Review

Nightside series by Simon R. Green

It’s too damned cold to be the beginning of June!  I swear, if I have to endure another cold summer, I’m going to have to sic the flying ninja monkeys on somebody at The Weather Channel.  Seriously, it’s been a cold, wet, miserable few days here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, so I’ve been staying in my Happy Place.  Me, some ginger ale, my Kindle and my netbook have been very happy and warm inside my pillow fort, and I am not coming out until the temps top eighty degrees again (that’s twenty-seven-ish for you Celsius types). I want my sauna-like Appalachian summer, darn it all, and I’m going to throw a tantrum until I get it!

Okay, that’s not strictly true.  The other night, Big Sister, who is a terrific cook, sent over a bowl of something that involved chicken, peppers and onions, a ricotta sauce and gnocchi (she likes challenging my palate, and I think she’s trying to fatten me up after the Long Illness, which I’m not opposed to).  I had never tried gnocchi before, but it was very very nice.  Nice enough that I am going to try making it myself.  I’ve never made pasta before — it looks intimidating, and I don’t think I have the right tools — but gnocchi doesn’t seem to require anything more than a bowl and a knife, which I can totally provide.  If it goes well, it may land on the dinner rotation here in our treetop fortress.

So on to business.  I’ve mentioned before that I have fairly loose parameters for what defines a genre.  I think a measurable amount of urban fantasy could arguably fall into the Pulp vein because so much of it plays on the Hardboiled Detective tropes, which are solidly pulpy.  I also think that it can still be steampunk even if there’s not a dirigible to be seen.  Genres are as much about attitude and tone as they are about the props, and, as I pointed out in my last book review, having the right props doesn’t automatically mean the story wins any cred from me.

But I understand that others can feel very differently. So it is with no small amount of trepidation that I present you with the Nightside series by Simon R. Green.  Why do I think it belongs here on a blog focused on Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp?  Because, while our hero constantly claims he is no great shakes at investigation, the stories fall very strongly into the Hardboiled Detective category, in tone, approach and style, and that says Pulp to me, as I said above.  The hardboiled detective started out as a classic pulp genre (hell, it helped define pulp as a classification of fiction), long before it went mainstream.

So, Simon R. Green is a prolific and respected British author, who has done other books besides Nightside.  Memorably, he did the Secret Histories (starting with “The Man with the Golden Torc), as well as Hawk and Fisher, Ghostfinders and the Deathstalker series.  As you can tell, his focus is on science fiction and fantasy, my favorite words in the whole English language.  But Nightside is his most well known work and arguably his best written (personally, I couldn’t get past the Marty Stu-ness of the Secret Histories, and his Ghostfinders just didn’t work for me for a lot of reasons, though your mileage may vary.  I may change my opinion in the future — I am a big one for re-reading — but for now, I’ll pass).

  1. Something from the Nightside
  2. Agents of Light and Darkness
  3. Nightingale’s Lament
  4. Hex and the City
  5. Paths Not Taken
  6. Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth
  7. Hell to Pay
  8. The Unnatural Inquirer
  9. Just Another Judgement Day
  10. The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny
  11. A Hard Day’s Night
  12. The Bride Wore Black Leather
  13. Tales from the Nightside (short fiction anthology)

The Nightside is a series of twelve novels (plus one collection of short stories) that depict the adventures of one John Taylor, a private investigator, native of the Nightside, and the Chosen One of at least one prophecy.  Being the Chosen One is never a good thing, but in the Nightside, it’s especially bad.  Which is why, when John Taylor finally left the Nightside, he stayed gone up to now.  But at the beginning of the first book, the search for a missing/runaway teen brought him back to his old haunts.  From there, things just snowballed and he took his old place back in the darkness.

So what is the Nightside?  It’s a fictional inner neighborhood of London, older than the city itself.  It’s always night time here, 3:00 am to be exact, “the midnight of the soul,” some call it.  John Taylor describes it as “a place where dreams come true and nightmares come alive. Where one can buy anything, often at the price of your soul… or someone else’s. Where the music never stops and the fun never ends.”  Every possible vice you can think of (and several you wish you hadn’t thought of) is practiced here.  Moreover, what is impossible in the outside world is common as dirt in Nightside:  angels, magic, monsters, time travel, carnivorous cars, homunculi, you name it, it’s here and probably causing trouble.

  • Angels in the Nightside are not benevolent guardians in the Nightside.  They are messengers of God, and scary as hell.
  • Gods are real, all of them, and they hang out in the Street of Gods.  Stay out.  No, really; I don’t care how good a person you’ve been, seriously, stay out.
  • Time slips are invisible, undetectable holes in time.  Sometimes people fall out of them and are stuck in the Nightside present forever.  Sometimes people from this side fall in, and are never seen again.  Watch where you walk.
  • Cars are dangerous.  They go way too fast, brake pedals are for pussies, and cars like the flavor of human flesh.  Cross the street at your own peril.
  • Ghosts can actually be pretty cool.  Knowing you have nothing more to lose is probably very relaxing.
  • Houses can and will eat you.  It’s not pretty.

John Taylor plies his trade, detective and/or thug for hire, here in the Nightside, and keeps the business running more or less.  He is hired to find missing girls, figure out why an up-and-coming singer’s beautiful voice is driving people to commit suicide, figure out why the power grid for the Nightside (they’re only nominally connected to the London grid) is failing, things like that.  But, as is inevitable for hardboiled detective, nothing is ever straightforward.  Yes, he has a small but useful magical talent:  when he concentrates, he can feel where something is, no matter how far away or how well hidden.  An inborn magical GPS for missing stuff is very handy for a PI for hire.  On the other hand,  even with magical GPS, it’s hard to play the PI game when your mother is a demigod and is weaving the destruction of the world when she’s not stalking you.  Or when an army of nearly-unkillable homunculi are looking to destroy you.  Or just when all the scary things from your nightmares think your name is a curse word and your body is great target practice.

To say John Taylor has “friends” is to stretch the blanket a little too much.  But he has colleagues and contacts who  at least respect him.  There’s Walker, who represents The Authorities.  Walker is more or less the police force of the Nightside.  No, he doesn’t care if you kill people, steal, rape, pillage, meh, who cares, so long as Nightside itself is protected.  Walker is an old friend of John’s dad.  Walker and John do NOT like one another, but neither is above using the other when the situation merits.

Alex Morrisey owns the bar John usually hangs out in.  Alex is a direct male descendant of Merlin.  The Merlin, the one and only.  Sounds cool.  But a spell cast by Merlin means that Alex can never leave the bar, ever ever.  Not for a date, not for a quick piss in the alley round back.  This makes Alex more than a little sour; he wears all black all the time because “there’s nothing darker.”  He is the closest thing John has to a friend, and Alex has bailed John out a couple times.  Then there’s Suzie Shooter, bloodthirsty bounty hunter (“dead or alive” means “dead, because there’s less paperwork”) who often partners with John on jobs when he needs muscle; she’s also his love interest, for a certain value of the term “love interest.”  Their relationship is complicated.  Then there are characters like Dead Boy, the Walking Man, Razor Eddie, and The Collector.

The prose style is classic first person, delightfully Chandleresque.  It’s a pity Humphrey Bogart is dead; he’s the only one who could do justice to an audiobook for Nightside.  Green’s style is spartan and clean, but nevertheless it describes the night and neon character of Nightside well enough that even a non-visual reader like myself can picture the place.  The stories are pretty straightforward.  As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge follower of the hardboiled genre (for some reason, I just can’t follow the logic sometimes), but I can follow these and enjoy them.

Downside?  This is pretty dark stuff.  The trigger warnings in these stories would require a whole new blog post just to list them; do not read if you have a weak constitution or are easily offended/disturbed.  For myself, I can’t really binge-read the Nightside series like I usually do Jim Butcher’s work, for example, just sit down and read and read and read until I’ve consumed the whole series.  I tried it with Nightside twice.  I enjoyed the reading, don’t get me wrong.  But around about Book Seven, I started feeling depressed and fatalistic.  I do better reading these stories in small doses.  Again, your mileage may vary.

All in all, I recommend this series if you’re down with the hardboiled detective pulp genre, but are in the mood for a dark fantasy/SF twist, aren’t easily offended, or just can’t resist the “hidden world” scenario in fiction (my personal favorite flavor).

Aaaaaaand that’s it for me today.  You know the drill:  share, tweet, comment, write.  Next up is Fun Friday, and for that I could really use some recommendations.  Contact me at ajclarkson-at-talwyn-dot-net.  I’m sure there’s something I’m forgetting….. Meh, it’ll come to me.  In the meantime, I’m out of here; now I’m in the mood to read Nightside again!  Y’all be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

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Categories: books, Opinion, Pulp, Review | Leave a comment

Nefertiti’s Heart by A.W. Exley

Wow!  It’s been a whole, what, 24 hours since we last spoke!  Nevertheless, I’m back and rarin’ to go.  I have spent a quiet week so far in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  My hubby even fired up the grill yesterday and scorched some dead animal flesh.  Delicious stuff, and he got it all done and dusted before the rains hit.    Best of all, we pulled onions in the garden.  You know what that means?  Onion pancakes for lunch!  Yay!

In the meantime, a quick housekeeping note before we move on to today’s rant. Being techno-challenged, it took me a while to notice that my email addy is acting funny, and I’m not receiving emails like I should.  So if you’ve written me and I haven’t answered, it’s not that I was ignoring you; it’s that my email hates me.  I messaged Elder Son to see if he can help me get set up elsewhere.  Until then, message me in the comments and I’ll keep them private.  As soon as I get set up on a new email (waiting for help from Eldest Son), I’ll post it here and on Twitter, so keep an eye out.

Okay, enough housekeeping.  On to the subject at hand.  On the ride back home from Vandalia, I read Nefertiti’s Heart by A.W. Exley.  The back cover describes it as “a steampunk adventure with a serial killer, romance, and a few broken hearts.”  God, I hate giving bad reviews so so much.  But I have to say that this book fails on every point.  It’s steampunk only in the most marginal sense, the romance leaves me cold, and “broken hearts” is a very low play on words.

