DEAD BUT ONCE – Out Today!

Hey, all! I have a suuuper busy day today, so this will have to be brief:

The third book in THE SAGA OF THE REDEEMED releases today in e-book! Go and get it now!

Out in e-book today!!

Not convinced? Well, then listen to this:

A brilliant schemer never rests, but for Tyvian Reldamar, he might finally be over his head. The Saga of the Redeemed continues with Dead But Once, Auston Habershaw’s latest fantasy following The Oldest Trick and No Good Deed.

Arch-criminal Tyvian Reldamar has gotten complacent.

For him, he’s reached the pinnacle of all he’s really hoping to achieve: he’s got money, he’s got women (some of which aren’t even trying to kill him), and he’s got his loyal friends and family nearby and safe.

Except…maybe not so safe.

Because this is Eretheria, a city known as much for its genteel aristocracy as for its diabolical scheming. Long without a king, the scions of the ruling families scrabble for control–including levying cruel taxes and drafts on the peasantry in order to wage “polite” wars against each other.

And now, of course, Tyvian is finding himself drawn into it.

With a swashbuckling flare, old fans and new readers alike will be swept up into this world of magic, crime, and political intrigue where life is cheap and justice too expensive.

Eh? Ehhhh? Pretty cool, right?

Now, I wrote this book so that people new to the series could follow along, but if you’d rather catch up (and I recommend it) you can find links to the first two books (THE OLDEST TRICK and NO GOOD DEED) right here on this blog. Otherwise, what are you waiting for? Go and get it! Experience high adventure, conspiracy, plots, balls, and all the great times such things entail!

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DEAD BUT ONCE – Releases Tuesday, 4/17/18

(cue trumpets)

TYVIAN IS BACK, ladies and gentlemen!

This Tuesday, Book 3 in the Saga of the Redeemed is released in e-book (the paperback will follow on May 1st) and is available now for preorder.

For those of you just joining us since the last book released (about 18 months ago), this is the story of Tyvian Reldamar, archcriminal and impeccable dresser, who has been cursed with a magic ring that forces him to do the “right” thing. It has tortured him now for two books in a row and its been very, very difficult to get the damned ring taken off and as a result of all his forced “nobility” he’s wound up with, well…

Friends, lovers, and allies. And enemies. Lots and lots of enemies.

And, indirectly, a hell of a lot of money.

The novels are packed with action and intrigue, dueling and sorcery, and a fair amount of clever repartee. I’ve pitched it as “James Bond in a fantasy world” which is a slight exaggeration, but not by much – Tyvian is the smug prick you hate but also love but also want to be when you grow up. And this is the story of his long journey to becoming less of a prick. It’s harder than it sounds.

This book is written so that if you haven’t read the first two books, you can still read this one and follow the plot (though you will be missing a few things here and there–that’s somewhat unavoidable), so there are no excuses, blog followers! Get it! Read it! Give me glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (or any reviews, really – I’m not picky)!

Want to know more about book 3? Well, I’ll be posting a fair amount in the coming week, but for starters, check this out:

Out in e-book this Tuesday!

A brilliant schemer never rests, but for Tyvian Reldamar, he might finally be over his head. The Saga of the Redeemed continues with Dead But Once, Auston Habershaw’s latest fantasy following The Oldest Trick and No Good Deed.

Arch-criminal Tyvian Reldamar has gotten complacent.

For him, he’s reached the pinnacle of all he’s really hoping to achieve: he’s got money, he’s got women (some of which aren’t even trying to kill him), and he’s got his loyal friends and family nearby and safe.

Except…maybe not so safe.

Because this is Eretheria, a city known as much for its genteel aristocracy as for its diabolical scheming. Long without a king, the scions of the ruling families scrabble for control–including levying cruel taxes and drafts on the peasantry in order to wage “polite” wars against each other. 

And now, of course, Tyvian is finding himself drawn into it. 

With a swashbuckling flare, old fans and new readers alike will be swept up into this world of magic, crime, and political intrigue where life is cheap and justice too expensive.  

Time Travel in Fiction: Why Over How

After having a conversation with my agent the other day, I’ve decided my next novel project is going to be time travel based. I wasn’t really planning to write this particular novel at this particular time, but he feels its the best career move right now and that’s basically what I’m paying the guy for – his advice – so why wouldn’t I take it? Anyway, the point here is that I’ve been thinking (a lot) about time travel in stories today and I want to share some of my ramblings.

