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.