Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Alternatives to Avatar: the Last Airbender

With Netflix's recent streaming of Avatar: The Last Airbender kicking off yet another fandom scrum, a group of online mutuals and I put together a list of books, films, and shows that scratch that same chinoiserie itch.

Granted, indie readers know that the lists are flooded with xianxia and wuxia translations and East meets West inspired adaptations. Not to mention that, since the Matrix, Hollywood has been kung-fu fighting in a classic Hong Kong style. So this chart is but an introduction to the wild realms of Chinas that never were, but possibly should be.

And for those looking for deeper cuts beyond the list, the classics Journey to the West and The Water Margin are a must. Gamers should check out the Dynasty Warriors series, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the Suikoden series. And movie buffs should also check out All Men are Brothers and Martial Arts of Shaolin. Although any Venom Mob movie will suffice. Those looking for East and West mashups should consider Dakota Krout's Divine Dungeon and Artorian's Archives series as well as M. H. Johnson's Silver Fox and Western Hero novels.

Aang's martial arts style begs for a mention of 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, however the humor and some of the action does not translate well to Western audiences. Film buffs searching for a Shaolin/Air Tribe should start instead with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, with its unrivaled training montage.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Short Story Club: Mortu and Kyrus

This week, Alexandru Constantin sent out the call for a new review circle:
One of my goals here at The Dacian is to foster an environment rich in community and discussion, a network of readers and writers that share that can discuss novels, short stories, movies, and art across multiple platforms.
The Short Story Book Club is simple, every two weeks or so I will pick a short story for us to read and discuss across our blogs and social media. The idea is to foster conversation and promote the sort of work I find aesthetically and intellectually interesting. My hope is twofold, first I want to create a sort of intellectual back and forth that elevates the critical discussion around the work in order to build a critical framework for analyzing pieces from a counter-cultural conservative perspective. Second, by building a body of critique and discussion I hope to bring attention to both the work itself and to the larger community that for the most part lies outside the mainstream.
The first story is an old favorite that deserves more recognition:
The first story I want to read and discuss is Schuyler Hernstrom’s Mortu and Kyrus in the White City from his brand new collection The Eye of Sounnu.
Hernstrom’s writing is the fantasy version of an underground death metal LP that you can only pick up at an invite-only exclusive show held in some cave in the middle of dark wood. Every story in his new collection is unbeatable but Mortu and Kyrus, while not my top favorite, is not only a fantastic ass-kicker but a direct assault on the moral degeneracy of mainstream science fiction and fantasy.
In the spirit of the discussion, I am reposting my initial review a beloved modern sword & sorcery classic.

* * * * *

“Come then, try my steel and I will send you to hell where you belong. The gods of my people look down upon those that prey on the weak. There is no honor in it. There is no honor in you. I will enjoy killing you.”–Mortu

* * * * *

In Mortu and Kyrus in the White City, Schuyler Hernstrom returns to sword and sorcery, blending Dying Earth, Mad Max, and even a little Shaw Briothers kung fu into a future Earth recovering from the heavy hand of an alien overlord. The namesakes Mortu and Kyrus, a pagan motorcycle barbarian from the North and a Christian monk from Zantyum respectively, are on a quest to break the sorcerer’s spell that chains Kyrus into the form of a monkey. On the long road, they find a caravan attacked by nomads and a wayward Christian knight. Mortu and Kyrus intervene with a few sharp strokes of Mortu’s axe, and in gratitude, the caravan invites the duo to their White City. Within moments of their arrival, Mortu and Kyrus are swept up in the dark secrets beneath the foundations of the City.

Following in the well-worn path of sword-and-sorcery duos inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Mortu and Kyrus split the questing responsibilities in the traditional way. When presented with a mystery, Kyrus, as befitting a trickster or a thief, discovers why the mystery happens, while dour Mortu is called in to make sure the mystery ends. But Mortu is more in the mold of Conan than Fafhrd, a barbarian suspicious of civilization, not infatuated with it. Kyrus is a blend of Eastern and Western monk archtypes, a true believer, but a wandering monk nonetheless, full of the trickery and misfortune that such monks herald. Laudably, Hernstrom does not take the easy route and make Kyrus a hypocrite.

But then Hernstrom refuses the easy path throughout Mortu and Kyrus. None of the Christian characters are treated as hypocrites and monsters, a rarity in a genre that has long been hostile to Christianity (as E. Hoffman Price’s The Book of the Dead reveals). He treats the Cross as a civilizing force and a general good, although one Mortu still remains skeptical if it is an absolute good. While this is the first adventure available to readers, this is not an origin story. Mortu and Kyrus’s relationship is presented as established, and we are not forced to follow detailed stories of how Mortu and Kyrus met, how Kyrus got turned into a monkey, or of Mortu’s earlier life as a solo adventurer. At best, we see quick mentions, no more than needed in the course of brief conversation. The departure from current fashion is refreshing, and it hints at a greater world beyond the White City. Hernstrom deftly balances the mysteries of his wider world with the immediacy of sword and sorcery action. He accomplishes more worldbuilding with a few scraps of description than most writers accomplish with paragraphs of exposition. The effect is reminiscent of Vance’s The Last Castle, where entire swaths of human history are revealed in snatches of description and custom.

If Mortu and Kyrus seems a bit more predictable than Hernstrom’s previous works, it is because he has stepped up to the Great Conversation, “the ongoing process of writers and thinkers referencing, building on, and refining the work of their predecessors.” Here, readers can see the outlines of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, a particularly notable short work dealing with the dilemma of a hedonistic Eden fueled by the suffering of one innocent. The ones who cannot accept that their paradise requires the intentional suffering and neglect of a child walk away from the city, unwilling to benefit from his suffering, but unwilling to rescue the child. Omelas has been a popular parable in science fiction, revisited time and again, and by such notable shows as Doctor Who. At best, the protagonists rescue the child, but leave the society intact. Few, if any, render judgement against the people who benefited from the abuse of the child, nor prevent that society from finding a new child to torment for their pleasures. Mortu settles the Omelas dilemma with an older, more satisfying approach:
“You may talk of cities and justice all you wish. Tonight, the pagan wins. My anger will be sated and these wicked people brought to ruin.”
It is the approach of the hero, the pagan barbarian, and the Christian knight, illustrated in blood and adrenaline. One where actions matter more than intentions, and honor has meaning.

Fortunately, Mortu and Kyrus in the White City promises to be the first of many adventures for the barbarian biker and the monkey monk. Whether Hernstrom sets out to gore more sacred cows or just let Mortu gore more villains, I eagerly await the next.

* * * * *

So that was back in 2018. What about now?

Time has not dulled my love for this series, nor my wait for more adventures. Mortu's rage still provides eminently quotable lines that still run true. And others have spoken to better effect about Omelas and the moral aspects of Mortu and Kyrus.

Instead, let us turn to a different aspect of Hernstrom's writing.

