A Symphony of Steel [steampunk/fantasy; mature content]


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    A Symphony of Steel [steampunk/fantasy; mature content]

    Republic of Tarantir

    Year 1862 TGE

    Second year of Tarantir Civil War

    ---

    "Alright, you worthless dogs, out you go! Out! Out! Move it!"

    The doors of the cattle cars rolled open with a loud clang, flooding the dark interiors with light. The provost sergeants outside immediately proceeded to greet the new arrivals with their usual shouts of abuse and blasphemy as their accompanying soldiers set up ramps to the cars.

    "Move it! And watch your step, damn you all - you're useless to the Republic with a broken arm or leg, and you know what happens to useless things here!"

    The assorted riff-raff in grimy, ragged blue uniforms began to pour out of the train at best speed possible while minding their step. The provosts were quick to demonstrate they meant business when one man, a young lad no older than 18, fell from a ramp and sprained his ankle. His cries were quickly silenced by gunshot.

    "I said, watch your step, you worthless pieces of human waste! Or you will end up like this stupid sod here!" the provost sergeant bellowed, holstering his revolver, "Now get going and line up for inspection!"

    The rain pouring from the heavily-overcast sky had turned the road at the station into a quagmire of mud. Cordoned on both sides by armed guards and mercilessly harassed by the provost sergeants, the mass of men from the train began to move down the road.

    "Freedom and liberty my arse..." one man among the hundreds grumbled. His short, stocky build, bristly red hair and distinctive Albionese accent quickly betrayed him as a dwarf. Most probably a recent immigrant from Allied Kingdoms - with the war going as badly as it did, the Republic had resorted to conscripting just about every able-bodied male who had no good excuse not to be conscripted. Vagrants, swindlers, petty thieves and other convicted small-time crooks, the urban poor, immigrants fresh off the boat, anyone without a skill or trade useful to the war effort or enough money to pay for exemption - all were good enough to fill first uniforms and soon afterwards mass graves, which usually happened in quick succession of each another.

    "What are you in for?" a young man next to him asked quietly as the crowd of conscripts was being herded onwards by the provost sergeants, who kept their new charges going with liberal dispensations of kicks, blows of crop whips and blood-curdling profanities.

    "In for?" the dwarf chuckled. "Laddie, I ain't "in for" nothin'! These fine gentlemen 'ere," he nodded towards the provost sergeants, "Plucked me up as soon as I stepped off the bloody boat! Said they's got a country-full of useless parasites like me here, so if I want'a stay in this fine country, I better earn it fightin' for the Republic! I reckon you be in fer somethin' yourself!"

    "Stealing," the young lad spoke, "My Pa died two years back, when the war started. Soon after, the army came and took all our cattle and corn away, said they needed it to feed the troops, left us without a crumb of bread. I tried to steal a bag of our own grain back at night, so that Ma and little Lizzy, my sister, wouldn't have to go hungry at least until next month, but the guards caught me. The judge was lenient, God bless him - he let me pick between the mines and the army. So here I am."

    "Back home they said Tarantir was a land of freedom, liberty and justice," the dwarf grinned bitterly as the guards shot another man for slipping in the mud and failing to get up in time nearby, "Some freedom and justice ye lot have 'ere..."

    "Wasn't always that way. The war changed everything for the worse," the young man explained, "It's all because of those damn Fedrat rich folks down South. They've been struggling with the Orkish Rebellion for years. Two years back when President Holmes was elected, he finally wanted a stop to it and promised every Ork in the Republic freedom in exchange for the rebels laying down their arms, but the planters and businessmen would have none of it. Said the government in Drakesburg had grown too powerful, infringing on their rights and traditions, and set up their Federation. So it's been war ever since, and things ain't going well for the Republic so far. After Trenton, Bushmill Ford and Iron Fields, they've started to draft everyone who can carry a rifle. A lot of people ain't happy, there's riots and strikes all over the Republic nowadays, so the government has toughened the laws greatly"

    "Guess I must be in luck then," the dwarf chuckled bitterly, "Back home, an honest-to-God dwarf like myself 'ere can barely make a living in the mines or the factories anymore. Everyone back home's heard how that McSimm lad struck rich in Tarantir an' all, thought I might try me luck 'ere as well. Should've stayed in the mines, I guess..."

    "Hyrum McSimm?" the lad spoke with evident admiration, "He's easily the most famous dwarf in Tarantir! Richest one too. People say he came here without a penny to his soul, made all his fortunes with hard work all by himself. Nowadays, half of the guns in the Republic's army are made in his factories."

