Friday, February 24, 2017

Cirsova Four, Part Two

My continuing quest to review every story in Cirsova’s fourth issue has me feeling a little nervous.  I fell in love with the first two issues, and enjoyed the third, but this one is off to a rocky start.  The first story was so-so, the second one pretty darn good, and now the next two have me wondering where the magic went.

The Unfolding of the World, by Harold R. Thompson
This is a short story that felt like a small story.  The basic premise, a soldier of fortune exploring the buffer-state hinterlands, is solid.  Somehow, despite the large scale of the tale, it just felt too darn small.  Exploring a poorly mapped area at the edges of an empire, and clashing with the great civilization beyond should evoke a much greater scale and drama than this story manages to achieve.  A one paragraph side trek or two, or maybe a short passage stretching out the journey there or back again, would have gone a long ways towards establishing higher stakes in the story.  Had the fantasy nation been fleshed out as well as the characters, this would have been a real gem of a story.  As it is, it feels more like a lone wanderer finding a strange small town, and escaping from it to no real purpose.  Harold’s characterizations are great. His writing is solid, and it isn’t a bad story.  It just felt small and inconsequential. 

The Sands of Rubal-Khali, by Donald Uitvlugt
A woman captured by slavers who escapes into the hands of a bounty hunter and then clashes with an ancient sorcerer in his tower fastness hits all the right notes, but this story has the opposite problem of the previous.  There’s just too much going on.  Our heroine is on a fantasy world, but she is a spacer from another planet, and there are references to historical cultures as well.  Throw in at least one alien/fantasy species that isn’t given quite enough description, and you wind up with a lot of extraneous detail that interferes with the story itself.  This reads like a short story written for people who are already familiar with the setting and its background.  It feels like there’s this big, beautiful setting out there, but we get the barest hints of it, few of which are particularly germane to the story before us. Combine that with the constant uncertainty of where the heroine is going and why, and you get a tale that feels far more disjointed on first reading than it really is.  While writing this review, I went back and re-read it, and that second reading – when I knew why everyone was behaving as they did – was an improvement.  Unfortunately, saying the story needs to be read twice to be enjoyable just shifts the criticism to a new angle, leaving this story not quite up to Cirsova’s typical high standards.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Down to Sheol: A Review

I’m glad I read Downto Sheol, even though it is well outside of my normal bailiwick.  This book contains no ogres, princesses, zap guns, hyperspace malfunctions, or hungry gods lurking in lava filled arctic caves.  Instead, it’s a modern day noir set amid the small stakes of rural south Texas county politics.  Add to that, I’m a PG guy who tries to avoid R rated media, and Down to Sheol is a brutally explicit book filled with explicitly loathsome villains.  The camera never looks away from them as they engage in their various depredations. 

Right off the top, let me just state that I bought this book after reading a few articles that the author, M. T. White, had posted on Return of Kings.  Those articles provided independent confirmation for the Pulp Revolution’s push for masculine narratives that reflect real people and real relationships is not an outlier.  In fact, the Pulp Revolution is not unique.  There are a wealth of people coming around to the need for actual heroic protagonists.  For whatever reason, there is a growing market for stories featuring black and white morality coupled with men driven to do the right thing no matter the cost, and who win against all odds.  M. T. White is an author who came to that conclusion outside of the Pulp Magazine framework, and I wanted to read Down to Sheol to get a sense of the parallel development of these ideas inside the modern day thriller world of self-publishing.  If my initial scouting foray is any indication, masculine writing is in the nascent stages of making a real comeback.

M. T. White writes with a ruthless minimalism that results in a gripping read.  This story of small town politics might read like a small stakes version of the Dallas TV show, but White’s characters leap off the page and his plot races ahead at breakneck speed.  This is the closest thing to a modern day noir story written with the plain-writ style of a Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane that I’ve read in a long time.
I could have done without the explicit sexual content.  As mentioned above, my preference is for scenes where that sort of chicanery occurs off-screen.  A few hints and suggestions suffice; my imagination can fill in the details.  That’s a personal preference, and if you have a stronger stomach for that sort of writing, don’t let my warning hold you back.  That said, none of these scenes felt gratuitous.  They each provide an all-too-clear look into the dark souls of the novel’s antagonists.  These scenes revealed their true character and helped establish the stakes and give the reader concrete reasons to sneer and feel disgust whenever the villains were on screen.  The brutal honesty with which White presents these villains is as transparently manipulative as it is forgivably effective.

I have an easier time reading explicit violence, but found myself wincing at times.  White's writing isn't just graphic, its gripping.  He writes fight scenes in such a way that you almost feel each blow land yourself.  It's powerful stuff, and it gives his fight scenes a weight and suspense that you don't read very often.  The stakes in each scene are very real, and even if you think the right man will win, the action goes so fast and so visceral that you always have that little shred of doubt whether the hero really will make it out alive.  
The villains are balanced out by protagonists who are both fully fleshed out, completely sympathetic, and good-hearted down to their core.  The female lead starts off in a very compromising situation, and watching her slowly extricate herself from the clutches of evil is gratifying.  The hero of the piece has his flaws, but they are understandable – it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.  He is the strong, plain-spun, quiet and capable type of hero that’s hard not to root for.  He also has a wisdom beyond his years that give him that competent underdog status that again, makes your heart go out to him.  As if that wasn’t enough, White presents him as a natural romantic leading man.  He doesn’t white knight – his first meeting with the female lead, he basically shuts her out…which of course makes her all the more intrigued by him.  It’s refreshing to read a masculine lead who knows how to handle a woman like that.  It’s a rarity these days.

