“For me, Misha is the consummate craftsman.”–Schuyler Hernstrom, writer of “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City”.
Tuesday, December 22, 2020
Tuesday, December 1, 2020
“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.”
Thursday, November 19, 2020
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
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.
Wednesday, November 11, 2020
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
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.
Tuesday, November 3, 2020
About a couple years ago, that began to change. Who Fears the Devil? was released as an independent ebook and several collections returned to print for the first time in years--and in more affordable paper than the hardcover collectors editions that still appear to this day. Wellman's works appear these days in a number of small presses, however, so it is easy for the avid reader to miss the news of the return of a previously out-of-print favorite. Even I missed the 2020 return of Lonely Vigils, the collection of Judge Pursuivant and John Thunstone occult mysteries, until recently. Again, it seems like you have to know someone who knows of Manly Wade Wellman to find out where the good stuff is.
So, at the behest of a couple Twitter mutuals, here's a list of what's available at reader-friendly prices. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, as not only have many of the collector's editions gone out of print, the contents of a number of smaller public domain books can also be found in the larger collections.
Today, Manly Wade Wellman is best known for his stories of John the Balladeer, also known as Silver John after the silver strings on his guitar. These short stories are collected in Who Fears the Devil?, a classic of Appalachian fantasy. Unfortunately, the ebook edition of the last few years has gone out of print, so the best way to read of John the Balladeer is still the ebook version of Mountain Magic. Again, that's the ebook version, as, due to a rights issue at the time with the Kuttner estate not allowing ebooks of his works, Baen substituted the John the Balladeer stories instead. Currently, there is no reader-friendly paperback at this time.Shadowridge Press has returned to print two important collections once published by Carcosa. Worse Things Waiting is a collection of 28 stories and two poems taken from the pages of Weird Tales, Unknown, Strange Stories, and many other Golden Age pulps. Meanwhile, the launch of Lonely Vigils was overshadowed by, well, 2020 in all its madness. This collection features famous occult detectives from the Golden Age of the Pulps, Judge Pursuivant, Professor Enderby, and John Thunstone, and is a must for fans of Seabury Quinn. Both collections are in paperback only.
Monday, October 26, 2020
The tumult of recent events have fostered a desire to read more classic American historical fiction. To remember the stories we once told about ourselves instead of those others tell us we must be, at a time when all sides tell us to be anything other than what we are. To learn once more of such things as the tragedy of brother against brother in the clash of the Blue and the Gray in Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Or why the name of Benedict Arnold still brings tempers to a boil. For that, once must first understand the heights from which America’s most notorious traitor fell.
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
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:
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
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.
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
“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.
Saturday, September 26, 2020
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.
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
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: Zero, Overlord, 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.