Sunday, December 27, 2015

Swords Against Cthulhu (Ed. Gavin Chappell, Rogue Planet Press/Horrified Press, 2015)

Well, readers, I guess I lied when I said my review of The Dark World would be my last of 2015.  I had a couple days' worth of lunch-break reading last week before my long weekend off work, and grabbed this anthology, which I'd picked up at Pulpfest back in August and not gotten to yet.  If you recall my review of Barbarian Crowns, you'll have an idea of why I'm saying that at Paperback Perils, 2015 is ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Most of the same criticisms I had for Barbarian Crowns are in effect here, with the book being thick with typographical errors and incidents of correctly-spelled, but incorrectly-used words - "He did not know what he had done to angry the man," things of that nature.  It comes across as very sloppy and very disrespectful of the reader's time.  To be perfectly honest, it leaves me disinclined to buy future books put out by Rogue Planet Press or its parent organism, Horrified Press (the same outfit behind, through another subsidiary, Barbarian Crowns).

There were not a lot of really enjoyable stories in this collection, and I won't single out the particularly bad ones by name.  I really would like to focus on the positive as best I can here at Paperback Perils.  I think most of the stories in this book could have benefited from being read by a third party and the authors given serious feedback on them.  Instead, let me single out the stories I enjoyed the most:

  • "The Burning Messenger" (Matt Sullivan) - A meteorite bathed in weird energies spells doom for a Viking settlement.  I particularly enjoyed the aging ex-swordsman protagonist, strapping on his sword for one final battle.  The writing is crisp and the story demonstrates the author's understanding of how to use "Lovecraftian" language for effect, rather than obfuscation.  
  • "A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness" (Gavin Chappell) - taking the "swords" of the title in a figurative sense, this story pits an American Jihadist leading a detachment of ISIL soldiers on a mission to destroy Assyrian ruins, and discovering that some stones are better left unturned.  For the most part I thought the story was very well done, though I tended to wince a little bit every time "Second in command" was abbreviated to "2iC." That would have been perfectly fine, even laudable, if the story had been written as an after-action report, but in the third-person narrative it sticks out as awkward.  
  • "The Sword of Lomar" (Jason Scott Aiken) - full disclosure, I know Jason, I consider him a friend, and his reading of this story at Pulpfest was part of why I bought the book.  A sequel to Lovecraft's "Polaris," the story finds Nuja of Lomar trying desperately to hold the line between the city of Lomar and the hordes of Inutos that seek to destroy it.  It's an enjoyable read and the framing technique, the same as that from "Polaris," is a nice touch.  
  • "The Thing in the Swamp" (Stephen Hernandez) - this is my favorite story in the entire collection, and makes some of the material I slogged through almost worth the journey.  A swordsman for hire is called upon to destroy a monstrous entity feeding on a poor village.  There's some obvious elements from SEVEN SAMURAI/THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, but the swordsman Vidric is given a rich inner narrative, while several passages written from the monster's perspective are an unexpected treat.  Hernandez keeps the monster front and center even when it's off-screen by having characters discuss it and think about it throughout the story, and the final fight is not merely one of brawn, but of brains as well - Vidric has to think to destroy the monster, not just swing his sword until his arm falls off.  
Was the book worth it? I read four really good stories and a number that could have used some work, and got to avoid talking to coworkers during my half-hour to myself during the work day.  I don't know the likelihood of me picking the collection up and rereading it, but I don't regret the purchase too much.  I doubt I'll be developing the same relationship with Horrified Press that I've built with Meteor House, though.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Dark World (Henry Kuttner, Ace Books 1946/Paizo 2008)

I think it's very likely this will be my last post here at Paperback Perils for the year, so first and foremost, I'd like to wish my readers the happiest of holiday seasons and present my best wishes for the year to come.  2015 has been a very big year for me as a pulp reader, with Pulpfest and the amazingly knowledgeable, passionate, and friendly people I met there being the jewel in the crown as it were.  Gina and I will be returning to Pulpfest in 2016 with larger budgets and possibly a slightly longer stay as well.  Why, you ask, is this likely to be my last post for the year? Well, I've been shanghai'd into spending my lunch breaks at work with a group of my coworkers, so that knocks a half-hour off my reading time per day, meaning I'm reading less, and also I've got a few other creative endeavors clamoring for my attention: first, I'm participating in the Analogue Hobbies Annual Painting Challenge over at my other blog, which means I'll be trying to paint as many toy soldiers between December 20th and March 20th as I can.  Second, and I don't know how much I can say so I'll be vague here, I was asked to provide a short story for an upcoming anthology, with my due date for that being March 16th.  So painting and writing fiction are going to eat into my blogging time for the next couple months, though I will still be reading and reviewing as I can.

All that being said, let's get on with what I've been reading.  This is Henry Kuttner's The Dark World, as reprinted in 2008 by Paizo Publishing as part of their Planet Stories line of reprints.  I have been overwhelmingly impressed with every one of these that I've picked up, and it's a shame they proved relatively unprofitable for Paizo, resulting in the line's cancellation.  For roleplayers (Paizo being primarily known as the publishers of the Pathfinder RPG), the line was a great way to collect a lot of the classic pulp literature that had inspired the creation of Dungeons & Dragons back in the day.

The Dark World is the story of Edward Bond, a man trapped in a double-life; he's been tossed back and forth between the mundane Earth-reality and the nearby parallel dimension known as the Dark World, a quasi-medieval world ruled by superstition and fear, wielded by an organization known as the Coven.  Bond's body and memory have been shuffled with that of his Dark World duplicate, the arrogant warlock Ganelon, a high-ranking Covenanter.  Confused and suffering an identity crisis, Bond/Ganelon is torn between his loyalty to the Coven and its dark god, Llyr, and the freedom-seeking Green Men of the forest led by the white witch Freydis.  When his fellows in the Coven decide it's better to sacrifice him to Llyr than risk his loyalties shifting, they discover what a powerful enemy they've created...

I've not read much Kuttner prior to this, only a few Mythos stories he penned, so this was a very new experience for me.  The novel's relatively short and moves at a very brisk pace, the action covering only a few days' time in the Dark World, while the language is kept pretty spare - not Hemingway, for sure, but Kuttner does not seem to have had time for purple prose.

Genre-wise, the story falls squarely into one of my favorite subgenres - that of science fantasy, blurring distinctions between mythology of science fiction.  The Convenanters are candid in explaining to Bond/Ganelon that Earth and the Dark World are but two of many worlds, fissioned off one at a time as decisions were made and actions taken in one world or another.  The Dark World split off from Earth with the birth of Llyr, a mutant abomination that should not have occurred on Earth for another few hundred million years.  Establishing itself as a god in the Dark World, the weird energies radiating off of Llyr generating mutations in that world's human population that gave rise to human-offshoots virtually indistinguishable from the mythological vampires, werewolves and gorgons of Earth.

Even more interesting, late in the novel we get the revelation that Edward Bond was not the first Earth-man to transition to the Dark World; that centuries earlier it was done by a founding member of the Coven, who is strongly implied (though never explicitly stated) to have been the historical Merlin.

The Dark World is a good, light, quick read (in the introduction to the Planet Stories edition, Piers Anthony describes the events of the book as moving at a "sometimes bewildering pace") that blends sword-and-sorcery with science fiction and even a dash of Lovecraftian cosmic horror in a way that I don't feel like I see enough of these days.  The characters are largely archetypal, rarely given any real sense of characterization - heck, the evil witch/vampiress is even named Medea here - and much of the plot is probably easily predictable to anyone who's read a few fantasy novels of science fiction stories of this era.  It's far from the best or most original piece of fiction I've read this year, but it was fun to read it nonetheless.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Tales of the Wold Newton Universe (Philip Jose Farmer & Friends; Titan Books, 2013)

Happy Wold Newton Day, readers! It was on this date, 220 years ago, that a 56-lb stone smacked into Earth at a place called Wold Newton in England, thus proving to scientists at the time that yes, it was possible for rocks to fall from the sky.  More importantly for our purposes here, the impact inspired Philip Jose Farmer to begin tying together numerous literary characters into an extended "family" linked back to seven aristocratic couples and four coachmen he placed at the sight of the impact - the resultant ionizing radiation bath given to these individuals triggering the "nova of genetic splendor" we've discussed before.  I can think of no better way to mark the occasion than by reviewing one of the last pieces of Wold Newton fiction I currently own that I haven't already covered.  It was also one of my final purchases at Pulpfest this year - yes, I'm still working through my haul.

This book is an anthology, collecting several pieces of "Wold-Newtoniana" by Farmer (not always writing under his own name), and others are penned by devoted disciples.

I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail covering each story, but there are a few I'd like to single out to comment on:

"The Problem of the Sore Bridge - Among Others" is probably my favorite piece in this collection, among those I hadn't previously read.  The story follows gentleman thief Raffles as he investigates a series of unusual jewel sales involving flawless star sapphires.  The trail leads Raffles across the path of his criminologist cousin Holmes, conducting a parallel investigation.  Where Watson identifies three cases that Holmes, in his brilliance, nevertheless fails to solve, Raffles - first in the case, as it were - not only resolves them but demonstrates that they were three facets of a single larger and stranger mystery, one with its origins in deep space.

