Character Profiles: Rotten to the Core

And all that sat by the fire were sad,
Save Ogier, who was stern,
And his eyes hardened, even to stones,
As he took the harp in turn;

Earl Ogier of the Stone and Sling
Was odd to ear and sight,
Old he was, but his locks were red,
And jests were all the words he said
Yet he was sad at board and bed
And savage in the fight.

– G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

That night, among the campfires of the Danes, five men sang by the fire in turn – the rhymester without a home, King Guthrum, and his three earls. Harold sang of the prizes of war, Elf sang of Balder beautiful, and Ogier sang about hate.

The wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who would rend all gods and men,
Well if the old man’s heart hath still
Wheels sped of rage and roaring will,
Like cataracts to break down and kill,
Well for the old man then—

While there is one tall shrine to shake,
Or one live man to rend;
For the wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who are weary to make an end.

Ogier was Rotten to the Core.

Some villains are sympathetic; you can’t help feeling sorry for them, or you like them in spite of themselves. Some are even redeemed. Other villains are unchangeably evil, yet in some way admirable. Their courage, or persistence, or intelligence just rates it.

And some villains are Rotten to the Core. There’s nothing in them to excite admiration, or liking, or pity. They are not redeemed, nor is anybody rooting for them to be. When such villains get their comeuppance, it’s wonderfully satisfying.

Villains who are Rotten to the Core are among the dullest to ever stalk the annals of villainy. They are also among the best, generally when combined with other archetypes, such as the Scary Evil Villain. There was never anything remotely sympathetic about Sauron. He was evil! evil!, and we were all very happy to see him go. But while he lasted, he was an excellent villain – powerful, malevolent, and impersonal.

Ogier, too, was a fine villain in his own right. There was little to him besides nastiness, but it was nastiness with meaning.

In The Ballad of the White Horse, the struggle between the Danes and British is part of, and symbolic for, the long war between Christianity and paganism. The Danes are pagans; they are almost paganism. Harold – the youth “the new wine of war sent wild” – exulted in the lawless strength of the Danes and boasted they would “enjoy the world, the whole huge world a toy”. Elf, the minstrel, sang beautifully the sadness of his pagan world. Guthrum, the conqueror who “read lines in Latin books when all the north was dark”, was intellectual, and atheistic, and despaired.

And Ogier, with his vision of the last eclipse and the gods behind the gods, was nihilistic, full of rage and hatred – rotten to the core.

Review: Daughter of Light

It looks like a snowflake etched into her flesh, covering her palm, curling toward her fingers, white as snow. And it glows.

There are several possible explanations of this. Witchcraft is only one.

Rowen Mar covered up her mark with a sword glove, but she couldn’t extinguish the power that pulsed behind it. It was probably inevitable that it burst forth on other people.

Daughter of Light, written by Morgan Busse, opens up a large world. There are kings and soldiers, scribes and assassins. Characters play out their stories in the mountains and by the sea, others come in from the desert or trek across the marshlands. Their stories sometimes feel disconnected, but by the end of the novel all the lines are crossing.

In this way, and in others, Daughter of Light succeeds as the beginning of a series. All the various elements are built up for a larger, longer story. The end is satisfying, yet opens the way for another book.

The religious element is strong and creative. In Christian fantasy worlds, God is most often called the “Creator” or “Maker”. Morgan Busse calls Him “the Word”, a distinctively Christian name. The picture of salvation she paints in the “repulsively wounded” Man is powerful and redolent of Scripture.

The characters are well-done – the less important characters often more so than the principal ones. Minor characters are gifted with small but effective touches; secondary characters proved – at least to me – the most captivating. One of these, Caleb, was particularly well-executed, as Morgan managed to make both his goodness and badness feel real. His journey was written with great skill.

The end, although the best part of the book, could have used a little expansion. [Minor spoilers] The soldiers’ departure needed more attention; I was not entirely sure why they had even left. I would also have preferred that Rowen had more memory of what she did.

Also, the book needed another round of editing. Quotation marks were missing, and a few times tacked on where they didn’t belong. A few words were mixed up – “shown” instead of “shone”, “past” instead of “passed”, “your” instead of “you’re”. The mistakes were all small, but they added up.

