The Lost War, by Karl K. Gallagher (Some Spoilers)

The Lost War is one heck of a read from Karl K. Gallagher!

While he’s best known for his hard SF interplanetary adventure-turned Mil-SF Torchship series, Karl has dipped his toes in fantasy before with his story for us, Squire Errant, so I was very curious to see what he was going to be doing with a “portal fantasy” (that’s isekai, for your weebs out there).

The Lost War is the story of a historical re-enactment event/fair that gets sucked into another world. Using their skills, the hobbyist craftsmen, fighters, and other olde tymes enthusiasts must band together to survive. A few members begin developing magical abilities that help them in their day to day struggles.

The Lost War begins as something of a critique of anarcho-feudalism–it falls upon the “ruling couple” of the event to take charge de jure and the administrator to take charge de facto, which leads to some issues early on–but things smooth out a lot when the “queen”, who’d developed magic powers of mind-control, gets a pair of scissors through her neck.

It moves more towards action survival adventure once “orcs” show up and the feudal band has to go to war with the local parasitic bipeds. It builds predictably but rewardingly towards a climactic battle and semi-happy ending for one of the main couples. There’s a bit of mystery box stuff that’s not really resolved (nevermind that they’re all still stuck in the fantasy world) but will likely be addressed in subsequent installments (the first of which is already out).

Also, don’t forget that both Enchantress of Venus and the new Cirsova Summer Special will be out in the next couple of weeks!

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Review – Rogues of Merth, by Robert Zoltan

Cirsova was sent a paperback review copy of Rogues of Merth by Robert Zoltan.

rogues of merthRogues of Merth was an excellent read and a good bit further up my alley than my other recent contemporary read, For the Killing of Kings.

Rogues of Merth straddles the line between novel-length anthology and fix-up, collecting several standalone stories in loose chronological order and bridging them by short interlude pieces to strengthen the connection.

Rogues chronicles the adventures of Dareon, a small and boisterous would-be poet swordsman, and “Blue”, his quiet and rather introspective “savage” barbarian companion. The anthology sees them on several picaresque adventures both in their home city of Merth and abroad. The immediate comparison that springs to mind is Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser; I’m sure that there are Leiber partisans who would accuse them of being pastiche or “knock-offs”, but fans of classic pulp sword & sorcery adventures who are looking for new stories in the genre would be hard-pressed to find better reading.

For me, one of the things that really set Dareon & Blue apart from Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser is that D&B were actually likable. I’ve written before about how F&GM underwent their own grimdark reboot after the pulp era, where Leiber really made them rotten fellows. With Dareon & Blue, even though they were nominally thieves and Dareon, perhaps, a scoundrel, I never felt bad cheering them on in their quests, because they were actually pretty good people who just got into some rotten situations, often becoming agents of good and justice, righting far more wrongs than they create.

I might not go so far as to call it “Superversive”, but it’s certainly more fun and uplifting than one would expect from contemporary Sword & Sorcery revival. This one should go on your reading list, especially if you’re a fan of the classic early Fafhrd & Gray Mouser or of Cirsova, particularly our Mongoose & Meerkat series from Jim Breyfogle. There’s not a single story in this anthology that we ourselves would not have run, had we had the opportunity.

A few other things worth mentioning are Robert Zoltan’s interior illustrations, which help set the mysterious tone, and the map of the regions surrounding Merth, which promises that there are plenty more places for the duo to have their adventures before setting off to distant lands beyond the map’s edges.

You can pick up Rogues of Merth here on Amazon. The eBook is a little pricey, so I’d recommend going all-out and just getting the paperback. It’s only a few dollars more and worth it if you have the shelf-space.

Also, for those of you who enjoy audiobooks, at least two of the stories have been done up real nice and are available on youtube.

Review: For the Killing of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones

I received a copy of “For the Killing of Kings,” by Howard Andrew Jones for review. Cirsova Magazine has regularly ad-swapped with Howard Andrew Jones for Tales from the Magicians Skull and has ad-swapped for this title in the Spring issue.

FortheKillingofKings_comp-2I’ve always been wary of starting new fantasy series that have not yet been completed. The last time I committed myself to such a series, it stalled out after the third of five books (though rumor has it book 4 may finally be coming out!). Given Jones’ track record, I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that, but the wait for the conclusion of a story can be rough. I think this one may be worth it, though.

Narrator voice:

“A kingdom has enjoyed a fragile peace for seven years after the end of a great war. The final battle of said war and the uneasy peacetime has fragmented the kingdom’s heroic top-cop force, the Altenari. Their previous leader died in the fight, many senior members resigned or went missing, and squires with magic potential are being siphoned out of the corps into a new mage auxiliary. The great fallen hero N’lahr’s sword, kept on display in a reliquary, proves to be an elaborate fake, and conspirators are willing to murder their sworn comrades to maintain the cover-up. As the mystery of the false sword unfolds, the kingdom teeters on the brink of war while its most ardent defenders are hunted down as traitors by their mad sorceress queen and her scheming minions.”

