Thursday, February 16, 2012

Thursday Morning Coffee - DeVante's Choice

Actually, it's more like Thursday Morning Afternoon Coffee Break, but whatever. Books happen. I was quite busy this morning reading Raina's Fantasy by Jo Carlisle and rather enjoying it. The really funny thing is when I went to Amazon to write a quick review, the product description was for a book called The Courage to Love by Samantha Kane, which, actually, I've read and didn't care for. Kind of funny, because if that had happened when I thought to buy Raina's Fantasy, I would have passed. Which would have been sad for me, because I would have missed out.

So, anyway. What have I been up to, you ask?

I have, as I mentioned above, been doing some reading. My reading list is HUGE, but I've been having trouble engaging my attention span, despite the fact that I bought myself a Kindle Touch. I have so much writing to do, that sometimes I feel too pressed to work on my own projects to settle down, relax, and actually enjoy reading. I hate when that happens.

The answer, then, seems to be to get some writing done.

I'm working with a co-writer on a really cool project - not sure if I've mentioned that. His name is Sean, and he helped me quite a bit with the Oakland/SF setting in DeVante's Coven. He's also a wicked awesome photographer. He proposed an idea loosely based on one of my WIPs, a book called Assassin Jaxx, which I never quite finished. 

It's a cyper-punk, apocalyptic, girl-assassin, sci-fi, religious sort of story. Way outside my comfort zone, but I'm really excited about the collaboration. Sean has this astonishing world-building ability - he imagines amazing futuristic tech, body modification, socioeconomic conditions, world political unrest. alien invastion... and so on and so forth. Oh yeah, he can write, too. Let's not forget that part!

And you know me - I'm sort of a minimal setting/major characterization kind of girl. So together I think we are going to manage something really unique and cool.

My "push" this year is to finish DeVante's Choice, since my publisher, Queer Mojo (an imprint of Rebel Satori Press) has it on their production schedule this year. So that would be really good. It's a great book, and I'm having a lovely time hanging out with DeVante, Roderick, Daniel, Reed, Emily, Tony, and Lily. AND - there's a new vampire on the block - did I mention that? Ooooh, that naughty impish Roderick...

But - that's all I'm going to say about that. We must leave a few things to be discovered later, right?

So for your Thursday Morning Almost Noon coffee read, how about an excerpt from DeVante's Choice?

Yeah, thought ya'll might like that (smile).

