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.

Comic Review: Otis Stein

Recently, I was sent a review copy of Matthew “Skinny” Vealey’s indie horror comic, Otis Stein.

Otis, a strapping young redneck, is the husband of Mary, a reformed cultist. Their daughter tragically died of cancer, and her medical expenses have left them ruined.

They’re about to be foreclosed on, Otis blows himself up in a moonshining accident, and Mary’s old “associates” come looking for her!

Mary’s attempt to use her occult arts to resurrect her husband is interrupted as the cultists close in. The cultists have their own designs on Otis to use him as a host for dark supernatural powers! Will the evil forces hold sway or will love triumph?

Otis Stein is a book that I appreciated more on subsequent reads. At first, it seems rather rough and simple, but there’s actually some nice depth and nuance that you’ll catch reading it more than once. The art is ugly, but in a way that is suited for the genre and story; “grotesque” may be a more accurate term. It gives the book a throwback vibe to some of the more obscure black & white indies of the 80s. The art does what it needs to for the story, and it does it well enough.

The pacing of the book is a steady launch ramp, starting with a slow burn setup, but never really wasting time getting where it’s going. The turns from mundane to macabre to monstrous in the three acts of the book are nicely done and reminiscent of Swamp Thing’s origin in House of Secrets [though much more grisly]. Much of the last section of the book is pure grisly action-horror, where the art style really has a chance to shine.

To be honest, at first I wasn’t impressed by Otis Stein, but I think I just didn’t know what to expect and failed to appreciate it on its own terms. I think it’s easy to read a single issue comic and not really appreciate it on the first read and then toss it aside and forget about it. But with Otis Stein, the more I come back to it, the more I find that I really do like it and the more it grows in my esteem.

If you enjoy horror comics or gore comics or even romance comics, you might consider picking this one up.

https://www.etsy.com/shop/SkinnysComics

Also, if you haven’t already, there’s still time to back The Cosmic Courtship on Kickstarter!

Quick Review of Soulfinder: Black Tide

Soulfinder: Black Tide (Book 2) - Hardcover

Recently got in my copy of Doug Ernst’s newest installment of his Soulfinder series, Black Tide.

With everything Tim Lim has going on, Doug had to switch artists, but with Matt Weldon taking over pencil duties, it still has excellent artwork.

The core of Black Tide is a nautical horror/monster story; a cultist in the navy absconded with a nuclear sub and its crew and is looking for an incorruptible who sank to the bottom of the ocean. Without offering up too many spoilers, they go out to sea, encounter the cultist, fight the monster.

The most impressive part of Black Tide may be its gorgeous packaging; I don’t think I’ve EVER seen a comic presented as nicely as this–multi-textured casewrap hardcover, heavy-stock pages, gold-foil leaf, sewn in ribbon. It’s REALLY nice.

The comic itself was good, but I don’t think it was quite as good as Demon’s Match. This might just be a matter of taste, but the first Soulfinder delved a bit deeper into the characters, and I think that’s where Ernst’s work really shines. In Black Tide, the characters are there but the circumstance of their mission has to carry the book, because there’s not much new that we see in regards to their backgrounds.

If I had any real complaint about Black Tide, it’s that the story didn’t have enough space to properly breathe and unfold. The setup is one which should allow for a greater buildup of menace and suspense. But I also understand that there’s always the fear with the graphic medium that decompression not only leads to pacing issues, it inflates costs. That said, I think that Black Tide needed more pages and more time to let the tension between the Soulfinders and the crusty old sea captain simmer. I also think that a longer story would have better suited the ultra-deluxe presentation of this volume. Strangely, while both Demon’s Match and Black Tide are 56 pages (I actually had to check), Black Tide felt substantially shorter.

Fans of the first Soulfinder will enjoy this–I did–but I don’t know that Black Tide is a good jumping on point for new readers, particularly at its price. The production values certainly justify the price point, but some readers may want more story for their money.

You can get Soulfinder: Black Tide direct from Iconic Comics.

