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. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Manly Wade Wellman and Where to Find His Books

I've been a Manly Wade Wellman fan ever since listening to a Baen Podcast where David Drake discussed the life and works of his friend--and dropped the little-known bombshell that John the Balladeer stories were included in the ebook version of Mountain Magic. Ever since then, reading Manly Wade Wellman has seemed like being a part of a secret club. Wellman is highly regarded by those who have read his works...but finding them has been a challenge. Up until recently, most of Wellman's stories have been locked up in expensive small-print-run collector's hardcovers or scattered in public domain collections.

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.

Sword and sorcery imprint DMR Books has brought back two of Wellman's later fantasies. Heroes of Atlantis & Lemuria collects for the first time the mythological tales of the heroic Kardios, a survivor--and self-professed cause--of Atlantis's fall. As a bonus for pulp fans, Heroes pairs Wellman with a rare Leigh Brackett story. And just in the last few days, DMR Books has released Manly Wade Wellman's final novel, Cahena, a historical tale of a legendary warrior queen and the one soldier who dared to love her. Both books are offered in digital and paperback formats.

A trio of lesser works round out this reader's guide to buying Wellman's stories. First, a pair of familiar faces in The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds and Captain Future: The Solar Invasion. And a rare publication of Wellman's science fiction in West Point, 3000 A.D.. Check each link for the versions available.

With the recent burst of rereleases, I am hopeful that more Wellman works might be made available soon. But, with the also recent returns of Who Fears the Devil? and Hok the Mighty to out-of-print status, if Wellman's strange tales and even weirder monsters interest you, don't dally on the purchase.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Rabble in Arms: an Introduction

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.

Once proclaimed “the greatest historical novel written about America,” Kenneth Roberts’ 1933 novel, Rabble in Arms, today often gets dismissed as an Arnold apology, set in the heady months of Arnold’s successes before his imminent betrayal. The second of the Arundel trilogy, Rabble in Arms picks up where Arundel ends, with the shambles of the failed Quebec campaign of the Revolutionary War. General Arnold must somehow rally the undersupplied, demoralized men and incompetent politically-appointed officers into a force capable of stopping British General Burgoyne’s impeding invasion of New York. Arnold and Burgoyne will eventually cross swords twice at a battlefield that rings throughout American history:


But many smaller, personal stories are the warp and woof to the grand tapestry of history. Our eyes for these is Maine sea captain Peter Merrill, a recent volunteer to the Patriot cause, in no small part to the harassment his family receives for his brother Nathaniel’s perceived Loyalist sympathies. Peter is assigned to General Arnold, who soon uses the Arundel youth for his expertise on land and at sea in the fight for Lake Champlain. Through Merrill, we learn of the deprivations suffered by American soldiers through arduous marches with little food and even less relief from disease and flies. The events of the armies and ad hoc navies serve as a backdrop for more personal events affecting Peter. For Nathaniel has been seduced by a British spy, a real Milady de Winter, who is trying to set brother against brother and is willing to use the affections of her own niece to do so. Will Peter survive to see Arundel once more with his bond with his brother intact?

I’ll be honest. The full review of Rabble in Arms is taking time. Not because of any difficulty or deficiency to the prose, but because I find myself slowing down to savor every page. It also helps to have access to secondary materials such as the Townsends YouTube channel to unlock period custom, dress, and menu. For, like it’s contemporaries in the Argosy historical pulps, Rabble in Arms assumes the reader has a familiarity with the time period and needs no explanation of what a flip or a bateau might be. A refreshing change, to be sure, compared to the constant exposition that is common today. Unlike the pulps, though, Roberts takes a more leisurely pace through battle and feat of endurance that paradoxically heightens the stakes more than stomping on the Argosy gas. And all through this tapestry of historical events and personal story, of shot and spray and intrigue, Peter drops little pearls of wisdom hard earned that a young reader would do well to heed.

It might not be pulp, weird, or science fiction, but sometimes the past is the greatest adventure of all. I hope you will join me soon for the full review.

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.