The tone of the story is pretty much exactly what I've come to expect from the Wold Newton Universe, and the characters and their world are very much "alive" and recognizable as the real world, despite the presence of an alien invader.  The story is enjoyable and ties into and expands on the original Doyle cases seamlessly.

This is followed by two "Ralph von Wau Wau" stories that, to be perfectly honest, were not for me.  Holmes pastiches featuring a mutant German Shepherd that talks like Humphrey Bogart and solves crimes using his sense of smell.  They tie into the Wold Newton universe because Farmer references von Wau Wau in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, and I can see what Farmer was doing when he wrote them, but they didn't do much for me.

"The Freshman" is, I believe, the story that first introduced me to Farmer's work years ago.  I seem to recall reading it in a Cthulhu Mythos anthology years ago.  It didn't make a big impression on me then, and now, while there are elements in it that I really like - I love the protagonist's inner emotional struggle against his domineering mother - overall, I'm really kind of turned off by the idea of Miskatonic University having this reputation as "Black Magic Hogwarts," where you can go to learn spells and summon the Old Ones.

"After King Kong Fell" is another one I'd read before I really became a big Farmer fan, and which I'm somewhat torn on.  There's elements in the story that I like, and others that I really don't care for - and there's actually a very clear line of demarcation for me where I stop enjoying the story.  I stop liking the story as soon as the narrator begins ruminating on the dimensions of King Kong's genitalia and the question of whether or not he attempted to rape Ann Redman.  It's a section that just feels very out of place to me and very unnecessary - especially given how firmly Farmer states that Kong is just an animal.  On the other hand, I very much enjoy the rest of the aftermath of Kong's rampage - the posturing, the competing lawsuits to repair damage caused by Kong, the spirited debate over what to do with the ape's remains.  That part of the story I like.

"Kwasin and the Bear God," by Christopher Paul Carey, we've covered before.  I still love it.

"Into Time's Abyss" by John Allen Small jumps off from Time's Last Gift and sends the time travelers into a parallel dimension, one in which the Magdalenians are harassed and enslaved by a race of humanoid lion-like aliens.  John Gribardson takes it upon himself to break this domination and reassert humanity's right to set its own destiny.  Small really captures the tone and feel of Farmer's novel, and his Gribardson is spot-on, and the story on the whole left me wanting an entire novel running parallel to Time's Last Gift.

"The Last of the Guaranys," by Octavio Aragao and Carlos Orsi, was actually my least favorite story in the collection.  Set during the 17th century, it finds Gribardson in South America, investigating a natural nuclear reactor when he stumbles into the events of Jose de Alencar's 1857 novel O Guarani.  I didn't think the writing was as good here, and the characterization of Gribardson seemed vastly at odds with anything I've seen before.  I can't imagine the character thinking to himself "time to put on the Johnny Weissmueller act" or referring to an animal with "the ugliest son of a bitch." It was just very jarring and as a result the story didn't do a lot for me.

The collection ends on a high note with Win Scott Eckert's "The Wild Huntsman," a story set at the site of the Wold Newton impact in the days and hours immediately before it occurred, explaining why the individuals who were present at the site were there in the first place.  The story also serves to tie Farmer's Wold Newton Universe into his "Secrets of the Nine" series,  I haven't read any of the "Secrets of Nine" books yet, but my understanding is they're a parallel to the Wold Newton Universe - with "Doc Caliban" instead of Doc Savage, etc.  So some of the material here goes over my head a little bit, but not terribly so.

So what's the overall takeaway for me from this volume? Honestly, while I may not have been in love with a lot of the stories, I think the collection as a whole definitely has value as a primer on "what is the Wold Newton Universe?" because it really showcases the wide spectrum of fantastic literature that falls under the heading of Wold Newton.  By putting "The Problem of the Sore Bridge" and the Ralph von Wau Wau stories next to each other, the collection is saying to the reader, "this isn't all serious scholarship and carefully filling in gaps in between stories written a century ago."

And truth be told, that's a lesson I needed.  Up to this point the bulk of Wold Newton fiction I'd read had been fairly "serious" fiction, in that it's been fairly straight forward adventure literature - while it references existing literature, it's not "playful" with it, I guess is the word I'm looking for.  Ralph von Wau Wau is playful in a way Hadon of Ancient Opar is not, if that makes sense.

So while I may not have been in love with this book myself, I can recognize its value and offer a recommendation of this book for people who have heard of the Wold Newton universe and are curious to see whether or not it's something they're interested in.  It provides a nice introduction to the variety of tones and styles Farmer was capable of writing in and showcases how diverse the Wold Newton universe can be.  It also shines a light on some of the biggest talents expanding on the Wold Newton universe today.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Phileas Fogg and the War of Shadows (Josh Reynolds, Meteor House Press, 2014)

In a sense, it could be said that I read The Other Log of Phileas Fogg so that I could read this volume; Meteor House was kind enough to send me a complimentary copy of Josh Reynold's sequel novella, and Win Scott Eckert, realizing I hadn't read the original novel, was kind enough to send me a copy to ensure I had the full story.  Having enjoyed The Other Log, I was eager to dive into the continuation of the story of Phileas Fogg.

Taking up the story more than fifteen years after The Other Log, War of Shadows finds Fogg married and retired to his country estate.  Things do not remain peaceful for him for very long; he soon finds himself surrounded by gunmen and escorted into the presence of his old nemesis, now going by his birth name...Professor James Moriarty.

Moriarty makes his case plainly.  Though the war between the Eridaneans and Capellans has been over for years, there's a new threat: someone has become aware of the Eridanean-Capellan conflict, and is kidnapping former agents of both factions and torturing them for information.  Recognizing the threat, Moriarty demands Fogg investigate - under threat of his wife being murdered by Moriarty.

Fogg is dispatched to France, accompanied by the devilish and murderous Colonel Moran, to investigate.  He soon finds himself in the clutches of a terrifyingly human villain, one intent on positioning himself as the savior of the human race from extraterrestrial interference.

I don't want to spill the beans on the identity of Fogg's new foe, but I imagine the readers will be familiar enough with the literature of the period in which this is set to guess his identity pretty handily.  Suffice to say it's a character that has seen considerable revision over the years and one that has been presented as everything from an idealized romantic hero to a tormented Byronic antihero to an unspeakable villain.  Personally, I feel like Josh Reynolds captured the character perfectly, bringing to the fore elements of the character that appeared in the source novel but which have been largely neglected in media since, while plausibly extrapolating what that character would do upon becoming aware of a alien-guided shadow war on Earth.

In terms of villainy, even more than this overarching villain, I love Reynolds' presentation of Moriarty and, especially, Moran.  Reynolds really plays up the foresight of Moriarty, gives us a taste of Moriarty's talent for manipulation and the ease with which he moves through complex webs of schemes and contingencies, always keeping his own interests first and foremost.

But Reynolds' Moran...Moran frequently gets the short end of the stick when it comes to characterization; he's Moriarty's thuggish gunman, a military-trained assassin, but ultimately he's presented with even less personality than his custom-made German air rifle.  In essence, he's always been the gun in Moriarty's hand.  Under Reynold's pen, Moran's sadism, bullying and English classism are brought to life and the character, loathsome as he is, is allowed to flourish.

I'd love to see Josh Reynolds pen a crossover between Moran and Count Zaroff.  Now there would be truly the most dangerous game.

Phileas Fogg and the War of Shadows continues the time-honored tradition of using newly-discovered manuscripts as a framing story; in this case, a series of journals, written in Eridanean, discovered in Fogg's country estate a hundred years later, translated by Patricia Wildman.  The postscript from Wildman notes that she's begun working on translating the subsequent volumes, and has discovered further adventures of Fogg's, taking him to Ruritania and beyond, and so I am absolutely salivating for the continuation of this story.

Phileas Fogg and the War of Shadows is available from the publisher here, and gets a hearty recommendation from me.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (Philip Jose Farmer; DAW, 1973/Titan Books, 2012)

Hello again readers, I hope those of you in the US had a lovely holiday and didn't trample or get trampled by anybody on Black Friday (I did a tiny bit of online shopping, and went to the movies in the evening, and that was enough human interaction for me).  Myself, I ate far too much and went back and forth with my uncles with ribald jokes, so I'm chalking it up as a success.  I had to work Friday, and on my lunch break I finished up my current reading - Philip Jose Farmer's novel The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, which I received as a gift from Win Scott Eckert, to whom I'm much obliged.  Let's dive in, shall we?

The Other Log is an account of the "true" story behind Verne's famous novel Around the World in 80 Days.  I'll admit, I read Around the World as a kid and remember not being impressed with it - largely because it wasn't "science fiction" the way 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or From The Earth to the Moon were.  Farmer "rectifies" this by recasting Phileas Fogg as an agent of the Eridanean race - a group of long-lived extraterrestrials, stranded on Earth in the 1600s.  The Eridaneans are locked in a generational struggle with a similar group of stranded aliens, the Capellans.  Both sides, as their numbers dwindled due to attrition or natural causes, recruited human allies through promises of fantastic technology and a form of near-immortality.

When a Capellan agent goes rogue with one of the last surviving "Distorters," a teleportation device, Fogg is dispatched under cover of his famous wager to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days to retrieve the device.  Unfortunately, he is pursued by Fix, a Capellan agent under cover as a British police detective, as well as Fix's master - the mysterious Capellan known as "Captain Nemo," seeking the Distorter to further his own goals.

