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.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Black Moon Arcana: Ghorgor Bey

Of all the terrifying warlords to wreak destruction across the empire, few can match the savagery of Ghorghor Bey. His name alone can cause even the bravest of soldiers to tremble in their boots, and noble lords and ladies throughout the land pray that he never comes knocking at their castle doors in search of gold, booze, and maidens. But few know the tragic story behind this fearsome warrior’s rise to power. From his harrowing childhood to his first love(s), his devastating heartbreaks and crushing victories, read on and discover how a naive young half-ogre would go on to become Ghorghor the Terrible.

I've been rather taken with the Black Moon Chronicles, the French dark fantasy comic from François Marcela-FroidevalOlivier Ledroit, and Cyril Pontet that uses humor to disarm the horrors of a decadent Melniboné-style empire falling to the apocalypse. At turns aiding the fall and resisting is the half-elf Wismerhill, the unwitting pawn of the evil Black Moon. But how did fate draw Wismerhill's companions to him? And who better to start with than the jovial giant, the fearsome half-ogre warlord now know as Ghorghor Bey?

The first of The Black Moon Arcana serves as a direct prequel to The Black Moon Chronicles: The Sign of Darkness, detailing the rise of Ghorghor Bey from outcast to the scourge of the Empire as he is in the days before he meets Wismerhill. While the prequel sheds little new light into the twists and turns of the Black Moon's world-dooming invasion or Ghorghor's revolving door relationship with death, it is a welcome insight into a beloved character who tends to get only a panel to two to mug in each new volume.

However, this prequel checks the boxes on the standard villain's back story. A half-ogre child born from rape and unwanted pregnancy cruelly shunned by his adopted father and the rest of the village. When his mother dies, the half-ogre is expelled from the village and forced to live on his own--

Yes, I thought so too.

The boy, Ogur, falls in with the circus, where he finds acceptance and love among the freaks and performers. He learns the strongman routine and finds the loves of his life in a pair of Siamese twins. Here, he has the family he was denied. 

Until a lord double-crosses the circus. The lord enslaves most of the circus, and drives Ogur and the rest of the freaks into the swamp. While there, a Divorak swamp kraken attacks, devouring Ogur's loves. Ogur slays the monster, and swears a blood oath to avenge his friends and lovers. And when he slays the leader of a band of highwaymen, Ogur has the opportunity he has sought. Now calling himself Ghorghor Bey, the half-ogre raises his standards, and rogues, orcs, and ogres rally to him. The new warlord scourges the local nobles, returning the brutality that the lords had visited upon him. Yet he never loses the whimsy that surrounds him, a whimsy that never turns to cruelty.

Finally, the warlord returns to the lands of the lord who wronged him. Ghorghor Bey single-handedly breaches the castle and, one by one, pitches the defenders over the walls. No quarter will be given until he frees his friends. After the lord is slain and the chains on the circus performers broken, Ghorghor Bey turns his fury against the nobility, scourging the Empire in the first of many apocalyptic invasions that will tear it apart. And, along the way, he runs into two bandits, the mad elf Heads-or-Tails and magic-touched Wismerhill...

As I said, standard villainy fare. But the Black Moon Chronicles tries to make a distinction between being bad and being evil, between falling and fallen. Ghorghor Bey is undoubtedly bad, driven to his own cruelty by the cruelty of others, but he never crosses into the demonically evil. That terror is saved for Wismerhill. And for unrepentant, soul-devouring evil? Wait until we meet Haazel Thorn.

There is a rough honor to the brutal and cunning Ghorghor Bey, who later becomes Wismerhill's trusted lieutenant. There's also the bit of the clown, of intelligence, whimsy, and the subversion of expectations, including a surprising gentleness. The performer never left the warlord, as he can be found mugging in the background of many a panel. But the one thing he is not is the dullard brute that many ogres are portrayed as in fantasy. That Ghorghor Bey is given a chance to shine once more outside Wismerhill's shadow is welcome. I just wish there was more meat to these formulaic old bones.

