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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Is Aquaman Worth Seeing? My Review of the DC Superhero Film that Takes Viewers Underwater

On Christmas Day, my teenage son and I decided to give Aquaman, the latest DC Comics superhero film, a try. He and I generally prefer Marvel superhero films (though we both love  the Dark Knight trilogy starring Christian Bale). Still, we felt Aquaman looked promising, so with a new AMC gift card in hand, we headed for our local theater to catch the DC superhero film in 3-D.

And today, I wanted to give my readers my take on the film. Though this blog generally focuses on science fiction and fantasy books (mainly because I want to encourage reading), I will occasionally review a film. Hence, this spoiler-free review of Aquaman.

The film stars Jason Mamoa as the title character and Amber Heard (with red hair) as Princess Mera. It's directed by James Wan. According to Screen Rant, production costs on Aquaman came in at around $160 million.

Let me start by saying that I consider myself a Jason Mamoa fan. I thoroughly enjoyed Mamoa's turn as Ronon Dex in the spectacularly awesome TV series Stargate: Atlantis. (Oh, how I miss that show!) In that series, Mamoa proved himself to be one of those rare actors who can completely dominate the camera and keep viewers engaged. While I liked all the Stargate: Atlantis characters, you could tell that Mamoa was the actor whose career would live on well after Atlantis wrapped. And that has certainly been the case.

Mamoa starred in the disappointing Conan the Barbarian remake in 2011 and was featured in the hugely popular Game of Thrones HBO miniseries. (Full disclosure: Though I love fantasy and recognize Game of Thrones to be exceptionally well made television, I have steered clear of it due to its morally objectionable content). When the DC movies incorporated Mamoa into the Justice League lineup as Aquaman, I knew it was a good match.

Mamoa is not your grandfather's or even your father's Aquaman. When I was a kid, I remember watching the 1960s cartoon version of Aquaman that featured a blonde-haired hero riding his trusty sea horse. Mamoa is not that Aquaman. And many film critics and everyday commentators have hailed this change. "Gone is the Aryan-looking Atlantean in green-and-orange spandex, replaced with a bare-chested Hawaiian super-stud with long, shaggy surfer hair and all-over tribal tattoos," declares Peter Debruge for Variety.

"There is a frisson of delight in seeing a biracial hero dominate a superhero movie," echoes Wesley Morris for The New York Times. "He’s an inspired left-field choice for Aquaman, who in the DC comic books, and the cartoons they inspired, tended to be a slab of Eagle Scout-y blondness."

Clearly, when it comes to racial diversity and sheer screen presence, Jason Mamoa is a giant step forward for the Aquaman character and franchise. And when it comes to diversity and screen presence, mention must also be made of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who chews up the scenery as a ruthless high-tech pirate turned super-villain Black Manta.

As for the cast overall, I found it enjoyable to see Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman and Dolph Lundgren with significant supporting roles. As a fan of 1980s and 90s action movies, I especially smiled at Lundgren who plays King Nereus.

The movie features fantastic world-building, incredible action sequences, and marvelous special effects. The finale is especially intense, though it gets a little confusing at times. And, as mentioned previously, it also serves up a fairly strong cast -- though, in some cases, an underutilized cast. 

Unfortunately, the movie itself has an overall underwhelming feel. The packaging is great. The content seems (at times) weak. Writing for ForbesErik Kain sums it up pretty well: "Instead of character development we get spectacle. Glorious spectacle. The CGI is as outstanding as it is overwhelming. Half the movie takes place underwater and they do a decent job with that, but every other scene turns into a battle. Explosions abound. Giant sea creatures are eclipsed by even more gargantuan underwater beasts." Yes, indeed. The spectacle (the packaging) is incredible. But the movie left me with a feeling that can perhaps best be described by the famous question asked by that cantankerous lady from the old Wendy's commercial: "Where's the beef?"

Morris puts it a little harshly, when he writes: "There’s no joy or wonder to behold, just comic-book movie blah-blah." While I wouldn't go that far, when my son and I exited the theater, we couldn't rate the film as being any better than "mediocre."

Much of the script was trite and predictable. Some of the dialogue was downright cringe-worthy. And the movie was just too long. Had the movie been written, directed, and edited as a 90-minute action film, it would've probably been three times better. As it was, it plodded along for 2 1/2 hours! By the time we finally made it to the end, we were more than ready to depart.

Conscientious parents and those looking for clean cinema will be disappointed at some of the language and should be advised that there is violence throughout. Writing for Common Sense Media, Michael Ordona sums up the film's moral content as follows: "[I]t's largely bloodless, but characters are beaten, impaled, and eaten by monsters, and weapons (including blasters and tridents) are used. Language is infrequent but includes 'ass,' 's--t,' and 'd--k'; adult characters also kiss and drink (once to excess)."

Many moviegoers these days are quite fine with limited character development, predictable plots, and trite dialogue. They just want action and cool effects. If you're in that group, you'll like Aquaman. Indeed, if you like superhero films in general, you'll probably find Aquaman at least passably enjoyable. If you're a Jason Mamoa fan, it's definitely something you should check out. But...

If you're hoping for a superhero movie as excellent as 2008's Iron Man (starring Robert Downey, Jr.), the Captain America film series (starring Chris Evans), or the Dark Knight trilogy (starring Christian Bale), you will likely be disappointed.

As for me, I enjoy going to the movies with my family. And my son and I both enjoy action-packed superhero films. So, a night out with him was worth it. And, if you're a parent like me looking for a good reason to hit the movies with your kid, you could do worse than Aquaman. And honestly, I've learned the most important thing isn't the quality of the film you're watching. It's about the quality of the relationship with the one you're seeing the movie with. For this reason, I was glad to go to the movies with my son. And I'm grateful to the church family that gave us the AMC gift card (as a Christmas present) to make the outing possible.

Aquaman is rated PG-13, and (as of this writing) is currently showing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Enjoyable Military Sci-Fi: My Review of Chris Fox's Destroyer

"Commander Nolan ducked through the hatch into the combat information center of the UFC Johnston." That's the opening line of Destroyer, the first installment in Chris Fox's Void Wraith saga. And there's something about that line that hooks this Star Trek fan.

It's not just that line. Fox knows the military sci-fi genre well. He hits all the right buttons and kept me riveted from beginning to end. Indeed, Destroyer is one of the few novels that I've read more than once!

The setting is simple, yet compelling. Human colonies on the edge of explored space are disappearing without a trace. The UFC Johnston, our heroes' destroyer, undertakes the task of finding out why. In so doing, they tangle with the cat-like Tigris and their own headquarters all while uncovering signs of a seemingly invincible new enemy and a horrifying conspiracy.

Nolan is the Johnston's first officer, a veteran of Fleet Intelligence who was relegated to the aging Johnston and the outer edges of space after a falling out with a high-ranking admiral. A falling out that involved said admiral's daughter. The story follows Nolan who must earn the respect of his maverick captain, a grizzled space marine non-commissioned officer, the Johnston crew, and later the Tigris as he struggles to get to the bottom of what's going on.

The novel is fast-paced and action-packed. Considering the politics and intrigue featured in the novel, it's impressive that Fox keeps the story moving at such a brisk pace while keeping the reader fully engaged - at least those readers (like me) who appreciate military sci-fi along the lines of Star Trek.

In one of his other books, Write to Market, Fox recommends that aspiring indie authors target specific reader markets and thoroughly study the tropes of their chosen genre or sub-genre. Fox practices what he preaches as Destroyer checks all the boxes. His Void Wraith saga is similar to other popular sci-fi series such as Nick Webb's Legacy Fleet series.