    "Aye," the dwarf nodded, "With this war of yours goin' on, he must surely be makin' a killing with his guns."

    "If we are to die for the glory of the Republic, the least they could've done is given us fresh uniforms rather than these rags," the lad grumbled, sniffing his own and recoiling in disgust, "This one stinks like a corpse!"

    "Probably because they pulled it off a corpse," a deep, gruff voice rumbled from behind, prompting the two to turn, "New uniforms cost a pretty penny so they pull'em off the dead out in the field whenever they can these days, as long as they ain't too ragged or rotten to wash clean and patch up. Yours got a bullet hole on the shoulder 'round where the heart is, and I reckon there's another one just like that in front as well."

    The speaker was an older man, somewhere in his late 30's. Two prominent scars marring his chiseled features and the inimitable dazed look in his eyes indicated this man was no stranger to combat. As to why he was here among convicts, vagrants and immigrants rather than a more reputable company of soldiers was anyone's guess.

    Examining his uniform closer, the young lad indeed found another hole around where the man had predicted it would be, the dark indigo of his uniform unable to fully conceal the remnant of the bloodstain surrounding it. His face twisted in revulsion and horror.

    "Don't listen to him, laddie, he's just jestin'!" the dwarf gave the man irate look as he tapped on the boy's shoulder, "And jus' who might you be, mister?"

    "My name's my own," the man shrugged indifferently, "I don't care to hear yours, and you shouldn't care to give yours either if you're smart. It's much easier that way."

    "I'm fresh off the boat here and dunno how things be here in your parts," the dwarf objected, "But where I come from, it's common courtesy to introduce yourself!"

    "You probably weren't at war wherever you came from then," the man stated even more coldly, "Not a war like this one, anyway."

    "In a couple weeks at most, all three of us will be dead. If the Fedrats don't get us, then disease or those sods surely will," the man nodded towards the provost-sergeants and guards as he spoke to soften his earlier statement, "And whoever's last will regret having made friends to watch them go out like that. So no names. Not with me, and not with anyone else if you're smart. We're all just meat here, stuff to fill the graves with - don't matter now by what name anyone calls us."

    "You seem like you've been in a good few scrapes, mister!" the dwarf stated, "Makes one wonder what's a man like you doing in a fine company like this? Cattle rustling? Robbery? Murder?"

    "Desertion," the man responded curtly, dodging a crop-whip blow thrown by a nearby provost in his general direction.

    "Desertion? Didn't take you for the craven kind..." the dwarf chuckled and turned to the boy, "Some company, in'it? An immigrant, a thief and deserter!"

    The man's face grew darker than the stormclouds above.

    "I volunteered on the very first day of the war, and I fought at Bushmill Ford and Iron Fields!" he growled, "I deserted after the things I saw and did there, and so would have you, dwarf! But you weren't there, so don't presume to judge me!"

    Before the dwarf could reply, a command to halt and face right was shouted by the provost-sergeants.

    "Stand at attention, you scum! It means - back straight, eyes forward, hands along the sides, and DO NOT BLOODY MOVE! Anyone who moves or talks will be shot!"

    "Meet your Colonel!" one of the sergeants announced as they assumed their positions at attention next to a large white field tent. It was one of a series of tents arrayed out in the field in front of the conscripts, apparently some sort of field camp.

    Moments later, the aforementioned colonel exited the nearest tent. A rather slender and unimposing man, he sported a full beard and a brimmed cavalry hat as opposed to the feedbag caps usually worn by the Republic's infantrymen. A gilded officer's sabre hung from his side. The colonel's eyes beheld the ragtag assembly of conscripts before him with unbridled disgust. He was accompanied by a lieutenant who held up an umbrella over him. In more reputable units, such a display might have been frowned upon as unsoldierly, but here it was apparently intended to further convey the colonel's disdain, to show conscripts under him as not worth getting wet over.

    "The Constitution of the Republic of Tarantir states in its very first paragraph that no man shall be deprived of life, liberty or property absent judgement of a court of law. The Constitution recognizes that all men are born equal and endowed by God with the right to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Other provisions of our great nation's Constitution grant freedom of speech, religion and conscience to all who reside on the Republic's God-blessed soil!" the colonel began in a loud voice belied by his lithe stature, "These wonderful provisions, however, do not apply to you. Most of you forfeited all those wonderful rights the moment you betrayed our great nation with your acts of depraved criminality in a time when she needed your obedience and dutiful service the most. With your crimes, you betrayed your mother when she depended on you, her unworthy wayward sons! Others among you have flocked here from distant shores, seeking to feed at her breast at the expense of her trueborn and faithful sons and daughters, and have not yet demonstrated your worthiness of these rights. Fortunately for you, the Republic is merciful and forgiving! In her generousity, the Republic has deemed that even vermin like you may yet redeem yourselves and prove worthy to bear the proud title of a citizen of Tarantir."

