R. J. Howell is the pen name of Rhiannon J. Taylor. She is a writer, an artist, and a library assistant. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus in Popular Fiction from Stonecoast and a BA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago.
Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Arsenika and Translunar Travelers Lounge, and in anthologies such as Smoking Pen Press’ Vampires, Zombies and Ghosts, Mt. Misery Press’ Neon Druid, and Astral Books’ Beyond the Stars: Rocking Space and Beyond the Stars: Infinite Expanse.
She’s a firm believer in living a life well-read.
BOTH anthologies are now available in print from Amazon! They’re absolutely gorgeous and I can’t seem to stop picking them up and flipping through them. Seeing my name on the front of a print book has always been one of my dreams, and now it’s on two!
Both Rocking Space and Infinite Expanseare available in print and ebook format through Amazon (for $14.99 and $5.99 respectively). Both anthologies are excellent, and I’d recommend them even if I didn’t have stories published in them (really, the Beyond the Stars series as a whole; every installment is worth the read).
And now my bad unboxing video! And if you turn the audio up, you can hear that ever-so-soothing rustle of flipping pages.
If you enjoy Science Fiction/Space Opera tales, be sure to check out the rest of the Beyond the Stars series!
Well, it’s been a while. A long while. So long, in fact, that instead of the regular list of books, I’m instead doing a sort of book-collage, particularly since many of the books are technically rereads. Some I’ve featured on here before, some were books I read as a teenager and I decided to come back and read them again as an adult (which has been a rather interesting experience).
So without further ado, the collage:
That’s a lot of books. In short, most of these are rereads, and most of those are comfort-rereads. Covid has hit my TBR pile hard; though I have a teetering stack of books to read, all I’ve wanted to do instead is retread old, familiar ground. And that’s…perfectly fine.
I did want to highlight A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher and The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison as being utter delights that I desperately needed at the time of reading them. Personally, I feel Goodreads is being quite unfair to The Angel of the Crows by saying that it wasn’t “new” enough–I argue that I didn’t WANT new, I didn’t want things turned on their heads. I wanted a sweet retelling of classic Sherlock Holmes with a twist, and that is EXACTLY what I got. It promised what I wanted and followed through entirely and I appreciated the gift of it. I highly recommend it especially if you find yourself entirely overwhelmed by the constant threat of Covid and just want something sweet and familiar and comfortable, and love a good Sherlock Holmes retelling.
Lastly, it was interesting to reread Carol Berg’s Rai-Kirah trilogy, which I remember having read somewhere around 14-15 and being disappointed by the third book. 14-15-year-old me didn’t get it. 27-almost-28-year-old me did. In many ways, it hasn’t aged well (20 years is…20 years). In other ways, it was fascinating to read certain details (like not breathing on food and the one culture’s preoccupation with cleanliness and avoiding corruption) in this time of Covid and infection. Just…huh. But teenage me really didn’t understand the concept of merging identities and personalities, of multiple people contained within one, multiple worlds, and the central theme of “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Teenage me took it entirely at face-value and was thoroughly confuzzled by the third book (and bored to tears by the second). Adult me appreciates it, and adult writer me found myself endlessly occupied with analyzing the craft side. In many ways, it’s a rough precursor to Berg’s later work, and in that roughness, it’s easier to see the building blocks, the individual components, because the edges aren’t so seamless. And, hoo, the emotional rollercoaster of the third book. Just…damn.
Anyway. Next time around, this won’t be an overwhelming collage-block. Next time, A Month of Books shall return to its usual format.
Because in real-life, I’m fighting the fluctuating but constant feeling that I’m either being gaslighted by society at large or that things are utterly bleak and hopeless, and in the U.S., we’re experiencing so much social and political upheaval ramping up to an election with potential results that, frankly, terrify me, I’m going to use this space to babble about a video game that shaped how I write and what I write about.
That game is Morrowind.
Look at those graphics! Look at those giant bug critters! Look at those…people with eldritch horror tentacles ripping their way out of their faces…hm. Y’know, in the original low resolution on an old 90’s block screen, you didn’t quite get the visual horror of these guys that modern high resolution retexturing mods give them.
