Recommendation: Hollow Men (Windshine Chronicles #1)

Link to this book’s page on Goodreads, where you can buy it at the store of your choice. I received a free copy of this book, but the link is not an affiliate link and I have received no other compensation for this review.

Hollow Men is the first in a series of dark fantasy novellas by Todd Sullivan. Its great strength is that it is exactly the sort of story which the back cover leads you to believe it is. If you want a story about a small band of would-be heroes in an East Asian-flavored country going off on a quest to Win Glory and/or Quell Evil, then you need look no further and may do well to disregard everything else that I say. This is the prize which you seek: the writing is competent, the story is a quick read (2-4 hours by my estimate) but there are further entries in the series for a reader who wants to binge, and the tropes are familiar without being stale.

Our initial viewpoint character, Ha Jun, has been trained since childhood to embark upon (and hopefully survive) a heroic quest. His father, Jeong Suk, who trained him, is understandably eager to see Ha Jun on his way, but Ha Jun’s uncle, Gwang Min, would prefer that he stay at home. Heroics are a dangerous business, after all. Both his father and his uncle are sympathetic in their separate ways. It’s hard not to see Gwang Min’s—stay home! don’t get killed just because your dad wants to live vicariously through your probably-fatal adventure!—but the same is true of Ha Jun’s father. “Who will remember our names?” asks Jeong Seok. “In a hundred years, who will speak the names of Kang Jeong Seok and Kang Gwang Min?” Ha Jun’s father is a man who was promised glory but got nothing but the humdrum of inheriting the family business.

I don’t agree that the rational response to this is to raise up your son into a kind of physical superhero, but I can still see where he’s coming from. And the story arguably backs him up: people are speaking the name of Kang Jeok Seok, because this story exists, because—well, a guy named Todd Sullivan wrote a novella titled Hollow Men, I get it, but there’s a sense in which the story exists because Kang Jeok Seok decided to treat his son to a training regimen from Hell. If there’s an Aesop to this story, it’s that living vicariously through your children is a cool and good idea.

Other characters are also satisfactory, or more than satisfactory. There was, to my great relief, no Designated Asshole among the team of heroes to which Ha Jun is assigned. You will be hard-pressed to find any named character who is not sympathetic to some degree. We even spend some time getting to know them and their families. Windshine’s introductory chapter is one of the weakest, but this shouldn’t reflect on her as a character. “Windshine is the real hero of this story,” I wrote in my reading notes; imagine my satisfaction when I discovered that this series is called The Windshine Chronicles.

I will say, however, that while the romantic angle between Ha Jun and Windshine was good on a technical level, it was not very believable. Windshine is hundreds of years old, explicitly thinks that humans are so young that they’re basically children—in fact, her actual kid sister was “still a child at two hundred years old”—but nevertheless falls for Ha Jun, for reasons that feel more “mandated by the law that the protagonist of a story must find love” than “naturally emergent from the circumstances of the story.” I can’t help but think that Sullivan felt the same, because the romance hardly comes up and could easily be excised from the story without affecting the rest of the story.

Sullivan passes muster on the technical quality of his writing—it isn’t bad, but neither does it make me go weak in the knees. He’s able to grant us a good sense of place, especially where food is concerned (perhaps because he attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference), though this flags as the place in question zooms out from “immediate surroundings” to “geography.” I could muddle my way through by assuming that the country of South Hanguk basically maps to South Korea, but I dislike this kind of shortcut. There’s something about it which feels unaesthetic, but it opens up a lot of questions, too.

Some of these questions are pretty reasonable: “What’s up with North Hanguk?” Others, I’ll admit, are more ridiculous: “Was there a Dark Fantasy Korean War?” (Probably) “Was South Hanguk assisted by the forces of Dark Fantasy United States?” (No idea) But I insist that these aren’t completely ridiculous. They point to a more pressing issue, that we know nothing about the world except that there is a country named South Hanguk and another country, far away, where elves (probably) live. As I said before, Sullivan does an excellent job of giving us an immediate sense of place—food, trees, buildings—but broader surroundings are increasingly vague.

