Transnational Geek

Author M. H. Boroson shares his geeky passions: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spirit magic kung fu movies, the ethics of cultural appropriation, Chinese American literature and history, The Dresden Files, Daoist magic, strong female characters, Asian monsters, spirit world depictions, traditional Chinese foods, race, class, gender, and culture.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


In the 90s, when I found BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, it was a revelation.  Here was a show that could make me jump and laugh and weep, all in a single episode.  It was a story of an unlikely hero, and it was the story of a reluctant hero, and it was the story of people coming into their own by facing their responsibilities and fighting their personal demons.  It was an awesome mess of fun, humor, drama, action, and Shakespearean tragedy.

When it ended, it left a gap that nothing else seemed to fill.  Joss Whedon's subsequent creations -- Firefly, Dollhouse, The Avengers -- do not explore the same territory.  But other shows, books, and movies fill a lot of that need. 

Here are some of my favorites -- TWENTY of them, in fact.  Often inspired, frequently challenging, all of these novels, movies, and series are ones that I have loved in much the same way I loved BUFFY, and I believe you'll feel the same way.




The tv series VERONICA MARS is often mentioned as a recommendation for Buffy fans, but it's not just that it's a show about a blonde teenager; Veronica Mars is solid storytelling. 

In some alternate universe, a universe without Buffy, Veronica Mars is far and away my favorite tv heroine. Not so much a fighter as a detective, Veronica is a teenage outsider on a quest to understand her world -- a world that won't make sense until she solves the murder of her best friend, Lilly. Using her intelligence and skills learned from her private investigator father, Veronica solves crimes in a film noir version of high school, in a town where class struggle and racial tension are always simmering.

That first season is as close as I have seen to television perfection. Sure, some mysteries-of-the-week are flimsy, but sharp dialogue, interesting characters, a father-daughter relationship for the ages, and the flawlessly unfolding mystery of who killed Lilly Kane make for simply staggering amounts of awesome.

The series declined, season by season. If the latter two seasons had been even close to the quality of the first, VM would likely have eclipsed Buffy for me. And that's saying something.


Veronica Mars is a strong female protagonist with a sassy sense of humor.  The TV show blends genres, builds suspense, and has more-than-adequate emotional payoffs. 


This show is not afraid to explore the challenges of racial struggle and class differences.  Its noir-style, hard-boiled mysteries never stop turning up the corruption and conspiracy, and struggling to solve the mysteries and uproot the injustice we have a protagonist with the resourcefulness to come out on top, the sense of humor to keep you chuckling, and the heart to break yours.


Joss called Veronica Mars the "Best. Show. Ever. Seriously, I've never gotten more wrapped up in a show I wasn't making, and maybe even more than those [...] These guys know what they're doing on a level that intimidates me. It's the Harry Potter of shows."



NOT the tv show, but the books.

I've always loved reading, but before I read The Dresden Files, I had no idea -- NO IDEA -- how much fun a book can be.  Whenever I read one of these books, I make sure no one can see me, because it would ruin my Man-of-Mystery image if anyone saw me with such a gigantic, dopey grin.  But I can't help it -- these books are just THAT much fun.

For Buffy fans, probably the easiest way to understand the basic setup is, what if Xander were a wizard/private eye, saving the world from vampires, Faerie Queens, demons, ghosts, and other wizards?  Imagine the kind-hearted goofball as protagonist, and you'll have a little sense of who Harry Dresden is.

Then add in an endearing cast of characters, clever mysteries, terrifying monsters, a hero who's totally not in the same weight-class as his enemies but manages to engage in desperate acts of badassery, and you might have a sense of Just. How. Good. this series is.

The first couple of books are fast, enjoyable reads, but about four or five books in, something just clicks, and there's no going back.  One moment you'll be tense, and a moment later you'll be pumping your fist in the air at an astonishing act of whup-ass.  You'll find yourself staying up all night to finish the riveting story, and then you'll be startled at how quickly you've burned through all fourteen goddamned books and now you're ready to gnaw at your fists because you just can't wait for the next installment of superfun.


THE DRESDEN FILES is written in a first-person voice ("I crossed the street" instead of "he walked across the street"), and Harry Dresden's running commentary is often laugh-out-loud funny, with the same kind of sharp humor, pop-culture and geek-culture references, and wordplay we loved in BtVS.  And that's not all.

Remember how you came to love not just Buffy, but Xander, Willow, and Giles?  And Angel, Spike, Oz, and Tara?  THE DRESDEN FILES has a cast of characters like that.  They become people you care about and welcome into your home.  I don't want to give spoilers, so I won't talk about who the characters are, but I will say that I've come to cherish some of them in just the same way I adored seeing Willow, Xander, and Giles on my tv screen.

