Trope Tuesday: The Chessmaster

The Chessmaster is a fun trope, especially when done well. A good villain is always at least one step ahead of the good guys, so when it turns out that he’s three or four or ten steps ahead of them, it can make for some interesting plot twists.

Of course, the chessmaster isn’t always the bad guy. Sometimes, it turns out that the mysterious figure behind the scenes pulling all the strings is actually working for good, even though he may sacrifice a few pawns along the way. Or is he? There’s always that tension, simply because of the chessmaster’s manipulative nature.

I’ve played it both ways. The last time I wrote a chessmaster was Gunslinger to the Stars, but the Patrician in Heart of the Nebula definitely also qualifies. In both cases, the character was introduced as a mysterious employer. I won’t tell you which one was the bad guy, and which one was the good guy.

I’ve never written a story from the perspective of the chessmaster. I imagine it would be quite difficult, since all of the plot twists would have to be telegraphed and/or th reader would have to be kept in the dark about the main character’s plans. Dune is an excellent example of the former, but I can’t think of any good examples of the latter. The Davinci Code comes to mind, but the way it kept the viewer in the dark (seen the movie, haven’t read the book) didn’t work for me.

Even as a non-viewpoint character, the chessmaster can be difficult to write. Careful plotting is key, of course, but so is the iceberg principle. For everything the reader can see, there has to be a bunch of stuff beneath the surface that they can’t see. It doesn’t require the same level of detail as the surface level stuff, of course, but you have to at least have an idea of what the chessmaster would do if the story went in a very different direction. Even if the chessmaster never reveals those plans, you can bet that he still has them figured out.

In part, this is what made Heart of the Nebula so difficult to write. The final draft bears little resemblance to the first draft, with characters and subplots cut out or combined with others. Still, I’m satisfied with how it turned out, and it seems that the readers are as well.

In Sons of the Starfarers, Gulchina isn’t a chessmaster so much as a magnificent bastard with delusions of grandeur. She has plans and does tend to be three or four steps ahead of everyone else, but she’s less interested in manipulating events than she is in manipulating people. Her ultimate goal, as revealed in Captives in Obscurity, is to establish a proud warrior race that will one day wipe out and take over both the Empire and the Outworlds. She doesn’t know how that’s going to happen, but she knows what needs to be done to lay the foundation for that work.

The chessmaster is a challenging trope to write well, but I’m sure I’ll use it many more times in the future. The storytelling potential is just too great to leave it out.

All of my books and stories, in series order

A friend of mine recently asked me to give him a list of all my books in series order. That was just the kick in the pants I needed to put this page together. For your convenience, I’m putting it up as a blog post too. The links to all the book pages will appear on the series page as soon as I can get around to it.

Joe Vasicek

Gaia Nova

The Gaia Nova books are all mid-sized novels (75k to 110k words). It is a far-future space opera series that takes place in a galactic empire long after Earth has been lost to legend. They can be read in any order, but they take place in the same universe with recurring characters. They are listed in the order in which they were published. Heart of the Nebula is a direct sequel to Bringing Stella Home.

Bringing Stella Home
Desert Stars
Stars of Blood and Glory
Heart of the Nebula
Mercenary Savior (forthcoming)
Empress of the Last Free Stars (forthcoming)

Star Wanderers

The Star Wanderers books are novellas (15k to 35k). They take place in the same universe as Gaia Nova one thousand years earlier. The first four books are linear, while the last four books are parallaxes of the first four, from the point of view of the side characters.

Outworlder
Fidelity
Sacrifice
Homeworld
Dreamweaver
Benefactor
Reproach
Deliverance

The Jeremiah Chronicles (Omnibus 1-4)
Tales of the Far Outworlds (Omnibus 5-6)

Sons of the Starfarers

The Sons of the Starfarer books are short novels (35k to 45k words) that take place in the same universe as Star Wanderers, with a few recurring minor characters from those books. It is a linear series.

Brother in Exile
Comrades in Hope
Strangers in Flight
Friends in Command
Captives in Obscurity
Patriots in Retreat (forthcoming)
A Queen in Hiding (forthcoming)
An Empire in Disarray (forthcoming)
Victors in Liberty (forthcoming)

Sons of the Starfarers (Omnibus 1-3)

Gunslinger Trilogy

These books are all short to mid-sized novels (50k to 90k words). They take place about 40 years in the future, after Earth makes contact with the galactics.

Gunslinger to the Stars
Gunslinger to the Galaxy (forthcoming)
Gunslinger to Earth (forthcoming)

The Twelfth Sword Trilogy

These epic fantasy books are all mid-sized to long novels (85k words and up).