Anyway, this video game was THE video game for me, though as a kid, I had issues with sticking to a choice and playing a character for more than six levels, along with just not quite getting what I was supposed to be doing. So, as a kid, the guidebook was my bible. Like, really, I carried the guidebook around at school and when the glue in the spine crumbled from so much reading, I put the pages in individual protector sheets and stuck them in a binder. I also read a lot of the in-game lore books, since I was mostly restricted to Seyda Neen, Balmora, and maybe Ola Oad or Aldruhn if I felt particularly daring. A few times I ended up in Sadrith Mora, but since I usually didn’t play a character long enough to unlock the levitation spell, I couldn’t go past the entrance halls of the Telvanni towers.
A few years ago, I bought the game and played it as an adult and…yeah, well, the graphics haven’t aged all that well and the combat is absolutely nothing like subsequent games (Oblivion and Skyrim). But! As an adult, I was able to, 1. commit to one character and 2. finally understand how to read directions. Because there are no map markers in Morrowind, and occassionally, the directions are wrong. After many, many years of never getting beyond the first major quest in the main quest, I finished not only Morrowind, but Tribunal and Bloodmoon, the two expansions.
It also gave me the opportunity to truly appreciate how much of an indelible mark this game made on proto-writer me, particularly in how I approach worldbuilding.
Morrowind has a steep learning curve, and it explains very little beyond the basics. Once you click past the tutorial, you are on your own (unless, of course, you have a guide). Instead, it immerses you entirely, and once you start scratching at the surface of the worldbuilding, you realize…it’s layers. Layers upon layers, and some of those layers are in direct contradiction with other layers, but both are, sort of, true. The sheer amount of reading available in this game is utterly staggering. Though the lore books average maybe four pages, there are hundreds. And, unlike subsequent titles, most of the game’s dialogue happens in dialogue boxes, with a single notable exception. Little is voiced. (But the little that is…oh, the sound of an Ordinator saying, “We’re watching you. Scum.” will forever be immortalized in my memory. Along with, “Mournhold! City of light! City of magic!” and “Wake up. There you go. You were dreaming. Now, what’s your name?”)
But the worldbuilding is so, so rich, and the quests and characters are some of the most unique in the Elder Scrolls series (excepting Elder Scrolls Online, only because that game is truly massive, and it does its fair share of callbacks to Morrowind, but I’ll get into it more later). And so much of it is conveyed with little explanation, forcing you, the player, to fill in the blanks and dialogue with it while the local fauna is trying to kill you as you run for your life under the canopies of giant mushroom trees. And if, like me, you’re one of those players who, when you stumble across a secret or uncover another layer of worldbuilding, you squeal in glee and treasure it like the shiny nugget it is, this game rewards you, and often. It encourages multiple play-throughs, simply because you are going to miss details, and every time through gives you something new.
Yet, it also plays a lot with the mutability of truth. Of how much perspective plays a role not only in history, but in how history unfolds in the present. And the importance of leaving just a bit of mystery, just a few questions unanswered, because it’s in those spaces that you let imagination proliferate.
So, basic rundown of the core concept of the game. By the emperor’s order, you’ve been pulled out of prison, stuck on a boat, and shipped to the very alien landscape of the island of Vvardenfell in Morrowind, one of the two eastern-most provinces of Tamriel. At first, you are an imperial agent who gets cast in the role of the Nerevarine, the reincarnation of Nerevar–an ancient Dunmer hero–and a sort of Dunmeri messiah figure. But, the further along in the story you go, the more tests your character passes, and it starts to become clear that you might actually be the Nerevarine, not just an impostor lookalike. Which coincides with the rise/reawakening of Dagoth Ur, the fellow behind the eldritch horror tentacles and, possibly, Nerevar’s murderer.*
I say possibly. Because it’s also possible he was murdered by his own allies, Vivec, Almalexia, and Sotha Sil, who subsequently ascended to a mortal godhood and became the Tribunal. And even though you have the opportunity to talk to, well, two of the three (Vivec and Almalexia), you’re never given a clear answer as to what happened. How did Nerevar die? It’s unclear, and depending on the interpretation, all perspectives are true due to a dragon break. But even without the dragon break, it’s fascinating to hold up the pieces, the snippets that different characters give you, and see how they fit together. What overlaps, what doesn’t? And that approach, that uncomfortable “knowing but not knowing” is a fascinating technique that I notice I often use in my own work. What’s truth? Subjective. Different people have different takes, different theories, even when they were witness to the event.
