Monday, February 27, 2017

Cirsova Four, Part Three

Great news for Cirsova Fans: Issues Five and Six are fully funded.  The Kickstarter managed to beat it's goal by more than 25%, and we get another year of great short fiction.  Let's celebrate with some reviews!

The Witch of Elrica

A nice light read featuring an illegitimate prince who falls for a foreign sorceress.  Stories like these are the glue that hold a magazine like Cirsova together.  This isn’t a deep or particularly meaningful story, but it hits all the right notes.  It’s a straight ahead fantasy that gives you a taste of politics, a bit of magic, and a fight where the stakes are real and important.  It also features a cast of sympathetic royal characters struggling to find a path through trouble caused by old customs and an easily riled populace.  Jennifer Povey’s unpretentious style here is a welcome breath of fresh air.

The Vault of Phalos

The light read of The Witch of Elrica is followed by a heavy handed tale, and it works.  You’ve had your palette cleansed, and you’re ready to sink your teeth into something meaty, and Jeffery Scott Sims is there for you, man.  His comma-filled prose is wordy, dense, and almost poetic:
A company of armored legionnaires trooped down the rocky defile from the chill forest into the green valley wherein lay Maronais amidst its budding fields.  At their helm, on powerful steeds, rode two of Dyrezan’s finest, the aristocrats Nantrech and Morca, the former a wide-ranging scholar esteemed for his legendary mind, the latter famed for his prowess in battle.  Both belonged to the highest rank among magicians, and their sending into such an isolated region indicated the importance, and understood in their distant home, of this undertaking.
The two have been dispatched to deal with a demonic disease-cult ravaging the small bucolic land of Maronais, and the answer to their quest lies within the titular vault.  The whole story reads like that paragraph, and that strange style takes a few paragraphs of getting used to.  It’s strong, heady stuff that gives the story a mythic air and turns a routine story about an investigation into a disease-themed death cult into a gripping read.

The Bubbcat
This is the sort of story that makes me love Cirsova.  The seventh story in Cirsova’s Winer 2016 issue represents the first no-foolin’ science-fiction story.  The Sands of Rubal-Khali hints at a broader sci-fi setting, but the story has its feet planted firmly in a pre-gunpowder fantasy setting.  The Bubbcat takes place in a near-future that feels very much like today’s world, only more so.  The general plot is a chase scene featuring a protagonist holding onto a powerful MacGuffin, and always trying to stay one step ahead of the billionaire tycoon that wants the MacGuffin for her own. Alex Monaghan tells this story with a deft touch, packing a lot of information into very few words.  The whole story – plot, motivation, setting – is presented in a casual, almost off-handed manner that forces the reader to pay close attention and fill in a lot of gaps.  The resulting slow reveal gives the end of this story a lot more punch than it should.  Given the shortness of the story, it’s astonishing how much investment Monaghan draws out of the reader.

A Suit of Haidrah Skin
Here’s another story that cheerfully dances along the line between fantasy and science-fiction, gleefully pulling ideas and touches from both and mashing them together into the pulpy style of adventure that just feels right.  An ancient wizard’s tower/rocket ship returns to the planet from whence it was banished after a long and terrible war.  When the great heroes die casual deaths fighting the menace head-on, a barbarian girl gets some advice from an oracle that leads to a much more convoluted heist/assassination mission.  Rob Lang’s writing doesn’t leap off the page the way Jeffery Scott Sims or Schuyler Hernstrom’s does, given that this adventure tale features so many new and imaginative creatures, villains, tricks, and traps, that’s actually a good thing.  The prose remains unobtrusive and allows the weirdness of the setting and characters to take center stage.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

We Need to Talk About James Hutchings’ Poetry…

…And of course when I say, “We need to talk,” what I mean is, “I need to lecture you about.”

The mastermind behind Cirsova Magazine knew what he was doing when he commissioned “My Name Is John Carter” and spread it out over several issues.  He’s got me hooked on this literary drug, and every time he offers up another hit of this story, I’ll be right there sitting on the curb outside the Circle-K taking a hit.
For those of you who aren’t aware, “My Name Is John Carter” starts from a very simple premise: What if you retold “A Princess of Mars” not in prose form, but as a Homeric poem?

