Monday, September 16, 2019

Tower of the Bear, Heart of Winter, and Eden



Fenton Wood’s Yankee Republic series returns in Tower of the Bear, sending radio engineer Philo Hergenschmidt into the depths of the sea, across the amber waves of grain, and into legends half-remembered to search for the secrets of an impossible metal alloy.
Tower of the Bear continues to create a world where all the legends and tall tales of Philo’s boyhood are not only true, but even stranger than he previously imagined. Science fiction typically pays lip service to the much-vaunted sense of wonder, but Philo breathes it in with every page, whether racing Russians to the bottom of the Arctic Sea with Captain Nemo, delving the secrets of a Library of Everything, or following in an exiled tyrant’s footsteps into the Indian Nations of the West. Yet Philo–and the whole of the Yankee Republic series–deftly navigates the opposing demands of wonder and practicality, and his hard-won radio skills only add to the grandeur of the legends he walks among in an America that never was–but should have been.

In Nick Horth’s novella, Heart of Winter, aelven corsair Arika Zenthe’s unsuccessful bid to kill her pirate king father places her as his pawn instead. Now she must find the Heart of Winter, an ancient magical artifact with the power to destroy cities, before the poison in her veins kills her, knowing full well that if she succeeds, her father will sacrifice her to extend his life by centuries.
Heart of Winter is a Warhammer novella set in the Age of Sigmar campaign. Like most media tie-in fiction, it is a serviceable example of its genre, in this case, a rogue’s form of heroic fantasy. It also means that the stories cannot rock the boat of the greater setting, which denies Arika of the permanent and satisfying end of a final confrontation with her father. However, what sets Heart of Winter ahead of its pack of ten Warhammer novellas is the imaginative beginning where a fleet of pirates attempt to storm the pirate king’s flagship. This terror of the seas is built on, around, and in the sides of a leviathan, and the action does not shy away from using the organic setting of the monster’s hide, mouth, and viscera without resorting to gore porn.

Vaughn Heppner’s Eden closes out the first trilogy of the Lost Civilizations series with holy warrior Joash trying to escape from Nephilim captivity. But the crafty sons of fallen angels trick him instead into helping him find the last relic from Heaven on Earth, believed to be the only way the giants can defeat the angel guarding Eden. Meanwhile, the Elonite armies, led by the Seraph Lord Uriah, pursue the Nephilim in a desperate attempt to keep the brutal giants from eating from the Tree of Life and proclaiming themselves as gods over the Earth.
Not every test a hero faces is one of strength or arms. Here, Joash’s wits, endurance, and will are tested, first by the Nephilim captors, and then again by the purifying aura of Heaven radiated by the relic. Even though the clashes of wits and philosophy between Joash and the might makes right beliefs of the Nephilim occasionally–and uncharacteristically–grow tin-eared, Joash’s feats of endurance rival those found in classic sword and sorcery. Heppner never undermines the verisimilitude of the pre-Flood era with modern detatchment or judgements. But strength of arms is not neglected either. The Elonites and the Nephilim clash in a battle worthy of song. And throughout all is woven the legend of the zealous Elonite Lod, dread foe to the sons of the fallen angels. For the fight for Eden is but one cataclysm that might befall the pre-Flood world, and Lod marches to prevent the next.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Leviathan

After their harrowing escape from the giants and First Born of Jotunheim, Joash and the Elonite warriors wait off-shore for a message from the wandering Lod, whose visions may hold the key to understanding the sudden moves of the Nephilim and their children. But the First Born are still hunting for the Elonites with all their servants. Now Joash must evade the roving patrols of giant pterodactyls, vampiric Gibborim, and even fleets of pirates as the Lord of the Elonites waits for a message that may never come. And then the giants rouse a legendary sea serpent to pursue the Elonites on sea…
While Leviathan might be the second in the now eight book Lost Civilizations series, it is the middle book of a trilogy featuring Joash’s adventures as a Seraph, a holy warrior for Elohim, and the mood follows the classic form of the trilogy. Leviathan is darker, moodier, and more perilous than its predecessor, Giants . Not only do the nets of the brutal Nephilim tighten around the Elonites, but the plans of the First Born are also laid bare. The children of the Fallen Ones aim to challenge even the angels to rule the world forever. Even as hope dies, mighty deeds still await for the Elonites, with Joash’s hunt of a giant pterodactyl a highlight in this more somber book. For faith in Elohim is not a passive one, and Joash and his Seraphs are called to fight evil, not endure it.
Also of interest are the first steps towards the impending clash of zealous Lod and vicious Red Cain. At this early stage, it seems to be a confrontation between Solomon Kane and Conan.
Leviathan serves as an excellent example of heroic fantasy and religious-milieu fiction. It is ironic that independent publishing, not traditional, has freed writers from word bloat, and heroic fantasy thrives in shorter novels compared to the doorstoppers of epic fantasy. The Lost Civilizations series focuses on the moment, revealing only the backstory and worldbuilding needed by its characters at this time and hinting at deeper lore. The perils and mighty deeds of heroic fantasy are more important to holding the reader’s attention, and the majority of the pages are spent on these. That focus also steers Leviathan away from the twin shoals of Biblical and religious fiction–preaching and passivity. Yes, the Elonites are men and women of faith, but the surrender and wait for God’s will stories of 90s Christian genre fiction are nowhere to be found. In the best traditions of heroic fantasy and its pulp forebears, Joash and the Elonites are decisive, eager to marry word and deed, and willing to endure the consequences of those decisions, even if it means chasing demon-spawn to the gates of Eden itself.
I eagerly look forward to reading Eden, the conclusion of this trilogy.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

