Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Swords of Lankhmar Return

I don't often do press releases here, but this one's too interesting to pass up. While reboot burnout is too common these days, I'm cautiously optimistic about this one:

 From Goodman Games and Tales From The Magician's Skull:

We are pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement with the estate of Fritz Leiber to publish new authorized stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser! Over the coming years, Tales From The Magician’s Skull will support the city of Lankhmar and its most famous residents with a series of new stories and novellas that faithfully expands upon the legendary tales originally told by Fritz Leiber. Tales From The Magician’s Skull is the pre-eminent publisher of new sword-and-sorcery fiction, and it is only fitting that we remind readers of our connection to the man who first coined that very term.

“It’s an honor to continue one of the most important legacies of the genre,” said Tales From The Magician’s Skull Editor Howard Andrew Jones. “Few writers have had more of an impact than Fritz Leiber. I am thrilled by the opportunity to help shape new adventures that honor his unique vision.”

The first story in this new series will appear in issue #6 of Tales From The Magician’s Skull. Author Nathan Long has written a new short story starring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. This entertaining tale finds the twain engaged in somewhat honest employment in the theatre trade, in order to pursue somewhat dishonest aims involving the sorcerer’s guild, with a somewhat incomplete plan that only Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser could devise.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Five Maidens on the Pentagram

Warning: Five Maidens on the Pentagram is a Gothic horror sex farce from the author of Ebu Gogo that is unlike anything you have ever read. It has weird sex, obscene nudity, vulgar jokes, appalling sadism, sickening violence, and blasphemous rites. It's wild!

Can you say, "Refuge in Audacity"? Not that I expected anything less from J. Manfred Weichsel, especially when he's expanding "Alter-Ego" from his short story collection, Going Native. And in some ways, that makes reviewing this difficult.

See, I'm so far away from the audience for this that it's not that I don't appreciate the schlocky Skinnemax horror, it's that I don't know how to. Never got into horror, grindhouse, or any of the other genres firmly in Weichsel's crosshairs. And just like his Ebu Gogo, it took a while for me to get what was really going on.

My fault as a sheltered kid, I suppose. But here goes:
Jonah is a mental patient with split personalities. One evening he has a phantasmagorical nightmare of a satanic rite in the basement of the insane asylum, only to discover that he wasn't dreaming - his other personality, the evil Maldeus, is working with his doctor to sacrifice women on a giant pentagram. He has to tell somebody, but who will believe him?

Jonah is thrust into the middle of a diabolic plot involving occult magic, a perverted, sex-crazed blue demon, and Satan!

Weichsel continues with his bulldog-goes-for-the-throat approach from so many of his previous stories. So many third rails of today's polite society get not just poked, not just tap-danced on, but steamrolled over again and again that it's hard to know who to recommend this to. We're not talking the full Metokur here, but it's close. 

Sure, it seems like one of a thousand straight-to-video films from the 80s and 90s, but I like the setup where a man's alter-egos are dualistically-opposed enemies. Protagonist and villain, just in a scenario where there is no such thing as good magic and everyone involved around Jonah is a villain in their own degenerate way. You may expect the same sort of revelry in torture and sex as found in weird menace, monster girl harems, and the other popular subgenres of the day. Weichsel instead is very blunt about what's happening but its matter of fact, not titillating. This is what happens to people and what they do when they depart from goodness and truth. Don't expect any privacy cuts, though.

As writer J. D. Cowan put it, "J's works are intense, wacky, and lurid, but inside that wrapping comes a core that is crystal clear and as strong as oak. The issue is if you have a strong enough constitution or stomach to get to that point." There are no brakes, no filters. You can trust that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train, but you might not want to stop and see what's around you.

The intrigues, impersonations, and rites float atop a morality tale that hands just desserts to everyone who departs from the good and true for strange powers and the mundanity of various lusts and gluttonies. There are lessons to be gleaned at the end, you've got to go through Hell first to get there. 

Literally. Divine Comedy-style. 

And Satan has no chill.