Excerpt: DeVante's Choice


The thing in his belly was clawing, clawing to get out, it was scratching his insides, and itching, and hurting, and he didn't know what it was, what was wrong, or what to do. If he were a normal human being, Tony would go to the doctor.
His life-mate, Lily, had plugged his symptoms into a web-based diagnostic program and the search result said maybe it was an ulcer, or maybe it was anxiety.
But the only time Tony felt anxiety was when the clawing started. And he didn't know how he could be afflicted with something so inanely human as an ulcer.
The strangest part was that it was familiar. He'd felt it before, the clawing, when he was a teenager. The itching, scratching sensation in his abdomen that had almost driven him mad. But then Roderick found him and did that vampire thing, and even though it didn't work exactly right, Tony hadn't felt the clawing after that. He'd actually forgotten all about it. Until it started again.
It started with a strange dream. Well. It couldn't have been a dream, because Tony didn't sleep and therefore didn't dream. It was the thing he missed most about being human and liked least about being sort of a vampire. Or a half-vampire. Or, as Roderick often teased, "a weird vampire."
"It's just not right," Roderick was known to complain. "Walking around in the daylight all the time like that."
"You're the one who decided to make me, even when you knew I couldn't possibly have enough blood left in my body for it to go right."
"Oh, but you were so pretty I couldn't resist," Roderick would say, fluttering eyelashes at Tony and grinning.
The bantering of this topic went on and on, nights marching into days marching into weeks, months, and years.
DeVante probably had the answers, or at least some of them, and yet Tony had never created an opportunity to insist that DeVante try to explain. Tony tried hard to never insist anything with DeVante.
The clawing, scratching, itching started when Tony was attacked by crows in the park.
If you could call it an attack. He still wasn't exactly sure what happened that day. That's why it felt like a dream.
New York was friendly to Tony and Lily, and they'd lived there for quite some time. One of Tony's favorite pastimes was to amuse himself in the afternoons toying with humans in Central Park.
The game went like this: Tony picked a vantage point in the park, and turned himself into a dog, or a wolf, or a leopard. And then tried to hang onto the disguise as he watched people react to what they thought they saw.
DeVante caught him at it once, and called it 'perceptual shape-shifting.'  It was a mind trick, really, making people 'see' an animal in Tony's place. Mortals who were very distracted were the most fun. They jumped, sometimes screamed, sometimes even ran. Analytical mortals, and those with a penchant to notice details, were the most challenging. They usually kept walking as they watched him, trying the view from another angle. Tony tried to fool other animals, too, but had very little luck with that.
It was entertainment, even when all he was doing was trying to convince a squirrel that he was just another squirrel. He studied their movements, the tilts of their heads, and the wiggles of their tiny noses. He mimicked them until he felt his aura changing shape.
Somehow it was the crow that caused all the trouble.
Tony was doing nothing more than watching it, and feeling like he was one with the species, when a flock of them dropped out of the sky and attacked him with bodies, beaks, and talons.
He dropped his bird act and fought back, and even killed a couple of them before they retreated up into the trees where they continued to scold him from a safe distance.
Tony examined his bare arms, and touched the skin of his face that felt like gouges of flesh had been removed. But he couldn't find any actual wounds. As if they were perceptual crows, perceptually attacking him.
It was all very strange.
Stranger still was that the whole flock had been following him ever since. Everywhere he went, there they were. Mocking and scolding, staying just far enough away that it would be ridiculous for Tony to attempt to do them any harm.
Lily noticed immediately. "What's with all the birds?"
"I don't know." Tony explained to her what happened in the park, and she just laughed and said, "Serves you right, using your gifts for amusement."
"Well, I'm not sure what else I should be using them for. If I could figure that out, I'd be halfway there by now."
"Funny that the birds are more intelligent than the people, isn't it?"
"Oh yeah, it's a regular riot."
"I just mean that they know you're not the average human. They know somehow, and they have no capacity to buy into the image you're selling."
"What image?"
"Average American teenager. You're terrible at it, because you have an old soul."
"Yeah, so you've mentioned a time or thirty. And you have an old soul, yourself."
"It's true though,"  Lily said earnestly. "Sometimes when I stare into your eyes, I feel like I can see the tee-pees and the running buffalo."
"I'm glad you can see it," Tony said with a laugh. "Because I never saw a real tee-pee in my entire life."
"Oh, you know what I mean," she said. "You belong on a wild mustang, driving a herd of buffalo off a cliff."
He kept laughing. "You've got it all wrong, Lily. That was never my tribe. We were fishers and trappers... we hunted Minnesota moose, not buffalo. And built long-houses, not tee-pees."
"But still. There's a history in your eyes that I can almost see."
Weeks passed and the birds were still with him, a whole flock, always settled somewhere close by. It was unnerving, but not nearly as unnerving as the sensation inside his body of something alive trying to work its way out.
Last night he told Lily, "DeVante knows stuff. He might know more about me and my history than he's ever told. The next time we connect with him, you should convince him to tell us."
"Me? Why me?"
"He's not that attached to me. I think you'd have better luck."
Lily blushed, which was funny. She didn't talk much to Tony about the time she'd spent with DeVante when she was a newborn vampire, when DeVante taught her how to live without killing. And that was fine. Tony was grateful that DeVante had been able to help her find the will to want to survive. After her time with DeVante, Lily was finally emotionally content. Tony knew Lily and DeVante continued to share blood to this day, and sharing blood was as intimate for vampires as sex was for humans. More so, maybe, although Tony still thought sex was pretty much the bomb.
But. He made a point not to tease Lily about DeVante. She had very little sense of humor where their patriarch was concerned, as if they owed him a debt so great it could never be repaid.
His Lily, so empathic to others' pain that she might be secluded still – avoiding life altogether – if Tony hadn't accidentally turned her into a vampire. The hurts of others caused her physical pain. If she couldn't right every injustice in the world, then she might as well lock herself up in tower, even just metaphorical one.
Tony had been a vampire for only one night when he'd accidentally changed Lily. She woke ravenous and out of control, and killed a girl. After that, all she wanted was to figure out how to kill herself.
She was not capable of being a vampire. She could not exist in a body that begged death for continued life. It was not tolerable.
She killed one more innocent, a mortal DeVante cared for, before DeVante caught her and held her in his iron will.
And then DeVante took Lily as his own, holding her back, holding her up, and teaching her to feed her body without ending life. In a way.
She still hungered. She had inherited more of Roderick's brand of vampirism than Tony's, and her appetite was difficult for her to contain.
They made concessions. Roderick came to New York regularly. He liked the city, and delighted in the hunt and the kill, and held Lily tenderly as she fed from him, getting her nourishment secondhand, receiving none of the fear, regret, or memories that horrified her about the kill. If nothing else, it felt like clean blood to her –a distance once removed from the moments that Roderick swore he lived for. And if it increased Roderick's need to feed, which it must, Roderick had never let on. That was probably the trade-off for Roderick – feeding Lily was worth Roderick's time because he got to spend more time hunting.