    Briefly pausing to ensure his message went home, the colonel continued.

    "I am Provost-Colonel William T. Cale, commanding officer of the 62nd Penal Regiment. I will be your commanding officer from this moment on until the moment your worthless carcasses are thrown in the grave - or until you prove yourselves deserving a better fate. Every man who survives 10 battles will be granted a presidential pardon for his crimes and the right to be transferred to a more reputable unit. Foreign immigrants will be granted Tarantir citizenship and the same right under the aforementioned condition. But until then, you will be subject to the discipline and regulations of a penal regiment. Slackers and quarrelers will be flogged with a minimum of 50 lashes. Thieves will be made to run the gauntlet for as many times as the provost-sergeants deem fit. Insubordination, malingering and dereliction of duty will be punished by summary execution. Cowards, mutineers and deserters will be crucified! Remember these penalties and obey the rules, and your service here will not be any more difficult than it has to be! Fail, and you shall know the wrath of the Republic! Dismissed!"

    As the Colonel returned to his tent, the sergeants returned to their duties with a vengeance, now taking to dividing the assembly of conscripts into companies of 150 men. In practice this translated to driving the mass into a funnel single file wide formed by cordoning guards, one of the sergeants counting the men and temporarily stopping the flow once the necessary number was reached.

    "So, I didn't catch your name, lad?" the dwarf spoke to the boy after the two and the deserter behind them found themselves in 2nd Company, a provost-sergeant walking along the line with a bucket of paint and drawing a thick bright "2" on every man's right sleeve.

    "William Hopkins," the boy said, "Most folks in my village just call me Billy."

    "Angus McGregor, at yer service!" the dwarf gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder before turning to the convicted deserter, "Now I know you don't like givin' names an' all, but I can't keep callin' you "deserter" or "you there"! I'll go with Sourpuss if you don't gimme somethin' better to call you."

    "Whatever..." the man grumbled.

    "Sourpuss it is!" Angus laughed almost jovially, Billy smiling as well, before a passing provost-sergeant interrupted their merrymaking with an angry shout.

    "Some comedians, are we?! We'll see how hard you're gonna laugh tomorrow when the training begins! Now stove it!"

    ---

    The newly-formed companies were next introduced to their provost-lieutenants. 2nd Company seemed to be in luck. Their lieutenant, a young chap named Fairbanks who looked only a few years older than Billy, didn't seem to hold much contempt for his new charges and generally seemed to prefer letting the more experienced provost-sergeants do most of the commanding.

    "Good," Sourpuss commented on the situation, "That kid's got barely a hair on his lip, probably fresh from Northpeak and not the best of his class either, but at least he has the sense to stay out of the way and let older and smarter men do their jobs."

    "How long do you reckon 'til he's gotta lead us in battle?" Angus inquired.

    "A week or two, give or take. They'll drill us for a few days now and then march us South," Sourpuss explained, "By the time we get there, half of these poor wretches will be dead of disease without ever seeing a single Fedrat or firing a shot in anger. The rest of us will follow them shortly once we do."

    "It can't be all that bad," Billy spoke in disbelief.

    "Son, we're in a penal regiment!" Sourpuss smirked bitterly, "You really think these hangmen in fancier uniforms will let you lay about in a field hospital if you get sick? You saw yourself what they did to that chap who fell from the ramp, or the one who slipped in the mud and couldn't keep up. If you get ill out here, that's it - they'll just take you somewhere out of sight and shoot you like a wounded horse. More likely, they'll just slit your throat so others don't hear the shot and get unduly agitated."

    "I never thought President Holmes would ever approve something like this," Billy spoke, visibly distraught, "This is clearly against everything the Constitution stands for!"

    "It's not just his decision. It was General Burton and General Steiner who pressured him into imposing nationwide martial law and signing the Penal Regiment Act. Both are prominent Unitarians, both hate the Feds like the plague, and both have powerful friends in both parties. They're the ones you really wanna be blaming if that makes you feel any better," Sourpuss explained, "But best not talk politics here if you know what's good for you, or some overzealous provost might just interpret it as sedition."

    A shout from the nearby provost-sergeant interrupted their conversation again, calling to line up and receive arms.

