Come share of my breath and my substance And mingle our streams and our times In bright infinite moments Our reasons are lost in our rhymes.
In a year that started with the death of David Bowie, and went downhill from there, I didn’t think anything else would have the power to affect me this much so near the end. We’re still three weeks off, and who knows who else will join the super-group in the sky (Fripp? Wakeman?), but, like the straw on camel’s back, what finally broke for me how horribly awful this year was for all my music heroes was the news of the death of Greg Lake.
Maybe it’s because of the double whammy of Keith Emerson dying in March – you rarely get two sets of #rips under one band’s YouTube videos in one year. Or maybe because Greg Lake was the first actual prog rock singer I’ve listened to consciously – long before I discovered the likes of Genesis and Yes – though back then I didn’t even know his name.
That song was “The Lucky Man” by ELP, taped from a late night radio show to a blue Stilon cassette, and played incessantly until I knew every glissando in Emerson’s mad final Moog solo by heart.
Greg Lake was the Galahad of the prog rock Round Table, with his baby face and an angelic voice. Possibly the only vocalist to match a mellotron’s rising cadence, he was the man without whom King Crimson would probably remain just Robert Fripp’s niche experimental fusion jazz combo – and the history of rock as we know it would never happen. On the 21st Century Schizoid Man he sounded less like the cherubim, and more like a wrathful archangel, come down to fight Satan’s hordes. In those pre-internet days of music copied from radio, it took me a while to realize the same man sang the Schizoid Man and Epitaph. You could always easily recognize Ian Anderson’s shrill or Peter Gabriel’s hoarse bellow, but Lake’s voice was always the most surprising.
In ELP, Lake brought poetic calmness and medieval whimsy to counter Emerson’s feral virtuosity. Like Galahad and Percival, with Palmer’s help, they searched for prog rock’s Holy Grail, and, admittedly, got lost along the way in the end – but before they did, they produced some of the finest music this side of the Beatles, like this little Yes-like ditty from the Trilogy album:
2016 was a bitch of a year, and considering nobody’s getting any younger, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any better going forward. Eventually everyone we knew and thought great will die – such is the passage of time… At least their work remains with us forever.
Confusion will be my Epitaph
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back and laugh.
But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying,
Yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.
Yes, it’s finally here! After four long years, the story of one memorable year in Japan’s fictionalized history – and in a certain Welsh boy’s life – at last comes to an end in The Last Dragon King, Book 8 of The Year of the Dragon series. The Amazon preorder launches today – the full release on all platforms is scheduled for December 27th.
It all started in the summer of 2012 – though preceded by two years of writing and editing – with the simultaneous release of The Shadow of Black Wings and The Warrior’s Soul. Four years later I have eight finished books, over 700k words published (a lot more written!), nearly 30,000 copies sold, and, most importantly, an invaluable experience in writing and publishing that will hopefully make my next projects go a lot more smoothly! AND I’ve managed to tie up all the plot threads and lose points by the end – I bet you didn’t expect that! 🙂
It’s day 6 of the countdown – the pre-order launches tomorrow! Today, the final treat, is a sneak peak on the final cover of the series.
I know, you’ve seen the cover to The Last Dragon King already – but there’s still one more book left to release: the second of the two four-volume bundles,containing Books 5-8, with working title “The Serpent’s Head”.
As before, the cover will be produced by Collette J. Ellis of Flying Viper Illustrations. The release is still some time away – I have it scheduled for January, both in e-book and paperback, so what we have for you today is just a sneak peak of a preliminary sketch – but you can already see it’s going to be the most powerful of my covers to date!
Don’t forget – tomorrow is the launch of the pre-order, and the last of these countdown posts!
It’s day 5 of the countdown – only 3 days left until pre-order launch, and for today I reveal the final map in the series!
As you may know, I like to have a new map in each volume of the Year of the Dragon, and this time it’s no different. The map in The Last Dragon King is in a new style: a late-19th century tactical map. It shows the Dan-no-Ura Straits and surrounding area, in the day before the launch of the decisive Battle of Kokura – one of TWO major battles in the book! (did I mention this volume is more action packed than any before? 🙂
Visit tomorrow for the final reveal in the countdown, before the pre-order is launched on Wednesday!