This lack of grounding extends to other things, most of them to do with the worldbuilding (the fact that I’m starting a second paragraph about worldbuilding will come as no surprise if you’re familiar with my work). There are plenty of things which we learn of but not about. Funnily enough, some of my earliest notes asked where glyph swords come from and how they work, and we later learn the answers to these things, but I thought nothing of Ha Jun’s training regimen until it became apparent that this was unusual, perhaps even unheard of, in South Hanguk. Where did Ha Jun’s father get it into his head to train his son in this way, or that it would bear such fruit, and why, given his unusual gifts, did other members of Ha Jun’s family doubt him quite so much?

On that note, we come to my final major criticism of the book. On TV Tropes, there’s a saying, “What happened to the mouse?” It refers to a scene in the film The Last Emperor, in which the title character throws his pet mouse, whose impact might be inferred but isn’t seen or heard. The mouse, of course, does not make another appearance. It simply vanishes from the film.

Hollow Men puts us in a similar situation, multiple times. We last see Ha Jun’s uncle on the ground, leg crushed beneath a fallen horse, crying out in pain. We spend some lovely time getting acquainted with family members and other loved ones, but hardly a thought is given to them in the back half. On a narrative level, the story’s greatest flaw is that it ends too soon. I would have liked to see a bit of mourning. I would have liked to see a reunion between Ha Jun and his father, or at least a sign that Ha Jun remembers that thing with his uncle and the horse.

I’ll close with an opening. Hollow Men starts out with a banger line. It’s the “Man,” said Terl, “is an endangered species.” of dark fantasy novellas.

“Every year, the heroes got younger.”

Call for Submissions — MOON: The Book of Lunar Horror

Deadline: February 28th, 2022.

Payment: $10 per story, in exchange for nonexclusive publishing rights. 

Theme: “Lunar horror and isolation.” See below for details. 

Word count: 2,000 to 5,000 words. This is very flexible, especially for longer stories, but please get in touch before sending something smaller or larger. 

Reprints: Yes! Please, for the love of God, send me reprints. $10 is just a token payment, and I know it. 

Simultaneous submissions: Yes. 

Multiple submissions: Yes—limit of 2 per author. 

“MOON: The Book of Lunar Horror” is going to be a bit of an art project, really. In addition to stories, I’m going to be looking for art and poetry (separately from this submissions call), working with neural nets, and trying to do some interesting things with the format and layout. 

I am working on a tight budget here, so reprints are completely acceptable. 

Theme

The theme for this anthology is “lunar horror and isolation.” 

What that means is flexible: “a team of scientists on the moon discovers something terrible” is as viable as “survivalist cult living in the backcountry, haunted by some monstrosity which comes out only in the moonlight” or “big city shut-in who is tormented by visions of the moon.” 

I am especially interested in Eugene Thacker’s contrast between “the world as humans interpret it” and “the world as it is, beyond human needs and human understanding,” and cosmic pessimism in general. I have a short primer on Eugene Thacker here, if that’s up your alley, but other approaches to the theme are equally valid

If your story doesn’t currently fit the theme, but you think that you can revise the story and introduce the necessary elements, then send it in anyway, with a note about your willingness to revise it. I can offer assistance if necessary. 

Content requirements: 

  1. Submissions must not violate U.S. copyright law. 
  2. Reprints are fine. Please, send me reprints. Stuff that’s never been published before is also fine, but think about whether you could get it published elsewhere for more $$$. Those first-print rights are valuable! 
  3. Simultaneous submissions are permissible, but please let me know if your story becomes ineligible for the anthology after you submit it. 

Submissions close on February 28th, 2022. 

Please send submissions to wmb.anthology@gmail.com, with “MOON SUBMISSION – [STORY TITLE] ” in the subject line. Please attach your submission as a file in .doc, .docx, .odt, or .rtf format.

