In Which I Give You My Book for Free

Who needs to pirate books? Not you!

“Civil Blood: The Vampire Rights Case that Changed a Nation” is free to download on Kindles from March 18th to March 22nd, 2019. You don’t get a free 400-page novel every day, so check it out and tell a friend. The link’s right here.

Because of the way Kindle Direct Publishing works, the novel will also be exclusive to Kindles at that time. I will re-list it for other e-reader platforms once this offer has completed.

Dig in!

In Which I Shut Up and Wrote

As the little date indicates, it’s been about three months since the last post. New Year’s Day seems like an apropos time to let you all know what I’ve been doing instead of blogging.

In late September, I flew to Shenzhen for business reasons associated with my day job (i.e. the Pirates of the Caribbean project). Shenzhen is a lovely tropical metropolis on the Chinese coast. Basically, if you go to the island of Hong Kong and then take a bridge to the mainland, you’re in Shenzhen. It’s full of Times-Square-style glitz, but with lots of trees and green spaces.

I came away from the trip with squid-flavored potato chips and red tea, brought my daughter a silk scarf embroidered with skulls (she’s writing horror interactive fiction these days) and swore I would never again be on a plane trying to outrun a typhoon.

Around that time, I finished my burst of reading and reviewing urban fantasy books. Since publishing Civil Blood, I’ve joined a bunch of UF readers’ groups, and posted my reviews to Amazon, Goodreads and Booklikes (the links here are to my rec lists). If you are looking for some new reads, or some old ones, feel free to check out my short list of long reviews. When I wasn’t doing that, I was chugging away in the Critters Writer’s Workshop, critiquing short stories and the first chapters of a lot of novels. The break that let me read instead of write gave me some necessary perspective and a few new online friends.

Then I did a numbers game with Civil Blood: it got a few kind reviews and a few mediocre ones, but neither seemed to drive any sales (literally, zero — I have metrics). Then I hit the extreme down-side of self-publishing: I had cordoned off a specific budget for the novel and, by extension, any sequels. No profit, no sequel, that’s the rule. As an additional stab to the liver, no traditional publisher will touch a self-published series unless it is raking in the readers by the cathedral-full. So any chance of writing a sequel and submitting it would be a nearly-impossible needle to thread.

So I took a break from sequel planning and told myself I should do some short stories — one in the Civil Blood universe and one in the climate fiction genre, something I’ve been meaning to try. I composed the first CB-universe short story, “Stopping the Bleeding,” and got it reviewed in a workshop, because I needed a lot of fresh eyes that hadn’t lived in the novel’s world for the past year. The critiques came in throughout November, interrupting my cli-fi attempt. National Novel Writing Month for me was more like National Kinda Write Um Some Short Story Drafts This Year.

On top of that, a colleague and friend, Chris L’Etoile and his wife Jamie, were hit with what’s politely called a “life event.” Jamie got seriously ill. Complications from the illness led to a stroke that paralyzed her right side. At the time, Chris was on the other side of the continent. My wife and I (and a *ton* of other friends) jumped in to help. So November and December had a lot of online searches for resources, phone calls, and late-night discussions of WTF Will They Do To Get Through The Week. (My explanatory Facebook post that got retweeted all over the place is here and the GoFundMe is here. We raised a lot, but their expenditures are *insane*, so rest assured that any contributions will not be wasted.

So you better believe I wasn’t paying attention to blogging, right?

In late December, things calmed down a little. I did some short story revisions, so I’m going into the new year with the following goals:

  • Extend Civil Blood’s readership (I have additional plans not specified here).
  • Get “Stopping the Bleeding” and possibly additional CB-universe material out to readers.
  • Finish and submit a cli-fi story to a magazine or anthology.
  • Announce and launch a new intellectual property that is currently secret.
  • Attend conventions to meet new people — announcements will be posted here and on Twitter.
  • Do 30 minutes of cardio a day, 6 days a week — I’m on Week 3 at the moment!
  • Stick it to The Man.

Thanks for sticking with this ginormous update to the end. May you smooch a replicant in 2019, and may the old gods bless your new beginnings.

In Which Underdog Vampires Defeat the Amazon Overlord

Okay, okay, this post isn’t about a  battle between vampires and a mind-controlled Queen Wonder Woman. It’s just a colorful way to announce that my vampire rights novel Civil Blood is now available in non-Amazon stores.