“For the Killing of Kings” is a very modern fantasy, in its style and plotting, in rather sharp contrast with the last book I’d read. It’s not a bad thing, and tastes may vary, but it definitely took some shifting gears to go from a Kline adventure to this. The opening of the book is a very slow burn as Jones builds his mystery and establishes the atmosphere. The multiple perspectives and introspection from some of the characters can drag out the pace of the story in places, but it ultimately evens out. The action is grand and exciting, and while the myriad characters are a bit shallow, they remain endearing.

Spoilers below

Admittedly, the one worry I had throughout the book was whether there would be a pay-off at the end. “For the Killing of Kings” is a bit of a brick, and being the first of three bricks, one could understandably be concerned and hope that it not end on too big of a cliff-hanger. “For the Killing of Kings” is more two shorter novels with their chapters interspersed that split off from a common starting point. One of these novels, the one which follows the first group of characters introduced at the beginning of the book who are forced to flee from the conspiracy, delivers a payoff, while the second, which follows characters who initially remained behind and try to unravel the mystery behind the conspiracy, ends with a “darkest hour” cliff-hanger.

Overall, though, the book delivers on its premise: at the beginning of the book, we’re told of a prophecy that a sword will kill a king, and by the end of the book, someone has killed said king with said sword.

Spoilers end

Most important, perhaps, is the question of whether I’ll be picking up the other books in the series. Yes, I will, because yes, I want to know how it ends!

Short Reviews – Finished, by L. Sprague De Camp

Finished, by L. Sprague De Camp, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It can be read here at Archive.org.

L. Sprague de Camp offers up something of a planetary romance with Finished, where I can’t quite tell if he just bungled his premise or was poorly spoofing Sword & Planet and Campbell ran it because he thought it would make the folks over at Planet Stories look like rubes.

Finished

Why do I feel like the genre is being mocked?

The truth may be somewhere in between. Finished is a mess of weird names and affectations, such that entire paragraphs barely register as coherent ideas expressed in English. De Camp is a smart guy who enjoys being smart, but he’s also a fairly decent writer who has done some really good humorous SFF that, while funny, didn’t quite dip into twee. So despite being a mess, there’s a damn good story at its core that makes me wonder why he didn’t work to tell it just a little bit better.

A planet in contact with the Galactic FederationTM is being kept at arm’s-length by the advanced space-faring culture; they’re just too primitive and barbaric to be granted access to the technical and philosophical knowledge of Earth (Ertsu). The planet has a perpetual regency: the “one king” of the planet is a revered and sacred mummy relic, and the princes of the planet rule in his name. The mummy is fraudulently taken off the planet, and the Prince demands the right to pursue it to earth to recover their world’s most sacred treasure.

Turns out, the theft was a sham. The prince allowed, nay facilitated, the theft of the mummy which could be stuffed with literature and technical manuals so that they might be smuggled back to his world.

There’s a large naval battle as one of the representatives of the galactic federation pursues the rogue prince, who fakes his death, faked a mummy (lost in the battle), and ultimately returns to his people with the promise of a new golden age.

Again, not a bad story, but it suffered greatly in the telling, and I would’ve much rather it be told by a Brackett or a Kline. It’s not something I can easily explain—not within the limitations of time I have for this column—so I can only suggest that you read it for yourself.

This is the last day of the Cirsova Issue 9 & 10 Kickstarter! Be sure to back today if you haven’t already!

Short Reviews – What Dead Men Tell, by Theodore Sturgeon

Castalia House’s back end is down right now, so I’m going ahead and posting this week’s Short Review here; we’ll get it mirrored up there once Markku gets us situated. What Dead Men Tell, by Theodore Sturgeon, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It can be read here at Archive.org.

What Dead Men TellFor poisoning the well against the pulps, crusty old Ted the Sturgeon really needed to blow me away. And once we got past the first couple of pages of autistic rambling, Teddy only managed to tell a moderately interesting story.

Hulon, a film projectionist, recently wrote a piece for an obscure literary magazine outlining his eudaemonic philosophy: the future is uncertain and the now is so finitely small as to be inconsequential, so true security can only exist in the ossified events of the past—one’s past actions and accomplishments were all that one could truly hold onto, therefore happiness and security is derived primarily from what you are able to put into your past.

Well, this bit of thinkery draws the attention of a mysterious group who has transcended the laws of life and death! They appear to him as ghosts—movie stars who he’s certain are dead, but there they are in his theatre, plain as day! After approaching the third of these supposedly-dead movie stars, Hulon is informed that they are willing to test him to join their ranks. He will be placed in a chamber where he will meet death.