I can't speak to the science. I enjoy reading and watching space fantasy and science fiction, but I'm not an expert in space travel, physics, gravity, theories of hyperspace, etc. I'll leave discussion of those aspects to minds much smarter than mine. That said, from this layman's perspective, the 'science' sounded plausible enough for me to suspend any disbelief or suspicions and just enjoy the story.

Destroyer is the first part of the Void Wraith trilogy. The other titles are Void Wraith (Part 2) and Eradication (Part 3). And then the series continues beyond the trilogy with additional novels that feature a mech focus.

If you like sci-fi space action novels, this one belongs in your library. I encourage you to check out Destroyer and begin your reading adventure in the Void Wraith universe.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Virtual Reality Game Testers Should Always Read the Fine Print: My Review of Ryan Decker's Deadly Realm: Fighting for Freedom

In Ryan Decker's gamelit novella Deadly Realm: Fighting for Freedom, a young game tester is thrown into a fast-paced, virtual reality world that tests not only his survival skills, but his sanity!

The story begins with Paxton Tyler selected to test out a new game that supposedly will help advance autism research. His brother is autistic, so Pax sees this a triple-win: He can help his brother, get paid, and enjoy playing inside a computer game. Pax loves computer games.

Unfortunately for Pax, it isn't that simple. And the experience is more terrifying than enjoyable. He's greeted by a tough, mean-spirited guide who claims she is trapped inside the game. Within a few pages, his guide softens and warms to him. But she's pulled away from him after the first three levels. The nature of her 'reality' is part of the story's mystery. And he faces a succession of monsters that cause him intense pain, panic, and medical crises back in the real world testing facility.

As the story itself puts it: "[Pax] thought living in a fantasy world, battling demons or beasts would be everything he'd ever dreamt of. Instead, it filled him with confusion and fear unlike anything he'd known before."

Deadly Realm is light on game mechanics and RPG elements. Those who enjoy hard litrpg (lots of charts, number-crunching stats, etc) should look elsewhere. It's also quite short. An experienced reader can zoom through this in one sitting. And while short reads are fine (at least for me), the speed with which Pax races through the levels makes the story feel rushed for no reason. The game world doesn't feel very big and certainly not very open. The short length, combined with the story's fast pace, also makes Pax seem more powerful (despite his earnest fear at times) than what the story tries to convey. And the ending is, shall we say, rather abrupt.

Definite language warning on this one. Many of my faith-oriented readers will want to take a pass. I suppose this reflects how a majority of RPG gamers talk, but I find such vulgarity unnecessary and a definite turn-off.

I personally found the story enjoyable overall, though hardcore Gamelit/LitRPG readers will likely see plenty of room for improvement.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Be Zombie Chow-Mein or Play in a Virtual Reality Role-Playing Game: My Review of Jackob Tanner's Arcane Kingdom Online: The Chosen

Clay Hopewell was sentenced to die. His crime: He somehow got infected with the ZERO virus -- a virus that either kills you outright or turns you into a zombie. The details of said virus, including which is more likely, are not really explored or discussed in The Chosen, the first installment in Jakob Tanner's Arcane Kingdom Online. It's just clear that having the ZERO virus is a death sentence.

Only Clay doesn't just face a normal death. Not in this story. Once Clay tests positive for the virus, he is whisked away to a quarantine zone, which is basically a re-purposed airport hangar. An airport hangar devoid of life, save for a crazed, shrieking female cannibal that's ready to make Clay into her dish of "zombie chow-mein" (one of my favorite terms from Tanner's book). Clay is rescued in the nick of time and given a choice. He can die (either as zombie food or when the disease runs its course) or ...

He can play a computer game.

So goes the premise of our story. Arcane Kingdom Online is yet another entry into the emerging subgenre known as RPG Lit, GameLit, or LitRPG. And this appears to be Jakob Tanner's first novel.

According to The Chosen's backstory, Arcane Kingdom Online was a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that faded into commercial oblivion after decades of success. As far as the public is concerned at the beginning of Tanner's novel, AKO is defunct. But our protagonist, Clay, soon finds out that AKO isn't defunct. It just became a top-secret project pushing the edge of revolutionary technology.

Those unlucky enough to contract the ZERO virus and who have the right connections are given the opportunity to "digitally reincarnate" in the online universe of AKO, leaving the cares and troubles of the real world behind. Facing certain death, Clay decides to take his chances in the game (even though, we're told, at the novel's beginning, there's a chance he won't survive the consciousness upload process).

Arcane Kingdom Online provides a compelling, if not original, premise. And The Chosen hooked this reader in at the outset. And it kept me turning (or digitally flipping on my Kindle app) the pages until the very end.

Among the things that Jakob does really well is he serves up a believable main character (MC) -- someone who is not overpowered (OP) and who experiences real danger. His opening sequence, complete with a "save the cat" moment that endears you to the MC :-), is quite compelling. It draws you into the story and keeps you engaged. At least it did for me.

The writing quality is solid. There were no distracting typos or other such issues. It showed the work of an editor - or at least a good proofreading. And that's a refreshing contrast with many of the titles out there in this subgenre.

There are a few minor shortcomings. First, I have mixed feelings about how little explanation is provided regarding the ZERO virus - the whole reason our hero gets uploaded into the game. On the one hand, not going into a lot of detail keeps the story moving. On the other, it makes the whole plot device feel cursory and contrived. (I understand that all fiction is contrived, but a good story shouldn't feel that way). One reason it feels this way is the whole ZERO virus thing is forgotten until the end. In my opinion (and some readers may disagree with me), the virus and the havoc it's wreaking on the earth deserve a little more attention throughout the story (maybe a few more system messages during the course of events in-game). Another is that a couple characters supposedly important to Clay are introduced in the beginning and then dropped. One would think Clay, however strained relations may be with them, would care about their fate. But, again, this is a minor concern. It didn't make the story any less enjoyable. It just made it a little awkward for me.

Second, if the virus is threatening the earth with apocalyptic doom and if digitally uploading souls into a computer game is really a technologically workable solution, there should be a whole lot more interest in that option than the story suggests (at least at the beginning).

Third, if keeping the human race alive digitally is the goal, why (other than to serve the needs of the story) create a fantasy, medieval world full of danger? This is a common sense question that lots of authors playing with this kind of premise love to avoid. But it's a question that I couldn't get out of my mind considering the miserable situation the game thrusts our protagonist into at the very beginning of his online journey. If you're going to entice people to upload themselves (permanently, mind you) into a game, why not offer them the opportunity to endlessly enjoy virtual beach resorts rather than be a prisoner marked for death? But maybe that's just me.

Finally, I should point out, as I must with virtually all the novels I review, this is not a Christian fantasy. Many of my readers don't care about that or prefer it that way. But many of my readers do care, and that's why I feel the need to mention it. So, if you're looking for an overt Christian fantasy novel, this is not it. And if you're looking for a novel free of any objectionable language, this isn't for you either. That said, The Chosen contains no objectionable sexual situations and is thankfully free from the harem craze that has unfortunately infected so much of this subgenre. I therefore give it props for that.

With all the above said, I want to make clear that I found the story quite enjoyable. I don't want any of my objections above to call into question the fact that I do recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys LitRPG / GameLit reading. It succeeded where novels matter most: It entertained me, and kept me reading to the very end. Thus, not only do I recommend the story, but I look forward to the author's second installment.