Alexandru Constantin has complained before that much of today's writing style is too thin to support the heft of many story's themes, ideas, and action. Until recently, I had yet to see that. Until "The Battlefield of Kerres" by Jim Breyfogle. The adventures of Mongoose and Meerkat are somewhat undermined by today's contemporary classic style, although later stories are growing into something stylistic that matches the stories. Other authors have had the same problem, including a good many taught by the community around the Life, the Universe, and Everything writers' convention. There are good lessons for craft from those circles, but the style taught there is plain, transparent, and so thin that the outline blocks and concepts can be seen like a skeleton beneath the prose.

Sky Hernstrom instead uses a deliberate style to give Mortu and Kyrus an otherworldly almost dreamlike tone that carries the moral dilemma and axe and sorcery forward to its conclusion. Mortu's dialogue is quotable, not because it is clever or whimsical, as too many writers try for, because it is heroic, with care to the best phrasing possible. I will leave it to others more skilled in English to dissect the Hernstrom style, but read a long section of Mortu and Kyrus, The Gift of the Ob-Men, or The Law of the Wolves out loud. You will hear the difference and how a heroic style gives heroic deeds more impact.

I remain in awe of Hernstrom's ability to imply entire civilizations worth of history in only a couple sentences. If there is one regret to the past couple years since Mortu and Kyrus was originally published, it is that the original cover is no longer used for the story. But the increased reach offered to Hernstrom by DMR Books is worth that sacrifice.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Call of Adventure

Just a short snipper today, a quote from Adventure Magazine's earliest days which sums up much about the pulp age:

The first issue of Adventure contained 19 stories on 188 pages, but prior to the first story was a message on pages [iii] and [iv]. It is signed The Ridgway Company but may have been written by White or perhaps even by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, the man who would become his successor; it provides the editorial philosophy of the new magazine:
Have you ever noticed how the recital of an adventure always finds ready audience? 
The witness of an accident never wants for listeners, and if peculiar and mysterious circumstances surround the accident, the interest is all the keener. The man with a story of some stirring adventure always gets the floor. Men will stop the most important discussion to listen, women will forget to rock the cradle, boys and girls will neglect any sport or game. 
Try it some time and see how it grips all kinds, all ages. 
And the reason is that none of us ever really grows up. We are always boys and girls, a little older in years, but the same nature—alert to the new, questioning, investigating, growing, living; stirred by martial music; thrilled by the sight of the fire-horses dashing madly down the street; lured by tales of subtle intrigue and splendid daring. 
It will be a sad day for this old world if men and women ever lose this capacity to be gripped by tales of heroism. The man whose heart leaps for joy at sight of a heroic deed is the man who will act the hero when his turn comes. 
No, the love of adventure will never be lost out of life. It is a fundamental of human nature, just as sentiment is a fundamental, and it is almost as moving. So we reasoned that a magazine edited for this universal hunger of human nature for adventure ought to have a wide appreciation and appeal, and we decided to publish such a magazine and call it ADVENTURE. 
It is published in the hope and belief that hundreds of thousands of men and women will be glad to have a magazine wherein they can satisfy their natural and desirable hunger for adventure. 
A magazine wherein they can find adventure without being obliged to read through reams of stuff they care little about for the sake of getting a little they care a lot about. sto
A magazine published by the publishers of Everybody’s Magazine and edited with the same care and concern as is Everybody’s Magazine, but frankly made for the hours when the reader cannot work, or does not wish to, or is too weary to work. Frankly made for the reader’s recreation rather than his creative hours. 
If you care for stirring stories (and who does not?) — if you wish to get away for a brief time from the hard grind of the daily mill so that you can come back to it again with new zest, so that you can walk through the knotty problems and nagging limitations with renewed courage — get a copy of Adventure. 
You can get away for such a trip every month for 15 cents or you can get a season ticket entitling you to twelve trips for $1.50. 
No other kind of story in the magazine; just Adventure Stories. Factstories as well as fiction stories. If you don’t like that kind, don’t buy; but if you do like that kind, Adventure is sure to delight you.
A better mission statement for the writer I've yet to find. For more information on Adventure, (and the source for the quote) see "A History of Adventure" by Richard Bleiler. And thanks to StoryHack Magazine for pointing me to this.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A Snake's Life and So I'm a Spider, So What?

The litRPG and isekai portal fantasies have long looked to various gimmicks to differentiate themselves from the crowded field of video game heroes in other worlds. The common assumption is that characters from our world will become heroes in the next. But what if they became monsters instead? Rogue Dungeonreviewed last week, turned its hero into a troll. But books like A Snake’s Life, by Kenneth Arant, and So I’m a Spider, So What?, by Okina Baba, push the frontiers of heroism in a more beastly direction.
Both A Snake’s Life and Spider share similar origins as online web novels before publishers picked up these books. And they share more than that. The basic premise is the same. Reincarnated into a monster, the hero(ine) must survive, thrive, and evolve in a litRPG world where skills are more important than stats and where today’s predator can become tomorrow’s prey. Along the way, the hero(ine) catches the notice of a god, who’s blessing turns out to be as much of a curse, and whose guidance will send the protagonist towards a collision course with another character’s future heroic fantasy. Until that point, the hero(ine) must survive, get stronger, and evolve into more powerful forms. The similarities between these two progression fantasies are such that one wonders if A Snake’s Life was patterned off the older Spider, but with a character and Nordic setting more familiar to Western audiences.
A Snake’s Life begins immediately on the death of Albert, who is now looking forward to a long eternity with his wife. Unfortunately, she’s slated to be reincarnated in 300 years as the Chosen One for a new world, and Albert is not. His only chance to see his wife again is to be born as a snake. If he survives and grows powerful enough, he might live long enough to meet her again. So, like many recent litRPG heroes, he bets everything to see his wife one more time. It’s an interesting premise, and one far more mature than the light novels that spawned litRPGs. Unfortunately, this widower’s nightmare loses track of that motivation in the sudden shift to litRPG character progression. For the next 3/4ths of the novel, Albert is more concerned with helping a family of druids he encountered than about his wife. In hindsight, that is a blessing, as when he does remember, he eats a hero just to speed up his wife’s return–an act that will hold more consequence to Albert than just a full stomach.
Nicknamed “Kumoko” (little spider/spider girl) by the fans, the anonymous heroine of So I’m a Spider, So What? starts in direr straights. After an inter-dimensional magic blast annihilates her homeroom class, Kumoko wakes up in the middle of the world’s largest dungeon, surrounded by thousands of her new spider brothers and sisters all eager for a bite. She flees the cannibalistic buffet, setting out on a course to escape the dungeon and become human once more. But setbacks keep dropping Kumoko into deep and more dangerous levels of the dungeon. Her story is occasionally interrupted by flashes forward where the rest of her classmates have grown up in their new world as heroes and prodigies, weaned on strange tales of a white spider who terrorized the dungeons and a pale girl who works for the demon king they must defeat.
By comparison, A Snake’s Life becomes a power fantasy in the mold of today’s litRPGs. Albert is only occasionally in danger and quickly grows large enough to outmatch most of his intended prey. Most action scenes get resolved when someone gets eaten, and there is little doubt that Albert will slither away victorious and with a full stomach. Fortunately, the dressings of contemporary litRPGs apply to the progression system that takes Albert from a snake to the various steps on his path to becoming a world serpent. Stats and skills are sparse, logical, and written to minimize the interruption to the story. 
Kumoko’s character sheet and progressions sprawl across the page, and the former gamer girl lovingly dives into paragraphs of exposition discussing the crunch of mechanics. Then again, Kumoko needs to, just to find every advantage she can. Her battles are far less certain. As a spider, she is weaker than just about everything else in the dungeon, so she has to rely on strategy and positioning instead of strength. And even the best-laid plans of spiders can leave her scurrying away from a predator with a limp and a cracked carapace to show for her efforts. Tension and desperation fill each encounter as Kumoko can and does lose.
When prose is considered, A Snake’s Life and Spider excel in different ways. Both novels are written in first person. Albert of A Snake’s Life uses the standard transparent fantasy prose expected of today, which mostly stays out of the way of telling his story. It’s a more mature diction than Kumoko’s. However, no character in either book has as distinct a voice as Kumoko. Okina Baba pens a teenaged gamer girl indulging in flights of fancy and appeals for praise between monster encounters, complete with squeals and daydreams. Sure, Kumoko might have slept through her composition classes, but the delivery is endearing (or annoying, depending on one’s tolerance for teenager silliness). Unfortunately, Kumoko is such a bright voice, it’s easy to skim past the merely average adventures of her classmates to get to the spider girl’s next mishap.
Of the two books, A Snake’s Life is mechanically better, with more adult prose, a clearer vision of its hero’s goals, and a less cluttered approach to story-telling. But it lacks the spark and the spirit of the comparatively unpolished So I’m a Spider, So What?. 