And yes, there's also a ton of fun action, and a really enjoyable supernatural universe, but it's the characters here, as in Buffy, who keep people tuning in.


I'm not ordinarily a fan of zombie movies, but what do you say about a film whose opening credits show a horde of walking corpses shambling along mindlessly, and presents them as indistinguishable from morning commuters on their way to work, before they've had their second cup of coffee?  This is a scene that contains more wit and insight than half a dozen Hollywood flicks rolled together -- and that's just the opening credits.
Shaun works retail, which makes him an unlikely hero.  But when the zombie apocalypse arrives, everyone has choices to make, and Shaun's not the kind of guy who'll let his friends, his mom, or his ex-girlfriend get their brains eaten by any old horde of the undead.  This is a movie with horror and desperation, but it's also a movie with wit, featuring a character with tenacity and heart.  I love this flick.

Why Buffy fans will like it

BtVS reinvented the vampire movie and the slasher flick.  It took the tropes of the predator and the defenseless nubile teenage girl and asked the question, what if the stereotypical victim could kick ass?  SHAUN OF THE DEAD does the same with the zombie movie.  The dead keep coming, and our unlikely hero has to find the inner strength and the resourcefulness to not only survive, but to protect the people he cares about.
Using the conventions of a film genre to tell a challenging story?  Check.
Unlikely hero?  Check.
Reluctant hero?  Check.
Wit?  Hell yeah check.
Likeable characters? Check.
Profound, terrifying, moving, important art?  Check.


SHAUN OF THE DEAD is "the movie that made me absolutely the most gleeful in the last year. ... That’s the kind of movie that makes me want to make movies. ... I met Simon Pegg backstage at a convention, we were about to go on, and I didn’t know who he was or what was going on, and I said 'Hey. Hi… I don’t where we’re meeting.' .... And then I saw the movie and I was like, 'Oh, you’re way cooler than me.'"

Joss Whedon's FRAY

Yes, it's a comic book.

"But," you say.

"Ug," you say.

"Er," you say.

"I don't read comic books," you say.

"Get over it," I say.

Joss Whedon wrote FRAY.  And it's about a Slayer, in the distant future.

Yes, my friends, it's part of the canonical literature of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.  And, in my opinion, it's better than anything else Joss Whedon has done that wasn't named Buffy.  I like Firefly, Angel, Dollhouse, and the Avengers, but I like FRAY better.

Joss has written other comics, like ASTONISHING X-MEN, SUGAR SHOCK, and THE RUNAWAYS, and for you, my friends, I've read them.  I've read them all.  But FRAY is different.  FRAY might be Whedon's most perfect creation. For FRAY, Joss Whedon took the mythology underlying BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, brought it into a dystopian future, and created a whole new cast of characters.  These characters -- allies and enemies -- are beautifully balanced to create fascinating conflict and generate fresh stories.

Again, I don't want to give spoilers here.  In a dystopian future, Melaka Fray is a Slayer who makes her living as a petty thief in the squalid slums of Haddyn.  But for some reason, Mel only received some of the gifts of the Slayer line -- she has the strength and speed, but not the dreams, and not the knowledge.  The Watchers' Council has fallen into disarray, and the forces of darkness are rising once again. To understand her power, Mel may have to seek the guidance of demons -- but her opponents may be more than she expects.
FRAY is a carefully crafted storyline from start to finish, with some of those unexpected turns that will have you shouting "DAMN YOU JOSS WHEDON!" Fray was only an eight-issue limited series, but it was tight, rewarding, and emotional in all the right ways. It's a crime that nobody has bought the film rights.

French cover.


This is a series of novels by a husband-wife team who write under the pseudonym Ilona Andrews. Kate Daniels is the heroine of this fascinating series set in a future where magic has been returning. Now magic and technology work in alternating waves; for a few days magic will work and technology won't, and then for a few days technology will work and magic won't. Society has been crumbling under the pressures of this bizarre occurrence.

And mythical beasts have been making their presence known. There are shapeshifters, who live by complex social dynamics, and there are vampires, which are unlike any vampires you've seen before. The vampires in this world are strong, fast, and mindless, "piloted" by telepathic riders known only as the People. The People have mysterious goals of their own.

