Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Saint Tommy, NYPD: Hell Spawn

A godly, almost saintly, detective must hunt down a demoniac serial killer in Declan Finn’s Hell Spawn, the first novel in the Saint Tommy, NYPD series. Billed as Catholic action horror, it provides a thoroughly Christian backdrop for a police thriller that straddles the line of urban fantasy.

So, how does Hell Spawn work as a Christian novel? To be honest, it’s a bit of a failure. Where’s the shoehorned salvation scene? The cutaway to souls in Hell? The ecumenical approach to doctrine? The 1990s This Present Darkness angel and spiritual warfare retreads? The sanitized approach to violence and evil? Where are the sermons?

Granted, for many readers, the absence of the above is not a failure, but a roaring success. The clichés that killed Christian publishing aren’t here. There isn’t enough room for such silliness between the two-fisted action and hard-nosed detective work. And Finn writes in a consistent and unabashedly Catholic view of the universe, instead of the nondescript non-denominational pabulum served up by a Christian publishing industry that’s almost certainly run by its enemies. Tommy Nolan acts consistent with the beliefs and practices of the faithful Catholic, albeit in a muscular manner that shows that Good doesn’t mean goody-two-shoes. That also means that Nolan faces demons in a manner consistent with Catholic practice, and not the confrontations more familiar to those influenced by Pentecostal portrayals. Think more prayer, priests, and holy water than commands, confrontations, and orders.

But most importantly, Finn is writing an adventure instead of a parable. How would a current-day saint stop a demon who is possessing serial killers? There is not time to discuss lengthy discourses on doctrine or popular passages on world-building and mythology* when Tommy is racing a serial killer intent on butchering everyone close to Tommy. And thankfully, Finn refuses the modern cliché of requiring Tommy to violate his beliefs to get the job done. The real puzzle is in how good men remain good in an evil world that the good cannot exile themselves from, not the defeat of good men to temptation or the appearance of superficial contradictions. So Tommy’s faith and goodness remain unflinching.

So does Hell Spawn‘s portrayal of evil. Serial killers murder in grisly ways that make Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs appear uncreative and pedestrian. Hell Spawn doesn’t glory and wallow in the gore, rather, it is honest that some people delight in committing terrible acts. Finn also address some of the moral evils of the time without stepping into the current swamp of Left and Right. And even more disturbingly is that the evils described in Hell Spawn take a more harrowing turn in the years after it was written, particularly with the arrogance of those who think they are getting away with crimes and the rise in gang violence. There also is no allure, no seductiveness around the dark and evil things common to contemporary urban fantasy.

But all these points are Second Things, and dependent upon one major First Thing: if the clash between the Saint of Detectives and a demoniac serial killer is actually thrilling. And while the plot relies a little too much on the current idea that a hero’s personal stake in the conflict is more important than other considerations, Tommy is a likable hero thrust into an uncommon and escalating peril. And, while the outcome may be assured, the delight is in discovering what bit of cleverness Tommy needs to pull through what is the first of many trials against Hell itself.

I was planning on reviewing the sequel, Death Cult, as Jon Mollison already reviewed Hell Spawn for the Castalia House blogBut who wants to dive into a series part way through? And, from the first page, I was hooked. Hell Spawn and Saint Tommy are welcome surprises among the glut of black leather and narcissism filling the urban fantasy landscape.

*I am loathe to call anything related to Christian doctrine mythology, but most novels that deal with the angelic and the demonic inevitably spend considerable wordcount developing arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and of what denominations and contradictory religions they might belong to, whether in Christian or secular books.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Cirsova Summer 2021

A new season brings a new edition of adventure magazine Cirsova, complete with unknown stars, feats of heroism, and quick-paced twists worth of the classic Argosy magazine. Continuing the direction set down by its fifth anniversary, the Summer volume presents a mix of old favorites and new stars, with an eye for longer tales this time. Also, the experiments with illustrations return, with work from Mongoose and Meerkat illustrator Dark Filly and newcomer UsanekoRin gracing the pages. And anchoring the volume is the second issue of the 1980s-era indie comic, Badaxe.

Cirsova’s Summer 2021 volume opens with the second part of Michael Tierney’s The Artomique Paradigm, the latest of his Wild Stars adventures. Wild Stars is a long and vast setting, previously told in comics. And while it takes a while for newcomers to move past the setting shock, this second set of chapters settles into a wild dash across a pirate planet. The locales are ambitious and pulpy, setting a backdrop for a plot that movies at the speed of Max Brand’s historic adventures. An internal logic to the gleefully over-the-top names reveals itself through quick asides between the inevitable setbacks and betrayals. This portion of The Artomique Paradigm ends with a masterful cliffhanger. While we are promised the conclusion in the next volume, that conclusion is still three months away.

Caroline Furlong’s “Lupus One” is a joyous homage to classic 20th-century anime, filled with mecha, monsters, gods, and alternate universes. And it is a pleasure to read something influenced by anime and manga without it becoming a mere Xerox of the original medium. No reluctant and depressed mecha pilots here. “Lupus One” transplants a class primary world fantasy like many of those found in Weird Tales, where the main character stumbles into a lost and almost legendary weirdness, into the futuristic setting of the moon. While “Lupus One” is self-contained and hints at a happy ending, plenty of hooks exist for continuation, which I hope Furlong will explore in the future. And, in a masterful stroke of editing, “Lupus One” also bridges the science fiction settings of the Moon and the Wild Stars to the fantasy worlds in the stories that follow.

Tais Teng’s “His Amber Eyes, His Pointed Smile” is a Central Asian-flavored revenge story, as little Iskander grows up wanting to avenge his mother’s abandonment by his father. Yet the path of revenge is also the path of following in his father’s footsteps. It is an earthy chinoiserie, and almost a warning of how pleasures can corrupt, wrapped up in a fairy-tale.