One of the questions I’ve gotten recently is how the character in my time travel story is going to travel through time. What are the rules, in other words? Is time linear or non-linear in this story? Are we going to be dealing with the Grandfather Paradox or the Butterfly Effect or what? What about free will? Now, it just so happens that I have answers to these questions, but I’m not going to list them out here today. Instead, I’m going to talk a fair bit about how those questions aren’t actually that important. Or, at least, not as important as they first appear.

Pick a method – it doesn’t really matter.

Time travel stories, you see, are really never about how time travel is accomplished. Never. Time travel stories are actually all about why the characters in question are traveling in time in the first place. This is also true more broadly of many science fiction stories of whatever subcategory – the special technology is usually more a metaphor for something present and actual rather than a literal exploration of technological progress – but it is particularly true of time travel, since, of all speculative technologies, time travel is possibly the least plausible outside of traveling at relativistic speeds (and then you could only go one direction – the future). If you want to go back in time instead of just forwards (in other words if you want an actual time machine), you kinda have to throw away most known physics anyway. If you’re doing something that impossible, does the fact that you’re traveling by Police Box or hot tub or phone booth really matter?

In other words, the rules, in large part, are arbitrary. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to tell a time travel story in terms of how the deed is accomplished and the rules surrounding said deed. Do we really question that the time machine in the Terminator can only send organic matter? I mean, it makes no sense, but do we care? Likewise, in Back to the Future, the Flux Capacitor makes absolutely zero sense, but, again, we don’t really care. We don’t care because we aren’t watching to movie to learn about how time works. We’re watching the movie to revisit our past.

And that’s really the crux of it: the journey through time is always (always) a metaphor that directly pertains to the main character’s conflict. Sarah Connor has to face the reality of her world ending and how best to prepare for that (the precise dimensions of that preparation and what it symbolizes varies from film to film). Marty McFly has to come to terms with his own parents and, thereby, his own identity. It is a crisis of self confidence, not a Hill Valley crisis. Even the Doctor and his TARDIS aren’t exploring space-time to teach us lessons about history, but rather to explore the human condition (and an outside observer’s opinion of it) in infinite contexts and scenarios. It’s not a show about aliens at all – it’s a love letter to humanity.

So, if you’re going to put together a time travel story, how you have the character traveling through time is a question subservient to why you want them to travel through time to begin with. Depending on what your purpose is – what themes you want to explore – the way time travel happens will itself be altered to fit your narrative goals. And you can do this, too! Time machines are impossible – as impossible as magic and even more impossible than things like hyperdrive or lightsabers or giant battle robots. In other words, it’s something of a blank slate – tell the tale you need to. Your audience isn’t tuning in for technical merit – they’re expecting a story about the human condition.

Spring the Trap

This is going to be one of those partially writing/partially gaming posts, so get ready for some odd leaps in logic on my part. I want to start with a meme I saw on Dungeons and Dragons Memes the other day regarding dungeon crawls in D&D:

I hate this list. Hate it. Hate it hate it. It represents what I consider to be everything wrong with how Dungeons and Dragons is frequently played and it also happens to be a blueprint on how not to write a suspenseful story or novel. Let me explain:

People avoid conflict and tension as much as they can in their daily lives. If something looks dangerous, we are unlikely to attempt it without ample preparation with the (accurate) understanding that doing so increases our odds of survival. This is a sensible and reasonable way to live one’s life.

It also makes for bad storytelling.

Of course, not every moment of our days are devoted to having an awesome story to tell. If it were, we’d take more risks and do more dangerous things because, well, it would make a great story. Yes, we would punch that guy on the train playing his music without headphones. Yes, we would give the sketchy homeless person a ride on the handlebars of our moped. Yes, we would go on solo vacations to distant lands without a hotel reservation on a whim. We’d hitchhike more.