And the novel’s virtues far outweigh all this. Daughter of Light is a broad and vivid fantasy, infused with spiritual depth. I am glad I read it, and I have every intention of continuing the series.

Author’s Commentary, III

And now, the conclusion to my author’s commentary of Beauty of the Lilies.

Beauty of the Lilies

Author’s Commentary, Part I

Author’s Commentary, Part II

Author’s Commentary to Beauty of the Lilies, Part III

Ruark raised his voice after his brother. “You submitted to the Vothnians and gave them everything they wanted, gave them ransom for kylvath. After all the wars this country has fought against the Vothnians, you couldn’t stand up to them. But why should you? You couldn’t even stand up to Admon.”

Jediah turned back. “I know how the people suffered in every one of those wars. I will not start another war, for money or for pride.”

Ruark really does have a legitimate point. Jediah essentially gave in to Vothnia’s extortion, and it is a dangerous thing to be weak in dealing with hostile and ruthless enemies.

But Jediah has a legitimate point, too, and in the end a more important one. If conceding will prevent a war, and deprive Vothnia of their opportunity to steal the shielding technology – which is, after all, what they really wanted – then it is worth the price.

Also note the reference to Admon, and how this final explosion builds on earlier tension between the brothers.

Ruark folded his arms across his chest. “No, Jediah. You’re going to your studio, as always, and I’m not going to be ignored the way you ignore everything but your painting.” As Ruark spoke a glint came into his eyes, not wholly unlike a knife being drawn. “And that’s another thing Father used to say. He said he didn’t know if you would ever learn that your painting is only a diversion. He said you couldn’t be emperor if you didn’t.

“And still he wouldn’t give the emperorship to me. He said it was yours, because you were his firstborn, and not mine, because I was second. He said it was yours whether you wanted it or not. Everyone always thought you didn’t want it, but I know better. I know because you could have given the emperorship to me, and you didn’t. I even asked you; I asked you after Father died and you wouldn’t have disappointed him any more by abdicating, and you wouldn’t give it to me. And you never told me why, but I can read this riddle. You wanted the emperorship after all. If you didn’t, why did you keep it?”

The knife Ruark draws here is an old, old one, and it cuts both ways. If Tryas was disappointed in Jediah, he still rejected Ruark as his heir. And Jediah, too, refused Ruark’s request. So Jediah, despite everything that was ever thought or said about him, chose to keep the emperorship.

Silence swallowed the room again—loud, gaping silence.

The sound of silence …

No etiquette had ever been written for this, and Tervath grasped for the best option—say nothing, say something irrelevant, leave immediately.

Etiquette is always important – particularly royal etiquette, and especially when the royalty in question happens to be your boss.

Someone must tell the emperor. You, Tervath. He’ll take it more easily from you.

Tervath enjoys the fact that he is the emperor’s favorite Chief (as far as anybody can tell). But there is a downside the other Chiefs know well how to exploit.

Tervath went searching for Emperor Jediah, with a few well-placed inquiries to the ever-faithful soldiers of the Emperor’s Guard.

The Emperor’s Guard, so important in The Last Heir, gets a nod here.

I always thought of this scene as the dramatic climax of the story. It’s always been about Jediah, Tervath’s discovery – our discovery – of “the unguessed depths of his soul”.

He found Jediah in the gardens, standing beneath the linden trees.

Originally, poplar trees. But linden trees sound better, and what’s more, they have blossoms.

He wouldn’t listen to me. And our father had no time.

Remember the age gap between the brothers: twelve years. With such a distance of years, the little brother is a child to be taught, watched, cared for. The role – the emotions – of the older become almost parental, sometimes sweetly, sometimes exasperatingly so.

Yet there are only two parents. Jediah was not the father Ruark needed and could not be.

He had nothing but time for the Empire. And you—

What was said for years behind Jediah’s back is almost said to his face.

I know I’m not much of an emperor. I know I’m not the leader you or Akon or the others want. I’m not active in governance. But I think you all forget, Tervath, that the people have no complaint against me.

