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 grass...in 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.