But that's okay, because our heroine, Kate Daniels, has mysteries of her own, too. She has powers she keeps hidden, even in this madcap world. She fights with a sword called Slayer, which gives off smoke when she's angry. She's a badass who can stand her own in a world of badasses, and the series will see her grow from an outsider suspicious of everyone into a confident woman who has made a place for herself and developed trusted allies.

The cast of characters here is just wonderful. You'll find minor characters like a medic who's a were-badger, and his love for honey drives him to serve sickeningly sweet iced tea. There's romance here without being needy or obtrusive, and then there's a villain -- the immortal Roland -- casting a long shadow over the entire series.


Transnational Geek's Strong Recommendations are movies and tv shows that rank just below the Top Recommendations.  In some cases, they're amazing works that differ too substantially from Buffy to be a clear recommendation to Buffy fans, and in other cases they're works that share similarities with Buffy but maybe lack a little inspiration.


Raunchy, juvenile, and hilarious, TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL was a tongue-in-cheek heavy metal horror fantasy.  Its humor could be gross or stupid, but it was often laugh-out-loud funny, some of the funniest shit around.  With its supernatural high school storylines, its embedded mythology, some brilliant twists, some surprising moments of heartfelt depth, and a musical episode, TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL was one of my guiltiest and most pleasurable of guilty pleasures.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  Well, some people won't get past its juvenility.  If you can, you'll love it.


Patricia Briggs’ MERCY THOMPSON is one of the most vivid, enduring figures in contemporary urban fantasy fiction. In this series, she shapeshifts into a coyote, while those around her tend to be vampires and werewolves – physically much stronger.  For her to establish her place and defend her boundaries, it takes social intelligence and carefully applied uses of her limited power. She contends with werewolf pack dynamics, vampire society, and faerie clans. And she’s an auto mechanic specializing in high-end cars.  This series is brilliant, witty, and frequently insightful.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  There are elements of extreme victimization in the series, which make it less empowering than The Buffster.


Showrunner Russell T. Davies launched this reinvented sci-fi series in 2005.  Davies has said in interviews that BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was one of his inspirations for the show.  DOCTOR WHO clearly shares some of BUFFY's strengths: it has a kinetic style of direction, energetic storytelling and a pervasive sense of fun with occasional touches of tragedy.  Some truly memorable images, such as the Vashta Narada, the Weeping Angels, and the Silence.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  DOCTOR WHO is fun, and sometimes heartwrenching, but it's just not as deep as BUFFY.  Still, if you're looking for an energetic show with some feeling of BUFFY-ness to it, and you don't mind the fundamental fluffy-ness, you'll enjoy DOCTOR WHO.


Ang Lee's award-winning CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON explores gender, power, and culture by telling the story of a young swordswoman who steals a famous sword belonging to a master swordsman.  With breathtaking cinematography, beautiful scenery, dreamlike, balletic kung fu, and some thrilling action scenes, Crouching Tiger is a complex, deep, and thought-provoking tale.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  It's a great movie, but it has a completely different feel from Buffy.  There is no pop culture, no laugh-out-loud humor, and no monsters.  However, there is profundity, feminism, beauty, and tragedy.


MR. VAMPIRE is a kung fu/vampire movie starring the late, great Lam Ching Ying as a Taoist priest who fights monsters. I love this movie for its humor and its action, its giddy energy, its cast of characters, and its well-thought-out gags.   You might love it for its fresh cultural perspectives on monster-fighting: instead of sunlight, beheadings, crosses, holy water, and stakes through the heart, you'll see yellow paper talismans, swords made of coins, chicken blood, and sticky rice used as tools of magic.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  The movie was made on an extremely low budget, and many of its effects appear campy.  It doesn't have the tragic depth of BUFFY, but still, if you're looking for a thrilling, fun, funny movie, MR. VAMPIRE may hit the spot.


GINGER SNAPS is a coming-of-age film where a teenage girl becomes a werewolf, and her lycanthropy is a metaphor for girls undergoing puberty: their bodies change in ways they may not understand, and the lunar cycle becomes a force in their lives.  It's got witty dialogue, a pair of clever outsider sisters, some cool werewolf-driven horror, and some actual emotional depth.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  I'm... not sure?  I've only seen it once, and I don't feel comfortable giving it a top recommendation based on a single viewing.


There's a graphic novel called TALES OF THE VAMPIRES, with short comics by a number of different authors.  But there's a framing story around the rest; Joss Whedon wrote it, and it's great.  A little girl in the 19th Century is being trained to become a Watcher, but things are not what they seem in this superb little gem of a story that ties into the lives of our Scooby Gang.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  Well, it's not available by itself.  To read the story, you have to flip through a lot of mediocre stories. 




Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL might be lacking a little depth, but boy does it make up for it in sizzle. Influenced by Shaw Brothers swordplay flicks, Blaxploitation movies, and Japanese "pinky violence" sleaze, Tarantino crafted a flashy, colorful tribute to some of the most energetic cinema in the world. A female assassin seeks revenge on the leader of a team of female assassins, and she'll kill anyone who gets in her way. Like a roller-coaster of beautifully choreographed scenes, some serene, some violent, KILL BILL slashes its way into funtown.



This is a one-shot, single-issue comic book, featuring scantily clad superheroine/vampire Vampirella, and a really excellent parody of Buffy and her gang.  The author (whose name I intend to edit in) really caught the pulse of what made BUFFY great, and he filled his comic with sharp dialogue and insightful humor.  Click the pic to the left to get a sense of what I mean -- but don't be confused, the Buffy parody is a redhead, and the takeoffs of Willow and Cordelia are both blonde.






JUNO's a movie about a teenage girl who gets pregnant and decides she wants to give birth and give the baby up to a couple who can't have kids.  Juno herself is a lovable weirdo, and this movie is loaded with zinging, pop-cultural dialogue you'll have to hear to believe.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  Somehow I didn't get a sense that the movie really took the issues of teen pregnancy seriously.  It all feels too easy.


These books, movies, and tv shows all have something really good going on, but they all also have reasons I hesitate to recommend them.


This high-school vampire tv series is at its best when it explores the history of the town, Mystic Falls, and its social structure and class dynamics.  Loaded with clever twists and turns that keep me tuning in, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES lacks a moral center and gets bogged down in soap-opera melodrama.


I do love this series of books about a bad-ass tattooed guy who hunts monsters.  A little bit of angel blood in his veins gives him a boost, but his primary weapon is a gun.  The author, James R. Tuck, can seriously WRITE, but his soliloquys rhapsodizing over his guns can grow a little tedious.  Still, this series has some pulse-pounding action, superb prose, and some deeper moments.





This trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins features one of the most well-fleshed-out of all the strong female protagonists.  It will draw you in and keep you turning the pages.  But the trilogy peters out -- the whole storyline winds up not adding up to very much -- and on second reading, the overwhelming feeling of the book is brutality.


I'm only recommending a specific number of these graphic novels.  Buffy fans might get a kick out of #2: THE ORIGIN, #3: VIVA LAS VEGAS, #4: DAWN AND HOOPY THE BEAR, #5: SLAYER, INTERRUPTED, and #7: A STAKE TO THE HEART.  These were written by Scott Lobdell and Fabien Nicieza, and together they form a kind of prequel to BUFFY the tv show.  #2 retells Buffy's origin story, incorporating elements of Joss Whedon's script that were cut from the movie.  I really think Buffy fans will enjoy getting to see more of Buffy's life before she came to Sunnydale: her trip to Las Vegas, her parents finding her diary, her parents' divorce, and more.

#10: RING OF FIRE, was written by Doug Petrie, a writer of the tv show.  Petrie wrote the season 5 episode, Fool For Love, where Spike's back-story is explored.   RING OF FIRE was originally supposed to be an episode in BUFFY's second season, where Angel is a bad guy, but it had to be cut due to the special effects budget.

These comics are not brilliant storytelling, but they really do have something to offer to the devoted Buffy fan.


This Thai action film stars international martial arts sensation Jija (aka Jeeja) Yanin, who is breathtaking to see in action.  Jija Yanin is an expert in tae kwon do and muay thai fighting styles, and she leaps and kicks her way through this movie with astonishing kinetic energy -- without the assistance of wires, without CGI, and without a stunt double. The movie's storyline is flimsy and it takes too long to get where it's going, but holy goddamn is it amazing to watch this young woman in action.


And this concludes our presentation.  I hope you enjoyed it, and if you think there's something I'm missing, please let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Joss Whedon on Writing, Part 1

I'm a fan of Joss Whedon.  With BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, Whedon found a way to instill genre fiction with Shakespearean tragedy and comedy, and still make it a fine example of genre fiction; it's full of pathos and ass-kicking.  This series of posts will compile Joss Whedon's writing advice, distilled from dozens of interviews, DVD commentaries, essays, and web posts.

The first installment is JOSS WHEDON'S TOP 10 WRITING TIPS, reprinted from here.