Guest Post: God’s Teeth! A Review of David Quammen’s Monster of God, by J. Comer

Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the  Mind: Quammen, David: 9780393326093: Amazon.com: Books

Larry Niven’s masterpiece Ringworld includes a conversation which alludes to SF world-making in a mildly funny way. Louis Wu’s shipmate Teela Brown objects to the idea that the makers of the Ringworld would bring only “safe” animals to their artificial world; she asks “What if the Ringworld Engineers [who built the huge Ring] liked tigers?”

In Monster of God, the science writer David Quammen, author of Song of the Dodo, travels through five landscapes seeking the last large predators and comes to what he calls a “science fiction ending”. 

Most readers of Cirsova don’t come here for the science, and some will question the review of a zoology book on this site.  Nevertheless, worldbuilding for fantasy, gaming, and SF authors usually includes descriptions of animal life, as well as the role played by predators in myth, art, and the story itself. 

Good world-makers, such as Hal Clement, craft all from top to bottom; some more careless authors simply throw a slew of carnivorous beasts at their heroes without wondering who eats whom. On Earth, the top predators which have survived the end of the Ice Age are central both to ecology (as keystone species) and to myth (as gods, as beings created by God, or as the enemies of gods or heroes).

The four ‘monsters’ of the title are lions in India, crocodiles in Australia, bears in Romania, and Siberian tigers. In each case we look both at the beasts and at the humans who have to deal with them: avoiding them, fighting them, hunting them, worshipping them.

The book reflects on the past as well as the future: like the makers of the Ringworld, we are building a habitat which is more and more artificial.  In our future, will we like tigers? Will we like them enough to give them enough space to live freely in the wild? And will we like them enough to tolerate them occasionally killing us?             

What can we make of this sojourn through lions, and tigers, and bears (and crocodiles!)?  On one level, the travel story is light reading, like a Bill Bryson story with more science asides.  The careful reader will note that the science is a very readable introduction to topics like trophic collapses and keystone predators (this section could make a whole fantasy campaign in a setting such as Nicholas Eames’ or Lois McMaster Bujold’s worlds, where losing one species, even a mightily nasty one, causes all heck to break loose).  On another, the SF writer could see here a reply to Niven’s question.  Well, what if they liked grizzly bears? Heinlein’s dragon-infested forest in Glory Road is an example of a good use of these concepts; there are many others. 

The book is a lesson, an enjoyable one, in how to use animals such as Burroughs’ banths or the “grezzen” in Buettner’s novels.  The thoughtful author or GM will profit from reading it.  Recommended.

Short Reviews – The Golden Fleece: A Romance, by Julian Hawthorne

The Golden Fleece: A Romance, by Julian Hawthorne, was originally published in the May 1892 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine. It can be read here.

When you go into a book with a title like “The Golden Fleece,” you don’t expect a modern adventure in the American Southwest [California, particularly], but here we are!

The titular Golden Fleece, in this case, is a mysterious wool garment with strange symbols woven into it. Is it under an enchantment? Is it a map to lost Mesoamerica treasure? Who knows! It has been passed down matrilineally and ended up in the hands of the mixed-race daughter of a general who fought in the Mexican American war.

The setting and much of the background are revealed through an airy and whimsical dialog between an old professor and his friend, an old general who fought in the war with Mexico. After the war, the general settled down with a beautiful Mesoamerind woman and now has an alluring daughter who is her spitting image. The daughter has an old Indian servant who had been something of a oathman to her mother, but more on that in a minute… The general and the professor discuss the possibility of treasure in the California desert–the greatest treasure would be fresh water that would make the land arable and instantly much much more valuable to investors who had purchased it cheaply. On his way to possibly assist in the endeavor is a young civil engineer who was once a student of the professor.

The old Indian manservant is actually a witch priest in service to the last princess of an Aztec city; he’s been kept immortal by the gods so the treasures of the city could be restored to the rightful owner. He’s able to bring the spirit of the dead princess into the host body of the general’s daughter. Both the princess and the girl she’s possessing fall in love with the young civil engineer, creating an awkward love triangle. The princess is determined to get the treasure back so she can shower the young man with wealth. The old Indian becomes reluctant to assist because he feels bad for the girl and it would be a disaster if the spirit of the princess killed her.