It’s day 4 of the Preorder Countdown – we’re half-way there!
Today’s treat is the exclusive, never before seen, unedited sample of the Last Dragon King’s manuscript! A sample of Chapter 5, starring Captain Fabius of the Soembing.
SPOILERS ABOUND! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!
The ship’s boards creaked again. Captain Fabius winced at the sound. One hadn’t plied these waters for twenty years without recognizing when a vessel was close to shattering.
His first officer shared in his concern. With his head tilted towards the creaking, he notched a quick note in his journal.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Fabius asked, for the fourth time.
“Either that, or our navigator’s lost her mind,” the first officer replied, for the fourth time.
Another wave, crested with thick white foam, struck against the ship’s bow with an unearthly wail. Hemmed in between the walls of the grey and black clouds, surrounded by whirlpools, water devils and water spouts, the Soembing stood reluctant against the dark wall of the Sea Maze stretching before it. Its engines purred quietly, just enough to maintain the course – whatever the course was in this forsaken place. Fabius insisted on them running all the time, even if the ship hadn’t changed position for three days, as they waited either for the navigator to correct her mistake, or, by some miracle, the wall of black clouds to open and allow them inside, as it always had, for the past two decades.
“With all due respect, Captain,” the First said, looking at his notes, “I think it’s fair to say they don’t want us back.”
“If we turn to Huating, we won’t get any pay for our trouble.”
“If we move forward, we won’t get any pay ever again,” replied the First, his face soured.
“Let’s stay a while more. I have a good feeling about today.”
“Really?” The First raised his eyebrow, then glanced at the Sea Maze. “I’m surprised you’re able to have any good feelings around this place.”
Fabius nodded in agreement and forced a smile. He knew what the First meant. For twenty years he’d sailed the Ship – in its various incarnations – across the “Divine Winds”, as the locals called them, and he’d never got used to it. The magic of the East always unnerved him with its alien ways, but this was something else altogether. On his first journey, he had been naturally wary of the random storms, the unpredictable currents, the insanity of the compass readings and star charts – all the things the more experienced sailors had warned him about before setting off. But he’d soon learned all of that was just a minor nuisance compared to the real terror of the Maze: the wailing.
The clouds wailed and howled all through the night. Not the usual howl of a winter wind in the ropes – but a sound that could only be produced by a horde of tormented souls: a piercing cry of anguish, wordless but full of meaning, coming from a thousand suffering throats hidden somewhere in the black clouds. There was no hiding from it: it penetrated into the deepest cabin, into the cargo hold and engine room, through cotton wool and hands covering one’s ears, almost as if it wasn’t coming through the ear canals but entered straight through the brain.
What nameless Spirits had been tortured to create this monstrosity, Fabius dared not imagine. But it suited what he’d suspected about the Yamato magic in general: abuse of souls, forbidding them from passing beyond the veil of the mortal world to do the bidding of the priests and the shamans. They thought they managed to keep this a secret from the Westerners, but Fabius had heard enough rumours and gossip over the years to piece together the truth.
He stared at the cloud wall. What’s going on beyond it? The control of the Maze belonged to the government at Edo. Every year, the Dejima Oppertovenaar received an envelope from Edo with coordinates of the secret path leading towards the Kiyō Bay, sealed with the Taikun’s crest. The path was different each year – but it should have stayed unchanged until the next summer. Of course, that was before the civil war erupted in Chinzei, before the Gorllewin landed in Shimoda, before the Soembing was sent out to buy Dracalish weapons for a Yamato warlord… Had the rebels won without them, but didn’t know how to control the Divine Winds? Or was Edo in such chaos that nobody bothered to pay attention to keeping the path open?
First was right to be concerned. But Fabius couldn’t help feeling the wind would soon change. Maybe it was something in the wailing coming from the wall of clouds – a quality he sensed, rather than heard. Or maybe he was just being stubbornly optimistic for no reason at all.
“You’re right, it’s hopeless,” he said. “Tell Verle to plan a course for Temasek.”
He heard his men cry out in distress. He turned just in time to see a giant black wave break over the deck.