This is a good read.  Due to its explicit nature, it wasn’t a particularly a fun read for a square like me.  Even so, White’s writing pulled me in.  The man knows how to craft a good story with great characters.  If you need a break from the aliens and dragons, then you should give him a shot.  If he keeps writing like this, he’s going to be one of those self-publishing authors who succeeds based on his own talent and hard work, not due to his friends in the publishing world.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Review: Sword and Flower by Rawle Nyanzi

Sword and Flower, by Rawle Nyanzi, represents a huge load off of my mind. Rawle is one of the earliest adopters of the Pulp Revolution, and for me he represents a chance to get a good, solid assessment of whether this is really the early days of something special or a group of internet blowhards and posers mistaking meaningless trolling for honest analysis and workmanship. Granted, you’ve got successful authors like Brian Niemeier, Karl Gallagher, and Brian K. Lowe, all of whom were doing their thing before the term Pulp Revolution had even been coined. You’ve got magazines like Cirsova pumping out great stuff, too. It’s gratifying to stand side by side with proven quantities like that. But what about the fresh, new blood? Are these really the kinds of people one wants to associate with? Or are they just about of second-raters clinging to a thematic hook to cover their shoddy workmanship?

Enter Sword and Flower, by Rawle Nyanzi.

It’s not perfect. The stakes are unclear, partly due to the manner in which its protagonist finds herself thrust into a strange and alien world where a Puritan village struggles to fight off a demonic army. The near immediate introduction of miraculous healing drains the impact of wounds that might add to the tension and drama as well.

There’s a little too much telling and not showing, and sometimes at awkward moments. In the first chapter a young girl uses magic to heal a wounded warrior, and we’re immediately told, heavy handedly at that, that she has a romantic interest in the warrior which he does not reciprocate. Later, this becomes clear through her actions and words. By front loading the exposition, Nyanzi denies the reader the mystery of why the girl risked everything to save that particular warrior at that particular time.

Some of the emotional moments slide past with little impact on the action. When one of the biggest heroes of the piece dies, no one bats an eye. That hero gets an appropriate epilogue, but the death doesn’t faze the two heroes during the final confrontation. If the characters in the story don’t feel anything over the death of a major character, that’s a sign that the reader shouldn’t either.

Part of the issue here may be cultural. The Sword and the Flower wears its anime influences on its sleeve. It may be that the lack of emotional beats and light and airy combat sequences are considered a feature of the genre and not a bug. Speaking as somebody with little experience of the genre, I can only judge it based on how well it resonates as a piece of narrative fiction. My mind’s eye did not see anime characters posed against garish backdrops, but flesh and blood people. That they failed to act as flesh and blood people, but instead acted as animated ones set in a universe full of very different assumptions, could very well be true.

Bear in mind, that this is an enjoyable read. You don’t have to be well versed in anime tropes to appreciate the story. It works well even for those of us who don’t appreciate the anime aesthetic or assumptions. The story has drama, the story has emotional beats, and the story has plenty of, “show don’t tell”. The above criticisms are not meant to suggest what’s missing altogether, but rather what the story could use more of. 

That said, let’s look at what it does have.

It’s certainly creative. You’ve got Japanese sorcery, Christian soldiers, Valkyries, clerics, and bizarre extra-dimensional living fortresses. That’s a heck of a recipe, and yet all of those disparate myths and legends are sewn together to make a seamless whole. Not a single one of those items feels out of place or shoved in at random – a common failure of ‘kitchen sink’ style tales.

The action sequences are stellar. The action rides along at a fast clip, and within each sequence, we know why the combatants are fighting. The fortunes of each fight ebb and flow, and although the outcome is never within doubt, each combat features a surprise or two along the way, keeping things from feeling predictable.

The characterizations are great. Each of the major characters is distinct from the next, and they each have plausible and believable motivations. Even the Puritan villagers’ frustrating hostility towards the sorcerous girl that saves them, are presented in a sympathetic light. Over the course of the story, thanks to the compassion shown by the protagonist, one begins to understand them, even if that understanding doesn’t make them any less frustrating.

The take-away here is that Sword and Flower is a great story. It’s easily on par with anything the major publishing houses are producing these days. It would have fit right in on the pages of a pulp magazine of old. It’s well worth the price of admission on Amazon.

But it’s not just a fun read that hews to my favored aesthetic. It’s a vindication that the people driving the Pulp Revolution forward really know what they are doing. It’s validation that Rawle Nyanzi isn’t just talking the Pulp Revolution talk, but he’s also walking the Pulp Revolution walk. It’s verification that the judgement of the people within the movement isn’t clouded by friendship or nostalgia.

This is one reader that’s looking forward to watching Nyanzi improve as a writer. He’s already pretty damn good at it.