The Golden Fleece turns out to be some sort of protective garb [whether magical or mechanical is never explicitly stated] that allows the wearer to enter the lost pyramid [revealed by seismic activity] and retrieve the chest with the hidden treasure without being harmed by the poison gasses in the treasure room. Removal of the treasure chest also unstops the spring which will flood the valley with fresh water.

There’s a hackneyed sub-plot where the engineer initially meets and falls for a shop-girl who’s coming out west from New York. The engineer instantly falls for the beautiful Mestiza girl, and cultivates a rivalry with a local Mexican aristocrat in an attempt to distract the shop-girl and fix their attentions on one another. The protagonist is kind of a dick, and you feel for the poor Mexican sod who he corners into potentially dueling to the death [as the professor says, it would have been an execution had he gone through with it], but the Mexican guy does end up with the shop-girl and they live happily ever after–even after he finds out she was a lowly shop-girl, his fascination with modern American capitalism leads him to placing her in even higher esteem when he finds out.

Now, I say that it’s hackneyed, and it kind of is, but Hawthorne’s breezy writing style brings enough wit and humor to it that it’s still enjoyable. In fact, that can be said for the whole book in some regards. While it’s not particularly innovative [it’s a very typical lost city/lost treasure story] and the characters are VERY flat, there’s something about the flow of Hawthorne’s prose that still makes it a delight to read. There’s a bit of musicality to it, and some clever humor, though, unlike many authors who write clever, he never seems too enamored with his own cleverness. There is also a stab at making a statement on mixing of ethnicities, royal and common blood, and how America has made such a thing uniquely possible, with the unions of the A & B couples of the story symbolizing the triumph of the time and ideas, but it doesn’t really beat you in the face with it and may be easily overlooked.

It’s worth checking out, to say the least. I managed to read the whole thing in one sitting Saturday night.

Will definitely be looking at more of Julian Hawthorne’s writing in the near future. The man was apparently incredibly prolific, and he even wrote some early science fiction, though virtually none of it is presently available.

Short Reviews – Temple Trouble, by H. Beam Piper (Guest Post – John Gradoville)

Today, we have a guest review from Cirsova Contributor John Gradoville–be sure to check out his fantastic raygun romance Ascension Star in the Summer issue of Cirsova, out now! Temple Trouble, by H. Beam Piper, can be found here on Archive.org.

H. Beam Piper’s SF is some of the finest ever written.  He is celebrated for his “Terro-Future History” stories and the “Paratime” parallel worlds stories.  He hit his peak in the 1950s and was one of John W. Campbell’s greatest successes.  As the editor of Astounding Magazine Campbell nurtured writers like Piper who could combine the colourful descriptions and robust action of the pulps with more technologically literate stories.  Piper was one of the pioneers of Alternative History SF.   

Published in 1951, Temple Trouble is a novella set in Piper’s Paratime Universe.  Piper’s Paratime postulates that multiple universes exist alongside each other, like lanes on a highway.  One scientifically advanced Earth has found a way to travel across those universes.  This is the Paratime Secret that has to be protected from all other Earths at all costs.  The Paratime Police are charged with doing this.

In Temple Trouble, the Paratimers have setup a uranium mining operation on an Earth which is in an early medieval stage of development.  The country with the uranium is a near-eastern monarchy, bow and arrow soldiers, wooden carts hauled by mules, ferocious and jealous gods.  To cover their operation the Paratimers have setup their own god and religion.  Their temples are covers for the Paratime “conveyors” gateway machines which ferry people and materials to and from the homeworld, using Paratime radiation.

Our story opens in the temple of the Paratime God, Yat-Zar.  Once all-powerful, Yat-Zar’s worshippers have been humbled by the followers of a vengeful and sadistic crocodile god, putting the uranium mining operation at risk.  Verkan Vall, Paratime Police troubleshooter, arrives, travelling across timelines from Homeworld. 