It’s day two of the Amazon Pre-Order Countdown – and today’s treat is the best yet: I’m giving away a FREEcopy of the Year of the Dragon bundle IN PAPERBACK – worth $20!
Just click here to enter the Amazon Giveaway. You must be located in the US, I’m afraid – I don’t set the rules… This is a proper, thick book – 830 pages, with the beautiful cover by Collette J. Ellis of Flying Viper Illustrations, who also drew the cover for the upcoming Volume 8, so it will look great on any bookshelf!
The giveaway lasts for this whole week – make sure to notify your friends about the chance to win this beautiful FREE book!
In seven days, the eighth and final installment of the Year of the Dragon saga will be available for preorder, exclusively on Amazon! The story is about to reach its conclusion – and you might be among the first to find out how!
To celebrate, every day for a week I’ll have a little treat for you, so keep coming to see what’s going on – better yet, subscribe to this blog or add me on twitter for updates. Today it’s simple: The Year of the Dragon Books 1-4 bundle is for $0.99 on Amazon.com only for the whole week – probably for the last time ever! This might be your LAST CHANCE to get it for this super-low price!
This will be a short post, as there’s little to say about my latest hobby. It’s very straightforward: watching train journeys on YouTube.
The trend is not new – the Japanese, of course, have been doing it for years. The Norwegians took it to mainstream, dedicating an entire TV channel to the fantastic, 7-hour train journey from Bergen to Oslo, which later became the first Slow TV channel in the world:
Of course, you can hardly be a fan of Japan without turning just a little bit into a train geek – they’ve made this form of transport into a form of art, and I had always followed a few train otaku channels like AYOKOI. But on my last trip to Japan, I happened to be sitting next to one of the people making these videos, and became fascinated with the idea of simply watching the recording of a train journey on your TV. The immediate benefits are obvious: it’s calm, meditative, repetitive but not boring, and you don’t have to suffer the annoying commentary common to the documentaries like “The Great Railway Journeys“.
(this is the video from the trip we were on – I’m sitting two seats behind the camera, as it’s one of those panoramic trains with big front windows and no crew in front).
There’s also, of course, the other great enjoyment factor – you get to relive the journeys you’ve made, or imagine yourself making the journeys you wish you’d make. I can’t imagine a better way of “virtual travelling” than seeing the world through the train windows. My current favourite, for example, is this seemingly mundane journey on Haruka Express from Kansai Airport – one that tens of thousands of tourists make every single day on their way to Osaka and Kyoto. The Japanese train videos have the additional meditative element of “Pointing and calling” – the driver speaking aloud everything he’s doing in the cab.
Each type of train offers different sensations. Shinkansen drives are more quiet, monotonous, good for falling asleep. Subway trains, on the other hand, are fast-paced, with short, quick bursts of speed between stations:
There are many channels dedicated to gathering train view videos from all over YouTube – e.g. TRAINVIDEO – or you can just search for “train cab view”. I’m not sure where those videos originate, by the time I find them they’re already aggregated by somebody – I assume internet forums for train fans, or dedicated websites like TrainCentral. Most of them are from Japan, naturally, but there’s quite a lot now coming from Scandinavia, Alps and Russia, which are all equally spectacular. If you’re really into it, you can buy professionally recorded HD videos on Blu-Ray, e.g. here, but that might be a bit too obsessive…
So there you have it. Some people swear by ASMR or watching a burning campfire, but for me, train cab view videos are just the best.
By the end of this terrible year of 2016, the world is fully in the embrace of Hygge-mania. Books, blogs, youtube videos, newspaper articles, all espouse the virtues of the Danish concept of frilly cosiness, pillow-hugging friendliness and cake and cocoa by candlelight. And what’s not to like about the idea of cutting yourself from the all the evils of the outside, and shielding yourself with blankets and woollen jumpers from the encroaching darkness?
Except Hygge is an illusion. An aspirational lie. It only works if everything else works — if you live in a nice, well-organized country like Denmark, surrounded by beautiful Scandinavian people, your candle-lit life supported by a generous welfare state. This isn’t how most of us live — and, the way things are going, the Hygge concept will grow further and further away from reality, another unachievable ideal, made only to stress us out and feel miserable, like being thin or feeling good about the party you voted for.