Okay, the basic plot.  It’s 1861, and we have Cara Devon, a “curious and impetuous” estranged daughter of a famous collector of antiquities.  She ran away from home at a young age (14 years old is implied, but I wasn’t clear on that) because of a terrible event (her father basically sold her to a rapist, then beat her half to death when she fled the marriage).  Now he’s dead, and she’s come back to sell off his fabulous collection.  Meanwhile, a serial killer is stalking the daughters of aristocrats, and murdering them in a very odd manner:  he’s stabbing keys through their hearts.  Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.  Cara makes a connection between the killer’s modus operandi and an artifact in the collection:  Nefertiti’s heart, a fist sized diamond (how is beyond me; the connection is tenuous at best).  So she starts investigating.  During this “investigation,” she comes across Viscount Nathaniel “Nate” Lyons, minor noble, crime boss, pirate and leader of pirates, you name it.  Oh, by the way, he’s dead sexy, and he’s got the hots for Cara.  Between the bouts of heavy breathing and coy flirting, the two of them manage to figure out who the serial killer is before the Queen’s Enforcers can do it.

Oh, gosh, where to start with all the wrong of this?  Okay, start at the beginning.  I feel like I was sold a pig in a poke.  The title and blurb implied that the story was going to be an adventure, like Indiana Jones, trying to find this artifact before the bad guys do.  What I got was a very spicy romance with a little suspense story running parallel.  I don’t like romance.  Yeah, I know, I’m a girl, I’m supposed to love that junk.  But I just don’t.  I’ll take Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade over Pretty Woman any day of the week.  If I had known this story was this romance-heavy, I wouldn’t have bought it.  The book is called “artifact hunters,” but they never really do this, beyond talking about it and occasionally reading a text).

Next.  It’s called a Steampunk story.  I’m not sure what it was, but this was not steampunk.  Oh, it had the trappings.  It had dirigibles and steam powered vehicles and clockworks here and there.  But steampunk is about more than just the props.  It’s about a  juxtaposition of modern thought and action against the structure and attitudes of the Victorian world.  This juxtaposition never happened.  Crap.  This is hard to explain.  Okay, let me give you a for instance.  At one point Cara goes to a fancy ball in London.  She decides to flaunt societal expectations (that this is a rebellious act is quite clearly stated), and wear what a modern reader would recognize as a slinky evening gown.  Fine, whatever.  Except that she wears the dress to the party and nobody notices.  There’s not a word is said, no ladies whispering behind fans, none of the men (except the love interest) ogle her, whatever.  it’s as though she were just like everybody else.

It’s a small thing, I know.  But the whole book is like this.  Everything is just a little bit off, none of the attitudes are there.  It’s like it’s the normal everyday world, only with Steampunk props added.  The props don’t even figure into the story, not in the least.  The male lead arrived once in a dirigible, but beyond that, nothing much. It made it difficult to fall into the world, to feel that I was in a different place and time.  Am I making any sense at all?

Next:  Nathaniel Lyons.  Meh.  Maybe it’s because I don’t read enough of these romances to know the tropes.  But I am utterly bored by the romantic lead in this story.  We’re told he’s a dangerous dude, a pirate, feared and respected by society, blah blah blah.  We never see any of it.  And as for being feared and respected, which one is it?  Nobody seems to take any notice of him.  It’s like I said before, the reactions of the populace was modern, not Victorian, not even faux Victorian.  Same here.  He wasn’t sexy, he was pushy.  Not a turn on.

That brings us to Cara.   Oh, Lord, where do I start?  Okay, first:  rape as character background has been done to death.  I’m not saying you can’t ever use it, because, when well written, it’s very effective.  However, you have to write it well;  dazzle me.  Cara didn’t dazzle me.  She was written as angry and bitter and so averse to touch that she wouldn’t even shake hands.  But she was willing to spill every grim detail on her second meeting with the male lead, a character she said several times that she didn’t like and she didn’t trust.  Hello?  Did I miss something here?  Moreover, it’s like the third meeting when she suddenly lets him into her knickers (which they didn’t have silky panties back then, they had things like bloomers or drawers, which reached almost to the knees; do you research!).  This chick won’t let another woman shake her hand, but she’ll let this self-admitted scoundrel cut her underthings off with a knife.  After that, the two of them are going at it like bunnies; a girl with serious intimacy issues, probably PTSD, and she’s a suddenly a maniac in bed?

And because it needs to be said:  Sex in a tree?  Really?  REALLY?

Finally (i have to get to a “finally” or it’s gonna be midnight before I finish this post).  The plot.  Yes, I’m a little annoyed they promised me an adventure, and I get a soap opera.  But I’m a big girl, I can suck it up and deal. All right, they said Cara has curiosity and impetuosity.  They say it, but I never see it.  Mostly she’s angry and … well, angry.  Next, Cara’s supposed to have come back to sell her father’s collection of antiquities.  Except there’s no collection.  There’s a lot of talk about a collection, but you never see it, Cara never sees it, nobody sees it, because, if it exists at all, he’s scattered the pieces to the four winds.  “Scattered to the four winds” is kind of the opposite of a “collection,” no?

I saw the solution to who the serial killer was about half an hour before the story did, and immediately saw exactly how the last third of the book was gonna play out.  You’ve seen one Lifetime channel movie, you’ve seen them all.  The connection between the serial killer and Nefertiti’s Heart sorta worked; at least I was willing to let it slide.  I’ll give the writer credit for being a little creative with our killer’s methods, at least.  Suitably gruesome and weird and horribly appropriate.  Last:  in the very last scene, there was an implication that the Heart had some sort of mystical power.  No, not an implication, an outright statement.  Okay, if you’d started out by saying mystical things were possible, regardless of how rare, I’d be willing to roll with it.  To say it’s possible, and then they laugh it off publicly while entertaining the though privately, I’d roll with that.  But to never once utter a single sound about it through the entire book and then suddenly come out with “Oh, you and I both bled on it and now we’re bound together by its mystical power” in the last pages?  Cheat cheat cheat!  That’s not how these things are done.  I wish there was a word as good as “deus ex machina” for these sorts of situations.

And then again, I could be completely wrong.  I was so disappointed that I bought an adventure novel and got a smutty romance, that may have biased my opinion.  But I just was not happy.

Okay, I’m sure there was more I wanted to say, but I’ve been picking at this blog post all day, it’s after ten thirty and I’m no longer coherent.  So I’ll leave off here.  You know the drill.  I’ll get back to you on the email thing ASAP.  In the meantime, I’ll be back on Friday, and I expect y’all to be good while I’m gone.  And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

 

Categories: books, Opinion, Review, Steampunk, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Laundry Series by Charles Stross

Morning!  It’s pretty cold this morning here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, and I have spent most of the morning thus far cooking.  See, it gets hot here in my little valley; 90 degree heat with 70% to 80% humidity in mid-July to early August is not only not unheard of, at times it’s practically de rigeur.  The last thing I want in that kind of weather is to stand over a hot stove and heat up the house.  So I prep as much food as I can well ahead of time (like now, when the mornings are cold) so that, when that hot weather hits, all I have to do is pop something pre-prepped into the oven for thirty minutes.  NO running the stove all afternoon, no standing in the heat minding a grill, no fuss, very little muss, and I can go back to my preferred pastime of lounging on the front porch with my Kindle and a glass of lemonade.

But enough of my ongoing food fetish.  Onward, to the Punk!

So here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, it’s hard to find an expert on the pulp genre.  The only one I knew personally was my father, who was an absolute junkie of the genre.  But he’s gone, God rest his soul, so who am I to ask these strange questions.

Hey!  I’ll ask the Interwebz:  do spy novels belong in the pulp genre?  Is there a cut-off, this one belongs in the pulps, that one doesn’t?  Why?

I think some of them do.  The original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming were written in the early fifties, and were firmly pulp.  Just check this book cover and tell me that doesn’t scream “pulp!!!!”  The books were high on action, light on characterization (though I have to say that Bond is a much darker, less slick character in the books than in the movies), and not afraid to titillate.  Ian Fleming’s writing style was minimalist, clipped, terse, not at all uncommon in the pulps; to me at least, the feeling was a cross between a spy story and a Sam Spade type hardboiled detective.

All that says “pulp” to me.

What confused me for a while is the fact that, while Bond is anchored in the pulps, the series has gone WAY mainstream, and has done almost since its inception.  It was a breakout hit when the series first appeared.  Then the movies, spin off novels (oh yes, there are Bond books by other authors, mostly John Gardner or Raymond Benson, though occasionally other guys contribute).  Then came the book spoofs, the send ups (Our Man Flint (1966) and its sequel, In Like Flint (1967), affectionate send-ups of the Bond style, predated the hyperactive Austin Powers movies by nearly half a century;  by the way, James Coburn ROCKS in the lead role in these movies.  I’d watch him for days before I’d bother with Mike Myers.  (I don’t have a problem with the Austin Powers movies; I’ve seen them all and they’re cute as heck.  But ultimately, I’m underwhelmed)

But you see my confusion:  how can something so mainstream, a character so embraced by the general public, still be “one of us,” still be a pulp.  I have this thing in my mind that says that pulp is not mainstream, and shouldn’t be mainstream.  No, I’m too old to be a hipster.  I’ve just been in the pulp ghetto for so long that I’ve come to like the place.

Anyway, the point is, spy novels, some of them at least, belong to us.  And this allows me to include the works of Charles Stross on this page (the lengths I go to to justify what I wanted to do anyway!  I should be ashamed).  In fact, Stross’s Laundry Files series belongs here anyway, thanks to its Lovecraftian connection.  And boy, does it deliver.  Stross creeps me out in ways that…..

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Who is Charles Stross and what is this Laundry series I’m talking about?  Charles Stross is a British author of hard science fiction.  He has a Wikipedia page here.  He has written a crap-ton of hard science fiction, most of which I’m not even gonna fool with here; there’s a bibliography on his Wikipedia page, go check them out.

What I’m singling out here on the blog is Stross’s Laundry series. How can I describe Bob Howard’s life in the Laundry?  Hmmm…. Imagine Dilbert and James Bond had a baby, and that baby grew up to use an iPhone to fight Cthulhu.

Yeah, it’s like that.  For realz.