If in doubt regarding the style of your submission, you will not be led astray by William Shunn’s Proper Manuscript Format guide

The “Cube” Trilogy: One Recommendation & Two Anti-Recommendations

I finished watching Cube for the first time in twenty years or so.

The short version: Strangers wake up in a collection of interconnected cubes. Some of the rooms have secret traps and will kill you when you pass through. Nobody knows why or how they ended up here, or how to get out.

Rating: ★★☆

Things I really liked about Cube:

  • how the film started out with A Dude in a Cube, with no explanation of how or why he’s there
  • people talking about why the Cube was built, and the ultimate conclusion (from a different guy who worked on it) that the Cube just exists, as a “perpetual works project” whose purpose was forgotten, and that it is being used because it’s there and not using it would be to admit that its construction was effectively pointless
  • the minimalism of each cube-room (something I didn’t know until a few years ago: the film takes place in a big cube composed of smaller cubes because they didn’t have a big enough budget to make more than a single room)
  • the vastness of the Cube itself, as an object composed of all the other cube-rooms

Cube has big “corporate Lovecraftian” vibes, in terms of this big huge cube-construct that exists because it can, like the brainchild of Azathoth in bureaucratic form. Ligotti, eat your heart out.

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Recommendation: “Potter Who and the Wossname’s Thingummy” by ForestUUID

Author’s summary: No TARDIS, no screwdriver, and no memory — on the plus side, an owl and a wand! May or may not be AU. “It’s all in the mind, you know.”

There are only a few Harry Potter / Doctor Who crossovers, so it’s a small thing to say, “This is the best of the lot.” It may mean more to say, “This is the best Doctor Who crossover of any fandom, of those I have read.” It may mean very little to say, “This is better than some Doctor Who episodes,” because of them are terrible, but I will say that anyway. This is better than some Doctor Who episodes. 

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BargCo’s Big Tour: Campaign Overview

This campaign’s settings and rules are highly derived from the Survival Paradigm posts on A Blasted, Cratered Land.

Setting

The Kaiju

Everything changed when the kaiju attacked. Even today, scientists don’t have a clue where they came from or why they’re here. They shouldn’t even be able to live, let alone move, but that’s colossobiology for you. The important thing is that they came, they attacked, and even though their activity seems to fluctuate in accordance with some years-long cycle, they’re still here and still attacking, and only the most cutting-edge technology can do anything about them.

Some countries responded to the kaiju threat by fielding vast national armies of mechs. The United States chose to throw the gig economy at them instead, because of course it did. There’s no “Grand Mechanical Army” like they’ve got in Europe, no “Volunteer Self-Defense Force” like in Japan, just a bunch of poor saps who gotta hope that they make enough cash from this week’s kill to cover the wear-and-tear and their medical expenses.

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Wizard School: Wizard of the White Hand

Roughly seventy-five years ago, there was war in Upper Thaumerica, and the armies of Eastron and the Lake Countries marched against those of the Southlands. The most dramatic and enduring consequence of that war, at least as some reckon these things, was that the Wizards of the Red Hand were broken utterly, and their order, their lore, and their power was divided among two successor organizations.

The Wizards of the White Hand trace their scholastic lineage from those who, when war came, sided with the Second Grand Alliance and chose to forever sunder the Red Handed Order. Their power is in the body, to heal it and to injure it, and they can target their spells from a great distance. However, between themselves and their counterparts, the Wizards of the Black Hand, it is they who may be the most restricted: they cannot eat meat, except it be carrion, nor accept gifts, nor ride mounts.

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Table: 2d20 Races

Just, you know, a table of races, like everyone and their dogling has.

There are three important components to each race. During character creation, each race can re-roll a particular ability and pick the better of the two results. They also get a bonus and a weakness, which, ideally, will come up in play on a regular basis and either open up new options (bonuses) or be terrible for your character in ways which are fun for you, the player (weaknesses).

Not everybody has flavor text. You’ll just have to live with that.

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