Maybe you might prefer the more genteel Inferno, by Niven and Pournelle, for your warning tours of damnation and demonic evil. But if you like occult horror that spares no one from its skewering blade, this might be worth a try.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Small Unit Tactics

“Because I believe in calling things what they are…And you should make a habit of it too. A group of people who can’t choose an insignia when they have a whole day to decide, who can’t even toss a coin to choose, are a spineless herd…

“And a herd like that is perfect cannon fodder.”

“We have changed our minds,” the watcher spoke directly to me. He didn’t look as repulsive and alien as they usually did–he looked normal, even kind. “Yes. We have changed our minds. We like you now..”

LitRPG fantasies, as a genre, tend to romanticize the gamer as either a normal person with a hobby or an aloof outsider waiting for the right moment to shine. But what about the obsessive gamer, the type who eats and sleeps with their headsets on, who uses gaming to detach themselves from a reality too painful to bear? In Small Unit Tactics, these lost souls are so far removed from reality that another picks them up. Now, in an alien world one realm away from Hell, these gamers must fight for the gods in a crude parody of a PvP battleground. Alexander Romanov takes an unflinching examination of the types of people who become obsessive gamers, and finds them wanting.

Except in determination.

If that sounds nothing like the elaborate Diablo II and World of Warcraft LitRPG clones with their magic, combat skills, and stat sheets, it is but the first of many departures from the established formulas. First of all, and most important to many readers, Romanov avoids stat sheets by avoiding stats altogether. A character’s strength is determined solely by their muscles. Hope you’ve been lifting, because swords and armor are heavy. Any character growth, as a gamer would recognize it, is conveyed purely through words.

Secondly, Small Unit Tactics is laser-focused on melee. This heavy melee focus differs from most LitRPGs that rely on lopsided Maple builds*, skill abuse, and magical armor for their heroes’ victories. The rules prohibit mages and fireballs, forcing all combat to be hand-to-hand. And without the presence of perks, the only way to cleave through your enemies is to swing that sword yourself. Romanov is a HEMA-style reenactor, and that knowledge is conveyed to Echo, his protagonist, and to the graphic action scenes that end in crushed bones and liberal blood splatter. The explanations of technique and hold are almost Ringo-esque in thoroughness, but do not detract from the quick pacing of the lopsided fights. A hundred against twenty is the closest to fair odds, so Echo has to rely on the eponymous small unit tactics to carry the day.

But all that might as well be “Tell me about your magic system” to the average reader. And while it is highly novel for a contemporary LitRPG or fantasy to not have one, the measure of the story comes down to plot and characters.

The plot is simple and bloody, as Echo must lead his clan of gamers to defile the altars of the other teams’ gods before his own are defiled. And, with the average gamer as spear fodder, typically uncoordinated, overweight, and under-muscled, Echo has to lean on his reenactor past to whip a hundred fighters into some sort of fighting shape. Being gamers, they settle into the grind, by killing the gamers on the other teams. But when a raid defiles the first temple, everyone involved realizes that they are not in a game any more. This is not in the “welcome to hardcore permadeath” trapped in a video game sense that many LitRPGs use. More in that someone put a paper-thin gaming veneer on something far more alien, and that the gods might be more than mere lore.

There are only three characters of note. Grouchy protagonist Echo is one of nature’s sergeants, able to motivate small groups into do crazy acts together. He’s a bit of a cynic, describing himself as a collective egotist out to help himself and his team. His right hand is Ed, a Viking-looking Schwarzenegger clone with an economics degree, whose battle lust can’t be sated, no matter how many times Echo contrives scenarios to reign in Ed’s enthusiasm. Rounding out the trio is Justin, a pacifist Rastafarian trapped in a PvP battleground. Justin would be little more than a druggie joke for most writers, but Romanov makes him the most personable of the trio, with an infectious charisma that not even Echo can stay mad at. The rest of the cast, named or otherwise, fall into more standard bit roles. That makes sense, as Echo sees most of them as either sword fodder or experience points. If you want to be people in Echo’s mind, you have to be on his squad. Again, Romanov presents the unflinching and often unflattering realities about gamers. Even if that means showing the warts on his own hero.

