Sunday, January 3, 2021

Dungeons and Iron

We take a look at Dungeon Heart, by David Sanchez-Ponton, Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon #15, by Fujino Omori, and Iron Company, by Chris Wraight.

Upon his death, the great dwarven craftsman known as The Emperor of the Forge was not returned to the halls of his ancestors. Instead, he found his essence fused to a dungeon core and hidden underground. Now known as Smit, the newborn dungeon must grow and survive. But a new dungeon brings new opportunities, and a cloud of intrigues gather outside Smit’s gate. The dungeon is unware of these threat as he focuses on something no dungeon has done before: making living art worthy of a master craftsman out of his halls.

Dungeon builder fantasy and progression fantasy follow a set pattern, and while many dungeon builders excel at developing parts of the pattern, few manage the whole. Dungeon Heart, unfortunately, is one of the former. Sanchez-Ponton wonderfully develops the idea of craftsmanship with Smit, with passages about the processes and the pride of creation. However, Dungeon Heart does not marry these to an equally strong external threat worthy of heroic fantasy or epic fantasy. This is not to say that the germ of such is not present, just underdeveloped. Adding clarity to the threat would greatly strengthen the plot and the story. As it is, Dungeon Heart takes twice as long to get half as far as most other dungeon building novels. But it is hard not to get swept up into the joy of creation alongside Smit.

After moving heaven and earth to rescue Bell and Lyu from the depths of the dungeon, the Hestia Familia has earned a respite from adventuring. As Bell recovers, at swordpoint from the doctors, each member of the Familia has time to ponder how much they have changed in the short six months since Bell arrived in Orario, of where they all came from and how far they’ve come…

…and, occasionally, how far they still have to go.

Fifteen books in a market as cutthroat as light novels is quite the success, and Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon (Danmachi, for short) has earned its longevity through the strength of its characters, avoiding the gimmick implied by its unwieldy title, and applying shounen tropes from shows like Dragonball ZMy Hero Academia, and Naruto to fantasy. In this volume, Bell’s upward climb over adversity to fame is interrupted for a moment of reflection. This allows Fujino Omori to indulge not just in the strong characterization carried throughout the series, but in examining and developing a theme across multiple short stories–a rarity in the indulgent world of light novels. Fans of the series will enjoy the insight into favorite characters, even as they groan over how clueless each can be. However, one wonders if Omori is writing the story into a corner, as the relationship central to Bell’s impressive growth as a character and as an adventurer, that of his puppy-love crush over the preeminent swordswoman in Orario, Aiz Wallenstein, gets pushed further onto the back burners.

At the dawn of yet another of the incessant wars plaguing the Empire, retired combat engineer Magnus Ironblood is drinking away his failures, one barrel at a time. However, the loyalist forces are out-manned and out-gunned, and need a man to command the Iron Company and lead the artillery and handcannoneers of the army. Magnus accepts the job, in search of redemption or maybe just a distraction from his failures. But the distrust of his commander, an ambitious subordinate’s attempts to court favor, and a rival from his disgraced past bar the way to victory–and Magnus’s fortune.

Another Warhammer Fantasy novel means another war, and it takes a lot to step out of the grim dark shadows. Some take refuge in audacious spectacle, others, in the tropes of pulp fantasy and sword and sorcery. In Iron Company, it is back to the basics of character and adventure. Save for a thin veneer of Warhammer Fantasy trappings, this story could fit in any time period where siegecraft plays a role in warfare. But Warhammer Fantasy is richer for it. The chapter headings are triumphant about the future of engineering and the engineer, offering a distinct contrast and hope to Magnus’s trials. But it all comes to grit and skill, and despite the years soaked in alcohol, Magnus’s is of iron. He just has to survive the reforging.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Misha Burnett’s Endless Summer

“For me, Misha is the consummate craftsman.”
–Schuyler Hernstrom, writer of “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City”.

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

“Do the next thing. Work on the job at hand.”

“You’re going to do this thing because it needs to be done and there is no one else.”

“Use the tools you have, and if you don’t have  the right tool, figure out what the right tool looks like and make it.”

Ten years ago, it was popular for a certain segment of Science Fiction and Fantasy Fandom to wax eloquently about Kipling’s “Sons of Martha”, in whose care “that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.” And while some came close to the idea Kipling expressed, they approached it from the point of view of supervisors and managers. The actual fabricators and maintenance personnel remained invisible.