The Sword Keeper (forthcoming)
The Sword Bearer (forthcoming)
The Sword Mistress (forthcoming)

Genesis Earth Trilogy

These are all mid-sized novels (about 70k words) that take place in the near to mid-future.

Genesis Earth
Edenfall (forthcoming)
The Stars of Redemption (forthcoming)

Short Stories and Novelettes

Below are all of my short stories and novelettes, in the order in which they were published. If they first appeared in a magazine or anthology, I’ve included that in parentheses.

Decision LZ1527 (Leading Edge Magazine, December 2009)
Memoirs of a Snowflake
A Hill on Which to Die
Starchild
L’enfer, c’est la Solitude
(Perehilion SF, March 2016)
The Curse of the Lifewalker
(Sci Phi Journal, June 2016)
The Gettysburg Paradox
Utahraptors at Dawn
Welcome to Condescension
Killing Mister Wilson
My Name is For My Friends
Jane Carter of Earth and the Rescue that Never Was
The Open Source Time Machine

J.M. Wight

Short Stories

Worlds Without Number

What’s going on with Sons of the Starfarers?

ssf-i-large-coverssf-ii-large-coverssf-iii-large-coverssf-iv-large-coverssf-v-large-coverSSF-VI (cover)

I don’t know how many people are looking forward to the last four Sons of the Starfarers books, but I feel like I owe you an explanation for what is (or rather, isn’t) going on with the series.

I started the series back in 2014, after publishing the last Star Wanderers novella. Star Wanderers was an experiment with the trendy advice among indie authors at the time, to split up a wider story arc into lots of short books in a linear series, with the first one permanently free.

For the first two years, the experiment paid off—so much so that I decided to write another series using the same trendy publishing advice. That series was Sons of the Starfarers.

But then, things started to go downhill. Amazon introduced Kindle Unlimited, and the algorithms changed in ways that no longer favored the trendy publishing advice. Star Wanderers began to languish, and Sons of the Starfarers never took off in the way I’d hoped that it would. Up to this point, 90% of my sales were on Amazon. Needless to say, my career took an enormous hit.

Most indie authors in my position reacted by going all in with Kindle Unlimited. Essentially, they dumped 2012’s trendy advice for 2014’s trendy advice. I took the opposite tact and went back to basics.

This still left the awkward question of what to do with the unfinished Sons of the Starfarers series. Abandon it? That was unthinkable. But it wasn’t practical to finish it either, seeing as I needed something that would actually pay the bills.

So I kicked it around for a couple of years, working on it between other projects but not making it a huge priority. In this way, I wrote and published Friends in Command and Captives in Obscurity. But as more time passed, it soon became clear that this wouldn’t work. The books were getting harder to write as I became more distanced from the story, and releasing them piecemeal wasn’t exactly boosting sales of the previous books in the series.

A couple of days ago, I wrote up a publishing schedule for 2017. My goal is to have a new release every month. A couple of novels are on the schedule, including Gunslinger to the Stars and The Sword Keeper, but as of now there are no Sons of the Starfarers books.

This is not because I’m abandoning the series, however. Far from it. My goal is to release all of the last four books together, within a month of each other. In order to do this properly, I’m going to write them all together in one big sprint, probably sometime next year.

I haven’t planned out everything yet, but I do have all the titles figured out. They are:

  • Brothers in Exile
  • Comrades in Hope
  • Strangers in Flight
  • Friends in Command
  • Captives in Obscurity
  • Patriots in Retreat
  • A Queen in Hiding
  • An Empire in Disarray
  • Victors in Liberty

If I had the money, I would commission all of the covers right now (my poor cover designer thought this job would be finished a year ago—at least he got an advance!), but what money I have needs to go toward producing Gunslinger to the Stars. No idea how long it will take. And the books themselves probably won’t come out until 2018.

So don’t worry, I have not and will not abandon this series. If you’re waiting, I apologize for taking so long, and also for the fact that you’re probably going to be waiting a while longer. But the good news is that when the last four books do come out, they will come out in quick succession. So there’s only one more big wait. Hopefully that’s good news.

Sorry!

Captives in Obscurity — excerpt 9

“How do I figure into all of this?” Reva asked, her voice trembling. “What do you want from me?”

Gulchina looked her squarely in the eye. “I want you to take us there, Reva. I want you to be a mother to my men. To them, I may well be a god, but I am not immortal. And my dream will take generations to be realized.”

“Your dream?”

“To found a new nation: a people who live beyond the settled stars. With me as their god and you as their mother, we will raise up a free nation beyond the reach of any empire.”

Reva didn’t know what to say. Her hands still trembled, even though her fear now seemed unfounded. She’d known for a long time that Gulchina had been grooming her for something, but to become the mother of a nation? It sounded insane.