Thanks to the lovely people and hard-working computer code at Draft2Digital, Civil Blood is now available on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Kobo, and Apple’s iTunes. It will also be purchaseable through Bibliotheca if you want to include it in a library collection.

It’s $2.99 on these e-reader platforms, and I’m lowering the Kindle price down permanently to match it.

The books are available to be delivered September 21st, 2018. They also feature a few typo corrections and formatting changes that I did while reviewing the manuscript. Anyway, on to the links!

Nook Link

Kobo Link

iTunes/Apple iBooks Link

And don’t forget the Kindle Link for those still reading at the behest of the behemoth. (It’s okay, I own one, too.)

Happy reading!

In Which Parallel Evolution Rears Its Head

One of the things the late, great, and very angry Harlan Ellison was good at was titles. He had stories with names like:

  • “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman
  • The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
  • I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
  • Paladin of the Last Hour
  • and of course, his Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever

The titles put a question in the reader’s mind, namely, “What the hell does that mean?” Pretty soon, they’d read to find out what’s going on, just to erase the dissonance in their heads. But there’s another, more practical reason to have unusual titles and unusual subject matter to go with them, and it’s to avoid problems like mine.

Civil Blood is a very thematic title for my vampire rights novel. It comes from the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet, making it a little apropos just because there is a conflict between vampires and vampire hunters, and a little romance across those lines. But it also works in a second dimension, using the exact wording of the source material (quoted to the reader in Chapter 2 of the novel):

Two houses, both alike in dignity/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene/Where ancient grudge break to new mutiny/And civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

So the novel is not simply “Romeo and Juliet with vampires,” it has a theme of violence polluting the political process in the place where the story is set (Washington, D.C.). On top of that, there’s another meaning to the “civil” part, since the class-action lawsuit at the centerpiece of the book is a civil trial rather than a criminal one.

All this hopefully adds up to some unique layers, which is a really good thing, because not only are there a number of books out there with star-crossed vampires, there is now another one called Civil Blood.

Author V. Renae has written a young adult novel for New Traditions Publishing, and here’s the spiffy cover.

It’s coming out October 1st, 2018. The back cover copy is here.  I haven’t read it yet, but I wish the author well. If you ever tried to Google my novel title, you know that both of us will be fighting for space with several other books called Civil Blood.

First, there’s Ann McMillan’s 2001 Civil War mystery about  a smallpox outbreak in Richmond that may be deliberately caused.

And then there’s Civil Bloods, another Civil War-era story by Steve Nelson. Two brothers fighting for the South in the Civil War are captured and make their way to Wisconsin, in what sounds kind of like a Western.

But surely I’m safe if I tell everybody I have the world’s only vampire legal thriller, right?

I thought so, too, for all the years I worked on it. And then, this summer, just as I was polishing an ad that might use that phrase, I Googled it just to make sure. That led me to this article: “It’s Time to Look at the Vampire Novel as Legal Thriller.”

This is about when my heart stopped. Hearing that another author, who is an actual lawyer, was publishing a book about vampire Supreme Court cases and had the backing of a mainstream publishing house was so specific that it made me wonder if there was plagiarism going on. Of course, there wasn’t. I ordered the book straight away, and found it and Civil Blood were completely unrelated.

The book, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising, is a lot more closely related to World War Z than Civil Blood. I wouldn’t call it a legal thriller at all, honestly. Most of the action takes place from the points of view of an FBI agent, a CDC doctor, and a Catholic priest. It winds up more Dan Brown than John Grisham.

The legal and supernatural differences of the vampires are significant, but what matters most is that the novels evoke different feels. A People’s History devotes two to three chapters to the Supreme Court decision, mostly from a law school perspective reviewing the documents years after the fact.

Now, while I really admired the world-building in A People’s History, I’m of course partial to my own approach. I put protagonists on the stand, with their fate resting on the verdict. I wrote the chants of the mobs on the National Mall. And, of course, since I can’t write a court document like a legal scholar, I just grabbed the most stirring parts of Law & Order as an inspiration and wrote a transcript of the closing arguments of each side.