    "What guns do you reckon they'll give us?" Billy spoke to Sourpuss as the company lined up in a queue.

    "Some rusty old pieces of junk from the Elesari War, probably," Sourpuss shrugged, "Certainly not Oakenfields or one of those newfangled repeaters the provosts have."

    Indeed, the provosts guarding the penal encampment and assisting the provost-sergeants seemed to be all equipped with Morgan-McSimm repeating rifles. Owning one was something of a point of pride and a mark of status within the Republic army - typically only elite scouts and skirmishers were issued with repeating rifles, rank-and-file soldiers saving up their pay to buy one. Though less powerful and shorter-ranged than the standard-issue Oakenfield Model 1862 rifle-musket, it's quality of "being loaded on Friday and shot until Monday" in the words of envious Federalist troops no doubt held a significant appeal. The brass cartridge ammunition was admittedly hard to come by especially in places far away from cities with well-stocked gun shops, but the knowledge of being able to fire 12 rounds in the time it took the enemy to load and fire just one did contribute significantly to morale, if nothing else.

    "I thought these were only given to elite troops," Billy mused, taking note of the provosts' rifles.

    "They're not for the enemy, they're meant for us," Sourpuss explained, again leaving the boy distraught.

    "Do you always have to be so bloody negative 'bout everythin'?" Angus grumbled at him.

    "Just saying how it is," Sourpuss shrugged, "How else are they to keep the bunch of us in line once we get armed, if not by having 12 rounds to shoot at us for every one we got? And how else do you imagine they're gonna keep us from running once we reach the battlefield and the lead starts flying?"

    Angus looked around and was reluctantly compelled to agree. There was roughly a platoon's worth of provost troops for every company of conscripts, enough to gun them all down in case of unauthorized retreat or mutiny. Outfitting them had probably been pretty expensive, but then again, the provosts were never expected to actively engage in combat unless absolutely necessary, but merely to ensure that their conscript charges did.

    "This is your weapon! You are to take good care of your weapon, and keep it clean and well-oiled at all times! Inspections will be carried out daily, and any man found to have neglected his weapon will be flogged!" a provost-sergeant standing on top of a cart bellowed over the assembled troops in a bullhorn in the meanwhile.

    Billy was the first in line to reach the cart, guarded by several armed provosts. Sourpuss's guess turned out to be right, the provost-sergeant in charge of handing out the guns handing him an antiquated flintlock covered in a thick layer of grime and rust, the weapon probably last having seen action during the Tarantir-Allied Kingdoms War 50 years ago.

    "Last name and name, scumbag!" the sergeant shouted in his face as Billy examined the wretched state of his "new" musket.

    "Hopkins, William!" Billy responded before cringing under a hard blow of crop whip.

    "The last words coming out of your stinking sewer every time you speak to a provost-sergeant will be "Provost-sergeant!" Do you get me, maggot!?"

    "Yes, provost-sergeant!"

    "Again! Last name and name!"

    "Hopkins, William, provost-sergeant!"

    "Much better!" the sergeant was satisfied, shoving Billy towards the scribe who wrote down his name in the regiment books, "Sign next to your name! Or draw a cross if you can't write, I don't bloody care! And get in line for the brand!"

    "The brand, Uh... provost-sergeant?" Billy inquired.

    "Yes, the brand! You didn't think we'd just give lowlifes like you guns and let you roam free with no way of knowing what you are, did you?! Now get going! Next!" the provost-sergeant barked back and turned to Sourpuss.

    "Last name and name!"

    "Blake, Jonah, provost-sergeant!" Sourpuss barked, freezing at attention while holding his newly-assigned musket at the shoulder as required by regulations.

    "I see this ain't your first time in the uniform! You a bounty-jumper?!"

    "A deserter, provost-sergeant!"

    The provost-sergeant spat in Sourpuss's face in utter disgust.

    "If there's one thing I hate in this world, it's lily-livered chickenshits like you! You are a disgrace to the Lord's creation and the human species! Thank God that we have a man like General Steiner who had the balls and the grit to convince the President to start treating your sort like you deserve! Get the hell out of my sight!"

    With Sourpuss moving on, the sergeant's wrath turned to Angus who was next in line.

    "This one's too short! Give him a shovel instead!" he spoke to the soldiers handing out muskets. With peals of laughter, they replaced the rusty musket with an equally rusty shovel.

    "A shovel? Bloody seriously!?" Angus protested angrily before a barrage of crop whip blows silenced him.

