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.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Flowers From the Moon

Robert Bloch is best known for “Psycho”, of which a movie and a thousand imitations and memes were made. But he was also a staple of science fiction, weird fiction, and crime pulps.
I’ve read one of his crime pulps before, a smug little “you didn’t really think it was vampires” whodunnit for a more mainstream detective pulp. Now it’s time to give him a second chance–this time in the realm of the strange and the weird.
August 1939’s Strange Stories had two tales from Robert Bloch. “Pink Elephants” under his own name, and, as was common when an author had multiple stories in the same issue, “Flowers From the Moon” (hosted, among other places, at SFFAudio) under a pseudonym.
So, picking the less ridiculous-sounding title, I’m reading “Flowers From the Moon”, a tale of space travel…
…and werewolves?
Hopefully, this won’t be another shaggy dog story.
In the opening, Terry begins the tale racing in his car towards where a great aluminum spaceship is about to land. There, the doors open, and he is reunited with Edna Jackson, his love. Their meeting is interrupted by what is left of Terry’s rival, now a madman.
In a bestial rage, Charles rips the throat out of a nearby reporter. The captain of the ship shoots Charles, throws the beast man’s body into Terry’s car, and commands him to drive.
Once in the safety of the expedition’s lab, the captain starts telling his story. It was a smooth flight to the Moon, almost perfect, until they discovered strange flowers on the surface. Flowers that they brought back with them to Earth.
The scent is hypnotic, entrancing Terry to the point where his breathing matches a strange pulsing from the flowers. Then a baying howl rips through the lab, and the wolf that was Charles attacks and kills Edna’s father.
The pharmacological effects of the flowers turn men into beasts, and Charles isn’t the only member of the crew to fall under their effect. The Captain falls under their sway, and two wolves now menace Terry and Edna.
The poor doomed couple barricades themselves in a room, unable to leave without getting attacked. This standoff cannot last long, for Terry knows he is changing too. The story is a last confession before the final horror.
Well, that opening sure caught my attention. True to Lester Dent’s formula, Terry starts out in a heap of trouble, with strong indications of more coming. And the stakes escalate in roughly quarters, although “Flowers From the Moon”, like many a weird tale, relies more heavily on exposition than action to build its story.
From the previous story, I expected a purely naturalistic explanation for the weirdness at hand. Sure enough, Bloch’s description of how the flowers caused bestial changes in humans is almost mechanical. However, the uncaring mechanics of chemistry only add to the Gothic-styled horror. When Bloch plays the weird things straight, he’s effective and chilling. The horror is magnified by the twist at the end. And the clever mix of folklore and science is complementary and believable.
From a prose standpoint, Bloch is eminently readable and frantic. Rather than gilding the vocabulary, Bloch uses rhythm and short sentences to heighten the unease. It’s a subtle trick, but one later writers will abuse.
With this story, Bloch offers science horror without the stiltedness expected from the more mainstream science fiction of the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Perhaps I’ll try “Pink Elephants” after all.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Shadowcast episode 4



Razorfist's Shadowcast returns this month with a review of The Shadow Strikes, one of The Shadow films most closely resembling the pulps. Pity that it was made on a shoestring. Also reviewed is the radio episode "Death House Rescue", a milestone for The Shadow as the first of Orson Welles' legendary run as The Knight of Darkness.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Combat Frame XSeed: CY40 Second Coming