Vall is one of Piper’s favourite characters and appears in many of the Paratime stories.  He is hereditary nobility, deputy head of Paratime Police, a crack shot.  His weakness is that he cannot keep away from field operations, has a thirst for action.   I always like it when Vall appears in a story because he never met a technologically advanced weapon he didn’t like, or like using.

Temple Trouble then segues into a three-handed dialogue between the Homeworld uranium mining executive, Verkan Vall and the “High Priest” of Yat-Zar, who is of course a Paratime operative.   This conversation does two things.  We learn how this culture is organised and how Paratime operate.  There is a lot the reader needs to know and the dialogue is a painless way to impart the information.  Secondly it serves as the engine of the story.  As each member of the trio reveal more of what they know, the scale of the problem becomes worse and worse.  By the time the conversation is finished, we realise that something more than inter-priesthood rivalry is afoot.   That the entire operation is deep in the manure and that the lives of many of the Paratimers are at risk.

Knowing this, we are tipped into the second act of the story, how the hell can this mess be resolved.  It’s the tone that makes this story so good to read. It’s obvious from the start the Paratimers are itching to go in guns blazing.  Piper makes very imaginative use of the advanced technologies he has given his characters, especially the cross-time gateways.  Not to mention blasters of all kinds.  The Paratimers, morally confident, courageous and competent in the use of super-science, take on a deadly challenge.  Temple Trouble is pure classic pulp.  Its characters have a moral certainty and a predatory attitude towards their enemies that are no longer in vogue.  But those attributes makes for a fast-moving pulp SF adventure.  Old-school and a great read.

Review: The Long Moonlight, by RazorFist [spoiler-free]

I recently had the privilege of receiving an arc copy of RazorFist’s new story, The Long Moonlight from Castalia House.

It was a fantastic read, and the whole time, it had me thinking, if they ever try to resurrect Thief IP again for a 3rd time, Razor would be a great choice to head the story direction.

The story follows the rising and falling fortunes of Xerdes, a thief who finds himself in the employ of one of the city’s top crime lords. There are plenty of swashbuckling fights, daring capers, and deadly betrayals along the way, for a pretty edge-of-your seat read.

Razor is prone to get a bit florid and certainly has some room to grow, but The Long Moonlight is an incredibly promising first outing that bursts at the seams with his love for sword and sorcery and, yes, noir.

The story bills itself as a pulp noir crime thriller set in a low fantasy setting. There’s definitely more noir, I think, than pulp, and the pulp is more 60s and 70s pulp revival than classic pulp, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a dark and vicious tale, bloody and unpredictable to the very end.

I would absolutely recommend that anyone who is a fan of Fritz Leiber, Thief: The Dark Project, or of our own magazine check out Razor’s new story. I, for one, can hardly wait to read his next one.

Review – Matt Spencer’s The Trail of the Beast

A while back, Matt Spencer sent me a copy of the second edition of his contemporary quasi-urban fantasy novel, The Night and the Land. A review for it can be found here.

Earlier this year, he sent us the next book in the sequence, The Trail of the Beast.

Let me tell you: it’s fantastic.

I think that the best thing Spencer does in his writing is create a mystery story, where the world and its history are the mystery to be solved. The characters we follow all have small pieces of the puzzle [though some are larger than others]: what is the Old World? What is Deschemb? Who, or what, are the Spirelights, Schomites, and Crimbone really?

There is a hidden secondary world, which some characters are in on from the beginning to some degree, while other characters come to learn more about it, themselves, and their relationship to it as the story unfolds. Individuals who only have a small inkling of the true nature of the world and the conflict they are a part of are trying to come to terms with a possible mass-cosmological shift while still discovering the nature of the old cosmology that had been kept hidden.

Okay, it maybe sounds confusing when it’s put that way…

On the surface, there a sort of Hatfield and McCoy blood-feud between two races that originate from an alternate earth. This conflict has spilled onto our world as the races have colonized and either remained hidden or tried to blend in with human society.

