Institutionalized Entertainment

Institutionalized: “to make into an institution . . . give character of an institution to . . . to incorporate a structured and often highly formalized system . . .”

Presented without comment:

The Walt Disney Company is so huge that, absent a formalized structure, it wouldn’t be able to get anything done. But Disney is just an example of how this idea institutionalizing everything, including the content, is a firmly entrenched part of nearly every form of entertainment or escapism that you partake in. This idea of gatekeepers giving a patina of quality to something that has gone through some sort of rigorous, formalized process is pervasive in nearly every facet of life, and not just entertainment.

After all, a doctor who went to Harvard for medical school is clearly superior to one who went to, say, one who went to the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, right? I mean, just on paper, it’s axiomatic, isn’t it? Who cares about the doctor’s actual history of results, you know?

And so it goes with what you watch, read, and listen to. It’s all been filtered through a big machine in order to get a big, fat, institutional stamp of approval. And everything without that stamp is clearly inferior.

It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Of course it’s not. As author Brian Niemeier is fond of pointing out, the gatekeeper-controlled model in publishing is a dying proposition:

The power of big New York publishers to hand out golden tickets capable of turning struggling authors into millionaires is an artifact of the 20th century. Now? As Moe Greene would say, they don’t even have that kind of muscle anymore.

If you were an aspiring author trying to break in prior to the 1980s, New York publishers were your best shot at the big time. Since 2006, indie has stolen tradpub’s thunder to the extent that you’re now four times more likely to make seven figures by going indie than by signing with a traditional publisher.

But old habits die hard, and industries that are still making money, without realizing that they’re surviving on legacies of past greatness, will continue to follow the old ways. Disney will keep churning out stuff with the Star Wars label slapped on it, year after year, heedless of the negative financial consequences due to viewer fatigue and failing product quality.

The music industry will keep reproducing the thing that’s selling records now ad infinitum for the next five minutes, until people get so sick of that cookie-cutter thing that they move on to the next cookie-cutter thing to fill the silence for the next five minutes.

The book industry, particularly in the science-fiction and fantasy realms, will continue pumping out massive doorstop-sized tomes of “epic” fantasy that will never be completed, as long as the stories are soaked in post-modernist thinking and contemporary political right-think.

As long as the wrong-thinkers get shut out. Because the stuff they make is bad. And it’s bad because it doesn’t have our seal of approval.

Continue reading “Institutionalized Entertainment”

Book Review: The Monster of Mordwin: A Tale of the School of Spells and War, Book 5 by Morgon Newquist

Alis and Cahan are back with another adventure through Thillon with The Monster of Mordwin, the fifth tale in Morgon Newquist’s series of short stories, The School of Spells and War. Here, the wizard Alis and the warrior Cahan are sent to Mordwin College to investigate the appearance of a strange, moaning, and rather muddy golem that’s been menacing the lands near the school.

The format of the series has settled into a pattern–the odd-numbered books are adventures, and the even-numbered books are more interstitial character studies set at the titular school (the Scholae, as the characters call it). At least, this has been the pattern so far.

And it works, since Alis and Cahan are both employed by the school as investigators who help those facing some sort of unsolvable crisis, magical or otherwise.

It’s a fun series, especially if you’re into no-frills, fast-paced fantasy with a gentle sense of humor and a dash of “will-they-or-won’t-they?” romance. Mrs. Newquist is a lean writer, and you won’t find many wasted words here. Even better, her characters are likable and heroic.

Without revealing the plot, I will say that I like how the villains in these books are rarely cartoonishly evil: They are often sympathetic and have reasons for doing what they do, though these reasons don’t excuse what they’ve done. And there is an overarching threat, first encountered in book one, that looms over the entire narrative, the strange beings of darkness called the Formless.

That said, I do wish there was a little more sword-fighting and magic-slinging. I’d love to see Cahan finally get a chance to let ‘er rip and slay some baddies. He seems kind of sidelined by the magical nature of the problems he and Alis have checked out thus far.

I also want to see more of the Formless, but this is a minor quibble. I’m sure they’ll be popping up again sooner or later.

The Monster of Mordwin is another fun entry into the School of Spells and War series. Do yourself a favor and check them out if you’re into traditional fantasy told well.