    "YOU WILL BE GRATEFUL FOR THE WEAPON THAT THE REPUBLIC HAS GENEROUSLY ENTRUSTED YOU WITH, AND YOU WILL TREAT AND CARE FOR IT ACCORDINGLY!!!" the provost-sergeant roared, "And if not, you will go in the very first ranks with bare hands! Name and last name, scum!"

    "McGregor, Angus, provost-sergeant!"

    "You look a bit short for a proper human being! Where the hell are you from?!"

    "Albion, Allied Kingdoms, provost-sergeant!"

    "Albion... Feh, a country-ful of whiskey-guzzling skirt-wearing sheep-fuckers! How tall are you, dwarf!?"

    "I'm 4'9'', provost-sergeant!"

    "I didn't realize they stack shit that high in Albion! Now sign about receiving your... "weapon" and get out of my sight!"

    Being as spirited and hot-tempered as any dwarf, Angus angrily grumbled something in his beard as he moved on, giving the sergeant a dirty look that prompted his hand to reach down for his revolver.

    "I didn't quite hear that! You utter something there, dwarf?!"

    "No, provost-sergeant..." Angus did his best to maintain composure.

    "Good! Because for a moment there I thought we might have our today's first execution for insubordination! Now get going, Albie trash!"

    ---

    The next line was even more tightly guarded than the previous one, and for apparent reasons, as the regular screams of agony, hideous sizzling and the stench of burnt human flesh attested. Here the conscripts received their brand that marked them as servicemen of a penal regiment and made them easily-identifiable. According to the now-infamous Penal Regiment Act, any man found away from his regiment bearing such a brand was to be crucified at the nearest crossroads, to stand as a warning to other deserters. The decision to brand free citizens of the Republic, even ones convicted of crimes, had been a highly-controversial one even in light of the desperate situation at the frontline. Opponents cited prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments", and even those otherwise supportive of the Act had been reserved about permanently marking those who were at least in theory expected to return to reputable society at some point. General Claudius A. Steiner, the proponent and foremost advocate of the Act, however, argued convincingly about the "military necessity" of infallibly distinguishing penal troops from more respectable and reliable troops, pointing out that since the onset of the war, many Constitutional rights had already been suspended for the same military necessity. Sourpuss Blake had correctly mentioned earlier that Gen. Steiner and the Republic's other military and political heavyweight Gen. Thomas J. Burton had many prominent supporters within both the Unitarian Party and the loyalist elements of the Federalist Party. These friends and associates had seen to the proposed legal bill pushed through, forcing the otherwise moderate President Holmes into signing the Act into effect.

    Billy bit down on the rolled-up sleeve of his uniform almost to the point of breaking his teeth in order to avoid screaming as the red-hot iron touched the top of his right palm with a sizzle. Tears streaming down his cheeks, the boy was almost relieved when the provost next to the one operating the branding iron poured some whiskey on his burnt hand before bandaging it.

    "Don't be such a baby!" the man gruffly bumped groaning Billy in the shoulder, "You'll be sore for a few days, and that's it! Welcome to the 62nd!"

    Sourpuss Blake who was next in line made a point of receiving his brand with but a quiet grunt. Angus likewise held out bravely, only grumbling "Bloody hell, that stings!" after his brand had been disinfected and bandaged. The brand was a flaming skull with the regimental number "62" underneath it. The man who had suggested such a design was said to be the chaplain of Gen. Steiner's staff, proposing a flaming skull as the mark of the penal regiments to remind the troops of the eternal damnation that awaited their souls lest they mend their ways and atone for their crimes through valor in battle. The fact that this brand was nowadays frequently applied to newly-arrived immigrants as well didn't really bother anyone - as far as the average Tarantirian was concerned, the riff-raff coming off the boats from the Old World were hardly better than vagrants and criminals anyway.

    "Here we are, fighting against slavers in the South while being treated even worse than Orkish slaves ourselves," Billy bitterly noted, still grunting in pain between words.

    "Don't worry, kid, you'll be dead in a few weeks anyway if that makes you feel better!" Blake remarked with his usual grimness, prompting a grumbling look from Angus.

    "Come, let's find a place to settle down," he added, "Those tents over there are meant for the provosts, not the rabble like us. We better get those muskets shiny as new before morning inspection, or the sergeants will no doubt strip the hides off our backs. That goes for your shovel too, dwarf!"

    Angus grumbled something incoherently to that, not certain whether to be more angry about the humiliation of being given a shovel instead of a gun, or relieved about the relative ease of scraping it clean of all rust and fouling.