J. Comer’s “Sky Machine” follows the fate of the healer Sorana and her Roman compatriots as they are captured by a Scandinavian tribe. With certain death awaiting them, the Romans hatch a scheme for escape, one dependent upon the observations of the great “sky machine” of the heavens above them. It’s a more straightforward tale than the previous ones, but executed well, and the slight accent given to familiar names adds a touch of the exotic to the otherwise familiar Roman and Norse setting.

Kat and Mangos return in Jim Breyfogle’s “The King’s Game”. This time, the Mongoose and Meerkat are out seeking information. The best place for that may well be in the Regum Arena, playing an enchanted game similar to chess but only played by the rich and the powerful. Mangos’ sword is on the line, for not only must he play against the assembled worthies, but he must also play against the Meerkat herself. Breyfogle continues to mix exotic locales and unique plots for the Mongoose and Meerkat, forcing his characters to rely on their wits as much and even more so than the flashing of blades. And while Mangos is slowly gaining wisdom to match his formidable sword arm, the mysterious Kat shines again with her schemes.

Paul O’Connor’s Badaxe rounds out the Summer volume with an intervention by and an escape from the dread god Badaxe. Layers of obfuscation slowly peel away, leaving one to wonder how the all-too-female Tanree’s destiny will tie into the prophecy of the boy who will kill Badaxe. New players enter the game, ready for a final confrontation in the next volume. 

Cirsova also offers a preview of Jim Breyfogle's upcoming The Paths of Cormanorsoon to be accepting pre-orders on Kickstarter. As editor P. Alexander says:

Inspired by eastern European and Scandinavian fairytales, The Paths of Cormanor is the story of a beautiful young woman (who can turn into a cormorant), a handsome prince (who’s the seventh son of a seventh son), and more than a handful of dreadful monsters.

All in all, the Summer 2021 edition is a worthy addition to the long-running string of excellence readers have come to expect from Cirsova.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Perry Rhodan NEO #1

 “My name is Crest da Zolral.” The alien was waiting for them by the inner hatch of the airlock. “I am an Arkonide. In your terms, I’d describe myself as the scientific leader of this expedition.”

As tensions rise in 2036 between America, Greater Russia, and China, an American moon base goes dark. NASA attempts a rescue mission by sending the Stardust, commanded by Perry Rhodan. But when Rhodan and his crew find a giant metal sphere on the far side of the moon, their problems–and those of the entire human race–grow far more complex. And getting back home is no certainty as there is a bomb hidden on the Stardust.

Meanwhile, in Houston, John Marshall valiantly attempts to keep his children’s shelter running–and the street children away from each other’s throats. Marshall has always had an intuitive knack for reading people, but nothing prepared him for when one of his problem children suddenly teleports the two of them to Nevada Fields so that they can see the Stardust’s launch.

Thus begins Stardust, the first episode of Perry Rhodan NEO, a retelling of the world’s most popular science fiction series. Introduced to the world at WeltCon 2011, NEO updates the geopolitics and technologies from the Cold War and punchcards to a 2010 multipolar world, transistors, and information technology. Perry Rhodan NEO is published concurrently with the original Perry Rhodan series and is written by some of the same authors. Frank Borsch, the author of the first book in the Perry Rhodan: Lemuria series, revisits Rhodan’s first adventure in Stardust.

Rhodan is a veteran American astronaut of German descent who has won fame when his quick reactions saved a lunar shuttle from crashing. Who else should NASA send on a high-profile rescue mission? Rhodan is a mix between an old naval captain and a test pilot from The Right Stuff, although without all the Yeager-isms expected of such. He has an easy camaraderie with his crew akin to that of a Doc Savage or a Buck Danny, and serves as the competent leader of an equally gifted crew. As such, Rhodan’s an idealized pulp hero on a collision course with proud aliens and sinister governments–including his own.

The impending First Contact avoids the colonial mishaps that serve as the model for most science fiction. Technological sophistication is not confused for moral superiority While the American Stardust is more primitive than the Arkonides’ ship, Rhodan’s quick wits and keen insights keep him on equal footing with the humanoid Arkonides. These space invaders are a decadent people, wrapped up in the obsessions of their game worlds. Despite their mechanical sophistication, Rhodan has one bargaining chip: human medical technology that can treat the cancer wracking the body of their leader, Crest da Zolral. With that alliance secured, Rhodan must return home to a world filled with nations eager to deprive their enemies of whatever bounties Rhodan may have secured.

The second episode, Utopia Terrania, finds Rhodan and his crew in the Gobi Desert surrounded by the Chinese Army. Meanwhile, the world deals with the whispers and realizations of alien contact. While Rhodan verbally fences with the Chinese commander, the disgraced agents who told him about the bomb on Stardust are trying to reach him with information urgent to his survival. If Stardust was part pulp opera and part The Cross and the SwitchbladeUtopia Terrania is more conventional–and cynical–science fiction with a sprinkling of X-Files’ paranoia and the author’s own…fascinations. Hopefully, the third episode will bring the action back out of the bedroom into the boardroom—and the focus back to Rhodan.

Compared to The Ark of Stars, the translation is cleaner, without some of the awkwardness that plagued the 2004 Perry Rhodan release. Some of the sentence complexity has been swapped out for clarity, but those seeking a more robust prose than Perry Rhodan NEO’s publisher’s Japanese light novels will not be disappointed. 