Also, judging by the content of Dead God’s Bones, I also really love to engage with the idea of mortal gods. Oh, and when I do utilize the chosen one trope, it’s almost always the “you look like the chosen one, you’ll do” and the character becomes the chosen one through a “fake it till you make it” approach (or never becomes the chosen one at all). Which has similar parallels to Morrowind’s approach.
And, for DGB at least, I often channel the visual, mm, texture of Morrowind and, to a certain degree, Oblivion. Less so Skyrim, not sure why. I often wish I had the ability to convey truly alien creatures the way visual media–such as games, movies, or art–can do. Writing is filtered through the reader’s perspective, and so such things require a different kind of building to maintain clarity. Sometimes, I wish I could drop a reader into a landscape like Vvardenfell the way Morrowind does but, alas, my skill is not yet high enough. But I can try, to some extent.
Still, I so very much enjoy building massive worlds to only show the surface, inviting a reader to scratch and see what’s underneath. Or, in the case of short fiction, since short fiction is limited in word count and what can be explored,setting up the illusion of great depth of worldbuilding. I strive to give just enough hints, while maintaining just enough mystery, to engage my readers’ imagination, and invite them to piece things together and fill in the blanks for themselves. Mostly because I want to recreate that experience that Morrowind provided me, but for someone else.
Also, as a side thing, I still haven’t found a literary equivalent of this game. I’m always on the hunt for suggestions, though, so if you’re familiar with Morrowind and have read something that channels the same spirit, please suggest?
Remember how I mentioned this would relate to ESO? Right, so when I bought ESO and started playing it for the first time, I hadn’t realized that the version I got came bundled, original game plus the Morrowind chapter. The game started, there was a tutorial thing, I did it because, er, ESO has a bit of a learning curve too, if you’re used to TES games. Anyway, tutorial over and…I’m in Seyda Neen. More so, I am on that DOCK, the one from the beginning of Morrowind and…the music is playing, and it’s reminiscent of the original soundtrack, to the point that some things are direct covers of the original, and…oh, the feels. So much sentimentality going on. And then I start walking and run into this thing:
And went, “What the hell is that? And what are those?”
Apparently, the in-game explanation for why this Vvardenfell’s flora and fauna look a little different (beyond developments in graphical capabilities and changes in aesthetics due to different development teams) is that ESO’s Morrowind is a little under a thousand years prior to the events of TES III: Morrowind, and things change. Notably, things change a lot if your island is an active volcano and only gets more active, and covers your land in a fine dusting of ash. Which actually makes a lot of sense. One of my critiques of the Elder Scrolls universe is that, between games, there often isn’t a huge visual difference, though hundreds of years may have passed. Beyond Vvardenfell, the entire architecture of Mournhold is different which…also makes sense, seeing that in a hundred years or so, it’s going to get razed.
TES in general has a thing for reoccurring characters, and ESO is no exception. There are a lot of references in ESO’s Morrowind to TES III: Morrowind (similarly, Skyrim’s Dragonborn expansion references a bit, though not quite as thoroughly).
I have shamelessly bought the Ald Velothi bug-style Redoran house in ESO and have, also shamelessly, decorated it to be as Morrowind-reminiscent as I could, with a few nods to the Clockwork City because, second to Vvardenfell, it’s by far my favorite area. Also, Clockwork City gave that denied chance to speak to Sotha Sil, seeing that events of Tribunal make that rather impossible. He’s…interesting. Philosophical but also very meta, very sideways-aware he’s an NPC. It’s an interesting conversation.** Vivec is Vivec, and by the end of the Vvardenfell chapter, I was questioning just how much I was charismatically manipulated into certain actions. Hmmmm… And Almalexia is…slightly less insane. But, also, roped me into saving her temple and then gifted me with a lamp? It felt a little anti-climactic, but also very fitting.***
However, since I’ve now cleared Vvardenfell, Clockwork City, Stonefalls, and Deshaan, I’m off to Shadowfen, which is very much new territory to explore, given that there hasn’t been an Elder Scrolls game set in Blackmarsh since Arena, but that’s set on/in all of Tamriel, and Daggerfall is as far back as I’ve gone so far.
