My 10 Favorite Dark Fantasy Books (That Aren’t by George R.R. Martin)

As a budding author who just released the first book in my own dark fantasy series, it seems, looking back, that however much I’ve tried to give books of every genre equal opportunity to be read, it has always been this one that affected me the deepest. I define dark fantasy somewhat loosely, as any work of massive imagination that says something about us, humanity, that may be difficult to hear. Don’t get me wrong. The words “bastard,” “sword,” or both of those together will never lose their crunch. Still, a book is never about its skin, but its soul. To me, “dark fantasy” concerns the dreams we dream when we look inward and find the soul is stained. Of course, it should go without saying that this list is incomplete. No doubt some of your own favorites will be missing. If so, be sure to sound off in the comments.

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10. The Witcher Series

If you pick up The Witcher books expecting another Lord of the Rings, you might be in for a bad time. The games have done a decent job of capturing the essence of these books, but – call me old fashioned – it’s the opinion of this Internet nobody that the books are just better. However, they are also quite divisive. That’s because Sapkowski’s writing does not represent a Western point of view. The Witcher is Polish, through and through: in its mentality, in its humor, in its worldview; as well as in its treatment of subjects like racism, oppression, and war. First published in the nineties, this series remains a bold statement on what is possible when we give in to the tempting voices of our worst selves. The Witcher saga is vibrant, original, and riveting.

Pros: Unforgettable characters, sympathetic monsters of the non-human variety, deliciously brutal ones of the human kind.

Cons: May leave unfamiliar readers scratching their heads. Do your homework and read up on Poland before starting.

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9. The Vagrant (The Vagrant, #1)

I purchased this book on a whim before a longish flight from San Francisco to New Orleans. I thought I was in for another somewhat forgettable high fantasy romp, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself falling headfirst into a wicked, simultaneously lyrical and blood-soaked science fantasy reminiscent in the best way of Gene Wolfe and China Mieville. The prose is beautifully jagged, littered with diamonds in the rough. The characters, including the protagonist (who doesn’t speak), and his best friends, a baby and a goat, are instantly endearing. The threats are real, and every blood splatter felt. The Vagrant is the most fun I’ve had reading a new author in years, and I am hoping for many many more books from Peter Newman to come.

Pros: Dank prose, graceful treatement of clichés, a sono-sword that can wreck your shit.

Cons: Present tense narration pulled me out of the story at times.

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8. Blood Meridian

To me, this book is the essence of dark fantasy. There are no swords in Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant, horrifying epic about a gang of scalp-hunters riding the highway to Hell during the Mexican-American War (maybe sabres or bayonets). There are no dragons or damsels in distress. If there were, make no mistake, Glanton, Judge Holden, Toadvine, and the Kid would shoot and scalp them.

But despite lacking the traditional genre trappings, every word of this book deals in the fantastical, the awful, and the awe-inspiring; from the oneiric quality of the prose, to the story’s villain, the enigmatic, seven foot-tall albino known as the Judge, who is the embodiment of war itself. Blood Meridian isn’t a work that plots a clear path between moral or intellectual points. It is the reading of a nightmare that is wholly American, wholly historical, and yet somehow also mythical and timeless. It is one of the few books I have read that I reread with ritualistic engagement every few years. There is a tree of dead babies. And that scene where they make gunpowder… look, just read it.

Pros: The Judge. Peeing to make gunpowder. Something about floating blue islands.

Cons: One of the bloodiest books in print. No punctuation.

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7. Inferno (Dante, not Dan Brown)

The Divine Comedy was one of the first works written in a language common people could read (Italian, rather than Latin). Its author, Dante Alighieri, was a man who experienced life’s highest highs and lowest lows. He met his true love, lost her, was exiled from his hometown of medieval Florence, and then spent most of his life searching for redemption.

That quest is mirrored here, in his often crude, more often clever narrative poem about a man who, while wandering lost “midway through life’s journey” finds that the only way for him to see his lost love again in Heaven is to literally go through Hell; to journey through the deepest pits of despair and bear witness to the souls of the damned being punished there for their sins. It is gross, it is long, it is tedious, and it is life-changing. And, of all the works of dark fantasy on this list, it is probably the only one that people will still be reading a thousand years from now.

Pros: Lots of mofuggas getting their goddamned comeuppance. Poop demons. The line, “Through me you go to the grief-wracked city.”