And this is true, though partially because Jediah ruled in a quiet time when the Empire did not need a strong hand. So Jediah, despite his strong sense of duty to his family, was at peace with largely withdrawing from his duty as emperor.

It’s worth noting that Jediah knew, after all, the complaints and criticisms of his officials, which they were always so careful not to voice in his hearing. It’s also worth noting that he specifically mentions Akon.

But the people can endure an eccentric emperor—they can endure a neglectful emperor—better than they can endure an emperor who is often ruled by anger and pride.

Here is the unsuspected irony: Jediah was often accused of caring nothing for the Empire, but all the time it was his concern for the Empire that kept him on the throne.

The judgment Jediah makes here – the judgment he has been making for a decade – is, in its way, a hard one. But even the very gentle are capable of hard judgments, especially if they are also wise.

The emperor stood busy at the table, industrious with his paints and brushes.

And now we’re back to form: The emperor’s mind is on his painting and the Chiefs’ minds are on business.

Lukas worked his close by.

This whole bit was added during the revision. In the original story, the Chiefs are standing around and Akon comes in with the news. The conversation between the Chiefs as they leave the Palace was also added.

The sense of victory that had buoyed them drained away. Trev pulled a thread from his cuff, drawing its long silver line and then snapping it off. “What did we gain?”

This was my father’s question when he first finished the story: What did they gain? I decided to take up the question in the text.

The Chiefs stood uneasily, unable to answer him. Then the clear, hard ring of a jar being set firmly down drew their gazes to Jediah. In one hand he held a dripping paint brush; the other he rubbed against his tunic, leaving an indelible blue smear. His eyes wandered from Chief to Chief, finally settling on Trev. “A year or two,” Jediah said. “Time.” Then he made a shooing motion at the Chiefs.

Several things here: Jediah’s habit of wiping his paint-stained hands off on his clothing is one of those little things that make characters more vivid.

At the end of the story, it’s now typical of Jediah that he would hear the question and know the answer. What is unusually proactive – for him – is that he would pause in his painting to give it.

And then he shoos the Chiefs away.

I predict,” Akon said, “that nothing will change. The emperor will remain shut away in the Palace, lost in his painting and his family. We will go on trying and failing to involve him in the Empire’s affairs. His mind is fertile but it is always drifting. Jediah will ignore us for a blank canvas, for a cloud floating in the sky, for a rosemary plant. But I will no longer be sure he doesn’t hear.”

A good prediction. His mind is fertile but it is always drifting is also accurate, and an excellent summation of how Jediah thinks.

The storm had passed them by.

Meant to be a metaphor for the crisis they just emerged from. That storm, too, passed them by.

From a man with an Empire at his feet.

Here is Jediah’s problem. He is a brilliant painter, but his painting is viewed as valueless because a man with an Empire at his feet has better things to do than create masterpieces.

It was only a few moments afterward that Emperor Jediah came out onto the balcony.

This, the last and briefest scene, is the only one from Jediah’s point of view. The reasons for this go beyond any plot necessity. For one thing, Jediah is a character to be experienced, and that is best done vicariously, through another character. For another, part of the fun of Jediah is everyone else’s reaction to him. For the third – Jediah has so unique a perspective that it would be difficult to tell a story through it.

He reminds me of Henry, a character from my Christian Holmes series. For the sea of differences between their lives and their worlds, they have real similarities: rich, eccentric, brilliant, and misunderstood, possessed of remarkable good will to all humanity and frustrating nearly everyone they come into contact with. And I would never write a story from either one’s viewpoint except for the same reason I would write a story in second person – to see if I could do it and still make it good.

Jediah walked back into the room, and he stopped, catching sight of Ruark. His little brother sat on the long table, facing the blank canvas.

Because this is from Jediah’s point of view, and that’s how he thinks of him.

And it resurrected, in a moment, a thousand memories of Ruark sitting behind him as he painted. When Ruark was little, he could watch Jediah for hours, fascinated and awed at the pictures he created.

Of all the scenes in Lilies, this is one of those most strengthened by the revision and most influenced by Summer Leaves. In that story the relationship between the brothers was given more detail and more depth. A glimpse of that is seen here – a bittersweet flash to when Ruark admired Jediah and his work.