It kind of has a ‘werewolves and vampires’ vibe to it, but the superhuman races don’t really line up with either of those, so the results are very uncanny.

Five years have passed since the events of The Night and the Land–Rob and Sally have tried to make their own place where they can hide out from the conflict between the Spirelights and the Schomites. Sally’s little brother Sheldon is stuck dealing with the repercussions of his fight with Rob and the experiments his own people have done on him to try and figure out how Rob’s blades changed him. We also get more of Jesse and Zane, who’d been sort of failed would-be mentors to Rob in the first book, trying to solve the mysteries of what the heck the Schomites did to Sally when she was in New Orleans that kicked off the whole crazy series of events.

A Spirelight bounty hunter manages to abscond with Sally, sending Rob on a spree to look for her, as he goes uniting packs of Crimbone, upsetting the Schomite earth order, and slaughtering Spirelights, bringing the hidden war into the open in a way that neither the Earth nor the Deschembine authorities can ignore or bring to a halt.

Spencer does a fantastic job balancing the tale told from a number of perspectives. It’s an exciting and unpredictable story, both beautiful and savage.

Like The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast is an incredibly grisly and graphic tale; it’s definitely not for everyone. In the questionable cosmology, good and evil are not well defined, perhaps largely because the truth about its nature is so hidden–instead, you have a world where gut instinct must be trusted, because that is the only truth that can be counted on. As such, you have very few, if any, characters you can point to as ‘good guys’, though with a few exceptions of the truly perverse villains, all of the characters are somewhat sympathetic, and even relatable, despite often being at odds [at best] or being monsters [at worst].

When I reviewed The Night and the Land, one of the things I mentioned was how, despite everything that happens and despite everything that he did, I found myself almost cheering for Sheldon by the end of the book. Trail of the Beast, in a lot of ways, is Sheldon’s book–here, he is able to fight for redemption and really earn some of that sympathy. Rob becomes less of a character and more a force of nature that the other characters must survive in spite of.

I would’ve liked to see more of Puttergong… He’s around, and still an important mover, but we don’t really get anything from his perspective in this book. I mostly bring that up because, despite my normal tastes and the fact that it shouldn’t work at all, Matt Spencer actually wrote Puttergong’s perspective sections in a 1st person present tense [the rest is all 3rd person past] and he made it work! So, I actually kind of missed those bits.

Anyway, I mentioned that a big part of what makes Spencer’s world so fascinating is the mystery behind the hidden secondary world. We’re incredibly thrilled that one of the short stories that will help shed some light on the mysteries of Spirelights’ and Schomites’ past will be featured in our Fall issue! Be sure to stay tuned for details on how you can get your hands on it.

Until then, be sure to grab a copy of the Summer issue, out the first week of August!

Through Whitest Africa: Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar by Philip José Farmer and The Song of Kwasin by Philip José Farmer and Christopher Paul Carey [Guest Post by J. Comer]

Few writers are as closely associated with the pulp tradition in SF and fantasy as the late Philip José Farmer (1918-2009).  Best known as the author of the Riverworld and World of Tiers series, Farmer penned five dozen novels and over a hundred short stories, winning three Hugo Awards across a writing career more than fifty years long.  He was the first major SF writer to deal with sexual themes as graphically as the mainstream authors of his time (The Lovers, 1952), carried to extremes with the horror-porn A Feast Unknown (1969), one of sixteen Farmer novels in which characters based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan appear. 

     The mention of Tarzan brings us to an aspect of Farmer’s work of interest to Cirsova.  Farmer was fascinated by the pulps and by classic adventure literature. He constantly pastiched their style and included characters referring to them, even linking many major pulp heroes and heroines into a “Wold-Newton Family” lineage.  Tarzan so intrigued Farmer that he deconstructed the science behind the ape man (Lord Tyger, 1970)  and wrote a ‘biography’ of His Lordship (Tarzan Alive (1972) as well as narrating the ultimate fate of Tarzan as a time traveler (Time’s Last Gift, 1972). 