Cons: Hundreds of pages long. Read the Ciardi translation. Others read like the Bible.

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6. The Heroes

A standalone, grimdark war story set in the same world as Joe Abercombie’s First Law trilogy. I love the word “grimdark.” It makes me feel smart when I say it, like I could almost add a little Richard Attenborough to the finish and nobody would call it out. And it perfectly captures what this story is about, bleakness, cold steel, and rivers of spilled blood over of all things… a hill. That’s right. This is the story of a bunch of guys killing each other over who gets to be King of the Hill. Like that one part of that Metallica song.

And it works. The conflict itself becomes the main character of this story, and it unfolds through the clearest lens of battle I’ve yet read in fantasy fiction. I really value that Abercrombie took the time to write this book, which seems like a weird thing to say, and maybe it is, but if The Heroes didn’t exist, I probably never would have given a second thought to one of our species’ favorite and most destructive pastimes, which is pointlessly slaughtering each other over who gets the best view.

Pros: Red meat and redder steel. Looooooong. My copy came from Armchair Books in Edinburgh (the one in the header image).

Cons: Heavy enough to use as a weapon if you ever find yourself storming a hill.

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5.  The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2)

No fat pink masts or Myrish swamps to be found here. This is a YA novel. But it is also a monumentally deep and important one. I battled with myself about whether or not to list the whole series, like I did with a few other spots on this list, but I think The Subtle Knife is a much stronger novel than the other two, however much I enjoyed them twenty years ago, when I first… holy f***, I’m old.

This isn’t just a story about a knife that can cut doorways to other worlds; it is a book about the idea of what a world is. It isn’t just about two kids from different parallel universes who are thrown together by a series of exploding events and also an airship, a broken family, a gaggle of witches, and don’t forget the giant armored polar bears, who then end up forming a deep friendship and experiencing first love together; it is about the idea of what our loved ones give us. It isn’t just about the infinite possibilities out there in the multiverse, including worlds where children wear their souls outside their bodies as shape-shifting animals who only take a fixed form after puberty, and other worlds where creepy shadow people eat those fixed forms, leaving cities where there are no grownups and only gangs of punk-ass children; it is about the nature of infinity, and how truly small humanity is in the face of it.

Pros: Cittagazze, Pantalemon, The Guild of Philosophers.

Cons: Can’t think of any, although this series is not well-loved by highly religious folks.

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4. The Sandman

A benchmark work in the development of “mature” comics, The Sandman was now-fantasy superstar author Neil Gaiman’s breakout work, and it ran long enough to fill ten trade paperbacks (not to mention all the spin-offs, sequels, and prequels). There were a few other comic series that I considered putting in the graphic novel slot on this list – Transmetropolitan, Northlanders, and Moore’s Swamp Thing to name a few. But this story, about a family of immortals known as the Endless who represent personifications of the human psyche (as well as plenty of others borrowed from various mythologies, including the DC/Vertigo universe), supersedes not just its peers in the comic world, but the medium itself.

The Sandman is a love ballad to storytelling, more specifically fantasy. Its cast includes Dream, Destiny, Despair, Desire, Destruction, Death, and Delirium – could any group of words better summarize why we read this genre? Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, takes center stage for most of the main Sandman run, and his explorations of our dreams, our hopes, and our fears, are all masterfully written and drawn. My favorite arc is A Game of You, but I can’t remember a single issue of The Sandman that I didn’t like, and most, I absolutely loved. It takes a certain level of genius to maintain that level of interest over 100-something issues. This is Gaiman at his youngest, most raw, and purest.

Pros: Perfectly plotted. Snappy dialog. Old school art and coloring still pops.

Cons: Some kids these days might need to step out of the box to really get into a comic printed on newspaper.

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3. The Black Company (Chronicles of the Black Company, #1)

The granddaddy of books about knights who say f—. Well, not knights, exactly. Just normal soldiers. This is a grim, realistic, and often hilarious examination of men at war through the fantasist’s lens. The fact the fantasist in question is a veteran of the U.S. military adds the necessary authenticity. Glen Cook’s flagship series pulls no punches, both in terms of how men “in the shit” talk and how they behave. A diverse cast of characters with a broad range of personalities, who constantly subvert expectations. The dark lord, for example, is a smokin’ hot woman.