GIANTS

“In this life, victory does not always go to the righteous. It rains on the wicked and on the good. In fact, evil is strong, for many hands work against Elohim. The rebellion begun in the Celestial Realm is now carried out on Earth.”— Giants, by Vaughn Heppner

A pre-Flood slave escapes his brutish Nephilim master by climbing down a cliff full of angry pterodactyls, only to be rescued by a warrior for Elohim. And that’s just the first chapter of Vaughn Heppner’s Giants, the first of the Lost Civilizations series. Drawing inspiration from Biblical and extra-Biblical stories of prehistory, Giants soon thrusts Joash, the aforementioned former slave, into the mortal struggle between men and the wicked sons of the fallen angels, the Nephilim. Or better known as giants.
Although Joash finds a home as a servant of the Elohim warriors, what scant freedom humanity enjoys from being the giants’ playthings depends on the spears and chariots of Elohim. And the best horses run wild on the plains of Jotunheim, far to the north of Elohim lands. Joash accompanies an expedition rounding up wild horses in the land of the giants, stalked by an unseen presence that seemingly directs sabertooth ambushes against the Elohim camps. While tooth and claw winnows away the ranks of the Elohim warriors, Joash comes face to face with Mimir the Wise, the most cunning of the Nephilim. And after that, a life-changing choice.
“Elohim lifts His own champions. He or she can be anyone: a singer, a patriarch, a warrior or even a groom. But no one is forced into the contest. Elohim’s choice must be accepted. A free will is needed for that.”
Prehistory has long been a popular setting for heroic fantasy, but few settings come with as much baggage as the Pre-Flood setting. More often than not, the action is yoked to proselytizing and apologetics, both for and against Judaism and Christianity. Giants is blessedly free of these distractions, using the broad outlines of Lucifer’s rebellion to fuel an epic clash of fallible and mortal good against brutal and uncaring evil. Broad strokes of Norse, Greek, and even Lost World elements round out the setting, which is drenched with mystery and hints of unexplored worlds. But what really matters to Giants‘ story is the action of the moment.
Like other independent fantasy tales, Giants offers a “good parts” version compared to recent entries in the traditional field. Survival in the wilds of prehistory is difficult enough without the threat of Nephilim attacks. The demands of scouting, sentry duty, and enduring the elements weigh heavily on Joash’s shoulders, with little time for indulging in the lavish histories and worldbuilding that fill epic history. Except when said history may offer a key to Joash and his companions immediate survival. This allows more time to be spent developing the suspense that heightens every ambush, chase, and standoff. The action is quick, imaginative, and dripping with verisimilitude. One particular action scene, where men, sabertooth tigers, and giants clash in the ocean’s waves was so engrossing that it was almost disappointing to turn the page and read “The End.”
Fortunately, there are now seven sequels to quench that particular thirst.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Radio Wednesday - Dragnet: "The Werewolf"



 "Dragnet, the documented drama of an actual crime, investigated and solved by the men who unrelentingly stand watch on the security of your home, your family and your life. For the next thirty minutes, transcribed in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department, you will travel step-by-step on the side of the law through an actual case from official police files. From beginning to end—from crime to punishment—Dragnet is the story of your police force in action."

Found while investigating a pulp by the same name.


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Elements of a Good Comic Script, by Stan Lee

In 1947, Stan Lee, then editor of Timely Comics, which would later be rebranded into Atlas, then Marvel, wrote in Writer's Digest that "There's Money in Comics!", explaining how a writer could adapt to the comics medium. As a result, Lee also explains many concepts of selling writing that are universal to all media before applying them specifically to the visual medium of comics.