There’s a lesson here, I think, that I have heard from authors before. When they say write the book only you could write, it’s for times like these. A People’s History has scenes set in Washington, D.C., but its action keeps coming back to the American Southwest and the Vatican, where the author knows his stuff. Similarly, had I written a YA Civil Blood instead of the R-rated gritty material I love so much, I’d be fighting with V. Renae rather than smiling and giving her book the shout-outs it needs. Because as Juliet might say, a name really isn’t as important as the love you put behind it.

Okay, she says that in iambic pentameter, but that’s the gist.

V. Renae’s Facebook page is here and Tumblr here. Her Civil Blood comes out October 1st, 2018.

Raymond A. Villareal’s A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is on Amazon here. It’s available now.

And if you’re searching for my Civil Blood, use its subtitle, Civil Blood: The Vampire Rights Case that Changed a Nation. It’ll get you to the pages that matter much faster than just “Civil Blood,” which will take you to pages of Shakespearean analysis.

 

In Which I Promo “Salem’s Lot Meets Law & Order”

The life of an author post-launch is a world of promotion. The life of a self-published author post-launch is a world of degrading promotion.

My consolation at the moment is that every author I’ve ever read says something along the lines of “I didn’t expect reviews as good as I got, or sales as poor as I got.” I’m right there with you. This week, I’m throwing around a few bucks for Facebook ads, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t.

I find Kindle sales vastly easier than lowering the price on my Amazon paperback, due to Amazon’s strange rules. So for all this week (8/20-8/26) Civil Blood is available on Kindle for $2.99. Yep. I spent years on this thing, and it’s available for the price of a soda at a restaurant.

Would you like Civil Blood? Here’s my short pitch in quiz form:

You’ve just been infected with a vampire virus. Your first question is:
A) “Can I get laid and high on blood whenever I want?”
B)
 “What idiot is criminally liable for letting loose a biohazard?”
C) “Am I still legally human, or is some suit in Washington going to pass a law?”
D) “W
ho’s the richest motherf***er I can sue over this?”
E) “I never really thought about it, but I should ask all of these questions in rapid succession.”

If you answered A, B, C or D, you might like Civil Blood. If you answered E, you’d definitely like Civil Blood. 

That’s it. That’s my promo for now, as I try to scare up some Amazon, Goodreads, and Booklikes reviewers. I’m lacking in that department — my friends help retweet and do Facebook posts, but reviews are as rare as Sam Kinison pantomime routines. I actually went so far as to post a review of my own book where it was allowed.

Do I feel shame in giving myself a five-star review? Yes. I wish I didn’t have to, and I delayed about a month before I did it. My reasoning is this:

1) I didn’t try to hide it. I straight-up said I don’t think the book is flawless, but I want to advocate for its strengths.

2) As Louis Armstrong once said, “you got to toot your own horn, because nobody else is gonna toot it for you.”

3) Nobody says a politician can’t vote for themselves. They’re citizens, too.

4) If I’m getting so few reviews that one 5-star review is going to blow the curve, that book needs all the help it can get.

That’s all. Now back to your regularly scheduled urban fantasies with their teenage angst and Byronic heroes and small-town witch heroines solving mysteries. I like those books, too… I just didn’t write one.

In Which I Try Not to Give Your Children Neuroses

It’s summer, and one of my kiddos just returned from sleepaway camp. From the title of this post and the content of the last one, you might be thinking that I’m going to be writing about Friday the 13th or Cabin in the Woods or that sort of thing, but no. This post is a lot less about simulated bloodshed and a lot more about training a generation of young people to stick it to the Man.

Well, not really.

Sort of sticking it to our consumerist society. In a nice way they probably won’t even notice.

I’ll explain.

I once went to a summer camp in West Virginia called the Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies. It had some typical camp experiences like hiking and swimming and archery, but the thing that always set it apart in my mind was mealtime. Because they took an entirely different approach to food than anywhere else I’ve ever heard of.

They might have recycled. They might have composted. It would totally be in-character for them to do so, but I don’t really remember what happened to the food containers. What I remember is the Weighing of the Waste.

This camp did what video game experts call “gameification,” in which you take an ordinary activity and turn it into a game. Need to burn calories? Put on a FitBit or a pedometer and track your number of steps that day. Want to explore your town? Find a Pokemon in the virtual overlay. You get the idea.

Burgundy quite literally gameified garbage.