  2. #2
    I like the world and the style and the premise. The writing quality is decent enough though I imagine will probably be scrubbed up at some point. For me, it starts out a bit dialogguey. There's lots of chit-chat and talking heads. It might be better to give us some of the situation. I get that they're arriving at a penal colony, so it's a good place to start, with some new change, but maybe take us there more - have the characters be "in the world" a bit more, interacting with elements of it if you don't want to go full-description mode. There are also quite a lot of new names to take in which can make things somewhat hazy - there's often scope to merge characters that are kind of the same or similar as one another. Your "Scottish-type dwarf" does verge on ... tropey, but I am a fine one to talk as I have dwarves in my WIP. One other thing - who is the POV character here? We do small dives into characters' heads a little but who are we? Whose story is this? The advantage of giving the story to a character is that you can then give that character believable struggles - conflicts, stakes, whatever you want to call them - that form the basis of the plot and drive it forward, which I also felt was missing. Lastly, I did find it a bit hard to fully buy into the voices. They seem more like 20th century voices than 19th, unless this is all non-Earth based. The technology "seems" more modern than steam-powered. But yeah - I like this sort of genre generally so will be interesting to see where this goes.


    Hidden Content Monthly Fiction Challenge


    Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and are awed,
    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    - Rainer Maria Rilke, "Elegy I"

    *

    Is this fire, or is this mask?
    It's the Mantasy!
    - Anonymous

    *

    C'mon everybody, don't need this crap.
    - Wham!





  3. #3
    This is a sort of "pilot episode" for a brand-new project of mine, a steampunk fantasy set in a world roughly equivalent to 1860's Earth. The story is set in during this world's equivalent of the US Civil War, the Republic of Tarantir being a sort of United States' evil twin, a sort of "what-if" representation of United States that did not show the lenience it historically did towards the rebels and instead honoured the ultra-violent traditions of most civil wars. There is fairly little steampunk elements in it as far as I have thought on it, notable exceptions being "logic engines" and steam-powered strategic bomber airships appearing later in the story.

    I have never made any serious forays into fantasy or steampunk before. For this reason, and because English isn't my first language, I must profess I am not very familiar with language and expressions that would suit a 19th century setting. Any criticism and suggestions here will therefore be much appreciated.

    The way I originally conceived it, the story follows four main protagonists - the immigrant dwarf Angus (whose foreign origins are a convenient pretext for the native-born characters to give some IC explanation of the story's universe), the young Billy (who could with time evolve into the primary protagonist), the cynical veteran Blake, who grows to become a sort of father figure for Billy, and later a fourth half-elven character not mentioned here, who would be used to explain the history and role of Elves (the setting's equivalent of Native Americans) in the story's universe.

    I understand that you suggest more elaboration on the general setting on the part of the narrator rather than as seen through the eyes of the protagonists. Should it deal more with explaining the surroundings to the reader, or rather focus on how the characters perceive it?

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by CyberWar View Post
    I have never made any serious forays into fantasy or steampunk before. For this reason, and because English isn't my first language, I must profess I am not very familiar with language and expressions that would suit a 19th century setting. Any criticism and suggestions here will therefore be much appreciated.
    I think it's a case of reading in the genre to get the voice. Films and TV shows too can help. Straight research too, to get a feel for the era and the place so you have some ready elements to use, be they descriptive or dialogue or character-related or what have you. Your English seems pretty rock-solid but I've not written in another language other than my native one (English) so I don't really have pointers for that unfortunately other than to just immerse yourself in sufficiently similar stuff.

    Quote Originally Posted by CyberWar View Post
    The way I originally conceived it, the story follows four main protagonists - the immigrant dwarf Angus (whose foreign origins are a convenient pretext for the native-born characters to give some IC explanation of the story's universe), the young Billy (who could with time evolve into the primary protagonist), the cynical veteran Blake, who grows to become a sort of father figure for Billy, and later a fourth half-elven character not mentioned here, who would be used to explain the history and role of Elves (the setting's equivalent of Native Americans) in the story's universe.

    I understand that you suggest more elaboration on the general setting on the part of the narrator rather than as seen through the eyes of the protagonists. Should it deal more with explaining the surroundings to the reader, or rather focus on how the characters perceive it?
    In the early part you can probably have a narrator / 3rd party omniscient POV, to give an overview, and you can put in some description there, and a measure of voice to give your whole piece a relevant feel. I guess an example might be something along the lines of:

    "Alright, you worthless dogs, out you go! Out! Out! Move it!"