ProsCharacters and cities that live and breathe. No kid gloves about violence and war.

Cons: Croaker is a little bit nondescript as far as protagonists go.

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2. The Master and Margarita

A satirical novel by Russian playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov about a machine gun-toting cat who works for Satan and performs street magic, this is the book that subverted the entire Soviet Union and its culture of ideological censorship with nothing but humor, despite being published posthumously after the author burned it, rewrote it from memory, and hid it in a box for three decades.

The basic plot is that the Devil, a fabulously fashionable man who wears a pince-nez, arrives in Moscow to make trouble for everyone, including the government, the titular Master (a writer languishing in obscurity), and his sweet love, Margarita. There is also a simultaneous retelling in flashbacks of the trial and execution of Jesus Christ. Dope doesn’t begin to describe this novel. Some people say the classics aren’t sexy, but with the amount of nudity and broomsticks, in this particular instance, those people would be wrong.

Pros: The quote “Manuscripts don’t burn.” Excellent use of a story-within-the-story. Machine gunning demon cat.

Cons: None

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1. The Book of the New Sun

I’ve read “The Book of the New Sun” cover-to-cover four times, and each time it becomes richer, deeper, and more enjoyable. Neil Gaiman wrote an entire article on why you should read Gene Wolfe, who the New York Times called “Science Fiction’s Difficult Genius” and who Ursula K. LeGuin called “Our Melville.” Wolfe is a writer’s writer. His stories are shadowy, labyrinthine puzzles, impossible to fully grasp on the first read-through. Oh, you will think you know what’s going on, and who’s-who, and who that guy’s mother is. The first time. Maybe even the second. But trust me, you have no idea.

The Book of the New Sun tetralogy is set in far-future Argentina, when the sun is dying, and follows the confessions of Severian, a disgraced young journeyman in the Guild of Torturers who is kicked out for falling in love with and subsequently showing mercy to one of his victims. Over the next four books, we travel with Severian and his mercury-weighted executioner’s sword all over the Americas, as he collects heads for a paycheck, battles mad scientists and their giant homunculi, resuscitates his grandmother from the lake of the dead, faces an army that can only speak in short government-approved aphorisms, time-travels, journeys to the stars, and ultimately, becomes leader of the free world. If you are already skeptical of this list of events, that’s great – you’re off to a good start at successfully reading Wolfe.

Pros: Terminus Est, the Alzabo, conversing with the Ascians, the king of unreliable narrators.

Cons: Dense and difficult, but worth the work.

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So, those are my top ten. What are yours?

‘Corruption’ Is Out

Corruption (The Corruption Cycle, #1) is out today on Kindle.

There are a few loose thoughts in my brain that I want to get out there concerning the three-year journey it took to write this book. But first –

Celebration!

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What a celebration looks like in Bavaria. Also what every day looks like in Bavaria.

Thought #1: This wasn’t always an easy book to write.

I started writing Corruption back in early 2014, before I ever sold a story, when Lurk was still a twenty-page first draft kicking around on my old Alienware laptop. It took me about six months to finish the first pass on Corruption once I picked it up and really committed in late 2015, and almost a year to rewrite and edit it to a point where I was comfortable showing it to friends and family.

Corruption contains three nested stories: the story of Dan, an expat running from his past who flees America to find a new life in Eastern Europe; the story of the Night Country, a fallen, post-apocalyptic world where an evil king has stolen the sun; and finally, the fictional story of a good knight on a mission to save his kingdom in the epic poem Dan is translating at work.

Balancing these three story lines gave me some trouble in the early drafts. As usual, the best advice I received came from my dad. He was my first reader, and while he really loved the story once he got into it, he struggled with the big initial splash. So I rewrote Q1. Not completely. Mostly, I added a POV character that ended up being my favorite character in the book. I love me a bastardly villain, and the Ratkeeper (the guy in the spiral mask pictured below) is in some ways as bastardly as they come.

Thought #2: You can grow even from the harshest criticism.

On the subject of the cover… the second-best advice I received in the production of this book came from /r/selfpublish, who took me to task when I posted the crappy “cover” I made in Gimp, which in my tunnel vision looked awesome, but in hindsight, would’ve killed this book in the womb. Check out that side-by-side for reference. I tried to do this part myself, not for egotistical reasons, but because I wanted the challenge.

Wrong.