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Book Review: The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book IV) by Brian Niemeier

The Ophian Rising, Soul Cycle Book IV by Brian Niemeier

With a heavy heart, I finished reading The Ophian Rising, the fourth and final book in Brian Niemeier‘s Soul Cycle. And thus closes one of the most interesting, unique, satisfying, and fun book series I have read in a long time.

In my review of the first book, Nethereal, I described it as such:

Take the good parts of Dune and Star Wars, mix them together with a heaping dollop of Dante, a dash of high fantasy, and a whole lot of horror, and you’re beginning to almost approach Brian Niemeier‘s self-published Nethereal, book one of his three-part Soul Cycle series.

Is it sci-fi? Is it science-fantasy?

Who cares? It’s fun.

This description works across the entire series.

I refuse to get into spoiler territory here, as interested readers need to experience the Soul Cycle for themselves. What I’d like to do instead is explain why this series works so well, and encourage you to read it for yourself.

All I’ll say about The Ophian Rising is that:

  1. Brian’s writing, good to start with, gets better and better with each book.
  2. The Soul Cycle needs to be read from front-to-back in order to pick up on everything Brian has subtly wove into it. I plan on doing a re-read of the whole series soon.
  3. Brian knows how to tell a lean story that’s still satisfying (more on this later).

And here is my only complaint about The Ophian Rising: I wish that it, and the series itself, was longer. That’s right: Brian has left me wanting more. Thankfully, I know he has no plan to stop writing anything anytime soon.

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Why You Should Read The Soul Cycle

Regular readers know that I’ve written about Brian before. He edited the manuscript for my own novel, The Rust Man, and writes about many topics on his own blog that I’ve used as springboards for further discussion here.

I’m going to distill a few of Brian’s biggest points for you, and then explain why, if these sound good to you, you should read his work.

  • The era of the doorstop novel is over.
  • Readers want something they can pick up that will grip them from the start and keep them reading–the key word here is immediacy.
  • Favor clear writing over clever writing.
  • People crave heroes that are actually heroic–good and evil matter!
  • Books are competing with TV, social media, movies, video games, and streaming video.
  • Keep your politics out of your writing–shoehorning contemporary issues into your fiction is a recipe for disaster, or at least for severely limiting your audience.
  • The era of big publishing is over. Indies are where it’s at.
  • Indie does not equal low quality. Not anymore.
  • And finally: If it has nothing to do with your story, get rid of it.

I can safely say that The Soul Cycle series embodies all of these principles. Continue reading “Book Review: The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book IV) by Brian Niemeier”

Book Review: Making Peace by Adam Lane Smith

A romance writer gets embedded as a journalist with a group of peacekeepers on a brutal, technologically stunted though strategically important planet and has to deal with a war between the two most powerful ruling trade families? And there’s magic, assassin’s guilds, and lots and lots of sword fighting? Sign me up.

Making Peace is the debut novel from Adam Lane Smith, and he enters the burgeoning indie author market with a splash. Or given the nature of Making Peace, should I say explosion.

The framing device Smith uses is particularly unique: Belkan Candor is a famous romance novelist from the lush, civilized planet Garden. For some reason, a mysterious and wealthy benefactor pays a lot of money to Belkan’s publisher to send him to the city of Tiers on the planet Sivern to write about the Peacekeepers, a group of dedicated warriors tasked with investigating the crimes among, and preventing a war between, Sivern’s ruling houses.

Sivern is an interesting place, particularly for a foppish dandy like Belkan. Technology is artificially suppressed, leading to a world that’s quasi-medieval, though nano-mages are still allowed. Sivern is also the galaxy’s sole producer of the super-strong ceramic called Sivernite, as well as a decorative plant called Ripplewood. And commerce rules everything, with power held firmly in the grasp of the trade houses. The planet is so vital  and powerful, the fact that slavery exists is tolerated for the sake of commerce.

The houses are constantly jockeying for power, status, and influence, as well as the sweet profits of trade, and this competition tends to grind down the poor and powerless of Tiers between its grinding gears–and in Tiers, “poor” and “powerless” means nearly everybody else. This is where the Keepers come in.