There are five books in the Laundry series…

  • The Atrocity Archive
  • The Jennifer Morgue
  • The Fuller Memorandum
  • The Apocalypse Codex
  • The Rhesus Chart

and half a dozen or so short stories, most of which are available online for free (again, check the bibliography on the Wikipedia page linked above; they’re well worth the effort)

Here’s the thing:  in the Laundry series, all the stuff Lovecraft wrote about, the monsters from other dimensions, strange and dangerous races living under the sea and mating with the occasional fisherman, the magic that destroys the mind and consumes the soul?  Yeah, all that stuff is for real.  Except it ain’t magic.  It’s mathematics.  Seems that certain very high level  non-Euclidean, Fermat’s Theorem-level mathematics can open gateways between worlds. Combine that math with various material components (some wire, a few lasers, an iPhone, a severed hand, just stuff you have lying around the house).

So when Bob Howard (our hero) was in university in England, he was playing around on his computers when he (and I’m quasi-quoting the Laundry Files Wiki), “nearly landscaped Wolverhampton by accident when creating a realtime rendering algorithm that used a logical shortcut which turned out to be an open and ungrounded summoning grid. ”  The British government frowns on that sort of thing, and came for him.  He had two choices:  forcible re-education and prison, or join The Laundry.  He chose the Laundry.

The Laundry (called that because it was housed behind a laundry shop during WWII) is a very secret branch of MI5 focused specifically on occult threats.  Their job is to find the mad Bond villains who are trying to destroy the world by summoning something incredibly nasty.  They’re also tasked with finding the schlubs (like Bob) who stumble onto dangerous knowledge while dicking around on the Internet or in their math classes.

So what’s life like in the Laundry?  Well, Bob’s day-to-day really does read like a Dilbert comic strip:  cubicles, post-it notes, boring team meetings, mandatory teamwork (or whatever) classes, dealing with clueless supervisors, computer illiterate types who can’t figure out how to turn on the printer without the computer guy’s help, crap-tons of paperwork, plus executive level types who are scary as hell.  Only in this case “scary as hell” is much more than just a metaphor.

At the beginning of the first novel, The Atrocity Archives, Bob had been another cubicle slave, just marking time and hating his immediate supervisor.  But, since he had volunteered for active service, one of his supervisors tapped him for a little errand.  An “Active Service Errand” in this case means breaking into an office park, stealing somebody’s files and getting out without being spotted.  Entry level spy stuff.

From there the whole thing escalates.  In the first book, the Atrocity Archives, Bob is asked to repatriate a young, beautiful scientist who accidentally stumbled across a very dangerous mathematical formula; this seemingly coincidental encounter leads to an alternate dimension that was populated by Nazis from WWII and is now about to destroy our own dimension.  (an image you won’t forget:  the face of the moon carved to look like Der Fuhrer).  The cool thing is that Bob hooks up with the girl scientist he rescued at the beginning; she is his girlfriend and later his wife for the rest of the series.  I like this, it’s a nice change of pace from the womanizing of most other spy thrillers (yes, Bond, I’m looking at you).

The second book, the Jennifer Morgue, Bob is teamed with a young woman from the underwater realms, to help supervise a megalomaniac’s attempt to find a sunken prize.  This book is very deliberately plotted to reflect a James Bond novel.  It gets kind of meta:  the characters realize they are being forced to follow a Bond novel plot and there is a science fiction-y justification for why it’s happening.  There’s even some interesting confusion as to which player is the Bond expy.  I have to confess, this is my least favorite of the series, so I have only read it the one time.

The third book, The Fuller Memorandum, concerns a mad scramble by factions inside and outside the Laundry to find a document that will give the holders control of a Nyarlathotep-type nightmare that still walks the earth.  Nobody knows who the nightmare currently is, which becomes very important.

The fourth book, The Apocalypse Codex, sees Bob helping an “outside asset” (a very scary woman called Persephone) to infiltrate an American religious movement, one whose leader has gotten rather too close to the British Prime Minister, and seems to have the sort of powers that The Laundry routinely looks for.

The fifth book, The Rhesus Chart, involves vampires as captains of industry.  This one is tough for Bob because the toxic girlfriend he had at the beginning of book one is one of the vampires and, as a member of the Laundry herself, knows way too much about how the Laundry does its work.   According to Wikipedia, at least two more books are scheduled to follow Rhesus, which is good news as far as I’m concerned.

What I like about The Laundry Files is the tone.  Yes, Bob fights tentacled freaks from the 8th Dimension, using only an iPhone and a pigeon foot on a string around his neck (long story, just trust me), all very derring do stuff.  But when he talks about it, he sounds like just one of the guys.  He’s not got a cape or a big S across his chest; he’s just a guy doing a job.  A deeply weird and terrifying job, but still just another wage slave.  He worries about spending too much money on a gadget and what is his live-in girlfriend, Mo, going to say about it.  He hates his supervisor and enjoys goading her.  He’s full of snark and the sort of random mischief that I see my computer geek sons get up to all the time.

For all the Dilbert-level office hell, there’s still plenty of action (my favorite part).  It’s cool to see just an ordinary guy go up against the forces of darkness armed only with a pigeon foot and an iPhone (no, I’m not kidding about the pigeon foot).  Stross is very good at making me believe that the danger is very very real; I have been genuinely frightened a couple times by the stories, in a Cold War paranoia kind of way.  But “Duck and Cover” isn’t going to work against Hastur any more than it would against Kruschev’s little toys.  And this is where Stross impresses me again:  he’s got me freaked out, that’s good.  But then he pits Captain Ordinary against the Forces of Darkness, and he makes me believe it when Captain Ordinary wins.

It’s one thing to throw an ordinary guy up against something terrible and writing him out of it.  Any chapped ass monkey with a keyboard can do that.  But to make me believe it, to convince me that Captain Ordinary has the wherewithal to pull it off and walk away from a battle with the Forces of Darkness?  Yeah, I am impressed.

While I was doing the brushing up for this blog, I found something interesting, something I didn’t know before.  Each book in the series thus far have been pastiches of other, more famous installments in the spy thriller genre.  The Atrocity Archive was a conscious imitation of Len Deighton‘s “Ipcress File.”  As I said before, The Jennifer Morgue imitates Ian Fleming’s Bond series.  The Fuller Memorandum is a pastiche of Anthony Price‘s books about Dr. David Audley and Colonel Jack Butler.  The Apocalypse Codex imitates the Modesty Blaise stories by Peter O’Donnell.

What’s cool is that I didn’t know this.  I don’t often read spy thrillers, and almost never wander out of the science fiction/fantasy/horror ghetto, so I never was exposed to most of these writers (though I recall my father reading them voraciously).  But — and here’s the important thing — I still enjoyed the books.  I didn’t need to recognize the pastiche to have fun with the books.  That’s what annoys me about a lot of pastiches:  you have to know the source material to get the joke and thus to appreciate the story.  Here, you didn’t.  I could read the books, enjoy the hell out of them, and be blissfully innocent of the inside joke.  Now that I know, I can go back and read Ipcress, then read Atrocity Archive again and enjoy the book on an entirely new level.

That’s cool.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long about this.  Go to your favorite source of books right now and pick up The Atrocity Archive.  You’ll enjoy it.  Delicious modern day pulpy goodness.

And that’s it for me.  We just had a thunderstorm start; I hope I can get this out before the lightning ganks out internet connection.  So I gotta make this fast:  share, tweet, write, comment.  My email is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net if you wanna talk or if you wanna share some Fun Friday goodness with me.  Fun Friday is up next and I’ve got some fun stuff for you (Hence the name “Fun Friday.”)

Be good!  And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught.

 

Don’t forget about Vandalia Con on May 22-24 in Parkersburg WV. Come and have some Steampunk fun and support women’s health in Appalachia!

Categories: books, Dieselpunk, Pulp, Review, Science Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

X Company

Hi, guys, back again and ready for the first in my Foundation Media exploration of World War II.  I should probably state for the record, this little jaunt into the war years is going to be so far from comprehensive that it hardly bears thinking about.  It’s just that the last month or so, I have stumbled across a lot of stuff pertaining to that time, it’s gotten me thinking about it, and I want to share with you.  I have not a doubt in this world that A) I’m going to be skipping a crap-ton of interesting stuff, and B) we’ll be looking at this subject again (and again and again).  So, there you are.

In the meantime, it’s been a quiet couple of days here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  The weather is slowly getting less horrible, which makes my arthritis very happy.  I’ve gotten to see my grandsons, and was able to celebrate my granddaughter’s birthday; Happy birthday, Ada, enjoy being a year old!  And make sure to be good for your mama (feel free to drive Daddy crazy; he certainly tried my patience when he was your age!)  By the way, I forgot to mention it Monday:  Sunday was my wedding anniversary!  29 years and my heart still speeds up a little when Hubby walks into the room (which is not to say that there haven’t been times when killing him and burying him in the backyard has not crossed my mind, LOL).  I love you, sweetheart, and I hope we have another 29+ years together!

Speaking of my son, I expect a visit from him within the next few days, and that might bode well for you, my readers.  Seems that, when Son was helping me set up this blog (I freely admit to being techno-challenged), he encouraged me to go ahead and set up a webpage to attach to my blog and Pen Name email addy (yes, it’s a pen name, sorry about that; it’s my maiden name, only scrambled a little).  I did so, paid for the domain name and, well, that’s it.  Son is not a web designer, so he was of little help in that department.  Besides, I didn’t want to throw just any old thing up; if I didn’t have a good idea of what to do with the webpage, better to just let it sit until I find a good idea.

Good news:  I’ve had a good idea.  I don’t know if it’s doable, however.  So I asked Son to come over and we can talk it through.  When I have more information, I’ll be sure and share it with y’all.

Okay, enough about me. Time to move on to today’s topic: Installment One on World War II month.  X Company.

X Company is a tv series that just started a month ago, on Wednesday nights, on the Canadian Broadcast Company channel in, duh, Canada!  I heard about it over on Dieselpunks.org;  thank you, Jersey Jake, for the recommendation!  Since I’m Appalachian rather than Canadian, the show is not available in my area, so I’ve been watching it online.

X Company is not Dieselpunk (hey, I warned you).  It’s straight historical fiction.  According to Wikipedia, it’s a “Canadian/Hungarian spy thriller television series” that “takes place during World War II and follows five recruits to be trained as secret agents at a Canadian training facility near Lake Ontario. ”  The episodes I’ve seen so far have been primarily set in occupied France (they shot the first season in Hungary, presumably for the terrain’s similarity to the French countryside), and, according to Wikipedia, “is inspired by the real spy training school Camp X.” (obviously a real place, and you can read more about it here).