Until now. Until Misha Burnett’s Endless Summer, a collection of 12 science fiction tales and nightmares dealing with the efforts, often thankless, needed for humanity to live and thrive, whether in the current day or some far-flung future. Sprinkled throughout are nightmare where those efforts are no longer to hold back that other peril, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”. And behind it all is love, in all of its twisted yet still hopeful forms.

If there is one word that sums up Misha’s writing, it might just be Selah. Meditate on these things. Extremely contemplative, extremely blue collar in a way the Expanse guys wish they were. Never just a popcorn story. Misha is a rarity in the current time, a science fiction writer who lustily embraces the New Wave instead of avoiding it. And he brings that dream-like fascination with humanity in all its varied and occasionally malignant forms to his stories.

He also grasps with theme, when most writing advice, from Stephen King on down, treats it as an afterthought or heady accident. And there are plenty of common themes running throughout these stories. Decline and fall, hope and rebuilding. Outsiders. Broken people working out their happy endings with fear and trembling. The invisibility and necessity of blue collar work.

“The Bullet From Tomorrow” is a time-traveling story, which asks what happens to the time-traveler after the future changes. What happens to the man without hope when he discovers it once again?

Science fiction tends to show that there are beings that think differently but just as deeply as we do. Misha’s “Milk, Bread, & Eggs” posits that certain experiences are universal. Such as prepping for a disaster.

“Milk, Bread, & Eggs” and “These are the Things that Bounded Me” may just be good homespun advice for the uncertainties no doubt awaiting us. “These are the Things” is a story of quiet heroism and endurance that science fiction, so enamored with kings, scholars, and officers, tends to miss.

“The Island of Forbidden Dances” is a nightmare of the current day, forged from the current fascination with voyeurism and exhibitionism. Like Misha, I am surprised this hasn’t been done yet.

“In the Driving Lane” is a nightmare of tomorrow, or perhaps tonight. None are more skeptical about complex systems and inventions than those tasked to their maintenance. And Misha’s long years in maintenance work have rendered him skeptical about self-driving vehicles.

“Heartbeat City Homicide” is about the compromises needed to keep a city running, set in a city inside a geothermal tap.

“Serpent’s Walk” is another Ozark nightmare–the *nice* part of the Ozarks reoccurring throughout this collection–with a mutant enduring a feral and just as mutated wilderness to get a bit of revenge. “My Foe Outstretched” is another revenge tale, with a bitter price for its destructive path.

The last four stories, “The Happiest Place on Earth”, “mDNA”, “Endless Summer”, and “The First Man in the World” deal with love in its various meanings and forms. Together, they form a refutation of the old Harlan Ellison title, “Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled”, as a heavy contemplation of duty and responsibility runs through each. “The First Man in the World” by itself is worth the full price of the book. In a saner, less narcissistic time, it would have won awards.

In short, buy Misha Burnett’s Endless Summeras it takes as truth the myriad of flatteries Science Fiction tells about itself. Adventure, wonder, inspiration, and even a chance for self-reflection are all here. Just not in the forms and characters you might expect.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Technic History: “Wings of Victory”

“After three years we were weary and had suffered losses. Oh, the wonder wasn’t gone. How could it ever go–from world after world after world? But we had seen so many, and of those we had walked on, some were beautiful and some were terrible and most were both (even as Earth is) and none were alike and all were mysterious. They blurred together in our minds.”

The Technic History is Poul Anderson’s best-known setting, spinning a tale of the rise and fall of empire across time and space Easily the equal of Asimov’s Robots-Empire-Foundation history, the Technic History is filled with notable characters such as the malapropist merchant prince Nicholas Van Rijn, his protégé David Falkayn, and the dashing intelligence agent Dominic Flandry. But where Asimov ruthlessly probes the failures of robotics and psychohistory, Anderson provides puzzles, adventures, and a more human understanding of motivations. Even in the alien minds that Anderson’s characters must strive against. For there are minds that think as thoroughly as man’s, even if they think differently, and understanding is only possible for those who observe and ponder.