     One aspect of Tarzan’s adventures is his penchant for discovering or finding lost cities and otherwise unknown civilizations.  Opar, which appears several times in Burroughs’ Tarzan tales, is one such, a city in the Congo whose men are hairy beasts and whose women are lovely Caucasians, such as the priestess La, modeled on Rider Haggard’s Ayesha.  Farmer could not help but be fascinated by questions about Opar’s origin and development, and pursued them in Tarzan Alive.[1]

     In Hadon of Ancient Opar he presents a tale of the Ice Age in Africa. Some readers will not care for the earthy, rough sexuality which still has the power to shock and disturb, despite the passage of decades.  Willy Ley’s “Chad Sea” and “Congo Lake” (Engineer’s Dreams, 1954) are present here as Mediterranean-like basins, while cities of a Jakob Bachofen-type matriarchy (Mother Right, 1861) flourish all around. Hadon, a sports champ/gladiator, is to become king but is instead sent on a deadly mission, and we’re off into whitest Africa, with Rider Haggard’s characters Laleela and Paga appearing alongside the Hercules-like Kwasin and the mysterious “grey-eyed god” Sahhindar; it will require very little effort on the reader’s part to realize who the ‘god of time’ is intended to be.

     While a place oddly near the actual Bantu homeland (Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, 1997) is designated as a black urheimat, the people of this ancient Africa are Caucasians or beast-people (Neanderthals and so on) and various crossbreeds.  While numerous black characters appear in Farmer’s work, the black erasure in these books is questionable to say the least. This reviewer understands the presence of Neanderthals in Europe and Asia, but even when Farmer wrote these books, it was pretty clear that the Neanderthals, adapted to glacial conditions, would never have been numerous in a warm climate.

     The pulpy fun continues in Flight to Opar. The crew needs to reach Hadon’s home city for the birth of his daughter, and aren’t deterred by religious war, a usurper king, and graphic descriptions of sewage being dumped. As always Farmer’s grasp of action writing is a pleasure. Finally the motley bunch reunites with Hadon’s aged father and beloved brother, and the wild action comes to an end.

     And so did Farmer, who lived to be ninety-one and a beloved great-grandfather. He left unfinished work behind, including The Song of Kwasin, a novel about Hadon’s Goliath or Hercules-ish cousin.[2]  Christopher Paul Carey finished the book and published it in Gods of Opar (2012), which collects Farmer’s Opar novels and some addenda. Kwasin becomes King of one city, with Hadon’s scheming ex and the invading army of the Sun God to keep him busy. Minruth, the usurper king, attacks the city. Kwasin is captured and humiliated, with the great Queen Awineth, tortured and enslaved, with the Atlantean doom of Khokarsa looming nearer.  The ending neatly reverses the ‘lost continent’ version of Atlantis and returns the narrative to Hadon. Carey wrote two more Hadon novels and a Khokarsa prequel, which are really outside the scope of this review.

     Ten thousand years later, La, priestess-queen of Opar, met Lord Greystoke, Tarzan of the Apes. The unrequited love between them clearly appealed to Burroughs as to his successors. La was mortal, or she wasn’t, but by and by she faded away, as the mystery of Africa faded into the twentieth century.

     What can we come away with, from Opar? A lost city, lost not only in Congo rainforest, but in lost colonialism? (Opar kept “Negro slaves” per Burroughs, who don’t play a part in the Hadon books.)  Who can resist a lost city of white matriarchs and bestial ape-men, a city crammed with gold?  Well, Wilbur Smith’s The Sunbird (1972) was probably the last novel about such a place, and in that novel the city was a Zimbabwe-like ruin, seen in a dream. La has appeared in Disney’s Tarzan cartoon as well as in several of the many, many Tarzan films, but seventy years after Burroughs’ death, what is left of his lost Africa?