The ad copy for Small Unit Tactics touts “a massive fanbase in Russia, and these novels were in many ways forerunners to some of the most famous Russian LitRPG cycles.” While this is my introduction to Russian LitRPGs, so I can’t verify that bit of hype, there is enough difference here to be worth following. And not just for a novelty-addicted critic. If the meager gaming aspects were removed, the bloody game of the gods with undying soldiers would still stand as good fantasy. And, as the first of two volumes, Small Unit Tactics shows a brevity and restraint in a time of sprawling epics. Hopefully, Romanov proves to be as influential in English as he claims to be in Russian, as Small Unit Tactics appears to be what the increasingly mechanics-lite branch of American LitRPGs are stumbling towards.

*Maple is the heroine of I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense, who, as the title says, dumps all her points into defense and becomes overpowered as a result. As such, she is the patroness saint of a certain type of LitRPG character. For, far from being a trap that newbies fall into, dumping all stat points into a single stat is a common trope for LitRPG protagonists seeking to imbalance the game.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Destroyer of Worlds, The Earth a Machine to Speak, and the Wandering Witch

The time for the extermination of the casteless untouchables has come. Only Ashok Vadal and his battle-tested Sons of the Black Sword fight for the fleeing nameless, in the name of an unknown god that Ashok cannot bring himself to believe in. But Ashok knows his duty, even if that forces him to cross blades with his sword brother, the Lord Protector Devedas. And their duel will shake the foundations of the Empire to its core.

Larry Correia’s trilogies tend to follow the same course. So far, his pattern of explosive first book, tedious but necessary second, and a nuclear-hot finale is holding, even though Destroyer of Worlds is just a conclusion to Act One, not the completion of the series.

Ashok even gets character development between brutal battles, as he shifts his single-minded purpose from the Law to something more personal. The romance that results is awkward, but it fits Ashok’s near robotic personality and obsessive purpose. The forces that forged Ashok’s zealotry left little else to his personality, after all, so it a relief that Correia did not travel down the well-trod road where a sudden girlfriend changes a stoic into an openly expressive and emotional man. Ashok is still a zealot driven by duty, but his understanding of duty has widened slightly. And this new understanding will shatter the South Asian-skinned version of a Legend of the Five Rings RPG world.

But no one reads Correia for romance, especially when the clash of steel is in the air. And the action does not disappoint. Some science fiction authors pride themselves on being bards of the soldiers. Correia understands men of violence. And he pairs that understanding of motive, emotion, and will to the marriage of audacity and plausibility that sets his fight sequences apart. Better still, the action scenes drive the plot forward to the inevitable clash of brothers. And it wouldn’t be a Larry Correia novel without someone, somewhere firing a gun. Even in an South Asian-themed fantasy.

At this point, if Sons of the Black Sword becomes Correia’s main series, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Here ends the story of Philo Hergenschmidt, as told to his granddaughter, Agnetha. He waited fifty years to tell his story, long after the statue of limitations had expired and there was no one left to be harmed by the telling of it. It ranges from the apocryphal, to the questionable, to the impossible. 

At least some of it is true.

Fenton Wood’s Yankee Republic is much beloved here and at the Castalia House blog, with reviews from multiple bloggers. The series follows a young radio engineer travels an alt-history America, as he encounters primeval gods, mythical beasts, and tall tales come to life, in a quest to build a radio transmitter that can reach the stars. Such a tale risks turning into the dreaded “men with screwdrivers” fiction lamented occasionally in PulpRev circles. But Wood instead asks, what would Tom Sawyer do with a radio set? The result is a glorious cross between Tom Swift and John the Balladeer. And, sad to say, The Earth a Machine to Speak brings Philo’s journey to an end.

But what an end.

The wanderer must return home, after all. But one last, stunning act of audacity remains: turning on an impossible radio transmitter for one short shot at talking with the stars. The result continues Wood’s exploration of what truths may lie in the tall tales, fables, and legends shared by children and adults. After all, at least some of those stories have a kernel of truth, no matter how outrageous.