While reimaginings have recently soured the idea of a reboot, a technical refresh of Perryvese technology is welcome, especially since 50 years has wrought modern marvels unexpected when the first series has written. However, the geopolitical update is already quaint. We may yet be heading into a multi-polar world with uneasy relations between America, Russia, and China, but ten years of popularism, nationalism, and mass immigration have eroded 2010’s cosmopolitan globalism and trust in the soft power of influence. So the utopianist assumptions of how the Perry Rhodan NEO world works ring more hollow than punchcard spaceships. Mix in Elon Musk and the commercial space revolution, and NEO is just as dated as the original series. Contemporary events, after all, move faster than those of fiction.

That said, Perry Rhodan NEO offers an alternative to space operas cluttered by Star WarsHoratio Hornblower, and Starship Troopers tropes. And it allows readers an easy entry point into the vast and nearly 3000 volume Perryverse, the world’s most popular science fiction series. Again, if Perry Rhodan NEO is successful, it may open the door to the main Perryverse returning to English audiences as well as the introduction of more European pulp series.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Sailor's Grudge

Robert E. Howard is best known for his sword and sorcery tales, and his heroes Conan and Krull. But Howard wrote more stories of Sailor Stevie Costigan than any other of his heroes with the exception of Conan. Costigan was a sailor in the Pacific, hot-headed, quick with his hands, and the fiercest boxer on the seas. Accompanied by his bulldog Mike, Costigan moves from port to port and ring to ring, avenging slights and proving naysayers wrong. Unfortunately, this means that Costigan takes lumps that a few moments’ hesitation may have prevented, something the old salt good-naturedly admits.

In “Sailor’s Grudge”. Steve Costigan’s troubles start where most sailors’ do, on shore, and this time in California. A chance meeting with a little blonde flirt named Marjory puts Steve’s heart into a flutter. When he finds a man named Bert browbeating Marjory for fancying a sailor, Costigan enrages. Not only will no man get between Costigan and his current fancy, Steve pegs the man as a fellow sailor. The ensuing grudge will take Costigan into Hollywood, where he assaults a Bert lookalike that turns out to be a famous actor, one to whom Bert is a stunt double in a boxing movie. Costigan muscles his way onto set, aiming to settle his grudge in the ring, recorded by the movie’s director. But will this production have a happy ending?

Not when Steve learns the real connection between Marjory and Bert.

Costigan retells this misadventure knowing that the joke is on him, and that this white knight was tilting at windmills of his own devising. Howard nails the voice convincingly and appropriately for a lighter tale than the Gothic-tinged fantasy he is better known for. Better yet, he does it subtlely, using a few choice words here and there instead of the thick and occasionally unreadable accents many of his contemporaries used in the name of “realism”. The result is a quick, even friendly read that speeds the reader along to the highlight–the fight.

The fighting is painted in broad strokes. Technical, as an experienced boxer might, but with an eye towards how the fight fits in Steve’s attempts at courtship. Verisimilitude is the name of the game. Just enough boxing jargon to preserve Costigan’s expertise in the ring, but not so much that it turns into the Dreaded Checklist of Action or to stall the story’s narration. The punches mentioned move the story forward, not to wallow in technique, and each punch moves Steve closer to the realization that he doesn’t have a puncher’s chance with Marjory.

While Conan and Solomon Kane are classics of the fantasy genre, Costigan’s voice and the approachable nature of his adventures make his tales my current favorite of Howard’s works.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

John Sinclair: Demon Hunter

On a cold November night, a grieving father picks up his hunting rifle and shoots his only daughter in the head. The police are mystified. Why was the girl even at the house? Why wasn’t she at the mortuary, awaiting her burial? After all, Mary Winston had been declared dead two days earlier. When John Sinclair goes to Scotland to investigate the gruesome murder, he finds a town in the grip of fear.

1973 introduced John Sinclair, Demon Hunter, to German audiences. Sinclair is a Scotland Yard investigator with ties to King Solomon, Henry Sinclair, and Knight Templar Hector de Valois. He also has a penchant for finding undead and other monsters. A weekly pulp serial penned almost exclusively by “Jason Dark”, John Sinclair: Demon Hunter quickly established a reputation for inventive plots and a rich vocabulary. In 2015, the series was rebooted for English audiences, with twelve ebook episodes written by Gabriel Conroy. J-Novel Club is re-releasing this latter series as part of their new pulp fiction imprint.

In “Curse of the Undead”, the first of Sinclair’s English adventures, we find the inspector in 1977, with a stint in the British Army and a lifetime of occult strangeness under his belt, including a personal history with a monster known as the Gaunt Man. But while he does everything in his power to forget what he has seen, a new case is thrust upon him. A string of bloody maulings center around Argyle Castle, now newly owned by a Dr. Ivan Orgoff. Some claim the doctor is actually a necromancer. It is up to Scotland Yard’s Special Division to determine the truth.

“The Devil is in Middlesburgh. He’s punishing us for what we did that night…”

John Sinclair has a droll wit, but fails to fit nicely into extreme credulousness or skepticism. Sinclair follows the clues he finds to their logical conclusion, even if that means supernatural origin, but he does not seek to reject or embrace the supernatural or paranormal akin. The impartial rigor of the investigation is preserved. And when the investigation turns into action, Sinclair proves himself as skilled with his Baretta as he is with observation. In many ways, John Sinclair occupies the middle ground between Weird Tales‘ occult detectives and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunters, incorporating the better parts of each while leaving behind the excesses. While Sinclair is capable in a small fight, even he can be overwhelmed. Fortunately, the cavalry is on call. More correctly, an entire British Army armoured brigade trained to fight the undead and the supernatural, and, more importantly, trained to restore order when all Hell breaks loose.

