Review of J. Scott Coatsworth’s Tales from Tharassas [By J. Comer]

This chapbook is three short stories by Coatsworth, whose SF and fantasy draw heavily on the soft SF of the 1970s and 1980s. Coatsworth is a personal friend and this reviewer read two of the stories in various versions before publication.

Tharassas, the Earthlike planet of these stories and the new novel The Dragon Eater, was settled two lifetimes before the first story, “The Fallen Angel”. It is home to a white racial colony who by this point have nonwhite people among them thanks to the “angels”, the slower-than-light star travelers who find mates and families on this planet (and others). The colony lives off a crop of “hencha”,  a plant with intelligence of its own.  Narratives of winter storms remind the reader of life in Arizona and California, where Coatsworth lives now. The nonwhite “differs” leave the racist community and found a new society in the wilderness, the “ce’faine”.  (Notably, Coatsworth pays careful attention to language in this book, though there isn’t a fully developed conlang here. The names with apostrophes recall Anne McCaffrey’s Pern).

The second story, “The Last Run”, brings another “angel”, Sera, to Tharassa, on the last starship that Earth will ever send. Sera’s wife dies en route and the starship crashes, leaving her to deal with a  colony’s virulent racism and her newfound attraction for local gal Jas’Aya, who harvests hencha amidst the failing technology of the colony world, and can communicate with the alien plants. The bond between the farmgirl, the stranger, and the plants resolves the story.

The last tale is one which Coatsworth has edited several times in different versions.  In the current iteration, “The Emp Test”, a young ‘Steader’ is injured and convalesces in the hands of an enemy tribesman, who is sworn to silence. The imagery of grasslands and mountains again recalls the American Southwest, Coatsworth’s home, and this setting seems very real. The ubiquitous hencha figures in this story as well, as does the psychic ‘emp’, a creature which creates a mindlink.  This story is more a romance than the other two are.

Tales from Tharassas is a light introduction to Coatsworth’s fiction and will appeal to fans of McCaffrey, Lois McMaster Bujold and James Cambias.  Coatsworth’s attention to real science and his commitment to causes of equality and justice are evident here as throughout his work.  Recommended.

Review of High Noon on Proxima B, ed. David Boop

Review by J. Comer

In 1872, author Ned Buntline teamed up with William “Buffalo Bill” Cody to produce The Scouts of the Prairie, a stage show based on Buntline’s novels.  Cody wove Buntline’s fiction and his own life into the myth of the cowboy.  Although the “wild west” of the Buffalo Bill shows was never real, the cowboy image has become central to American culture, and Science Fiction has reflected this with the emergence of the Space Western. Themes of settlers taming a wilderness abound in Heinlein; Andre Norton’s Beast Master had a Native American hero, as did the 1980s cartoon BraveStarr. And Firefly redefined a Space Western for the 21st century.

In High Noon on Proxima B, editor David Boop first gives us an introduction on hard SF, research, and knowledge.

The authors & stories include:

Milton Davis, author of the RPG Ki-Khanga, pens “Justice and Prosperity,” a tale of murder and revenge; the degree to which the robot avenger is a commentary on slavery, a la “Fondly Farenheit,” isn’t clear. 

Next comes “Five Mules For Madame Calypso,” in which a brothel is targeted by a trickster…who becomes the tricked. 

“Past Sins,” by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore, is a tale of military deserters on a frontier planet.

And in “The Last Round,” by Susan R. Matthews, a Western duel happens on a monocrop-economy world.

The anthology’s title tale refers to a real place: Proxima Centauri’s planet[1], on which “High Noon” is a place, not a time; cyborgs and smart guns coexist with shantytowns and reptilian horses.

Peter Wacks’s “Black Box” is a somewhat confusing story set on a blasted world.

Brenda Cooper, the coauthor of Building Harlequin’s Moon and “Ice and Mirrors” with Larry Niven, contributes “The Planet and the Pig,” which sees a family team of poachers land on an off-limits world…with dark secrets, including that of how it’s cared for.

Ken Scholes’s “Harley Takes a Wife,” by the author of the Psalms of Isaak series, is a funny homage to the John Wayne classics.