For additional reading, be sure to check out these articles...

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Have You Tried Fantasy RPG Literature? Why This Fantasy Fiction Fan Loves GameLit

Do you read fantasy novels? Do you enjoy playing tabletop or computer role-playing games? If so, RPG Literature may be right up your alley.

What is RPG Lit?

RPG Literature (or RPG Lit for short) is a fantasy and science fiction sub-genre combining the conventions of role-playing games (RPGs) with, you guessed it, science fiction and fantasy novels. This subgenre is more popularly known as GameLit (Game Literature) or LitRPG (Literature or Literary Role-Playing Game), however there are some distinctions between GameLit and LitRPG, which we will discuss shortly. RPG Lit is all about following fictional characters through a (hopefully) high-immersion, virtual reality ‘world,’ specifically a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).

In the last few years, I've become a big fan of this subgenre. My introduction to RPG Lit / GameLit / LitRPG was author J.A. Cipriano's World of Ruul series. Cipriano, a New York Times bestselling author, has written three installments in this series thus far - and I've read them all. They are Soulstone: AwakeningSoulstone: The Skeleton King, and Soulstone: Oblivion. I was hooked with Soulstone: Awakening, even though the language was a little rough for this Christian reader. And I have read dozens of GameLit / LitRPG / RPG Lit lit novels and short stories since.

Some of you reading this might find that ironic since I'm a Christian - and a pastor, no less. Not all Christians will understand or approve of my sci-fi and fantasy fandom, but I respectfully see no inconsistency or issue. The Bible certainly condemns “mediums,” “necromancers,” and “sorcerers” (see Leviticus and Revelation). But these passages very specifically refer to individuals consorting with actual witches and demons. These passages are not talking about Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or even the main protagonist in I Dream of Jeannie. It’s important that Christians exercise some discernment, and it troubles me when Christians have a knee-jerk, judgmental reaction to things without taking the time to understand those things.

RPG Lit / GameLit / LitRPG essentially plays on the portal fantasy theme (something C.S. Lewis popularized with his iconic Chronicles of Narnia series), only it’s a portal to a virtual reality or digital world instead of another planet or dimension. Anyone who has seen The Matrix or a few particular episodes of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Stargate: SG-1 will be familiar with the idea. However, with this subgenre, it isn't just thrusting the character(s) into a digital reality. It highlights the need to progressively develop your skills, talents, and powers according to game rules and mechanics that characterize RPG or MMO games.

In a typical MMORPG game, a new player starts with minimal levels (or stats) in things like strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, charisma, etc. He or she also has little to no money and virtually no skill or ability when it comes to fighting, crafting, trading, or whatever occupations the game offers. The player must start from scratch and systematically build his or her character into a formidable warrior, archer, ranger, mage, or whatever.

GameLit vs LitRPG

As I said, the more popular names for this subgenre are GameLit and LitRPG, and there is a distinction between the two. GameLit is basically any story that takes place in a game, whereas LitRPG also takes place in a game (or game-like world) but emphasizes the linear progression of the main character via leveling and other game mechanics. And within that LitRPG umbrella, there are two subsets: hard vs. soft. A hard LitRPG novel is written for number-crunching game fans who love statistics and charts. A soft LitRPG has some stats and charts, and definitely has its character or characters progress through levels, but the emphasis is on the story as opposed to the stats.

Having said all the above, there are some GameLit/LitRPG readers who will take issue with how I've described things. This is still an emerging subgenre and thus, there are lots of disputes, opinions, and unresolved questions throughout.

Why I Love RPG Lit

I love this subgenre, which I'm calling RPG Lit for this article (though, again, GameLit and LitRPG are the more popular designations), for several reasons. One, I love portal fiction in general. The idea of escaping into another reality and having to cope with that new reality is something that's long fascinated me. It's why I've long appreciated The Chronicles of Narnia. Another reason I enjoy this subgenre is the strategy! I love it when players (and characters) utilize strategy to outwit their opponents as opposed to brute force. It is for this reason that I absolutely loved Travis Bagwell's Awaken Online: Catharsis. And it's why I really enjoyed the second installment of Cipriano's World of Ruul series.

If you enjoy strategy or role-playing games and appreciate the charms of escapist fantasy (like Chronicles of Narnia), I suggest you give this subgenre a try. I believe you'll enjoy it.

**Check out my GameLit / LitRPG Favorites.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Lord of the Rings: Finding Middle Earth in New Zealand (Guest Article by Rene Smith)

This is an older article (dated July 5, 2007) pulled from for all those who may be interested in traveling to New Zealand to experience the sites and locations associated with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings masterpiece. The article is written by Rene Smith. 


The Lord of the Rings: Finding Middle Earth in New Zealand
by Rene Smith

The Lord of the Rings story has captured the imagination of millions of people around the world. New Zealand has been lucky enough to be involved in this global phenomena thanks to Peter Jackson's critically acclaimed Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The wide-open spaces, diverse landscapes and spectacular scenery of New Zealand were the best place to film the movies, allowing New Zealanders to showcase their country and create a growing Lord of the Rings tourism industry.

The Lord of the Rings back-story

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the original Lord of the Rings novels between 1937 and 1949, he would have had no idea of the huge impact they would have on future generations throughout the world. The stories have had a massive influence on pop culture and you come across many Lord of the Rings references in songs, movies and other literature.

Tolkien had earlier written a book called The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings novels followed as sequels and continued the epic fantasy theme and have since been reprinted into over 30 languages, making it one of the most popular franchises of the 20th century.

The Lord of the Rings story is based around human like creatures such as Elves, Hobbits, Wizards, Dwarves, Orcs and Men. They live in a sprawling world named Middle Earth, home to mysterious beings, magical rings, the devious Gollum, huge battles, the dark realm of Mordor and much, much more.

Part of the success of the Lord of the Rings can be put down to its complexity and Tolkien's endless work in developing a credible and highly detailed back-story. This back-story is brilliantly revealed as the story progresses, filling in important details and creating a living and breathing world with a rich history in the minds of readers.

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy

After several acclaimed but moderately successful feature films, New Zealand's Peter Jackson diverted his attention to a new project, one that would consume many years of his life and eventually turn him into a star and one of Hollywood's most sought after directors.

Jackson always had a desire to make an updated film of the Lord of the Rings and often wondered why it hadn't been done earlier. After years of negotiating and revised scripts, Jackson and New Line Cinemas finally agreed to film and release the Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of The King. Filmed entirely in New Zealand, the films proved to be financial gold mine for both parties with the combined profits of the movies, video games and related merchandise easily heading in to the billions of dollars.

The movies were released to much critical acclaim and while some purists felt that Jackson deviated too far from the book, most agreed that it was both faithful to the book and a spectacular motion picture. The three movies combined for 17 Academy Awards with The Return of the King being the most successful, earning 11 of these, including Best Picture and Best Director for Peter Jackson.

The movies created a huge windfall for New Zealand in terms of publicity, tourism, the movie making industry and the creation of Weta Workshops as a leading special effects design studio. Wellington was even chosen as the destination for the premiere of the final chapter of the trilogy, The Return of the King.

Finding Middle Earth in New Zealand

With the Lord of the Rings thrusting New Zealand's spectacular scenery in to the limelight, it was inevitable that a demand to see it up close and personal would be created. labeling itself as "Middle Earth", New Zealand's tourism industry gained a much-appreciated boost thanks to thousands of travelers taking part in tours and scenic trips. Immersing themselves in various film locations, ardent Lord of the Rings fans and casual travelers alike could enjoy the wide open spaces of New Zealand knowing that these were where the movies plot twists, dramatic scenes and great battles took place.