“Curse of the Undead” heightens the horror, and not just in a period setting where instant communication is rare compared to today. Rather, it relies on the time-old method of telling, not showing. While Conroy does not shy away from violence and gore, he does not revel in describing it. Rather, he quickly tells what happened and then uses character reactions to heighten the horror of the off-screen events. For nothing is scarier than what the reader can imagine, and the indirect approach is a classic technique of true horror. And there are plenty of horrors when the dead rise once more.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of “Curse of the Undead” is Conroy’s ability to tell what’s essentially a zombie story without resorting to the bloated, distended, and rotting corpus of Hollywood zombie movie clichés, or the “perhaps humans are the real monsters” social commentary. What we get is a tense pulp thriller that is as much a clash between heroes and villains as it is a disaster movie. And while the heroes aren’t sure that good exists, they’ve seen Evil, and they act decisively to try to foil it. Because someone has to.

Even when the world is no longer rational.

Or, more likely, because the world is no longer rational.

Having now read the other three episodes in the first book, my enthusiasm is a bit dampened. Here are my quick notes on the remaining stories.

Ep 2, "Lord of Death", takes Sinclair to a common pulp horror setting, Aztec ruins, gods, and atrocities. It starts to unite Sinclair with what will later become his team. Good, quick heroic pulp horror that unfortunately starts playing an unearned skeptic card with Sinclair.

Sinclair, by this time, has already seen enough Wrong and supernatural to have certain illusions stripped away. But here he's plunged backwards in character development because tropes... or something. The effect rang hollow.

Ep 3, "Dr. Satanos", felt like showering in sewage. Not sure if it is because this evil was 100% natural man's depravity instead of supernatural monster, or if the author reveled too much in the depravity. Much of the off-screen horror technique was abandoned here.

Ep 4, "A Feast of Blood", gets more Gothic, combining Poe and vampires for an excellent monster mash. Sinclair starts shedding the unearned skepticism and the continued slow burn of who he really is intensifies. Who is this "Son of Light?"

The scene with the cross not working because "You are not a believer" was eye-rolling, as it is a common trope these days, but then the Bible has "Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?" so, it works? Maybe? Still way too many current-day tropes.

But then this version of John Sinclair is an English-language reboot written by an American, and it reads like American pulp horror, not German. The mood is different.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Cosmic Courtship

Love at first sight turns into a love that transcends the cosmos in Julian Hawthorne’s lost pulp romance, The Cosmic Courtship. 1917’s Argosy saw the introduction of Jack Paladin, nephew of a famous explorer, and his attempt to win the hand of the brilliant Miriam Mayne. But when Miriam goes missing, Jack sets out to find her. Even if that means beaming himself to the ringed world of Saturn to retrieve her from a sorcerous space tyrant. The result is a strange, redemptively Christian mix of romance and raygun romance that presages C. S. Lewis’s better-known Out of the Silent Planet. But where Lewis’s Ransom tries desperately to prevent another fall, Paladin and his Saturnian allies seek to redeem and restore those who are lost.

Editor P. Alexander, who is bringing The Cosmic Courtship back into print, describes Hawthorne’s background:

While most are at least somewhat familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne as one of the great American authors, less well known is that his son,  Julian Hawthorne, was an incredibly prolific writer in his own right. Julian wrote on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from literary analysis of his father’s works to poetry to period romances and adventures. Late in his career, Julian even dabbled in the emerging genre of Science Fiction [Hugo Gernsback had only recently coined the awkward term “Scientifiction” when this story was first published.]

It is hard not to compare Hawthorne’s interplanetary adventures to those later adventures of the Inklings. The prose is elevated and aspirational, ornate without being purple, and a far cry from the simplifications of the Black Mask style to be born ten years later. Hawthorne sets out to explore love, both romantic and compassionate, and places it in an otherworldly realm that cleaves closer to fairy tales than the unimaginative sciences of Hugo Gernsback. It becomes difficult to not draw parallels between The Cosmic Courtship and Lewis’s Malacandra and Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee, as examples of an unfallen Christian cosmic kingdom and steadfast, sacrificial friendship have fallen out of favor.

Hawthorne’s tale of a love-spanning worlds is among the brightest of the noblebright stories, highly aspirational and pure in motive and archetype, unmarred by baser desire or concern. Mirrors are common throughout the tale, as is fitting, since Hawthorne uses the reflections in his story to present what each of us should be. Paladin is brave, disciplined, decisive, and committed to his love. Miriam is beautiful, clever, and unwavering in her devotion, even when worlds are promised to her by her captor. Paladin’s crippled servant Jim may be unsophisticated, but his loyalty is absolute and pushes him to braveries beyond those of his master’s. And the Saturnians are just yet tempered by mercy, ever seeking to restore those lost to their passions and desires to the One from Whom all love flows.

Hawthorne’s imagination also is unbound by the later conventions of fantasy. While the high prose and the aspirational heroes only add to the fairy tale nature, the strange creatures, clothes woven from actual fire, lost civilizations, and angels visiting unaware add to the palpable sense of wonder shining from the tale. In many ways, The Cosmic Courtship is the fulfillment of Jeffro Johnson’s assertion of the essentially Christian roots of fantasy.

Fortunately, The Cosmic Courtship has been recovered from obscurity by Cirsova Publishing. A wildly successful Kickstarter is in its final days, with a wider public release to follow. This success ensures not only that The Cosmic Courtship will be available to wider audiences once again, but that the rest of Julian Hawthorne’s pulp romances will join it.