So, at the start, The Black Moon Arcana is for the fans already invested in the signs and portents of the Black Moon. But maybe when we get to the true holy knight Parsifal, the story will pick up. In the meantime, please check out the more palatable Elric-type story that is the Black Moon Chronicles.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

All Routes Lead to Doom: The Princess Improvement Genre

Somewhere in the vast multiverse that makes up the worlds of fiction, a spoiled brat of an eight-year-old princess is about to bump her head. The blow knocks more than a little sense into the girl, for it will gift her with knowledge of her impending execution as an adult. This may be granted through isekai shenanigans or strange forms of reincarnation, but one thing is certain. If the princess is going to see her eighteenth birthday, she is going to need to change. Slowly, the self-absorbed little brat opens up to others and discovers that she can make a better fate by growing involved with and helping others around her.

It's a simple premise, but one of growing popularity in Japan. These princess improvement stories also serve as a strange contrast to the everpresent "The Princess Saves Herself in This One" titles common in American stores. For in these light novels, the girls learn the soft power of inspiration, devotion, and persuasion as opposed to the sword and other accouterments of the action girl. After all, who is more powerful, the one who acts or the one who can move a hundred to act in her place?

Yes, these princess improvement fantasies are still feminine power fantasies. But they are fantasies of feminine power, of living up to the stories of fairy tale princesses, of persuasion instead of fists, and selfish girls faking virtue until they make it.

There's a strange undercurrent to recent Japanese light novels, both those aimed at boys and at girls. Compared to the many idealized young women in these fantasies, the portrayal of Japanese girls is almost disparaging. Readers could be forgiven for mistaking these brash, immodest, and self-absorbed girls who turn the attitudes of all around them against them for Americans. One could chalk this up to a form of frustration in the male-aimed light novels, but the portrayal exists in girls' shoujo light novels as well. Perhaps the princess improvement novel came about with trying to figure out how to make a selfish wastrel into a good girl. But how to get through to a character who only pays attention to herself?

The threat of death does focus the attention wonderfully. But, as in all fairy tales, that dragon eventually gets slain. Even if the plans are overcomplicated and occasionally obsessive.

Generally, the main characters of a princess improvement story are comfort seekers so caught up in their own delights that they lose their security--and then their lives. But by concentrating on their security, they find even greater comforts than sweets and soft clothes. And by helping others, these girls help themselves. These books are illustrations that no woman is an island and of C. S. Lewis's "First and Second Things" wrapped up in a fairy tale package that owes more to Cinderella than to The Tale of Genji.

Of course, such feminine fantasies are full of romantic misunderstandings. Your tolerance for such may vary. And the girls tend to no longer act like children after they first get some sense knocked into them. So it is more than a little disorienting to watch a child act like an adult.

The best known is My Next Life as a Villainess, by Satoru Yamaguchi, thanks to a recent anime adaptation. Katarina's naivety is charming, but her misadventures in a magical academy are too quickly resolved. As the genre codifier, My Next Life as a Villainess inspired many imitators, such as Deathbound Duke's Daughter and I Refuse to be Your Enemy. Each one has pushed the genre further into its Western fantasy trappings. Deathbound Duke's Daughter, for instance, features detailed and loving descriptions of magical wands that could only be written by a Harry Potter fan.

The best of the genre, though is Tearmoon Empire, by Nozomu Mochitsuki, which completely removes the story from the previous trappings of the anime/manga/light-novel sub-culture. Its heroine Mia might not change her spots that much, preferring the fake-it-until-you-make route to Katarina's more Damascus-style moment. However, there is a surprising amount of depth unexpected in a light novel, and little snippets of wisdom for the reader to glean. Tearmoon Empire masters the old adage that before you can educate, you first must entertain, so the smuggled proverbs and misunderstandings in Mia's favor never seem like the dreaded lecture one expects in a self-improvement book.

It is good that the princess improvement novels are displacing the tales of burned-out salarywomen. And if they inspire a reader to improve herself, so much the better.