You might cringe at the blasphemic notion of twisting one of the all-time great books into long form poetry.  Sacrilege!  You would probably do that if, like me, your potential love of epic poetry was strangled in the crib by an education system that loves literary gimmicks above all else, that premise probably sounds tedious.  If, like me, your main experience with poetry consists of listening to the litanies of pointless phrases and empty alliteration spouted by “Poet Laureates” at the inaugurations of the God-Emperor’s predecessors or the dreary exercises thrust upon students in classrooms, you might even roll your eyes at the notion.
Slow that roll, my dude!

Hutchings strings rhythm and rhyme together to present a rollicking tale of adventure that is Homeric in scope, but that doesn’t pay the price of two thousand years of language and culture drift.  His wordplay is thoroughly modern, but no less epic.  Many writers fall head over heels in love with their own cleverness, but Hutchings dodges that trap by never letting his ingenious word choices overshadow the story itself.  To compare him to another classic poet, he writes poetry with the grace and style of a modern day Kipling.
I know what you’re thinking, but hold that thought for a few paragraphs.  Kipling’s neglect in American High School English classes is borders on child abuse.  Telling kids that poetry is great and then not exposing them to Kipling is like telling kids sculptures are great and then not showing them anything from the Renaissance period.  No art instructor worth his salt would fail to show students Michelangelo’s David as a prime example of just how good sculpture can be, and yet countless English teachers commit the same by showing students the literary equivalent of a statue made of used tampons.

Seriously, if the English teachers of America truly wanted to instill our youth with a love of poetry, they’d cram Kipling down their throats early and often, and leaven that fare with a light spice of Chesterton.  Trying to pawn off Maya Angelou as a worthy successor to these guys is like trying to pass a Big Mac off as prime rib.  Maya Angelou ain’t half bad.  Her craftsmanship is adequate, and her choice of subject matter is mostly inoffensive pap.  She might just be the best of what the modern poetry field has to offer, but holy cats is that damning the culture with faint praise.
Let’s get back to comparing Hutchings to Kipling.  Clearly, Hutchings comes off as second best in that comparison.  For one thing, Hutchings isn’t even telling his own tale – he’s ripping off Burroughs!  Granted, Kipling’s poems speak to universal truths of the human conditions and provide cutting and incisive insights into everything from war to romance and everything in between.  Kipling was a sage, a prophet, a patriot, and a realist all rolled into one.  Hutchings is just presenting a great tale, well told.

That aside – and admittedly it’s a pretty big “that” to set aside – Hutchings shares something very important with Kipling.  His word craft is clear and readable.
You wouldn’t think that would serve as high praise, and yet we’re talking about one eyed men in the land of the blind.  Like Kipling, Hutchings stands out amid a desolate wasteland of poetry marked by literary gimmickry specifically designed to block the reader’s attempts at understanding.  The modern way of poetry is to mystify, obscure, and block comprehension and understanding.  Modern poetry is an exercise in battle – the modern poets defy the reader to understand what he’s REALLY talking about, and the more obtuse the writing, the better.

Hutchings will have none of that.  There are four armed aliens to fight, princesses to save, and buckles to swash, and his rich and accessible word craft is as clever as it is unobtrusive.  Granted, his word choices often make me laugh out loud in awe at the sheer audacity of his writing, but it is the pure laughter of discovering an oasis in the midst of a desert.  That laughter is an expression of marvel that poetry could be used to such electric effect.  In Hutchings hands the choice of epic poetry fits hand in glove as a natural fit for retelling the saga of John Carter.  It harkens back to the days of oral tradition when poetry, rhythm, and rhyme were used to lend weight and meaning to the epic legends and histories.
In the end, and in the hands of James Hutchings, that simple premise gets turned on its head.  The question is not why tell John Carter’s saga in this manner, but why did it take so long to happen?

The only answer can be that it took a man with the talent and creativity of a Hutchings to get around to it.