Or was it? Gulchina was right about one thing at least: Reva was a stranger and a vagabond. Ever since she had stepped out of that cryotank, she had struggled to find a place for herself in this strange, lonely universe. To become the mother of a nation—it sounded crazy, but if there was even a chance…

“You are an orphan child of the Outworlds,” said Gulchina, breaking the pensive silence. “You have absolutely nothing to lose.”

“What difference does that make?”

“Because it frees you to pursue that which you truly desire. Tell me, is there anything you want more than a new family and a home? A place where you fully belong?”

She’s right, Reva realized. I want that more than anything.

“I don’t know,” she said. “The things I’ve seen you do, I… I don’t know if I could do that.”

Gulchina tapped her tablet and returned to her chair. The holographic projector switched off, and the lights faded back on.

“We have been over this before, Reva. Corporal Sarnai’s execution was unfortunate, but necessary.”

“But making it into a spectacle—don’t you think that was a little excessive?”

“Nations can only be born in blood, Reva. And if I am cruel, it is because the stars themselves are cruel. On a starship such as ours, every duty is of critical importance. A failure at any point could lead to catastrophe, and in the outer reaches of space, there is no one who will come to our rescue. And so I must maintain discipline at all costs.”

“But still—”

“Do you think I took pleasure in his death?” Gulchina asked. “Do you think I enjoyed watching his corpse drift out into the empty void? There may have been an element of spectacle to the execution, but I assure you, Reva, my tears were real.”

“They were?”

Gulchina leaned forward and put a hand on Reva’s knee. At her touch, Reva’s legs went weak, and her hands stopped trembling.

“Yes, Reva. I love my men—all of them. That is why I push them so hard. I want them to become something greater than any of them could be apart.”

“And what about me?” Reva asked, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

“I believe that you are capable of far more than you realize. When I first took you onto this ship, I could see it in your eyes. You may not fully believe in yourself, Reva, but I do. And I am ready to share all that I have with you.”

She means it, Reva realized. She really does.


Captives in Obscurity, book 5 in the Sons of the Starfarers series, will be available in ebook form tomorrow. Pre-order or find out more below:

Captives in Obscurity

Captives in Obscurity

There is no escape beyond Star's End.

Isaac and Reva are running out of time. Gulchina's cruelty knows no bounds, and on the edge of known space, no one can stop her. But an unexplored planet holds an ancient alien secret that may prove to be a game changer.
Order Now!
About the Book

THERE IS NO ESCAPE BEYOND STAR’S END.

The deadliest pirates in the galaxy have stolen the technology that will transform it. Now, on the edge of known space, they are poised to start an empire of their own.

Isaac and Reva are running out of time. Neither of them knows the extent of Gulchina’s plans, or whether the madwoman will keep them both alive after she achieves them.

But an unexplored planet beyond the Far Outworlds holds an ancient alien secret that not even Gulchina has uncovered. That secret will tip the balance in

SONS OF THE STARFARERS
BOOK V: CAPTIVES IN OBSCURITY

This series is rated T! according to the AO3 content rating system.

Details
Author:
Series: Sons of the Starfarers, Book 5
Genres: Science Fiction, Space Opera
Publication Year: May 2016
Length: short novel
eBook Price: 3.99
Order Now
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Apple iBooks
Buy from Barnes and Noble Nook
Buy from GoodReads
Buy from Inktera
Buy from Kobo
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About the Author
Joe Vasicek

Joe Vasicek fell in love with science fiction with Star Wars as a child and hasn't looked back since. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Genesis Earth, Bringing Stella Home, Heart of the Nebula, and the Star Wanderers and Sons of the Starfarers series. As a young man, he studied Arabic at Brigham Young University and traveled across the Middle East and the Caucasus. He currently lives in Utah, which he claims as his home.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the page above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. You will not receive any additional charge.

Captives in Obscurity — excerpt 8

Gulchina’s private quarters were unlike any other place on the ship. A stunningly ornate rug covered the floor, its intricate woven design mesmerizing the eye. The table that sat in the center was made from authentic wood and inlaid with mosaic patterns of burgundy, teal, and mother-of-pearl. The wallscreens were set to show planetscapes viewed from the surface, mostly of deserts with ancient ruins jutting out like the bones of long-dead civilizations. The only sign that they were still on a starship was the single porthole on the opposite wall.

The door slid shut with a faint hiss, making Reva flinch.

“You are wondering why I called you here,” Gulchina said, waiting for Reva to take the other chair before resuming her seat across the wooden table. “I have many duties to attend to, so we will not waste time with small talk.”

“Very well,” said Reva.

Gulchina tapped the keypad on the armrest of her chair, and a server bot emerged from an unseen receptacle with two glasses of hot tea. Reva accepted one of the porcelain cups and held it in her lap while Gulchina took a sip from hers.