The basic story is, there’s this five man team of soldiers and experts who have been sent into Occupied France to perform various military and/or intelligence gathering missions.  A typical military mission:  to blow up a bridge (the first episode) or to retrieve a downed airman (the fourth episode).  A typical intelligence-gathering mission would be to get copies of German codes (second episode) or to spy on a local Nazi leader (the third episode).

Their execution of setting is genius.  Everything and everybody looks the part.  Costumes, hairstyles, makeup, perfect.  The landscape, sets, props, perfect.  A little fillip that I think works pretty well, considering.  So most of the story takes place in France.  But, outside Quebec, most of your viewers aren’t French speakers.  So when the characters are speaking French, they drop their natural accent and go into a French accent.  No, it’s not the perfect solution, but it is an unobtrusive and understandable way to communicate to the audience that they’re no longer speaking English. As a writer for radio drama, I appreciate the practicality of this approach.

Interestingly, they don’t do the accent thing with German; instead they go with spoken German with subtitles.  I approve.  It makes the Nazis seem more removed from the audience; even I find it distancing, and I speak German.  It makes the Nazis feel alien and much less sympathetic, which is right for your villains.

The writing is pretty good stuff.  The plots have not wowed me with their innovation yet, but they’re good, solid stories that I can easily suspend disbelief with and enjoy.  And it’s early days yet; they have plenty of time to knock my socks off.

On the Dieselpunks.org forum, it became a topic of discussion as to how exactly to apply the Five Man Band trope to our team.  I have my own opinions on the matter.

The leader of the team (and, duh!  The Leader in the Five Man Band), Aurora Luft, is played by Quebec native Evelyne Brochu.  She’s playing, duh, a French Canadian, and is the only girl in the field so far.  I like the character pretty well.  They’ve made her strong without making her seem icy and/or flat, which is too often the case when writers want to put a woman in charge of a group of men.  It’s like the characters are overcompensating or something.  Aurora doesn’t do this.  She does what she needs to do, and isn’t afraid to kill; but she still has emotional depth.  Her skill, other than being the one who speaks French the best, is as an actress; in every episode so far, she has done at least a perfunctory undercover bit, play acting the meek French maid to get one past the evil Nazis.

Her backstory is fairly thin, being primarily that she was in love with Rene, fellow Quebec native and former leader of their team; he was shot in the first episode, fell into a river and is presumed dead, since no body was recovered by either army.  Personally, I suspect a soap-opera-esque reappearance of Rene eventually, though I hope they don’t go there; it’s too obvious and it’s been done to death.  BTW:  I hate the name Aurora; this is a war show, not a Disney film or bad fan fiction, for heaven’s sake!  Granted, it’s a beautiful name, and for all I know it’s a common one in Quebec.  But there are so many beautiful French names, surely we can do better than the one that screams “Twilight Fan Fiction Character of Epic Mary Sue-ness!”

Next is Neil McCay, played by English actor Warren Brown.  McCay is the Lancer in the Five Man Band, the tough-as-nails, straightforward foil to Aurora’s softer, more devious approach.  Back when I was RPG gaming a lot, we called a character like him a “brick.”  His job was to stand toe-to-toe with the baddies and absorb (and dish out!) punishment, giving his team time to get into a better position and situation for dealing out death, or whatever.  That’s mostly what McCay does; he’s the guy with the big gun.  But, again, they haven’t gone the entirely obvious route; he speaks a bit of French, and can play act when necessary, well enough to deceive the Nazis.

McCay’s backstory is fairly sparse at the moment.  He has what my poor untrained ears says is a working class London accent (I can’t be any more specific than that), and apparently the character hails from there.  He lost his entire family during the bombings in London, and that is his touchstone, as it were.  It gives him a hard, scary edge at times.  The fourth episode revealed that one niece, eight years old, survived the Blitz, and was shipped to safety in the north of England with other orphans.

Next we have Tom Cummings, an American soldier played by Canadian actor Dustin Milligan.  According to the Five Man Band, Cummings would be either the Big Guy or the Lancer.  Both he and McCay are in contrast to Leader Aurora, in different ways.  McCay is the obvious second in command.  But he could also very much be the Big Guy, leaving Cummings to be the Lancer.  Hmm… have to think about that one.

Anyway, as I said, Cummings is the lone American of the group.  He has the most amorphous job of the group, sometimes doing technical work (second to the Smart Guy, who we’ll get to in a minute), sometimes fighting.  Most of the time, though, his job is talking.  What tiny backstory we get on him is that he was in advertising before the War, and is a great salesman and/or persuader.  In one episode, he is talking to a Frenchman he has prisoner, and manages to talk the guy in circles enough that he implicates his own guilt in the death of his romantic rival, not cool when the grieving widow is sitting right there beside him.

The other thing about Cummings is an odd one.  He seems strangely reluctant to kill, a little strange coming from a soldier in the middle of a war zone.  Not in every episode I’ve seen so far, but in a least half, when given a chance to either kill or disable, Cummings has chosen to disable.  He does this even when it endangers himself and the mission.  Granted, avoiding murder and bloodshed is a laudable, honorable goal, but while you’re fighting a war for your life and the lives of people around you is not a good time to start practicing it.

Then again, maybe that’s the perfect time to practice it.  Hmmm.  Interesting ethical and moral question.  Anybody have any thoughts on that?

Next we have Harry James, played by Canadian actor Connor Price.  I don’t know what nationality the character is supposed to be, so I’m defaulting to Canadian.  He’s the Smart Guy in the Five Man Band:  he’s a techno-genius and gadget master.  This is the character I think I know the least about.  Beyond the fact that he was some sort of child prodigy in techno stuff, well, that’s about it.  He’s the very youngest of the group (doesn’t look more than nineteen or so) and the others seem to make no small effort to protect him.  Which makes sense, not only is he young, but his skills make him an asset that would be difficult to replace.

I know the least about this character, as I said.  But in some ways, he’s the one I feel the most for.  It’s the age and the nerd factor.  He’s nineteen-ish (my own younger son is just turned 21) and he’s played as sweetly naive; when a young woman dies after he tried to help her, he weeps openly.  And the nerd factor:  I was a nerd long before it was cool, and my own children (particularly my boys, though my girls can nerd out from time to time) are unrepentant nerds.  My boys are even techno-nerds like Harry.  I guess the character just pushes my mommy buttons; I’m girly like that sometimes.

The final character is Canadian civilian Alfred Graves, played by English actor Jack Laskey. In the Five Man Band Alfred is the Chick (yeah I know he’s a guy; go read the TV Tropes entry. In the Band context, the Chick doesn’t have to be a girl; just a character that is weaker than and protected by the other team members).   Alfred is ostensibly the primary protagonist; the first episode of the show was partially focused on his volunteering to help with the war effort, and his subsequent recruitment into the X Company.  Plus, each episode so far has opened and closed on a scenelet of him in a jail cell, awaiting something.  But, while I find the character emotionally very sympathetic (at least twice he’s made me cry, and we’re only four episodes into the series!), intellectually, I find him annoying.

First off the writers have given Alfred a photographic memory.  That’s all well and good, it makes him a useful asset to an intelligence gathering team (though I’m not sure how I feel about them seeming to have given him an autism-spectrum type affliction as well; then again, maybe it’s just crushing shyness, not sure.).  But the stopping point for me was giving him synesthesia as well.  For those of you who haven’t heard of it, synesthesia is a neurological condition wherein some senses (most commonly just two senses) are tangled together, so that triggering one sense triggers a “false” signal in another sense.  For example, every time your subject sees the color green, he also smells roses.

For starters, they gave him the complete works:  every sense crosses over with every other.  Overkill much?  But here’s the thing.  As a writer, I find this too much and unnecessary.  Does the synesthesia affect the character’s ability to do his job?  Maybe, but only in the most perfunctory way.  Does it inform the character, give us insight into his mind, his heart, his motivations?  Okay, once, but not in a way that only synesthesia could have told us.  They could have achieved the same effect without all the fuss about synesthesia.

Moreover, you’ve heard of the I-Guy (as Stephen King calls it).  This is our primary viewpoint character, the one we’re supposed to identify with and sympathize with.  He plays the part that the various companions do in Doctor Who:  he’s the audience stand-in, doing the things, feeling the emotions, asking the questions that the audience would ask, were they in that same position.  So tell me how is the average joe on the street supposed to identify with a character who is so far removed from the norm?  A genius with photographic memory, crushing shyness (or autism spectrum), AND synesthesia?  Okay, maybe it might work, but it’s not the way I would have gone, had I been the writer.  Introduce the character, yes, fine.  But don’t make him the I-Guy.

Okay, thought of something just now, and maybe it explains what they’re getting at with Alfred.  I could see the argument that the synesthesia is a way to visually express what the character would never say aloud.  He is crushing on Aurora a little; they expressed it by showing her (from his POV) with a cloud of blue around her (right after he had implied he associates warmth and comfort with shades of blue).  And the crushing shyness/autism/whatever….. I can see that it allows him to experience the war as a child would, with an emotional vulnerability that none of the other characters can afford to have.  It allows him to  what maybe I would feel, if I were suddenly dumped in a war zone and told, “Here’s a gun, do your best.”

Maybe.  Still, I’m not entirely sure I would go the same direction.

That is my big complaint about the show.  And I’m getting past it.  For all the flaws in his development, Alfred is a sweet character, and he has his moments. My little whinge aside, the show is good stuff, and I firmly recommend it.  Pulp fans can appreciate the action of it all.  Dieselpunk fans can also appreciate the action, even without the punk element.  And the history buffs in all of us will be well-fed by it.  Check it out, seriously; it’s on Wednesday nights on CBC, for those of you in Canada.  For the rest of us, find it online, you won’t be disappointed.

And I think that’s it for me.  The longest blog post I’ve written so far.  I guess I felt pretty strongly about this review.  You know the drill:  tweet, share, comment.  If you wanna write to me, my email is on my About page.

A word about Fun Fridays:  I don’t hear much from y’all.  Here’s the thing.  A submission doesn’t have to be something you personally made/did/wrote/whatever.  It’s perfectly cool to say, “Hey, look, I found this online the other day and thought of the blog.”  I don’t care where the recommendation originated; I just wanna share cool Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp stuff.  Besides, I can’t spend every waking moment surfing the Net to find it all myself; I need your help.  So if you did something cool, saw something cool, whatever, send it along to my email addy (on my About page, as I said).  I totally wanna see it.