Friday, April 17, 2020

The King in Yellow: The Mask

The yellow ribbon binding the eponymous collection by Robert W. Chambers together, the play known as The King in Yellow is infamous for causing madness among its readers, performers, and audiences. But what other horrible secrets lay in its pages, waiting for the unsuspecting student?

For that, we must go to Paris, to the time before the French confiscated the copies, to the story of "The Mask." Boris, a renowned sculptor, reveals to his friend Alec the existence of a new chemical that can turn living flesh into exquisite marble stone. Suspicion sets in early, as an uneasy tie between the chemical's effects and Boris's sculptures can be made. But suspicion turns to dread as soon as Genevieve enters the conversation. No matter how many declarations by Boris that the formula will die with him, the idea that the next time that Genevieve may sit as a model for sculpture might be her last persists. Worse still, her doom might be accidental.

In truth, the excellent audio performance of "The Mask" by HorrorBabble, linked above via video, hammers this dread home harder than a perusal of the text. But there is no doubt that, from this innocent start, something more sinister shall grow. All from an obsession with the chemical processes of fossilization, mixed with a dash of the ancient and mysterious art of alchemy. But Boris is a sculptor, not a fussy chemist, and so leaves large quantities of his petrification formula out and open.

Enter The King in Yellow. For as soon as Alec stumbles across the book in Boris's possession, Genevieve is caught up in a fit and a fever. In its course, she declares her love for Alec, who she rejected two years prior. That night, Alec falls prey to the same illness. During that time, all he can recall is an allusion to the Pallid Mask, a character alluded to in an excerpt before the story. Soon, his mind is swept up with images of marble creatures, of the King in Yellow and Carcosa, the Hyades and Hastur. Alec describes a fit of faraway visions with the vividness of Clark Ashton Smith, and the imagery and symbolism of the mask of self-deception link the petrification formula to the play.

When Alec awakes, Genevieve and Boris are dead. Of petrification and suicide, respectively. Out of caution, a friend of all three has disposed of the petrification fluid and burned Boris's notes. Shattered, Alec spends two years wandering the East, until he returns to the parlor once more. Boris's experiments are depetrifying...

"The Mask" is a strange inversion of "Rappacini's Daughter" and other poisoned garden tales, perhaps even a continuation, For where the strange concoctions of science doom the love of Rappacini's daughter, the same does so for Boris's love of Genevieve. Yet Alec, already rejected, is reunited with Genevieve through the expiration of the same concoction that doomed Boris. But the danger does not lie in the misuse of exotic chemistry as in Rappacini, but through whatever madness in The King in Yellow that inspired. It is a surprise, however, that this tale of strange and deadly science actually ended on a happy note.

The Gothic fingerprints are all over, with a penchant for correspondence and travels fitting the genre. If the beginning started a bit mundane and unfanciful, hinting at a hard science fiction of the chemical variety, it was to let the madness of Carcosa shimmer as brightly as the exquisitely detailed statues. And science itself becomes as dark and dangerous as any of the other unknown arts that wreak terror on the Gothic protagonists. As such, "The Mask" deserves a slow read. Even the most innocent of exchanges hides portents, and not all madnesses are harbingers of destruction.

Even now, I still grapple with passages and elements of the story, only to see fine details and constructions, like a living man turned to marble.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Pineys

In 1950, towards the end of Weird Tales's run, yet just before his first John the Balladeer story, Manly Wade Wellman turned to the forest for inspiration for a ghost story, "The Pineys". For amid the dense longleaf pines lives a strange folk known as the Pineys, and those who trespass into their lands vanish. The Indians who once lived around this particular pine grove say that the Pineys were there first. Some even say that the Pineys have been defending their groves since before the dinosaurs, and that their king walks among humanity, ever vigilant for those who would disturb his pine groves. What is clear, as many who live uneasily around the pines repeat, is that no one knows what the Pineys do to those who they capture.

Nothing but tall tales and campfire scares, right?

Beau Sawtelle believes so, and it is his job to survey the piney grove for logging. He's brought his niece, some men, and a local named Mac to assist him. The local tales of strange and furred creatures don't scare Sawtelle's party, but rather provide a bit of amusement as they journey deep into the forest. But as the canopy darkens overhead and the shadows grow longer, the discussion takes a more fearful turn as they discuss the Pineys' king while they make a campfire...

Some stories just ache to be told out loud, and this last gasp of a Gothic tale, stitched together from campfire recollections and short tales, sounds like the stories told late at night by a storyteller aiming for a little mischief. As mentioned, this is a ghost story, so the impact rests on the final revelation, heightened further by whom the narrator is.

All the hallmarks of a proper Wellman tale are present. Mac's voice is reminiscent of John the Balladeer, who would appear in "O Ugly Bird" a mere three months later. The Pineys themselves fit the inventive bestiary that fills Wellman's tales, and he even draws a distinct parallel to the Shonokins, a race that filled several of his earlier Weird Tales. And finally, Sawtelle's niece relies on the same European folk magic and grimoires that John the Balladeer would use to great effect in his short stories. It's easy to see "The Pineys" as a sinister rehearsal for what would John's adventures, more so that "Frogfather" or "Sin's Doorway". Just call Mac "John..."