Thanks to Cirsova Publishing for the advance copy.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Perry Rhodan NEO English version announced

 Year 2036: Humanity is in a crisis. Overpopulation, climate change and terrorism are increasing the risk of war around the world. In this situation, the American astronaut Perry Rhodan is sent to the moon with three comrades – there he surprisingly meets human-like aliens…

On April 9th, announced that they have partnered with J-Novel Club to bring the reimagined Perry Rhodan NEO series to English audiences. Additionally, J Novel Club will be releasing stories of demon hunter John Sinclair and occult investigator Jessica Bannister under the imprint of J-Novel Pulp. This represents a new effort to bring long-running European pulp serials to English audiences.

The Castalia House Blog has discussed Perry Rhodan before, specifically the ACE paperbacks and the Lemuria arc. Both arcs represent the briefest glimpses into the 50-year old serial sometimes nicknamed the Perryverse, as well as the majority of what has made its way to English audiences from Germany. That the most successful science fiction book series in history has such a minimal exposure in English is criminal. But 50 years of continuous lore surrounding the first man on the moon and his galactic adventures is a daunting hurdle, especially when publishers fear that the Cold War fears and punchcard technology may not resound with today’s resurgence of China and digital streaming. So, in 2011, Perry Rhodan was reimagined into the alternate universe now known as Perry Rhodan NEO. Both Perry Rhodan serials continue to this day.

Perry Rhodan NEO moves the initial point of contact with the greater galaxy from 1961 to 2036, and redefines the near future geopolitical setting and technology to a level more familiar to 21st century audiences. More importantly, it represents a new introduction to Perry Rhodan and a way for new readers to get in on the ground floor of the Perry Rhodan “Neoverse” instead of tackling fifty years of continuity all at once. Hopefully, if J-Novel Club’s venture is successful, it may open the door to the main Perryverse returning to English audiences as well as the introduction of more European pulp series. To appeal to a wider audience, the J-Novel Club version will use the illustrations from the 2017 Japanese light novel version.

Currently, J-Novel Pulp is offering an introductory preview of the first chapters of Perry Rhodan NEO, as well as John Sinclair and Jessica Bannister. Subscriptions are available to read chapters online, with weekly releases planned. But for those who want to read the first book, Stardust, in one shot, it will be released to the usual ebook platforms on June 8th, 2021. Expect a review soon after, as well as one of horror icon John Sinclair.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Strange Company

 “If you can survive Reaper Platoon in the Strange, then Ghost or Dog Platoons will get you for their own. Best to steer clear of the freaks in Voodoo, kid.”

Out on the faraway world known as Crash, a civil war brews. One side desperately wants to throw off the yoke of the Monarchs of Earth. The other just wants to preserve its power. Both sides know that it is just a matter of time before the Monarchs and their Ultra Marines show up to take direct control and strip mine Crash into a glassy wasteland. But while the farce of control continues to play out, there are plenty of opportunities for mercenaries like Strange Company to fight, die, make money, and commit war crimes before that last panicked evacuation off-world. But nothing is ever as it seems in the Strange.

Just ask Sergeant Orion, the record keeper for Strange Company. His impassioned recounting of the fall of Crash and the near destruction of Strange Company lives up to the name. And that fateful last mission, part Fall of Saigon, part Planet of the Apes, and completely under the influence of powerful hallucinogenic chemical weapons, certainly counts as Strange.

In Strange Company, Nick Cole creates a seedier counterpart to his Galaxy’s Edge series. After all, science fiction has long been obsessed with why men fight. But most of these explorations, from Heinlein to Ringo, fall in the realm of those who would defend their own lands as professional soldiers. Even Cole’s recent and riveting account of Rangers in Middle-Earth, Forgotten Ruin, examines the motivations of the elite soldier. But what of those men who fight and kill for pay? Turns out they have stories, too. Each and every one of them.

But the soldiers of the Strange Company only tell those stories when they sense death coming, and only to Sergeant Orion. Cole uses Orion as the central character of the novel, and, if there is one thing Cole does best, it is creating a singular and unmistakable voice. Orion is no exception, so the novel reads almost like an interview, like one of those rambling war stories your grandfather or uncle suddenly tells you one night over drinks while the women are out. And now that you’re old enough, none of the warts are spared. And there are plenty of warts to this motley collection of thrill-seekers, misfits, psychopaths, and not-quite-human lab experiments. So Strange Company reads like the best of John Ringo’s war stories, just without Ringo’s hang-ups and logistics obsessions.

As usual, Cole’s exquisite command of voice and action covers a thinner setting. But then all of his settings boil down to the same one: a futuristic reflection of a dystopic California run by the same so-called elites that gave the world Silicon Valley, Laurel Canyon, Jonestown, and the Biden Administration. As such, Strange Company is one of the first science fiction works to deal with the COVID and election fallout of 2020, through the eyes of the Monarchs. The psychedelic haze that lingers on the battlefield is fitting for a universe that’s all living in California, and gives a different flavor to the grimdark genre than the typical British influences. After all, American writers gave the world Catch-22 and MASH. But Strange Company offers no solutions to the grimdark present save one: accelerationism. And the wisdom of burning down an already burning wreck even faster has yet to be proven.

Come for the gripping action, stay for the gut-wrenching personal stories and utterly surprising secret history behind the Monarchs’ history. Strange Company may not be perfect, but with it, Nick Cole has usurped the title of Bard of the Fighting Man from his predecessors.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Cirsova Classics is coming

Great news regarding Cirsova and their current Kickstarter, The Cosmic Courtship:

Thanks to everyone’s support, we’ve hit our $10k goal and will be starting a Cirsova Classics imprint focused on bringing previously unscanned and uncollected Public Domain pulp works back into print in modern formats. I know that Michael and Robert are already chomping at the bit to get started on the next project. We may even be able to begin as early as this fall [roughly as soon as we get The Cosmic Courtship out the door]. Most likely the next work we get out will be the uncollected Hawthorne novel, Sara Was Judith, and with the novella A Goth From Boston as a companion volume. We’ll try to get both of those by mid-2022.

