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.