After each meal, each table would scrape their uneaten food from their plates into a bucket, cleaning their plates entirely right down to the spaghetti sauce. Then, the bucket would be publicly weighed. At the beginning of camp, the contents of the bucket always weighed several pounds. But as each table started to work as a team to try to get the weight down, each kid took only the food they needed, and they ate all the food on their plate. Entire tables would hold up their empty plates, taunting the other kids by saying “NO WASTE!” And by the end of the session, every table was able to say it. In the last few days, the bucket was completely empty.

I have fond memories of that camp. There was something great about feeling like we could solve the world’s garbage problem by getting people to change their behavior.

Reality, is of course, not so kind. We returned to our homes, and of the seven or so campers that went to my high school, I don’t recall any of them implementing a food waste policy like that at home.

And now, years later, the world’s garbage problem could use a lot of help. Google “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” sometime (oh, who am I kidding, just click here. If you don’t know, it’s three times the size of France). By 2025, there will be one ton of plastic in the oceans for every three tons of fish: by 2050, at current rates, it’s possible there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. (The figure was disputed by a BBC reporter, but considering plastic basically never goes away, the point stands. If it won’t be 2050, there’s always 2051.)

Do you eat shellfish? Fish? Sea salt? I have bad news about microplastics and our food chain. I tried to link an article that wasn’t too hysterical about it, but it’s pretty firm on the side of eating plastic as a Bad Thing. It cites shellfish and anchovies, which we consume whole, as carrying more of a toxic load. If you don’t consume your prey’s digestive tract, you consume less plastic. Personally, I’d rather junk the “less” and go for “zero” and not have to worry about the issue at all.

So that brings us to what the frick we can do about it.

I don’t pretend to have answers. I don’t pretend that I’m not a hypocrite when it comes to being Supa Green. Maybe, like me, you can’t look the earth gods in the eye and say “Yes, Americans waste everything, but I’m different!” Though that’s undoubtedly true, progress starts by saying “I’m different now.”

My own first step down this road was getting some reusable stainless steel straws. I did this slightly before San Francisco banned single-use plastic straws. They swung the ban-hammer because:

a) there was a video with a sea turtle
b) straws are wasteful as hell
c) they didn’t think too hard about the boba shops they love so much
d) California sees problems and wades into them like an MMO with a nerf bat

The boba shops are buying up as many paper straws as they can, which has (of course) caused a shortage. My solution is to suggest people start carrying their own boba straws. Oh, you think milk pearl tea isn’t masculine? Pick up a steel boba straw sometime. Sure, you could do reusable silicone, but these suckas double as fist-loads and emergency tracheotomy gear.

As many critics point out, straw bans are kind of a Band-Aid on the problem. So screw it, let’s face the real problem — we have too much output of stuff — carbon emissions, garbage, plastic — because humans aren’t normally efficient at what they do. In America, where “a free country” often means “being free to make dumbass decisions” we pile up waste faster than any other nation on Earth. We can pass laws about this kind of thing, but I’ll talk about that in some other post.

Here are some links to people who know more about this stuff than me: zero waste bloggers.

Going Zero Waste

Trash is for Tossers

Zero Waste Guy

I’m going to stop there, because overload is a real thing. Pick one. Start reading. There’s lots of weird little choices you can make, far too many for me to list. Pick one improvement you could do this week. Then do it.

I promise the table next to you won’t taunt you.

In Which “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Meets Miyamoto Musashi

Many years ago in Los Angeles, I was up late at night watching the Independent Film Channel. This was around the time of the breakout success of the Blair Witch Project. It being October, the traditional horror month, the IFC showed the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. By way of introduction, they asked some film expert why he thought indie horror films spawn stories of phenomenal success. Studio films like those of Alfred Hitchcock in his ’60s oeuvre were carefully crafted, but indie horror, particularly in the ’70s to ’90s, had many stories where the not-very-cerebral flicks were made on shoestring budgets and still became wildly popular.

The expert said, “Well, when you watch an Alfred Hitchcock horror movie, you’re in suspense because you’re in the hands of a master. When you watch an indie horror movie, you’re in suspense because you’re in the hands of a f**ing maniac.”

It is with that spirit that I present to you a bit of roleplaying game writing my wife and I did long ago. Because I liked gamemastering samurai horror, and it wasn’t because I was Hitchcock.