While Steeger and other imprints are doing great work bringing the adventure stories of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s back in print, it is exhilarating to see Cirsova pick up some of the more neglected gems in All-Story.

For more on the announcement, check out the original post from Cirsova.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Loners and Solo Leveling

After a hundred years as a mercenary and bounty hunter, dwarf Jari Rockjaw has his eye on a quiet life of retirement on a homestead far away. But before he can buy the farm, he needs one last bounty: the head of the most infamous dwarven reiver in Labrys. But to cut through his target’s armies, Jari needs a company of fighters, not just the help of a few battle-weary friends. As the number of vengeance seekers, rogues, and castaways grow around him, Jari’s vision of retirement soon gives way to the demands of leadership. Can this reluctant mercenary captain lead his troop of Loners to riches, revenge, and retirement?

Loners, by D. B. Bray and Wahida Clark, may be touted as “a humorous action adventure”, but, make no mistake, the humor comes straight from the gallows. Jari’s tale swings far away from the humor of a Discworld, choosing instead the grim of a grim dark fantasy. But Loners is grim-dark with heart, focusing on the nobility of comradeship as the bonds between Jari and his mercenaries are tested and grow stronger. Hard fighting and harder perils are punctuated by soldiery banter, and the revolving door of hirings and deaths never reduces the characters to faceless names. Bray and Clark might be too fond of the rogue and hidden prince trope, but the main weakness is that Jari and the Loners are swept along by the tide of subquests from set piece to set piece, instead of active participants in their story. But the grim adventures with gold under the grime do not fall into excess, and provide a satisfying tour of an embattled yet hopeful perseverance.

E-rank hunter Jinwoo Sung may be the unluckiest hunter in all of Korea. Certainly, he is the weakest and most pitied. But when a group hunt through a rare and lethal dungeon leaves Jinwoo bleeding out, a strange voice gives him a choice and a second chance. Jinwoo now finds himself revived, with a host of new and daily quests, a stat sheet, and a sudden boost of power as he gains levels. But what will this once weak hunter do with his new-found strength? Find riches? Settle scores? Get the girl? And what new rivals might emerge from the shadows?

When released in English, Chugong’s Solo Leveling arrived with fanfare in light novel circles. Honestly, it’s hard to see why. Solo Leveling is an average litRPG in an oversaturated light novel and litRPG market. And average just is not good enough. Solo Leveling does balance the interruptions caused by stat sheets quite well, as, unlike most litRPG heroes, Jinwoo is more concerned with what power can get him instead of exploring the intricacies of the ruleset thrust upon him. As such, Solo Leveling serves as an illustration of the difference between power fantasies and progression fantasies. In some ways, the use of power for an end instead of as a means humanizes Jinwoo more than his Western counterparts, who are caught up in munchkinning their way through their stories. But the naked thirst for power and what it can seize can be cause for a shower, even if Jinwoo does not take his pursuit into the hedonistic excess so common in power fantasy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Dungeon Duel and Conquest

 March’s quick reviews cast a critical eye on Dungeon Duel, by eden Hudson and James Hunter, and Conquest: Icelandia, by Jean-Luc Isitin and Zivorad Radivojevic.

Roark van Graf’s struggles have taken him from a deposed noble fighting against a tyrant to the basest cannon-fodder in an MMO to lord of a mighty alliance of dungeons. But the tyrant’s forces have followed him through the portal into the game world. As players and NPCs line up on either side of Graf’s rebellion, the struggle spills out into our world. The tyrant has found a way to coerce the developers into nerfing Roark and his allies. Now Roark must move to save his followers across three worlds, before the tyrant–and the developers–end them all.

eden Hudson and James Hunter continue their genre-blending Rogue Dungeon series in Dungeon Duel. Here, they combine isekai portal fantasy, litRPG progression fantasy, dungeon maker fantasy, and a heavy dollop of epic fantasy into a whirlwind of trolls and angels fighting across fantastical, virtual, and present-day worlds. In that, Hudson and Hunter have solved the problem facing most dungeon makers: what to do when the hero conquers everything around him. The clever melding of the three worlds gives MMO gamers the ultimate fantasy: the ability to access their characters’ skills in real life. But even that fantasy has a price. With the stakes ramping up, the series’ goofy humor takes a back seat, and what first appeared to be the final volume spills out into more lands, pages, and books to come. As the final clash between Roark and the tyrant approaches, there are hopes that the Rogue Dungeon series can do what few have done–deliver a satisfying ending.

After a cataclysm has reduced humanity to five resettlement fleets, the first fleet comes across the habitable planet of Icelandia. After thawing to a disturbing number of new medical treatments, Oberleutnant Kirsten Konig leads the first contact expedition to the native tribes. But strange visions plague her, visions Konig believes are tied to the planet. As the resettlement plans fall victim to strange sabotages and alien raids, Konig finds herself in the middle of the winds of conspiracy, winds that tie the fate of the first fleet to fate of Konig’s daughter.