Many a pulp writer made the transition.

After the comic legend's death, Writer's Digest hosted his article on their website, complete with script and artwork.

Here is another excerpt, dealing with the five elements of a good comic script.
But there’s more to comic strip writing than just knowing on which side of a page to type artist’s instructions. Let’s try to analyze some of the factors which go into the making of a good script: 
1. Interesting Beginning. 
Just as in a story, the comic strip must catch the reader’s interest from the first. The very first few panels should show the reader that something of interest is happening, or is about to happen. 
2. Smooth Continuity. 
The action from panel to panel must be natural and unforced. If a character is walking on the street talking to another character in one panel, we wouldn’t show him horse-back riding in the next panel with a different character. 
There ARE times when it is necessary to have a sudden change of scene or time, however, and for such times the writer uses captions. For example, if we have Patsy Walker lying in bed, about to fall asleep in one panel, and want to show her eating breakfast in the next panel, the second panel would have an accompanying caption reading something like this: “The next morning, after a sound night’s sleep, Patsy rushes to the kitchen to do justice to hearty breakfast.” 
Thus, by the use of captions, we are able to justify time and space lapses in our panels. 
3. Good Dialogue. 
This is of prime importance. The era of Captain America hitting Red Skull and shouting “So you want to play, eh?” is over! Today, with the comic magazine business being one of the most highly competitive fields, each editor tries to get the best and snappiest dialogue possible for his characters. In writing a comic strip, have your characters speak like real people, not the inhabitants of a strange and baffling new world 
4. Suspense Throughout. 
Whether you are writing a mystery script or a humorous script, the same rule applies: Keep it interesting throughout. Any comic strip in which the reader isn’t particularly interested in what happens in the panel following the one he’s reading, isn’t a good comic strip. 
All of the tricks you have learned and applied in writing other forms of fiction can be used in comic writing insofar as holding the reader’s attention is concerned. But remember, giving the reader well-drawn pictures to look at is not enough; the reader must WANT to look at the pictures because he is interested in following the adventures of the lead character. 
5. A Satisfactory Ending. 
An ending which leaves the reader with a smile on his lips and a pleasant feeling that all the loose strings of the story have been neatly tied together can cover a multitude of sins. It has always been my own conviction that a strip with an interesting beginning, good dialogue, and a satisfactory ending can’t be TOO bad, no matter how many other faults it may have.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

A Thousand Li: The First Stop

For those unfamiliar with the terms and conventions of xianxia cultivation fantasy, this copy of the Immortal Mountain's guide to the terminology might help.

Fresh on the heels of his acceptance into the inner circle of the Verdant Green Waters chi cultivation sect, Long Wu Ying returns in Tao Wong's A Thousand Li: The First Stop. Wu Ying quickly learns that while greater status can open more doors to knowledge and enlightenment, greater responsibilities are also demanded of him. As he takes the first steps to discovering his unique Way, Wu Ying struggles to find the right balance between his studies and the missions that grant him the contribution points needed to pay for his stories. However, outside the idyllic sanctuary of the Verdant Green Waters sect, war drums are beating, and the sect Elders lead Wu Ying and his friends on a desperate gamble needed to prepare for upcoming battles.

In The First Stop, Wu Ying switches from the well-defined goal of proving himself better than the nobles bullying him to the more open-ended trial-and-error of finding his life's Path. Each member of the sect has an occupation that both develops his or her Way and supports the sect materially. And, as Tao Wong wryly points out, every occupation feels the need to add 'spirit' in front of its name to make it more prestigious. For the first time in Wu Ying's life, he is judged solely on his merits as he diligently navigates his wandering way, by commoner and noble cultivator alike, although it takes months and quiet correction before he realizes that the nobles in the sect aren't judging him.

Of course, the nobles this round are easier to get along with--and easier on the eyes, as Wu Ying's kindly and refined medicine compounding tutor Liu Tsong and his spirited martial arts partner Li Yao both prove. Both women are merely setting out subtle hints at this stage, and if Wu Ying has yet to notice, he can be forgiven as progression along the Way requires studious diligence. It's admirable to see such a slow burn. Most xianxia stories embrace wholeheartedly the wish-fulfillment aspects of the story. Another protagonist in Wu Ying's footsteps would already be tilting his lance towards the sect's top beauty, the ethereal "Fairy" Yang Fa Yuan.