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 Down to 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.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Devious Brains, Honest Brawn

The Castalia House blog is on fire these days.  The new writers line-up, of which my Wargame Wednesday offerings are the least, is brilliant, and the comments section has been blowing up, too.  Not just in terms of quantity, but quality as well. My own contribution to a recent conversation requires a little more space than a comment section or 140 character tweet.  The conversation in question exists below Morgan's most recent offering, a brief digression into the mind of that old fraud, Isaac Asimov, which includes the following ill-conceived bon-mot:
This double standard is very evident in sword-and-sorcery, in which the sword-hero (brawn) is pitted against the sorcery-villain (brain), with brawn winning every time. The convention is, furthermore, that brawn is always on the side of goodness and niceness (a proposition which, in real life, is very dubious…
Asimov was the sort of guy who never let slip an opportunity to remind the world how much smarter he was than everyone on it.  He was also the sort of guy who mistook his own low cunning for actual analytical ability.

First of all, Asimov wrote that line in 1985, decades after the appearance of such wildly popular characters as Vance's Cugel the Clever, Lieber's Grey Mouser, and Moorcock's Elric.  The list of cunning fantasy heroes is endless.  Then look at how many villains or monsters are composed of nothing but brawn.  Massive and stupid trolls and ogres and thugs are a staple of sword and sorcery.  To suggest that brawn is always on the side of goodness and niceness betrays a degree of ignorance about the subject matter that would send less intelligent men running away from broad, sweeping generalizations.  Not Asimov, though - he was too smart to let his ignorance get in the way of his opining.

That beef is low hanging fruit, though.  Exposing Asimov's ignorance and pretentiousness is no real accomplishment.  Instead, let's take a few moments to actually analyze how and why the  sword-hero (brawn) is pitted against the sorcery-villain (brain), with brawn winning every time survived for so long as a staple of sword and sorcery.  Instead of playing the role of Secret King who knows what's good for everyone, and why what they like is bad for them, let's stop think about why that idea resonates with readers.

We'll start with an easy exercise:

You know who likes to get stabbed in the back by a friend?

No one.

You know who likes to know where they stand with people?

Every one.

Now take two heroes, one selfish and dishonest, the other loyal and trustworthy.  Guess which one most readers would rather spend time with?  If you guessed the loyal and trustworthy one, congratulations on being a decent human being.

(Don't sperg out on me here.  Yes, sometimes a venal hero who engages in trickery can make for a find change of pace...if done well, and if he pits his talents against foes even more vile than he.  We're talking rules, not exceptions.)

The bigger point here is that normal people like good guys.  They like to see the good guys win.  They like to see themselves in the place of the good guy.  They like to be reminded that good guys don't finish last.  That good guys do come out ahead in the end.

Normal people live in a very complicated world where that doesn't always happen.  It seems that the good guys, honest and forthright, constantly get shafted by the lying duplicitous bastards of the world.  They see that punk in the low-slung ratrod zipping in and out of traffic and almost causing six wrecks two minutes before they get dinged by a speeding ticket for going 37 in a 30MPH zone.  They watch that conniving bitch in Marketing get promoted over the diligent gal who stays late and pulls her own weight.  They stand by helpless as petty bureaucrats sell their nation out for a few "feel good" photo-ops with third world invaders and preach tolerance and love even as their daughters are assaulted in the street on the regular by said immigrants.

They chafe at such indignities.  They yearn for truth in a world of lies.  They burn for justice delivered immediately and without prejudice.

When people like that crack open a book, they don't want to read about that cunning wizard who finally gave that big bully with the sword what for.  They don't want to vicariously experience a bureaucrat saving the day by "forgetting" to file important paperwork.  While they might appreciate the brainy programmer stopping the alien invasion with a virus, but they love the redneck pilot who kamikazes his jet straight up the exhaust port of the city-sized mothership.

Liked and respected versus loved and admired.
Guess which one sells more books?
And that, my friends, is the critical point that Asimov misses.  He can't see past his own ego.  He thinks that readers burn for vengeance on the grade school bully, and that what readers really want is a smart hero who uses complicated plans built on layers of deceit and obfuscation to thwart the plans of simpler and more forthright villains.

Normal people don't think that way.  Normal people just want to grab the lady behind the counter at the DMV who smugly announces that they don't have the right safety check form and that they'll have to take the Form 88A-Pre-Owned back to the car dealership and get the Form 88A-Used and shake that helmet haired old prune until their registration falls out.  They want to grab their kid's vice-principal and explain to him WITH THEIR FISTS that biting a Pop-Tart into a pistol shape in no way violates a Zero Tolerance policy.  They want simple and honest solutions to the complex and inscrutable rules and regulations of modern life.

