Writers learn to write by reading the works of other writers. We learn to write well by reading good stories and analyzing what works and what doesn’t. Here are some things I learned by reading Operation Arcana, an anthology of science-fictional war stories edited by John Joseph Adams, forthcoming from Baen Books in March 2015.
In “Rules of Enchantment,” the first story in Operation Arcana, you view things through the group mind of US Marines battling Orcs and Trolls in a modern version of Tolkien’s mythological universe. The story is ingenius, but the POV takes some getting used to. You see things through multiple eyes simultaneously, and you’re not quite sure who you are at any given moment. The Marines are on the other side of the rift, in a land where magic works as well as conventional weapons, and tactical spells like Tactician’s Weave and glamours to disguise magical beings as humans are commonplace and real. Well-written and full of action, this splendid tale sets the tone for the wonderful stories that follow.
Jonathan Mayberry’s “The Damned One Hundred” is a retelling of the classic story of 300 Greeks who battled Persians at Thermopylae, except Mayberry adds witches and vampires to the mix to make the story more exciting. “Blood, Ash, Braids” is about witches, too, but modern-day (circa 1943) witches who fly planes instead of brooms. It’s also about giving one’s all for one’s country and one’s friends.
“The Guns of the Wastes” is a superbly-crafted tale of a shavetail lieutenant fresh from the academy encountering an alien enemy for the first time. Django Wexler flawlessly blends steampunk landcruisers, alien mechanical spiders, and military fiction into a more than satisfying story.
“The Graphology of Hemorrhage” by Yoon Ha Lee could aptly have been re-titled “Shadow Soup.” To make shadow soup you must first catch a shadow, add whatever vegetables you can steal, and boil it long enough to make it palatable or nourishing. Lee provides lots of nourishment in this palatable story about shadow characters, love, war, and the meaning and making of words.
“American Golem,” surprisingly, is directly related to “The Graphology of Hemorrhage.” Both stories are about war and the power of words, of symbols. The word golem itself means “my unshaped form.” Author Weston Ochse claims the Jews of Prague learned to make golems from the ancient Chinese. A Jew and a Navajo medicine woman create a half-human killing machine—a golem, a kachina--from the ashes of a dead American soldier. The symbols for revenge are etched on the golem’s forehead, and the blood of its maker assures the golem of immortality. The story is not only about fulfilling a mission and extracting revenge, but about self-sacrifice and what it means to be human. That theme—whether intended or unintended--seems to run through all of the stories in this marvelous book.
“Heavy Sulfur” is a WWI story of trench warfare and magic. Author Ari Marmell weaves a spell of High Magick straight from the annals of the Golden Dawn. Both English and German forces use sorcerers and necromancers to win the Great War, and Corporal Cleary is caught in the middle. Like other characters in Operation Arcana, Cleary is called upon to make the supreme sacrifice.
Hae Jung is a “Pathfinder.” As a People’s Republic nurse, Hae Jung tends dying soldiers in Korea in 1951. She is also a Pathfinder who guides the dying to their ancestors. T. C. McCarthy tells a heart-breaking tale of death and dying from the viewpoint of America’s Korean War enemy. This story is so well-written that I couldn’t stop reading despite the blood and horrors that assaulted my senses.
Glen Cook is an old friend. He’s a quiet, unassuming kind of guy who loves books as much as I do. “Bone Eaters” is a Black Company tale, and Cook is a master craftsman. He is also a guest of honor at this year’s World Fantasy Con in Saratoga Springs, NY. One can learn a lot by reading Glen Cook. Cook’s style is a bit like Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore at their best. Hungry ghosts, hunger incarnate, populate this story along with Croaker’s band of misfits. Chasing Midnight, a new addition to the company of wizards, is intriguing. Croker, the Annalist who worries about secret meanings hidden in words, records the events in his own words. He uses images like “Darling had us drafted and rolling as quick as it took the buzzard family to complete a couple of circles around the sky.” Glen Cook is always a fun read.
“Bomber’s Moon” is about flying with the angels. It has been said that if God had meant man to fly, He would have given man wings. But with Hitler forming a pact with the devil, God has chosen sides and has granted man wings. The Archangel Uriel flies with the bomber’s crew, the bomber’s cannon have been replaced with water cannons spraying Holy water, the bombs have been blessed, the bullets have crosses etched into the lead. What could possibly go wrong? Himmler and Goebbels are in Dresden conjuring demons, and the crew heads to Dresden to destroy the city. What happens when the plane is hit by flak, their guardian angel deserts them, and the men are left without a prayer? A pacifist priest steps in and adds yet another complication to the story. Author Simon R. Green tells a gripping story that keeps the reader turning pages until the end.
I got to sit next to Seanan McGuire during an autographing session at Windycon. “In Skeleton Leaves” is the first Seanan McGuire story I’ve read. Set in a nightmare version of Peter Pan’s Neverland where The Pan is female and Wendys are a dime a dozen, this gender-bending tale of Lost Girls and Boys gives new meaning to the fun and games of childhood play. When Pans grow up or die, they are replaced by another Pan and the never-ending war in Neverland between the Pirates and the Lost Children continues forever. Pans are liars and fliers. And McGuire adds a few unexpected twists and turns to the tale before one final twist of the knife. If this is an example of McGuire’s imagination, I want to read all of her writing.
The entire anthology is lots of fun. There are a few important lessons to be learned about war and writing and the sacrifices that both require.
Operation Arcana, edited by John Joseph Adams. To be published in trade paperback March 3, 2015 by Baen Books. $15.00. Available now for pre-order discount at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. Full Disclosure: Paul Dale Anderson was provided a free Advance Reading Copy in exchange for an honest review.