But where shall Philo return to? Wood’s alternate Anglo-Saxon America is one of those worlds which never was but should have been. And thus it is hard for the reader not to feel a twinge of that sentimental home-calling for a place that does not exist…

…or does it? For what truths about our world are shrouded in the tall tales of the Yankee Republic?

Inspired by a beloved series of books from her childhood, Elaina travels the world as a wandering with. She observes the people in each new town, adding new stories to her journal. But the wandering life is one of a constant stream of good byes, so Elaina finds herself mixed up in a series of increasingly melancholic adventures.

The Wandering Witch: The Journeys of Elaina, by Jougi Shiraishi is a rare, episodic short story collection. Elaina is a “cute witch”, a type of magical girl that uses the fashions of Western witches without any of the folklore, horror, or immorality associated with Western witches. As such, like in Little Witch Academia and Kiki’s Delivery Service, many of Elaina’s stories focus on her studies or how magic adds convenience to everyday life. The almost soapy interactions between the various strangers and customers is expected in such a slice of life travelogue. What I didn’t expect were the continued brushes with the weird tale or the constant, final sentence twists that give each story into a more melancholic understanding of the events.

The Wandering Witch actually brings something different to the novelty-choked light novel field: episodic story instead of gimmickry. Some of the formulas used are familiar to the pulp reader, but Elaina is not heroic nor a pulp protagonist. Her stories are written as though they come straight from her journal, with constant flirtations with the aggressive attention-seeking that characterizes male light novel authors writing teenaged girls in first person. But those die down as Elaina finds her place in each story to watch events unfold. She is content to remain an observer as she wanders from town to town, and only interferes if the course of events affects her. Sometimes this means rooting out traitors to the crown, but other times, it might mean that she leaves a man-eating plant alive as she moves on to the next town. But always with that undercurrent of sadness to her departure.

By the end, twist fatigue had set in, and some of the upcoming revelations had been telegraphed, such as the identity of Elaina’s teacher and her relationship to Elaina’s favorite books. But light novel short story series are not common in English. And the sense of weird, whenever encountered, felt as though it might have found a home in classic Weird Tales.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Recommended Reading Chart: Light Novels

 From Dan Wolgang, myself, and a half-dozen other contributors comes another recommended reading chart, this time for Light Novels

Many popular titles are absent for various reasons. Some, like Re: ZeroOverlord, and The Saga of Tanya the Evil, I just haven't read yet. For others, check out the reasons below.

Bakemonogatari: Clever writing marred by its embrace of the worst excesses of fandom.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: Collapsed under its ambitious kudzu time-traveling plot. A new novel is due to be released in November. Let's see if the author has figured out a resolution during the ten-year break.

A Certain Magical Index: No matter who translates it, the prose is rougher than a cheese grater. Watch the anime. It's an improvement

So I'm a Spider, So What?: Quickly abandoned the premise that made it stand out. Instead of following the charming adventure of a spider in a fantasy world, it tries for a paint-by-numbers epic fantasy. And the spider becomes human.

My Next Life as a Villainess: Too wrapped up in geek cliche, and some of the questionable ones at that. Worse, the pacing was too fast for the opportunities given by two years in a magical academy. Imagine the last three Harry Potter doorstoppers compressed to a pocketbook.

The Rising of the Shield Hero: The strong, character-oriented first volume fizzles into a meandering and aimless story.

Full Metal Panic - Another beloved series better served by its adaptations than its source material. Watch the anime instead.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Pursuit of Life!: The Mongoose and Meerkat and Slayers

 “Then let us pursue without asking what we chase, and when we catch it, let us chase again.”

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, they’ll take on any job to keep their purses full and their cups overflowing.

Pursuit Without Asking, by Jim Breyfogle, collects the first five Mongoose and Meerkat stories, of which “The Battlefield of Kerres” and “Brandy and Dye” have been reviewed here in-depth. Also included are “The Sword of the Mongoose”, where Mangos learns of the location of a rare masterwork sword, “The Valley of Terzol”, in which Kat and Mangos guard an archivist through the jungle ruins of a fallen empire, and “The Burning Fish”, where they are commissioned to recover a rare animal sacred to a goddess. The non-Mongoose and Meerkat “Deathwater” and appendices of Mangos and Kat-inspired role-playing modules and character sheets round out Pursuit Without Asking.