“Joss Whedon is most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and the short-lived but much-loved Firefly series. But the writer and director has also worked unseen as a script doctor on movies ranging from Speed to Toy Story. Here, he shares his tips on the art of screenwriting.
Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.
Structure means knowing where you’re going ; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes ? The thrills ? The romance ? Who knows what, and when ? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around : the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.
This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys?’
Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue : you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny ; not everybody has to be cute ; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.
Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.
When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.
You have one goal : to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.
Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly ; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet?’
Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system ; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction ; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show.
The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie : if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skillful you are: that’s called whoring.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Good morning, everybody! Today I'm participating in a viral blogging effort called THE NEXT BIG THING, in which writers discuss the books we're working on, and tag other writers to do the same. Big thanks go to Betsy Dornbusch, author of Exile, who tagged me.

There are a number of questions we're asked to answer, as if we're being interviewed.

What is the working title of your next book?

The book I'm working on now is called CITY OF SPIRITS. It's the sequel to CITY OF STRANGERS, which won first prize in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' 2012 contest, in the category of Speculative Fiction.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Well, the idea for the series came from watching an obscure genre of Hong Kong cinema, known as spirit magic kung fu movies (靈幻功夫片, or linghuan gongfu pian).  In these movies, Daoist priests use traditional Chinese magic to fight hopping corpses, beautiful ghosts, witches with flying heads, and sneaky fox spirits. 

These Hong Kong movies, like Mr. Vampire, showed a different take on the supernatural, using different technology from what we're used to.  Here the monster-fighters didn't use wooden stakes through the heart, holy water, garlic, sunlight, and crosses; they used peach wood swords, yellow paper talismans with magical writing, grains of raw sticky rice, string dipped in the blood of a white rooster, and more.  I had studied Chinese language and religion in college, and a thrill went through me to see each of these cultural signifiers.

I had also been a HUGE fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the tv show, not the movie).  So when I watched these movies, something clicked in my brain; I saw a place where these kinds of story could intersect and bring new stories to life.

For the current book in my series, I was reading The Malaysian Book of the Undead and I came across a description of a disturbing amulet called an Anak Kerak, which makes its bearer bulletproof.  The Anak Kerak is made from the corpse of a baby who was burned alive in its seventh month.  A fearsome bank robber was said to have worn one on a necklace.  My mind started playing with the storytelling possibilities.

What genre does your book fall under?

It's a fantasy novel, clearly.  One could call it historical fantasy since it is set in the waning days of the nineteenth century, or possibly even urban fantasy, since its strong female protagonist is reminiscent of that genre.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh, hm, I haven't spent any time thinking about that at all.

(Yes, I'm lying.  I think about it all the time.)

I'd love to see Li-lin, the series protagonist, portrayed by Chris Yen (Yen Chi-Ching):

I imagine her father would be played by Lam Ching-Ying (yes, I know he passed away):


What is the two-sentence synopsis of your book?

It's 1899 in San Francisco's Chinatown, and a young Daoist priestess has just gotten her hands on an amulet that makes its bearer bulletproof -- but the amulet is powered by the spirit of a murdered baby.  To save the child's spirit, she will need to journey to Fengdu, the City of the Dead, and cross its Eighteen Hells; but will she succeed when everyone wants the amulet, including gangsters, her father who wants to destroy it, and the Ghostkeeper who created it by murdering his own infant son?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don't intend to self-publish.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Still working on it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I think the pacing and characterization are similar to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series, and James Tuck's Deacon Chalk.  It also shares similarities with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood, and the tv series Veronica Mars.

What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

Uh, it's awesome?

City of Spirits features a strong female protagonist in a rich historical setting, where she uses kung fu and Daoist magic to fight creepy monsters and travel the surreal world of spirits.  It's a culturally-attuned supernatural thriller that highlights forms of magic that have never been written about in the English language while it explores issues of race, culture, class, and gender.

This wraps up THE NEXT BIG THING, starring my work-in-progress, CITY OF SPIRITS.  Now I'm going to tag five writers to tell us all about their current books:

  • Thomas A. Fowler, a writer aiming to instill hope
  • Mary Villalba, author of THE MAGICIAN
  • Guy Anthony De Marco, writer of speculative fiction
  • Emily France, author of LITTLE MISS LIFE, which won the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2012 award for Young Adult novel
  • A. M. Schilling, author of GRENDEL; she writes dark fantasy.

Get working, guys! We wanna hear all about your works-in progress. 