I feel like The Other Log did a lot to rehabilitate Phileas Fogg in my memory, and now I'm curious to revisit Verne's original novel.  Before I can do so, however, Meteor House was kind enough to send me an authorized sequel to The Other Log, Phileas Fogg and the War of Shadows, by Josh Reynolds, to which I'm eager to turn my attention next.

To be perfectly honest, The Other Log took a little warming up to for me; initially I was put off, in the first chapter or two, by how stingy Farmer seemed to be regarding the Eridaneans and Capellans, but I quickly realized that that was the point - the reader is allowed to know no more about these mysterious aliens than the characters are; we're meant to puzzle out who they are alongside the characters, and once this dawned on me I found myself enjoying the novel significantly more, especially once we began getting sequences from Fix's perspective.

The novel moves at a pretty good clip, and Farmer glosses over the less eventful parts of the journey (I think because, as I recall, Verne doesn't) so the eighty day journey goes by very quickly, allowing Farmer to focus on more exciting things - a side trip to the deck of the Mary Celeste, for example, or an extended siege of Fogg's Savile Row home.

We also get an addendum in the form of the essay "A Submersible Subterfuge, or Proof Impositive" by H.W. Starr, detailing the inconsistencies between depictions of Nemo in 20,000 Leagues and The Mysterious Island, and drawing some conclusions regarding Nemos' "true" identity.  I won't name any names to preserve the mystery for those inspired to read the book based on this review, but suffice to say his arguments are compelling.

The Titan Books edition concludes with an afterward from Win Scott Eckert exploring the autobiographical aspects of Farmer's fiction, including his hints in The Other Log that "Phil Farmer" might be an alias for "Phileas Fogg," and finally a timeline of Wold Newton events as they relate to The Other Log.

All in all, The Other Log of Phileas Fogg gets my recommendation, for anyone who's a fan of alternate histories, Jules Verne, or adventure novels with a dash of science fiction thrown in.  It can be purchased from Amazon here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Shadows of the Empire (Steve Perry, Bantam Books, 1996)

Well, readers, here's something a little different for us here at Paperback Perils.  I've mentioned in the past that my girlfriend Gina reads a lot of Star Wars novels, and I've given her a few tentative nudges into the realm of the Star Wars books I was reading as a kid - before the release of the prequel trilogy and all that.  Her main area of interest in the Star Wars universe is the formation of the Old Republic, the rise of the Jedi Order, and then the history of the Sith and the Dark Side of the Force.  My main interest in the Star Wars universe is what comes after RETURN OF THE JEDI and the various side-stories of characters you see for two seconds in the movies.  So among the books I've bought her to show her my side of the Force, besides the anthologies detailing the stories of the bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and the stories of the hangers-on at Jabba the Hutt's palace, is this one, a novel set between EMPIRE and JEDI.

I still vividly remember when this book came out, because there was a huge multimedia campaign - the book, video games, action figures, model kits, trading cards, etc., all promoting this story.  I had a couple of the action figures in the "Shadows of the Empire" line, and I remember building the model kit of the ship Virago.  She hasn't read it yet, and I decided it'd make an interesting change of pace to go back and re-read it after almost 20 years.

The novel focuses on the power struggle between Darth Vader, who should need no further introduction, and Prince Xizor, the head of the Black Sun criminal syndicate and Vader's sole rival for the favor of the Emperor.  Xizor has an additional, personal stake in the game, in that he blames Vader for his family's deaths about a decade prior to the events depicted here.  Xizor desires to supplant Vader at the Emperor's side, and ultimately usurp the power of the Emperor himself.  Learning that the Emperor wants Luke Skywalker alive or dead, and determining that Vader wants the boy alive, Xizor sets to work having Skywalker captured, with the intent of delivering his corpse to the Emperor.

Meanwhile, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian -- I feel like I really shouldn't have to introduce anybody, right? -- are working to find and rescue Han Solo, frozen in Carbonite and on his way to Jabba the Hutt's palace.  Aiding them is Dash Rendar, a smuggler and hot-shot pilot, who's just in it for the credits - a line we've heard before from another smuggler and hot-shot pilot.

Xizor quickly sets his sights on Leia not only as bait to capture Luke with, but as a personal conquest as well, a feat within his grasp due to his alien pheromones.  But will his immediate, physical desires interfere with the long game he's playing for galactic power?

Books like this, and revisiting the "Tales of the Bounty Hunters" and "Tales from Jabba's Palace" collections make me lament what the Star Wars universe has become in recent years.  There's a richness here, and an incredible degree of continuity maintained for years by a dozen authors or more interconnecting their works with each other.  And now a lot of that is being swept under the rug and filed away as "nope, doesn't count."

I like the Vader we get here, when we're treated to scenes from his perspective, much more than the Vader that developed over the course of the prequel trilogy.  The Vader on display here is much more in keeping with the now-outmoded "samurai" interpretation of the Jedi, a man of honor who lives by a code, albeit one fueled by rage and despair.  He's given hopes and goals that make sense within the context of his character, and a clear path he's taking to accomplish those goals.  This is the Vader who ultimately tossed the Emperor into a reactor core, and this novel develops the path that led him to that act in a way that's fully believable.

This review is not meant to be Lucas-bashing; I recognize that he has his ideas for where the story of Star Wars should go, as is his right as creator, and I also recognize that much of my preference for the Expanded Universe provided in fiction written prior to 1999 can be chalked up to nostalgia.  This is the Vader I had first, so I cherish it more.

I really liked the political thriller aspect of Shadows, the emphasis on the "game" Vader and Xizor are playing as they compete for the Emperor's favor, believing that their subterfuge goes under the Emperor's radar, when he is in fact encouraging them against one another to ensure he winds up with the strongest and shrewdest second-in-command.  The contrast between Xizor's breezy self-assuredness and Vader's secret self-doubts makes their contest that much more compelling, and I at least found myself rooting for Vader against the decadent criminal.

Even more rewarding is watching Xizor's arrogant conviction of his own superiority set the dominoes in motion for his eventual downfall.  Just following him through minor miscalculations or making advances off assumptions that ultimately snowball out beyond his ability to return from.

On the side of the heroes, we're treated to very vulnerable versions of the characters we know and love from the original trilogy: Luke is struggling to master his connection to the Force and wondering if he has what it takes to become a Jedi Knight, while Leia is striving to find a balance between her personal feelings towards Han (and Luke, whom she does not yet know is her brother) and her need to serve the greater good of the Rebellion.  Lando is working to regain Leia and Chewbacca's trust after being forced by Vader to betray them.  They're all profoundly vulnerable in a way that makes their accomplishments over the course of the novel that much more rewarding.

We also get a few scenes setting up things we see later in RETURN OF THE JEDI: Luke constructing a new lightsaber, Leia acquiring the disguise and thermal detonator she uses to bluff her way into Jabba's palace.  It's a nice couple nods to the film without being overpowering.

The only real weak point is Dash Rendar - he's very clearly a temporary surrogate for Han Solo, and so never really feels like a full character in his own right.  He's Han Solo with the cockiness cranked up to the point where it grates.  I think the novel would have been stronger if he didn't feel so much like a straight clone of Han Solo; I liked the back story he was given, that his family was banished from Coruscant and he was kicked out of the Imperial Navy after a brother accidentally crashed a freighter into a building owned by the Emperor.  I also liked the arc he got after he believed he'd failed to stop a missile from destroying a ship full of Bothan allies; but the character overall felt too much like Han Solo for my tastes.

Overall, revisiting this novel nineteen years after first reading it was very enjoyable; being older and, I like to think, wiser now, I feel like there was a lot more nuance that I picked up on this time around.  It wasn't perfect, like I said I thought the character of Dash Rendar weakened much of the book, but the intrigue between Xizor, Vader and the Emperor was excellent and I found it enriching to the cinematic material surrounding the novel.  There's some suggestions that a sequel was being set up, as neither Xizor nor his assistant Guri die on-screen, and there are a couple passages that suggest their was some intent to bring them back at a later date to seek revenge on Skywalker.  While this does not appear to have happened to date, I've read enough pulp literature to know you can't keep a good villain down.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Hadon, King of Opar (Christopher Paul Carey, Meteor House, 2015)

That anguished wailing you may have heard on Friday, readers, was me coming to the end of Hadon, King of Opar, and realizing that the next book in the series will not be out until summer 2016.  This novella, released at Pulpfest 2015 (where I bought my copy) by Christopher Paul Carey, picks up the story of Opar sixteen years after the events of Flight to Opar.

In the intervening decade-and-a-half since the Cataclysm that wiped most of Khokarsan civilization off the map, Hadon has striven to rule fairly and justly by the side of his wife, Queen Lalila, while rebuilding Opar and adjusting to the rewritten political and physical climate in central Africa - the inland seas continue to shrink, and the Cataclysm has seem to have left only tiny pockets of survivors where other great cities once stood; Opar is now alone, the infrastructure of empire no longer in place to support it.

Unfortunately for Hadon, something is rotten in the state of Opar, and old enemies emerge after sixteen years of watching and planning to settle old scores with Hadon in a last-ditch continuation of the civil war that may have caused the destruction of Khokarsa.  Fortunately, Hadon is not alone; he is aided against his foes by his stalwart son Kohr, his brilliant daughter La, and the Kwaklem - the Sons of Kwasin, literally, an entire tribe of giant, axe-swinging barbarians sired by the insatiable Kwasin during his exile.