As mentioned before, the introduction to Mangos and Kat in “The Battlefield of Kerres” is serviceable, but thin compared to later stories. Fortunately, the characters and prose grow more complex with the next story. By the time the Mongoose and Meerkat face off against a giant serpent in “The Valley of Terzol”, the two have the light and breezy banter of long companions who have risked their lives together on countless occasions. Yet for all the time together, Kat still surprises Mangos. Each new story teases out another detail of this secretive adventurer. Scholarly yet skilled with a blade, beautiful yet unapproachable, always attacked first by monsters, each new revelation only adds to the mystery around Kat, making her more exotic.

And Breyfogle has a knack for the exotic. Jungle ruin, tropical islands, mountainous canyons, magic-ravage battlefield–each new tale thrusts Mangos and Kat into a new setting with strange people and stranger challenges.

Breyfogle has mastered small-scope fantasy, keeping the constant string of odd jobs fresh. Where some authors lean too heavily on the sword and sorcery standby of hacking through evil cultists, Mongoose and Meerkat find themselves more as hired muscle for many mercantile schemes. This thrusts them into different intrigues than just secret societies, and it also requires a bit more thought in solving mysteries and getting paid than just swinging a sword. Yet there is action to spare, as varied as the settings: mountaintop chases on crumbling paths, swims through piranha-filled waters, and the inevitable crossing of blades. The perils are all immediate and local, but brief glimpses of wider events can be seen.

Fortunately, there are more exotic settings and revelations in store for Mangos and Kat, as new volumes of Cirsova magazine feature the follow-ups to the tales in Pursuit Without Asking.

Beautiful. Genius. Glorious. The list of adjectives used to describe sorceress Lina Inverse is limitless…

…or so Lina says about herself. Most of the people who get to know this bandit-robbing sorceress just think she’s just in love with her own voice. But there is magical talent to Lina, and she’ll need it. An idol she recently “recovered” from a bandit stronghold holds the key to reviving the dark lord, and trolls, chimeras, and a suspicious wandering priest all want it. And they’re all prepared to take it from Lina, along with her head.

I haven’t come across as strong a 1st person character voice since Kei’s in The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair. Sometimes a little too strong, as you may have guessed if you’ve seen the anime. But translation hasn’t dampened Lina Inverse any, nor has it tempered her self-absorbed attention-seeking. It’s curious that those aspects tend to get cranked up in male-written light novels, and suppressed in female-written ones. Guess the obsession with the manic pixie crosses cultures. Your tolerance for the narrative voice of the Slayers, by Hajime Kanzaka, will vary, depending on how willing you are to tolerate attention-seeking teen-aged girl.

Slayers is humorous sword and sorcery, at turns poking fun and embracing the conventions of fantasy and swashbuckling action. The narration is heavy on the banter, whether it’s between Lina and the reader or Lina and her self-professed guardian, the swordsman Gourry Gabriev. Gourry tends to get Flanderized into idiocy in later adaptations, but the original is perceptive and witty when he’s not being used as a device for Lina to explain the magical chess matches she gets wrapped up in. Besides, Lina is the definition of an unreliable narrator.

As for the conventions, Slayers seesaws between peril and comedy. The peril is always real, whether from unkillable trolls to the resurrected Dark Lord. If anything, the anime tended to tone down the stakes to life, limb, and virtue. The humor comes from the responses, usually played against type. Lina is the type of action girl to save herself, but, given the right rescuer, she’ll gleefully scream like a damsel-in-distress–and love every minute of the change in pace. It’s these surprise reactions, consistent with characterization, that keep the gristle and gloom at bay. And by keeping the humor to banter and response, the peril does not get undercut by irony. The sincerity of pulp fantasy is preserved.