We don’t do all this, for the most part, because we recognize the odds of unpleasant things happening to us in the real world. In a story (or an RPG), however, unpleasant things happening is the express point of the exercise. Nobody reads a story about how a guy wakes up, goes to his job, does his work, comes home, and goes to bed. That isn’t a story (or at least not an interesting one). We need conflict, of course, but conflict is also not enough. A story where a guy goes to work, discovers he has a hugely important meeting in five minutes and he left his materials at home, but then realizes he can just use the backup materials on his work computer, prints them out, and all is well is also a super boring story. Nothing came of the conflict.

Now, to that stupid list up there. When I read that advice, this is what I see:

  1. Research Your Destination: There must be no surprises, unpleasant or otherwise. We must know everything before beginning.
  2. Explore Thoroughly and Cautiously: Everything must be done slowly and methodically so that no surprises crop up and no mistakes are made.
  3. Stay Together: IF something goes wrong, the problem can be immediately solved with little difficulty and at minimal risk to others.
  4. Prepare Accordingly: We must have access to all the appropriate tools at the appropriate times so that obstacles can be smoothly overcome.
  5. Exercise Teamwork: Interpersonal conflicts are forbidden and independent goals must not be pursued.
  6. Check for Secret Traps and Doors: Again, no surprises! Slow down!
  7. Take Everything That Isn’t Nailed Down: Approach this dramatic event with all the drama of a moving company packing up a house.

Everything on that list is devoted to making certain the dungeon crawl is as boring as possible, which is to say they are designed to guarantee nobody gets in trouble and everything goes to plan. This list exists for two reasons: (1) there are people who see D&D as a resource management enterprise and nothing else and (2) there are a variety of bad GMs out there who see it as their job to have an adversarial relationship with the party, forcing the players to adopt these behaviors so they don’t die. In the first case, I would insist everybody is entitled to their own kind of fun and more power to them (though I don’t care for it myself). In the second case, read this list, GMs, and adjust your ways.

What most players refuse to acknowledge, but is nevertheless true, is that the best gaming experiences are when things go wrong. This is because when the players make mistakes, tension, excitement, and conflict abound. When the players sit down and concoct an elaborate plan designed to avoid any kind of trouble, it is the GMs duty – their sacred obligation – to mess those plans up as soon as possible and in the worst of all ways. Players often think the GM is being “mean” or “unfair” when, in actuality, the GM is giving the players the greatest possible opportunity for fun. Because (and this is the other thing players are not aware of) they are going to win! They are! By the skin of their teeth and suffering consequences galore and maybe not in the way they intended, but they totally are and they are going to love it.

If he’d estimated the weight of that bag of dirt right, this scene would have sucked.

This is directly analogous to storytelling. If your characters make an elaborate plot that is almost sure to succeed, then you, as the writer, can’t have that plot go off exactly as planned. You just can’t. Once you do, then you have abandoned all dramatic tension and eliminated all suspense. We all just shrug and go “oh, well, that was a lot of buildup about nothing.” You need things to go sideways! Polonius needs to get his ass stabbed through the curtain! The hyperdrive on the Falcon has to be broken! Indiana Jones needs to spring the trap!

So, here are my competing pieces of dungeon crawling advice:

  1. Do Minimal Research: If the old geezer in the village says the temple is inhabited by vengeful spirits, believe him. He probably knows what he’s talking about, right? No way it’s a death cult disguised as ghosts. That’d just be silly.
  2. Go Directly for the Goal: There is almost certainly nothing of interest in those little side passages. The main thing is to get in, get out, and get on with your lives. Move quickly! The time of the Planetary Alignment is nigh!
  3. Split Up!: You can cover more ground that way. Also, some of you can get in trouble and need rescuing, which gives everybody a chance to look awesome.
  4. Travel light!: Nobody wants to traipse around a dungeon with a donkey in tow or have to pay henchmen to guard your campsite or any of that garbage. Potion of Animal Friendship? Pfft – that probably won’t come in handy anyway. Extra sword? Why? Your favorite sword should do just fine. And leave the rope behind – rope is heavy.
  5. Those Morons Need to Listen to You!: Look, you’re the wizard, right? You are the smartest. Who cares what the paladin thinks is a good plan – you’ve got a better plan and, when it works (it won’t!), then everybody will recognize you as the leader of this stupid little band. Excelsior!
  6. Spring the Trap!: If you don’t spring the trap, nobody will fall into a hole and maybe die. And seriously, what fun is that, anyway?
  7. Gold is Heavy: You know what’s more fun that haggling over objet d’art and divvying up silver pieces? Moving the story forward, that’s what. You’re playing a game, not saving for your retirement. Take the cool magical junk and leave the rest behind. Nobody cares how much money you have.