"The Pineys" may be a simpler scare than the heyday of Weird Tales under Farnsworth Wright, but atmosphere and voice can make even the simplest tales breathe with sinister life. Fortunately, the most affordable place to find "The Pineys" is in the new reprint of Worse Things Waiting, which is still available through Amazon.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Forgotten XSeed

The Corona -Chan anthology has a surprise for fans of Brian Niemeier's Combat Frame XSeed series. Among its many stories lies the first XSeed story published. Called "Anacyclosis", or, perhaps more fittingly renamed in the series' current nomenclature, CY 73, it is a more contemplative story, befitting its first publication in the Sci Phi Journal nearly five years ago. As such, it offers a glimpse into the history of the XSeed universe between CY40: Second Coming and the recently announced XSeed S. And for those who might be confused by the seemingly random string of letters and number, that means war and giant robots.

Humanity is locked in a long stalemated war against the Ynzu, a race known for exterminating everything in its path. Yet despite frequent losses, humanity has still spread to the stars. Above one colony, mecha pilot Kob Agur is about to learn the cost of his monomania: immortal glory earned by fighting the Ynzu.

Kob is the typical anime protagonist; determined, skilled, and utterly clueless with the ladies. His brusque refusal of a co-worker's advances sets the stage for how his obsession with glory brings death all around. The disasters around Kob spiral, from doomed wingmen, to destroyed carriers, and razed colonies. But when the cold embrace of space is about to claim his drifting combat frame, Kob is discovered by a hidden settlement filled with strange monks obsessed by collecting the computerized memories of Witnesses to history, including many of the leaders of the original XSeed novel. Once Kob awakens, he is tested to see if he might join this immortal archive.

Given the tendency towards violent death in XSeed, one wonders how so many characters' memories were captured. Perhaps it is something to do with the XSeed combat frames' computer systems. Or maybe the technology is similar to the Rimway AI simulations in Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict novels. What is soon clear, however, is that Kob's nature will claim more victims.

Kob's fate is a darkly ironic take on the typical anime protagonist, and an inversion on the typical plot armor granted by determination, skill, and cockiness. Some would say more realistic, but the same traits that doom Kob are rewarded elsewhere in the XSeed series. Not all who are named Destroyer bring ruin to their enemies.

Briefly considered in the story is the possibility that humanity might have beaten the Ynzu, in a future far away from CY 73. However, there is no hint to the gnarled path that might lead humanity to that destiny. And with two novels remaining, that will undoubtedly be a rollercoaster full of switchbacks before readers see that future. But while we wait, "Anacyclosis" is a splash of Soul Cycle contemplation between thrill rides.

And it's free.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Rogue Dungeon and Tearmoon Empire

As one of a dwindling number of freedom fighters opposing the Tyrant King, Roark risks everything in an attempt to free his people. But that final confrontation quickly went awry. Clutching one of the Tyrant King’s treasures, Roark flees through a portal, only to find himself trapped in one of our world’s MMOs. Worse still, he has now become the lowliest of trolls, trapped inside a dungeon that exists only to be farmed by ingrate players. Roark’s way home lies through the party of players, through the dungeon boss, and finally, through the minions of the Tyrant King who have followed him to the game world. Even if it means embracing his new nickname, “The Griefer.”
Like most dungeon builder fantasies, Rogue Dungeon, by James Hunter and eden Hudson, is a genre-blender, merging epic fantasy and portal fantasy conventions with those of game world litRPGs. Unlike most dungeon builders, Roark does not start out in control of his dungeon. Instead, he must usurp control, first of his floor, and then of the entire dungeon. This is no mean feat when players raid the dungeon ever few hours, erasing whatever experience Roark can cobble together. This means that Roark has to rely on actual strategy and alliances instead of simply abusing skill and stats. Here, his past as an oppressed freedom fighter comes in handy, as the only way to fend off players and floor bosses alike is through an ever-changing list of deceits, feints, and foul tricks. It adds depth and variety to the battles compared to the typical munchkinning of litRPGs, as the advantage in one battle doesn’t turn out to be the advantage for all battles.
Written at a time when wish-fulfillment harem stories were popular, Rogue Dungeon takes a different course. The key to Roark’s survival in the game world is tied to the growth and development of his and his allies’ skills, as well as in the various new constructions in the dungeon. With all the exposition spent on these changes and their effects on the various conflicts forced upon Roark, there just is not any space to waste on relationship drama or ego-stroking. Between the game rules and the lack of romance, the resulting fantasy evokes the same feel as a cozy mystery, just with fireballs and player killing. But while Hunter and Hudson are inviting the reader into a game with strict rules, they deftly balance the mechanical demands of their game world with the demands of story. The often cursed-at trope of the stat sheet is present, but care is taken to minimize the quantity, duration, and length of its appearances. The game serves the story, not the other way around. But stories like these survive on characters, and Kaz, a troll turned chef that joins with Roark, stands out among the admittedly small cast.
The mix of novelty and quality makes Rogue Dungeon an excellent introduction to dungeon builders and litRPGs for newcomers to the genres. Especially for those who like their heroes not to be bound to one spot.

In her last moment, Mia, the selfish princess of the fallen Tearmoon Empire, watches the sun as she waits for the headsman’s blade to fall. In the next moment, she wakes up as her twelve-year-old self, painfully aware of the mistakes and disasters that cost her empire and her life. She now has eight years to change her history–and that of her people’s–or face the guillotine once more. Did Mia have a change of heart? Let’s call it enlightened self-interest instead.
Something strange is happening in the wish-fulfillment stories over in Japan, as a sub-genre of fantasy has formed of selfish princesses who, under threat of a painful doom, learn that a little compassion and a kind word unlock more doors than throwing fits. Along the way, these otherwise stubborn princesses experience first hand how taking an interest in the well-being of others oftentimes gets them their desires when selfishness will not. Mia also learns how the seeds of her demise were planted in the random acts of pettiness, cruelty, and self-aggrandizement she committed at school. The key to success for Mia is simple–fake it until you make it. And she’ll have plenty of chances to practice as she goes off to school, to rub shoulders with the princes who destroyed her empire in her past life.
In lesser hands, this type of magical academy tale can become the self-validating Mary Sue story which plagues light novels, young adult books, and comics. But Nozomi Mochitsuki opts instead for a comedy of misunderstandings. Mia’s sterling reputation is contrasted with her internal self-interest, which grounds her from the head-swelling adoration sent her way. And the misunderstandings go both ways, as not everything Mia perceives is as she thinks it to be. The perils Mia falls into out of these new misunderstandings tend to be good-natured and charming. But, as her journal from her past life says, she’s not out of danger yet.
Most astonishingly, Tearmoon Empire is blessedly free of fannish trappings, which means that the fannish deviancies that plague light novels are mercifully absent. What remains is a slow romance and an exhortation to be better that only occasionally dips into preachiness. As such, Tearmoon Empire is a rare young adult story aimed at teens instead of young professionals, and one I would have no qualms handing to a niece or a younger sister interested in anime and manga.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A Song of I.C.E. and Fire

As the last vestige of the men's adventure genre, paramilitary monster-hunting stories have fallen on hard times. Popularized most recently by Monster Hunter International, and fanned into an indie craze by Seal Team 666, the genre, like Navy SEAL fiction and other men's adventure genres, has been rendered safe for editor's tastes and politics through series like Joe Ledger until what was once a vibrant genre is now forgotten among a slew of monster girl harems and monster evolution fantasies.