    The doors of the cattle cars rolled open with a loud clang, flooding the dark interiors with pitiless white light and belches of steam. Arms went up to cover faces and eyes. The provost sergeants outside immediately proceeded to greet the new arrivals with shouts of abuse and blasphemy as their accompanying soldiers flung metal ramps across standard gauge tracks where they latched onto the cars.

    "Move it! And watch your step, damn you all - you're useless to the Republic with a broken arm or leg, and you know what happens to useless things here!"
    So there I invoke the actual exact nature of the light, plus I chuck in some steam to both add realism and suggest era. I have the prisoners cover their faces to underscore the brutal nature of the scene. I mention some bumpf about the railway and the ramps again to add realism, keep suggesting the era (of mature rail development, primarily). I removed "their usual shouts" simply because I want the opening to be impactful, and "their usual" gives it a bit of an easy feel, almost too relaxed. All this is just narratorial, so we are not "a particular person" yet - and yet the narrator is not entirely dispassionate; he (or indeed she) uses terse language and focuses on certain things, but he is not right on the coal face as the prisoners are. He cares, and that infuses his tone, but he's not in their situation. He's like a good journalist - there, present, and sensitive to the needs of his subjects.

    But pretty quickly you might want to pick a character so we can start rooting for them. You focus on Angus first, so let's be him. This means we will slide from the narrator, off to the side, reporting on events, and become the next character. Consider things he would know for sure, eg where he is from, and what he might be thinking of in that moment, and also consider his mindset - probably stressed, worried, angry, etc., and write to that. How his body language might reflect it. Eg:

    "Freedom and liberty my arse..." one man among the hundreds grumbled. His short, stocky build, bristly red hair and distinctive Albionese accent quickly betrayed him as a dwarf. In fact he was a recent immigrant from Allied Kingdoms - with the war going as badly as it did, the Republic had clearly resorted to conscripting just about every able-bodied male - and some less so - who had no good excuse not to be there. Vagrants, swindlers, petty thieves and other convicted small-time crooks, the urban poor, immigrants fresh off the boat like he was, anyone without a skill or trade useful to the war effort or enough money to pay for exemption - all were good fodder to fill first uniforms and soon afterwards mass graves, which usually happened in quick succession of each another. Angus spat on the muddy ground.

    "What are you in for?" a young man next to him asked [...etc etc...]
    So after the initial narrator's view of him I say some definite statements about him ("In fact he was", "fresh off the boat like he was"), I put in some of his attitude ("had clearly resorted", " - and some less so - ", "good fodder") and I give him a name as soon as sensibly possible. I make him do things that people can understand, like spitting on the ground (which also gives us a little freebie worldbuild without going too heavy on the scenery). This way I have tried to anchor readers in his head while keeping him placed in the world. You can then have all the same stuff happen, viewed through his filter. Maybe give something like that a go. It's quite good fun to write from a specific POV, as you get all the same stuff going on but often perceived through some wacky personality, so you can inject some interesting content over the top of the actual events.


    Hidden Content Monthly Fiction Challenge


    Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and are awed,
    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    - Rainer Maria Rilke, "Elegy I"

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    Is this fire, or is this mask?
    It's the Mantasy!
    - Anonymous

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    C'mon everybody, don't need this crap.
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  5. #5
    I agree with bdcharles in that you have a fantastic world established here and you've put a lot of thought into the building. Without an established POV character to follow, a lot of the dialogue comes off as exposition rather than natural conversation that moves the plot forward. With so much information, it's helpful to the reader that they discover the details along with your POV character or characters. I assume that your protagonist is Billy, but the scenes never really put me in Billy's head and hop back and forth to Angus quite a bit. It's fine to have an omniscient narrator, but if you focus on one character's viewpoint at a time, introduce the nuances of the world to us that way, it makes for a much tighter read.

    Nice work here.
    "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" - W.B. Yeats
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  6. #6
    Much appreciated.

    Guess it's time for me to break out a list of Clint Eastwood's westerns and start studying the language.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by CyberWar View Post
    Much appreciated.

    Guess it's time for me to break out a list of Clint Eastwood's westerns and start studying the language.
    There's some stuff on the web/youtube etc about it too. Some good terms from back then. Or you could invent your own, which has the handy side effect of doing a little sly world-building. As long as it's delivered in the appropriate tone.


    Hidden Content Monthly Fiction Challenge


    Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and are awed,
    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    - Rainer Maria Rilke, "Elegy I"

    *

    Is this fire, or is this mask?
    It's the Mantasy!
    - Anonymous

    *

    C'mon everybody, don't need this crap.
    - Wham!