That restraint is evident throughout this second book. A Thousand Li is not a Chosen One fantasy, so Wu Ying does not need to be a wunderkind. In The First Stop, Wu Ying's chi cultivation progression is slowed down, and the admirable tendency to ground the abstract into the tangible permeates more than just chi cultivation magic. Whether martial arts strikes, blacksmith hammer blows, the turning of compost heaps, or identifying medicinal and poisonous plants, there are tangible descriptions and a sense of effort to each act. One of xianxia's genre weaknesses is that many of its authors treat items and actions as though they were selected via a Final Fantasy RPG menu. Tao Wong brings these abstract and throwaway ideas fully into the world for his characters to sense instead of just consume. This grounds the abstract and increasingly gamified Taoist concepts into understandable concrete actions. Leveling up isn't the abstract collection of experience or mana/chi, it is the forcible cleaning of clogged chi meridians--often accompanied by a moral, perceptual, or physical breakthrough as well. This rare appeal to verisimilitude makes the A Thousand Li series an excellent introduction to cultivation fantasy, especially those who may be drawn in by the "Hogwarts meets The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" settings of many a xianxia fantasy.

While mostly an idyllic exploration of Wu Ying's Path, The First Stop harbors an underlying foreboding as events outside the sect's cultivation sanctuary are escalating, both in the natural and in the supernatural. While the Verdant Green Waters sect makes desperate and costly gambles to keep with the cultivation and enlightenment arms race, it won't be until the upcoming The First Battle to see if these preparations will be enough. Whatever may happen, it is certain that Wu Ying, Li Yao, and the rest of their friends will be on the front lines of the upcoming war.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair

"We solved every case we worked on. It's just that the solutions weren't always pretty. An explosion here, an inferno there, and in the end, we're left with a mountain of corpses, and, incidentally, a solution."--Kei, "The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair"

*****

When science fiction writer A. Bertram Chandler visited Japan in the late 1970s, he had no idea that a stray comment would spark a multimedia science fiction franchise. When his hosts, including Haruka Takachiho of Crusher Joe fame, took Chandler to see a joshi (women's) wrestling match, the antics of Takachiho's assistants prompted Chandler to say, ""the two women in the ring may be the Beauty Pair, but those two with you ought to be called 'the Dirty Pair'." That stray comment sparked a novella that mixed Western pulp science fiction, Japanese joshi wrestling and idol singing, and a double-helping of chaos into what would be a classic raygun romance--if the Dirty Pair's infamy didn't keep scaring off potential suitors.

The Lovely Angels (don't ever call them the Dirty Pair to their faces) is the code name for a pair of young trouble consultants. Kei, the narrator for the stories, is a brash, boastful, and lively hothead lifted from the covers of the pulps. Her partner, Yuri, is a demure Japanese beauty that acts as the brake to Kei's recklessness--and the occasional focus of Kei's jealousy as well. Together, Kei and Yuri form a set of complementary opposites--and a psionic duo straight out of John W. Campbell's dreams. The resulting property damage, however, is straight out of a nightmare. In the best tradition of wrestling heels, the ensuing chaos is never quite their fault.

Like many Japanese stories, The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair wears its inspirations on its sleeve. From wrestling, the series gets the outfits, names such as Lucha and the WWWA ( World Welfare Works Association/World Women's Wrestling Association), Kei and Yuri's larger than life personalities, and their heelish yet sincere protests that the disasters in their wake are never their fault. The names Kei and Yuri are taken from the same assistants who entertained Chandler. From American science fiction pulps, the Dirty Pair steal liberally. Rayguns, heatguns, flying saucers, and Campbelline psionics feature prominently in the stories. Kei's hair and build is classic pulp cover-girl, while the interior art is a mix of 1940s Weird Tales and manga. Their adventures are the sort of trigger happy-detective story that filled the hero pulps. And, yes, that is a coeurl Kei and Yuri are riding on the cover, complete with the nickname "Black Destroyer"--and the ensuing special diet and property damage. The result is a strange East-meets-West version of Northwest Smith, if Northwest Smith and Yarol were replaced by sorority girls.

While the two novellas in The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair are standard and futuristic versions of crime tales, complete with the requisite twists and betrayals, Kei's narrative voice is the star of the show. Her larger-than-life exuberance practically drips from each word, even after translation into English. Some of this is due to Kei's constant wrestling-style self-promotion, but Dark Horse did a masterful job in translation. Few English-language science fiction stories--and almost no light novels translated since--have such a vivid, unrestrained, and selfish voice animating their words, much less one trying to style herself as a heartbreaker and a lifetaker to potential partners and rivals alike.

At the end, when the villains are arrested, all the worlds are wrecked, and the refugees resettled, the Dirty Pair novel always preserves its.pulpy sincerity, complete with the foreboding that the Lovely Angels will soon visit a new world.