They'd figured out how to feed Lily when DeVante had finally given in to Daniel's pleadings to change Reed to Vampire. Lily wasn't quite independent yet – hell, she wasn't quite independent now, but Tony believed it to be a choice at this point, not a limitation. So. DeVante had sent all but Reed away, and Lily was almost frantic with hunger when Roderick suggested she feed from him.
It worked, Tony thought, probably better than any of them thought it would.
It allowed Lily to stay in her tower. And it brought the others around frequently. Tony could certainly have fed her in the same manner, but he didn't crave blood the same way the rest of them did, and Lily couldn't stand for Tony to hunt purely for the sake of feeding her.
Which was fine. Tony had romantic, drunken dances with his victims, and if the mood was right, he'd sip a bit from them, but rare was the occasion that they were not able to walk away from the experience.
Tony liked the hunt probably as much as Roderick did. He felt like an "old school" vampire, like Béla Lugosi, making eye contact and crooking a finger, drawing a girl to him with a sensual inner power that belonged to him effortlessly. He whispered soft words in her ear, or sang a few bars of a love song, and they danced in the night, mesmerizing one another. Sometimes he dipped his face into her neck just for a kiss, and other times his fangs grazed her skin, and he let himself taste her amidst the resulting shiver. But it was the dance, the romance, that sustained him, more the blood.
Tonight he sat quiet on the front steps, giving Roderick and Lily privacy while they did their thing, and one by one the birds joined him. Some were common crows, and a few were slightly larger birds that might be differentiated as ravens. They settled on the awning, the railings on either side of him, and even on the stairs near his feet. They cocked their heads first to one side, and then to the other, strangely silent, staring into Tony's face.
He shuffled his feet. The nearest birds backed away, but did not flee.
He stared back at them. "What are you doing here?"
A thought struck, and he wondered what would happen if he tried his shape-shifting thing and made himself just another crow in the flock.
He studied the birds, then gathered his energy, his aura, perhaps, and willed himself to appear as a raven.
The flock went wild with scolding. Several birds took flight, but only for the purpose of dive-bombing him.
"Shit. Okay, never mind." He let his aura become 'just Tony' again, and the birds quieted.
"What do you want?" he asked them, but of course there was no answer.
He held out cupped hands, palms together, and let his eyes rove over the flock until a larger bird appealed to him. "Come on," he said to it. "Are you brave enough?"
And just like crooking a finger at a girl for a dance, the bird came into his hands.
It preened its beak into its feathers, then hopped onto Tony's shoulder, and Tony could only assume it was now accepting a role as head of the flock.
The building door opened and all the flock except the bird on his shoulder took to the roof.
"What's with the birds?" Roderick asked.
Tony laughed. "Those were Lily's exact words."
"Yeah, I know, that's why I said it. But really. Lily had no real explanation."
"No, she wouldn't. I don't either. But I suspect this fellow does." Tony ran a finger along the back of the bird on his shoulder."If only they could talk, hmm?"
"Sure," Roderick said. "They could tell you where to find the nearest road-kill. Yum."
"Ew, that's gross. Funny, while I sat here doing nothing they surrounded me, got close enough to kick."
"Did you kick them?"
"No. I'm getting used to them. I killed a couple when they attacked me in the park a few weeks ago, but I haven't bothered them much since. They don't do anything except hang out. There's a story here, but I don't know what it is."
"Remember Callum?" Roderick asked.
Short, sharp bark of laughter. "As if I could forget."
"He said stuff about talent and abilities. You have the most unusual talents of us all. And yet you've never asked DeVante a single question."
"You know what Lily knows," Tony stated. "And she knows it all. You're right. I avoid DeVante. He makes me incredibly uncomfortable. You received punishment from him because of me, and, also because of me, he had to take care of Lily. So I try doubly hard to stay the hell out of his way. I can't imagine that he cares much for me, and I don't blame him."
"He doesn't hold a grudge, Tony. My God, in all this time you haven't figured that out?  He accepts what is and works with it, and then continues on, doing what needs to be done. If that means Lily needs to be taught or fed, so be it. And if it means Tony has a desperate wish to know nothing, well, he'll honor that as well. But maybe he can explain the birds."
"You think?"
"I think there's very little DeVante doesn't know. If there's an answer to why a flock of birds follows you everywhere, DeVante will at least be able to send you to the right place with your questions."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thursday Morning Coffee - Allie's War by JC Andrijeski

Wow, do I ever have a treat for you guys this morning! I am a book snob, and I admit it. So when I find a story that forces my imagination to keep the characters alive long after I've put a book down, I am intrigued. Or is the word "obsessed" ? Well, whatever. My Thursday Morning Coffee fiction spotlight is on JC Andrijeski's Allies War series. There are four epic length (we're talking 400 - 500 pages, folks) novels available NOW, right this minute, and JC has chained herself to her cute little desk with a view of the Himalayan mountains swearing to write the fifth. I don't think her readership is looming over her with whips and chains, but I could be wrong about that.