All right.  Soap box is tucked away nice and safe.  Time for me to go find some breakfast!  I’ll see you on Friday!

Y’all be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: Foundation media, History, Review, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Six Gun Tarot

So I did another disappearing act.  Sorry about that.  I’m getting a little tired of explaining it over and over again, so I’ll give you the short version:  health issues,blah blah, emergency surgery, blah-ditty-blah, week in the hospital, blah blah, recovery is taking forever, blah blah done.  There. Clear?  Good.

Oh, yeah, adding insult to injury:  I broke my glasses.  Grrrr!

So while I’ve been doing the invalid routine, I’ve gotten bugger all writing done; it requires more strength and concentration than I had in me.  But I have gotten piles and piles of reading done, which is very good.  My To Be Read pile of books was getting pretty enormous; either it was gonna soon reach critical mass and explode, or it was going to gain sentience and attempt world domination.  Or both.  Either way, it wasn’t gonna be pretty, so taking advantage of this opportunity to shrink it down was a good thing.

So one of the offerings that’s been on The Pile for a bit is a pair of books entitled Six Gun Tarot and Shotgun Arcana, written by R. S. Belcher. They are part of what Goodreads calls The Golgotha series (only two books in the series, so far; would that be a duology?).

I think this books is Steampunk. Sort of?  It’s set in the Old West, Nevada, 1869.  This definitely falls in the Weird category:  no steam technology, none of the optimism I have come to expect from Steampunk offerings.  This is as though H.P. Lovecraft decided to write an episode of the old Wild Wild West tv show.  Dark, weird stuff.

So the setting, like I said, is Nevada, in a town called Golgotha (for those of you who aren’t up to date on your Sunday School classes, Golgotha is a place in the Bible, the hill outside Jerusalem where Christ was crucified; yeah, kinda says it all about our story setting).  Golgotha looks like a town right out of Central Casting:  respectable town at the bottom of a mountain, mining concern and all the raucous Wild West excitement that comes with miners, enclave of inscrutable Chinese near the mines, colony of Mormons (this one surprised me) down in the respectable part of town, whores and cowboys everywhere.  You get the idea.

Except there’s more to Golgotha than Central Casting.  All the weird in the country is somehow attracted to our little town.  It’s like the Old West’s answer to Sunnydale.    Vampires, werewolves, Lovecraftian nightmares, ghosts, these turn up so often that the good townspeople have stopped even commenting on them.

Not that the townspeople are all that normal.  Mayor Pratt, a Mormon church leader (and closeted homosexual) is the secret guardian of certain ancient LDS artifacts.  Sheriff Hightower bears the scars of the noose on his throat, and has some uncanny anti-Murphy’s-Law thing going on so that, no matter how bad the situation, he can’t be killed.  Deputy Mutt is an Indian and a were-coyote, his pal Jim (who is our entry into the story when he arrives in town) is the carrier of an artifact of the gods. Maude Stapleton, one of the ladies of the town, is a trained assassin and follower of a cult of Lilith, which apparently gives her superhuman powers and unnaturally long life.  Ch’eng, the leader of the Chinese criminal element, is the holder of much ancient, esoteric knowledge.

This is one of my problems with the book. Even the homeless dudes have flashbacks and backstory, an we are forced to sit through all of it.  All.  Of.  It.  I appreciate that in real life, everybody has a story, a depth and a reason for why they ended up where they are.  But in the world of fiction, there simply isn’t enough room to cover every detail of every spear-carrier.  A good author learns to pick and choose only those stories that have bearing on the main narrative.  Mr. Belcher had to put in everything.  And his timing for those flashbacks was odd.  For example, Maude Stapleton’s flashback came in the first 20% of the book, which was fine, in an of itself.  But once he had given her story, he dropped her.  Completely.  She just disappeared from the story entirely until the last 20% of the book.  By then, I had forgotten who she was, and had to go back and re-read, to remind myself why I gave a crap about who this person was.  This happened over and over; there was so much information thrown at me so quickly and over such an odd timeline that I needed a flipping scorecard to keep track of who did what.

The plot was okay:  the mine, which had been played out, has been reopened by a group who are seeking something evil and Lovecraftian under the mountain. Of course they find it, and it comes out to possess half the town into evil zombies.  After that, it’s up to the good guys to stop the invasion, destroy the Evil, and stop the bad guys who dug up said evil.  Not bad; not particularly inspired or original, but not bad.

So, in short, I liked the setting, the plot was okay, and the characters annoyed me, not so much because they were badly written, as much as because there were too many and too busy.  Out of five stars, I’d give the book a solid three.  If you like Weird West stories, go for it, but don’t expect miracles.

On the other hand, I did not like the sequel, Shotgun Arcana, at all.  Same setting, which is great.  Same characters, with the same problems as before:  every new appearance, even by an old character, spawned a new series of flashbacks that drown the narrative in a deluge of minutiae.

But what killed the story for me was the bad guys.  Okay, the plot, as far as I got, is that a fallen angel, seeking to gain an artifact in Golgotha, is summoning an army of evil to come here an lay waste to the town.  Okay, a little far-fetched,but I’m willing to roll with it so far.  But our author gives 23 three flashbacks — Twenty Three, I’m not kidding, the same number as there are arcana in a tarot deck, not coincidentally — one for each incoming baddie.  Twenty three is waaaaaaay too many.  How do you tell them apart?  Why should I care about twenty three?  Give them names, sure, give backstories to a couple of the major players.  But every one?  Too much; I stopped caring.

And the flashbacks?  I understand that he wanted our baddies to be extra bad. But there’s such a thing as stretching credulity to the breaking point.  Every baddie is a serial killer, most of them are cannibals, and many had body counts in the hundreds.  And that’s where the story lost me.  The backstories were appallingly graphic and gross, but I can roll with that. But the most prolific serial killer in real life didn’t have a body count like these guys.  And there were 23 of them, and not only was there not a hue and cry for the killers’ heads, nobody has even noticed babies being eaten???  My imagination is pretty good, but even I couldn’t go that far. I stopped reading.

So the verdict on Shotgun Arcana:  avoid it. It wasn’t worth the money I spent on it.

So that pretty much covers it for me today.  Hopefully my health issues are settled down to the point where there will be no more prolonged disappearances from me.  I really am sorry bout that.  But not it’s time for me to get warm and watch the snow fall here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  For y’all, you know the routine:  share, comment, tweet, email.  You can contact me at the addy in the About page.  Send along your submissions for Fun Friday.  And I’ll talk to you on Wednesday!

Categories: books, Review, Steampunk | 3 Comments

Solomon Kane

Monday morning is here again, and things are restless here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia. For starters, it’s snowing, which sucks in a big big way. Appalachian roads are notorious for being twisty, winding things; my mom always said, “When they laid this road, they didn’t move a single tree or cow.”  And to make the twisty bits even more horrible, they go up and down hills, too. So hilly, twisty roads plus snow equals dangerous, scary travel.  Blech.  Besides, I hate the cold; I much prefer summer.

The second source of restlessness for me is that I have a medical procedure — a combination endoscopy and colonoscopy — scheduled for bright and early tomorrow morning. It’s all to do with why I vanished from the blog through the Christmas season; the doctor is hoping to see what has been causing the problems.  So we do the thing tomorrow morning, and this means I have to fast all day today; nothing but clear liquids and a growly tummy until after lunchtime tomorrow.   I’m hungry!  I’ve only gotten back the ability to eat without horrible pain!  I know, I know, I can tough it out,where’s that hillbilly pluck?  Yeah, well, I have plenty of pluck, but I still want some scrambled eggs and fried potatoes.

 

Robert E. Howard, age 28, two years before his death

So enough whinging.  I have spent the last few days reading The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, by Robert E. Howard.  Those of you who have spent more than ten minutes in the world of classic pulp has heard of Robert E. Howard:  he’s the creator of Conan the Barbarian.  Howard is a strange and really fascinating character in his own right.  He was born, raised and died in the town of small town Texas.  This picture below is one of him only two years before he died; I’ve always thought it reflected the dichotomy of the man brilliantly.  On the one hand, he’s dressed and posed to look like he should have been running with Al Capone and his cronies in crooked gangland Chicago; tough as nails.  But I look at his face and he looks so young, so innocent of what’s coming.

Just like the picture, Howard was a divided man.  This is a man whose earliest passions were for poetry and stories; but he also spent part of his youth studying boxing and bodybuilding.  Howard never married, and was in every sense a “mama’s boy” (he never married, lived with his mother until his dying day; he killed himself upon being told that his mother wasn’t going to wake from a coma; she died the next day)  But at the same time, he was the creator of one of the most iconic action heroes in 20th century letters, Conan the Barbarian, and the founder of what some call “The Sacred Genre,” sword and sorcery.

Howard was a prolific writer throughout his professional career. He never published a novel, but his short stories and poetry covered sword and sorcery, historical straight adventure, boxing stories, westerns, and some horror, pretty much covering the waterfront of pulp fiction in the 1920’s and 30’s.  I first heard about him because he was a contemporary of and correspondent with H. P. Lovecraft.  He even wrote several stories for the Cthulhu Mythos.

But what brings me to mention him today is Solomon Kane.  Now I saw the Conan the Barbarian movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, same as every other member of my generation.  This motivated me to hunt down Howard’s original stories, and I read ten or twelve of them (there were 21 completed stories, plus a number of unfinished fragments).  I didn’t care for them.  I know, they are iconic, they are the foundation for Sword and Sorcery, blah blah, I know all this.  My problem was that the stories felt disconnected.  After reading 10 of them, I didn’t feel like I understood Conan the character any better than I did after reading the first sentence of the first one.

Whatever, right?  I was young, barely 17 at the time, so what did I know?  I set the stories aside and got on with my life.  I occasionally read his horror shorts if I happened across one (“Pigeons from Hell” will give you nightmares forever!), but I was not motivated to seek out anything specifically until I heard of Solomon Kane through a fellow writer.  It had been thirty years since my disappointment with Conan; it was past time to give Howard another try.