“Warlock Rules” by Hank Schwaeble takes the Western gunslinger duel motif to extremes, as gunslingers duel aliens.

Finally, Walter Jon Williams, author of Aristoi and Metropolitan, adds the provocatively titled “West World.” This story has a Western movie being made in space a la The Technicolor Time Machine.  Williams’s eye for detail makes this one of the best stories.

The collection as a whole, like the West itself, is uneven. This West, like the Wild West of film and TV, is a fictional place, and that enables authors, steered by the editor’s love of hard SF, to trek different trails as they go. The Wacks and Ward/Dilmore stories took the theme more literally, while the Scholes and Williams stories were more entertaining.

All in all, this reviewer enjoyed the book; the variety of work here will appeal to hard-SF and space-opera types as well.  Again, the book is uneven, and some of the stories feel as though they don’t really all belong in the same antho; others pretty clearly weren’t written for this book, but that’s not a serious problem.  Recommended.


Space Gals and Furry Pals: A review of Library of the Sapphire Wind by Jane Lindskold

Our reviews section spilled over and we didn’t have enough space to review all of the books Baen sent us in the magazine, so we’re running a couple of them here! Be sure to pick up the Fall Issue out now in Softcover, Hardcover, and eBook! The issue currently out has J. Comer’s review of Pournelle’s Janissaries series.

     The late Ursula K. Le Guin authored A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness and more than sixty other books. While her SF and fantasy are her legacy, Le Guin also penned her share of nonfiction. In her essay “The Space Crone,”[1] she imagines an older woman (rather than the usual men and boys) as the ideal ambassador to other worlds, as she would know more of human existence. “Into the space ship, Granny,” she urged.

     Jane Lindskold took apart the ‘crazy cat lady’ stereotype in the Man-Kzin tale, “Two Kinds of Teeth,” and she takes Le Guin’s idea and flies with it in Library Of The Sapphire Wind. Three old ladies attending a book club find themselves drawn by magic into a world peopled by anthropomorphic animal-folk (“furries”) and sent on a quest for the eponymous library aboard a flying ship. This author is fond of animal characters, as evidenced by her Firekeeper Saga and its wolves, but her furries are remarkably tasteful. At the library, the old ladies and their furry pals explore the ruined setting, battle the local monsters, and begin to find both wisdom and atonement for the misdeeds of their parents. The humans must be concealed. At a desert necropolis, the story unfolds further. We learn of a missing child, and a long-broken artifact, and a deal. The adventuring party returns to the Library, fights a huge battle, and… The story ends. Huh?

     The story has some issues.  The dramatic tension of teleporting the three heroes into a world without prescription medication, special diets, or therapy is resolved too quickly.  Humans can breathe the air, eat the food, even smoke the ‘weeds’ of an alien planet? Really?  The old-lady heroes are promising but not well developed as characters. And the ending of the novel (which is part of the “Over Where” series) is much too abrupt. This book might appeal to readers of second-world fantasy with furries taking the place of elves and gnomes. I can imagine reading it to kids at bedtime or in classroom storytime, but it needs a stronger ending (perhaps the next book will address this).

     A Facebook meme that has been current across the last five years pays homage to the space crone. It goes, “I’d read the hell out of a series of [books about] a chosen eighty-five-year-old woman who goes on epic journeys throughout a dangerous and magical land, armed only with a cane and her stab-tastic knitting needles, accompanied by her six cats and a skittish-yet-devoted orderly who makes sure she takes her pills on time.”  When I opened Sapphire Wind, I was expecting this, more or less. If I didn’t get it, well, I still like Lindskold’s writing, furries and all. Hoping for more adventures in the “Over Where” from Lindskolsd.    

[1] In Dancing At The Edge Of The World (Grove Press, 1989)

Review: Ghosts on the Block Never Sleep, by Tia Ja’nae

It is very hard to put into words what a ride this book is. Wow. Adventure, crime, political thriller, to horror. Ghosts on the Block is the story of a young woman who has been working for a car parts fence who’s getting in over his head. One more job keeps turning into “Just One More JobTM” with the stakes escalating for the heroine along with the dangers and the challenges as her skills draws the attention of a corrupt city alderman who has her fingers in the pies all over Chicago.