They want the simple virtue of a steel blade well wielded to triumph over decades of deceit and cunning.  They want a lifetime of hard training and sweat to vanquish decades of conniving chicanery.  They want simple solutions presented by the good guys - guys like them - to win out over petty and vainglorious plots.

They want justice.  They want honesty.  They want loyalty.  They want all the things that they don't get in the real world.

Most of what I've laid out here is obvious.  Normal people can go their whole lives without thinking about these things, because they don't have to - they feel them deep within their bones.  A longing for honesty and justice is part and parcel of the western civilization psyche.  It's so natural as to go without saying.

But a guy like Asimov - so desperate to be the smartest man in the room - has to announce that the vague longing people have for simplicity and virtue is actually a very bad thing, and if you'll just hear him out, he can explain why honesty is stupid.  That Asimov sees himself as allied with the schemers and deceivers tells you everything you need to know about him.  How much trust to put into the words of a man who sympathizes with the liars and connivers is up to you.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Current Writing Project

The Pulp Revolution loves itself some pulpy fantasy and science fiction.  It's currently undergoing a long and protracted conversation about where exactly the genre took a left turn for the worse.  There are a lot of theories and finger pointing, with some rather elegant defenses of particular styles.  Loud mouth zealots make grand, sweeping gestures, then retract a bit when others point out exceptions.  Writers and editors of yesteryear get smeared and then have their reputations rehabilitated.  For example, Karl Gallagher's erudite analysis of Campbellian sci-fi softened my stance on Campbell.

With the exception of the New Wave authors.  Aside from a few gems in the cesspool, nobody likes those guys.

Of course, as readers and open minded sorts, the Pulp Revolution looks outward and analyzes information from other sources.  Whether it's showing respect to somebody like Rick Stump for his excellent analysis of why Hollywood can't get Conan right, or mocking the mockable mockeries of analysis like this prize pig, everything is fair game and nothing is off limits.

A number of commenters have pointed fingers at Damon Knight, the man who founded the SFWA and who is most famous for writing a story that ends with a man shouting that "To Serve Man" is a cookbook.  I hesitate to name names, because I'll forget to mention one or get those mentioned in trouble, but "Cirsova" Alexander and Nathan Housely are the primary culprits here.

Intrigued, I started doing some legwork, and everything fits together nicely nicely, thank you very much.  Damon Knight was a mid-tier author who bullied his way to the top through hubris and vindictiveness.  He did everything he could to assume command of the genre from writing amateur and biased reviews (Really, Damon?  Blish is a great writer and Robert E. Howard a hack?  Yagottabekiddingme,) to starting workshops to teach gullible writers "How it's really done", to founding the SFWA and conveniently serving as its first president, the better to determine who really counts as a 'the right kind of author'.  Of all of the gatekeepers who have made science fiction worse over the years, he was the original and so far as I can tell, the worst of the lot.

I started compiling notes and putting the pieces together, and have been forced to change directions a few times during this process.  While my overall thesis has not changed, certain pieces needed to be shuffled around, and looked at in new contexts.  As new information comes in, and as the conversations continue, I expect other changes to occur as well.  I will probably even post a few chapters here for open criticism and stress testing before declaring it ready for prime-time.

Right now the analysis clocks in at about 8,000 words, and it looks like I'm about half-way done.  So expect a quick read sometime in April/May.  Right now, I'm not sure where it will wind up.  Stay tuned, I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sudden Rescue - The Cover

My next, and first full length, novel is scheduled for release some time in March.  It's in the revision process right now, and as mentioned previously, that allows a window for the preparation of a cover.  This was the first time I've ever commissioned artwork in my life, and it was a lot of fun from start to finish.  The artist, Rapha Pinhiero (on Facebook and Instagram), took a brief description and ran with it.  He prepared four thumbnail sketches and together we settled on the one that best captured the threat, action, and sense of wonder that the book hopes to present.