First, what is Solomon Kane?  Like Conan, Solomon Kane is a short story series created by Howard.  He is a Puritan… well, I guess paladin is the best word for him.  He has no backstory and no motivation beyond “God thinks I should kill these people.”  He is a wanderer in 16-17th century Europe and Africa (kinda loosey-goosey on a firm timeline), using a rapier and occasionally a flintlock pistol (later picking up a magic staff) to protect the innocent and crush the evil-doer beneath his boot. Solomon went up against mundane pirates, murderers and other ne’er-do-wells, but he also went toe to toe with vampires, demons, demi-gods and evil wizards; since the first Kane stories predate Conan and Kull (another one of Howard’s creations), they can be argued to be the true foundation of the Sword and Sorcery genre.  These stories were very popular, even more so than Conan in Howard’s lifetime, and continue to be well-received even today, spawning several comic book appearances (with Marvel and Dark Horse Comics) and a 2009 movie.  I have not checked out the comics or movie, so I can’t yet report back on those.

Now, on to Savage Tales of Solomon Kane.  This is a complete collection, comprising all the completed short stories, several unfinished fragments, and a couple of poems.  The stories are for the most part pretty short, and very succinct; they do not spare a syllable on fluff.  If there’s anything Howard does well, it’s give you plenty of bang for your buck, with the action starting as soon as humanly possible, and keeping it going for as long as necessary.  He doesn’t spare the gore, either, which surprised me, considering how prissy some of the writing from the 1920’s can be; there’s plenty of blood, guys cutting off limbs and stabbing each other through the eye, etc.

Truth be told, Solomon Kane is what I imagine a true paladin would be like:  humorless, dour, driven, judgmental, scary.  A proper paladin would be less like Sir Galahad, and more like the assistant principal at your school, the one who desperately needs a rectal stick-ectomy.  Only, you know, heavily armed and all.  But beyond this, nothing.  I have no idea why Kane is bent on this creepy crusade, what keeps him going, what pleases him, what frightens him.  Nothing.

This is what bugged me about Conan.

Readers (and writers) can be safely divided into those who revel in a good plot, and those who revel in a good character.  I am one of those who needs to be able to connect to the character.  With the best characters, I have this feeling of, “I wish I could be friends with him!” or “I wish I could be her!”  AT the very least, I need to think, “I wouldn’t choose to do that, but I understand why he chose differently.”  No. I couldn’t do it with Kane.  He’s like a marble statue animated; he is smooth and well-carved,but there’s no texture, nothing to give me a firm grasp on who or what he is.  Even James Bond has more depth to him, and Bond (in the books and the movies) is practically the poster child for “no back story.”  Maybe that’s not a problem for you as a reader.  For me, it’s a deal breaker.

Beyond that, if you check this one out, be warned:  racism and sexism are very much on display.  It’s part of the times, I understand that; Howard was writing in the Deep South in the heyday of Jim Crow.  And he is better than his contemporary H.P. Lovecraft; at least Howard was willing to allow for black characters to be good and heroic occasionally.  But the blatant racist mindset is very jarring to encounter if you’re not expecting it. Same with the sexism:  woman are either Madonna or whore, perfectly good and innocent or blackhearted vipers; no middle ground.  This is less surprising to me, coming from a man who never married and, so far as I can find out, never even went on a date, AND had an unhealthy attachment to his mother (remember why he killed himself?).

If you can deal with that — lots of action, essentially no character development, the foundations of a huge genre, but lots of racism and sexism — then I can wholeheartedly say that Solomon Kane is a character you should check out.  Otherwise, give Kane a pass; check out Howard’s horror stuff instead.

And that’s it for me.  I got a little longwinded, huh?  Sorry about that.  All prayers for tomorrow turning out well will be welcome; I’m not afraid, but I desperately hope the tests will finally give us some answers.  In the meantime, don’t forget to email, share, tweet and comment; and send along your recommendations for Fun Friday.  Be good, and I’ll be back on Wednesday (Okay, I’ll be back on Wednesday if you’re not good).

Categories: books, Classic pulp, Comic/Graphic Novels, Pulp, Review, Video | Leave a comment

Penny Dreadful

Good morning!  So I had a weird night last night.  As you all know, I have been gorging on audio drama over the past month, and have finally gotten to the end of my (fairly extensive) collection.  So I switched to reading, and started off with the novel tie-ins for The Red Panda Adventures (mentioned in last week’s review of the audio show, here).  All fine and dandy, at least until I went to sleep.   Then my subconscious started chewing on the pulp I had been filling my brain with, and spit out the most bizarre dream.  In the dream, I was a guy (which is weird enough), but not just any guy; I was a hard-bitten, cynical Chandleresque wet dream.  As this hardboiled guy with a shaved head and a .38 in a shoulder holster, my job was to accompany this girl as she did an investigation into what is arguably the weirdest building I have ever seen, either in real life or in my dreams.  All sorts of bizarre things were going on; it was great!

So all through this dream, I am NOT lucid dreaming.  But some part of me was aware that it was a dream, because this voice in my head kept saying, “This would make a terrific audio drama!  Why aren’t you writing it all down?”  The voice got so insistent that Dream-Me actually found himself with a piece of chalk in hand, and began writing everything down on whatever surface would hold still:  the wall, the floor, a trash can lid.  At one point I was even scribbling notes on the front of the shirt I was wearing.

Finally, I realized that I was no longer dreaming; I had awakened in mid-scribble.  The dream may have been gone, but the urge to write it down would NOT go away. So I sat up, grabbed my laptop, and started typing just as fast as I could go.  Now that I look at the idea, I realize it won’t work as an audio drama; too much of the story requires significant visual information, which audio just can’t do.  But it will make a great short story, and the potential is there to even be a cycle of short stories.

Welcome to the world of being a writer. Sometimes it just happens like that.  Like walking down the street and finding a forgotten $100 bill.

So that’s how my time has been spent since we last met.  I hope yours is going as excitingly.  BTW, while I”m thinking about it, and apropos of nothing, please look to the top of this page and you’ll see a new tab, just to the right of the one that says, “About AJ.  The new tab says, “Fiction Index.”   It’s a link page that lets you surf through the fiction that has and will appear on this blog, without having to run the gauntlet of the entire archive.  Check it out!

Now, after that VERY long introduction, time to move on to the subject of today’s conversation…..

Penny Dreadful is a ten-episode long series on Showtime (the series producer promises a second season to arrive sometime in 2015), created for Showtime and Sky by John Logan and executive produced by Logan and Sam Mendes.  It’s obviously named after the Victorian magazine pre-cursor to the pulp genre. I don’t know if this can be classified as Steampunk; it has but few of the obvious tropes that typify the genre.  No dirigibles, no clockwork or steam-powered anything, no robots.  More importantly, the tone is very very grimdark.  I think this would fall firmly in the “gaslamp fantasy” subclass of the genre.  It taps deeply into the Gothic (gothic as in the literary movement, not the teenage fashion statement), and, borrowing a page from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, features actual characters and situations from Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Frankenstein.  It bills itself as a “psychosexual horror story.”

The story takes place in Victorian London, and the nominal main character (there are several who step into the viewpoint position at various times) is American Ethan Chandler (played by Josh Hartnett). Chandler is a hard drinking, sharpshooting performer in a Wild West show touring England, and it is during this tour that he encounters the enigmatic Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green).  She has a proposition for him:  earn some money by using his gun skills, no questions asked.   Any sensible man would walk away from that sort of offer.  But Chandler is apparently not sensible, and he joins their party, who also includes Sir Malcolm Murray, as they into the darkest stews of London to go hunting for vampires.

Sir Malcom Murray (played by former James Bond Timothy Dalton) is the father of Mina Murray, the young fiancee of Jonathan Harker from the Dracula novel by Bram Stoker.  Mina has vanished, presumably carried off by vampires.  And that’s where the story starts:  will Chandler help Murray and Miss Ives find Mina.  But it’s never that simple, is it? The story leads in lots of interesting directions, as the characters recruit Victor Frankenstein to their cause, unaware that he is conducting his fateful experiments in his own lab simultaneous with their adventures.  Moreover, Miss Ives encounters and falls into a sexual obsession with the forever beautiful, forever debauched Dorian Gray, of the Oscar Wilde novel.

I have a love/hate relationship with this show.  The settings and costumes are astonishingly beautiful — the British film/tv industry are unparalleled in their skill with period dramas. The effects are brilliant, and startling in their verisimilitude.  The writing is wonderfully atmospheric and intense; you don’t just watch this show, you experience it.  All the acting is powerful. In particular I am absolutely fascinated by Eva Green’s performance as Vanessa Ives; she is mesmerizing, sexual and scary at the same time.  When she appeared on the screen, I was unable to look away, and when she wasn’t the center of attention, I missed her presence.

But!

First, the lesser of my complaints. Here is something every writer of horror needs to remember:  Gore does not automatically equal terror.  I can handle lots of violence and gore in a story, though I don’t particularly enjoy the gore.  Gore doesn’t scare unless the reader/viewer is engaged.  Hell, I could go on for days, but Stephen King explains more eloquently than I can (if you want to read his opinions on this, and a lot of horror tropes, I strongly suggest you check out his nonfiction treatise on the subject, Danse Macabre).  Gore is fine and dandy, and when well applied, can totally give me nightmares.  But you can’t just sling gallons of blood and guts around and expect me to automatically scream.  Retch, maybe; scream, not necessarily.

Next.  The Frankenstein subplot.  Yes, I adore the Frankenstein story.  Yes, I have used it myself in fiction, and am always glad to see another variant of the same theme.  No, I did not like the version that appeared in Penny Dreadful.  Visually, it was beautiful, with a truly brilliant make up job on the Creature that made him utterly believable.  But I didn’t like it.  I didn’t like the portrayal of Victor Frankenstein.  I appreciate that the character is the personification of hubris; but this script turned him into a Victorian version of a hipster.  He was arrogant and annoying.  As for the story of “do I create a mate for the abandoned and enraged child of my intellect and hubris?”, I just didn’t care.  Don’t know why, but I was bored instead of horrified.

But that’s a minor complaint.  Here’s my big one  Sigh.  I know the show is billed as “psycho-sexual horror.”  Yes, there was horror.  Yes, there was “psycho,” in that it played upon the viewer’s expectations, and pushed any number of buttons, taboo and otherwise.  And yes, there was sex.  And there’s my main problem.  Look, there’s a rule I go by when I’m reading a story or watching a show.  I ask one question:  if I took the sexual activity out of the story, would the story still work?  If the story falls apart without the sex, then you have to leave it in.  I am no lover of “Fifty Shades of Gray,” but the fact is, without the sex, you have no motivations for the characters to act the way they did; without the sex, the story falls apart.