In the meanwhile, I’m looking forward to Skywind, and fan-made port of Morrowind’s intellectual spirit into the Skyrim engine. They are making their own models, they’re making their own textures, they’re building Morrowind from the ground, up, but using Skyrim’s more modern infrastructure. And I absolutely cannot wait. This is the game that’ll woo me away from ESO, I guarantee. My grand-plan is to, eventually, play Skygerfall (the Daggerfall main quest remake in the Skyrim engine, a mod that’s already released), then Skywind, then Skyblivion (the Oblivion recreation in the Skyrim engine, much like Skywind), then eventually, replay Skyrim and actually do the main quest without taking a year break in the middle. And, depending on how the release schedule ends up, maybe being able to then play The Elder Scrolls VI.
And thus brings a close to my long, rambling ode to a game near and dear to my writerly heart. If not for Morrowind, I certainly wouldn’t write the way I do, and I wouldn’t be fascinated by the concepts that I am. Or, er, quite as obsessed with worldbuilding.****
After writing all this, I do find myself craving a new playthrough. Hm. (Wait for Skywind, I tell myself, wait for Skywind.)
* I don’t feel like this is a spoiler, since this game was released in 2002. ** There’s some a few references to what ends up happening to Sotha Sil peppered around in the dialogue. He apparently has defense measures set up for three potential, and possibly only, threats to his life. One is himself. Another is an angry daedric prince. The third is Almalexia. Very much a “Hah!” and “Oooh…” moment. *** Also, fun and somewhat weird thing, but if you start playing in the Morrowind chapter, then go back and wander into Mournhold, you’ll run into a familiar face from Morrowind…who’ll have no idea who you are, because ESO is designed to go chronologically for character development, but being an MMORPG with multiple expansions, doesn’t guarantee a player will meet that character at the start of their arch. **** It didn’t fit in the essay, so this is postscript, but the Elder Scrolls universe also plays, at least worldbuilding-wise, with cultures which aren’t based on a good vs. evil dichotomy, which is rare in high fantasy. A reoccurring theme within the Elder Scrolls is more an order vs. chaos, which is fascinating.
After a many month break, I’ve returned to Dead God’s Bones refreshed and ready to get it into shape for querying, because I will NOT have a repeat of In Blood, where I sat on a completed manuscript for three years waiting for…god knows. For the time to be right? For that sudden bolt of inspiration that turns it from a so-so novel into a great one? For my courage to stop cowering in a corner?
Either way, we shall not have a repeat. DGB is going to be submitted, and in a timely manner, before I change too much as a writer and as a person and grow to loathe the thing I’ve made.
So I took a chance.
I posted a call for betas on Reddit.
I’ve been frequenting the Reddit beta readers forums to find beta projects I’d like to work on, but this is the first that I’ve ever put out a call. It’s…a little intimidating. Most of the time, my betas are drawn from a group of other writers I personally know, some through my grad program, some through undergrad, and some through my in-person critique group. I don’t have much need to foray into the wilds of forum boards to find betas.
But, this time around, I wanted someone who doesn’t know me, who hasn’t read an excerpt of this novel somewhere, who will be, more or less, objective. I also find myself in need of someone who loves pointing out mistakes, seeing that I apparently created continuity errors during my last editing pass and I’m not all that great at catching them myself. Thus, beta reader. Thus, Reddit.
The plan is to start querying either at by the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021. I think I’m just going to have to embrace this book at 180k, since trimming just seems to lend itself to further expansion elsewhere, and by the end of an editing pass, it’s nearly the same length. So I guess 180k is where it needs to be for now, and I want to get started on the next step, since this is as good as I’m going to get it at this point in my writing skill level. Which brings me to queries.
So far, I have two versions, the long one and the short one. For funsies, I’ve posted the longer one here, since I used the shorter one for my Reddit call.
Three years ago, Investigator-Prefect Kossa en Bekhir failed to capture a serial murderer targeting magical practitioners in the city of Balara. It nearly ended his career. Now, the killer is back, and has graduated from preying on low-ranking government officials to the upper echelons of society, their throats slit and bodies drained of blood.
Complicating matters, he’s partnered with his boss’ daughter—a newly-minted investigator-brevet with no experience, a hair-trigger of a sword-arm, and questionable loyalties. As the investigation into the murders becomes increasingly convoluted, Kossa draws connections between the murderer’s method and his own secret past. For Kossa en Bekhir doesn’t exist. His name is a lie, his voice is a magical fabrication, and his skin bears the scars of the hundred-and-twenty stroke legacy of a dead man found guilty of treason. Every step forward brings him closer to a place he never wanted to revisit: the home that betrayed him and ripped the magic from his veins.
He won’t survive the encounter a second time.