Written by Jean-Luc Isitin and drawn by Zivorad Radivojevic, Conquest: Icelandia is the first tale of the doomed resettlement fleets. It opens with an intriguing take on suspended animation and the recovery from it before diving into conspiracies and secret histories that show that humanity has yet to leave its destructive tendencies behind. Konig might be a glamorous fanservice fatale of a strong female character, but she avoids the waifish schoolgirl clichés. Her motivation is grounded in the most understandable and dangerous of desires, one noticeably absent from most practitioners of pixie-fu: the protection of her child. Radivojevic’s depiction of the resettlement fleet might be grounded in the same influence as Avatar, filled with powerful and boxy machine suits instead of sleek mecha. And Konig’s troop are drawn in a muscular, larger-than-life fashion. But the overall tone is melancholy, and the sequels defeatist and punishing.  At least Icelandia has the brief glimpse of hope amidst its setbacks, which elevates its moody warnings beyond crushing defeat.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Cirsova to reprint The Cosmic Courtship

Cirsova Publishing to Reprint Nearly-Lost Julian Hawthorne Planetary Romance, The Cosmic Courtship

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Cirsova Publishing is proud to announce that it has partnered with Michael Tierney and Robert Allen Lupton to restore and reprint Julian Hawthorne’s The Cosmic Courtship, a never-before-collected pulp Planetary Romance by the son of famed American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Mary Faust, a brilliant scientist, has developed a machine that can allow the conscious human soul to explore the cosmos! Her promising young assistant Miriam Mayne has accidentally transferred her consciousness Saturn, where she falls under the enchantment of an evil sorcerer! Jack Paladin, her love, sets out after her on a thrilling celestial journey to the ringed planet! Swashbuckling adventure and high romance await in Julian Hawthorne’s The Cosmic Courtship!

While most are at least somewhat familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne as one of the great American authors, less well known is that his son Julian was an incredibly prolific writer in his own right. Julian published on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from literary analysis of his father's works to poetry to period romances and adventures. Late in his career, Julian even dabbled in the emerging genre of Science Fiction.

The Cosmic Courtship was serialized in Frank A. Munsey's All-Story Weekly across four issues, beginning with the November 24, 1917 issue and running through the December 15, 1917 issue. While this story has been in the public domain for some time, it has never been collected or published elsewhere until now.

Cirsova Publishing has taken on this exciting project with the aim to preserve this story for posterity and ensure that it is not lost to future generations.

Michael Tierney is a pulp historian and archivist who has written extensively on Edgar Rice Burroughs, having created the massive four volume Edgar Rice Burroughs 100 Year Art Chronology, and is currently working on another Art Chronology about Robert E. Howard. He has been involved in the comic book industry for 40 years, owning two of the oldest comic book stores in Central Arkansas until switching to mail-order only in 2020. He is also an accomplished science fiction writer and artist, having worked on his Wild Stars saga since the 1970s. Michael not only made his pulp library available for this project, he provided the photographic images of these rare magazines so that a manuscript could be produced. He has also lent his years of experience digitally restoring damaged pulp art to restore the original cover by Fred W. Small to create a unique cover for this edition.

Robert Allen Lupton is a prolific author, pulp historian, and commercial hot air balloon pilot. He has published nearly 200 short stories across numerous anthologies, including the New York Times Best Selling Chicken Soup For the Soul series, and has published several anthologies and novels. His most recent novel, "Dejanna of the Double Star" was published in December 2020. Robert has been an active Edgar Rice Burroughs historian, researcher, and writer since the 1970s, including at ERBzine, where several of his articles and stories are published. Robert has painstakingly recreated the text as it was originally published from the digital images provided from Michael's collection.

Cirsova Publishing has been publishing thrilling adventure science fiction and fantasy since 2016. They have published nearly 20 issues of their flagship publication, Cirsova Magazine. Additionally, they have published a number of anthologies, a fully illustrated edition of Leigh Brackett's Planet Stories-era Stark adventures, Jim Breyfogle's Mongoose and Meerkat, and the 35th Anniversary Editions of Michael Tierney's Wild Stars.

This collected edition of The Cosmic Courtship will be released later in 2021.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire

“Behold…the engines of death ride the sky. Every day they grow more numerous. Unless our nation bands together and ceases this endless wandering…we will disappear forever from the planet Elekton.”
 – Trigo the Mighty

In the 1930s, an alien spacecraft crashed into the Florida swamps, the crew frozen at their posts. After many years of physical examination, little was known of these men or the empire they represented. But one lone eccentric devoted his life to deciphering the texts recovered aboard the craft, until, almost in retirement, he discovers the insight needed for translation. Thus the recorded history of The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire was finally revealed to all.

From 1965 to 1982, eighty-eight complete stories of The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire graced the pages of British magazines Ranger and Look and Learn. While many writers and artists worked on the comic strip, writer Mike Butterworth and artist Don Lawrence combined their efforts on fifty. These fifty stories, doled out one full-color comic strip a week, inspired many in the British comics scene, including Neil Gaiman and Dave Gibbons. Once locked behind expensive premium collections, these tales of raygun Romans have now been rereleased in to the mass-market in three paperback and ebook volumes.

Before there can be a rise of an empire, there first must be a founding. And the nomadic Vorg were the last race anyone on the planet Elekton would foresee to rise as an interstellar empire. Mindful of the constant attacks by airfleets from the empire of Loka, Trigo has a dream of a city of culture and power from which his people can resist Loka and flourish in peace. His first attempts to build it crumble along with the city walls. But when Loka attacks the city of the Tharvs, the refugees streaming into the Vorg lands bring the knowledge needed to build Trigo’s city. From the marriage of Vorg vigor and Tharv knowledge, a new people were formed–the Trigan Empire. But Loka would not allow Trigo and his new people to live in peace, so Trigo and his brother Brag attempt to steal Loka’s airfleet and turn those terror weapons against their makers–even if it means crossing their resentful brother Klud in the process.

Such a bloodless summary for a high adventure tale filled with daring acts of heroism, stunning reversals of fortune, and crushing betrayals. But it would be the first of many in the rise of the Trigan Empire from a single city to a world government, all under the watchful eye and quick fists of Trigo the Mighty, his brother, Brag, and their advisor, Peric.