Dudes, we should only try to climb the mountains we are meant to climb. I am not a graphic designer and never will be. I scrapped what we will now refer to as the “mood-setter” cover (in real English, the shit one), and ended up working with J. Caleb Clark on the final cover the book has now. He was a godsend. He created an image that was not only beautiful and eye-catching, but also captured the essence of the story better than the best-case scenario I had in my head.

Lesson learned: don’t try to do everything yourself, and always trust your professionals.

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Thought #3: This book isn’t for everyone.

I have no illusions about the fact that Corruption will be a difficult book for some people. There are no Elvish musicals or handsome, square-jawed saviors. When I classify this book as “dark fantasy” I am not doing so in an attempt to ride George R.R. Martin’s diamond coattails. There is some graphic sex and violence – more of the latter than the former – but the darkness I chose to write about in Corruption is, if you couldn’t guess from the title, primarily of the social, human variety.

As with Lurk, I wanted to write about ideas and people that I find interesting, and those typically gravitate toward the fringes. The uglier parts of this story include hate, loneliness, dysfunctional relationships, mental illness, alcoholism, Eastern European geopolitics, weird internet subcultures, sex curses, a solar apocalypse, and beyond.

Is a fantasy novel the right place to explore these subjects? I don’t know. This is not the book that I thought I should write for other people; it’s the book I wrote because I wanted to read it. Art is always a mirror. Sometimes it is a mirror we hold up to other people, and sometimes it is a mirror we hold up to ourselves. To me Corruption is a bit of both.

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Thought #4: After three years, it is time to do like the homegirl Elsa and let it go.

Whether you adore Corruption, hate it, finish it, don’t read it, five-star it, one-star it, devour it in one sitting or nibble it to completion, fantasy readers of the world… Corruption is yours now.

Thank you to everyone who helped along the way, and especially, to Hannah.

CORRUPTION Gets a Cover and Release Date

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A young man running from his past…
A city shrouded in dark magic…
A girl with the key to a nightmarish otherworld…

Daniel Harper was champion, until a tragic mistake ended his martial arts career. With no future to call his own, he flees to Eastern Europe, where he can start over–where he can be someone else.

But in that ancient, mystical Country, Daniel meets two people who will change his life forever: the beautiful but broken flower girl Kashka, and the enigmatic street magician Ink.

As Daniel plummets into a vodka-drenched downward spiral of hedonism and dereliction, he begins having macabre visions of a distant world known only as the Night Country, a frozen wasteland in endless darkness where an evil king has stolen the sun, and Visitors inhabit the bodies of the recently deceased…

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CORRUPTION, Book One of the Corruption Cycle, launches April 13th. You can read the first chapter here.

My novellette ‘The Lich’ is free this week on Kindle

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This tale about the fall of an undead wizard, told in his own words, was my first foray into fantasy, originally published in last year’s “Ancient Enemies” monster anthology. If you like grimdarks, not-so-sympathetic villains, or fringe characters in general, check it out. Cover art by the incredible Laura Hollingsworth.

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Things Change, and That’s The Way It Is

So it looks like Corruption is getting a delay, for a few reasons. I was originally planning to release the book in January, but now it appears I need to push it back a few weeks or even months. The main reason is plot rewrites. I’m also going a different direction with the cover than I initially thought, and am hiring a professional to do the artwork instead of using the ugly clip art version I created in GIMP. My cousin Laura Hollingsworth, who did the beautiful cover artwork for my upcoming novella The Lich (below), is now doing the artwork for Corruption, too. She’s good, right?

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Daaaaaaaaaang.

As for those plot issues I mentioned…

After a long conversation with my dad last night, a big chunk of which was spent talking about his feedback on the book, I’ve realized that something I have feared about the story all along was definitely not just in my head. There are some serious pacing issues in the first 30% of Corruption. My first full crack at an epic, complex fantasy with three different, nested plotlines was bound to have some significant issues. In this case, it is too much setup in the beginning of the story.

There is a big chunk at the start of Corruption where the characters are meeting, Dan is settling into his new life in Eastern Europe, and things are falling into place for the events in the second half of the book,  when shit really begins to hit the fan… I think everything after this period of buildup is awesome, but, as my dad pointed out, too much setup means a slow beginning, which could end up causing readers to put the book down before it ever really begins.