I dug these out of the vaults, as it were. There’s three adventures, all tournaments for the samurai fantasy tabletop roleplaying game Legend of the Five Rings. They put the players through their paces with roleplaying challenges, a little mystery, and combats. They were playtested in gaming tournaments at the Origins and Gen Con conventions, over the course of three separate game sessions apiece.

I doubt I’d ever call what I did in tabletop games “wildly popular,” but some fans liked the work enough to archive the original versions of these adventures on the L5R fan site Kaze No Shiro. To add a little value here, I’ve cleaned up the old versions’ visual presentation and added a few sections based on fan feedback.

Curious gamemasters can read “Mirror, Mirror,” “Fortunes Lost,” and “Hindsight” here. Curious players who wanna read ’em can get off their duffs and become curious gamemasters.

The adventures are free to download and play. I don’t have a tip jar or Patreon or anything like that. If you liked the games, maybe you’d like my novel.

Vrrrooom vrrroooom vrrrrraaawwwwwr…

In Which “Salem’s Lot” Meets “Law and Order”

[Want the “too long, didn’t read” version? My novel’s now available here.]

Once upon a time at a university, I took a class called “Making Monsters.” It was about teratology, the study of monsters and the history of medical aberrations. We read about hoaxes where women supposedly gave birth to rabbits, documents about feral children like the Wild Boy of Aveyron, and read the diary of Hercule Barbin, a French hermaphrodite.

The class’s focus was on medical cases, but I managed to persuade my professor that I could do a term paper on the myth of the vampire. After all, I nerdily pointed out, the word “monster” is from the same Latin root as “demonstrate,” monstrare or “to show.” And in my paper, I was going to show off the societal uses of whipping up fear and exorcising it to reassure the citizens that monsters will be slain.

Fun fact, vampires as a myth evolve with what the audience has historically feared. Originally, they were ruddy-faced, bloated corpses like a peasant might find in a coffin that was being exhumed. Along the way, they gained powers and limitations here and there until we ended up with the pale, misunderstood superheroes we have today. In the 1990s, vampirism was being written about like it was a disease, and the AIDS crisis was never far from any reader’s mind when reading about a sexy lover who you want so badly, but oh, they might just kill you.

That’s when I got the idea for a novel. Because my experience was just slightly different than the fiction I was reading and the games I was playing.

This is because while I was taking that course, my wife was in another one on constitutional law. And it detailed a case of a woman who was clinically diagnosed with sex addiction. She had been involuntarily confined in a mental ward for treatment. The doctors wanted to hold her there indefinitely. She was suing for her release.

Why hold her over that? Well, she was HIV-positive. There was no doubt in the doctors’ minds that if they let her out, she’d infect people, probably without telling them of her condition. That qualified as a “danger to herself and others,” enabling them to keep her imprisoned as long as they wanted.

So my wife and I debated this scenario. Was it violating this woman’s civil rights to keep her locked up? Or should she be, for public safety? Is her addiction voluntary enough that she can be trusted to manage it?

Naturally, in the United States, we have a presumption of innocence until a person is proven guilty, but once they’ve infected once, and *are* guilty, where do you draw the line when trying to reform them? Do we make laws and policies expecting the worst of people, or the best?

I think you’re guessing where I’m going with this. Because those questions never really left my mind. Whenever I was frustrated at my day job, I went home and scratched away at the keyboard, working on a novel. It’s a story about vampires and what we fear in the modern day, and the dominant fear I see is of becoming a permanent political underclass.

And now, after many years, that novel, Civil Blood, is finished and available for you to read.

It’s a cross between a legal thriller and an urban fantasy, a little bit Salem’s Lot, a little bit Law and Order and a little Shadowrun. It’s set in Washington, D.C., where you can’t do anything without a doctor or a lawyer present, vampire hunting included.

The back cover copy and first two chapters are on the Civil Blood page here.  You can pre-order the Kindle version now — it will be delivered on the official book birthday of June 21. I intend to hype the book regularly until then and have a little launch event on Twitter the day it arrives. However, due to a quirk of Amazon’s Createspace publishing, you can order the print version right now (no pre-order, just plain order) and get it as soon as it can be shipped.

I’ve been fleshing out the book’s universe on this site, visible on the “propaganda” page. Reading the page isn’t necessary to read the book, but if you’re going to make a world, you should really show it off a little bit.