Enter the Corona-Chan anthology.

In "A Song of I.C.E. and Fire", renegade author Jon del Arroz uses monster-hunting on the border to take a pot-shot at the idea that "all X must Y". In this case, it's that all Hispanics must be for illegal immigration. However, what should have been eye-rolling politics is kept to a mere scene as Gabriel Hernadez and his fellow I.C.E. agents hunt down a Mexican vampire clan preying on children trying to cross the border.

I am not a fan of politics in science fiction--real-world, fresh off the headlines screeds age horribly in a matter of weeks as the headlines change, but to deny that some of the best science fiction explores timeless social issues would be foolish. As in all things, Harlan Ellison's advice should be followed. Before one can educate, one must first entertain. And the admittedly real-world, straight from 2019 headlines immigration protests take a back seat to a simple tale of a man doing his duty by fighting monsters.

That's the key. The action comes first. And the action holds its own against the monster-hunting books of the early 2010s and the Dick Marcinko-clones they are patterned after. Honestly, Latino I.C.E. should have been as cringe-inducing as the standard fare from del Arroz's political opponents. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been. But del Arroz gets the banter right, gets the action right, gets the focus on the job right. While others would dwell on the politics (or even the ten thousand varieties of firearms and ammunition on the market), del Arroz writes Gabriel to focus on the task at hand.

If anything, "A Song of I.C.E. and Fire" is too short, reading as the introduction to what might be a classic monster hunter novel stripped of the normal excesses. But I'm not sure we can tear Jon del Arroz away from his beloved comics and steampunk to write it.

Check it out for yourself in the free pulp anthology, Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Pendulum

In 1939, while science fiction was on the cusp of its first successful bid for recognition, a small fanzine, Futuria Fantasia, presented the first story by the legendary Ray Bradbury. Titled "The Pendulum", this story hinted at Bradbury's future works, which Leigh Brackett declared as not science fiction, but too wonderful not to be included. More Gothic Weird Tales than Campbelline Astounding, this atmospheric tale of a scientist's punishment and vicarious retribution against his tormentors is just a hair out of step with the fashions of its time, but a worthy bit of science fictional horror that holds up to this day.

Bradbury riffs on the old misunderstood scientist theme and succeeds in making a haunting tale of a man essentially trapped on a giant swing. But what he captures is the shocking arrogance that is too common in the scientist fiction of that day. (See Jack Williamson's "The Iron God" for one example.) Compare the scientists in many of the stories in the 1930s and 1940s, slipshod, power-mad, and quick to experiment on humanity, and quicker to take offense when any sort of accountability is required of them, to the obligation of the engineer:

This obligation, written by Rudyard Kipling in 1925, is still repeated by new engineers today. But engineering is a profession, while science fictional scientists are mavericks.

As a result of Layeville's own errors, thirty men were killed by his invention. Rather than show remorse, he is outraged by the condemnation of the crowd. After all, he was only doing it for the betterment of humanity. However, Bradbury never puts to bed the nagging suspicion that this man whose errors caused so much death deserves every second of his later treatment, cruel and unusual it may be.

While other authors would attempt to make heroes out of these inferior men who lack conscience social grace, and any semblance of charity, Bradbury instead gives the tormented Layeville the cold comfort of a front seat to the extermination of his tormentors. Although what comfort could such give the mad? But Bradbury is playing with irony, not seeking to elevate broken men into romantic heroes as other writers in the genre attempted to.

Like many of the moodier stories of its time, "The Pendulum" benefits from being read out loud. Think of it as a kind of science fictional campfire tale. And a warning. Not to be cruel, not to be merciless, and not to forget to doublecheck your work.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Mongoose and Meerkat Kickstarter

The Kickstarter for Jim Breyfogle's Mongoose and Meerkat as now live.
He's a bit of a bravo, ready to knock a few heads for some coin. She's a mysterious wanderer with more than her share of street-smarts and a head for ancient history. Together, the Mongoose and the Meerkat are a pair of rogues looking for coin to keep their bellies and wine skins filled and are sure to appeal to fans of classic Sword & Sorcery.
This volume collects Kat and Mangos' first five adventures with illustrations by the incredibly talented DarkFilly and is available in four formats.
This volume features...
The Battlefield of Keres - An ill-conceived bet brings Mangos and his new companion Kat to a vast no man's land full of relics and magical anomalies in search of a fabled helm! 
Brandy and Dye - High atop rock spires, above the breeze from the Devil's Arse, men toil to collect the valuable guano of the Minix bird for Royal Dye, but when the production is threatened by distillers at dizzying heights, the dyers hire Mangos & Kat to bust a few heads! 
The Sword of the Mongoose - When a shady merchant loses a bet with Mangos, he has nothing to pay with but the story of where a masterwork blade may be found! Can Mangos reach his prize before other treasure hunters? 
The Valley of Terzol - Kat and Mangos are hired to accompany an adventurer to the ruins of Terzol in search of a lost delivery: a thousand-year-old receipt offers a clue to either fabulous rewards or certain death! 
The Burning Fish - Seeking out the fabled Burning Fish for a client, Mangos and Kat instead find a strange cult devoted to keeping a simple life and protecting the secret of the fish at any cost!
As a bonus, this collection will feature Deathwater, a never before published original novelette!
Ebooks start at $3, with pocketbooks, paperbacks, and hardcovers also available. Cameos and original art are available as well.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Golden Pearl

After a harrowing experience in their search for Burning Fish, Kat and Mangos are determined to never be poisoned again–could a Golden Pearl be the answer?!
The latest adventure of Mongoose and Meerkat, “The Golden Pearl”, by Jim Breyfogle, graces the cover of Cirsova’s Spring 2020 issue. Mangos is the Mongoose, a skilled, boastful, and hotheaded swordsman, while Kat is the Meerkat, a beautiful yet mysterious woman who favors the oblique approach to her well-chosen blade. Together, the Mongoose and the Meerkat have made a host of enemies great and small, including those who would settle their grudges with a little drop of poison. This sends the pair of adventurers on a four-week voyage to a tropical shore in search of Golden Pearls, a universal antidote.
The secret to the Golden Pearl is held by the mysterious Killanei, who in turn is guarded by a mountain of a man known as Marumbi. For Killanei knows how to grow the Elibibi fruit, which can grant a year’s worth of life. The Golden Pearls are the key to Killanei’s favor, and no man but Marumbi has eaten the Elibibi fruit for years. Those who dare to challenge this arrangement, even to heal their kith and kin, end up killed by hidden assailants.
As long as they find a Golden Pearl, the local struggle means little to the Mongoose and Meerkat. And then they find that the lonely girl who has helped them in the village since their arrival is the key to the mysteries of Killanei, the Elibibi fruit, and the Golden Pearls.
With this aquatic adventure, Mangos and Kat cement themselves as Cirsova’s answer to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Instead of tackling issues of barbarism and civilization, the duo brush up against questions of friendship and community. “The Golden Pearl” illustrates how the actions of one person may have profound effects and change, but without the preachiness expected in such a tale. And while Mongoose and Meerkat follow in the grand tradition of pulp sword adventures by throwing in a trial of endurance, those hoping for the flash of blades will not be disappointed.
While the ending comes suddenly compared to the more leisurely stroll through setting and intrigue, I would love to see what Jim Breyfogle could do with a novelette or longer format to give the Mongoose and Meerkat more space for their adventures.
Cirsova Publishing will be launching a Kickstarter for the illustrated first volume of Jim Breyfogle’s Adventures of Mongoose & Meerkat soon. Be sure to click “Notify me on launch” so you don’t miss when it goes live.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Battlefield of Keres

An ill-conceived bet brings Mangos and his new companion Kat to a vast no man's land full of relics and magical anomalies in search of a fabled helm! Can Mangos and Kat retrieve Gorman's helm or will they perish in the haunted wilds of Keres?