A couple of my friends have posted their NEXT BIG THINGS this week:
  • Quincy J. Allen. The Mad Tyrant of Steampunk just had to tell us about his Next TWO Big Things: Jake Lasater and the Blood Curse of Atheon and Legend of the Davijons.
  • Travis Heermann tells us about Death Wind, a "pseudo-Lovecraftian zombie western."
  • Josh Vogt talks about his urban fantasy, The Unfamiliars.  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Racebending tumblr has some good insights on writing other peoples' cultures:

I think it is definitely a good thing that you are conscientious of cultural appropriation.  It is good that you are trying to work through the contradiction that you are feeling (“I still wish to go ahead with this book, knowing full well that I am appropriating a culture while simultaneously loathing people who appropriate cultures.”)  This kind of self awareness is important.  It is also good to see authors want to feature characters of color and to create fantasy worlds that are not based on medieval Europe.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


JADE WARRIOR is a kung fu movie... from Finland.

How I love living in these times. Transnationalism FTW!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Chinese Ghost Stories

Just in time for Halloween, I've published a spooky, fun, and informative article about Chinese ghost stories.

You HAVEN'T seen this before.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Chánchú (蟾蜍)

A chánchú (蟾蜍) -- a three-legged toad that brings riches.  People devise elaborate strategies to attract them.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Moonlight (殭屍魅影) -- hopping vampires in 2011?

Moonlight (殭屍魅影) is a 2011 movie from Hong Kong.  I was interested in it because it was supposed to be an updated version of the hopping vampire movie, a Chinese film genre from the 1980s, which I love without reservation or apology.
Moonlight was supposed to be a hopping vampire movie with a detective story mixed in. An article in a Chinese magazine said the filmmakers had been reading detective novels nonstop. Half an hour into the movie, I realized WHICH detective novels they were reading: Natsuhiko Kyogoku's.
My favorite film genre, combined with an author who amazes me.  This should rock, shouldn't it? WRONG.
But there’s something to learn from the epic fail of this film.  Something about creativity.  To understand what I mean, let's take a look at the two things Moonlight tried to combine.
At their best, hopping vampire movies are high-energy supernatural fun, dazzling and quirky, with ghosts and goblins around every corner.
The Kyogokudo novels are somber, moving, hypnotic, frustrating, and profound, and they mostly consist of characters standing around talking.
The Dàoshi is the hero of the hopping vampire flick; he burns paper talismans, imprisons ghosts in earthenware jugs, and slays fox spirits with a peachwood sword.
The hero of the Kyogokudo is a Shinto exorcist who doesn't believe in magic -- which is okay, because in that world, magic isn't real. He solves crimes by performing an exorcism he doesn't believe in, and the exorcism reveals the truth while unlocking the emotional conflicts of all the characters involved in the mystery. It's brilliant, really. But not at all compatible with the hopping vampire movie.
It may look similar because they both feature Asian exorcists, but fundamentally, like a fraction, they do not reduce. Oil and water.  Magic is real, or it isn't. The exorcist has power, or he doesn't. You can't combine these two elements; one will override the other.
What we're left with, in this case, is a Kyogokudo-style story. Without the brilliance that inspired Mouryo no Hako or Summer of the Ubume, Moonlight is closer to Scooby-Doo.  
And we're also left with a lesson on creativity.  On intersections, and why, sometimes, they fail.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

SPL 2 -- with Tony Jaa???

A lot of Asian cinema fans consider the 2006 movie SPL one of the greatest kung fu films of all time -- I know I do.  Now the news is leaking that a sequel is in the works, with at least two of the stars from the original movie, and joining them is Thai action legend TONY JAA.

SPL was a great action film, but it wasn't only an action film.  It had intricate crime drama, powerful tension between cop and crimelord, and yes, it had action.  THEAWESOME action.

I trust Sammo Hung and Co. to pull off the action, but I'm concerned about the rest.  See, those two stars from the original movie?  Their characters DIED.  Both of them. 

So, will this movie be a prequel?  I hope not.  Because SPL came out in 2006, and martial arts actors age like the rest of us.  Frankly I'd find it awkward to watch Sammo pretend to be a much younger man.

I'm hoping it's not a sequel at all, except in spirit.  Because these three actors are stars, and the original name of the movie, Sha Po Long, refers to three stars, and these three carry both talent and gravitas. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012


In the near future, my friends and I are planning to watch WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, and I'm looking forward to it.  I remember watching Godzilla movies on television when I was a child.  I was so caught up in that terrible destruction, the battles between godlike powers, the roaring, flying, enormous creatures that spat lightning or puked fire.  Immense, unearthly gladiators making our cities the arena for their titanic clashes, while we flee and scream, for beside them we all are no more than flotsam.