It’s what the word “monster” is all about.

Showtime.

My Spoiler-Filled “Black Panther” Take

My kiddo Shane and I haven’t always had the greatest relationship, but when I  introduced him to LEGO Marvel Superheroes for the Xbox, suddenly I was the Fun Parent. I’m not the biggest Marvel fan in the world, but out of some 200 playable characters, I could explain the superpowers of the first 50 or so, and I could Google the rest of them. Shane loves superheroes now. All of his obsessive collecting urges that used to be for Thomas the Tank Engine trains suddenly found a new outlet. And unlike the Thomas trains, playing Marvel heroes let him fly or shoot fire, and they all have stories that I can explain.

Well, up to a point, anyway.  I had to sum up the tail end of the Dark Phoenix saga as “then there are clones and breeding super-mutants and it gets kinda dumb.”

But we like movies. And we like superheroes, including Black Panther. In the game, Black Panther gives out side quests, and you can unlock him as a playable character. So Saturday of opening weekend, you better believe our family had our butts in the seats.

I warned the kiddo it was PG-13, like Revenge of the Sith, so it might be scary. And it might be long, like The Last Jedi, which he walked out of for ten minutes or so. And there were a lot of movies that happened before it, so it might be a little confusing. But I’d be right there to explain anything.

I didn’t have to worry.

I have never seen him so actively involved in a movie. He asked a million questions, and none of them to Mama, because Daddy was Designated Explainer of All Things Marvel. I think the two most difficult things to communicate quickly were that the vibranium suit could absorb energy and release it again, and why Killmonger shot a guy to finish him off even though the guy was going to die anyway. (For the record, my wife’s explanation of “because the writer wanted to show him as a bad guy” is a lot more of a teachable moment than my suggestion, “because he was extra mad at what the other guy said.”)

So I was heavily biased in favor of this movie. Shane liked the movie, so I liked the movie. When the lights came up, I wasn’t about to get into trouble because my idea for a family outing was too grimdark for a six-year-old to handle. This is not always a given. Recently we watched Jeopardy and a question about Dr. Manhattan came up, so he asked me “who are the Watchmen?” That wasn’t hard to field, but it was immediately followed by “Are they good guys or bad guys?”

Yeah, we’re going to have to wait a little while before explaining that one.

Anyway, to use my formal Reviewer Voice, I thought Black Panther rocked. Beverly (my daughter) was not as thrilled; she thought it was inappropriately violent. And my wife, who’s a much bigger fan of books than action movies, made what seemed like a rather true observation: the characters in Black Panther serve the needs of the action. The Wakandans are a highly advanced pretty-much-utopia, but they’re also a monarchy where leadership is determined by single combat. Does that tradition make sense? Mmm… in a superhero action movie, yes, but probably not outside of that. Why are the Dora Milaje running around with vibranium spears rather than guns? Because they make for cooler choreography, that’s why. (To be fair, I don’t want to see Wakandans firing guns at each other and leaving bodies everywhere like it’s 1990s Rwanda, so bring on the spears, I say.) And, as often happens with action movies, we examined T’Challa’s character arc.

A caveat: nobody in my immediate family saw Captain America: Civil War. From what I’ve read, T’Challa gets an extensive introduction there. But in BP, T’Challa’s conflict is largely external. His father’s spirit says he’s a good man, which makes it hard to be a good king… and yet, we don’t see him grapple with kingly decisions very much. Once he’s crowned, he chases down Klaue on a mission of personal vengeance, and then his time is pretty much taken up defending his throne. He gets beat up by Killmonger, who’s a better hand-to-hand fighter without the Panther powers, and then in his rematch, triumphs because…

….because he pulls off “a hell of a move.”

So, we thought… that’s it?

Maybe he’s more used to the powers than Killmonger. Maybe he just got lucky. But his victory wasn’t because he’s exemplifying some great revelation about the mantle of kingship or because he’s right and Killmonger’s wrong about the nature of the world. (The battle for Wakanda was, however, swayed because of his recruitment of allies, so I’ll give him a nod there… but siding with the enemy of your enemy is something both Killmonger and T’Challa share and is basically Warrior Stuff 101.)