Filming took place throughout the country, with areas surrounding Wellington, the lower North Island and Christchurch receiving the most attention. The Canterbury Plains, Southern Alps and Mt Potts high country station serve as particularly beautiful and inspiring areas to see various Lord of the Rings film locations such as Edoras, Helms Deep and the Misty Mountains. All are accessible with tour groups and you'll have the opportunity to meet new friends with similar interests along the way.

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings story has affected the lives of millions of individuals around the world and none more so than here in New Zealand. His epic tale of courage and honour has not only inspired readers but also helped Peter Jackson create his own masterpiece, opening up a whole new generation to Tolkien's wonderful story. New Zealand's film industry has been taken to a new level with the burgeoning local industry talent allowing other blockbuster films such as the Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong to also be filmed in the country. The benefits spread further into tourism and related areas with many overseas visitors coming to experience New Zealand's special link with the Lord of the Rings.

Rene Smith is a travel guru who lives and works in Christchurch, New Zealand. Visit his Christchurch travel website [] for more articles, reviews and information on planning a vacation to Christchurch, New Zealand.

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Friday, October 12, 2018

How to Write Fantasy Fiction (Guest Article from Rob Parnell)

This is a guest article taken from It was written by Rob Parnell, a prolific author who not only entertains readers but teaches other authors how to write better and be more successful in their literary endeavors. Even though the article is several years old, it still contains useful tips. If any of you are interested in writing fantasy fiction, I believe you'll find Rob's article helpful.


How to Write Fantasy Fiction
by Rob Parnell

Most fantasy writers have been constructing their fantasy world since childhood. It grows with them; they add to it as they develop as writers until it's so real to them that writing about it feels effortless - even when they seem to have created a huge, sophisticated universe.

But if you're new to the genre, where do you start?

Many professional fantasy writers will joke about 'the formula' for good fantasy because it does exist and good fantasy authors still use it - not because they're lazy but because the fans want it - in fact insist on it!

It has been condensed thus: 'Hero, artifact, quest'. That's it. All you need to start a fantasy novel! Think Froddo, the ring and the journey to Mordor and you'll see what I mean.

I prefer something a little more organic and creative.

Get a very large sheet of paper. A3 at least - that's about 3 feet by 2 in the US. Draw an outline for your kingdom - or kingdoms. Experiment with the shape of coastlines, archipelagos and spits. Maybe put some islands around it.

Use a blue crayon or chalk to shade in the sea and draw a compass somewhere on the paper to orientate the map. Maybe a scale too: one inch equals 100 miles say.

Divide your kingdom into countries or regions - draw in the border lines.

Using different color pencils, add mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, whatever you like. Have lots of fun with this bit!

Cities normally grow up on rivers and ports - so start placing important cities and towns, farming communities, military posts etc. Start thinking about trade routes, badlands and resistance enclaves where nobody goes...

Don't forget that most fantasy is set in an entirely medieval world where technology is limited to bows and arrows, spears and fire, with a liberal sprinkling of magical swords, jewels or articles of clothing like magic capes or belts. Don't take this element too lightly.

I have known many writers who try to insert guns and flying machines into their world and are promptly asked to remove them by pedantic publishers!

Now for some writing.

Invent three major castes of inhabitants. For example: human, elven and dwarves say, or make up your own. One of the caste may be dragons if you want to be faithful to the 'formula'.

Describe the class system for each. Who's the king or the head magician, how the government of Elders work, what the peasants do, whether there are bands of mercenaries roaming the countryside, that kind of thing.

Now think of three characters for each caste - have them related for maximum impact. For instance three characters might be Princess Tumar who needs to regain the crown after her father was killed by the evil Majadon, aided by her younger brother.

Write a paragraph for every character, describing their physical appearance.

Give each of the characters an agenda that is at odds with at least two of the other characters.

Write a few pages describing the scenario you have invented.

By now you should be feeling an attachment to one or more character. Choose one to be the hero and give him or her an important quest that they must undertake to gain maturity, power or enlightenment (perhaps all three!)

Next, choose a magic artifact that the character must obtain during this quest. Don't choose a book!

Then create a huge threatening situation (a war, natural disaster or magical event) in which the characters are all at risk - of losing their power, authority, self respect, lives etc. and then...

Open up a new file and write: Chapter One.

Okay, over to you!

Rob Parnell Go here to receive free ebooks and free lessons on writing the easy way:

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Friday, July 6, 2018

Life Lessons From The TV Series Smallville

Growing up, I was a huge Superman fan — just as I’ve long been a fan of science fiction, fantasy, and superheroes in general. So, when Smallville aired for the first time in 2001, I should’ve been glued to the TV. But…I wasn’t. For whatever reason, I ignored the series for years. And then, sometime in 2004 or 2005 (I can’t remember exactly when), I started renting DVDs from Season 1. (This was before online streaming took off). And I was hooked. I binge-watched my way through the first few seasons, finally catching up to where Smallville actually was. I’ve been a fan ever since.

For those who may not know, Smallville was a TV series about Clark Kent before he became Superman. It starred Tom Welling and ran from 2001 until 2011. The series starts with Clark as a high school freshman and continues forward as he discovers, understands, and develops his abilities. It’s a great concept, though it requires some suspended disbelief to accept Tom Welling, at the time in his mid-twenties, as a 9th grader. The series follows Clark through high school, then college, and then his early career as an entry-level reporter for The Daily Planet. While the series does a halfway decent job keeping Clark and his friends oriented to high school in the first few seasons, the whole college thing is almost ignored. One wonders, in fact, if Clark ever attended any classes!

Some of my readers may not appreciate superheroes or science fiction as much as I do, but Smallville contained some great life lessons that should resonate with all of us. Like just about anything, you have to be discerning. And for the discerning viewer, there were some terrific gems of wisdom — some wonderful life lessons — in this Superman origin TV series.

As a Christian (and those of you who don’t share my faith may want to skip this paragraph), I obviously can’t endorse all the content of every episode. It starts off as a moderately kid-friendly show, but as the series progresses, it gets more “adult.” Some episodes get a little racy, with revealing outfits, lots of drinking, and some characters engaging in casual sex. Some Christians will understandably want to avoid any such content. Others will see it as merely reflective of society overall and look past the objectionable parts to enjoy the good aspects of the program.

I would simply caution you to be discerning and to (as always) make entertainment choices that would not cause anyone (including yourself) to stumble into sin. Speaking for myself, when it comes to entertainment choices, I balance things out on a proverbial scale. And, in my judgment, the good outweighs the bad with Smallville, but I respect those who may come to a different conclusion.

Either way, few can argue that TV shows (as well as movies and books) sometimes contain some inspiring moments or meaningful lessons. And that’s certainly the case with Smallville. So…without further ado, here are some powerful life lessons from Smallville:

“The suit doesn’t make the hero.” -Clark Kent, Season 10, Episode 18 “Booster”

While Clark is trying to keep his identity under wraps and his alter ego’s image (at this point, as “the Blur”) well managed, he comes face-to-face with a flashy, camera-loving superhero named Booster Gold. The episode juxtaposes Clark’s choice to shun the limelight with Booster’s hunger for it. Clark actually begins to diminish his reputation as (well) Clark by transforming himself back into a mild-mannered, socially awkward, and utterly forgettable bystander. By contrast, Metropolis’ newest arrival seeks all the glory he can achieve and presents himself as the city’s new savior (and the Blur’s replacement).