Developing an Idea

There is a question all writers are asked all the time. In fact, if you’ve ever published anything – or even if you haven’t – I can more-or-less guarantee you’ve been asked this at minimum six times this year. I would even go so far as to argue this question is a primary reason somebody might decline to identify themselves as an author at a party with mixed company. The question is this:

Where do you get your ideas?

This question is totally understandable. All writers see where the questioner is coming from when they get this – obviously somebody who doesn’t spend their spare time coming up with weird little stories to entertain people might wonder how on Earth this process occurs. The problem is, though, that the answer to this question is too vastly complicated and esoteric to clearly relate. For instance, when I am asked this, I often feel like asking a series of follow-up questions:

Do you mean general ideas or specific ideas?

Do you want to know where the ideas originate spatially, mentally, or temporally in relation to one another?

Are you asking what my artistic influences are, or how I come up with ideas I term as original?

Also, what constitutes an “idea?” Like, what if the story originated with an idea I didn’t end up using? Do you want to hear about that?

Are you asking out of curiosity, or do you, yourself, wish to generate your own ideas and want tips as to how?

And I could go on. A lot of times, when asked this question, I shrug and say “a weird childhood,” even though that is not really true in many ways. Mostly I do this to see how seriously they want to know because, like, if you actually want to know, I can talk to you for hours and hours. And hours.

Like, you should probably get a beverage and comfortable chair.

For the purposes of this blog post, however, I’m going to skip past the original, general concept “idea” – the bolt of lighting, if you will, that strikes you and gets the wheels turning. Let’s just assume that happens by whatever eldritch psychic alchemy blesses all creative people and move on to what, for me, is the more interesting stage: Idea development.

What Do I Do With This Stuff?

GOBLINS!

It occurred to me recently that I really think goblins are cool and that I don’t read enough stories about their petty, vicious, mean-spirited little lives, brief though they are. This has begun to simmer on a back burner in my head. Let’s talk about next steps.

What kind of story will this be?

This is the first question I ask myself. What is the tone I want to evoke? Is my goblin story going to be funny, sad, mysterious, scary, angry – what? What, basically, will be the most fun for me.

How can my story create this mood or tone?

I begin to think about what my goblins will be like, in broad strokes – not so much individual characters, but things like culture and environment that would have shaped their behavior. If I’m trying to write a scary story, how can I combine the elements I want (scary and goblin protagonists) in a way that seems plausible, believable, and entertaining. This is where I stare to come to grips with the world itself. I start to map out big ideas – who has the power? Who doesn’t? Why is the world this way? How do the goblins fit into this world? Is this world evoking the proper mood or tone to fit the kind of story I want to tell? If not, how can I change it to do so?

Whose story is this?

This question and the next question sometimes swap positions with me, but a lot of times I get to character next. So, I’ve got this funny/scary/angry goblin world – who is my main character? How do they fit inside this world? What is the conflict they are seeking to resolve (i.e. what do they want?). If I have a boring main character, I don’t have a story, do I? My characters morph and change a lot before they actually appear on the page. It’s like forging something or maybe sculpting/whittling – I’ve got a raw hunk of material that needs to be honed and shaped into something useful and beautiful.

What happens in this story?

Next is plot (or sometimes plot is first). Just because I have a person living in this world doesn’t mean there’s a story yet. This is often a place where my ideas stall – okay, so I have a goblin character living in a goblins world doing their goblin thing but that’s not a story. Slice of life tales I find pretty boring, frankly. I want action. Honestly, silly as it is, I often find myself coming back to this meme:

Fake Leo Tolstory is kinda right, guys. I mess around with those three basic ideas and see if I can come up with something new and interesting.

Who is telling the story?

The last step I go through when developing an idea is this one: who is telling the story? Whose voice will best evoke the tone and mood I want? Is this going to be Third Person or First Person (please note that I cannot stand second person and won’t do it)? Will I have multiple POVs or just one? I can’t write anything until I know what the story is going to sound like in my head. My style is a bit fluid; I alter it to suit the tale. Perhaps this is a bad idea, but it’s one that makes writing fun and challenging and interesting for me.

