D&D Beyond and Skype, it’s workable for us to play together, despite being scattered around the world (though timing is a trick).

Now I’m playing a bard for the first time ever (I’ve been playing 3.5/Pathfinder since 2006, but never had the chance to play one), and I’m having an absolute blast. V and I are playing gnome twins, a bard and a warlock. It’s been a great way to connect with my brothers- & sisters-in-law, and get to share our mutual love of D&D.

I don’t usually play spellcasters or support characters unless I’m running the cleric, and that makes Valcryn a pretty new role. It’s fun learning how to best utilize his blend of inspiration and other buffs/debuffs. It has ended up especially hilarious since he’s not the face of the party, with that role somehow falling to my brother-in-law’s human fighter, who has both lower charisma and strength than the gnome bard.

It feels so good to be rolling dice as a player again, y’all. But of course, I’ll be getting back into being a Dungeon Master soon too. We’re going to be working on teaching the children to play 3.5, so that they can appreciate where we came from, and how we got to here.

“Grab your lucky d20, folks, because things are about to get dicey.”

When I was 11, I met Brian Jacques. I had been a fan of the Redwall books for a couple of years at that point, and a friend invited me to go to the Tattered Cover in Denver for a signing. It was February 21st, 1999, and a three hour car ride with my friend and his grandparents each way seemed like nothing.

The signing was in celebration of the release of Marlfox, the 11th book in the series. While I couldn’t afford to buy a copy of the brand new hardcover release, I took a copy of my favorite book in the series, Salamandastron, to have him sign.

I was ecstatic. I had borrowed my parents’ camera, and sat a couple of rows back taking occasional photos as Mr. Jacques talked about his life and the book series I’d devoured over the previous two years. He quoted the entire second chapter of Redwall from memory, with a young man in the front row reading along at his behest to ensure that he didn’t miss a word (he didn’t).

After listening to him talk for another half hour or so, it was time for the signing. I took my battered paperback to the table, spoke a few words that have long since faded from my memory, and posed for a quick picture.

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Brian Jacques and me, 2/21/1999.

Ah, the days before digital photography when you couldn’t be sure that the author you’d traveled three hours to meet would actually be looking at the camera when the photo was taken. I digress.

So, today, a little over 20 years later, V and I were walking around downtown and stopped in at Poor Richard’s. We got back into the sci-fi/fantasy section, and you know what I saw? A hardcover copy of Marlfox sitting right in my line of sight, faced out and everything. V, herself a die-hard fan of the series, immediately recognized it as one that we didn’t own a hardcover copy of, and was just as excited as I was. Then I picked it up and flipped it over to check the price.

20190914_223212

I legitimately started to cry.

I found one. A signed, hardcover, first edition copy of Marlfox, just like I couldn’t afford to buy as an eleven-year-old. Given that it was still in Colorado, it may very well have been initially sold at the Tattered Cover that day in 1999. I’ll never know. But to whomever sold this book to Poor Richard’s, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. A long-missing part of my journey as a reader is now complete.

20190914_220324

Then.

20190914_223226

And now.

 

Sal the Cacophony has a list of seven names, and a very large gun.

The self-professed “manhunter” (because it sounds more dramatic than “bounty hunter”) brings ruin wherever she goes, and she is hellbent on her revenge.

See, for generations, the Imperium sought to rule the world through magic, and for the most part, they succeeded. The nuls, who lack the Lady Merchant’s gift of magic, began the Revolution, uncovering and crafting mighty weapons to secure their freedom from Imperial forces. Residents of the Scar were frequently caught in the middle.

Then the Empress gave birth to a nul, and declared that her child would still become the next Emperor, despite objections that a mage must lead the Imperium. A conspiracy was hatched. A group of powerful mages led by Vraki the Gate launched a secret plot, hoping so install a magic-wielder to the throne instead. The members of the Crown Conspiracy, as it came to be known, failed in their initial attempt and scattered across the Scar, becoming Vagrants. Despite this setback, it was inevitable that Vraki and his followers would eventually regroup and begin their plan anew. These wandering mages soon became aware that someone, or something, was hunting them down: Sal the Cacophony.

Sal is a wreck of a human being. She bears countless scars, both physical and emotional. She drinks and swears excessively. She’s willing to sink to almost any depth in order to cross every last name off of her list. She may very well be my favorite fantasy protagonist of all time. She is the only one capable of wielding the Cacophony, the fearsome gun from which she takes her name. With the assistance of Liette (Sal’s lover, and the brilliant spellwright who crafts the enchanted shells used by the Cacophony), Congeniality (her carnivorous, Chocobo-inspired mount), and a kidnapped Revolutionary soldier named Cavric, Sal just might be able to track down the members of the Crown Conspiracy before Vraki the Gate can complete his newest plan. They may even save a few lives along the way. Or at least keep the collateral damage to a minimum.

Seven Blades in Black is an absolute blast of  a book. The creativity and care that Sam Sykes has put into his worldbuilding this time around is undeniable, not that his previous work had been lacking. This book gave me all of the best Trigun feels, y’all. It’s high-action fantasy with a gunslinger as a protagonist. Sykes combines gunfire with one of the most clever magic systems I’ve ever seen. Mages make a Barter for their powers. In a very Fullmetal-Alchemist-equivalent-exchange manner by way of The Monkey’s Paw, they must pay a cost. Maskmages, for example, gain the ability to shapeshift, but the more they do so, the more their own physical features will fade away. Skymages can control winds, soaring above a battle, but will slowly lose the power to draw breath, and eventually suffocate. The world itself is just as scarred as Sal, as it turns out that putting these spellcasters into combat situations tends to screw up, well, everything. Cities crumble, burn, or freeze at the whims of the Imperium. Then there’s the Revolution, whose massive suits of powered armor wield Gatling-style cannons that pulverize anything they aim at. They counter Vagrants and Imperium mages alike with gunpikes, tanks, and Relics, pieces of ancient technology that may or may not be alive.

Sykes skillfully blends military might and magic, thieves and merchants, cultists, and eldritch abominations ripped from their homes and deposited into Sal’s world. The journey is a long one, but well worth it, and I can’t wait for the second book in this series.

Eres va atali.” 

“I used to fly.”