The writing is tight and witty, keeping things moving at a break-neck pace but never sacrificing the character development. I’m always a little iffy on present-tense writing, but here it works. The action and the heists themselves were so much fun, I could’ve read a book of them three times longer and I don’t know that it would’ve worn out its welcome.

So that corrupt city alderman? Man… Frank Booth’s got nothing on Monica. Hoowee, that lady’s EVIL! I honestly cannot think of any villain in fiction that I would rather not be within 50 miles of. I really don’t want to spoil the last turns that this novel takes, but like I said: it goes from Adventure Crime Thriller to Political Thriller to Horror.

For various reason, this book is out of print and no longer available on Amazon despite having come out at just the end of last year. It is worth it to do whatever you can to track down a copy and read this. You will not regret it [unless you’re squeamish; this gets pretty ExtremeTM towards the end.]

Five Stars and probably one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Disclaimer: We have an offer out on an unrelated piece of short fiction by Tia Ja’nae.

Review: Arminius, Bane of Eagles by Adrian Cole

Bane of Eagles is an alternate history novelization of the life of Arminius, the Germanic tribal leader who rose through the Roman ranks, betrayed Rome, and massacred three legions in the Teutoburg forest.

There are some light touches of fantastical elements, and there are of course colorful embellishments, both romantic and savage, in the telling of the story. The major “alternate” in this alternate history is that a vast conspiracy with which the druids are involved were responsible for assassinating Claudius as a youth; Germanicus is not poisoned and ends up becoming Tiberius’ successor—he is determined to avenge the losses from Augustus’ day and hound Arminius to the ends of the earth in a book that’s part sword & sandal adventure and part political thriller.

This is a bloody and brutal read, not for the faint of heart—while written largely from the pagan Germanics’ perspective, there are not “good guys,” though there are plenty of bad guys. In many ways, Arminius is a monster, though he’s a human and almost sympathetic monster. Rome itself is shown no better, in some cases worse. I’m sure that both Roman trad bros and Germanic trad bros would find stuff to be mad about, but with no dog in the Pagan vs. Pagan fight, I’m content to be entertained and watch them duke it out, cut each other’s heads off and sacrifice each other to their heathen gods.

It’s an incredibly exciting and fast paced telling with a lot to love, especially if you’re a history buff. It’s obvious that Cole has put a tremendous amount of research into this book. Worth checking out if you’re a fan of historical fiction, alternate history, and sword & sorcery.

Arminius: Bane of Eagles is out now from DMR Books.

Five Stars easy.

Disclaimer: Dave Ritzlin sent us an ARC for review and Adrian Cole is a regular contributor to Cirsova Magazine. His latest New Dream Lords story will be appearing in 2023.

Review: Rags and Muffin by D.G.D. Davidson

While I’m not especially overdue on book reviews [except for a couple I’ve been sent that I just don’t know that I’ll ever get to; sorry], I think that I’ve managed to get to a spot where I can knock three out at once this week, starting with Rags and Muffin.

I picked this up last winter around the same time as They’ll Get You and read it right afterwards, but I’m just now getting a chance to sit down and write about it. This one was a bit of a surprise, I’ll admit. All I knew going in was crime-fighting catgirl with an Asian dragon dog. I didn’t know what to expect, really. Certainly not an incredibly rich fantasy setting heavily inspired by Indian mythology.

I used to be something of a Hindu Mythology wonk in my younger years, so this was a pleasant surprise. Davidson incorporates the cultural textures without overly romanticizing them, showing both the beautiful aspects which Lord Curzon fell in love with as well as the ugly and downright evil.

Rags & Muffin takes place in a fantastical pseudo-India that’s under the control of a steampunk/magitek pseudo Romano-British empire. Humans live and work alongside furry cat-people; while they are able to interbreed, the resulting hybrids invariably die before adulthood but are revered as living gods because of the psychic experience they’re able to grant worshippers. Same psychic experience can also be harvested from a gland at the base of the brain, so they can fetch good money on the black market.

The main character is one such hybrid who has devoted her life to save her fellow hybrids from being trafficked. There’s a lot of waif-fu, though the prana-based martial arts is able to somewhat justify how Rags and her friends, the Ragtag Army, are able to hold their own against powerful crime lords and human traffickers.