Once that is in place – once I know whose story it is and what is going to happen and who is telling it and where it is set and what kind of mood I wish to evoke – the only thing that’s left is writing the damned thing.

The hard part, in other words.

 

Yes and Dragons: Gaming/Improv Podcast!

Yes AND I’ve got green fire, too!

Hello, friends!

I was recently interviewed for the podcast Yes and Dragons, which discusses how improv/improvisational theater and RPGs intersect. In the interview, I discuss how improv, gaming, and writing intersect quite a bit, and it was a really fun interview. Go and check it out and, if you liked it, check out the other episodes of the podcast, which will be releasing once a week going forward.

Oh, and there was something amiss with my microphone during the interview, so it sounds as though I’m talking inside an airplane hangar. Sorry.

Anyway, give it a listen! If you’re interested in any one of those three topics, I hope you will find it enlightening or otherwise useful.

Writing From a Place of Anger

I’ve been pissed off at the world lately. Each day brings a new outrage, a new soul-crushing horror, and while I wouldn’t say it’s directly harming my capacity to write, it is having an effect on how I want to write. Emotions – the writer’s emotions – transfer onto the page. They kind of have to, right? If we’re to be writing in a genuine voice, then some aspect of our emotional sphere is going to show up in what we write.

(grumble grumble)

Now, typically, I have written from a relatively calm emotional state. If I’m too upset, I can’t concentrate on the words. But the flares of anger of late have dulled into glowing hot coals that just simmer there, deep inside me. I should note that none of this anger is directed towards my friends or family or coworkers or students – this is a broader kind of rage, targeted at the political sphere more than anywhere else. Venting my rage, then, at the people around me could never be justified – they have done nothing and do not deserve it. Also, of course, venting into the Void (i.e. Twitter) is hardly cathartic and certainly not constructive.

The outlet remaining to me is my writing.

I am no fan of angry political screeds thinly veiled as fiction. I find those things generally tedious. But, of course, I am nevertheless tempted to vent my frustrations at the world in some kind of story, anyway. This story would be ugly and unkind, I have no doubt. It wouldn’t really be the kind of story I want to be a part of. But it’s still there, gnawing at the edge of my imagination. Write me, it growls, let me out.

I don’t, though. Because I’m not ready yet. Anger, you see, isn’t enough. You can’t write a story that’s nothing but anger and expect it to work. Not enough range for a novel, too crass for a screenplay, and too on the nose for a short. I need something else. I need the hope that tempers the anger, I need the calm rational voice to make the story more than just a primal scream of rage. I need the voice of civilization.

I’m still trying to find it. I guess that means I’m still too angry.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should just let loose.

Hmmm…

Obsessive Canonization: World Building Vs Wonder

I am 100% seeing this movie, though, if only for this scene alone.

Saw a tweet from Sam Sykes the other day which has been kicking around in my head ever since. I tried to find it to post, but I can’t seem to track it down, so you’ll just have to put up with a loose paraphrase. Essentially, Sykes, in response to the newest Star Wars movie, Solo, observed that he kinda preferred not knowing exactly what the Kessel Run was or what Han and Chewie got up to. He worries that this “obsessive canonization” cheats the audience out of their own imaginations, which are more evocative and powerful anyway.

The thing that stuck with me here is the simple fact that I love worldbuilding (and I get waaay too obsessive about it), but I also very much understand that worldbuilding does not create story and, in fact, it can potentially take away from story. I think Sykes has a really important point there – leaving spaces in your world building allows the reader to fill in blanks in potentially wonderful and exciting ways. As a writer, you shouldn’t even try to explain everything – you merely need to fill in enough so that the audience can do the rest.

Reading is a collaborative process. That sounds weird – reading is done alone and writing is done alone, so how is this possible? Well, the reader and the writer are still engaged in a kind of collaboration, just one that is separated by space and time. If you read a book of mine, you are getting my end of a story. You, however, as reader fill in many of the gaps in that story. And furthermore, you fill them in typically in a way that makes the story more interesting to you. The more I fill in for you, the less work you have to do (which can be good), but also it makes your imagination do less for you. Imagination is key, though – as a writer, you want your book to set the reader’s mind aflame with possibility and wonder. Too much detail can kill that magic.