As much as the Khokarsa series - Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar, and Song of Kwasin - can comfortably stand alone as a trilogy, not needing any expansion, I'm really enjoying Christopher Carey's expansions in both directions, with Hadon, King of Opar continuing the story forward, while Exiles of Kho traces the events that ultimately set the Khokarsa series in motion.

Here we're treated to Opar's struggle against the inevitable decline into senescence; without the Empire, and with the population decimated by the still-recent civil war, every day in Opar is a desperate bid for continued survival, and the likelihood of bouncing back into true prosperity is not great.  Still, Hadon pushes forward as best he can, because there's nothing else he can do.  As king, his duty is to his people.

It's bittersweet, because we know from the Tarzan books what Opar becomes in 12,000 years, but that's the story Carey is telling here and in subsequent books - the Tragedy of Opar, how the once-great city of gold, ivory and apes sank into savagery.  It's not going to be a happy ending, but the journey will be fascinating.

Carey's writing is richly evocative, a worthy successor to Farmer who makes the characters his own.  Carey's Hadon is older and wiser, carrying the weight of the city on his shoulders but still standing tall - and for what it's worth, I found the scenes of Hadon interacting with his children to be even better than the scenes of him bringing his two-handed broadsword to bear against vile foes.

The Sons of Kwasin were a treat - having seen the havoc that one Kwasin could wreak, bringing sixteen Kwasin Juniors to a battle could be considered the Pleistocene equivalent of bringing an ICBM to a knife fight.  Their reverence to their father's memory (having never met Kwasin) is entirely fitting, giving the larger-than-legendary status of their Herculean father (and as I said in describing the series to my father on the phone the other day, with his thick beard, lion-skin kilt and brass-bound club, it's hard not to see the mythological Hercules as having been born from stories of Kwasin transmitted down through thousands of years of oral tradition), and their wild, violence-prone ways are balanced well against an underlying nobility of character.

Even more interesting, however, is Hadon's daughter La, the original La of Opar, who though only sixteen is a shrewd, calculating politician who has advanced through the ranks of the priestess-hood by leaps and bounds through cunning manipulations.  She doesn't read as a sixteen year old through her dialogue (of course, my memories of being sixteen and being surrounded by sixteen year old peers are more than a decade in the past now, and northeastern suburbia is a far cry, as far as natal environments go, from a war-torn city in the jungle), and I had to keep reminding myself that she wasn't in her 20s.  I'm eager to see more of her in forthcoming books, and to trace her line down through the ages to the La of the early 20th century.

Hadon, King of Opar, like the rest of Meteor House's Khokarsa books, is available through their website and is an attractive volume with still more beautiful cover art and a frontispiece by Bob Eggleton.  Believe me when I say it belongs on your shelves, readers.

And I think, as I wait for Blood of Opar, I'm going to take a week or two to read something different; I have a couple more books from Meteor House that I'll be addressing soon, but first maybe some Robert E. Howard or similar to break things up.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Song of Kwasin (Philip Jose Farmer and Christopher Paul Carey, Meteor House 2015)

We have a very special treat today, readers, in that Mike Croteau of Meteor House was kind enough to send me a digital advance reader copy of this book, the next in the Khokarsa series, for review before the book goes to the printer.  Having finished The Evil in Pemberley House and not having committed to anything else just yet, what else could I do but immediately dive deeply once more into the inland seas of prehistoric Africa?

The Song of Kwasin takes place concurrently with the events of Flight to Opar, following the bellowing man-mountain Kwasin, cousin of Hadon, as he makes his own escape from the dungeons of King Minruth the Mad and decides to return to his home city of Dythbeth, intent on finding out if the oracle there will lift his exile and allow him to return to life as a Khokarsan citizen.  He finds the city besieged by one of Minruth's armies and fights his way to the king of Dythbeth's side, standing proudly in defense of his city.

Once within Dythbeth's walls, Kwasin is given a reserved hero's welcome by those who remember his past misdeeds, and then is hurled headlong into events he is in no way prepared for - being forced to help organize the city's defenses, worry about food shortages, becoming king of Dythbeth once the old king is slain by traitors, becoming a symbol of the resistance against Minruth's blasphemous rule...

For my money (and you better believe that I'm putting my money where my mouth is - next paycheck I'm preordering a copy of this book!) The Song of Kwasin is the best book yet in the Khokarsa series.  If I had a time machine and a few million dollars, I'd go back and pay Farmer to drop everything and produce a Hero With a Thousand Faces that isn't unreadable and doesn't twist myth and legend to suit the author's hypothesis. The entire Khokarsa series echoes with mythic resonance, and nowhere is that more clearly on display than in The Song of Kwasin, rich with allusions to Biblical events and Hellenistic myth-cycles that give a sense of timeless grandeur to the proceedings, as if we're seeing the curtain drawn back and revealing the truth behind stories of Hercules, Samson, the Tower of Babel, and more.  Learning that Farmer had a background in anthropology from the introduction to this volume, the richness of his vanished cultures is explained; just as Tolkien built Middle-Earth from his background as a linguist, so too has Farmer translated his educational background into literary fantasy.

In his appearances in Hadon of Ancient Opar, Kwasin came across as a thundering, muscle-bound clown, a figure to be ridiculed for his inability to control his passions.  Truth be told, he reminded me greatly of a guy I went to college with, who on one hand was an EMT, and on the other was a thundering drunkard with no concept of his own size or strength in relation to other people.  I had thought that knowing this guy gave me a handle on Kwasin.  Farmer and Carey gleefully prove me wrong with this book, however, treating me to a Kwasin with a rich internal life - yes, he's a lover of drink, red meat, battle and women, but he's dealing with a whole host of issues on the inside, not least of which being the conflict between his powerful faith in the goddess Kho and his fury at being ordered around and treated like a meat-head by Kho's priestesses.  Farmer and Carey have turned a character that could have very easily been the Incredible Hulk with an erection into a nuanced and somber character whose great mirths are equaled by his great melancholies.

I purposefully echo Robert E. Howard with that line, because The Song of Kwasin feels as inspired by his works as by Edgar Rice Burroughs and classical lore.  Kwasin's kingship reminds me very much of that of Howard's Kull of Atlantis, who at one point notes that being king is simply being a slave bound by heavier chains.  King Kwasin would undoubtedly agree on that point, and I would not be shocked to learn that this was Farmer's intent.

The battle scenes, likewise, have a raw energy that is rarely equaled by any but Howard, and written with a degree of visceral fervor that the editors of Weird Tales would not have let Howard get away with.  You can practically smell the corpses and feel the splash of hot blood against your face, and the inky, toxic smoke of the Khowot almost rises from the pages.

Where Farmer and Carey showed restraint is even more impressive; there are references early on to a giant serpent captured and penned in the base of the Tower of Kho and Resu, and later in the book Kwasin sees it briefly, as a rustling glimmer of scaled reflection in his torchlight.  He does not engage in an epic, life-or-death struggle with the reptile - but smelling its musky, crocodilian odor as he approaches its lair, and seeing that brief reflection, lends the beast an ominousness unmatched by any other literary dragon I can think of.

The cover by Bob Eggleton is a masterpiece, showcasing the giant Kwasin dwarfed by forces both natural (in the form of the volcano Khowot) and political (the rising ziggurat known as the Tower of Kho and Resu) that he must nevertheless struggle against.  Can I get a tryptich of Bob's Khokarsa cover paintings for my wall? Flight to Opar, this and Hadon, King of Opar all have such beautiful covers, and I've been a fan of Bob's work for over a decade now.  For my money, forget Thomas Kinkaid.  No one understands painting with light the way Bob Eggleton does.  Likewise, Bob did a frontispiece depicting Kwasin with the meteoric Ax of Victory, a companion-piece to the image of Hadon in Flight to Opar.

As with Flight to Opar, The Song of Kwasin is packed with extra material, including maps of the Khokarsan Empire, Farmer's notes on the plants of Khokarsa, their calendar system, and overall series notes, two different outlines for what would eventually become The Song of Kwasin, Christopher Paul Carey's guide to Khokarsa, and previously-unpublished correspondence between Farmer and Frank J. Brueckel and John Harwood, whose essay "Heritage of the Flaming God" set Farmer on the road to creating the Khokarsa series.  While much of this will not be of interest to the layperson, it does provide an invaluable look behind the curtain and showcases just how much thought and care went into the series.

The biggest treat among the bonus material, for me at least, is the novella Kwasin and the Bear God, completed by Carey from notes left behind by Farmer.  The story can either be read on its own or placed between chapters 1 and 2 of The Song of Kwasin, and gives us another glimpse into Kwasin's psyche and a deeper understanding of his motivations and emotional drives, along with a couple rousing good fight scenes and one of the possibly most supernatural sequences in the entire saga.  Personally, I prefer it as a stand-alone piece, rather than inserting it into Song -- I think it breaks the rhythm of Song and provides a long side-quest too early in the novel to really work for my tastes.