That said, Black Panther does something that’s pretty rare in comic book movies: the hero learns a lesson from the villain’s example. My wife, who headed for the bathroom as the credits rolled, didn’t see this, because it only comes up in the mid-credits scene, when T’Challa declares to the United Nations that Wakanda will no longer be isolationist. And that’s where the real ending to the movie lies. T’Challa has been changed, and while he expressed a bit of that when he funded a few outreach centers in Oakland, T’Challa’s character arc is only capped once he is determined to change Wakanda from the path it’s been set on for centuries. He doesn’t become complete and then triumph over Killmonger: he learned from Killmonger and then he becomes complete. It’s like culminating an on-screen romance with a kiss in the final frames of the film. Now he’s a real king.

This is where Black Panther’s social commentary and world-building got really interesting for me, and why I’d want to see a sequel. The premise of the movie is that Wakanda has thrived because it’s a special fantasy kingdom. In a departure from every real-world African country I can think of, colonialism never took root there. At some point, they decided to hide their technological prowess and created a satellite-fooling illusion and what is probably the most incredibly well-kept secret ever shared by a million-plus people. When they say “we do not speak of this” early in the movie, they freaking mean it. No foreign spies have ever discovered the vibranium that their society has run on for what must be a century or so. Now that’s some sharp self-policing.

I’m forgiving that questionable world-building, because that’s how comics roll, and it was basically all the backstory of the movie, a.k.a. the setup or the “gimme.” ‘S cool. I’m on board.

The mythmaking of the hero is also worth discussion. He’s from an ancient bloodline of kings, he’s got money and a semi-magical flower and incredibly advanced technology on demand, plus supreme executive power… and to top it all off, he’s got a loving family that has his back. T’Challa is a hero, but he’s one who has been given everything in life. He’s a good person, sure, and has many great qualities, but I think someone should point out that he’s privilege personified.

Then we get Killmonger, who’s had none of it. His family’s broken up. He grew up in a section of Oakland where they didn’t even have basketball nets, they had to use a crate. He went into the military, he trained and he learned, all so he could fight when it matters and gain the power necessary to distribute Wakanda’s hoarded resources to the oppressed peoples of the world.

Wait… are we 100% sure he’s the bad guy?

This is where the movie broke some new ground. Because here we have an American movie where an African-American is the villain and a straight-up African is the hero. The movie is not American-centric, as opposed to most Marvel movies, and this conflict contrasts America with the rest of the world. Killmonger’s visible acts of villainy include stealing artifacts from Wakanda, killing tons of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, meddling in a foreign  country’s leadership (okay, he’s got a claim to it, but still), and planning to use spies to sell weapons all around the world.

The only thing he doesn’t do is transform into a bald eagle eating apple pies, ’cause all of those dick moves are about that American. When he is defeated (in a fight on a literal underground railroad, no less), it’s hard for an American audience not to feel a bit for the guy. He’s the scrappy underdog we’ve been programmed to root for… but just because he’s self-made doesn’t mean you want him in charge.

So that brings me to the next question: is T’Challa, Mr. Wakandan Privilege, really that heroic by American standards? Wakanda values a royal bloodline, a might-makes-right combat ceremony to choose a leader, and has a high-tech wall to keep outsiders out. And let’s not mince words: “outsiders” means everybody who’s not Wakandan. White people. Asian people. Probably most black people, too, ’cause they referred to Killmonger as an outsider because of where he grew up, despite the fact he’s related to the royal freaking family. And for a nation we assume is a benevolent actor on the world stage, the Wakandans sure have a lot of weapons to defend themselves against neighboring countries. You know… this sounds kind of like an ethno-state, and I’m pretty sure most Black Panther fans would agree that that’s a Bad Thing.

“Whoa,” you may say. “That’s a pretty dark reading of this superhero movie.” It is, but Black Panther deserves some examination, at least as much as those Web articles that point out that the Ewoks probably ate some Stormtroopers. But I’m not going to bash the movie, because Black Panther doesn’t fall into that trap a hundred percent. Rather amazingly, the film has its never-seen-on-the-big-screen-before cake and manages to eat it, too. At the end of the movie, the black fantasy hero of the black fantasy world can no longer rely on the world of the past. His connection to his legacy has been forever severed: the heart-shaped herbs have been destroyed, so he can no longer speak with his ancestors. Finally on his own with the mantle of kingship, T’Challa does the heroic thing in the mid-credits sequence and rejects Wakandan tradition. “The wise build bridges and the foolish build barriers,” he says, and ends centuries of secrecy and isolationism. He’s a patriot, as are his allies, but he is one who sees the need for change.