It’s about time for me to move on.

Originally, he came to ask Jediah’s permission to take his nephew and niece to the Jasna Lake. Here, of course, he comes to say good-bye. Again, strengthened by the revision.

Jasna first.

Not the lake – a planet now. I just liked the name. That second word – first – establishes quietly and surely what Ruark is: a wanderer.

Its canyons were a legend in the Empire—some digging a mile into the earth and some only feet, the length of half a continent or the length of a man’s arm. Many were formed out of huestones, deep reds and blues, translucent pinks and yellows. Often the canyons flowed with sweet, pure water.

Water from the rock. Beauty in the darkness. Glorious, mysterious mercy.

This is why Jediah is a painter. He sees the beauty, and he sees things through it. Pictures come to him like poetry.

This is also one of the reasons for Jediah’s silences. An image, a phrase, a thought – and his mind flies.

The tingling came back with a vengeance, and Jediah began flexing his hand again.

Earlier in the story he’s seen flexing his hand. Now we know why.

Don’t stay away long,” Jediah said. “And don’t be reckless.”

A flash of parental advice, born of parental worry.

Ruark paused to flash him a grin. “If I were never reckless, brother, I’d ruin my life.”

Another detail transferred from Summer Leaves. Ruark’s death-defying hobbies began in that story.

Arguments were no good, so Jediah watched his little brother walk out, a piece of his heart going with him.

Another reason for Jediah’s silences: A practical reaction to believing that words would affect nothing.

And the end: The love is as strong as ever, despite all the times and things they were sorry for.

And the eternal hope, that burned purer and stronger than any star.

Of which the lily, the flower of Easter, is a symbol

And he began to paint a lily.

A fitting end to The Beauty of the Lilies.

Author’s Commentary, Part II

Last week I began to post the author’s commentary to Beauty of the Lilies; this week I’ll continue it, and next week I will conclude it.

Beauty of the Lilies

Author’s Commentary, Part I


Author’s Commentary on The Beauty of the Lilies

Jediah looked at the Vothnians with the same unruffled calm—the only thing the dreaming emperor really shared with his worldly-wise Chief of State.

It’s surprising, how wide the differences between people can be. And knowing that gulf, you can yet be startled by a one significant similarity.

the star cults

What exactly are the star cults? I don’t know. Neo-paganism centered around stars just sounded like a good false religion for sci-fi.

He did not understand Jediah’s reaction at all, but he had an unshakable conviction that Ruark did—wholly and easily.

Already it’s obvious that the relationship between the brothers is complicated, if not strained. Ruark treats Jediah in a way that is almost adversarial at times. Yet here he plainly understands Jediah better than anyone else in the room.

In late 2010 I began a sequel called Summer Leaves. As Beauty of the Lilies was Jediah’s story, Summer Leaves was Ruark’s. I ran out of inspiration, and I was eager to begin my next novel, so I left the story unfinished. Yet writing those twenty pages helped me define, in my own mind, characters and relationships more deeply. This, the most heavily revised section of Lilies, reflects that.

You can’t smell it on the breeze?

One of the characteristics of painters is a heightened sense of the physical world around them.

What is Admon doing …?

Premier Admon was invented during the writing of Summer Leaves. He was not so much as mentioned in the first version of Lilies.

Rosemary,” he said, “means dew of the sea.”

Ruark nodded firmly. “And it is associated with Aphrodite and Mary.”

Everyone else moved on from the rosemary the second after Jediah mentioned it, but he didn’t.

Ruark’s citing of the shrub’s mythological associations is mocking, but it is accurate. Chesterton once referred to “sea-born Aphrodite”. According to legend, Aphrodite rose from the sea covered with rosemary. More nobly, rosemary is also associated with the Virgin Mary. Supposedly Mary once spread her blue cloak over a rosemary bush covered with white flowers, and the flowers turned blue. It was then called “Rose of Mary”.

Flowers and the legends connected to them are things in which Ruark has no natural interest. His knowledge is clearly gained from Jediah; what other things Ruark learned from Jediah, even if he did not respect them, I leave to your imagination.