“Wings of Victory” shows such an example, offering the first contact between humanity and the Ythrians, an avian species who would in turns rival and cooperate with the spreading human empire, as Van Rijn and Falkayn will come to know intimately. But that is several centuries in the future. At this point, humanity has undertaken a Grand Survey of space, and one scout ship has discovered intelligent life 300 light-years away from Earth. A small team of three is sent to the planet to discover as many clues about the alien race as possible before making contact.

Don’t expect to see the sanitary and patronizing Prime Directive here. Rather, Anderson acknowledges the dangers that come from the initial encounter between two cultures who share nothing but the ground they both currently occupy. Where even the best intentions may realize a bloody failure, and the subtlest of clues may bring peace. If anyone is paying attention, that is.

Layered on top of this first contact story is the familiar clash between leadership and authority. Aram Turekian is the natural leader with street-sense. Vaughn Webner is the man in charge with bookish learning and a fragile sense of his own station. Add the stress brought about by the presence of Yukiko Sachansky, the ship’s beauty, and the survey team might be too preoccupied to notice the predatory avians hunting them.

The story is simple, following the familiar steps as the proud and bookish Webner jeopardizes the survey team through one blunder after another, sparking the Ythrians’ wrath. Turekian’s quick and cool thinking allows the team to evacuate, but only after Yukiko calms the clash between egos. The team escapes, and presents themselves a second time to the Ythrians, to far greater success. It’s a simple story, to be sure, as the text is crowded with exposition about the Ythrians. Rather than a story about exploration, “Wings of Victory” is an excuse to reveal more about the classic avian race that plays such an important role in the Technic History. The strife in the survey team is just a vehicle to get the audience to care about the exposition.

And it succeeds, somewhat. “Wings of Victory” was written in 1972, before the fascination and later frustration with the infodump overwhelmed science fiction. As a result, there is too much exposition interrupting the story for current fashions. It is also a side dish to the main course of Van Rijn, Falkayn, and Flandry. As a result, those looking to read the Technic History should proceed straight to Van Rijn’s stories and come back to this prequel afterwards, to better appreciate both the Technic History and “Wings of Victory”.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

An Eye for an Eye

"It is a wild, savage, bitter story, I repeat, for no story of the Legion deals with life in a Boston drawing-room. Quaintly enough, this story has to do with a glass eye. And a live eye, too. You know that grim saying from the Bible: 'An eye for an eye'? But yes. This is the story of an eye for an eye. And a grim little story it is." - Thibault Corday

In "An Eye for an Eye", by Theodore Roscoe, we return once more to the French Foreign Legion and the soldiers' tales of Thibault Corday, the cinnamon-bearded retired legionnaire holding court in the cafes of Algiers. But where his introductory tale, "Better than Bullets", was one of the humorous and sanitized tales every veteran keeps for the children, "An Eye for an Eye" is a far darker tale of betrayal and wrath. Corday spins this tale to vex a particular loathsome American, who boasts of a fortune made from glass eyes. And, as always, great troubles come from the smallest of provocations:

"When two boys love the same girl there is apt to be plenty of trouble. Especially if they already hate each other, as with the case with those two young cadets at St. Cyr."

Corday recalls, as though from the front row of the audience, the crossing of swords between two cousins, Hyacinth and a promising cadet nicknamed Carrot (for his red hair). Jealousy provoked Hyacinth to strike at Carrot, and a beautiful and vain girl was just the excuse. The scoundrel left Carrot on the dueling field, leaving the once-promising cadet without an eye and with only the wrathful oath of taking an eye for an eye as company. Carrot would spend two decades training for and hunting down Hyacinth, with the cousins' paths finally crossing in Dahomey, a dark and haunted land perfect for settling wrathful deeds.

In Corday, Roscoe captures perfectly the voice of a veteran and a veteran storyteller. Corday is a master entertainer, able to keep rapt audiences at the café--and those reading--with nothing but the spoken word. Word choice, rhythm, cadence--all the tricks of a master orator, captured neatly on the page. You can almost hear the old soldier's laughter in each paragraph. It has been a vexing temptation to quote more from the old soldier than I already have. And it is my hope to one day find these stories matched in audiobook to the proper performer to give Corday's words the life they deserve. Say, what is John Ringo up to, these days?