“You’ve got to love escalation.” – Faust Hayden, XSeed CY40 II

Brian Niemeier’s Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 ended on a wicked cliffhanger with the clash of superweapons and the sudden disappearance of Arthur Wake, the mastermind of the rebellion against the Systems Overterrestrial Coalition (SOC). The sequel, Combat Frame XSeed: CY40 Second Coming, (hereafter CY 40 II) picks up in the immediate aftermath, with the XSeed pilots finding themselves on the run while the SOCs launch false-flag attacks to keep Earth from rallying to their cause. Abandoned by Wake, circumstances and belief divide the XSeed pilots, as new factions, combat frames, and even species take to the fields and skies of Earth. As the desperate defense of a free Earth heats up, Wake returns, lighting a powder keg 60 million years in the making.
As usual, the XSeed roller coaster begins from there, taking readers through a whirlwind of change as factions unite and break apart with each new development. Here in CY 40 II, the revelations are earth-shaking, as the XSeed pilots and the SOC must deal with an alien threat even as they fight each other. The tantalizing skeins of a 60 million-year-old mystery first spun in the original XSeed CY1 now take shape with the addition of the alien Secta, beings who travel from one doomed world to the next to record what they find. Earth, Mars, and the space colonies of the SOC are the latest worlds to be doomed. But before a defense can be prepared, Arthur Wake and Sullia Zend, the possible reincarnation of former genocidal world leader Sekaino Megami, must deal with each other, and Arthur prefers grenades to mere words.
As always with Niemeier’s books, CY 40 II rewards a close reading. Careful callbacks to XSeed CY1 appear, adding to the mysteries surrounding Sekaino Megami and those who would challenge her. Familiar faces appear in the most unlikely places. For those readers familiar with the mobile suit genre, resonances to the Gundam series which inspired XSeed are present, including 1990s fan-favorite Gundam Wing. The threat of alien invasion offers a splash of Macross resonances as well, although thankfully no one sings here. And beneath the crackle of lasers and hiss of rockets, there is the mounting cost as the various factions of secret kings push humanity past its limits in preparation for the alien threat. Unavoidably in such attempts, there is breakage, as each of the XSeed pilots discovers, including newcomer James Trent.
So what makes the third visit to the XSeed story the charm?
Everything that I enjoyed from the previous two books is present in a clearer more concentrated form. Niemeier continues to grow more comfortable with the action and intrigues required in a martial thriller, enough to step on the gas and pick up the pace from the already brisk prequels. CY 40 II offers all the mecha action, intrigue, and surprises of the previous two books combined in half the space. Perhaps Wake’s return to SOC space might have used a little more exposition for clarification, but otherwise, Niemeier deftly juggles the demands of heavy metal action, multiplying intrigue, and the constantly shifting locations required in a mecha thriller. 
A dry wit comes into sharper focus. A few excellent one-liners emerge from the chatter of pilots not used to radio discipline. Fortunately, these are not delivered with camp nor does the book stop to admire their cleverness. However, the occasional relief allows the tension needed in battles between metallic knights of space to ratchet even higher than without it.
Perhaps the only thing missing from CY 40 II is the growing collection of mecha art and profiles currently hosted on Niemeier’s blog. The art and backstories for each mecha design are fascinating, and a profile or two of the most prominent mecha in each book would be a welcome addition to flip back and forth between. The visual element from these designs set XSeed apart from other military and martial science fiction series taking inspiration from familiar works. It wouldn’t hurt to lean into that more.
More XSeed is on its way, set even further into the future, and, from hints dropped on Niemeier’s blog, it’s a future of war and platypuses. Until then, CY 40 II and its page-turner prequels supply enough heavy metal mecha action to hold readers over.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Introduction to Captain Future

"The original introduction to Captain Future as it appeared in issue #1 The Wizard of Science! Captain Future!"
The most colorful planeteer in the Solar System makes his debut in this, America’s newest and most scintillating scientifiction magazine — CAPTAIN FUTURE.
This is the magazine more than one hundred thousand scientifiction followers have been clamoring for! Here, for the first time in scientifiction thrilling history, is a publication devoted exclusively to the thrilling exploits of the greatest fantasy character of all time!
Follow the flashing rocket-trail of the Comet as the most extraordinary scientist of nine worlds have ever known explores the outposts of the cosmos to the very shores of infinity.
Read about the Man of Tomorrow today!
Meet the companions of Captain Future, the most glamorous trio in the Universe! Grag, the giant, metal robot; Otho, the man-made, synthetic android; and aged Simon Wright, the living Brain.
Captain Future took off in 1940, and his futuristic super-science  adventures lasted, in various magazines, into the 1950s. The World Wrecker, Edmond Hamilton, penned most of the novels, although he was later joined by Joseph Samachson and Manly Wade Wellman. His adventures were revived, in Japan with the 1978 Captain Future anime, and in 2018 with a failed print reboot in America. A German film version is in development, with various sample trailers leaking onto YouTube. PulpFest has an excellent introduction to the good Captain Future, of whom I'll take a closer look this week, as I am currently reading "Captain Future and the Space Emperor". Wellman's Captain Future novel, naturally, is next.