If I went through the episodes of Penny Dreadful, and removed every sexual scene, every flash of nudity or congress, the story would NOT fall apart.  Yeah, it was interesting in places, and maybe it even made sense in context (particularly in the relationship between Ives and Dorian Gray).  But if it doesn’t advance the story, doesn’t enhance the story, WHY ARE YOU PUTTING IT IN THE STORY?

Look, I understand that Showtime is a for-pay cable network, which means the rules are more lax than regular cable.  I understand that they need to show more Hard-R stuff to justify their fees, even their very existence.  But the first rule of writing is, if it doesn’t enhance the story, if it doesn’t illuminate the characters or move along the plot, then it has no business in the story. And the sex in this show was there to justify their place on a pay-cable network; it didn’t advance the story, it didn’t illuminate the characters, it did nothing for the plot.

Does that make me a prude?  Possibly?  Does that make me wrong?  No.

All told, I liked this show.  I liked it a HELL of a lot better than I did the American Horror Story series, which are in the same basic genre, without the gaslamp setting.  I’m certainly looking forward to the second season.  But it wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  It’s still available on Amazon, I believe.  Here are two trailers, if you want to get a taste.

and

 

Okay. Enough ranting from me.  Coming up next on ClarksonPunk is Fun Friday!  Do you have something you think would be good for Fun Friday?  Pictures?  Videos?  Music?  Cool crafts?  If so, contact me via the email posted on my About AJ page. Then on Monday will be the next installment of the adventures of Fortuna.  In the meantime, don’t forget to share, tweet, comment.  You can find me on Facebook and Twitter; the links are also on my About AJ page.  And while you’re up there clicking on links, check out the Fiction Index page.

That’s it for me!  Be good until Friday; then we’ll find some weekend mischief to get into!  Later!

 

 

 

 

Categories: Horror, Review, Steampunk, Video | 1 Comment

Captain Blasto! and some ruminations

Welcome to this most recent meeting of the Order of the Disgruntled Camel!  Hump Day is here, and a busy one here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  Gotta clean the treehouse, gotta roust the monkeys (AKA my kids) to do the chores that rainy weather has delayed, just gotta try to get organized before we run out of summer and it’s time to hibernate through another winter.  But!  Busy or not, I have been out on the Interwebz, searching out more stuff to share with you, my loyal readers.  I am embarrassed to mention how many books (most of them free) that I yoinked from Amazon yesterday, hoping they will fulfill my ever-ravening lust for pulp, Dieselpunk and Steampunk goodness (the words thirty-two might strike a chord deep in my subconscious, but I firmly refuse to confess it out loud).  Now I just have to find the time to do the actual reading.

Before we go any further:  Happy birthday, H.P. Lovecraft!  We love you!

Now, onwards….So I was surfing the Interwebz, trying to find out more about the SyFy show “The Mercury Men,” when my link chasing led me to this page.  The webpage is a little hard to read, at least for me, so I almost passed it by.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Captain Blasto (according to IMDB, it was made in 2005) is an independent web series from Christopher Preksta, who was also responsible for SyFy’s Mercury Men.  It’s a loving send up of comic book superheroes (sorta kinda), which seats it rather nicely in the Pulp genre, by my lights.  It was nominated for a pile of awards, including a Streamy in 2009 and was a selection of the London Independent Film Festival in 2008. It won for Best Feature Film at the GenCon Film Festival in 2007.

So what’s it about?  According to their own webpage, “Captain Blasto, a comedy video web series, follows
Colin Carter, a high school outcast, who recruits a middle-aged crew of comic crooks, including his high
school janitor, to stage fake robberies in their small town which he can foil as his childhood comic book super hero.  But what happens when these bogus burglaries become real?”

It has the tagline, ” He doesn’t want to save the world. He just wants to be noticed.”  Here’s the trailer, so you can have a quick peek.

A more detailed explanation. Colin Carter(Christopher Preksta) is a sad, lonely high school nerd, with a crap home life, and no real friends, except maybe for the school janitor, his neighbor, Daryl (Aaron Kleiber).  What he does have is an obsession with 1930’s comic book hero Captain Blasto.  Captain Blasto (a teenager who acquired amazing superhero powers upon finding a mysterious ring) was the subject of Golden Age comics, radio shows, toys, TV shows, magazines, the full merchandising gamut. And our hero, Colin, has all of them.

Colin, obviously, is not entirely satisfied with the way his life is going thus far.  In a fit of inspiration — or madness — he has The Idea:  get Daryl to stage a robbery.  Okay, it’s an actual robbery, in that he is going to grab something from some unsuspecting bystander. But the robbery will be foiled by Colin, in costume as Captain Blasto.  This whole drama is supposed to happen in the local park, so there’ll be lots of witnesses to Colin/Blasto’s triumph.  They manage to pull it off, but, as you can imagine, it doesn’t quite play out the way they intended.

But it worked, more or less, so Colin goes on to get a job on the local paper, because that’s Captain Blasto’s secret identity. Then he and Daryl go on the world’s most inept crime spree, with its own built-in superheroic foil.  There is even — I shit you not — a phone booth in which to change identities (with added privacy curtain!).  Eventually, they recruit other town outcasts and malcontents to play more bad guys in an Ocean’s Eleven style store robbery.  If, you know, George Clooney was a gawky teenager, and Brad Pitt and friends were the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  This goes fairly well, but they decide they need to up the ante even further.  They need (gasp) a supervillain!  They recruit somebody, and from there, things get really interesting.

What I like about this little show is that, despite the fact that it’s a comedy, at no time did I feel like the writers were laughing at the audience.  They love the genre as well, and are poking a little affectionate fun at some of the ideas therein.  I can’t find out that much about the cast, but they seem to be a mix of pros and amateurs, and the performances reflect that mix.  But a lack of experience did not diminish my enjoyment.  In particular, Daryl the School Janitor (AKA The Mugger) is a giggle, delightfully and endearingly inept.  In fact, all the characters are endearing, and there are some genuinely sweet moments in it, moments of character insight that you wouldn’t expect from a spoof web series.

My only problem with the show is the choice to make the “bad guys” adults, all measurably older than Colin.  I don’t find it surprising that a teen would have primarily adult friends; I was a hopeless nerd at that age, and the vast majority of my friends were significantly older than me.  What I find hard to believe that a teenage outcast could convince a bunch of grown men, all but two with wives and children, to do something so outrageous and irresponsible.  No adult is going to risk going to prison (and they technically ARE committing crimes, sort of) simply for the sake of fulfilling some kid’s fantasy about
being a superhero. But, if you can get past that particular stumbling block, you’ll not have a problem with this story.

There are eleven episodes, each one six to seven minutes long. You can see what I’m talking about at the
webpage above. You can also watch the episodes on Youtube, and supposedly it’s available on iTunes. I don’t do the iTunes thing, so I don’t know if they’re still there.  Go check it out; it’s funny and surprisingly sweet.


 

So, while I was doing all that surfing and book-yoinking yesterday, I was thinking about the definition of New Pulp.  I know I gave a preliminary definition of the genre in the earliest days of this blog.  It’s a story written in the style of and/or using the primary tropes of the pulp novels of the 1920’s through the 1950’s.  But that’s  a pretty loosey goosey definition.  There are lots of things that fall under that umbrella; some of them would obviously be New Pulp, some would not.  I would classify most, if not all comic book style superheroes as New Pulp; Batman and Zorro both were born in the classic pulp tradition.  Indiana Jones is classic New Pulp, both for style and tropes.

But what about something like The Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels?  The primary character is the classic hardboiled detective, a la Raymond Chandler.  Okay, the magic is a major twist on the theme, and, while the earlier books tried to be hardboiled (with varying levels of success), the author Jim Butcher didn’t really maintain the tone in later volumes.  And if Dresden Files IS pulp, what about all the other modern urban fantasy novels that chase (and sometimes catch) a similar tone?  What about movies? Ocean’s Eleven, anyone?  Or TV shows?  Pick the private detective show of your choice.  The entire genre of science fiction, though not born in the era, certainly came into its own during the Pulp era and in the pulp world; heck, SF fans still call that time The Golden Age.  Does all SF — tv, movies, books, the lot — get a pass and are automatically Pulp by default?

My first impression is to say, No, they’re not New Pulp.  But I don’t have a good justification for saying it’s not, other than, “my gut says no.”

So I’m asking for feedback:  give me a better justification than “my gut says no.”  What are the parameters of New Pulp.  Where do we draw the lines?  Tell me in the comments, let’s talk about it.


Okay, enough from me.  I have things to do and people to do them to.  You know the drill, all comments, tweets, shares are more than welcome, they shamelessly begged for.  Next up this week is Fun Friday, and if you have a recommendation, do contact me at ajwriter(at)ajclarkson.net.  You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook, the links are on my AboutAJ page.

And I guess I’ll see you on Friday!

Categories: Comic/Graphic Novels, Pulp, Review, Video | Leave a comment

Let’s Play….

Smile!  It’s Friday!  The weekend is nearly upon us! We’ve had a busy, busy week here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  But I’ll get into that later.  First, on to the Fun part of Fun Friday!  So I was surfing the Interwebz yesterday, and stumbled across this image:

My first reaction was, “What the hell?”  But it looked cool, so I investigated further.  Turns out, this is part of a collection of miniatures for a Warhammer-type game called Secrets of the Third Reich.  Now I’m not into that sort of war gaming, so, aside from the cool miniatures, I was unthrilled.  However!  While researching SotTR, I found something called Weird War II, which is more my style.  Weird War II is a role playing game set, obviously, in World War II.