All in all, The Song of Kwasin is a triumph, a work of literary achievement that stands above your average fantasy novel or adventure tale, delivering a story that feels, if not true, then at least real.  Khokarsa is alive in the way Middle-Earth and Westeros are not, with a richness and fullness that extends beyond being backdrop to heroic escapades, and the fact that Christopher Paul Carey has been able to expand upon Farmer's original work and extend the legacy of Khokarsa is a treat not to be missed.  I'll be upfront with you, readers, I began reading this book Saturday afternoon, and finished it today, Monday afternoon, staying up extra late on Saturday and Sunday night because I could not bring myself to put this book down.  Meteor House is accepting pre-orders now, with an unlimited paperback edition and a limited-edition hardcover signed by Carey being made available.  As I said, I'll be ordering myself a physical copy as soon as I get paid this week.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Evil in Pemberley House (Philip Jose Farmer & Win Scott Eckert, Meteor House, 2014)

I swear this isn't a Philip Jose Farmer fan-blog, and I will cover more material not written by Farmer.  However, I am reading a lot of Farmer lately, so I'm covering a lot of Farmer here.  I should also note that I received my copy of this book gratis from the publishers for the purpose of review; this will not bias me unduly in favor of the book.  It will be praised or damned solely on its own merits, because I do not play the payola game.

Set in the early 1970s, the novel follows Patricia Wildman, daughter of James Clarke Wildman (aka Doc Savage), as she discovers that she may stand to inherit Pemberley Hall, an ancestral manor in England.  The news comes at an opportune time; having just lost both her parents and her husband in a matter of months - Patricia's been having a rough time of it.  Add to that her unresolved Electra complex towards her father, and you can image the mess her mental and emotional state were in.  A vacation in England may be just the thing to clear her head.

Unfortunately, things seem even crazier in England - she quickly learns that everyone in and around Pemberley House is completely sex-mad, and only the current Duchess, at age 103, isn't trying to get into her skirt.  Within hours of arrival in England, she's not only leered at by her cousin Richard (who proceeds to receive fellatio from a local barmaid while driving Patricia to Pemberley) but sexually assaulted by an aggressive lesbian poacher who runs their car off the road.  Nobody seems willing to take "no" for an answer from her as she's groped, prodded, drugged, molested...despite all this, Patricia is determined to get to the bottom of whatever mysteries Pemberley holds - is it haunted? Is the Duchess trying to drive her away from the House? If so, why? And why can't anybody keep their hands out of her knickers for five minutes?

I was not prepared for the quantity of sex in this book.  I knew in advance that it would be playing with the tropes of Gothic fiction (Pemberley House, after all, being the setting of Pride and Prejudice), but I didn't realize quite what updating those tropes to the 1970s would entail.  It took me more than a little by surprise, I can tell you!

Which is not to say that it's a book meant to be read one-handed.  The sex scenes aren't written to be salacious or titillating; given the conceits of the Wold Newton universe, it's intended to be a frank and "historical" chronicle of events as they happened to Ms. Wildman.  And while the sex may seem to dominate my synopsis above (and what can I say, I am an individual of prurient interests), and is a dominating theme in the novel, it's not the exclusive source of action, metaphorical or otherwise.

Pat Wildman finds herself in some of the most vicious life-or-death fights I've ever seen committed to the printed page, swinging through trees like her cousin the Lord Greystoke, and using every skill she's ever learned from her father, from Kent Allard, from Holmes' daughter and other tutors to save her skin and get to the bottom of the Pemberley matter.

This being a Gothic novel, despite its 1970s setting, we're treated to updated versions of some of the classic tropes of that genre - a manorial home that is somehow both expansive and claustrophobic, a cast in which everyone has at least one dark secret, buried treasure, the sins of the fathers being visited upon the tenth generation, and even, in what I can only assume was a tip of the hat on Farmer's part to Matthew Lewis' The Monk, a nymphomaniac ghost!

The mystery twists and turns in ways that are imminently satisfying and follow organically from preceding events; nothing feels overly contrived, except possibly the sheer number of Wold Newton descendants who appear; Dr. Moran being the grandson of the infamous Colonel Sebastian Moran, henchman of Holmes' nemesis Moriarty, is a prime example.

Farmer began this novel many years ago, and with his blessing and detailed outlines, Win Scott Eckert completed the novel to Farmer's satisfaction.  Truth be told, I couldn't tell you where Farmer's text ends and Eckert's begins; the transition is seamless.

Also worth mentioning, I'd like to note that The Evil in Pemberley House made Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Farmer's follow-up to Tarzan Alive, "click" for me.  I read Doc Savage a few weeks ago, in the immediate aftermath of reading Tarzan Alive, and didn't "get" it because I was expecting it to be of a piece with its predecessor, and it wasn't.  I didn't write a review of it at the time because I recognize that I was missing something, and at the time I thought I'd just not read enough Doc Savage for me to get it.  But in the wake of The Evil in Pemberley House, I realize that what I wasn't getting was that Farmer wasn't just playing Creative Mythographer, but tearing down the mythology of Doc Savage to look at what such a man would really be like and what effect he would have on those around him.  I'll probably give that one another read in the not-too-distant future and review it, now that I understand what it's offering me.

A wild neo-Gothic set in the swinging 1970s, overflowing with sex and psychosexual drama, replete with savage violence, buried treasure, familial secrets and callbacks to classic pulp literature, The Evil of Pemberley House is one not to be missed.  A sequel, The Scarlet Jaguar, is coming soon, and I'm eager to sink my teeth into that one as well.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Carnacki: The New Adventures (Ed. by Sam Gafford, Ulthar Press 2014)

I'm still baffled at the fact that there hasn't been a Carnacki the Ghost-Finder movie yet.  I mean, hell, I'm stunned at how little attention William Hope Hodgson gets from horror fans these days - "The House on the Borderlands" is a masterpiece, while "The Night Land" holds the honor of being the second "dying earth" story, preceded only by a few paragraphs from H.G. Wells.  His short story "A Voice in the Night" was adapted in Japan in the 1960s as the eerie MATANGO, but other than that he's largely been ignored by film and television.  Carnacki would seem to be his most approachable character, and given that he's essentially a Steampunk Ghostbuster, you'd think someone would have to capitalize on that - the words "Steampunk Ghostbuster" are like a license to print money, right?

This collection, originally assembled by Sam Gafford in 2013, returns the reader to Carnacki's Cheyne Walk abode with new stories by a variety of authors, detailing new adventures (as the title suggests) in which Carnacki pits his wits, the Sigsand Manuscript and his trusty Electric Pentacles against new nightmares from the Outer Dark.  A couple highlights:

  • "Carnacki: Captain Gault's Nemesis" by William Meikle opens the collection on a very strong note, introducing Carnacki to one of Hodgson's other characters, the morally ambiguous Captain Gault, who has picked up an illicit piece of Babylonian archaeological plunder with intent to sell it to the British Museum.  Unfortunately, the piece in question has other ideas...The story very nicely ties Carnacki together with Hodgson's maritime fiction, and showcases wonderfully the sort of cosmic horror that Hodgson was creating in the years before Lovecraft's career took off.  
  • "Carnacki and the President's Vampire," by Robert Pohle - I'm a sucker for fictionalized Theodore Roosevelt (I've got a short piece I've written in which an encounter between the Bull Moose and a young sasquatch is the "truth" behind the creation of the Teddy Bear) and this story has Carnacki needing to intervene to protect Roosevelt from a bloodthirsty horror on his wedding day.  H.G. Wells also appears in this story, and what he observes in assisting Carnacki proves influential towards his own career in fiction.  
  • "The Haunting of Tranquil House," by Jim Beard (whose work we've read before in Airship Hunters) - Carnacki comes closer to death's door than ever before in this story, and Beard places more focus on the human side of Carnacki's investigations - after all, if a ghost is the restless remains of a human soul...who was that soul in life? Who grieves for them in their wake? The story has a lot of power.  
The collection concludes with the script of a Carnacki stage-play, a format I'm not familiar enough with to comfortably pass judgment on, but it's exciting to see Carnacki appear in another medium.  

My one disappointment with the collection is that none of the stories included are "red herrings" - in Hodgson's original work, there are a couple Carnacki stories where his investigations prove that hauntings are the work of pranksters or thieves looking to scare people away (and thus providing the template for 40-odd years of Scooby Doo), and I was hoping to get a story here along the same lines, because they're a nice palate cleanser and a break like that makes the horrors of the Outer Dark that much more frightening when they next appear.  Unfortunately all the stories here involve the supernatural making an appearance, so maybe if I want Edwardian-era Scooby Doo investigations, I need to write my own Carnacki story.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Flight to Opar (Philip Jose Farmer, Meteor House Restored Edition, 2015)

I gave up on A Voyage to Arcturus.  Tormance fails utterly to hold me as a planetary romance, and even moreso as a philosophical treatise.  As a palate cleanser, I picked up the next book in Farmer's Khokarsa series, and I can't tell you how relieved I am to have done so.  With the next book in the series, The Song of Kwasin, hitting this month, I'm delighted to continue on with the adventures of Hadon, Lalila and the rest of the cast.