What interests me about this introduction are the references to "scientifiction" instead of science fiction and the clear references to the most extraordinary scientist as the greatest fantasy character of all time. Sure, it may be marketing speak, but it is also a clear tie to C. S. Lewis's German definition of science fiction as "any futurist fantasy." (Perhaps that is why Captain Future was wildly popular in Europe, Japan, and the Arab countries.) Above all, it's a reminder that tastes and even concepts of science fiction weren't as set in stone--or even inevitable--as the fannish histories like to portray.

As of the spaceman Doc Savage and his fight against an almost-Darth Vader-like Space Emperor, we shall see them soon.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Ruins, Warrior Reborn, and Is it Wrong?

In Ruins of the Galaxy, by J. N. Chaney and Christopher Hopper, an intergalactic peace summit between the Republic, the Jedi-like Luma, and the canine Jujari end with a bang when three explosions rip through the summit. Now Republic Marine Lt. Magnus and Luma peacekeeper Awen must escape the enraged homeworld of the Jujari, while trying to discover who in the Republic sabotaged the peace talks.
Another #StarWarsNotStarWars series, Ruins aims at a Clone Wars adventure feel, providing enough Jedi action for those who might think Galaxy’s Edge needed more of the Force. It combines military action with epic fantasy pacing. Like most recent military SF series, Ruins draws from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for inspiration, however, the focus is on Lt. Magnus and Awen rather than his regiment or life in the service. A lot of time is spent on where the bullets are flying, but the action doesn’t move the plot forward with the same breakneck pace. As such, Ruins needs to be read back to back with its sequel, Galactic Breach, to get a complete story. When done so, the full scope of the failed peace talks comes into focus, giving meaning to the extended tactical action scenes.

In M. H. Johnson’s Silver Fox & The Western Hero: Warrior Reborn, Alex, a billionaire’s son, attempts a desperate gamble to beat cancer. He volunteers to be cryogenically frozen until such time as a cure could be found, with his mind stimulated by an immersive MMO-like program while he sleeps. When he wakes up, Alex finds himself a barbarian in a Chinese fantasy thousands of years future that looks an awful lot like the past. To survive, he must master chi cultivation, even if it means drawing the attention of a trickster deity.
Warrior Reborn paints a light gloss of litRPG gaming elements over the currently popular chi cultivation and portal fantasy genres (xianxia and isekai) into a doorstopper novel. However, the litRPG elements are completely superfluous to the story, as Warrior Reborn quickly turns into a  Ringoesque logistics opener focused on how Alex cleared his meridians to use the non-games mechanics skills of chi cultivation. This pursuit fills 75% of the doorstopper, which means that the conflict for the series is not revealed until the denouement. Warrior Reborn needs an aggressive editor wielding a cutting knife. There is, however, a lot of potential and charm here. The chinoiserie elements are immersive, not intrusive. The characterization is strong enough to carry the story over long stretches of exposition. And there are tantalizing hints to Alez’s lost adventures as a Watson to a trickster god’s Holmes. Hopefully the sequel will better balance exposition and adventure.