Star Wars is a perfect example of this. Much of the magic of the original trilogy was rooted in the fact that it hinted at a much larger world, but didn’t bother to codify that world. You were left to wonder what Kessel was, why Tibanna gas was valuable, what the Old Republic was like, etc., etc.. For every mystery it revealed, it hinted at more mysteries. People sunk themselves into that world because they wanted to explore (and they could explore!).

I don’t know what I expected, but I expected the Clone Wars to be cooler than this. Which is kinda my point.

Think, then, of the let-down that the prequel trilogy was. We saw the old republic and fought the clone wars and they were, well, kinda lame. The Jedi were dull. Even Palpatine was a bit of a bummer. Anakin Skywalker? We didn’t even like the guy. The desire to reveal too much about the world – to canonize even more – was a killer. When you throw in the obsessive canonization contained within the EU, we quickly arrive at one of the major reasons The Last Jedi got such negative reactions from hardcore fans. They felt as though they already knew what could and should happen, and then the movie changed that. They felt as though they were dealing with an already explained world and that TLJ was breaking the rules. And, in a sense, they were right, except that the world they thought they knew was being rewritten, and so all the old stuff doesn’t apply anymore. This, incidentally, is good for the long term health of Star Wars, but it doesn’t seem that way to people who have gotten themselves invested in what is “canon” and what isn’t.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that every detail you nail down in a story is a detail you can’t change later very easily. The more you nail down, the less can change. The less that can change, the more stale the world becomes until, at last, it is rigid and boring and only appeals to those old hardcore fans (who are always the minority, anyway). As a writer, then, it becomes an important challenge to figure out how much to reveal to keep the story evocative and immersive and how much to leave blank so that the audience can build an even better world into their imagination.

 

Nebula Award Eligibility Post (and Writing Update)

Just re-posting this, as the Nebula deadline looms.
Additional writing update: Book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed has a complete draft in the hands of my agent and beta readers. It’s now just a matter of making final revisions before it is submitted!

Auston Habershaw

Hello, friends!

So, it’s Nebula Award season again. This year, I am eligible for my novelette “The Masochist’s Assistant” in the July/August issue of F&SF! If you’re in the SFWA and eligible to nominate works, I’d appreciate the nod – I’m very proud of the story, it got good reviews, and I’m told a copy of it is available to read on the SFWA forums (for members only). Go and check it out!

Additionally, the copy-edits of Book 3 in The Saga of the Redeemed, DEAD BUT ONCE, are done! Done! The book is off and set to release in March April. April is the release date, the 17th to be precise. You can pre-order a copy through this link. Go and check it out!

Well, that’s it for me, for now. I’ve got the fourth (and final) book of the series to finish, and so off…

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My Goonies Sequel

The most popular post on this blog, by far, is this little bit of Goonies fan fiction I wrote a few years back. In it, I describe a loosely plausible explanation for One Eyed Willie’s pirate ship winding up in Astoria, Oregon and imagine it as having been written by a grown up Mikey, who is now a history professor at Portland State University.

This thing has been viewed thousands of times and a day doesn’t pass where it doesn’t get 10-20 hits.

So, just on the off-chance somebody in Hollywood is reading this here blog (Hi! Check out my action-packed swashbuckling fantasy novels!), I figure it can’t hurt to whip up a quick, very rough treatment for a hypothetical Goonies sequel (it’s just a sketch, really). This is the age of 80s nostalgia, right? May as well see if I can cash in. So:

 

Open on a prison, present day. The guards come to a cell to escort the occupant out–it’s the day of his release. It’s Francis Fratelli, who managed to plea-bargain his way out of the death penalty by ratting out his mother and brother. His cell is a lunatic’s collage of newspaper clippings, history books, and computer printouts. Prominent in the center: a picture of Michael Walsh, PhD.

Michael is a single father raising an only daughter, Sarah. He lectures at the university and does his best to keep Sarah out of trouble, but Sarah is the definition of trouble. She is relentlessly curious, endlessly stubborn, and usually unsupervised. She finds her dad incredibly boring – there is literally nothing on this Earth more boring than history. “It’s all dead people and pointless places, Dad. It has literally no bearing on anyone’s life.”