Ruark gave Tervath the barest glance and the barest nod.

Ruark’s conceding the point is a small moment meant to show that he is not entirely incorrigible. Only mostly.

Timnah looked back, iron gleaming in his eyes for a moment.

The windows are the eyes to the soul—sometimes even for men like Anyon Timnah.

Note that he addresses Akon as “Chief Akon”. The Chiefs are generally less formal with each other. It is Timnah who most often resorts to using their titles—and usually during some dispute.

Trev raised a hand, looking for one moment like the teacher he once was.

This is the second reference to Trev’s university career. Both are additions to the original story. Trev’s former occupation as a professor is a detail borrowed from Summer Leaves.

And the ship?

It is Jediah, ironically but fittingly, who first points toward the truth.

Jediah continued to draw, like a patient child playing through a long, quiet afternoon.

Inspired by G. K. Chesterton, who liked to use a playing child as an image for high and serious things. In “The Ancient of Days”, it is a picture of God:

A child sits in a sunny place,
Too happy for a smile,
And plays through one long holiday
With balls to roll and pile;
A painted wind-mill by his side
Runs like a merry tune,
But the sails are the four great winds of heaven,
And the balls are the sun and moon.

In Book VIII of The Ballad of the White Horse, Chesterton relates the patient, playing child to King Alfred and his fight to free England:


Through the long infant hours like days
He built one tower in vain–
Piled up small stones to make a town,
And evermore the stones fell down,
And he piled them up again. …

And this was the might of Alfred,
At the ending of the way;
That of such smiters, wise or wild,
He was least distant from the child,
Piling the stones all day.

For Eldred fought like a frank hunter
That killeth and goeth home;
And Mark had fought because all arms
Rang like the name of Rome.

And Colan fought with a double mind,
Moody and madly gay;
But Alfred fought as gravely
As a good child at play.

Tervath began to step toward the door. Instead he stepped toward the emperor.

There are two moments of revelation about Jediah. This is the first.

My pictures are the mirrors I hold up, trying to reflect the wonder.

Jediah’s painting has been treated by the Chiefs as a hobby, a waste, a distraction, an eccentricity. But here we see that all of Jediah’s painting is a long effort to capture a glimpse of God.

The lily is the flower of Easter.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing this story was researching the myths that surround lilies, and all that lilies have been symbols of. Since then, the lily has been my favorite flower.

Others say that the lilies had their birth in the second garden, where they sprang from the sweat of holy agony.

As Eden is the first garden, Gethsemane is the second garden. The “holy agony” is that of Jesus Christ, who sweated blood as He struggled with the Father’s will that He die on the Cross.

There is another legend regarding lilies and Christ in Gethsemane. It goes that when Jesus was arrested and led out of the garden, all the flowers bowed their heads to Him—all but the lily. The lily lifted her face to Christ, meaning to comfort Him with her beauty. But when He looked on her, she was ashamed of her pride and blushed. The “red lily” still blushes for that moment when she, like Adam, was proud in a garden.

Tervath looked at Jediah, lost in thought, and he respected him.

Jediah does not get enough respect.

Rukh warships

I determined that all classes of Emprian warships would be named after birds. Rukh is an enormous bird of prey from Arabic folklore.

Why are you at them, Akon?

Considering Lilies years after I finished it, I had to ask the same question: Why are all these Chiefs at the negotiations? This is a stab at justification. Besides, it was fun to write.

And it was under kylvath that Vothnia had executed its Emprian prisoners of war.

As a rule, civilized nations do not execute their prisoners of war; to kill captured enemy soldiers—except under extraordinary circumstances—is cruel even for war. It is ruthlessness like this that explains the standing hostility of men such as Akon and Ruark. To them, Vothnia stands guilty of wrongs she has not paid for.

Vothnia has never executed an Emprian who was not guilty.

For an apparent attempt at being conciliatory, this is awfully provocative.

Ruark stared at the Vothnians, and there was something dangerous in how his dark eyes seemed to grow darker yet.

Ruark can be dangerous. Yes, he can.

It is hard to fool a guileless man.

The central idea of what just happened. Jediah, always on the straight path, could not be baited into old fights.