Duh. I should’ve known this. I kind of did, but I needed to hear it from someone else. And this is why beta readers are important, people. Art can’t be created by committee, true; but it also can’t be created alone. You always need people you trust to give you a second opinion. Always. Nothing is ever perfect on the first go. There are always going to be some changes.

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Not that kind.

So, how am I going to attack this problem?

My strategy is twofold. I am introducing a new POV character to breakup the monotony of the opening of the book. This POV character is actually my favorite character in the book, but his action was mostly off-screen until the climax of the story. A Clare Quilty type, if you will. Now, he is getting his own chapters-short and to the point-which will bridge two of the three nested stories that make up Corruption and hopefully give its first act some much-needed gas.

This may not be a perfect solution, but other than adding foreshadowing to some of the dialog, which I am also doing, I’m not sure how to go about it without a total rewrite, which I’m not willing to do. I like the first act of the book a lot, and don’t want to throw it out. It does what it needs to do, it’s just a bit slow. I already like the pacing better with the added chapters, and plan on finishing my first pass of rewrites by the end of this week.

Beta readers, let me know if you want the update.

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Takeaways

If I’ve learned anything from writing it is that, like any discipline, it is a mirror for life itself. You make mistakes, you learn, you adapt, and overcome. If you fuck up, you take the positive, leave the negative, and try your best to use that experience to grow. Doing the opposite will never get you where you want to be. It is also monumentally important to let others in on the things that are important to you, to take help and wisdom from others and give it when you can. It is a much longer and harder road when you try to go alone.

 

 

Fiction: The Girl in the Blue Dress

This letter is for the girl in the blue dress. You know who you are and that I’ve wanted to contact you. My name is Rider. My handle on the BrickLog is RK466. You can contact me at #1107381980085.

However, since I know this letter will have far more readers than just you, the following is for all those who are not the girl in the blue dress. Blue, you can skip to the end.

Everyone else, I want to tell you a story. It’s about love, and longing, and the childish games Watchers play—at least one in particular—in the service of those first two things. I’m hoping my story will convince you to help me with something, because I desperately need your aid.

The first time I saw her was in Pompeii. She was walking towards me, up the sloping street, wearing a blue dress. She carried a basket of olives on her hip, which was swaying, her eyes locked on the mountain behind us. When she noticed me noticing her, she recognized me instantly as a Watcher, like herself, and asked me: “Are you enjoying the show?”

I said “Yes”.

“Me too,” she said with a smile. “This one’s my favorite.”

That city in its prime is more beautiful than you can imagine without seeing it firsthand. It’s an old Schwarbrick (sorry, Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show, if that wasn’t clear), so the ticket only costs a few dozen seconds. The streets are vigorous, still brimming with life, hundreds of people all passing along their kinetic energy in a crashing, haphazard fashion. And when the mountain finally blows, and the jet black streams darken the sky in an instant and that sound—oh God, that terrible sound—penetrates you so deep it could bury you, you know why we do this, why those few dozen seconds of our lives are nothing for the joy of witnessing a Schwarbrick like this.

You think: This is why we watch.

The advertisements all push the war shows these days, but I prefer natural disasters. The heroics are better, more organic. If you’ve never seen one of the Natural Crisis ‘bricks, you don’t know what you’re missing. I consider myself an addict. It used to be because of my morbid fascination with all the blood, the fires and the suffering. But these days it’s because of her.

I won’t give up searching until I find her.

During every great catastrophe in human history there has always been someone standing by, laughing. And when I first laid eyes on her, loitering up the stony road in Pompeii with her basket of olives towards the place at the top of the rise where she would have the best view of Vesuvius, the vantage clearest of vineyards and tombs, I knew she was the type to laugh, not out of sadism, but because to her this really was just a show.

Then the caldera cracked and my eyes were drawn away from her to the eruption rising to cover the sky with obsidian dust, and by the time I thought to look for her again, she was gone.

The next time I saw her was in Rome. It was 217 AD. Most show-goers watch in marathons: a week in Ancient Rome, a week in China, a day or two on a certain stretch of the North Atlantic of a silent, iceberg-laden night, because buying ‘bricks in bulk is cheaper, costing only a few minutes for each show rather than the hours or days they would cost to purchase tickets for individually.

She was watching the Rome shows this week, same as me. It was the evening of the Coliseum fires.