“In the next twenty-four hours, I will leave the Temujin to oversee an operation several parsecs from here. I am leaving Commander Wolf in command.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I believe you have something to tell me—a secret you have been keeping from me for some time.”

Reva’s heart skipped a beat, and her legs went suddenly numb. “What do you mean?”

“We have already agreed not to waste each other’s time. I advise you not to test my patience.”

Sweat began to pool on the back of Reva’s neck as her mind raced for some excuse. She set her cup down carefully on the table, her hand trembling noticeably. Gulchina eyed her with all the studied patience of a cat waiting to pounce.

“I-I didn’t think you knew.”

“I make it a point to know of everything that happens on my ship.”

“It’s just an innocent fling, I swear. We had a history together, and after you took us captive, our feelings for each other—”

“I’m not talking about your bi-weekly make-out sessions in the fourth deck maintenance closet,” said Gulchina. “That was merely a cover for your true intent.”

Reva’s fear quickly turned to panic. Her clandestine meetings with Isaac, their secret plans to escape—there was nothing Gulchina didn’t know. Corporal Sarnai’s execution and Ensign Matsuda’s ritual suicide flashed across her mind, threatening to break her.

“Are you going to kill me?” she asked softly.

“If you don’t confess, I will be forced to.”

Reva hung her head. “Isaac and I—we were planning to escape.”

Gulchina rose to her feet and began to pace. The wallscreens shifted to display a panoramic deep space starfield. The room dimmed noticeably, with the milky band of the galaxy stretching all around the room.

“It was all my idea though,” Reva said quickly, surprising herself. “I was the one who initiated it. If anyone should be punished, it’s—”

“Ever since I took you on board this ship, I have been testing you,” Gulchina interrupted her. “By now, it must be obvious why.”

“Because you’ve been grooming me as your successor?” Though Reva had always suspected as much, neither of them had openly said it until now.

“Indeed. And I must confess, you’ve performed quite admirably. In only a matter of months, you’ve learned our language and become quite fluent in it. Your insights into history have been incisive, and your observations of the crew have demonstrated a remarkable understanding of the principles of leadership. You have consistently shown yourself to be resourceful, independent, adept, and intelligent.”

But what? What are you trying to get at?

“You have great potential,” Gulchina continued. “If only you had had the ambition to match it.”

“What makes you think I ever wanted any of this?” Reva cried, her heart pounding. “That I wanted to be your—your protégé?” Now that her plot with Isaac had been exposed, she had nothing left to lose. It terrified and invigorated her at the same time to speak so openly.

“Because you are alone in this universe, Reva. You are a stranger, a vagabond. Your people are extinct, their culture and language forgotten. Without me, you are lost.”

“And how can you change any of that?”

Gulchina smiled. “By making you the mother of a great nation.”


Captives in Obscurity, book 5 in the Sons of the Starfarers series, will be available in ebook form on May 15th. Pre-order or find out more below:

Captives in Obscurity

Captives in Obscurity

There is no escape beyond Star's End.

Isaac and Reva are running out of time. Gulchina's cruelty knows no bounds, and on the edge of known space, no one can stop her. But an unexplored planet holds an ancient alien secret that may prove to be a game changer.
Order Now!
About the Book

THERE IS NO ESCAPE BEYOND STAR’S END.

The deadliest pirates in the galaxy have stolen the technology that will transform it. Now, on the edge of known space, they are poised to start an empire of their own.

Isaac and Reva are running out of time. Neither of them knows the extent of Gulchina’s plans, or whether the madwoman will keep them both alive after she achieves them.

But an unexplored planet beyond the Far Outworlds holds an ancient alien secret that not even Gulchina has uncovered. That secret will tip the balance in

SONS OF THE STARFARERS
BOOK V: CAPTIVES IN OBSCURITY

This series is rated T! according to the AO3 content rating system.

Details
Author:
Series: Sons of the Starfarers, Book 5
Genres: Science Fiction, Space Opera
Publication Year: May 2016
Length: short novel
eBook Price: 3.99
Order Now
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Apple iBooks
Buy from Barnes and Noble Nook
Buy from GoodReads
Buy from Inktera
Buy from Kobo
Buy from Scribd
Buy from Smashwords
About the Author
Joe Vasicek

Joe Vasicek fell in love with science fiction with Star Wars as a child and hasn't looked back since. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Genesis Earth, Bringing Stella Home, Heart of the Nebula, and the Star Wanderers and Sons of the Starfarers series. As a young man, he studied Arabic at Brigham Young University and traveled across the Middle East and the Caucasus. He currently lives in Utah, which he claims as his home.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the page above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. You will not receive any additional charge.