Mongoose and Meerkat and Slayers are often mentioned together in PulpRev circles for their similarities. And for more than just the wandering duos of male swordsmen and female magic users. And while Mangos and Kat do not indulge in the rapid manzai comedic wordplay of Lina and Gourry, both duos bring an enthusiastic swashbuckling flair to their travels. These carefree adventurers embrace the adventuring life freely, relishing equally in the clash of blades and the draining of cups. And sometimes quick wits and a quicker tongue are needed to extract these pairs from the latest town’s plots. And when one adventure is done, they dust themselves off and set out over the horizon to the next.

Or more simply put, Mongoose and Meerkat and Slayers overflow with the celebration of life and living.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Mortu and Kyrus: The Judgement of Daganha

The great highway stretched out before them. The miles flew underneath the wheels of the iron horse as they rode. Mortu the Kinslayer, Mortu the Merciful, scion of the north, where warriors were once bred like princes breed their race horses. Kyrus the Wise, a man of faith, of sacred vows and probing intellect, sharp tongued and sure of himself. Sometimes too much so, as a conflict with an evil sorcerer has resulted in his imprisonment in the body of a small monkey. Our heroes cross the wasteland in search of a cure for Kyrus, seeking magics and wisdom from the east.

Thus begins the newest adventure of Schuyler Hernstrom’s motorcycle barbarian Mortu and the monkey monk Kyrus, found in The Penultimate Men. The heroes race through desert plains and deserted relics from the alien Illilissy. But the heart of the great steel beast they ride is failing, and their next pit stop brings peril. For the cult of Daganha has settled in the nearest city, worshiping the giant scorpions that vexed Mortu and Kyrus’s recent travels. And the bright iron needed to repair Mortu’s iron steed can only be found by Oram, the merchant who controls the cult.

When Oram’s granddaughter is taken with the talking, chess-playing monkey Kyrus, he poisons Mortu. When that fails, he arranges for Mortu to be a sacrifice for Daganha’s giant scorpions. Mortu, of course, has other plans:

“Gods, protect my friend and I will spill oceans of blood in your names.”

Imprisoned with him is Ulkya, a now ex-mistress of a scorpion priest who knows the secret behind the sacrifices. Before the sacrifice, the priest blesses the doomed, anointing them with pheromones. With the right oil, the doomed are spared, but with the wrong, they are eaten by the scorpions.

While they plot, Kyrus must endure becoming a child’s plaything:

“I am wrestling with the notion that I have passed away and awoken in perdition.”

“I assure you that you haven’t.”

“That’s a pity.”

He manages to escape and finds Mortu and Ulkya’s prison. Now the monkey monk must find a way to free Mortu before the scorpions awake for their feeding, while Mortu marshals his strength and fury for a last stand if Kyrus fails.

But the big question is how the axe and sorcery of Mortu and Kyrus fares when not bloodily refuting one of science fiction’s most famous and inane moral dilemmas. Quite well, actually. Mortu and Kyrus compare well to fantasy duos such as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Gotrek and Felix, and Mongoose and Meerkat. Turn to educated and clever Kyrus to find out why a mystery is happening. Release the dour Mortu to make it end. And if the main conflict is compressed into a bloody second half of the story, it gives room for Hernstrom to weave the post-alien apocalyptic world his heroes live in.

It is hard not to repeat myself from my “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” review. Hernstrom shows off his ability to imply entire civilization’s worth of history in only a couple sentences. Compared to paragraphs of exposition used by other writers, a mere line here and there among the descriptions of strange men and stranger customs at a bazaar shed more light to the history of Mortu and Kyrus’s world and to that of the heroes themselves. As a result, the world feels as vast as the wide deserts Mortu’s iron steed rides across. 

The dialogue continues to be an exemplar of best form speech, with an ear for oration instead of quick quips. The responses are more idealized and formal, but they carry more intent and sincerity as a result. Twenty years ago, there was a warning for artists to abandon irony for sincerity. Hernstrom’s speechs are muscular examples of what can be accomplished in that vein.

Honestly, the main question at the end is simply, “When can we have another?” Hopefully, the answer is soon.