As the episode progresses, Clark learns that Booster came from the future thanks to a Legionnaire’s ring, which he probably stole.  And then Booster messes up a rescue which accidentally leads to an uncontrollable monster threatening the city. And it’s Clark who must pick up the pieces and make things right.

The episode provides a solid lesson in humility, patience, and character. And Clark gets to explain that suits, costumes, and public relations campaigns don’t make heroes. As he explains, “A hero is made in the moment, by the choices that he makes and the reasons that he makes them.”

“Pain is part of anyone’s journey…you can’t escape it.” -Raya, Season 6, Episode 6 “Fallout”

During the Smallville series, Clark (as well as his cousin and a couple friends) spend some time in the Phantom Zone, a lawless and nightmarish abode where Krypton exiled its criminals. In this episode, one of Clark’s friends, Raya, escapes to Earth and comes to visit him. Unfortunately, she isn’t the only one who came to Earth. An evil spirit escapes the Phantom Zone with her and soon inhabits the body of a street kid and comes looking for revenge.

I won’t elaborate any more or risk giving spoilers, but Raya says something in the course of the episode that rings true for all of us. Pain is indeed part of life’s journey. And, try as we might, we can’t escape it. Not in this life. How we deal with that pain fashions and reveals our character.

“Call me crazy, but I’ve always been a firm believer that beauty-it’s on the inside.” -Lois Lane, Season 4, Episode 3 “Fa├žade”

This episode explores what it means to be cool, attractive, and popular – things teenagers (and many adults) wrestle with a lot. Against his father’s wishes, Clark tries out for the high school football team, while a former acne-ridden teenage girl returns from summer break looking fabulous. Her secret? Plastic surgery with a little Kryptonite mixed in.

As one who struggled with acne as a teen and with self-esteem issues for many of my teen and young adult years, I can relate to this episode. And I agree with the lessons it tries to convey. Resorting to desperate, dangerous, or unhealthy measures may give you a temporary boost in confidence or even enhance (for a season) your appearance, but they risk damaging you and others at a level far deeper and of much greater significance.

When it comes to looks, talent, and abilities, people come in all shapes and sizes. But everyone, regardless of appearance or personality, can be something special and make a unique, positive, and meaningful difference in the lives of those around them. To do this, we must pay more attention to what’s on the inside than what’s on the outside.

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.” -Zod, Season 9, Episode 3 “Rabid”

Sometimes, the bad guys have the best lines. And sometimes, at least when it comes to specific things said, the bad guys are correct. This is one of those times. Zod reminds us that the truth will eventually come to light.

The episode features zombies. That’s right, zombies. Someone in the Smallville writing room must’ve said: “Hey, we need zombies. What could be cooler than Superman vs. zombies?” That’s probably how we got “Rabid” as a Smallville episode.

A virus is unleashed on Metropolis turning its residents, including our beloved Lois Lane, into an out-of-control, rabid zombie. It’s up to Clark to (once again) save the day. Which, of course, he does. Sorry for the spoiler, but back to the lesson…

The truth is something that people will often try to hide from, deny, avoid, or redefine. We see this in the news all the time. We see it in the entertainment world. We see it on social media. We see it in our families. We see it in ourselves. We often don’t like the truth. We often, to steal Jack Nicholson’s line from A Few Good Men, “can’t handle the truth.” But…the truth is always there. It’s objective. It’s persistent. And it must eventually be confronted.

Smallville is a great show. I wish they’d do a sequel show called Metropolis with Tom Welling playing as our hero Superman, but this is unlikely given the CW’s current-running Supergirl (which features a different actor for Superman) and the movie franchise which started with Man of Steel and continued with Batman vs. Superman and Justice League. Still, whenever I get a little nostalgic for Welling’s Clark Kent, I can always fire up an old episode of Smallville and enjoy it. And, with some episodes, I can also learn some important life lessons.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Freedom is Not a Fantasy

On this 4th of July 2018, allow me to break from our traditional fantasy-oriented blog posts and book reviews and wish everyone a Happy Independence Day. Freedom in the United States of America is not a fantasy, thanks to the brilliant and courageous Founders who laid out the foundations of our great nation and the many veterans over the years who have defended it.

Happy Birthday, America!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Stories That Go Deep and Make You Think: My Interview With GameLit Author Stan Faryna

Stan Faryna is an author, blogger, gamer, entrepreneur, technology expert, and an online strategist. As an author, Stan has become known in the emerging sub-genre of gamelit or litrpg. His debut novella Francesco Augustine Bernadone: A Brief History of Tomorrows has been reviewed on this blog.

His stories have drawn praise for their depth and thought-provoking nature. "His stories go deep," writes Yomar Lopez, founder of a community of techno-geeks called Geeky Antics. "Stan makes me think," writes a fan on Facebook. He does that in an immersive context of a dystopian world, life-like characters with vivid problems and pain, and Christian hope. A recurring theme across his writing is right out of the bible: Love never fails.

Brian Tubbs (BT): Stan, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Stan Faryna (SF): Thank you for honoring me with your kind words and attention, Brian.

BT: As Yomar Lopez says in his review, your stories go deep. Tell us about that. 

SF: Yomar (aka @yogizilla) was very kind (and I loved doing Dr. Who podcasts with him), but I do hope that I take the intrepid reader, deep. Deep as into self-knowledge, hope, and life. Of course, I want the reader to enjoy a great and compelling story, but I also want that story to encourage them to ask themselves (and live out) the big questions.
  • Who am I? 
  • What can I legitimately hope for in this life? 
  • What should I be doing to make that hope happen?
Beyond God, it doesn't get more real than that. Of course, the key to any kind of meaningful answer is love. Love strongly.

That love is the answer should be obvious to the good woman. And to the good man. But good is not where the world is and most of us fail to love. Too often, we fail.

What do you think? What is possible and likely without love?

BT: Tell us what got you started writing fiction?

SF: I suspect that my writing is staged by my experience which must include reading. C.S. Lewis, himself, believed that reading is key to writing and, more importantly, that good reading is essential to good writing. 

My father taught me how to read at a young age. Maybe, four or five. By nine, I had read most of his science fiction books - Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov among them. I don't think I understood everything I had read in those early years, but it fed my young imagination. 

I believe my father also introduced me to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Of course, I preferred comic books and TV superheroes - The Mighty Thor, Dr. Strange, The Amazing Spiderman, Adam West's Batman, and George Reeve's Superman

But the story that seems to have spoken most to me (in childhood) was Homer's Odyssey. That epic poem of Odysseus’s ten-year journey to return home after the Trojan war is an epic, romantic and difficult journey of self-awareness, discovery, and hope. 

My own life, it would turn out, is not a very different story.  

Fast forward. I'm almost 40 years old and a novel is overdue. As Milan Kundera explains in his The Art of the Novel, what defines a novel most is that it asks important, eternal, and urgent questions. He gives us the example of Don Quixote by Miquel Cervantes; it asks whether virtue is still relevant. 

My own heart tells me that it is. That virtue is necessary for the good life. So I must ask, what is virtue. 

Such questions seem better placed in fiction. Or science fiction. Because we can be more honest with ourselves in that context. That's why I'm writing fiction.