Yet the human drama sustained  the story.  Staying alive, protecting one's family, at a time of terrible devastation, how far are you willing to go?  Will you run up to the very claw of the monster looming over your city in order to protect your child?  Perhaps you're the child's stepfather, and the child has not trusted you or accepted you.  Now buildings are collapsing, and you are the only one who can keep that child safe.  This is the point where we learn what kind of person you are, and what kind of story this is.  Will your wife watch your cowardice and realize you're no true partner to her?  Or will you risk your life and save the child, thereby proving your worth as a parent?

The big monsters are often expressions of fears of natural catastrophe, of science pushing past ethical boundaries.  Coming as these movies usually do from the only nation that has experienced a nuclear dawn, it's a profound metaphor for a world in which a broken atom can tear a city apart.

There's only been one attempt that I know of to write kaiju fiction in English -- Raiju, Kaiju Hunter, by K.H. Koehler, which handles the human drama exceptionally well.  I don't think Koehler's approach managed to translate the terrifying magnitude of the warring beasts into prose, and I'd love to see more authors give it a try.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Sōu Shān Tú (搜山图)

I've never made a study of Chinese art.  There's too much else, the lore and language, clothes and customs, literature, history, music, and religion of dozens of different ethnic groups with the regional diversity you'd expect on a land-mass the size of the US and its outlying territories, except with five thousand years of history.

Have you noticed, by the way, that I like monsters?  Always have.  I don't want to conceptualize "the nature of the monstrous" or any other abstractosity before really looking at what's in front of me, but I like monsters.  I have an interest in them.  So imagine my delight when I discovered an entire genre of Chinese art dedicated to a particular monster encounter?

A group of human women are sitting in the wilderness with anthropomorphic animals.  The women and animals are apparently lovers.  But demons attack!  And across these long painted scrolls, a battle takes place, demons vs. animals, with some human women caught in the fracas and crossfire.

I want to do some more research in Chinese texts before speculating more about the meaning and nature of these wonderful painted scrolls.  So for now, I leave you with a rather silly write-up from California.

According to Annual Report University of California & Berkeley Art Museum,
Sou-shan T’u starts with a drunken party scene, where Chinese women offer up copious alcohol and the peaches of immortality to large monkeys, serpents, and oxen. The overblown curves of the women and the flowing scarves and robes they wear represent Tang dynasty (618–907 ce) figure style and tastes, but the faceted rocks and the trees dotted with lichen that form the background landscape are clearly a Ming invention. The partygoers come under attack from a horde of demons wearing armor and carrying the latest in bladed weaponry, and the animals and women are rounded up and led off in chains. The captured women fight with passion to protect their animal children, and some even begin to sprout animal characteristics (monkey hands, a reptilian tail) as they are carried off.

The narrative climaxes with a breathtaking scene of a rearing dragon tamed by the fetters demons are placing on its limbs and tail in the midst of an olive-dark sea. Narrative handscrolls have their own flow that depends on how quickly a viewer unrolls and rerolls it to follow the story—some sections we hurry through to find out what happens next, others invite us to linger over details or puzzle out clues to the story—and this scene always stops us in our tracks, exactly as the unknown artist planned.

The final segment shows a misty landscape that becomes peopled with a galaxy of varied and slightly comical demons (a particularly hairy one seems to be channeling Cousin Itt from the Addams Family cartoons), many drawn from folk sources and unlike the serious warriors of earlier scenes. They crowd meekly around a relaxed Chinese gentleman seated on a camp chair and clearly in charge of the proceedings. The scroll ends with a colophon, an added section of paper with a calligraphed text, which was written by a scholar at a much later date in an attempt to explain the pictured events. He calls it a battle of demons and animals, but doesn’t say—and clearly doesn’t know—why they fight.

Even without a good sense of what’s happening (are the demons the bad guys or not?) we get caught up in the impetus of the storytelling here, and also become aware of the visual strategies that create this quickening rhythm—the landscape features that open up and close in to frame the characters, subsidiary figures that lead the eye from scene to scene—and other aspects that occasionally slow the eye down, such as beautifully detailed renderings of sea creatures or humorous asides like the scrawny demon burdened by a hefty and upside-down female captive.
hyakki yako

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On Genre

In 1974, a film critic named Paul Schrader wrote an essay about the yakuza film genre.  His conclusion is a superb statement about genre in general.
The important thing to remember about strict genre forms like yakuza-eiga is that these films are not necessarily individual works of art but instead variations on a complex tacit social metaphor, a secret agreement between the artists and the audiences of a certain period.