Picking up immediately where Hadon of Ancient Opar left off, Flight to Opar opens with Hadon single-handedly holding a mountain pass against a small detachment of the mad King Minruth's guardsmen, buying time for Lalila, Paga, Hinoklys and Queen Awineth to escape.  Regrouping in a Temple of Kho, Hadon learns that Lalila is pregnant with his child.  He also learns that it is prophesied that if her child is born in the Temple of Kho in the city of Opar, then she will have a great and glorious destiny ahead of her.  While Awineth tries to twist the prophecy to separate Hadon (who by rights should be her husband) from Lalila, a friendly priestess lets Hadon know the real deal, and he sets out with her and a few handpicked companions to return to the city of his birth.

Their voyage there is beset by plague, pirates, religious fanatics of several flavors and of course the ticking clock of Lalila's pregnancy - but that's a cakewalk compared to the powder keg Hadon walks into upon entering Opar...

I cannot get enough of Khokarsa.  It is, simply put, the single most deeply thought out and elegantly delivered "fantasy" setting I've ever encountered.  Compared to the Hyborian Age (real world history with not even the whole serial number filed off), Middle Earth (English county squire fantasy, joy), Westeros (England the size of a continent, yay), even fantasy gaming worlds like Greyhawk or Tekumel don't deliver as much so concisely as Farmer does with Khokarsa.  With just a few words here and there, Farmer paints an incredibly vivid picture of a wholly unique culture existing in Ice Age central Africa, with attention paid to such matters as religion, clan affiliation, architecture, even fashion and food and drink (hibiscus coffee, anyone?).

The result is impressionistic; from hundreds of tiny word-brushstrokes, a grander picture emerges that absolutely knocks my socks off.  Khokarsa is rich in a way that nobody else's fantasy worlds are.

As far as the story itself goes, Flight to Opar feels like the Empire Strikes Back of the Khokarsa series; in one sense, it's a bridge-piece, linking the first and third acts without having too much in the way of huge battle sequences or world-changing events to call its own.  But that's fine - because like Empire, it's more of a character study, focused on showing the readers the growth of the characters, especially Hadon.  We've watched him here grow from a youthful athlete who won and lost a kingdom in a single day to a confident leader of men, putting the needs of the many before the needs of the few or the one (my favorite kind of hero, incidentally), and now watching him grow into the responsibility of fatherhood - not only of his own daughter, but his fostering of Abeth, Lalila's daughter by a previous lover and taking her in and caring for her as his own.

Continuing the Star Wars analogy, as a kid I was all about Return of the Jedi, with its crazy alien criminals, speeder bikes and bloodthirsty Ewoks; it took me a long time to appreciate what Empire Strikes Back has to offer.  I'm glad it didn't take me as long to recognize what Flight to Opar brings to the table.

Meteor House has done an amazing job with their reissue of Flight to Opar, restoring over 4,000 words of Farmer's original text excised by the editors at Daw, with a beautiful new cover illustration by one of my favorite painters, Bob Eggleton (along with a snazzy frontispiece depicting Hadon, tenu-sword drawn) and scans of Farmer's original manuscript included in the back.  The book is a joy to behold and heavy with the care that went into bringing it to the world.  If you buy an old DAW copy instead of this version, you're doing yourself a huge disservice.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

I still live!

I'm sorry for the lack of posting here as of late; I've just not been able to devote as much time to reading as I would like lately, and as such I've been very slowly slogging through David Lindsay's "A Voyage to Arcturus" with no real end in sight.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Quest of Frankenstein (Frank Schildiner, Black Coat Press 2015)

One of my big failings is that, for however well I use the English language, other languages are beyond me.  No matter how hard I work at it, I can never learn more than just a few words or phrases in languages other than the one I was raised speaking.  My sister got the good language genes - she picks up languages like they're nothing.  But for me, it's a futile struggle.  I mention this, because one of the great finds in adventure literature that I've come across but cannot access myself because of the language barrier, is Jean-Claude Carrière's Frankenstein.  This is not like Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," but rather a series of novels, written in French, detailing further adventures of the Frankenstein Monster - who in this version, is truly monstrous, a razor-toothed devil intent on exterminating the entirety of the human race.  To the best of my knowledge, these novels have never been translated into English.  I know Carrière's Frankenstein solely through his influence on others.  Frank Schildiner's new novel, The Quest of Frankenstein, is a perfect example of my vicarious consumption of this fascinating take on the patchwork creature.

In 1914, the Frankenstein Monster, who has taken the name Gouroull, is having a marvelous vacation in France, gleefully slaughtering soldiers on both sides of No Man's Land - snapping necks between his fingers, tearing off heads, ripping out throats with his teeth.  The sickly-sweet smell of, not death, but undeath leads him to a hospital far behind the lines, where an energetic, mousy young doctor is eagerly testing a serum of his devising...yes, Gouroull meets Herbert West, who's ecstatic to be meeting the monster; he'd studied Victor Frankenstein's work while devising his own attempts at reanimation, and when Gouroull demands that West make him a mate, the Re-Animator is eager to comply.  He has a copy of Frankenstein's notes, and from it provides Gouroull with a list of alchemical items needed to effect a successful creation.

From here, we follow Gouroull on not one, but technically two quests: First, he wanders Europe collecting the materials West needs, an expedition that puts him in conflict with a number of monsters drawn from a spectrum of horror pop-culture; a colony of Deep Ones gets invaded, a vampire conclave (attended by Barnabas and Quentin Collins, the Master from Buffy, and Hong Kong's Mr. Vampire, among others), etc.  Secondly, he needs the skeleton of a powerfully-evil woman as a frame to build his bride on, and this introduces him to some of the most deliciously evil women in fiction, from Princess Tera (from one of my favorite Hammer productions, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, where she is portrayed by goddess Valerie Leon) to Nakari, the she-fiend brought low by Solomon Kane in Robert E. Howard's "The Moon of Skulls."

The Quest of Frankenstein is a fun monster rally of the classic sort, and a light and quick read.  When both Rondo Hatton's iconic Creeper and the Blind Dead showed up, I knew Frank Schildiner was a kindred spirit (or had somehow snuck a peek at my DVD collection), and there are few I'd more readily trust with creating such a monster rally.

Gouroull is a more truly hateful and evil version of the Monster than we're usually treated to, with sympathetic versions having become the norm as of late.  Gouroull seeks nothing less than the complete extinction of life on Earth - to be the last conscious creature on the burned-out cinder of the planet.  To this end he seeks to breed an army of creatures like himself, and he will not tolerate other occult entities' attempts to include him in their own schemes, be they warlocks, vampires or worse still.

Schildiner is also not afraid to roam much further afield than the ordinary monster rally; one of the highest of a series of high points in the novel for me led Gouroull to an encounter with the last sad relic of the Norse Gods.  That's not an encounter I ever would have dreamed of, but Frank Schildiner not only dreamed it, he put it in print and gave it to the world.

He also gives us a Dracula who isn't afraid to revel in his power, isn't some maudlin prince seeking a lost love but a veritable Prince of Darkness to cower before, and that's no small thing.  As the author notes, Dracula is truly a protean figure, with as many meanings and interpretations as there are interpreters, and the one that appears here is one of my favorites.  A damn sight better than the naked, entrail-draped savage that appeared at the climax of Anno Dracula.

Order The Quest of Frankenstein direct from the publisher here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tarzan Alive (Philip Jose Farmer, 1972)

Edgar Rice Burroughs is the longest and most influential thread that can be traced through my life.  His writing has had a far more profound effect on me as a human being than any other author, or heck, any other interest I've pursued has.  His characters still shape my interactions with others to this day, and while John Carter of Mars is my ideal, Tarzan is not far behind.  So becoming aware of Farmer's fictional biography of Tarzan, I knew it was a must-read, and I picked it up at Pulpfest this year.  I think I devoured it in about three days; I'd intended to pass it along to my father on Saturday, but lines of communication got crossed and we never ended up meeting for dinner.  While not the Edgar Rice Burroughs addict I am, he's read some and he enjoys pulp literature - and most importantly, he loves the Flashman Papers, so I figured this would be right up his alley.

How does one review a biography, let alone a fictional one? It's not like I can assess the accuracy or factuality of Farmer's work - not without going through Burke's Peerage in detail, which I am absolutely not prepared to do.  I've recently picked up most of the Tarzan series in paperback (over the years I've read about half the series at various times, but never the whole canon), and I plan to make that a big project here at Paperback Perils in the coming months, going through the entire series in order - and I may be referring back to Tarzan Alive while doing so.

But back to the book at hand, Farmer takes the conceit of Tarzan being a real human being whose exploits were fictionalized by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and takes off running with it.  He combs through the published works and sifts the information, deciding what material is "accurate" reporting on Burroughs' part, and what's "fiction" added to convince the public at large that Tarzan is a fictional character, in order to protect "Lord Greystoke's" privacy.

He also speculates extensively on the nature of the Mangani, the "great apes" that took him in as an infant and raised him, deciding that they were most likely a relic species of pre-human hominid, either australopithecine or pithecanthropoid in nature.  Given that even in the first novel, Burroughs is explicit in stating that the Mangani are neither chimpanzees nor gorillas, and that they have a complex language and social structure, I think this is a fair conclusion to draw - that the Mangani are not "great apes" as we know them today, but sit somewhere closer to Man on the family tree.