Rook: Book One
In December I discovered this really great series - and when I say "great" I mean my family quickly realized that when I started a new Allie's War book, they might as well ask for and expect NOTHING from me until I was finished, because this story is all but impossible to put down, even for a minute. Or say the eight agonizing hours one has to spend at work.

The first book is titled Rook and you can buy it from Amazon or Smashwords, and other ebook retailers. Same with books Two, Three, and Four. There is also a short prequel (if you consider 100+ pages "short") that I believe is only available from Amazon, called New York: Allie's War Early Years.

Shield: Book Two

In the world created by JC Andrijeski, there are humans and there are seers. The average human is aware of seers, and the average seer is a slave or pet that belongs to a human. This is the initial framework - but seers are so much more than slaves - their species can access a metaphysical realm through their "light" (which is a bit like spirit) called the Barrier, and while in the Barrier they are psychic, in a sense.

Sword: Book Three
The female protagonist, Allie, has always believed herself to be human, and it isn't until she is kidnapped by seer Revik that she finds out differently. But Allie is no average seer - she is more or less a reincarnated seer goddess with an astonishing genetic ability for telekinesis. This makes her politically valuable to both seer and human societies.

Allie navigates the seer world with Revik as her guide. She stumbles. She fails to understand many things about seer culture. And she accidentally marries Revik in the Barrier - but no one tells her. Revik himself doesn't even tell her, mostly because he is incredibly broken, and he is afraid to trap Allie into a bond with him that she might not want.
Shadow: Book Four

The tension and penchant for misunderstanding between Allie and Revik will keep your heart aching as you desperately turn pages, wanting everything to be all right.

From a reader point of view, this is the best kind of book - the kind that makes me wonder how I ever walked around happily living my life without knowing this story.

From a writer point of view, I hope that I can someday build a story world this complete, and characters a reader will come to care for as much as I care for Allie and Revik. 

New York: Prequel Short Story

JC has invested a lot of time and imagination into Allie's War, and it shows. From religion, to politics, to mythology - from wonderful good guys to truly evil bad guys, I urge you to enter the world of Allie's War, and then dare you to try to climb out.

Disclaimer: I don't think JC will mind, but here's a disclaimer: This is one of my favorite scenes, so I typed it here word for word. Any typos are mine. Don't get the wrong idea and think this is a "quiet" book, either - the Allie's War series is about as action-packed as a story can be. This just happens to be a "resting" scene. ~SM Johnson)*

*Excerpt from Rook: Allie's War Book One

I choke... choked... am choking... caught inside a clutched fist of light, an egg-shaped pocket that holds me in place. There, I birth. The turning planet brings stars in a pale swath, sky broken by sharp eyes and lightning flashes, snaking charges of gold and orange and crimson, the late side of the setting sun.

The pain worsens, a spike that arcs, a taste before it keens steeply up, inexorable, becoming gradually more unbearable, until I am sure my insides will be ripped out, torn into so many pieces there is nothing left.

Beyond it, a golden ocean beckons. It is familiar.

He is there too.

I'm sorry, he says. It's not why I asked for you --

Shhh. My voice is steady, somehow apart from the lights clashing, the ghosts winging overhead. Revik, it's all right.

Don't leave me, Allie. Don't leave me alone with this...

The pain worsens again, makes it hard to see.

Still, the words come easily, without thought or regret.

I won't, I tell him. I never will.

There is a question in this... one that shocks his heart.

Before I've understood either the question or the possible answers, he's agreed. A surrender lives in that agreement, what is almost shame. He clasps my fingers, and I see tears in his eyes. They bewilder me, touch me somehow through the pain and he pulls me closer until...

He kisses me. It is a brief kiss. Clumsy, awkward, almost tender... meaning lives there, more meaning than I can comprehend.

I feel him agree again...

...and the night sky disappears.

Above us, light weaves into complicated patterns, in and out like a shuttlecock between silk threads. I have a fleeing impression of time removed. The weaving of the threads grows more and more complicated, more subtle. I watch a painting form, a painting of diamond light, in a pattern too beautiful for words. My struggle stops, even as pain melts into warm breath, a feeling of ending that somehow... doesn't... can't.

I know, somehow.

I feel it in him, too, a surge of familiar.

The feeling is so dense, I can't see past it. A timelessness lives in that sense of the familiar, something I can't explain to myself, something I understand without words, without really understanding it at all.

Something is... different.

I don't know it yet, but it will never be the same again.