Of course, fiction is not the only kind of writing that I do. Or that I have done. Business plans, proposals and corporate communications. Op-eds and blog posts. Book reviews and marketing copy. Thank you notes, personal correspondence and consolations.

A good writer should know how to write to a variety of purposes. passions, and necessities.     
If you are a writer, do try.
BT: Tell us about GameLit or LitRPG. What's it all about?

SF: GameLit and LitRPG is science fiction, fantasy or some combination that is plotted like a computer or table top role playing game a la Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft. Its roots go back to the stories of players relating the adventures and backstories of their player characters. Though these stories initially developed a market among Russian and Eastern European readers as LitRPG, a market for this sub-genre evolved in the West over the last ten years. 

Beyond the debates and legalities, the apparent difference between LitRPG and GameLit is that LitRPG strongly emphasizes the mechanics of character progression and game play - too often at the expense of a meaningful theme, plot, story structure, depth of character, setting, and style. None of which dampens the enthusiasm of the general LitRPG reader. Some would unkindly suggest this problematic reflects the lack of maturity (and humanity) of the anti-social and loveless gamer. 

A popular example of LitRPG is Travis Bagwell's Awaken Online series. On the other hand, an example of GameLit is Ernest Cline's Ready Player One.

BT: Your latest project is part of an anthology of novellas and short stories in the gamelit subgenre. In fact, the pack is titled GameLit: Expansion Pack. How did you get involved in that project?"

SF: Being a gamer myself and having a concept of a game that I would like to develop, I began an epic, romantic story about a gamer. The concept of a massively multi-player, post-apocalyptic game, Jacob's Trouble, came to me in the late 90s. I began writing the story in 2006 as a way to define the story, world and mechanics of the game. For the purpose of a business plan. That story, however, became something more. An exercise in love.

Fast forward to 2016 when I released my novella, Francesco Augustine Bernadone. It's about an aging man who enters the game, Jacob's Trouble, in hopes of making enough money to pay for experimental medical treatment needed by his dying wife. 

As I scrambled to figure out some of the marketing mechanics behind book sales, LitRPG seemed like a good sub-genre market for my story. It wasn't. Some complain that LitRPG is more sewer than anything that might be mistaken for literature. On the other hand, GameLit stories are more about the writing. The game is more of an element of the story than a substitute for a story - or so I hope!

GameLit, however, is a new market and time will tell if it will grow large enough to sustain the authors that want to write and sell to it. R.M. Mulder believes in GameLit and he's done a lot to develop the concept, sub-genre, and community. He's also the mastermind behind the GameLit Expansion Pack and an upcoming GameLit magazine. He gave me a space to do my thing and I'm grateful to him. 

BT: Tell us about your story 'Why No One Likes You.'

SF: Magda is a thirty something woman looking for a good time in a popular online game. As a new player, she's got to figure out the general mechanics of game play and her place in this new world. None of which come easy for Magda because she's narcissistic, anti-social, and impulsive. Worse, her reputation and character becomes a topic of public conversation and condemnation.

Magda's predicament reminds me of the problematic of people who pull up roots and go somewhere new to start over, but they can't leave themselves behind and, therefore, they bring their old troubles with them.

Unfortunately, online shaming, bullying and negativity is a thing. Real people are destroyed by it. Often for sake of a single, thoughtless comment or statement. As a result, some end up killing themselves. That's a horrible tragedy. Others lose their jobs. Some don't get hired. Online reputation is that serious. It's a thing I wanted to consider through her story.

I also wanted to explore rejection and how character, personality and intelligence contribute to one's existential predicaments.

How do you manage your online reputation? 

Hopefully, with love and humility.

BT: You were kind enough to invite me to join the next one, so thank you. And I look forward to being a part of that project with you.

SF: I'm excited for you. For your newly embarked odyssey in writing. For the stories you will bring. I'm confident you are going to bring an intelligent and substantial voice to the subgenre. I've enjoyed more than a few of your sermons. 

Intelligence, substance, and sincerity is increasingly lacking across genres and media. We need your finger on the dam.

Consider it an exercise in love and hope.

Check out GameLit Expansion Pack over at Amazon. Don’t forget to leave a review after picking up a copy. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Why I Love Watching, Reading, and Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: Blame my Father

Most of you know me as a Christian and as a pastor, but not all of you know that I'm a fan of fantasy and science fiction. You can blame my father for that.

As I write this, we’re heading into Father’s Day Weekend 2018. And I’m thinking of my late father, Edward Tubbs. One of the many things we did as a father and son was come up with stories together and create our own games. We both loved history, science fiction, and fantasy. And I have many fond memories dreaming up various story ideas and making up our own games - and then playing them.

In one particular game, we had medieval soldiers, castles, dragons, and wizards. I remember it well. We’d dream up the rules, play out our game to see if the rules worked, and tweak things as we went along. And on a least a couple occasions, when I’d start winning, Dad would want to change the rules. :-).

My dad raised me to believe in God, love Jesus, and respect the Bible as God’s word. And it frankly irritates me that some Christians would think we were doing something “demonic” or “sinful” in those harmless father-son games because, in at least a couple of them, we had wizards and dragons! Or because Dad tried to get me to read The Lord of the Rings books (and I sadly never did -- but I love the movies! :-) ).

And yet many Christians are indeed that way. And would indeed say those things.

I still remember when the first Star Wars movie came out. I loved it! My dad loved it! It was something that he and I bonded over. He took me to every one of the original trilogy movies. And he and Mom bought me some of the Star Wars comics when they came out. And I remember taking one of those comics to school one day (I went to a private Christian school) and being told by my teacher that Star Wars was “of the devil.”

Of the devil? Seriously!?

My dad was helping me celebrate something that was "of the devil"?!

For my third grade mind, that just did not compute. And, honestly, it doesn't compute for my 48 year old mind either.

As I explained in my article “Christianity and Fantasy: Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Literature,” (which you can read here), I love reading about dragons, monsters, wizards, Jedi, sword fights, epic battles, and more. I have for years. And...

Yes, I’m a Christian (and a pastor, no less).

That's right. I'm an evangelical, Bible-believing, Christ-loving, Baptist pastor AND I enjoy fantasy and science fiction.
  • I read fantasy and science fiction. 
  • I watch fantasy and science fiction. 
  • And I even write about fantasy and science fiction. (Hence, this blog). 
  • And I'm working on my own fantasy and science fiction stories.
Not all Christians will understand or appreciate my "entangling" myself with sci-fi and fantasy entertainment, but let me reiterate: Even though I enjoy fantasy and science fiction, I still...
  • Love Jesus.
  • Believe the Bible is the inspired word of God.
  • Am fully devoted to my Christian faith.
Perhaps you see an inconsistency or problem there, but I respectfully do not.

And neither did my father.

The Bible certainly condemns “mediums,” “necromancers,” and “sorcerers” (see Leviticus and Revelation). But these passages very specifically refer to individuals consorting with actual witches and demons. These passages are not talking about Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or even the main protagonist in I Dream of Jeannie.

It’s important that Christians exercise some discernment, and it troubles me when Christians have a knee-jerk, judgmental reaction to things without taking the time to understand those things.

If you’re going to judge a fictional depiction of magic, it’s important to at least understand that fictional depiction. You don’t just look on the surface and say “Magic? Sin!” What’s the SOURCE of the magic in the story?  THAT is important, because THAT is why the Bible condemns those who were engaged in sorcery in Bible times. Their source of power was demonic. And thus the Bible understandably and rightly condemns them.