The sections on Opar made me sad.  I've never thought of La as an evil woman, just a profoundly unlucky one, and Farmer hammered that point home.  I think La really did love Tarzan, and he played very cavalierly with her heart while looting the forgotten treasuries of the city.  That she probably didn't live to see 50, and while Farmer never says it, I suspect it was a disease brought to Opar either by Tarzan or someone following in his stead that drove the Oparians extinct, and that just makes her situation all the sadder.

Crom, look at me, getting maudlin over fictional characters.  While La has not held the profound place in my heart that Dejah Thoris has over the years, she's still played a role in my early understanding of the interaction between the sexes - and she's a darn foxy lady, too, just look at the Frank Cho illustration I have behind the title of my blog.

Most importantly, it is in Tarzan Alive that Farmer first develops one of his most famous ideas - that of the Wold Newton Family.  According to Farmer, a meteorite that collided with the Earth at Wold Newton in 1795 bathed seven couples in ionizing radiation, causing mutations that would be reflected in a "nova of genetic splendor" and lead to the births not only of Tarzan, but of Sherlock Holmes, the Shadow, Doc Savage and many more.  Farmer would continue to develop this idea in his second fictional biography, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, which I'm currently reading courtesy of Meteor House, the publishing company dedicated to keeping the memory of Philip Jose Farmer alive.  
Readers of Paperback Perils will be aware that some Wold Newton Universe material has already been covered, in the form of Time's Last Gift, Exiles of Kho, and Hadon of Ancient Opar.   Meteor House and its authors have been extraordinarily generous in supplying me with review copies of several other books in the Wold Newton sphere, so you will be seeing a lot of coverage of the concept here.

Beyond the material, Tarzan Alive is the single most enjoyable biography I've ever read; Farmer's prose is rich and engaging, completely free of the dryness so frequently found in "real" biographies.  It energizes the reader, at least in my case, as opposed to wearing on them.  The book is a literary adventure, an exercise in what Farmer termed "creative mythography" that revived, in me at least, the same sense of wonder and pounding pulse-rate that reading books like Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar or Tarzan and the Leopard Men first awoke in me many years ago.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Barbarian Crowns (Barbwire Butterfly Books/Horrified Press, 2015)

Gina, my beloved significant other, reads a lot of Star Wars novels in the "Expanded Universe" canon, or canons as the case may be under the guiding hand of the Dark Lord Disney.  And occasionally she gets one that she just doesn't enjoy, but she feels compelled to read it to the bloody end because she paid money for it.  And in these instances, I remind her of the wisdom of Jorge Luis Borges: "If a book bores you, put it down.  It was not meant for you. Don't read it because it is famous, don't read it because it is modern, don't read a book because it is old . . . continue to look for personal happiness, personal enjoyment."

Crom help me, I should practice what I preach.  But this book was a short story anthology, and I just kept pushing myself with the mantra "the next story has to be better.  It has to be.  Right?"

And to be fair, there were some very good stories in this collection - but for every jewel, there was probably five pieces of colored glass.

I do not want to dwell on the negatives here, but with the amount of negativity I found myself feeling towards this book, it's hard not to.  This book actually made me angry to read through big swathes of it.  There is precious little evidence of proof-reading to be found here, and several stories appear to not even have been run through spell-check, which contributes to an overall sense of laziness - that the book was slapped together and not so much released as excreted.

I don't even want to name the stories or authors that so irritated me, because all publicity is good publicity.  Suffice to say that a pair of stories in this volume, both by the same author, felt less like sword-and-sorcery and more like a frustrated 14-year old's clumsily erotic fan-fiction based on a sword-and-sorcery cartoon.  Those were the stand-outs among the stories I disliked; most of the rest were simply dull and written with little flair or energy; at least one, I'm convinced, is actually a transcribed Dungeons & Dragons session.

But instead, let me focus on a few stand-outs that I really enjoyed:

  • "The Oath of an Umbrian" (Teel James Glenn): This was my absolute favorite story of the collection, and the story with which the book opens.  A barbarian swordswoman is hired to escort a pair of bickering, hateful noblemen into the wilderness to claim their inheritance.  The overall tone has more in common with the works of Jack Vance than Robert E. Howard, and I'm looking forward to stealing the plot of this story for use as a D&D game.  
  • "The Floating Island of Tauret Mok" (Kevin Henry): Blending fantasy with science fiction is something I really enjoy (as witnessed by my current D&D campaign), and this story handles that mash-up extremely well, working in an interesting element of fatalism that I think Howard would have been proud of.  
  • "One Night in the City-State of Shal-Hah-Vi" (Mark Finn): Mark Finn's a noted scholar in the field of Robert E. Howard studies, and this story is a surprisingly fun little tale of an iron-thewed barbarian pursuing the decadent nobleman who stole his woman.  Of course, things are never so simple, and I really enjoyed Finn's playing with genre tropes here.  
  • "Chronicles of the Obsidian Crown" (Byron Roberts): Byron Roberts is the front-man of one of my favorite bands, the sword-and-sorcery infused symphonic black metal group Bal Sagoth; it's actually from his Facebook page that I first heard about this book.  His story here ties in with one of the story arcs explored lyrically across Bal Sagoth's six albums, and the prose carries an almost lyrical flow to it; it's certainly one of the better stories I've seen dealing with the realities of being a mercenary swordsman.
  • "The Other at the Threshold" (Jason Scott Aiken): Jason actually sold me my copy of this book at Pulpfest; his story here is a sequel to his tale "The Sword of Lomar," which I have in another anthology purchased from him that I'll get to sooner or later, and which he did a dramatic reading of at the convention.  The story follows Nuja, last survivor of the destruction of the city of Lomar, as she struggles to fulfill a contract with a wizard for possession of an arcane sword.  The writing is crisp, the action is well-choreographed, and Nuja's one of the better-written heroines I've encountered in fantasy literature.  Thumbs up for warrior women who exist as something more than leather-clad cheesecake, even if all the men in her vicinity are still struck dumb by her beauty.  
That's all I really have to say on the subject of Barbarian Crowns.  I'm glad I found a few solid gems in the collection, but overall I'm more glad to have the book finished and can move on to better material.  

Friday, September 11, 2015

First Seas and Other Tales (Frank Schildiner, Pro Se Productions, 2014)

Anthologies are a funny thing to try and review.  Do you try to cover each story individually? Or focus on the united whole? Can you pick and choose stories to focus on? It's a little easier when the stories are all by the same author, as is the case with today's book, Frank Schildiner's First Seas and Other Tales.  I'm going to count this as a Pulpfest book, as I met and spoke with Frank I little bit there (not as much as I did Win Scott Eckert or Christopher Paul Carey), and friended him on Facebook, where I saw him promoting this book.  Picked it up on an impulse, and read through it pretty quickly.

First Seas is not a book that can be put easily in any genre, unless you want to count the short story as a genre in and of itself.  This book contains horror, superheroes, gangsters, Roman legionnaires, bikers, angels, demons, and above all -- and if there's a through-line through the book, it's this -- the triumph of Good over Evil - not by dint of being Good in and of itself, but through discipline and hard work.  I imagine this might be some of Frank's background in martial arts shining through in his writing.

With the variety of stories on display here, there's definitely something for everyone's tastes, and I think a lot of these stories will appeal across the board.  My personal favorites from the collection are "Hammer of Charun" and "Big Ol' Scorpion," but frankly, they're all good.

The biggest thing I got out of this collection is how much each story felt like the first chapter of a longer tale - and how much I want to read those longer tales! Even the stories that didn't end on a direct cliffhanger, left me desperate to know what happened next to the characters.  Every story just felt so rich, the world painted in words so vibrant that it just comes to life in the mind's eye in a way that so much fiction doesn't.

Suffice to say, I'm eagerly hoping some of these get expanded in the future into full novels, or at least novellas.  And I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of Frank's work! You can pick up First Seas and Other Tales from Amazon here, or from CreateSpace here.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Iron and Bronze (Win Scott Eckert and Christopher Paul Carey, 2009)

Once I start buying books again (in a couple months; I just bought 125 used Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks as a gift to myself upon receiving my first paycheck at the new job, plus I still have a number of books from Pulpfest to read, so I should be good for a while), I really need to start collecting the Tales of the Shadowmen anthology series in earnest.  I picked up the first one a couple years back, and despite my complete and total ignorance of French pulp, found it a fairly fun read, but I never really continued on with the series.

Today's story first appeared in the fifth volume, The Vampires of Paris.  If the names Christopher Paul Carey and Win Scott Eckert sound familiar, they should - I spent a good amount of time talking to both men at Pulpfest, with Chris having been the author of Exiles of Kho, and both involved heavily in maintaining and expanding the legacy of Philip Jose Farmer and the Wold Newton Universe.

This story follows Hareton Ironcastle (of Ironcastle fame) deep into the Sahara in search of the son of a good friend; a detour along the way puts him in the possession of a mysterious axe of meteoric iron known as the "Reaver of Worlds" and the company of N'desi, a native warrior armed with a curious iron broadsword.  Their quest soon lands them in a lost city deep in the Hoggar mountains, the last remnant of mythical Atlantis, once ruled by the savage and lusty queen Antinea.

Antinea is now a slave in her own palace - having been usurped by a skull-faced American gangster, Harry Killer, and his private army of thuggish ape-men.  He wants the secret of immortality, long held by Antinea, and is ready to torture and maim the secret out of her.  Fortunately for her, Ironcastle is willing to put his distaste for her sexual proclivities aside in the interest of the greater good - and that son of a good friend he was looking for? He just so happens to be Doc Ardan, aka Doc Savage...