  8. #8
    Member KHK's Avatar
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    Sorry, I'm a bit late to the party... Only started browsing this subforum now.

    I really like both the world you're creating, and the language you use to do that.
    I've only got a few minor comments.

    First, as has already been noted in the comments above, I feel slightly confused throughout the piece whether there is a main POV character or not.
    Without being able to put my finger on anything in particular, it feels like Billy is kind of the protagonist, since most of the events happen around him.
    In your responses, you point out that you're planning on having 4 POVs, but this is not very evident from the presented episode. I can definitely see how you're setting up the stage for that, but... If you want this episode to serve as an introduction, maybe consider paying closer attention given all the three equal "screen time". Unless, of course, you want Billy to steal all the fame in this one, in which case skew the POV more towards him, so there is no doubt who's this episode's protagonist.

    Second, you present this piece as steampunk / fantasy, but it comes across (at least, for me) as neither.
    Alternative history - yes, most definitely, but very closely modeled after the real ACW era. So far, just the names and toponyms are different.
    I didn't get any steampunk vibe here - just steam.
    Even though this is just the overture (I suppose), if you're planning some steampunkyness (is that even a word?), may be worth introducing at least some aspects of it already at this early stage, to hook the readers who are into that stuff (and, I mean, who doesn't like some good steampunk, right?) as soon as possible.
    As for the fantasy component - I get that even less. The only aspect that may be attributed to it is the dwarf - but that as well may be just an individual trait of a particularly short man, or of some fictionalized ethnicity.
    Orks... Could be anything, at this stage. Now, I see that you're planning to also introduce elves at a later stage, and then, I suppose, the fantasy-ness will be come more obvious, but... Is it even needed? I am not questioning your creativity, god forbid It's your world, and you're its Demiurge, so feel free to go to town, of course. But it would be interesting for me to read your thoughts on what exactly do you expect this to add to your universe? Is it just a substitution for the real human races, to further fictionalize them? Or will they have some special racial abilities?

    Finally, I'll be the first to admit that my sense of period-appropriate English isn't worth shit, but the negative in "so bloody negative" seems to me radically outside of the dwarf character's lexicon.

    All in all, I'm intrigued and would definitely like to see more of this world!

  9. #9
    I agree that this intro story could have used some steampunky elements to highlight the intended genre.

    The assorted fantasy races are meant primarily as a substitute for real races of humans, partly because it makes exploring politically-sensitive matters like racial discrimination easier with today's hyper-sensitive audiences and whatnot. Substituting them with fantasy races is both a way to keep a certain kind of annoying people from complaining without making themselves look like idiots, and further allows me to explore the notion of historically-discriminated human minorities being equally capable of discrimination and bigotry.

    That said, the Elves will also serve to include a fantasy component, namely magical abilities, such as the power to "awaken" certain trees as powerful War Ents. Like the Amerindians of historical 19th century, the Elves of the story's setting are a shadow of their former might, decimated by disease and war. With Tarantir and the Old World being industrialized societies grounded in rational knowledge and technology, and any practice or knowledge of magic being long suppressed by religious proscription, few people outside the Elven tribes in the setting would even believe magic exists until exposed to it.

  10. #10
    Member KHK's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CyberWar View Post
    The assorted fantasy races are meant primarily as a substitute for real races of humans, partly because it makes exploring politically-sensitive matters like racial discrimination easier with today's hyper-sensitive audiences and whatnot. Substituting them with fantasy races is both a way to keep a certain kind of annoying people from complaining without making themselves look like idiots, and further allows me to explore the notion of historically-discriminated human minorities being equally capable of discrimination and bigotry.
    I hear you.
    Just a word of caution: maybe reconsider mapping Blacks to Orks. Unlike Elves or Dwarfs, both of which are complicated races, capable of both good and bad deeds based on the classical corpus of High Fantasy, Orks usually carry outright negative connotations.
    I am not sure which other classical race to propose instead (definitely not halflings! ) so if you decide to follow this suggestion you may have to invent a brand new race of your own.
    Or maybe - just maybe - make all the races proprietary, without relying on what others have written. This would open a wide potential for creativity, maneuvering, and world-building, without having to restrict yourself within the confines of what the readers come to expect of the traditional Fantasy races. Look, for example, at Steven Erikson's Malazan cycle (strongly recommended, BTW). He managed to build a very complex - yet very believable - range of races that are nowhere near Tolkien's ones (https://malazan.fandom.com/wiki/Races).
    Last edited by KHK; January 11th, 2020 at 05:34 PM.

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