This is the description I sent him:
I need an action shot of a space trucker in leather jacket and black baseball hat saving a pretty space princess in full ball gown from a vaguely knight looking robot. The action can take place in the halls of a spaceship or set on the wilds of an alien planet, whichever you're most comfortable with.
How did he do?  You be the judge:

The palette Rapha chose is bold and bright, and allowed me to use a high contrast yellow for the title that reads well at any size, and neither the art nor title overwhelm the other.  It's not a color pair that I would have chosen, but it works well, and it's just that sort of creativity and experience that makes the money so well spent.
Here's where everything gets even more fun.  I didn't realize that the titular space trucker - his name is E. Z. Sudden - had a full 'stache and goatee.  In my mind he didn't until I saw this picture.  Now, as I revise the work, that's how I'll picture him.  Better yet, there's a log on his shirt that serves as an Easter Egg for the fans of the cover artist.  On questioning, Rapha admitted its a burning pyramid taken from a comic book he created called Tomes of Tessa.  I can't tell you how thrilled I am that he included that in the art work.  I specifically left things vague to allow him room for just that sort of personal touch, and he came through like a champ.
Think about.  That means that either Sudden is a fan of independent comic books or that the burning pyramid is a local in Sudden's universe, and he not only visited it, but bought a t-shirt at the gift shop.  Either way, it makes me laugh every time I think about it.
Anyway, the point is, commissioning artwork is a blast.  It was so much fun, it has me motivated to write another book as fast as possible just so that I can go through the cover process again.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Three for Three: A Pulp Revolution Call to Arms

One of the easiest, cheapest and fastest ways to show your support for an author is to write an Amazon review.  The algorithms that operate in the substrate of that website use the reviews a book has to determine how strongly it sells that book to random shoppers.  As a result, even a few reviews helps push the sales of a book, and push it up in the rankings.  The best part is that reviews are permanent fixtures, so they continue to operate, whereas sales represent a short term bump.

To that end, I'm calling for a review bomb.  Here's how it works:  On March 3, write three sentences to describe three books.

That's it.

Choose three titles off the list of books you've read. Spread the word, boost the signal for your favorite authors, particularly the smaller independent authors and those who are Pulp Revolution friendly.

It sounds simple, but it will have a big impact.  So spread the word: Three for three on 3/3.

Five Dragons - Now Available for Pre-Order

There's more than one way to kill a dragon.  On February 18th, join the adventure as five different heroes square off against raw forces of hungry, elemental might.  This complete collection features four novellas, each one a ripping yarn about a remorseless killing machine bent on destruction, and each one matched against a different kind of hero.
One is a former soldier, determined to protect his daughter from threats both scaly and political.  One is a street-wise girl for whom the appearance of a dragon in the midst of a city-siege offers a chance at escape to a better life.  The most powerful wizard in seven universes pursues a danger of his own making.  A wandering holy man, long past his prime crusading years, is thrust into a castle full of eccentrics hiding a dark secret.
The fifth dragon features a very different sort of dragon-hunting story only available in this collection.  By popular demand, Five Dragons is available in digital and paperback formats.  Pre-order you copy today!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Getting Frisky

The Frisky Pagan's inciteful* analysis busts me up!

That's from a G+ thread that was too good not to share.  That got me thinking, though.  Can you imagine Rain Spaaaaaace!

"I'm a good starship pilot.  Definitely a good pilot.  Always on Wednesdays.  Never make the Kessel Run on Thursdays.  Definitely a good pilot."

"Hot water burn Burn Barugon!  Hot water burn Barugon!"

Charlie: Okay, Ray, we have to get on the Death Star now.
Ray:  No.  No.
Charlie:  What are you talking about, we have to get on the Death Star.
Ray: No, it's not safe.  Death Stars always blow up.
Charlie: Yeah, sometimes they do, but not this one.
Ray:  They always blow up.  DS-1 Orbital Battle Station one blew up at Yavin.  DS-2 Orbital Battle Station two blew up over Endor -
Charlie:  Okay, Ray.
Ray: Death Star Three, actually called Starkiller Base, but it was a Death Star, blew up -
Charlie: All right, Ray!  We won't get on the Death Star. 

* I know what I said.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Cirsova Four, Part One

This was a long time coming.  Cirsova Issue #4 has been in my hands for months, this copy has travelled across the Pacific twice, and I’m just now getting around to reading through it.  There just aren’t enough hours in the day for all the great fiction raining down on our heads, but I’m trying to consume and write about it all anyway.  My goal is to write at least a few sentences about each story, but this might take a while given that number four is double-stuffed with creamy genre goodness.