Mangos is the Mongoose, a skilled, boastful, and hotheaded swordsman, while Kat is the Meerkat, a beautiful yet mysterious woman who favors the oblique approach to her well-chosen blade. Together, these two adventurers made a host of enemies great and small. Inside Cirsvoa #6, Jim Breyfogle tells the story of how the Mongoose and the Meerkat met, in "The Battlefield of Keres." And, like so many adventures in print and on the tabletop, it all starts with a little alcohol in an inn.

After a night of carousing, Mangos is left with a headache and an impossibly unwise bet--to find the helm of Gorman. His rival, Thierry, is quick to savage Mangos's pride over that bit of foolishness. But before Mangos has to pay for the previous night's drinks, help comes in the form of Kat, who knows where the helm rests--in the fifty-mile wasteland that was once the battlefield of Kerres. And, years after the final battle, this scar of a wolf-lair still claims victims from the treasure seekers unwise enough to enter. But Mangos and Kat aren't the only souls seeking the helm of Gorman among the lethal secrets of Kerres.

Along the way, the duo discovers that they work well together. Mongos might be a proud hothead, but he is clever enough to keep up with and build upon Kat's lessons on history and magic. Meanwhile, Kat falls outside the twin cliches awaiting an adventuress, that of being a prize or overcompensating action girl. However, she can keep up with Mangos's expert blade in a fight. Somewhere in the battlefield's desolation, the two make the easy choice to team up for more than just convenience. In Mangos's words,
"Then let us pursue without asking what we chase, and when we catch it, let us chase again."
After reading a number of new fantasy genres that tend to spiral into apocalypses, it is refreshing to see adventurers strive against the more intimate and immediate concerns of rivalry, pride, and ambition. Fortunately, Jim Breyfogle navigates the urgency of such small stakes without devolving into soap opera.

The prose is contemporary transparent, which takes some of the impact away from the grandeur of the desolate setting and the traps within. However, the dialogue is natural, and fairly elevated above the current tin-eared fantasy snarkfest standard.

"The Battlefield of Keres" is an excellent start to a series that has proven itself to be Cirsova's answer to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. May there be many more tales of their adventures.

* * * * *

Cirsova Publishing will be launching a Kickstarter for the illustrated first volume of Jim Breyfogle's Adventures of Mongoose & Meerkat soon. Be sure to click "Notify me on launch" so you don't miss when it goes live.

Also, for a limited time before the Kickstarter, Cirsova Publishing will be offering "The Battlefield of Keres" and the rest of Cirsova's 6th issue for free on Amazon.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Spreading the Love

While the walls of social distancing may be closing in, many authors have offered free books to their readers, whether through their mailing lists or by slashing prices on Amazon. And the pulpier genres are no exception. Author David V. Stewart has gathered stories by a number of today's pulp and PulpRev authors to offer adventure, mystery, and more than a little black humor. This free anthology is available through Book Funnel and can be downloaded here.

* * * * *

Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love is here to rescue you from the existential horror of indoor life, by offering you a glimpse into other worlds of wonder, whimsy, and warped humor.

Tales of high adventure, escapist fantasies, and thrilling stories of suspense await within, from some of the keenest and most rebellious minds in pulp fiction, with a foreword by the infamous Daddy Warpig.

With 200,000 words of exciting fiction, most never before published, including two full books and two full novellas, Corona-Chan is serious about spreading the disease LOVE!

Read it today!

The complete catalog of collected chronicles:

“Quarantine” by artist Jesse White

Anacyclosis by Brian Niemeier

“A Song of I.C.E. and Fire” by Jon Del Arroz

In the Forest of Wast by Alexander Hellene

“Exiled in the Desert” by John Daker

“Iron and Steel” by KP Kalvaitis

“Someone is Aiming for You” by JD Cowan

Immortal Thunder by Matt Wellman

“Bringing down the Mountain” by Nathan Dabney

“At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen” by Abraham Strongjohn

“Going Native” and “Warrior Soul” by Manfred Weichsel

The Battle of the Turasa Nebula by Yakov Merkin

“An Eye for Eligos” by Alexandru Constantin

Adventure Constant (full novel) by Jon Mollison

“Star Support” by Val Hull

“The Age of Petty States” by Rawle Nyanzi


The Crown of Sight by David V. Stewart

Monday, March 16, 2020

Coming Soon: The Black Mask Library

As part of the 100th anniversary of Black Mask, Steeger Books recently announced that they will be premiering the first six titles of a new pulp reprint line, The Black Mask Library, at the as-of-yet uncanceled Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention. Like the blog-favorite Argosy Library, each title will feature a rare or out-of-print series from the pages of Black Mask, accompanied by cover art from the magazine.

The titles will include:

Dead and Done For: The Complete Black Mask Cases of Cellini Smith, by Robert Reeves

Murder Costs Money: The Complete Black Mask Cases of Rex Sackler, by D. L. Champion

Let the Dead Alone: The Complete Black Mask Cases of Luther McGavock, by Merle Constiner

Dead Evidence: The Complete Black Mask Cases of Harrigan, by Ed Lybeck

Boomerang Dice: The Complete Black Mask Cases of Johnny Hi Gear, by Stewart Sterling

Blood on the Curb, by Joseph T. Shaw, editor of Black Mask

While it is uncertain as to how the current unpleasantness may delay these plans, I intend to review at least one of these titles as soon as they are available. Black Mask gave the world the hardboiled detective and, later, film noir, and rightly has its place among the most important pulp magazines. Hopefully, Steeger Books will take a chance and publish stories in some of the other genres Black Mask dabbled in, such as science fiction.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Perry Rhodan: Ark of the Stars