     According to Farmer and to Carey, good clean fun. Leslie Fiedler called Farmer the best SF writer; Dr Isaac Asimov simply said that Farmer was “a far more skillful writer than I am.”[3] While pastiche was central to Farmer’s work, his books are both well-written and fun, and in some cases more carefully thought out than the ‘originals’. In the case of Opar, the original idea of homage to Burroughs almost vanishes behind the vast worldmaking, but a Burroughs adventure rife with gold, battle and love-hate is the result.  Recommended to pulp fans.


[1] Super-fan Den Valdron presents Oparian Fanon here; NSFW:  https://www.erbzine.com/mag19/1937.html

[2] An additional Kwasin piece finished by Carey, “Kwasin and the Bear God,” was not available to the reviewer. A future printing of Gods of Opar would do well to include this novella.

[3] This reviewer believes Dr Asimov’s remark to derive from Farmer’s well-known skill as an action writer with a penchant for sex; Asimov was infamous for writing neither of these very well.

Scratching the Pulps’ Surface A review of The Adventure Of The Naked Guide by Cynthia Ward [ Guest Post, J. Comer]

[Editor’s note: Cynthia Ward has a short story out in the Spring issue of Cirsova, which can be acquired here! We’ve also reviewed her novella, Adventure of the Incognita Countess here. The Adventure of the Naked Guide is available on Amazon.]

First: I know Cynthia Ward personally and discussed these works with her before publication.

Vinyl records can scratch.

Those of us old enough to remember the 1980s might remember what it felt like to hear scratching being deliberately used as a musical effect by DJs.  It was a remarkable instance of a bug becoming a feature.  Nevertheless, hip-hop wasn’t merely made up of sound effects or sampled records; it was something new.

When looking at Cynthia Ward’s Bloody-Thirsty Agent series, a mashup featuring Dracula’s daughter, we have the same issue. The pulps originated in the 1890s, and declined after WWII.  But a century after Edgar Rice Burroughs published “Under the Moons of Mars” and Tarzan of the Apes in 1912, the pulp genre remains. Philip José Farmer, author of the Riverworld series, often paid homage to the genre.  His “Wold-Newton” mashup is outstanding in its field.

Cynthis Ward’s Bloody-Thirsty Agent stories recall Farmer at his best.  The arc of her narrator, Lucy Harker, begins with her mother (Mina)’s rape by Dracula.  As in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Mina gained vampiric powers, as did Lucy, a so-called dhampir.  Mina married Mycroft Holmes, who as in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, heads the British secret service.

Thus begins a planned story arc. In “The Adventure of the Incognita Countess” and “The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum”, Lucy travels on the RMS Titanic with Tarzan, meets Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and becomes her lover, then saves Winston Churchill while battling pterosaurs from the Hollow Earth.  Exciting, but there’s more!

Naked Guide begins in the Lutha of Burroughs’ lesser-known The Mad King, then takes Lucy into the Hollow Earth’s “Pellicidar” to rescue Mina from Hitler/Mengele stand-in Dr Krüger. Clarimal joins them in an oddly-written scene. Meanwhile free-spirited An the Mezop chats with Lucy about spirituality, sex and the soul.  Lucy finds Mina and a terrible revelation about Mycroft Holmes and the British Empire.  What will Clarimal and Lucy do?    The daring duo continue their derring-do in “The Adventure of the Golden Woman.”

So what to make of this pulp-hop mashup?  Well, it resembles Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Farmer’s ‘Wold-Newton’ crossovers.  But neither Moore nor Farmer, despite writing Image of the Beast  and Lost Girls, wrestles with social injustice and LGBT issues as closely as Ward. Unlike them, she refuses to write erotica or pornography.  Her Lucy is not ‘modern’ in her attitudes, nor is Clarimal/Carmilla.  A trained fencer and experienced hiker, Ward writes action well, and pays attention to historical and linguistic research. Her stories, though fantasy, are realistic, and not about the experience of reading (the so-called ‘second-artist effect’).  This reviewer cannot claim to be unprejudiced, but Cynthia Ward does more than scratch the surface of the vast legacy of pulp. Recommended.