There is another way. If you want to borrow a way of life from another people used to dealing with cold, dark winters, a way of life that is easier to achieve and more suitable to how things are in this post-Brexit, post-Trump, look no further than to the Slavs — in particular, the Poles.
In the coldest nights of serfdom, Partition, Communism, and post-Communist chaos, the Poles have developed ways to cope with both the harsh weather and the harsh political climate. In the centre of this way of life stands the concept of DOMÓWKA (pron. Domoovka) — literally “House Party”, but not the kind you would imagine. Here, in a few steps, is how you can try to replicate this concept at your own home, when everything goes to hell and the nuclear winter makes global warming a distant memory.
It’s a house party, so of course everything happens in a house — but forget a three-bedroom villa in the suburbs. The closer your house is to a council estate flat, the better (an actual estate flat is ideal). And it doesn’t matter how big or small the flat is — all that matters is that you have a kitchen and a dining room, for this is where most of your Domówka will take place.
For reasons lost in the midst of time, the kitchen is the heart of Domówka. It could be the atavistic longing to be near the fireplace — replaced here by the four-hob oven — or it could be the vicinity of the fridge, but no matter where the guests are when the party starts, eventually all the conversation gravitates towards the kitchen. It makes sense when you think about it — the kitchen is cozy, easily heated, provides access to supplies and fresh water, and often has the best acoustics in the house outside bathroom.
Lighting should be subdued — a night-light is enough. Dimmer switch is decadence. Of course, candles are best — not only because they provide coziness, but also because when the power runs out in the middle of the party, due to the crumbling infrastructure unable to deal with the freezing cold, you won’t even notice.
You probably guessed already that the drink of choice here is vodka — Polish or Russian only, none of that fake French stuff. Only the heat of vodka can truly stir the hearts, loosen the tongues, and beat the cold of a northern winter out of one’s bones. Vodka drank straight, ice-cold — so cold, preferably, that it oozes out of the bottle like oil. This can only be achieved with enough preparation, so only applies to the first batch (see Restocking).
Any other alcohol — beer or wine — is to be used only in the form of “liquid tapas” — variously known as Zapojka or Zapitka — to cleanse the palate between vodka shots.
Soft drinks are fine — the cheaper, the better, though Coca-Cola is still a classic stalwart from the days when it represented the “evil West” and an opposition to whatever regime ruled the country. Mixing vodka with the above is fine if you’re feeling fancy, though only when used as Zapojka/Zapitka.
The only acceptable hot drink is tea — strong, black, with a slice of lemon, drunk from a glass. Have plenty of it ready. Biscuits are optional — home-made cake is obligatory.
Speaking of cake, the food is not to be forgotten. Zakaski or Zagryzki(Zakuski in Russian), which is a Slavic variety of mezze, is a culinary art in its own right. The prevalent taste sensation is sourness, and fattiness, both helping to beat the side-effects of all that vodka. So sour-pickled gherkins, of course, and pickled herrings in oil or sour cream, and pickled mushrooms… Then lots of mayo — on eggs, in vegetable salad, on cured meats. If you want a more Eastern experience, have some salo — cured pork fat. If you’re feeling adventurous, put things in aspic, though since that requires a lot of preparation it’s becoming less and less popular.
Pickled and fatty foods, cured meat and cheese, are all things that keep well, which is another plus in our dystopian future — you can even stock the leftovers from one Domówka to another.
We’ve secured the location, drink, and food — but what are we going to do at this strange party? Not dance, obviously. Talk — but what about?
The conversation topics at a Domówka are deep and tough — the deeper and tougher the better. You can’t be whimsical when you’re downing shots of vodka — this isn’t your auntie’s sherry soiree. Football scores is at light as it gets, at first — but then we’re moving on to the real stuff: politics, history, religion.
It used to be that in the West topics like politics and history were a taboo in polite company. This is a privilege the Poles, and most of their Slavic brethren, never had — and, in recent years, it’s become obvious that it’s the only conversation worth having, anywhere. What else can you talk about when Trump is president, when Putin marches through Syria, when Farage’s grin is plastered all over your TV screens? And politics is steeped in history — you have to understand the past to explain the present. Poles like to think of themselves as experts in every subject, but history is everyone’s true hobby. So as the vodka flows, the conversation will flow from recent elections, to the Communist era, to 19th century oppression, all the way to the arrival of first Christians on Polish soil who, depending on your worldview, are either to blame or to credit for everything that’s happening currently.