Now Weird War II is not a game I have personally played, so I can’t say too much about the gameplay or how good the reference materials are  (but it’s totally on my wish list, though!  Here’s a link to the first book).  But here’s what I found.  Weird War is a horror game published by Pinnacle Entertainment in 2001, and consists (so far) of six books:

  • Blood on the Rhine – Core rulebook
  • Afrika Korpse – Sourcebook for Africa and Egypt
  • Dead From Above – Sourcebook for aircraft and several flying monsters
  • Horrors of Weird War Two – Bestiary
  • Land of the Rising Dead – Sourcebook for the Pacific Theatre
  • Hell in the Hedgerows – three adventures
  • Hell Freezes Over – Sourcebook for the Russian Front

Players play through the settings and battles of World War II, only with the added element of the supernatural:  mages, haunted places and vehicles, zombies, ghost, you name it, the Nazis and Allies are dealing with it.  According to what I’ve read, the set up tends to be low-magic/high-cost (which means spells are not hugely powerful, and cost a lot to make them happen, and they’re operating on the idea of The Masquerade (that means that magic and the supernatural are hidden from the general public).  I approve very much.  Low magic means that your magic users can’t overpower game balance.  And I’ve always been a fan of the Masquerade concept.  If the general public knows about magic and the supernatural, then you have to incorporate them, in some capacity, into the culture, and, in my experience, this is tedious to do, and results in a world that is so removed from the original setting context that it’s essentially useless (I know others feel differently, and that’s great; this is a personal opinion).  Besides, having to find ways to do wild stuff and still preserve the Masquerade is a fun challenge to players (and readers).

Weird War is using a D20 system.  Yay!  I was a gamer when HERO and GURPS came out in the late 1980’s.  The idea of a generic RPG system was revolutionary, one that I approved of.  However, I found the point pool system wwaaaaaaaay too complicated.  When I was playing HERO system, the only person in our group who could set up a functioning character without requiring a day or two of hard labor was our GM, who had a master’s degree in mathematics.  So I was pleased when the D20 system came out.  Dice based instead of point-pool based is a good thing; any slob with some dice can jump in with both feet.  No calculus degree needed.

I wandered off to Soapbox World there for a second.  Sorry.  Anyway!  Weird War II is on my list of games that much be checked out.  It looks like pure Dieselpunk fodder to me, and I’m an absolute junkie for anything weird war themed.  Follow the links above, see if it’s up your street.

Onward and upward!  How’s about another game, a video game instead of an RPG.  “Valiant Hearts: The Great War” is a puzzle adventure game released for the X-Box One by Ubisoft just this year.  The game starts out at the beginning of World War I (and it’s chock full of little factoids about the war), and the player alternates, playing one of four characters involved in the conflict.  Game play seems pretty straightforward.  The characters go through the process of being conscripted or volunteering to join their respective armies and going to war (one character is female, and serves as a battlefield nurse).  Along the way, they must solve various puzzles, which vary from things as simple as figuring out how to get the military band to play together, to as complicated as running through no man’s land without getting shot (like playing the old Frogger game, only with explosions added).

Unlike Call of Duty or other war video games, the graphics on these are much less realistic.  Honestly, when I first saw it, it reminded me of the artwork from the Madeline picture books from my childhood. Check it here:

The animation is very nice, the controls are easy (and there’s an unobtrusive tutorial to help you learn button mapping, etc).  Looks good.  The only thing is that it’s not very Pulp or very Dieselpunk.  It’s a pretty straightforward WWI setting, with no particular changes rung on it, other than the children’s picture book graphics.  Still, worth checking out.

Seems we have a game theme going here, so here’s one last tidbit for you in that same theme.  I heard about Fortune and Glory a few months before it got featured on Wil Wheaton’s TableTop web series (you can check out that episode here).  This one makes no pretense:  it is all about the pulpy goodness.  Yay!

Fortune and Glory is a board game for four to six players.  Each player takes on a pulp era persona (mad scientist, British Lord, race car driver, tomb robber, etc).  They are in a race around the map to collect various Indiana Jones style artifacts, all the while collecting a fortune, claiming immortal glory for themselves, and periodically fighting off Evil Nazis (as opposed to what?  Morally-neutral-but- we-mean-well Nazis?  Umm…. Probably don’t want to think about that one too much).  All these give you Hero points; the one who gets their requisite number of Hero points first (the number varies from character to character, and on various random factors in the game) is the winner.

The gameplay is pretty open ended.  You can go any direction you like, which I like, there’s no set pattern.  You can refuse to go after a specific artifact if, for whatever reason, you decide it’s not a good idea.  I like that it’s not simply a matter of picking up the artifact when you arrive in Paris, for example; you have to run a gauntlet, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark, that is determined by card draws and dice rolls.  But what I like best are the artifacts.  Instead of having a set number of items to be collected, the artifacts are determined by special card draws.  There is a card for the actual artifact (gauntlets, chalice, ruby, etc), and then there is a card for a descriptor of the artifact.  You draw two cards, and voila!  You have The Gauntlets of the Pale Moon, with a new backstory.  I like that; it improves replay value in my mind.

If there’s anything that might detract from this game, it’s the lack of backstory and motivation.  I like to know why my characters are doing what they’re doing.  Then again, that’s probably why I ended up a writer instead of a game designer.  That aside, this game is fun.  Check it out!

Okay, I think that’s it for me.  But before I go, remember I said we’d had a busy, busy week, here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, and I said I’d explain later.  Well, here’s why.  My daughter worked a little harder than the rest of us:  she gave me another grandson.  Give welcome to Jesse Denver Lyons III (also called either Little Jess, Jesse3, or Little Squeaker).  He was born in the early hours Thursday morning, and weighed five pounds 7.5 ounces.  He was slightly early, which is why he’s a little underweight.  But he’s a pleasant, quiet baby, and a voracious eater so far.  And he’s beautiful!  Take a look!

Anyways, that’s it.  Don’t forget to share, tweet, comment, email. I’m always looking for new Fun Friday material, so if you know of any, be sure and let me know.  Now, I’m off to go get my fix of Grandbaby Number Three!

Categories: Dieselpunk, Fun Friday, Games, Pulp, Review | Leave a comment

Grimnoir Chronicles: Hard Magic

It’s a gloomy, dreary morning so far here in the Darkest Jungles of Appalachia.  This says to me that it’s a perfect time to gather essential supplies (lemonade, popcorn and a pile of books) and retreat to the safety of my pillow fort.  But what books to read?  Decisions, decisions…..  Today I’m in the mood for something that involves fight scenes and adventure.

Little Voice in my Head:  “Quit blowing smoke, Allene.  You’re ALWAYS in the mood for something that involves fight scenes and adventure.

Okay, it’s a fair cop.   And when it comes to books with lots of fight scenes, shooting, the barest hint of romance, more shooting, supervillains, square-jawed good guys, and even more shooting, nobody does it quite like Larry Correia.  I first encountered Correia’s work with his Monster Hunter International series, which I’m ambivalent about; some of it I really enjoy, some of it doesn’t do anything for me.  But I liked him well enough that, when I heard he was doing a Dieselpunk series, I was quick to pick it up.  The first book is Hard Magic, which is the one I’m focusing on today.  The other two books so far are Spellbound and Warbound.

The Grimnoir series is set in a 1930’s America that is still struggling to find its footing after the Great Depression.  Which sounds pretty much like our America of the 1930’s, except for one significant difference.  In the Grimnoir universe, “magic” began appearing in the population about a hundred years prior.  It only appears in a small fraction of the population and are called “Actives;” they’re what we might call superpowers:  things like teleportation, gravity control, telepathy, etc.  There is no Masquerade; everybody knows about magic, and everybody has their own opinions.  There is a certain amount of X-Men type prejudice, but there is also a market for the Actives:  people with a magical affinity for mechanical or electrical things, for example, are highly sought after for research and development.  Another interesting aspect of the setting is that Correia doesn’t shy away from using real public figures from the day, even imbuing some of them with magic;  Nicola Tesla had a magical affinity for electricity, for example.  General Pershing, FDR, J. Edgar Hoover, and several other people get mentioned, are quoted or actually make appearances in the story.

Our titular hero is Jake Sullivan (“titular” in that this book has  lot of protagonist; it really is an ensemble piece).  Jake is a private eye, a veteran of WWI, an ex con, and has the ability to control gravity.  At the beginning of the story, he has been convinced by J. Edgar Hoover to help the FBI capture magical criminals; the deal was, they get him out of prison early (where he had been sent for murder), he becomes their magical enforcer for a certain number of cases.  Only this time, they’re going after somebody special:  Jake’s old girlfriend and fellow gravity manipulator Delilah, who apparently has been on a bit of a murder spree.  So anyway, the FBI and Jake go in, they attempt to apprehend her and her gang, and it all goes tits up pretty quickly.

In the course of the botched arrest and the aftermath thereof, Jake discovers that Delilah and her “gang” aren’t really bad guys. They’re part of a secret group calling themselves Grimnoir. The government has been lying to them, and a secret war has sprung up between the Grimnoir and the Japanese, who have a secret enclave of Actives and have designs on the West.  Jake finds himself hooking up with the Grimnoir, and from there we find a lot of action, a lot of adventure, and at least one very cool firefight on the back of a zeppelin in the midst of a storm, pitting our heroes against a bunch of teleporting Active ninjas.

Yeah, that’s what I thought, too!  I’ve SOOO simplified the plot. There are a dozen more viewpoint characters, a long lost brother, a very cool Okie girl named Faye, secret weapons hidden around the world, pirates, you name it.

I liked this book.  It was fun stuff.  In the Monster Hunters stories, Correia has a tendency to obsess a little too much about the firepower (which makes sense; he used to own a gun store before he started writing); this time he didn’t.  The characters all worked for me, which is something I have to praise Correia for. Considering his background and the style of his work, I really wasn’t expecting him to write women as well as he does. Is that sexist of me? If so, apologies. But Faye, the main female viewpoint character, was surprisingly well written; she skates right up to the edge of being Mary Sue, but Correia navigates that boundary well, keeping her just on the safe side.

I was less enamored of the second book, Spellbound. But then again, anything that smacks of either McCarthyism or The Manchurian Candidate are personal bugaboos of mine; I find them frustrating beyond belief.  So my opinion on Book Two should be taken with a large grain of salt.  The third book, Warbound, I’ve not read yet. But there is a free, online short story in the Grimnoir Universe, Called Detroit Christmas.  It’s set between Books Two and Three and is a teaser for Book Three.  You can find it here.

In short, if you enjoy Dieselpunk and superheroes by any other name, you wouldn’t go wrong by checking out Larry Correia’s Grimnoir series.

And that’s about it for me this morning.  Next up:  Fun Friday, and have I got some cool stuff to show you!  In the meantime, don’t forget to share, comment, tweet, email.  And don’t forget to share your Fun Friday stuff so I can post it!

Categories: books, Dieselpunk, Review | Leave a comment

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