From the founding of Trigo’s city onward, the Trigan Empire and its influence comes into contact with the various countries and cultures that fill Elekton. Some meet Trigo, Brag, and, later, Brag’s son Janno, with suspicion, but the noble-minded among them are won over by the Trigans’ displays of daring and valor. The deceitful, however, get their just deserts soon after meeting Trigo. The Trigan Empire might not be a conquering empire, but it will not be conquered–as those from Loka, Elekton, and even the stars beyond have found out to their peril.

The art is amazing, and not just for that of a comic strip. Lawrence details his raygun Romans with anatomically plausible musculature, and the mix of high pulp technology with classical dress and design is charming. Each panel might well be a painting, often in bronze, steel, and imperial purple. It is an inspirational, heroic, even statuesque style that I hope to see a resurgence of.

Trigo and his companions are men of action, aspirational and noble, guided by the wisdom of the elder architect Peric, and ever on the lookout for threats to their people. And the art, beautiful, muscular, and noble as it is, only serves to heighten the heroic deeds. The Empire is a beacon of peace and prosperity because of the physical strength and character of its emperor. This is a comic meant to inspire young boys into becoming the next generation of Trigos: wise, strong, and noble. As such, the speech is formal and the action bloodless, but the clashes of sword, raygun, and fighter ship are tense and riveting. And if a young reader (or much older one) is able to pick out the obvious allusions to Romulus, Remus, Rome, and Greece, and is interested enough to try Livy’s The History of Rome, so much the better. And for all the talk of the Fall of the Trigan Empire, that disaster is still many generations from Trigo the Mighty.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Black Incal

No, John DiFool, you understand nothing! I am not a computer. I am alive, just like you! And destiny has brought us together to restore justice to the universe.
 – The Incal

The 1980s saw the pages of Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal filled the strange allegorical journey that is The Incal. Writer Alejandro Jodorowsky and artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud mixed together Dune, dystopia, and Californian pop spirituality to create a cosmic opera. From the first moment when readers plunged into the tale alongside John DiFool’s first fall into Suicide Alley, The Incal has influenced literature, comics, and the silver screen, even influencing the visuals of Star Wars.

The Incal is divided into six issues. The first, The Black Incal, starts with mystery and peril. Who threw John DiFool over the Suicide Alley railing and why? John is rescued mid-fall, not because of any intrinsic worth, but because he has utility to the police. Through a series of flashbacks through the seedy future-noir City Shaft, John reveals he has made petty enemies. What he doesn’t tell the police is that an alien gave him the crystal entity known as the Incal. After John returns to his home to find his pet bird suddenly giving messianic sermons to crowds, the Incal charges John with a mission:

Confront the Black Incal.

Whooaa! Slow down, Buddy! I’m just a Class “R” Private Detective. I’ve got nothing to do with justice!

Yes, John DiFool, which is why you must now let me transform you.

Certain ideas get hammered home with all the subtlety of a brick. Duality. Light Incal and Black Incal. DiFool and the Metabaron. City-Shaft and Technocity. It is an endless string of foils and resonances in service to pop-philosophy masquerading as spiritualism. John DiFool starts as nothing more than a cowardly appetite amusing himself to death in an uncaring city, unknowingly participating in his own emasculation and consistently flirting with suicide. The Incal’s enlightenment sends him on a New Age version of Pilgrim’s Progress, transforming the future bugman into something more human in the process. Along the way, DiFool faces a constant stream of enemies, including the heroic and noble Metabaron, the universe’s most famous mercenary and a mixture of Superman and Doc Savage. It’s a clumsy allegory worn on the sleeve, with names like DiFool not bothering to hide the parts each character plays. Worse, it is in the service of a discredited and ridiculed spirituality long discarded, akin to a modern scientist extoling the virtues of phlogiston. The result is a story that is more goofy than profound, paired with excellent comic art, complete with the ideal that dualism is an error and embracing both sides instead of the extreme is true virtue.

The Black Incal begins to rise above this with the arrival of the Metabaron, a hero straight from the pulps, who must apprehend DiFool or watch his son be killed before his eyes. Compared to to the swirling seas of Californian crystal madness, the melodramatic trap the Metabaron finds himself in is an anchor. Yet the theme of the obliteration of dualistic distinctions is placed on the board in the Metabaron’s androgyne “son”.

I dreamed I was flying in intergalactic space. A cosmic being formed by two superimposed pyramids, one black, the other white, was calling me. I moved toward it and found myself submerged in the center. We exploded. And that’s how my subconscious mind introduced me to “El Incal.” –Alejandro Jodorowsky

I have hammered hard on the 1980s New Age silliness. To be fair, The Incal is not alone in science fiction in treating spiritual and religious matters with irreverence and goofiness. Valerian and Laureline delved into similar shallowness with its take on the Holy Trinity. But The Black Incal reads as the first book in a transhumanistic gospel intended to be paired with the dystopian world our elites are trying to create. And the stench of “As above, so below” is upon it.

As for the art, Moebius is worthy of his reputation as a master. In The Black Incal, he was in his pulp speed phase, churning out a complete page every day, as opposed to the far more leisurely pace of most bandes dessinee artists. The result is an inconsistency in regards to character models that works to the benefit of each panel. And the Suicide Alley plunge had set the standard for every hive city and megapolis since. For once, a BD looks like a comic book instead of a sequential painting, and while I am appreciative of the high artistry in bandes dessinees, Moebius plays to the strengths of the comic style.

The Incal is one of a short list of comics that serve as the high water mark of the medium. Yet it is dated by its spirituality. If your tolerance for such things is high, the full Incal saga is available on Kindle Unlimited for free. Otherwise, to read a more palatable collaboration in the same setting, check out The Saga of the Meta-Barons instead.