When massive social forces are in flux, rigid genre forms often arise to help individuals make the transition. Americans created the Western to help codify a morality of the frontier; they created a gangster film to cope with the new social forces of the city.

If the original social metaphor is valid, the resulting genre will long outlive the individual artists who created it -- it may even outlive the times which evolved it. In the present personality-oriented culture, rigid genre forms are the closest thing we have to a popular "art without names."

When a new genre comes into being, one immediately suspects that its causes run far deeper than the imagination of a few astute artists and businessmen. The whole social fabric of a culture has been torn, and a new metaphor has arisen to help mend it. 

The yakuza-eiga is a popular social contract between the artists and the audiences of Japan to reevaluate and restructure these traditional virtues. The Samurai Film was no longer serving its intermediary function; new characters, themes and conventions had to be created. Just as early twentieth century Americans needed the Western, contemporary Japanese need a genre which can serve as a moral battleground -- a genre on which the traditional virtues can fight to the death.

Genre and art are not mutually exclusive.  The western was a genre, a knight-errant tale of the frontier, and Sergio Leone raised it to art, as did TheAwesome movie Unforgiven and the tv series Deadwood.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hún Dūn (渾敦)

Hún Dūn (渾敦). Described in the Shān Hǎi Jīng as having the shape of a pill, the color of fire, six legs, and four wings.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Zhīzhū jīng (蜘蛛精)

Zhīzhū jīng (蜘蛛精). Spiders that have grown old and powerful. They can change their shape.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Lexicon of TheAwesome

First: nothing matters but the awesome.  Here there shall be no whining about prequels we didn't like or series that jumped the shark. 

TheAwesome takes it as a given that nothing matters but the awesome.

To be able to discuss the awesome, we need a language that can express awesomeness.  We draw from literary terms and religious studies to find the words we need.

These are terms you can expect to see in our celebration of TheAwesome:
  • The Uncanny
  • Mythopoeia
  • Sensawunda
  • Epic
  • Empathy
  • Climax
  • Set Piece
  • VillainAwesome
  • The Numinous
  • The Sublime
  • Genre
  • Transnationalism
  • Subversive
Each deserves its own blog entry, and each will get one over time.

Gunmetal Magic

Ilona Andrews' urban fantasy series starring Kate Daniels is one of my three favorites.  It ranks for me after the Dresden Files but above Deacon Chalk.  On Tuesday, as if by magic, the book will appear on my Nook (assuming the tech is up), and I probably won't sleep, eat, or blink until I've read it.

What's THE AWESOME in this series?  It's set in a world where magic returned, and now magic and technology work in alternating waves.  Creatures from myth and legend walk the streets, but the most numerous of the supernaturals are vampires and shapeshifters.

Ilona Andrews' vampires aren't like any  you've ever seen before.  They are mindless corpses expunged of fat, so their bodies are all wiry muscles, and they are psychically piloted by the mysterious group known as the People.  The motives and plans of the People are unknown, but their leader is an enigmatic, powerful immortal called Roland.

The series usually stars Kate Daniels, a young woman who has been a mercenary and an employee of the Order.  Roland is her father, and she has spent her life preparing to fight him, hopefully to kill him.  Armed with a sword named Slayer, which gives off smoke when she's angry, Kate negotiates her boundaries, cultivates her power and her allies, pursuing love and friendship in a completely compelling manner.

Gunmetal Magic is not her story.

Say what?

That's right.  This novel is an excursion into the life and voice of Kate's friend Andrea Nash, a were-hyena with a gift for sharpshooting.  I've read the beginning and it's a tense, intense opening, with Ilona Andrews' characteristically brisk and witty prose, as if Robert Parker had written an action fantasy.

And I can't wait to read it.

TRANSNATIONAL GEEKERY: The Kate Daniels series has featured a Chinese Daoshi burning a paper talisman, a Malaysian Harimau Akuan (were-tiger) appropriately named Dali Harimau, a Japanese jorogumo or spider woman, and others.

Transnational Geek gives Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels 10/10 for THE AWESOME, and 8/10 for Transnational Geekdom.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


I'm your typical convention-going geek, who loves fantasy novels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Star Wars and Star Trek; but I also love hopping vampire movies, A Chinese Ghost Story, wuxia, yokai, samurai, kaiju, and J-horror flicks.  This is the blog of a transnational geek, where you can expect to see discussions of Jin Yong's Condor Trilogy (Legend of the Condor Heroes, Return of the Condor Heroes, Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber) side-by-side with discussions of The Dresden Files and A Song of Ice and Fire.

My background: I studied Chinese language and religion, and I love kung fu movies.