If a work of fiction glorifies or celebrates Satan or demons as a source of power....stay away. But this is not the case with Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, I Dream of Jeannie, or The Wizard of Oz.

Frankly (and please don't brand me a heretic here, my fellow Christian), it's not even the case with Harry Potter either. (Picture me ducking to avoid incoming objects). Contrary to what some uninformed, yet quite vocal, Christians have to say, Harry Potter does not glorify Satanism or the worship of demons.

This doesn't mean I fully endorse Harry Potter. I do not. While most of Harry Potter is fictional, fanciful, and completely harmless, there are nevertheless some actual occult practices woven into the story, which should obviously raise serious concerns for Christians. For a more complete examination of that, I refer you to Marcia Montenegro's review of Harry Potter.

Marcia is the founder and head of a wonderful ministry called "Christian Answers for the New Age." I don't agree with Marcia on everything, and I know she won't agree with all of what I wrote in "Christians and Fantasy: Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Literature?" And she probably won't approve of my writing fantasy stories either. Nevertheless...

Unlike many in the Christian community who have a knee-jerk, judgmental reaction against all things fantasy, Marcia is thoughtful, reasonable, and informed. She has a lot of great information to offer the discerning Christian. And she makes excellent points about the Potter movie and book franchise. And as a former astrologer and New Age practitioner (and now Christian missionary), her expertise on such matters is worthy of attention and respect.

I appreciate those Christians who take a cautious (even if, at times, overly cautious) view of entertainment that deals with wizards and other magic-wielders. And if YOU feel God is leading you not to read or watch science fiction and fantasy at all, I respect that. I do.

By all means... Obey God.

But I hope you will respect people like my dad and me who did not believe God was leading us to avoid all fantasy and science fiction. I hope you can respect that we made different choices. Not that we endorsed all entertainment choices, and certainly not all fantasy entertainment. That's not what I'm saying and it's not what my father taught me. Rather, I believe a Christian can and should exercise discernment. And that is what I'm defending.


It was, after all, the late (and indeed legendary) J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote: "Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased." Fantasy fiction is not inherently corrupt or sinful, but like anything, it can become so. This is why discernment is key.

Let me repeat: Fantasy, in and of itself, is not sinful. It is simply a part of the human imagination - something that should be encouraged. For as Tolkien himself wrote: "Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker."

God bless you. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

An Interview With LitRPG Writer Apollos Thorne

Apollos Thorne is the bestselling author of several LitRPG novels, including Codename: Freedom - Survive Week One, Codename: Freedom - The Goblin Siege, and Underwold: Level Up or Die. I had the privilege of interviewing Apollos at the time his first Codename: Freedom title was released. This interview, conducted back in July 2017, is being republished on this blog for your reading pleasure.

July 2017 Interview with Apollos Thorne, author of Codename: Freedom series

Brian Tubbs (BT): “Your book Codename: Freedom – Survive Week One releases TODAY. I’m looking forward to reading it. It’s in the LitRPG genre. For the benefit of some of my blog readers, can you explain what LitRPG is all about?”

Apollos Thorne (AT): Sure. That is probably the hardest question to answer that I get asked all the time. Tron is a good example. The main character is sucked into a digital world. Although a lot of authors use virtual reality because it’s becoming more and more of a reality. The only difference is that once you are sucked into this world you are able to level up to grow stronger. Just like in the common Role Playing Game. The progression of the characters is usually a major characteristic of the genre.

Another aspect that isn’t talked about as often, but is almost always present, is the competition between other players or people also stuck in the same situation you are. Not only is there the opportunity to level up and grow stronger, but to compete against others. The trailer for Jumanji 2, which just dropped on YouTube, is also a good example.

BT: “What got you interested in LitRPG as a genre?”

AT: I grew up playing games, especially role-playing games. It was always the story of these games the fascinated me. The sense of progression from leveling you character and growing stronger is also something I think really captures the imagination of guys in particular. I think it is a perfect genre to tell coming of age stories. There is also the exploration of future technology that has my inner geek dancing.

BT: “On your blog, you say you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Can you tell us what you most appreciate about them?”

AT: I will start with Tolkien, just because he was the cornerstone for the modern fantasy genre; especially epic fantasy. Even though I am a minimalist in my own writing when it comes to descriptions, to read Tolkien is to enter a new world. He is also a great example of what mankind is able to do with the imagination God has given us. C.S. Lewis is probably a bigger inspiration because of how he was able to mold his Chronicles of Narnia universe into something entertaining to all, but also more directly honoring to God. Also, I was able to start Lewis’s series earlier in life and stay interested.

BT: “You’re a Christian who enjoys science fiction, fantasy, role-playing games, and LitRPG. As you know, some Christians are uncomfortable with these things. What would you say to someone who is sincere in their faith and who also enjoys science fiction, fantasy, role playing games, and so forth?”

AT: First of all, listen to your conscience. For anyone that is a new Christian… do not do anything that you are uncomfortable with just because another Christian has found liberty in that area.

I was converted while in the process of getting a film degree, so understanding where I stood in this area was something I had to figure out fast. Where you stand on any form of entertainment is probably one of the first things you will struggle with as well since it is so readily available in our culture. Don’t rush the process as God renews your mind through His word and wise counsel.

With that out of the way, fiction, regardless of the medium, is fiction, not reality. That distinction is very important. Understanding it is entertainment makes it possible to take something like Harry Potter and discern what is good and wrong about it. Yes, some people believe in witchcraft, or even take the made-up magic of Harry Potter and practice it as if it is real. They have not discerned reality.

As you grow in knowledge of Scripture and experience the philosophies of the fiction, and characters within, the idols of their hearts, and also the good and noble things in the story will become easier to spot. Self-sacrifice, heroism, love, compassion, mercy and redemption are all things that even unbelievers can understand to a certain extent and appreciate. Remember that man is totally depraved, not utterly depraved. Meaning we are naturally sinners, but by God’s grace no one is as bad as they could be. We are also created in God’s image. That makes mankind fascinating, even in his fallen state.

Albert Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is probably the most prolific reader I have ever encountered. Not only does he study every topic under the sun, but he also reads fiction. Now he doesn’t give recommendations, but he has helped solidify certain aspects of different forms of media in my mind. Reading, like nothing else, allows you to experience a story in an extremely intimate way and delve into the heart and mind of the characters, almost experiencing what they are experiencing and takes you on the journey with them. The emotions it can cause are evidence of that.

BT: “By the way, your first name is Apollos – the same name as one of the Apostle Paul’s ministry colleagues in the New Testament. Is that just a coincidence? or did your parents have the Apollos of the Bible in mind?”

AT: That is exactly where I got the name! A man of eloquent speech. I tease that my last name Thorne comes from Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Meaning for every ounce of eloquence He gave me to tell a story, He made sure to level the playing field. Actually the last name just sounded cool.

BT: “Tell us about your book.”

AT: Codename: Freedom – Survive Week One is the first book in what I plan to be a long running series of nine or more books. I wish they broke up nicely into trilogies, but I don’t see that happening. It is a coming of age tale where Lucius, named after the Lucius in Acts, is raised in a world where virtual, mixed and augmented reality have completely taken over everyday life.

His father is a software developer and created an artificial intelligence (AI) bot named Destiny to basically raise him in his place. She is more than that though. She is a constant voice in his head to help him develop to become the best he can be in whatever it is he so desires. Destiny is much more advanced than the regular AI bot and Lucius’s father is rather disappointed he uses her to pursue becoming a professional gamer.