The story that kicks off this latest edition left me cold, which is ironic given that it revolves around the a city surrounded by fire and lava.  Wall Wardens, by Lynn Rushlau, tells one chapter of the tale of the last city in the world, and one of the wizards charged with maintaining the massive magic barricade that keeps the fire and the drakes outside, looking in.  The setting is fantastically creative – a literal safe bubble in a sea of fire, and I could see many a role-playing game revolving around the politics of the city and foiling the numerous attempts by apocalyptic cults to bring down the magic barricade.  In this short story, however, the villain’s motivation didn’t make enough sense, and I didn’t have enough reason to root for the protagonist to give this story a solid recommendation.  It’s not a bad story, but it doesn’t stand out among the usual Cirsova affair.

The second story starts as a standard King Aurthur as a young boy story, and then takes an unexpected twist into a Lovecraftian nightmare.  That this twist surprised me actually surprised me given that it’s right there on the cover.  The Lady of the Amorous City, by Edward M. Erdelac, uabashedly mashes up heroic knights with damsels in distress, tentacled monsters, and bottomless lakes housing things best left undisturbed.  Thought it starts slow, when the action ramps up, the story doesn’t relent until the end.  Even with everything I’ve said already, this story still contains a few surprises for readers.  All in all, this winds up a tight little read with a little bit of everything mixed in. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

What If You're Wrong?

A recent post of mine was one of those, "Have you actually read any of the old pulps?  Because they are crazy fun.  Here's one that ain't perfect, but has all the adventure, action, heroism, and humor that a reader could ask for."  At some point, somebody will take me up on this, and then one of two things are going to happen:
  1. They read it, enjoy it, and merrily go their way, the scales freshly fallen from their eyes.
  2. They read it, they hate it, and merrily go their way, never listening to my ranting again.
I'm good either way. 

But honestly, this was just an excuse to talk more about Queen of the Panther World.

You see that bloke facing down a six foot panther dressed in a skirt?  His name is Jimno  He has to throw that harness on it, and bust that bronco.  Then he has to do it five more times.  Somebody has to train these mounts before they can be ridden to war or to fight a dragon, the latter of which happens more than once in this story.

What Jimno is going through here is a punishment for sass-talking his wife after she slapped him around with a club for burning the soup.

This is how Jimno was introduced:

He gets better.

Let me spell that out for you one more time.  This story sees two average Chicago guys teleported to a world where all the women are strong, the men are meek, and the good guys ride seven foot mildly telepathic panthers into battle against big dragons and the renegade men who would subjugate the world beneath the hooves of their elk-lizard mounts.  In this new world the two average guys are as strong as the mightiest warrior because that's how insert characters and escapism work.  That's the explanation - no gravity, no magic, just that's how it is.

And it works.

The real world Joes manage to get captured by the rebellious warrior men, escape from their prison, fight their way to the village of the warrior women, liberate the men from their oppressors and train them to fight, battle dragons, launch raids and ambushes, and counter ambushes, and even find the time for a little romance along the way.

I can't figure out how it works, but it does.

If that description doesn't sound like something that interests you, then maybe science fiction and fantasy aren't really your thing.  Maybe you should stick to Oprah approved books.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Self-Publishing: The Cover Art

The first draft of my next (and first full length) novel sits on my hard drive, waiting for the revision process to begin. The self-imposed break between writing and revising - the better to approach the words with a fresh perspective - makes the perfect time to secure cover art.  As a self-publisher steadily growing the brand and reinvesting the profits of this little adventure back into it, this marks my first foray into finding an artist.

As mentioned previously, I've used* for my proof-reading in the past, and so using it for my art needs made sense.  There are a host of designers offering their services to design your book cover, but a quick review of that category reveals that most of the offerings are for clip-art combined with font selection and placement.  Those are important considerations, and your typical books would do well to take advantage of them.  They are perfect for non-fiction or for impressionistic lit-fic or for think pieces.  For my work?  They are uniformly terrible.