We were both exploring the hallways outside the arena as workers prepared for a gladiatorial match that was to take place the following day. A low blanket of charcoal clouds belched murmurs of thunder through the dimming sky.

I don’t recall how many people died that night, if there was even a record. But I recall their faces well, so placid and unaware.

I found myself walking suddenly behind a woman whose stride and swaying hips seemed familiar. But I couldn’t place exactly where from.

Then I saw the blue dress; the same she was wearing in Pompeii.

She strolled casually, not making much effort to fit in, because she knew she didn’t have to. She was still carrying her basket of olives. I assumed it was her immersion prop, to make her presence in times that were not her own more convincing. Mine is a pair of rope sandals, uncomfortable as a plague, but they fit well (enough) in most historical ‘bricks.

The girl looked back at me and smiled. She had vibrant freckles, amber hair that fell in slow-moving curls, olive skin so smooth it appeared oiled under the torchlight. I knew it was her as soon as our eyes met.

She kept pace with me and eventually said, in a language distinctly not Ancient Latin: “Hey, you. Fancy seeing you here. You like this type of ‘brick, huh?”

I told her I did.

“Natural Crisis week is my all-time fave,” she said. “When you’re done here, though, you should skip the Titanic and check out the S.S. Sultana instead. It’s a much better ‘brick, and a lot less crowded.

I saw her wink as we entered the glow under a lantern. I stopped, taking her arm gently. “You know, these are always more fun with another person. Would you like to watch this one together?” I asked her.

A sudden snap of thunder spooked a pack of hyenas in one of the cages nearby. A crowd of people gathered to watch the handler desperately trying to sing them calm again. Non volo! He cried. Non volo! Non volo, non volo

“No,” she said over my shoulder. “Sorry, but I like to watch alone.”

When I looked again, she was gone.

We all saw the finger of lightning and heard the deafening cries. It was no surprise for me, as I knew it was coming. But when the bright flash licked down against the top of the Colosseum, and the flames budded from the wood supports and spread and scattered, it was suddenly as if the whole world had ended.

I felt a hand brush my back, soft and reassuring. A flash of blue passed my peripheral vision. But when I tried to find her, I could not.

I went to the S.S. Sultana next. I was young, could afford to shave a few more days off my life to buy another Schwarbrick ticket, and it was one I had never seen.

I stood on the main deck and brushed her shoulder with mine. She looked stunning. She wore a fur coat over her blue dress, for the night was frigid and the surface of the Mississippi caked with drifts of ice.

It’s a short show, the Sultana; only a few minutes to view. We didn’t have much time.

She smiled at me and took my arm, said, “Boom,” and pointed toward the boiler. We were knocked apart as the true sound of the explosion split the frosty night, and somewhere among the din, I heard her laughing.

“That always gets me!” She chuckled as we found each other again amid the chaotic screaming of the crowd. She propped herself steady on the rail as the deck tilted and people began jumping overboard, screaming.

“This is great!” I said, shouting over the noise. “I’ve never seen this one before!”

“I know!” she said, and grinned.

The fireball ascended above us like a beacon, and in that crimson light I saw something about her I hadn’t noticed before: she had a scar tattoo of a star under her eye that bunched up as if it was twinkling when she smiled.

“Let’s go to the Egyptian Plague,” I said.

“What?”

“The Egyptian Plague!” I repeated. “Come on! It’s great!”

She left my arm, turned and made fast for her extraction line on the second deck. “I’ve gotta go,” she said.

“Wait! What’s your name?”

Then my own extraction point out of the Schwarbrick opened, and I exited back into the present, disappointed, but still flying off the feel of her touch. Many centuries in the past, the Sultana’s second deck began to sink beneath the lapping freeze of the rough-and-tumble Mississippi.

I didn’t see her in Egypt, nor in Babylon. I snuck up on someone I thought was her in California at Donner Lake, hiding in the snow drifts behind a thermal shield, but I was mistaken. That watcher was an older woman, brunette and irritated I’d crashed on her show. She made a joke that this was a bad time to be sneaking up on people, and that if I’d done it to the wrong party I would probably get eaten. We started talking and ended up getting along, shared a bowl of soup and watched the cannibals devour each other.