Sarah is going to be a scientist. She is a chemistry whiz. This is how we meet her – she’s devised a stinkbomb that renders the entire teacher’s lounge at her Junior High school uninhabitable. Mikey has to pick her up from school and finds hazmat trucks out front. The principal implies she may be charged with  some “light terrorism.”

Father and daughter fight on the way home. “You have so much potential,” he says. “And you’re wasting it.” She’s sent to her room without supper (“how 1984, dad – you’re such a nazi.”), and she promptly sneaks out. A dark and stormy night. Sarah meets up with her super-nerd friends, Milo and Kwan – they are entering their battlebot in a local battlebot arena against some super-geeks from the engineering department of the university. They lose, big time.

Back and the house, Mikey is alone. He’s going through a scrapbook, looking through old photos. We see some familiar faces from the first movie. Lightning flashes, the lights go out. The door bangs open. “Who’s there?”

A flashlight lights underneath Francis’s face. “What? No pictures of me?”

Sarah and the boys come home to find her father missing. Also missing: a bunch of stuff from his old trunk, the one he had from grandma’s house (we see Willie’s treasure map, news clippings from the events of the first movie, a book by her father about the treasure).

The cops are called. They want to take her to Uncle Brandt’s house. She has other ideas.

Sarah eludes the cops with the help of Milo and Kwan and head over to “Chunk’s Auto Mart.” That’s right: Uncle Chunk owns a car dealership outside of Portland. Clark (Mouth) is one of his salesmen. The kids explain what has happened. Sarah shows them the book: Her dad always insisted that, given the amount of treasure found aboard Willie’s ship, a significant portion of it had to have been moved off the ship at some point, as Willie’s own log indicates they should have had several tons more booty aboard. In other words: there’s more treasure, and Sarah thinks Francis Fratelli has kidnapped her dad to make him find it for him. She needs help to go after him. Well, more specifically, they need a car.

Chunk doesn’t give them a car. He offers to drive. Mouth agrees to come, too. Off they go.

But to where? Cut to Francis and Mikey on a dysfunctional road trip. They’re heading south, into California. Francis tells him how he blames “you kids” for the death of his family and the loss of his whole entire life, and how he thinks Mikey owes him. We learn that Mikey theorized the extra treasure was probably transported overland by sailors who abandoned Willie and tried to make their way south to Spanish California. Mikey never figured out where, though. Francis: “A billion dollars on gold bullion don’t just vanish, Mikey!” He waves a weather-beaten, oft-folded map of California at him with a big red circle around a settlement near San Deigo. A church – a huge mission, built by some “random Spaniards” a few years after Willie’s ship was entombed.

Sarah doesn’t know where they’re going, though. She reads her dad’s book in the back seat as they drive south. She starts to learn a lot more about his adventures as a kid from Chunk and Mouth. Chunk’s car breaks down at a gas station somewhere in California. While Mouth and Chunk argue and the nerds fix the car, Sarah sees a library across the street. She goes in. If she wants to find her dad, she needs to think like her dad. She figures out where her dad is being taken by going through some old land record books in the library.

Francis and Mikey arrive at the mission. It’s a museum now; they’re on a tour. Francis has a sledgehammer over one shoulder. No sign of any treasure, but when they reach the basement, they hang back. Francis goes to a water bubbler. “Remember this trick?” He smashes it with the bat, follows where the water drains. Sure enough, they find the lowest spot–at the back of the cellar. Behind a dusty old bookshelf, there’s an “X” carved into the wall. “Start digging, college boy.” Francis slaps the sledgehammer in Mikey’s hands.

The kids, Mouth, and Chunk arrive at the mission at dusk. Mouth and Chunk want to call the police, send them into the mission, and that’s it. Sarah says no way. “Walsh’s solve their own problems. I’m going in there to get out my dad – he’d go in there for you.” The nerds break out headlamps and their drone gear. Sarah has a few bottles of various chemical mixtures. They go into the mission. Reluctantly, Chunk and Mouth follow (Chunk: We’re seriously going to do this again? Mouth: Let’s just hope we don’t find Mikey dead in a fridge again, okay?).

The kids find the tunnel at the back of the cellar. It leads to the bottom of the mission well – more coins, but this time no wishes. Beyond is a deep pit, a waterfall dropping into an abyss. The nerds fly the drone down, headlights on – they find a hidden staircase. Chunk almost falls. Milo is scared of the dark. Sarah presses on.