Fujino Omori’s Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (Danmachi for short) returns for its fourteenth volume, on the heels of a sinkhole that sent Bell Cranell and Lyu Leon into the depths of the Dungeon, past where even Lyu’s impressive skills can prevail. As the denizens of the Dungeon swarm them, the injured Lyu plans to sacrifice herself so that Bell can make it to the surface. Unfortunately, the stubborn and idealistic Bell won’t let her. Meanwhile, the members of Bell’s guild mount an expedition to rescue him, but they too find themselves pressed to their limits. Will skill and determination be enough to rescue Bell and Lyu?
Danmachi‘s English name is somewhat misleading. Even with all the challenges and growing up he’s done over the course of the series, Bell is still too innocent for hand holding, much less the more rakish acts the series’ name might suggest. Instead, his efforts are focused on becoming a stronger hero, unaware of the second glances in his direction. Bell’s determination and idealism allow him to accomplish stunning feats of heroism that older, more jaded adventurers find unthinkable. In many ways, Bell is closer to shounen manga protagonists like Naruto, Deku, and Goku than the more jaded otaku protagonists of isekai light novels, such as Konosuba’s Kazuma. And, as this volume was originally intended as the series finale, Bell will need every bit if he is going to carry the injured Lyu to the surface as Danmachi throw the heroes into increasingly desperate and outnumbered situations.
However, this is also the first time since the contrived opening to the series that Danmachi’s plot comes close to its name. Lyu in Danmachi’s version of Batman, a masked avenger for justice that causes evil to tremble at her name. So it’s endearing to see the normally stoic elf’s facade crack into blushes, while Bell is oblivious as he is focused on their survival. Danmachi presents a rare inversion of the typical light novel romance plot where the boy helps the girl through a physical problem, and the girl helps the boy through an emotional one. Lyu helps Bell survive, and Bell unknowingly helps Lyu through survivor’s guilt. The romance plot is sweet, with far more puppy love than lust, but marred by the fact that there are at least three more girls Bell is going to rescue in future books—even if two of them have to contrive circumstances to get their turns.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Peter the Brazen: "A Princess of Static"


Radio operator Peter Moore, the man of brass and later to be called Peter the Brazen, gets caught up in Chinese intrigues in "A Princess of Static." Peter is called out as a major inspiration to Doc Savage, from the man of brass/Man of Bronze nicknames to the technologist as a heroic man of action. Peter, however, is not blessed with all of Doc's talents, nor colored after the metal of his name.

Peter is a brash, skilled radio operator in a Pacific merchantman company gifted with sensitive ears that allow him to hear radio messages at ranges well beyond his peers. As such, he's able to punch his own ticket in the company. Like most commo guys, this has gone to his head.

In his first adventure, Peter's friendship with certain shadowy gentlemen in San Francisco's Chinatown tip him off to a bit of human trafficking about the Vandalia. A "very high lady," in fact. So Peter joins the Vandalia's crew.

As the passengers embark, Peter notices a Chinese woman escorting another woman in a gray hood. They enter an empty cabin unregistered to any passenger.

Soon after, the Vandalia's radios are plagued by a noise jammer that defies all attempts of Peter's fellow signaleers to isolate. Peter listens to the signal and discerns a message below the noise. It's a cry for help, and it's coming from somewhere aboard the Vandalia.

Peter stalks the empty cabin for fleeting traces of the now-vanished women. Meanwhile, the captain is trying to force Peter to drop the investigation.

When Vandalia arrives in China, two passengers try to board a ferry from the ship in the dead of night. Peter interferes, and ends up rescuing Aileen Lorimer, the hidden signaleer, who he sends to the American consulate. He thinks he's done with her.

Aileen, once abducted to be a birthday gift for a Chinese lord, turns out to be the first of Peter the Brazen's love interests. Or maybe the third. Adventure and radio appear to be the first two.

Overshadowed is perhaps the best word to describe this first Peter the Brazen tale. It was popular enough to be collected into a novel in 1919. But with the rise of Black Mask and Weird Tales, "A Princess of Static" was quickly relegated to an honorable mention in pulp adventure.

The action is blink-and-miss-it quick, the exoticness of China and Chinatown is subdued compared to the chinoiseries of the late 20s and early 30s, and the less said about the Chinese accented dialogue the better.

Even for a current-day signaleer, the radio sections are dry. But this was one of the first stories by Loring Brent (also known as George F. Worts), and that newness can be seen in the story. Peter's character is still being developed. Here, he's more an excuse to discover a cute girl with radio skills in a faraway land. And while many elements of the story are thin compared to what would arise in the 20s, there was enough to catch readers' interests for decades.

Part of that is authenticity. Worts was a radioman sailing from one Chinese port to another. And, even as the technologies change with the decades, a signaleer can recognize his own. Worts’ China also has a nightmarish vividness to it that stands out from later Argosy chinoiseries such as Wirt's steppe battles in “War Lord of Many Swordsmen”. Even then, it is overshadowed by what the Weird Tales authors brought to the Chinese adventure.

Save Peter the Brazen for after you've read a number of pulps. This isn't one to make a new pulp enthusiast with.