There’s a lot of excellent worldbuilding in Rags & Muffin, but as a book, it’s a little all over the place in setting things up. A number of seemingly unrelated events, as well as side excursions of the main characters, tie in to the world and add a backdrop to the story but go nowhere on their own in this volume. While this volume’s main story is a simple and straightforward rescue mission that, against all odds and many complications, the main characters manage to pull off, so much of this book is devoted to setting up the puzzles and mystery boxes that I find myself feeling that I can’t judge it until I’ve read the [as yet unpublished] sequels to see if any of these threads will pay off.

If the subsequent volumes are able to stick the landing and answer the questions that this first book poses about the characters, the world they live in, and the nature of their city and the strange hybrid goddess girls, then this will be an excellent first entry. If we don’t get a sequel, or the sequels don’t provide satisfactory answers on the questions about the characters, who and what they are and what choices they’ll ultimately make, then Rags & Muffin will have been a pretty fun and entertaining, though a little long and in some spots meandering, ride that could’ve stood to have been tightened up a bit.

On its own strengths and weaknesses, it’s a solid three stars. If a sequel is able to make good on the bits that it’s laying into place, it would be bumped up to a 5.

New Review of The Paths of Cormanor!

There’s a new review of The Paths of Cormanor up at Upstream Reviews!

To paraphrase the song, this book is “for kids from one to ninety-two.” Anyone can read and enjoy this novel, but those who love Norse myths and Germanic fairy tales will find it especially engaging. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien will also love this story for delving into “that great northern spirit” which inspired the professor so much.

It’s a well-written, well-conceived fantasy written in a modern day that too often waters down myths and fairy tales to make them “relatable” for the audience. If that isn’t reason enough to buy it, read it, and keep it safely on one’s shelf, then the world truly has gone mad.

Check out the whole review here!

The Paths of Cormanor by Jim Breyfogle is out now on Amazon and other sites.

Jim Breyfogle’s newest Mongoose and Meerkat story, The Wreck of the Cassada, is out wednesday in the Winter issue of Cirsova Magazine!

Pointman Comics Review

Okay, so, quick review of Pointman Comics. I wish I hadn’t been sleeping on these for so long, because I’ve been mutuals with Kassidy for a couple of years now.

Right now, Gorilla Galaxy is in the spotlight, because the new issue is a full length Gorilla Galaxy story.

Really, though, I’d like to mention the horror stories of the first and second issues. These are both really solid, and the one in the second issue is VERY much in the tradition of the classic horror books.

Leatherfist in issue 2, I wasn’t as hot on, but if Kassidy were to spin off a weird horror short series in vein of a Grimm’s Ghost Stories, that would be fantastic.

Gorilla Galaxy has a lot of potential as an IP, and I loved the one-off short in the first issue. Kinda reminded me of the classic Aniverse raygun romance stuff. After reading it, I was looking forward to a full-length adventure.

Honestly, though, I don’t care for the new art as much in issue 3. One selling point of GG, naturally, is cute girls. But the new art doesn’t really show them being cute. It’s a matter of taste, obviously, and while the new art is VERY expressive, it borders on grotesque–it would be nice to be able to let the characters have a few panels where they aren’t mugging and making twisted, contorted faces.

Redd in Issue #1
Redd in Issue #3

That said, I still plan on supporting Pointman Comics and will stick with Gorilla Galaxy for another issue [though I really liked the first artist better].

Anyway, you can pick up all 3 issues of Pointman Comics here at IndyPlanet.

Cirsova Spring Issue Review

Dave Higgins recently posted a review of our spring issue. It’s been awhile since we got a really in-depth review of an issue, so I thought I’d post the whole thing. Since it’s a Goodreads review, and not a blog post, I’m not concerned with poaching traffic, but the original post can be found here.

The Spring issue is available on Amazon, and the Summer issue with the second part of The Artomique Paradigm and Badaxe will be out in two weeks.

Anton Oxenuk Cover

Alexander draws together several modern works of science-fiction and fantasy that are likely to appeal to fans of action over contemplation.

This magazine contains three complete stories, the opening parts of two ongoing works, and a section of epic poetry, each evoking the feel of classic pulp fiction.