DEAD GOD’S BONES is a 180,000-word adult high fantasy set in a sub-tropical island city rife with drugs and dragons. It’s THE ANKH-MORPORK NIGHT WATCH meets THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA and A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE.
Another beta pass, maybe two, and I plan to descend once more into the query trenches and send this out. I’ve already started preliminary research on agents and putting together my list. Once again, feeling rather out of my depth, but there we are.
Oh, I did say there would be art, didn’t I?
I’ll be honest, I haven’t freehand doodled with an actual pencil on actual paper in almost a year. I discovered I’m out of practice, but not in the way you might think. I was able, for the most part, to accurately translate what was in my head to my hand to the page. Rather, my muscles have apparently atrophied and I don’t have the fine motor control. Which was…frustrating. Need to build that back up. Also, forgive the off proportions, I wasn’t working from reference.
So these three are the main viewpoint characters of Dead God’s Bones, Kossa at the top, Maiv to the middle-right, and Luko bottom-left. As you might note, yes, in my head, they’re totally elves. On the written page, it’s less apparent, though they are varying shades of blue, ranging from a pale noon horizon blue to an almost blue-purple, and their sclera is black rather than white.
You can’t see it, but the impetus for beginning this was a desire to draw Kossa’s marriage ear-cuff…which can’t really be seen because I drew his head too small. I’ll probably draw another at some point or a closeup of his ear and just the ear. A lot of my doodles are born of a need to visually work out some worldbuilding detail, and it spirals out from there.
Also, don’t believe Luko. He does get paid, just not right now due to plot reasons.
Beyond the Stars: Infinite Expanse has hit shelves (or, at least, Amazon) and we’re already #1 bestseller for new releases in the Science Fiction Anthologies category! Infinite Expanse will be available until the end of August at the sale price of only 99¢, or free with Kindle Unlimited.
“This popular anthology includes 11 brand new tales from familiar names as well as a couple of stunning debut writers. Don’t miss their mind-blowing stories of alien encounters, space battles, and epic empires in the latest volume of this prestigious space opera series.
Join us, as we take you on a voyage through…the Infinite Expanse.”
And as a taster, here’s the first page or so of my story, “Oresa” about intergalactic espionage agent Threnody Winters and her mission to bring hope to a dead planet:
According to her employers, Threnody Winters carried hope in her hands.
To her, it just looked like a sample canister. And after four interstellar jumps, six local space transfers, countless station layovers, and lines—oh, so many lines—she was starting to wish she could put the damn thing down.
She heaved her side-satchel onto the duraplastic table. The customs officer—a middle-aged person with short-cropped hair, red-brown skin, and station coveralls—popped the magnetic seals on the bag and started passing their hand-scanner through Threnody’s luggage.
The bag had started out crammed, the seals strained to bursting. A change of clothes, toiletries, an insta-shower box complete with shampoo compatible with most station hygiene units, data chips with preloaded books and an immersive city builder simulator (Watch Your Utopia Grow in Real-Time!), petty cash chits in every mainstream denomination for the vending bots, an expanding pocket tent, and lightweight bedding—everything one might need for a layover in a station port.
Now? Now she could probably leave it in a shuttle kiosk station and wouldn’t miss it. At least she didn’t have the tent anymore; that had been confiscated by the hostel on Ophi Station. She’d figured she’d lose it, but not before the halfway point in her journey.
So close. So close to delivering her burden. So close to completing this job. One last local space tug and then…
Threnody blinked. “What?”
“I said, do you have anything to declare?” A quick scan of the officer’s face with her optical interface implants pulled up their public ’net profile. Which was scant. They hadn’t selected a gender identifier, sticking with the default undisclosed, and their name was under a privacy lock. So much for the personal connection approach.
Threnody held up the canister. “Sample capsule. For research purposes.”
The officer tapped their scanner-headset, aimed the scanner-pad hand at the canister. And scowled. No doubt displaying glitchy data, courtesy of the scrambler integrated along the backside of Threnody’s belt.
They tapped the scanner again, then huffed. “We’ll need to inspect it. For contraband.”
“Contraband,” Threnody said, injecting every syllable with bewildered disdain.
“Could you place the item on the table…”
“Oresa” by R.J. Howell, Beyond the Stars: Infinite Expanse
And if you enjoy Science Fiction/Space Opera tales, be sure to check out the rest of the Beyond the Stars series!