When I finally saw my girl again, it was in the Anasazi Famine of 1299. She was walking among the corpses, holding a fox skin over her nose. The sweet smell of rot lingered like an echo over that doomed city. She was wearing her blue dress. I could see it from all the way across the dust-bitten valley, like a single drop of color on a gray, apocalyptic canvas.

Neither of us spoke. She only took my hand, and we walked in silence among them, an entire civilization dead to starvation. The few Anasazi who were still alive picked through the ruins and the streets in a last desperate attempt to find food. The dead offered no complaint.

History has come to know them as The Old Ones. That is what Anasazi means, a name they surely did not call themselves. Their language is lost and cannot be learned even by the most dedicated Schwarbrick aficionados—one of the few such languages the fandom has yet to crack (I know, because aside from being a Watcher, I’m also a Cracker; meaning, I dedicate the vast majority of my free time when I’m not ‘bricking to solving the lost languages of the past we hear in the ‘bricks; it makes the experience richer).

But in their places, dead or alive they looked no older than us—smaller perhaps, rougher, harder—but no older.

I didn’t see it as a good time to ask for a second date. There would be another time, I told myself. There always is.

I now must apologize, dear reader, if I have misled you thus far. Even thinking about her makes it difficult to write. I’m writing all of this to you because I need your help. What I ask is simple: if you see her, you must show her this letter. I need to see her again.

You must give her this letter. She’ll know who I am by reading it and, I hope, will seek me out, since my efforts to find her have been haphazard at best, and most of the time, altogether fruitless.

I’m not some creep in the bushes, you see. I know my feelings are mutual, even if she does play hard-to-get. I’ve known ever since she kissed me above the flooded valleys of the Yangtze in 1931 AD, the last time I saw her.

Three million people died that year in the floods. She came to the show drunk. She sat close to me on the hillside, her arm entangled in mine and her soft head resting pleasantly on my shoulder. We both speculated on the horror of losing one’s home to the rising black waters, or one’s family, then suddenly, she kissed me.

Her lips tasted of wine and the gray, forgotten future. When she pulled back she had rain in her eyes and a smile caught between her dimples.

“I know we’re not supposed to interfere when we watch,” she said. “But haven’t you ever wanted to?”

“What’s your name?” I said.

“That would be interfering.”

She slid a finger along the top knuckle of my right hand, softly wiping away the raindrops gathered there.

“We’re not interfering at all! And who cares? You some sort of BrickLogger?”

“Loggers aren’t the only ones who care about all the innocent people who get killed when we interfere.”

“How do you know anyone does? All that’s been proven is it creates a failed timeline.”

She squeezed my hand and stood up on her heels, kissing me deeper than before. “I gotta go.”

Someone screamed on the river below, a man clinging desperately to a raft made from doors wound together with chicken wire, the pregnant black waters fighting to pull him under.

When I looked up again, she was falling back through her extraction point into her own time.

“Wait! How can I contact you?” But she wasn’t there.

And again, after our picnic at Fort Point in 1906, as we watched San Francisco collapse to the malicious arithmetic of the quakes; and the bombing of Hiroshima; and the time we stood with hands clasped tight as the women buried their children at Wounded Knee.

She’s playing games with me.

You must find her, dear reader. Whoever, whenever you are, there is a significant chance she is nearby. I know, because she told me this week is her favorite. I’ve left copies of this letter in every ‘brick currently being shown.

She isn’t hard to recognize. She wears a blue cotton dress, a simple garment that could fit easily anytime, anywhere. Sometimes she carries a basket of olives as an immersion prop. Her hair will be done up in whatever style is trendy in your time. She will be close to wherever you find this letter. She always knows where to get the best views.

In return for your help, I will help you. I know I am only a stranger to you—some words written on a piece of paper. But have you not also loved and longed for one who toyed so indecisively with your heart? Would you not do anything to secure their love, so you might be happy?

If she isn’t there, the advice I’m about to give you will still be useful. By law and the terms of the Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show user agreement, I must be purposefully vague in what I am about to say. But it is monumentally important that you listen, and listen well. Your life depends on it.

For My Blue: Call me already. I’m running out of time and can’t keep chasing you around through the ‘bricks like this. I know you’re in just as much time-debt as I am. You’re being childish by pretending to be interested; either you’re interested, or you’re not. If so, just call. I hope your answer is yes.

For everyone else: Very soon, you should put down whatever you’re doing and start to run.

*First published in Nonlocal Science Fiction, December 2015

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