Chris and Win have really outdone themselves here.  It's challenging enough to write a cross over story featuring two preexisting characters and capture both their voices and present it well; Win and Chris have given us four preexisting characters - Ironcastle, Ardan/Savage, Antinea, and Harry Killer, aka Zanigew (as per the research of Rick Lai, readable here) and balanced their roles and presences perfectly, not allowing any one character to dominate the stage, so to speak.  This is rather a lot like juggling four running chainsaws and not losing any fingers, and speaks volumes to both Chris and Win's affection for the characters and combined pool of literary talent.

Not only are the characters fleshed out in enough detail that I didn't feel lost reading this story without having read all the novels that these characters originated in, but that fleshing out was also handled with a light enough touch that I never felt like I was getting bogged down in back-story.

I've only read a smattering of Doc Savage, and nothing of Doc Ardan - and I'm utterly unfamiliar with either Antinea or Harry Killer, so really Hareton Ironcastle was the character here I was the most intimately familiar with - and I like his appearance here better than I did him in Ironcastle.  He's a much less...I guess the word I want to use here is anemic, character in the hands of Chris and Win.  He was active and engaged in the events of the story, never once appearing as just an observer.

The story manages to combine a lot into just a few short pages, with a lot of great "downtime" interaction between characters, a building mystery, two-fisted (and axe-swinging) violence and a denouement that offers further mystery and the promise of continued adventures.

All in all, I strongly recommend this one, even if you've got no familiarity with the characters going in - you don't need it.  It's a ripping good tale of adventure in a lost civilization, there's ape-men, supervillains, legendary artifacts, immortal queens, plant monsters and square-jawed heroes ready to stand up and fight the good fight at the drop of a hat.  You can get it for your Kindle here.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Adventures of Coffin Kirk (Arch Whitehouse, Age of Aces Books, 2013)

One of the first tables I'd pass when I entered the dealer's room at Pulpfest was that of Age of Aces Books, an independent imprint dedicated to reprinting and sharing their enthusiasm for the aviation stories that once had a number of pulp titles dedicated to them.  On my final spin through the dealer's room before leaving the show, I had a grand total of $8 left in my wallet, and, passing the Age of Aces table, I saw a book marked "$8 - His tail-gunner is a GORILLA!"

Needless to say, I gave them my $8.  I'm a sucker for anything involving gorillas in fiction; I still cry every time King Kong falls from the Empire State Building, I've got something almost resembling an encyclopedic knowledge of guys who made whole careers out of playing gorillas in TV and movies...I like apes.  I like apes a lot.

One thing I'm not real familiar with, though, is aviation fiction, so I didn't really know what to expect going into this book, or how close or far it hewed from what was considered "standard" for the genre.

To summarize, Brian "Coffin" Kirk (so nicknamed for his deadpan demeanor) is a two-fisted American pilot who, after years of training, is ready to settle an old score: 20 years ago, as the Great War drew to a close, he witnessed his zookeeper father's assassination at the hands of "the Circle of Death," a criminal organization and spy ring.  Young Coffin barely escaped with his own skin, being saved only by the intervention of a mother gorilla.  Escaping with her baby, young Coffin made his way back to America and began to plan revenge.

Twenty years later, Kirk is flying into Germany to take the fight back to the Circle - and his old ape friend is with him.  Tank, as he's named the gorilla, has grown into a hulking brute, and been trained by Kirk to act as mechanic and tail-gunner for his plane.  Kirk's also had much of Tank's fur removed by electrolysis, and the skin underneath tattooed to look Caucasian.  With a loose-fitting coverall and some sneakers, Tank resembles a particularly ugly human, and Kirk uses ventriloquism when Tank needs to "speak" to someone else.

It's crazy, but that's part of the fun.

Kirk's vendetta against the Circle of Death takes him from the heart of Germany to island hopping around the South Pacific, as the Circle of Death allies itself with the Axis Powers.  As Kirk strikes again and again, we see him up against ruthless spies, poison gas, angry natives and more spraying lead then you can shake a 30-caliber machine gun at!

The Adventures of Coffin Kirk is a novel in six parts; it was written as six separate short stories, published in the pages of Flying Aces Magazine between October 1937 and June 1941, but they fit so tightly together that they read seamlessly as a single novel.  I was actually a bit surprised when I saw the dates, because reading the last two stories I would have expected them to have been written after, and in response to, the attack on Pearl Harbor, due to the way the focus shifts from the Circle of Death to the Imperial Japanese as the primary antagonists.  Maybe Whitehouse was just particularly far-sighted, and recognized that war in the Pacific was a likely occurrence.

The stories are fast-paced and immensely enjoyable; despite his grim expression, Kirk is a fairly lighthearted character, quick with a wry joke or comment aside to Tank.  Dialogue is kept very sharp and snappy throughout, with dialect being used with visible care in delineating Americans, Brits, Germans and the Japanese in conversation.

Tank himself steals the show on every page, especially when his animal instincts are riled up; in more than one of these stories, he picks up one enemy combatant and starts swinging him around like a club to take out his compatriots.  He tears planes apart with his bare hands, knocks doors off their hinges, and kills at least one Nazi spy with a single punch to the face.

It's also worth noting the vividness with which Whitehouse wrote dogfight scenes; a former pilot and tail-gunner himself, he drew heavily on his own experiences, and it shows.  His aerial battles are every bit as carefully choreographed (albeit in the written word) as an evening with Cirque du Soleil, and even I, who was completely lost with a lot of the airplane jargon, felt my pulse picking up as planes dipped and sailed around each other in a diesel-fueled dance of death.

Though originally a Pulpfest exclusive, for this interested the book can be bought here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ironcastle (J.H. Rosny & Philip Jose Farmer, 1922/1976)

my copy, photographed on my dining room table.
Having received this book in the mail on Friday, as of Monday evening I've finished it, and that's having been too busy over the weekend to get a whole lot of reading in.  I picked this book up on an impulse - Christopher Paul Carey tied it into his novella Exiles of Kho, tempting my curiosity.  It was $2 used on Amazon, so why the hell not? I was also intrigued by the history of the novel itself; written in France by J.H. Rosny in 1922, and then loosely translated into English, with embellishments, by Philip Jose Farmer in 1976 - how often do you see a thing like that, where the point is not to create a literal, faithful translation but to use the act of translation as a springboard? That's some Borgesian action, right there.

The novel opens with the titular Hareton Ironcastle, enjoying the luxuries of the Baltimore Gun Club (of Verne's From the Earth to the Moon fame) when he receives mail from his friend Darnley, who is currently on expedition in a very unusual corner of Africa, the forbidding and heretofore totally-unexplored Gondoroko region, where he has discovered many strange and unusual plants and animals, which he invites Ironcastle to join him in studying.

In the course of their journey into the heart of Gondorokoland, Ironcastle, his daughter Muriel, and their companions Philippe, Sir George, and Guthrie encounter ape-men, hideous dwarfs, proud cannibals, and that's before things even start to get strange: flies the size of sparrows, three-eyed hairy toads and crocodiles, cave lions, singing purple fact, all the vegetation in Gondorokoland is particularly unusual...

J.H. Rosny keeps getting compared to Edgar Rice Burroughs, and to my eyes, the comparison is not an apt one.  Ironcastle reminded me much more strongly of the writings of Jules Verne than of Burroughs, and not always in a good way.  The character of Ironcastle here struck me as being very in the vein of Verne's Professor Arronax, being a seemingly-endless font of throwaway comments expressing a phenomenal range of scientific expertise.

The narrative flow also reminded me more of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than of At The Earth's Core in that it felt to me like the story moved at a very stately, almost sedate pace, occasionally coming to a seeming stand-still as the characters stood around remarking on the trees or animal life of Gondorokoland.  Whereas Verne seemed eager to share everything he'd read on the subject of ichthyology in long character monologues (and I say this as someone who loves 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and went through a period where I was rereading it annually), in Ironcastle everything just seems to bog down and flounder around until the next thing happens to the protagonists.

And that's another thing! The protagonists just felt very passive here; maybe that's a French thing.  There were a few sequences in which the characters took hold of the rudder and guided themselves through the sea of fate, but they felt few and far between compared to times where the characters seemed to stand around and say, "Well, Lord, we place ourselves into Your hands now," which is not what I want from an adventure novel.

I know I haven't really focused on the positives in this review, and focusing on the positive is something I really want to do with this blog; I'm here to share my enjoyment of what I'm reading wherever I can.

So let me say this: while I have issues with the narrative flow and the characterizations on display here, I cannot fault the imagination in display from both Rosny and Farmer.  The creatures are at once alien and familiar, and the "vegetable kingdom" of Gondoroko delivers a level of quiet, unspoken menace not normally seen in plants.

All in all, I found Ironcastle suited me better more as an exercise in world-building than it did as a rousing novel of page-turning adventure.  I think I expected more of the characters than I actually got, but I'm interested enough to be willing to read more of Rosny's writing in the future.  As for Hareton Ironcastle himelf, his adventures were continued by Christopher Paul Carey and Win Scott Eckert in the short story "Iron & Bronze," which first appeared in one of the Tales of the Shadowmen anthology volumes.