At over 3000 novellas and nearly 1500 novels and spin-offs, the Perry Rhodan series is the longest-running science-fiction serial. For fifty-nine years, these adventures have followed the eponymous American astronaut to the moon and beyond. With amazing adaptability, quick wit, and dry humor, Perry Rhodan united Earth and led humanity across the stars. Despite its international popularity, precious few of Rhodan’s adventures have been translated into English. (For a quick overview of the publishing history of Perry Rhodan, please check out both Kevyn Winkless’s introduction to the series and the comments). However, in 2015, the complete six novel Lemuria series was released in English as ebooks, representing the first new English Perry Rhodan adventures in almost twenty years.
As always, there is an asterisk to such a sweeping statement, as 2015 was the second publication of books in the Lemuria series. Ark of the Stars, by Frank Borsch, was first published in English in 2006, but those few lucky readers to purchase it would have to wait until 2015 for the rest of the story.
Published in German in 2004, Ark of the Stars leads the third set of self-contained Perry Rhodan novels published by Heyne-Verlag. While the adventure would fit snugly in between volumes #2200 and #2364, the Lemuria novels would also shed light on the ancient galactic civilization of Lemur, founded on the mythical Pacific continent of the same name. For Perry Rhodan’s Terrans are not the first wave of human settlers from Earth in the galaxy, and many of the star nations in the Milky Way trace their ancestry to the upheaval and fracturing of Lemur’s empire. Of these, the Akons and their allies have clashed repeatedly with the upstart Terrans and their claims to succeed Lemur. This fierce rivalry would define the galactic history of the “Perryverse” for over 2200 years–and beyond.
Ark of the Stars takes place in one of the lulls in the clashes between Terrans and Akons, where the main competition in the galaxy is no longer war, but exploration of the few remaining frontiers in space. Perry Rhodan hitches a ride on the mining ship Palenque as a cover for a diplomatic mission to Akon. But his mission is disrupted when one of Palenque’s shuttles suddenly vanishes, smashed into dust by the relativistic wreckage of a shuttle matching no known design and with markings written in ancient Lemurian. After tracking the trajectory, Rhodan and the Palenque discover a 50,000-year-old generation ship from ancient Lemuria fleeing from a race known as the Beasts. Rhodan also finds an Akonian cruiser who is willing to enforce Akonian claims on the relic spaceship.
Meanwhile, aboard the failing generation ship Nethack Achton, Denetree is a fugitive. Her star-mad brother pirated a shuttle in defiance of the generation ship’s laws. This act of rebellion led to the death of 43 peace officers and the loss of irreplaceable air and resources (as well as the later death of a Terran mining shuttle’s crew). The Net demands justice for the traitor’s actions, which means death for all of his friends and family. The Net’s search tightens slowly around Denetree, until strangers appear without warning aboard the Nethack Achton. Will these strangers rescue Denetree or are they Beasts come to destroy the last known Lemurians in the galaxy?
And, unknown to all, the chance meeting between Terra, Lemuria, and Akon will awaken dangerous threats and an ancient foe.
For a novel bearing his name, Perry Rhodan avoids the stage in Ark of the Stars. Denetree and various Palenque and Akonian personnel are the viewpoint characters throughout the novel. Their various expertises provide the basis for the exposition needed to fill 50,000 years of history. Rhodan provided the right input at the right time to cut through the various impasses, thanks to his ability to think just a little faster than most. His legendary status as one of the few Immortals in the galaxy also makes him a measuring stick against which the captain of the Palenque consistently measures herself against. His dry humor is often the only bridge across the remove he keeps between himself and the crew.
Denetree serves as the reader’s eyes into a slowship that has yet to devolve into the generation ship horrors explored in Galaxy’s Edge: Imperator and Gods and Legionnaires. Although such suffering is around the corner as machinery breaks, resources become increasingly scarce, and genetic damage accumulates. Her flight is not her choice, neither is her protection, as she is adrift on the winds of other peoples’ whims. There’s not much to her character except a shocked woman caught up in grief and terror. Yet, without her viewpoint, Ark of the Stars would lack the human drama to what is essentially an archaeological mystery.
The English translation of Ark of the Stars is well-done, reading like contemporary American science fiction novels in style and vocabulary except in one vital way. Ark of the Stars is optimistic space opera written at a time when much of science fiction was turning grim. Like in Valerian and Laureline, there is a belief that through reason, understanding, and negotiation, a better outcome can be made–although blasters are ready if needed. So far, the soft power approach has worked for the Terrans of Palenque, even if the magic of friendship might occasionally require unorthodox methods such as booze, blunts, and air guitar. (Battlestar Galactica was not the first science fiction series to use “All Along the Watchtower” as a story device.) But as ancient Beasts reawaken, will the Terrans continue to rely on such methods or will they meet force with force?
The self-contained format helps make the sudden plunge into the Perry Rhodan universe navigable. Hundreds of stories separate the Lemuria series from where Wendayne Ackerman last translated the series. In that time, Terran rose to a superpower and declined to one among many. Ark of the Stars does grow a bit exposition-heavy as it explains the important twists in galactic history, but it never overwhelms the reader nor grows tangential. While my appreciation might be greater if I had read any of the preceding 2200 issues, I never felt lost in Ark of the Stars for jumping straight into the Lemuria series without any prior Perry Rhodan readings. 
At the end, there are enough hints at the mysteries surrounding the launch of the Lemurian generation ships to keep my interest in a series that bears many similarities so far to Doc Savage in Space or a pulpier Count to the Eschaton. Thankfully, there are five more books in the Lemuria series for these strands of mystery to grow and bear fruit.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

"The Shadow's Invisible Cloak"

The 49th issue of the Sanctum Books reprint of The Shadow holds a curious little treasure. Rounding out the issue, which contains The Shadow Laughs and Voice of Death, is an anonymous memo found in Lester Dent's archives. Entitled "The Shadow's Invisible Cloak," the memo seeks a naturalistic explanation for The Shadow's ability to turn invisible, a carryover into the pulps from the radio show.

At one page, the memo develops some serious chemistry as to the odd properties of The Shadow's cloak before diving into various strengths and weaknesses of the technique. Sprinkled throughout the memo is a constant reminder that just because a man might come across such a cloak, he would need to know how it was made in order to reproduce it. This provided both a warning as to the complexity of the chemical processes used and a convenient excuse if Walter Gibson changed his mind about the manufacture. The refrain also provides a clue as to the identity of the memo's writer.

Such a refrain appeared many times in the pages of Astounding, in the words of its celebrated editor, John W. Campbell. Not only was the style similar, but Campbell was also an MIT-trained physicist with a background in the physics and industrial chemistry needed to create such a conjecture. And Campbell had mulled over the idea of an invisibility cloak before, in his own stories "Out of Night" and its sequel "Cloak of Aesir." Thanks to his friendship with Gibson, Campbell ended up as the unofficial science advisor for not only The Shadow but many of the other hero pulps under John Nanovic's tenure as editor.

However, it was in 1944 when a Street & Smith editor forwarded "The Shadow's Invisibility Cloak" to Lester Dent. It is unknown whether William de Grouchey, Babette Rosemund, or the nameless female sub-editor who actually oversaw both The Shadow and Doc Savage was responsible. But the contents inspired the Doc Savage novel "Death Had Yellow Eyes". It also may have inspired an October 1944 issue of Shadow Comics which contained the first-ever meeting between The Shadow and Doc Savage. The two would team up again in the comics, but it wouldn't be until 2015's The Sinister Shadow before the Knight of Darkness and the Man of Bronze crossed paths in the novels.