Because of that mid-credits sequence, the fantasy we’ve been buying into for the whole of the movie is over, for both the characters and the audience. Maybe we looked into the mirror and saw how appealing the idea of “Wakanda First” might be, but now T’Challa, and we, must face the real world.

And I don’t know about you, but I want to see what happens next.

So does my kiddo.

Blame the Pirates

When someone busts out an article on “Pirates in Popular Culture,” there’s usually some mention of Peter Pan, and Treasure Island, and Talk Like a Pirate Day. Now of course, Jack Sparrow and Black Sails will probably make an appearance.

This post isn’t about any of the above. It’s about the weird factoids that I’ve come across when writing Pirates of the Caribbean that have struck me as cocktail party fodder. As it turns out, the Age of Sail and the Golden Age of Pirates are a trove of trivia.

Examples:

The expression “Above Board”

We want people to deal “above board” with us, meaning honestly and fairly. But where’s the expression from? Pirates.

Turns out, the boards in question are the deck of a ship. Pirates would stash their armed troops below the deck when nearing a target so that they could look legitimate long enough to get into attack range. Someone who has all their men “above board” is not a scalawag bent on robbing you.

The epithet “Limey”

Scurvy was a serious problem if you were planning an ocean voyage. I should draw the distinction between a full-on trans-Atlantic voyage and just cruising up and down the coasts as pirates frequently did. Sailors had to pack a lot more carefully for one than the other.  Fresh fruit is easy to come by in the tropics, but it doesn’t store so great for long trips across the Pond. One of the key exceptions to this was a fruit that packed vitamin C, preserved well, and grew in Caribbean soil: the lime.

Part of the British Royal Navy’s daily rations to keep the sailors’ teeth in their heads was a shot of grog — rum with lime juice. And so, the slang for a Royal Navy sailor became “limey,” and the phrase eventually evolved to mean a Brit of any stripe.

What the snot “Avast!” means

I always chalked this one up as some kind of pirate battle cry. People repeat the word saying “Avast, me hearties” or some variant thereof when they dress up as a pirate for Halloween. For years, that was about as far as my Talk Like a Pirate education went.

“Avast!” means, “stop whatever you’re doing.” So if a pirate jumps onto your deck and yells it while pointing a pistol at you, in context it would probably mean “stop trying to escape,” or “stop fighting back or I’ll gut you like a tuna.” The phrase “belay that” is similar, but is more of a general order and doesn’t sound nearly as violent.

The best wood for ship parts

To no one’s surprise, English oak was the go-to standard for masts and planks. It’s durable. To a lesser extent, ash wood made an appearance, too. Oak forests were a strategic resource in the Age of Sail, and capturing or destroying a warship was a serious financial blow. All that said, there’s a lesser-known wood that is kind of interesting.

The tree it comes from is called lignum vitae, or guayacan. It’s a Caribbean wood that is much denser than oak — it doesn’t even float in water. You wouldn’t want to make a ship out of it, but it is very strong, and oozes a little sap so it’s self-lubricating. That made it ideal for an axle for the ship’s wheel or the apparatus leading down to the rudder. For its strength and resilience, lignum vitae is classified as one of several trees called “ironwood.”

The metric system

Why do we citizens of the U.S. still measure our impulses in foot-pounds rather than joules? Why do we put up with inches and miles instead of centimeters and kilometers? Because of pirates.

Okay, slight exaggeration. The U.S. has had several good chances to convert, and it’s always refused. But there’s an amusing story about Thomas Jefferson, noted Francophile and Secretary of State in 1793. He wanted the U.S. to adopt a standard of weights and measures since some states still used Dutch systems, others English, and so forth.

So the French government sent a nerd (um… gentleman scientist) named Joseph Dombey with a few carefully constructed official weights to the U.S. He was going to do some lobbying and persuading, and the U.S. might have gone metric.

Except it didn’t. A storm came up. Dombey’s ship got blown into the Caribbean. And they got robbed by pirates. The weights and measures were auctioned off with the rest of the booty.

So the next time you eat a Quarter Pounder instead of a Royale with Cheese, blame a pirate.