My work is not static, monochrome, or typical.  I will admit to them being cut-and-paste, but I'm cutting from the best and pasting things in a way that requires a much more creative touch.  That means going to the "Illustrators" section and finding actual artists rather than typesetters and designers.

Here things get a little more complicated.  It turns out portraits are easy.  Hundreds of quality artists will prepare a portrait for you on the fast and on the cheap.  Every additional figure you add to the artwork adds to the complexity and therefore the cost.  When you're working on a tight budget, and telling the story of a single character, the temptation is to go with what's cheap and just throw a character portrait up on the cover of your book.  Unfortunately, this leads to what Jeffro Johnson calls, "cool people standing around".  To whit:

GIS Results for "urban magic book cover"
Look at all those cool kids standing around.  I used to think that was a conscious decision made by publishers to appeal to those for whom the important thing is being seen to be looking good.  The old theory characterized this as entirely the result of an assumption that fiction for women involves people "being", in contrast to fiction for men which involves people "doing".   Even when a cover for men's fiction shows a portrait, he's usually engaged in a verb other than "standing".
GIS results for "pulp adventure cover"
The latter are far more intriguing and therefore far more likely to separate this fool from his money.  Unfortunately, the rules of the game state that the latter are also far more complex and therefore more costly.  So now my theory about "magic girl book covers" also includes the cheapness of the artwork as an additional factor. 

Which brings us to the conundrum facing self-publishers who want to evoke the latter covers, but who cant' justify the cost.  There may be a solution!

It turns out a number of graphic artists of the sequential art variety populate as well.  These fine folks offer to draft a full page of your comic book, and if you ask nicely and explain what you want of them, would be more than happy to prepare a single panel page of a comic book at a significant cost savings.  As these are artists, many of them offer a range of styles from watercolors to digital art to line drawing or whatever, and the best part is that these guys are used to creating art that tells a story in a single panel.  They can do portraits of people standing around, but they don't balk at multiple characters, action shots, or even odd angles and composition.  It's what they do.

And if you have a hook like, "space trucker saving a princess from a robot that looks like a knight," then you are operating right inside their bailiwick.  That's how I found Rapha Pinhiero (on Facebook and Instagram.)  He even included a thumbnail sketch before starting on the final piece.

Now there's a cover that shows some action, some stakes, and the all important pretty girl in peril!

* Full disclosure: If you click that link and wind up using one of their services, I get a five dollar credit.  Thanks for the help!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Luria, Queen of the Panther World

I posted the image to the left on Twitter as a completely un-ironic goof.  As you know, I've been using the skills developed during fighting in the meme-trenches to install the God Emperor's butt on the Cherry Blossom Throne to show the world that the old pulps are well worth their time.

This guy (for a good time, go follow him) remarked that he wanted to read the Queen of the Panther World, and so a bit of poking demonstrated such a thing was possible.  You can read it online right here!

Love at first punch, it's a beautiful thing, isn't it?
This isn't high lit-ra-chur by any stretch.  It's just a damn fun little story about two kind of nebbish Chicagoans (not New Yorkers, and that alone is refreshing) teleported to a topsy-turvy world where women rule men.  The eponymous Queen used her magic mind projection/teleportation powers to bring two middle class guys to a world filled with massive nearly-sentient and partially telepathic giant panthers, dragons, and proud Amazonians that somehow actually do need a few real men in their lives. 

The narrator, a pulp writer named Berk (note this was written by a man names Berkeley) and his friend, the illustrator at the magazine are stronger than most men for reasons not fully explained, so what they lack in training, they more than make up for in brute strength.  The adventure takes maybe one or two more twists than is absolutely necessary, and dips into slapstick a bit deeper than it probably should have, but it features all the great stuff that one comes to expect from stories of this nature:

A strange world populated by warrior cultures that none-the-less could stand a little bit of 20th century American thinking?  Check.

Daring escapes?  Check.

A world saved from barbarism?  Check.

A nefarious old wizard that betrayed the king who ruled for a golden age?  Check.

The mind of that golden age king thrown forward in time to live in the body of a sacred parrot that now stands as a symbol of hope and rule?  And it talks like a Bronx gangster so that the narrator is the only one that can understand it?  Check and check.