Gaming at this point in time has become as big as professional sports are today, if not bigger. With enough followers you can catch the eye of sponsors and get huge contracts. Lucius is selected to enter a yearlong virtual reality experiment that is really a training simulator, "Codename: Freedom," designed to transform normal people into super soldiers. He enters Freedom to hopefully push his semi-pro status to the next level.

The leveling system isn’t like what is common in LitRPGs. It is based off of military grade Mixed Reality tech. When they level up, they can improve their senses to grow their ability of sight, hearing and smell. All combat is based off of their real world ability. Since both gamers and athletes are chosen to participate this causes some extra drama when the two different worlds clash.

I have to stop now or I’ll give too much away.

BT: “How long did it take for you to write it?”

AT: I started this one in October of 2015.

BT: “How accessible is this story for people who may be uncomfortable with profanity, sexual content, and so forth?”

AT: There is no profanity or sexual content at all for starters. I usually use fillers that are cleaner, like “cyborg snot" for cursing. Something that is cleaner, and more humorous than cringe-worthy. That doesn’t mean I do not touch on mature topics. One of the biggest trials Lucius has to deal with is the 100% pain in Codename: Freedom. Even if pain doesn’t come paired with death, having to wait hours as you suffer through it before your body recovers is not a light topic.

If in the future there is sexual content, then I will imply and not describe it. I have never run into a book where I thought it was necessary to tell the story. Now certain genres are based upon that, but I am not writing for any of those genres.

Also, Codename: Freedom is an action novel. There is violence, but I don’t do gore. That is sometimes a fine line, but I only explain certain events if they are required to explain a tactic and that tactic is impacting the mindset of the character.

Drinking. This is something that is done in Codename: Freedom. I have tried to do it tactfully, but everyone is of age. Secondly, it is not praised. A drunk person is thoroughly mocked in Book One as example. Also, one of the ways it is used is to numb pain while people are suffering from an injury because they have found nothing else that works.

BT: “Have you always wanted to be a writer?”

AT: I have always like the idea, and in college I wanted to pursue it. It wasn’t until after college and I was married that I just started to do it for a hobby that things became series. I put up the rough draft of Codename: Freedom on and got 500k views. After that it seemed silly not to pursue it.

BT: “With LitRPG, you not only have to deal with plot and characters, but also with creating a game world and dealing with game mechanics, character stats, and so forth. Did you design the game before you wrote the book?”

AT: Yes. I also have a second series with a completely different game system coming out hopefully in 2-3 months. This is an aspect I get a kick out of. It’s the gamer in me. Growing up playing games is good for something I guess.

BT: “I’m assuming you plan to follow up with Book Two** at some point. Do you have the series all laid out? Or are you letting things unfold as you go???

AT: A little bit of both. The overall plot over the nine or more books is already outlined. The individual books are only partially outlined. Besides book two that is already written, each individual book I experience for the first time while I’m writing it. There are a few major scenes I have probably already imagined, but other than that the characters do what they want. Lol.

I wanted to thank you Brian for the opportunity and showing the LitRPG genre some love. I hope you continue to enjoy the genre!

**Note: Since this interview was originally conducted, Book Two has now released. Look for it on Amazon at Apollos Thorne's author page

Friday, May 25, 2018

An Interview With Fantasy LitRPG Writer Adam Horne, Author of Unwritten Rules

Adam Horne’s Unwritten Rules is a fantasy LitRPG novel available on Amazon Kindle (free if you have Kindle Unlimited). Last year, I read the book and wrote a review (published originally on a different blog - recently republished here). And I reached out to the author with a few questions, and he was kind to get right back to me. With his permission, I’m posting the interview below.

BT: I really enjoyed Unwritten Rules. How did you discover the LitRPG genre and what made you decide to write in it?

AH: I read Ready Player One. And by read, I mean I put it on my Amazon wishlist, ignored it for 3 years, then rediscovered it and wished I’d picked it up when I first saw it. From there it wasn’t hard to find links to similar books, and I tried several different series, including The Land, Awaken Online, Caverns and Creatures, and some translations of the Russian books. I’d played RPGs, both tabletop and video games, for over 20 years, and I’d also just finished writing my second book, which was a young adult science fiction novel. I wanted to work on something new and LitRPG was a perfect fit for my interests both as a game player and a writer, so I began outlining the story that became Unwritten Rules.

BT: The main character is a disabled young man struggling with depression and looking to find a purpose in life. There are some who may think the novel insinuates that disabled individuals need a virtual reality game to give them purpose. I know this isn’t your intent, but wanted to ask if you could comment on that.

AH: Sure. I always looked at Kevin’s condition as having less to do with his physical circumstances and more to do with his outlook in the aftermath of the car crash. At any point, he could have worked with his new limitations to create a purpose in his life. He had a motorized wheelchair that would have given him the mobility needed to socialize or hold a job, and he had parents and friends willing to support him in his goals. He just needed to make the decision for himself, which isn’t an easy thing to do when suffering from depression. What Kevin needed most in his life was a way to feel like he was contributing, and that could have been done in any number of ways: a job, volunteering, outreach programs to mentor other people with disabilities. That’s what I saw as his purpose, and the game was the perfect tool to help him achieve it.

BT: How did you go about this aspect of developing Kevin as your protagonist?

I don’t have a disability like Kevin’s, so I’ve had to research quite a bit in order to write it. The psychology behind how people change after a traumatizing event kind of surprised me. Many people in Kevin’s situation report that after they come to terms with what happened to them, they feel a deep sense of gratitude for things they used to take for granted. They’re happier afterwards and wouldn’t trade the sense of well-being they’ve discovered for going back to the person they were before. I plan to include more about how playing the game helps Kevin regain some of the physical mobility he lost and how it affects him emotionally and psychologically as well. Hopefully my writing skills are up to the challenge of handling it in a way that is sympathetic towards people with disabilities.

BT: With LitRPG, you’re not just dealing with characters and plot, you have to immerse them in a believable game world and track their progression through that game world. Did you design the game before you wrote the story?

AH: I did a lot of design work before I started writing. I wanted my characters to overcome their problems through strategy rather than being overpowered, something I see a bit too often in LitRPG stories. I felt the more I knew about the game and how it played, the better I would be able to write the story. I knew the skills and powers, leveling system, character classes, death mechanics, and all the ways the AI worked in the background before beginning chapter one. I had to make some changes as I went along, but having all that figured out in advance meant I could focus more on the storytelling as I wrote.

BT: How did you track character stats?

AH: I use a program called Scrivener to help with my writing. It lets me add notes to each chapter, so I kept track of stats that way. Honestly I could have been a lot more diligent about tracking and showing stats, but I tend to concentrate more on the story. When I read LitRPG, I usually skip over the points when an author shows the entire character sheet anyway, especially if they’ve already been individually reporting when skills and attributes increase. I plan to be more diligent in reporting those values in the next book.

BT: I’m sure many readers (like me) want to know when we can expect Book Two. 

AH: At the moment, I can’t say when book two will be ready. It took approximately four months to write Unwritten Rules, but I’m hoping I can work faster this time since the game world has been established. The outline is mostly done, and I intend to release chapters on a weekly basis on Royal Road once I start writing. If you want to include a link to the story page, I will be updating it with information as the book progresses.

BT: Thank you for your time, Adam. I know my blog readers will appreciate this interview. Blessings to you and your efforts.

AH: Thank you for including my book in your blog, and I am glad you enjoyed it.