These conversations are such a crucial part of the Polish soul, that they are even mentioned in poetry — Poland’s chief poet, Adam Mickiewicz, coined the term “Polish Nightly Conversations” in 19th century, which had since entered the vernacular.
At any party, choice of music is important — at the Domówka, no less so. What music is best for vodka and pickles? The answer may not be obvious to you, but it’s obvious to any Pole: shanties, folk and poetry.
Here’s another old Polish term: “sung poetry”, also known as “gentle music” or “author song”. It’s a pan-slavic phenomenon, originating with Soviet Bards – a mixture of French chanson, Russian poetry, Celtic folk and scouting songs. LeonardCohen, Vladimir Vysotski, Jacques Brel are the godfathers of this music genre. Sombre, serious, flowing, often, again, with political overtones. Born as a form of escapism back in the Communist era, the songs tell of a gentler, imaginary land, of nice, decent people, freedom and fresh, unpolluted air. Shanties and Celtic folk stem from the same need of escape — when all else around you is dreary, cold and dark, sometimes all you have left is to imagine yourself on a tallship off the coast of Ireland. (nb. the popularity of these songs goes a long way to explain why, after joining the EU, so many Poles flooded Ireland — it was as if suddenly Neverland turned out real.)
If your Domówka is going well, at some point in the proceedings, one of you might want to pick up a guitar and start making ready for a sing-along. This may be a good point to pause the party for Restocking.
A key moment in every Domówka is when the vodka runs out. It is considered bad form to have “enough” alcohol to last all night — it suggests you imagine your guests drunkards, which they most certainly are not.
This is not a moment to despair. On the contrary, a pause is necessary for the party to continue in peace. What you need to do is mount an expedition to restock the fridge. In the old days, this meant finding out a neighbour stocking a private stash of alcohol, often contraband or home-made, in a melina(private speak-easy). These days, you need to seek out a 24h off-licence or, even better, a petrol station.
The restocking expedition is an essential reset button. It’s a chance to cool heads heated up in the middle of a political argument; an opportunity to let the cold wind freeze the alcohol from your veins; a moment to appreciate the quiet of the winter night, look out to stars and realize the insignificance of our problems in comparison with the vastness of the universe. Without this pause, the guests at Domówka would soon degenerate into drunken, slurring stupor.
What happens at Domówka, stays at Domówka.
Domówka is a one-night carnival, a place and time when established rules and relationships are suspended. There’s no other way. With the amounts of alcohol drunk, with the sea of existential despair that needs venting, nobody can be held responsible for their actions. Whether it’s an ideological argument gone sour, or a sneaky, desperate tryst in the bathroom, all is forgiven in the morning — or whenever the headache passes. The one thing that is not tolerated at the Domówka is violence: this is where the line is drawn. Violence is for the enemies, there’s no place for it among friends.
This concept of trust makes Domówka what it truly is — a way to survive the unsurvivable, to escape the unescapable.
(pron. Wapu-Tzapu) This is another important Polish concept, one that requires a whole separate article, or a book, and one which stands at the heart of Polish aesthetics, much as wabi-sabi stands at the heart of the Japanese one. Another similar word is “prowizorka”, or doing something as a shoddy, makeshift, temporary one-off: a concept crucial in a land through which foreign armies have marched for centuries, burning and pillaging everything in their path. Like the Japanese wood and paper houses, everything in Poland is made not to withstand the pressures of history, but to yield to them, and be easily replaced. The less attention to detail, the more make-shift the solution, the better. As the old Polish saying goes, “prowizorka holds out the longest”.
In Domówka terms, this means — don’t sweat it. Don’t prepare too hard. In the end, it’s the mood that matters, not how nice the mayo is spread on your eggs. As long as you have enough alcohol, and enough friends to drink it with, all else will come on its own. Life in our incoming dystopia will be hard enough without having to worry about things like precision and sturdiness. Embrace the Łapu-capu — it may be the only way to survive what’s coming.