All because editors are fans, too.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Better Than Bullets

Whether in life or in the pulps, old soldiers tell some of the greatest tales. And, in the pages of Argosy, from 1929 to 1939, there were none older that Thibaut Corday, an eighty-year old legionnaire of the French Foreign Legion whose beard has yet to run completely white. Written as told to Theodore Roscoe, the old legionnaire would recount twenty-one adventures in that time.

As for Roscoe, a trip to the Caribbean and North Africa in 1928 and 1929 inspired an interest in old voodoo tales and the French Foreign Legion, both topics he would explore in the pages of Argosy to great acclaim. Per Gerd Pilcher’s introduction to the Better Than Bullets collection, “reading an ordinary pulp story was compared to ‘reading in black and white,’ reading a story by Roscoe however as to ‘reading in technicolor.’” The countless encounters with Legion officer and veterans no doubt fueled the authenticity of Corday’s tales, and covered for the occasional lapse. After all, a good storyteller is concerned more with the appearance of reality.

Like many writers in the Forties, Roscoe would leave the pulp world, this time for the more lucrative true crime tales. Thanks to Altus Press (now Steeger) reprinting Thibaut Corday’s tales, readers can still find the old legionnaire in an Algerian café, waiting to tell his tall tales. And like so many old soldiers, his first tale, “Better Than Bullets”, holds more humor than war:
“You say, my American friends, that bullets are the best of weapons? But yes, perhaps. And with bullets I am a man the most familiar…Splendid for the fight. But—I recall a battle I fought in which I used never a blade or a single bullet…No soldiers ever fought with weapons more strange!”
With that, the old legionnaire begins a tale most familiar to any man in uniform—how a little bit of mischief blows up into something far worse, terrifying in the moment, but ridiculous in hindsight. In 1907, Corday's legion just completed a long march on little water and worse food. His partner in crime, a Yankee known as Bill the Elephant, sees farmhouses in the distance, and convinces Corday and Christianity Jensen to join him in a little “foraging expedition” at night.

Their raid finds a pair of piglets and fifteen bottles of wine. As the trio carouses, however, a gang of Moslem dervishes comes across them with murder on their mind and an inclination to linger over the task. Now the trio of legionnaires are trapped red-handed in the farmhouse, with nothing more than bottles, boots, bacon, and beehives to defend themselves. But will these things prove to be better than bullets?

It’s an amusing tale where the ridiculousness of the scenario is played straight, and a classic example of the military definition of serendipity: “yes, we screwed up, but it turned out better than if we hadn’t.” That fact doesn’t save the trio from two weeks of hard labor for breaking their commander’s orders, though, so the story ends in proper military fashion, with the guilty punished and a dash of self-deprecation.

Rather than speak of the Argosy prose style yet again, “Better Than Bullets” is vivid because of Thibaut Corday’s voice. Roscoe expertly captures the flair of a verbal storyteller in Corday’s first-person tale to the point where a reader can almost hear the legionnaire. This is a story that begs to be performed in audio, not read, to recreate the effect of listening to a master of tall tales over a cup of coffee. The descriptions also are vivid and tight within Corday’s voice, with the little descriptive tangents fitting where a café storyteller would naturally make such. No doubt, Roscoe spent time listening to storytellers in addition to reading them.

Argosy collections never fail to deliver, and Better Than Bullets is no exception, living up to the praise flourished in the ad-copy blurbs for the book. And so we shall return again to a simple cafe in Algiers to listen to an old soldier who still has streaks of rusty cinnamon in his beard. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Sword for the Cardinal

For the King or for Richelieu?--that question had to be answered at one time or another by every young 17th Century Frenchman.

But ill-advised political poetry might force that question, as Comte Guy d'Entreville soon discovers. For Cardinal Richelieu himself signed the papers sending Guy's love, Catherine, to a convent for smuggling subversive papers.

Allegedly. If one believes the Cardinal's judges.

Richelieu proposes an exchange: Catherine's freedom for the comte's service in the Cardinal's Guards. Guy asks for a day to consider, as he has been a sworn opponent to the Cardinal. The night that follows will test Guy's resolve as his old friends plot to kill the only man able to secure Catherine's release:

Cardinal Richelieu.

"A Sword for the Cardinal" is the first of six adventures of Guy d'Entrevillle and Richard Cleve by Murry Richardson Montgomery for Argosy. Montgomery is a bit of a mystery. Save for "The Means" in a December 1938 issue of Liberty, these rakehelly rides are the majority of his known fiction. Assuming that Montgomery is not one of the many pseudonyms used by pulp writers. Per his Argosy biography, he might be one of many pulp writers to vanish into the Hollywood machine when Congress, paper shortages, and a new generation of editors sent them packing.

According to The Argosy Library:
"Much-revered and enjoyed by thousands of Argosy readers, these fast-paced stories have never before been reprinted."
That explains the paucity of information about the series, the characters, and their author. But does "A Sword for the Cardinal" live up to the ad copy?

 It's a good start. The action is slick, with time and chance playing as big of a part as skill. It pays to be both good and lucky. And, like most pulps, "A Sword for the Cardinal" spends most of its time exploring the consequences of Guy's decision to turn his back on his political "friends" for the sake of his girl. Not all the resulting pyrotechnics are confined to action, either.

Comte Guy d'Entreville fills the same role as D'Artagnan, just for the Cardinal instead of for the King. He's young, foolish, brave, skilled, and proud-and of a higher station than Dumas' hero. But where The Three Musketeers villainizes Cardinal Richelieu, Montgomery portrays the Cardinal as a unifying force in France, clearing away the feudalistic barriers and privileges that leave France open to the machinations of Buckingham, Spain, and others. Although he has changed sides, Guy still fights for France--and his pride.

The highlight of the story is its ending. The Cardinal is saved, but deigns to dismiss Guy from his service. The rebuke to Guy's stiff pride is too much for the noble to bear. It is an insult to Guy to not be considered good enough to serve the Cardinal. His Catherine is freed, therefore he must serve the Cardinal as per their deal. In a roaring display of audacity, Guy forces the Cardinal to accept his service.

Just as planned.

It's the mix of honor, integrity, and pride displayed in such a gesture that sets Guy apart from the procession of historical Argosy heroes. Competency is expected, as always, but there is a flair to all of Montgomery's characters not normally present. But if your heroes are going to pitch musketeers into fountains over questions of honor, style and swagger are required.

On the technical side, "A Sword for the Cardinal" is standard Argosy prose: clear, clean, and still contemporary almost 80 years later. As always, best to have a dictionary or encyclopedia handy. Not only does the text expect a certain familiarity with the historical setting, but a bit of French is also present. And, most pleasantly, this is not Three Musketeers fanfic or pastiche. As for the poetry present, whether Guy's verses are befitting a poet or a poetaster, I'll leave to those more qualified. Although that question is one argued throughout the series, with Guy cooling the heads of his most vocal critics on a regular basis.

But I was promised the misadventures of a pair of rascals in the Cardinal's employ. And for that, we must read on.