The hero's first encounter with his romantic partner consists of a knock-down drag out fist fight that only ends when he cranks her one right in the snot-box and sends her flying fifteen feet through the air?  Which only inspires her adoration at his warrior prowess?
Well, I don't know that I expected that last one, but check!

As I said, it's got some rough patches, and doesn't compare to the old masters of Howard, Burroughs, and Moore, but it's still a damned fun adventure.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Torchship - The Best of the 80s

Reading Torchship* brought me back to those halcyon days of the 1980s hen network television spent a full decade taking advantage of the reduced costs of special effects to churn out a steady stream of episodic ensemble genre shows that were as creative in their central conceit as they were clumsy in their execution. Much to my chagrin, the advances in special effects and willingness to spend money on genre fiction was not matched by a willingness to spend money on quality writing, and most of these shows died a quick death.

Torchship might have been one of those shows that fed and dashed my hopes. It has all of the elements. It has an interstellar cargo ship bouncing around a large setting. It has a generally stable crew of six, each with their own secrets and fully-fleshed out personalities. It has adventure, action, mystery, romance, and politics, all in equal measure. If only it was poorly written, it would have hit every note of those 1980 shows. Alas, Karl Gallagher drops the ball by writing in a clear and unobtrusive style that lets the characters and action speak for themselves.

Karl Gallagher’s novel about a tramp steamer in space – the science is decidedly on the “hard” end of the spectrum – actually encompasses a number of shorter stories tied together by the slow reveal of the pilot, Michigan “Mitchie” Smith’s, narrative thread. Her background and actions are a sort of sub-plot to the novel, but given the lack of a single over-riding plot it isn’t fair to call it a sub-plot. It’s really more of a narrative hook to tie the novel together and keep the reader’s interest. In that regard, it works. It’s done so deftly and skillfully that until the first interlude between stories, you don’t realize there’s more to the pilot than it seems.

Later, you realize that most of what you know about the pilot comes straight from her mouth, and that she hasn’t been telling the entire truth through most of the book. That’s a neat spin on the “unreliable narrator” concept which serves to hold the reader’s interest as well.

You should detect a pattern here. Karl Gallagher’s writes with a deceptively clear and transparent ease that belies the inner workings of Torchship. This book is like the proverbial duck placidly swimming across a pond, and with all sorts of furious activity churning the water beneath the surface. The surface workings are entertaining enough. Stories of a blue-collar shipping crew rescuing an heiress passenger from potential kidnappers, trapped on a deserted planet trying to hunt a professional hunter, hunting buried treasure, and ferrying a small horde of refugees to safety, all have a charm all their own. And every one would have been right at home on 1980s genre television.

As I mentioned, the book contains a number of short stories, but as they are presented in chronological order and the results of one adventure flow naturally into the next, it doesn’t feel like a collection of short stories so much as it feels like a travelogue through a fully realized sci-fi setting, and it’s a setting well worth exploring. The key incident in this future’s history is the end of humanity’s golden age when the AIs that made such golden times possible betrayed humanity and launched a pogrom that nearly wiped humans from existence. That underlying event gives the setting both a bit of a dark-age feel, and a post-apocalyptic feel, and the omnipresent feel of a massive extinction level event that could strike at any time. It’s a big sandbox, and Gallagher manages to explore enough to feel satisfying, but not so much that it starts to feel small.

All that aside, Gallagher really won me over with a minor scene midway through the novel. Any book that includes a scene where a man tells a woman to, “Go make me a sandwich,” and her response is a cheerful, “Okay!” earns bonus points on my scorecard. As an added bonus, the open endedness of the setting presented should provide a solid RPG background for anyone looking for a Travelleresque setting complete with big threats, easily understandable history, and enough room in the sandbox for any sort of adventure your players want.

You might not have been explicitly looking for a hard sci-fi blue collar ensemble novel that explores a fully realized future setting, but if that’s something that tickles your fancy, you can’t do any better than Torchship.

* I actually sprung for the audiobook add-on.  It was two bucks, and read by Laura Gallagher who did a fine job.  My only complaint is that her pronunciation of the word tourist, which gets used a lot, sounded more like "turrist", and I had visions of Charles Barkley's mother reading the story every time.  That's on me - don't let my foibles scare you off.  It's eminently listenable.