But what stands out the most in this tale of revenge is that Roscoe has created a naturalistic weird tale, full of exotica, dread, and uncanny occurrence. He just provides a convincing natural explanation for the events. Corday is known to embellish his stories--as is common for a tableside war story--he just never stretches credulity by bringing in the supernatural. The normal passions of men are dark and mysterious enough to provide the backdrop to this cautionary tale. Even the twist at the end, where we find out just how close the cinnamon-bearded veteran was to the clashes between dour Hyacinth and fiery Carrot, falls perfectly into the traditions of the Weird. And it is in this vein that many of Corday's later tales follow.

The world might be plenty strange enough for Corday, but his tales are some of the most approachable of the adventure pulps, even now, where desert sands invoke Black Hawk Down instead of Lawerence of Arabia. Expect to see more about the old legionnaire, soon.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Combat Frame XSeed: S

Nearly 60 years after Arthur Wake’s rebellion encountered the vanguard of the Ynzu’s extermination fleet, humanity finds itself in the third decade of an alien siege. Mass-produced combat frames and far-flung extra-solar colonies have kept the wave of crystalline Ynzu reapers from sweeping humanity into the dustbin of history. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and none are more desperate than Project S.

When the Ynzu attack the colony world of Cassone, Dex Trapper and Thatcher Drummond commandeer a relic XSeed prototype to find help for the besieged colony. This fateful decision sparks a chain of events that thrust the duo into the heart of the machinations around Project S–as unwitting test subjects. Not only must they and their new-created XSeed squadron, the Guardian Angels, help free Cassone, they must track down their rogue Project S predecessors who are now working as infiltrators for the Ynzu.

Brian Niemeier’s Combat Frame XSeed: S kicks off the second XSeed trilogy with yet another shift in tone and context. Instead of playing a familiar theme and variation on rebellion, intrigue, and mecha combat that drive the secret history of the XSeed world, Brian Niemeier switches to more conventional set-piece battles and the frantic search for the hidden hands of history that might guide humanity to survival or extinction. With the change in stakes and scope comes a more relaxed pacing. Don’t get me wrong, XSeed: S provides plenty of harrowing mecha action. This time around, though, Dex and the reader are given time to think and breathe before the next twist and revelation. 

XSeed: S is still a martial thriller, so those looking for the regimentation of milSF won’t find it here. After all, insubordination might be anathema to the military-minded, but it’s a right of passage for a mecha pilot. However, XSeed: S comes closest to the conventions of that genre, as the Guardian Angels get hemmed up repeatedly for acting on the independence expected of the mecha pilot. And the consequences are not the token pushback of desk jockeys either. The Rule of Cool still reigns, so the result is more Macross than United States Marines.

While previous XSeed novels drew heavily from a Gundam lineage, XSeed: S wears its Macross heritage proudly. Many resonances to that second venerable mecha series exist, from rival aces, to wunderkind pilots discovered when stranded in space, to alien infiltrators and more. We even get a cameo of the classic Macross GERWALK mode, a transformable hybrid between airplane and humanoid mechs. Thankfully, the stage is not set for a Minmei-style idol singer. But these tips of the hat do not choke out what distinguishes the XSeed series from the rest of the mecha pack. So readers do not have to be mecha fans or anime fans to appreciate XSeed: S. The book stands on its own, with its own rich history and familiar families at the heart of events. And some of the survivors of CY40 are still on the board…

Make sure to read the teaser for the upcoming XSeed: SS at the end. It sheds light on hidden hands behind the events of XSeed: S.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Cirsova Fall 2020 Special

The Cirsova Fall 2020 Special has arrived, just in time for Halloween, with a new bundle of strange yet thrilling adventures, daring suspense, and even a horror story or two. To editor P. Alexander's immense credit, each one of the fifteen tales is worthy of a week's discussion covering both the stylistic and thematic choices. More importantly, and even more to his credit, each tale is worthy of rereading.

Here are but a few of the highlights.

The Fall Special kicks off with "Melkart the Castaway", an adventure from antiquity, when the gods were still yet men. This was an excellent adventure in the vein of Manly Wade Wellman's Kardios. (Reviewed in depth here.)

“The Way He Should Go” tackles fatherhood in the same vein as Lone Wolf and Cub and The Mandalorian, but brings life to the internal struggles of the father and the protector in ways that the more visual media of manga and television cannot. Don't think that it skimps on the intrigue and adventure, though.