At the bottom is a labyrinth of tunnels. No tracks, no way to know where they might have gone. Despair. But then Sarah notices a mark made in the wall – chalk from her dad’s coat pocket! It’s the chemical symbol for a compound Sarah knows. She figures out that the atomic numbers of each element are the turns they need to take. Her dad is talking to her with science! They race through the labyrinth, headlights bobbing.

Meanwhile, Mikey and Francis have reached the final challenge. A series of stone levers to be shifted around a table, each with a number on the top. Shift the stones into the right pattern and you can pass. Shift them into the wrong one, and you die. On the wall is a number – the solution. Mikey doesn’t know how to solve the puzzle. Neither does Francis. “Math! Fucking MATH?”

“They were engineers,” Mikey says. “What do you expect?”

A drone flies into the room. Francis shoots it. Then he gets an idea.

The kids and Mouth/Chunk are coming around a corner when they see Francis holding Mikey at gunpoint. “Hello, braniacs. Do exactly as I say, or the fat nerd gets it!”

Mouth mouths off. Francis shoots him in the leg, “You think I’m fucking around, here? You think this is some kiddie games? Do as I say, or I will kill every last one of you!”

In the puzzle room. Chunk is freaking out, babbling about how Francis has been in his nightmares. The nerds are hugging each other. Mouth is swearing as he hugs his wounded leg. Mikey is telling Sarah to get out of there – to call the cops, to run for safety. He’s angry that she came after him.

Sarah and Mikey fight. It all comes pouring out. How she felt abandoned after mom died. How he was never there for her except to punish her. How it seemed he never seemed to know her or care to. “But none of that’s true!” Mikey said. “It’s not true! You’re just like me. Just like me.”

Sarah nods, crying. “I get that now.”

Francis, pissed, orders her to start work on the trap. Sarah starts work with the nerds. They shoulder her out of the way–they’re the math nerds, anyway. Milo screws up, though–the chamber begins to flood, the exit is blocked. Kwan takes a shot next–fails. The ceiling begins to descend.

Mikey and Francis struggle with the gun. It goes flying. Chunk tries to find the gun in the rising water.

Sarah pushes the nerds out of the way. She moves the levers in a different direction. Success! Or so she assumes.

The floor falls away. Everybody drops into darkness. They land in a vast underground cistern. There is a dock here, and pieces of an old ship. On the shore are rows of big, heavy chests. Whooping in victory, Francis swims to his prize. Everybody else is busy trying to save Mouth, trying to get out of the water.

Francis knocks open the chests, one by one. Empty. Empty. Empty. Empty. “What? No! NO!”

Everybody else gets to shore. Mikey sees old writing on the wall–Spanish. “It’s another clue!” Francis screams.

Mouth reads it. “You who seek our treasure, know that you are too late. Gold belongs not in the ground, but in the hands of those around you.”

“The mission!” Sarah smiles. “They used it to build the mission! To sink this huge well! To help people!”

But we aren’t out of it yet. Francis is beyond angry – he’s irrational. The past 30 years of his life, wasted. And all because of some stupid smart-ass kid! If he can’t have money, he’ll settle for revenge. He pulls a knife and comes after Mikey. They struggle. In the commotion, the dock breaks loose from its moorings. The current in the cistern is pulling them away from shore. Sarah leaps after her dad. The three of them swirl into the dark, beneath stalactites and past whirlpools.

Francis gets a hold of Sarah, puts a knife to her throat. “Last thing I want you to see, Walsh – you killed my family, I kill yours!”

Sarah reaches to her belt and throws a bag of something in Frances’s face. He screams. Mikey pushes him off the side. Down he goes, howling. He’s gone.

The dock emerges from underground. They are in a stream, running through the old center of town. Everything Willie’s men built – a community. “I take it back,” Sarah says. “History isn’t boring.”

“What was in that bag?” he asks.

“Itching powder.” Sarah says with a laugh.

“I take it back,” Mikey answers. “You haven’t wasted anything.”

The police are on the shore, helping them out. Francis is also dragged from the river, headed back to jail. Their friends find their way out on the river, too. All is well, lesson learned.

They go home.