The Artomique Paradigm (Part 1 of 3) by Michael Tierney: In a universe where Earth is one planet in a system-spanning human civilisation, the Artomique faction have achieved dominance through technology stolen from a human civilisation that disappeared in the mists of time but is now returning. Filled with warring dynastic corporations, generation-spanning schemes, alternate realities, and multiple names for the same character, the first part of Tierney’s novel reads like Dune with the introspection on tyranny and freedom replaced with punchy comic book action. As the first of three parts, the story does not resolve itself; however, it does reach a significant minor shift in the starting situation so is unlikely to leave readers who were enjoying it in utter agony until they can read the next part. This story is set in Tierney’s Wild Stars universe and contains frequent exposition on events from this wider arc; depending on individual preference, these character narrations will either draw the reader deeper into the world or distance them.

‘The Grain Merchant of Alomar’ by Jim Breyfogle: Mongoose and Meerkat, two career adventurers, are hired to deal with a threat to a wealthy merchant; ironically, the same wealthy merchant in a closed-off area of whose house they are currently squatting. Breyfogle crafts a fantasy city, two engaging characters, and a host of supporting characters that sit firmly in the centre of classic swords-and-sorcery without seeming derivative or simplistic.

‘Devil’s Deal’ by Michael Wiesenberg: A gambling addict makes a deal with the devil to see the outcome of events before they happen. There are only two stories about deals with the Devil and readers likely to predict from the start which this is. However, Wiesenberg builds his story from details rather than the overarching progression; thus, the protagonist’s reasons for making the deal and struggle to outwit the Devil are likely to still feel interesting.

The Book of Dark Sighs by Robert Zoltan: When Blue’s lover is kidnapped by a sorcerer, he and his adventuring companion Dareon reluctantly agree to recover a powerful book from a hellish realm in exchange for her life. This novelette is firmly in the weirder reaches of swords-and-sorcery: imprisonment in giant hourglasss, floating vampiric spheres, people with body parts rearranged by an evil sorcerer, sentient lava. However, Zoltan underpins this with a solid plot arc and consistent characterisation, making this definitely a fantasy adventure rather than an unmoored exercise in strangeness. While this story is part of Zoltan’s Rogues of Merth series, the small amount of knowledge of prior events that are needed are seamlessly integrated into dialogue, allowing it to stand alone.

‘My Name is John Carter (Part 9)’ by James Hutchings: In this section of Hutchings’ retelling of the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Boroughs as an epic poem, John Carter’s prisoner relates the history of the warmongering of Zodanga. This forms a story within a story that does not require having read the previous parts; however, without the emotional resonance knowing the current situation provides, it might feel more like a history lesson than a tale of dire threats. While the metre and use of language are skilled, this sense of academia rather than action is likely to be amplified by the form in readers who do not love long verse.

‘Badaxe (1 of 3): The Call’ by Paul O’Connor et al.: The legions of the God Badaxe expand across Pangaea, both expanding his dominions and slaughtering young boys for fear they might be the one prophecied to defeat the god. Meanwhile, Tanrea, a girl raised by wolves, realises her human side; only to be captured by a sorcerer who has lost his. This comic blends a classic tale of perverted villains, violent heroes, and immense magics with stylish black-and-white art, each enhancing the other. Matching the usual comic approach, this edition ends on a significant cliff-hanger.

While each of these works has a distinct voice and plot, they are united by a philosophical embrace of classic pulp. As such, they are driven by action, risk, and heroism rather than moral introspection or the overcoming of personal imperfections. This makes them fast-paced and thrilling but also means readers who see classic fantasy as marred by sexist and racist stereotypes might see the same issues with some of these tales.

The edition slants heavily toward swords-and-sorcery but is not exclusively so. Although this might make it of less interest to those readers who prefer to remain within the fantasy genre, many readers are likely to find the variation a palate cleanser that further avoids the sense of sameness that collections sharing a closer theme can suffer from.

Overall, I enjoyed this magazine. I recommend it to readers seeking classic pulp action featuring heroic protagonists, villainous opponents, and dramatic situations.

I received a free copy from the publisher with a request for a fair review.