It takes Belkan a while to warm up to his new companions, but slowly he learns about their backgrounds, how they ended up in a place like Tiers in a group like the Keepers, and grows to like and trust them. Which is good, because although he’s supposed to be a mere chronicler of events, Belkan ends up becoming an integral part of the Keepers’ investigation into a string of brutal murders in the First House.

Continue reading “Book Review: Making Peace by Adam Lane Smith”

Learn Or Die: Criticism, Setbacks, and Process

If you’re not learning, you’re dying. If you’re not willing to seek out and take criticism, you’re not learning.

And if you take criticism personally, you’ll never learn.

It’s a lesson I wish I learned fifteen years ago. Who knows where I would be? Instead I let my ego get in the way, imagining that I already knew everything, and thereby stagnating. Hey, at least I felt good about myself!

This lesson hit home when I got edits back from Brian Niemeier on one of my many works in progress, The Rust Man.

Brian, an author I greatly admire, was brutally honest, frank, and helpful. You can tell he wants to help.

Anyway, after reading his edits and his notes, I’m going back to the drawing board on the book. The funny thing is that I stared writing The Rust Man (name subject to change) before I started getting into the PulpRev and it’s ethos.

What ethos? How about clarity over cleverness and short and punchy beats “epic” and bloated. A lot of his suggestions, I’d say 85% or so, are things I was planning on doing anyway as I thought about the book in the months since I wrote it, edited it myself, and sent it to him. My goal is getting it down to 450 or so pages from its current 850.

This also ties into process, which we’ll get to later.

See, I was weaned on epic fantasy, brick-sized tomes by authors like Robert Jordan, Tad Williams (a highly underrated author) and George R. R. Martin. Sure I loved Tolkien and Lewis and even enjoyed Lloyd Alexander, but Big was where it was at. More = better.

But you know something? People generally aren’t buying doorstop-sized books, especially on Kindles and other devices, and especially not in fantasy and sci-fi. And if you want to sell books and build an audience, you do have to give them what they want. There is no shame in this. Continue reading “Learn Or Die: Criticism, Setbacks, and Process”

Book Review: The Witch’s Gift: A Tale of the School of Spells & War, Book 4 by Morgon Newquist

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Yes, I review books by other people who don’t have the last name “Newquist.” It just so happens that I’m a pretty fast reader and I like to pass along the word about good stuff I think readers of this blog might enjoy. Which brings me to the fourth book in Morgon Newquist’s The School of Spells & War series, The Witch’s Gift.

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Morgon Newquist

The Witch’s Gift is another of those interstitial character pieces like book two that seem to fall between the more weighty adventuresThe Witch’s Gift picks up after the wizard Alis and the warrior Cahan return from successfully ridding the remote village of Ashfern from the spirit of a malovelent witch. Alis is testing her new powers out on the titular school’s ground when–BOOM!–she causes a gigantic explosion.

It turns out that the witch from Ashfern imbued Alis with her power, and the results are hard to control. Not only that, they’ve caught the attention of the school’s headmaster . . . Continue reading “Book Review: The Witch’s Gift: A Tale of the School of Spells & War, Book 4 by Morgon Newquist”

Book Review: The Cinder Witch: A Tale of the School of Spells & War, Book 3 by Morgon Newquist

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A haunted town, an enchanted mirror, ghosts, hidden dimensions . . . book three of Morgon Newquist‘s episodic School of Spells & War series, The Cinder Witch, has a little bit of everything.

The adventuring duo of Alis the wizard and Cahan the warrior is tasked by their school to help the residents of the remote town of Ashfern, located in the perpetually cold and snowy Winterwood, with a little ghost problem. It seems like a spirit is haunting the mayor’s children, particularly his youngest daughter, and he’s hoping that Alis and Cahan can do something about it. While the threat of the Formless, first encountered in Down the Dragon Hole, remains a problem constantly on their minds, the duo knows that they cannot ignore their duties.

Magic is more Alis’ strongsuit, and she soon finds herself struggling with a malevolent spirit that has far more magic power than her . . . but also a past that is just as tragic.

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Morgon Newquist

And the mighty Cahan gets his butt kicked several times. Continue reading “Book Review: The Cinder Witch: A Tale of the School of Spells & War, Book 3 by Morgon Newquist”