"Tilting the Wick" slowly develops the mystery behind a strange monastery hidden off the map in a sword and planet future. Something as simple as repairing a pump sends a traveling engineer and doctor on the path to unraveling the monastery's heresies and chemistries. The setting and story are so pregnant with lore that it would not be a surprise to discover that this is but a chapter of a soon to be released novel.

"Slave or Die" provides a nice change of pace to the previous sword and sorcery and sword and planet tales. A convict laborer must escape a prison planet, where the bright future of Apple and SpaceX designs is bent to a more sinister end: work or die. As he struggles to escape, his captors proceed to nickel and dime him for every expense and luxury possible. Strip away the alien trappings, and this has a haunting "Not Ripped from the Headlines, but Give it a Few Years" feel to it. And more than a little dry humor. Perhaps the next prison will be of bright lights, white plastic, and streamed entertainment...

"An Accumulation of Anguish" is a Halloween monster tale where a trick-or-treater runs into not one, but two real monsters. It's a bit short, almost abrupt, but the twist at the end is worth it.

Not only did I enjoy the stories, I enjoyed how the stories flowed from mythological to sword and sorcery to sword and planet to technological future and then back to not-quite-present day. A nice trick of presentation that serves to set up the appetite for each story. For just as a reader's appetite for a particular type of fantasy is being sated, Cirsova provides something new when it would be most appreciated. Little touches like the organization and the pulpy fonts add to the presentation, especially in paper format.

But, as always, it comes down to the well-chosen stories. And, while Cirsova is a favorite of the Castalia House Blog, the magazine still doesn't get half the recognition it rightfully deserves.

The full list of Cirsova's Fall 2020 special includes:

“Melkart the Castaway” by Mark Mellon

“Its Own Reward” by Rob Francis

“The White Giant's Map” by Richard Rubin

“The Chamber of Worms” by Matthew X. Gomez

“After the House of the Laughing God” by Michael Ray

“The Way He Should Go” by Joshua M. Young

“Tilting the Wick” by J. Comer

“Slave or Die” by Benjamin Cooper

“He Who Rides on the Clouds” by Trevor R. Denning

“To Rest Among the Stars” by Su-Ra-U

“Ecliptical Musings” by Bill Suboski

“Not Any Earthly Shade of Color” by Danny Nicholas

“In the Bowels of the Theatre” by Matt Spencer

“An Accumulation of Anguish” by James Lam

“The Horror of the Hills” by Jude Reid

Monday, November 9, 2020

Melkart the Castaway

As the air chills and the leaves turn, and the lengthening shadows of Halloween creep across the fields, it is time again for the newest issue of Cirsova. Leading off the 2020 Fall Special is Mark Mellon’s “Melkart the Castaway”, a tale of wine-dark seas and of the men whom legend would turn into gods.

After a captive Triton smashes his ship, Melkart awakens on the island of Candia (Crete), a captive of the Despot Hermes Trismegestius and his Spartan guard. Melkart wishes to return home to Tyre, but Hermes would instead chain the Phoenician Hercules to a grinding mill. Outraged by such bestial treatment, Melkart escapes, and with the help of an outcast, prepares to free the helot slaves and Candia from the Despot’s yoke.

Readers familiar with Classical literature will recognize certain phrases from antiquity. Sometimes these become a distraction, as remember which story a certain phrase came from does remove the reader from Melkart’s struggles. But the first use of “Wine-dark sea”, uttered just before the introduction of the Greek setting and characters, was a masterful touch, informing the reader of what is to come with subtlety and cleverness. And the old stories inform this one, as Melkart must face off against a Minotaur for his life. For a story filled with what the Classical Greeks would treat as demigods, Mellon takes a more naturalistic approach. Monsters do exist, but the power of those who bear the name of gods is in strength, sinew, and craft.

The prose sits in a middle area between the richness of classic sword and sorcery and contemporary transparency. Mellon has an eye for good and unique details, but the presentation thereof tends to settle into disjointed lists. However, when Melkart springs into action, that awkwardness sloughs away, and it is easy to swept up into the feats of strength and wits needed for Melkart’s escape. At the conclusion, when Spartan arms clash against the Phoenician’s and his helot uprising, anything else is forgotten.

And it wouldn’t be a proper tale of thrilling adventure and daring suspense without a hint of romance.

“Melkart the Castaway” serves well as the leading story for the newest volume of Cirsova, and I would like to read more from Mellon in this vein.