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.