Hulon finds himself in a seemingly endless corridor, all alone except for strange balls of liquid that supply nutrient nourishment and dead bodies of old men that he happens upon at regular intervals.

I’ll go ahead and spoil the riddle, because that’s really all there is to the story: the endless corridor is some kind of umbilic torus, the body is the same body over and over again (it appears different because of different lighting [it cycles through the spectrum with each circuit Hulon completes] and because it gets banged up when illusion-creating gravity centered on Hulon changes and it drops to the floor/wall), and the ‘death he will meet’ is old age.

How did the gravity in the torus work to make it appear that the corridor was perfectly straight? Hulon admits he can’t answer that when he gives his answer to the riddle, and Ted doesn’t answer it either (‘oh, you’ll learn that and more in good time’ the cabal members tell Hulon).

What Dead Men Tell is a riddle-story; an atmospheric riddle-story with a worthwhile riddle (at least it wasn’t one of Asimov’s Black Widowers yarns), but I needed more. What were the stakes? The weirdo film projectionist is granted immortality and is assigned a girlfriend to instruct him in the ways of the new cabal he has been welcomed into.

Time is running out to support Cirsova Magazine! To keep us alive and kicking, be sure to subscribe today

Spring Short Reviews Roundup!

I’ve reviewed a LOT of science fiction stories since the start of the year. Here’s a handy link list you can use to catch up on my column at Castalia House:

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-science-of-time-travel-by-ray-cummings/ 

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-seal-maiden-by-victor-rousseau-emanuel/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-man-the-sun-gods-made-by-gardner-f-fox/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-tepondicon-by-carl-jacobi/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-love-among-the-robots-by-emmett-mcdowell/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-space-bat-by-carl-selwyn/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-fog-of-the-forgotten-by-basil-wells/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-example-by-tom-pace/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-savage-galahad-by-bryce-walton/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-breath-of-beelzebub-by-larry-sternig/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-jewels-of-chamar-by-raymond-f-jones/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-double-dyed-villains-by-poul-anderson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-special-jobbery-by-h-b-fyfe/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-hide-and-seek-by-arthur-c-clarke/

Be sure to tune into Castalia House this friday when I continue to dump on the September 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction!

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea went from “This is way too easy for a funnel” to “How the hell’d they expect 0-lvl characters to finish?”*

“Uh… Agatha Agartha, my chaotic alchemist wearing the chaos robe and chaos torc kneels in obeisance and hopes for the best… She uh.. was clearly drawn here to serve the chaos lord–it’s her destiny. Also, she pushes Varra, my elven falconer, into the lava.”

With 30 beastmen, a beastman shaman, a chaos avatar, and no win-state in sight, we settled for a non-standard game-over cutscene. Thing is, if we’d had a standard group of level 1 or 2 PCs, I think we could’ve wiped the floor with them.

 So, I’d say that Sailors may be a good 1st or 2nd level module, but was NOT a very good funnel…

I’d like to take a look at the module myself and see just how bad we screwed up, going from unscathed to unconditional surrender.  Ironically, just as predicted, Stinky Pete the Cheesemaker, my -5 character, was the only PC to survive by virtue surrendering to the tax collectors and not hopping on board the stupid dragon boat. As a local, they assumed he’d been captured by the rest of the party, who they’d believed were chaos cultist due to us wearing chaos robes and, in our cockiness, attacking the search party.

The tax-collectors probably weren’t in the module; I think they were there to keep from whittling away slowly and going back to town. The logic was that a) the Barron doesn’t like people messing around the castle, and b) there was some missing tax money, so we had to leave town or get blamed; the tax collectors would eventually look around the keep for the missing money (which was actually either stolen by beastmen or stolen by villagers/thieves who were turned into beastmen, or the thieves who stole it were captured by beastmen). Otherwise we were all “Well, we’ve solved the mystery of the missing new pairs of boots; your sons are dead, Hiram the Blacksmith. Good job, everyone!”

I think that the problem with a lot of funnels may be the lack of incentive for 0-level characters to risk life and limb. Best Funnel I was ever in, we started as prisoners and conscripts of a sewer militia that was a front for cultists. A quick intro, a tough fight with environmental stuff to take advantage of, and a spooky fungus-filled sewer to avoid the stuff in while escaping. One session and we had our 1st level characters.

Someone has recommended to me that it’s a good idea to intentionally kill subpar characters at the first available opportunity, in part because if they do survive, they’ll wreck your campaign experience, but that’s definitely not something I could subscribe to.

I love my crappy sub-par characters! First game, my crappy thief ended up the longest lived and genuinely scariest party member. By the time we ended that game, she’d made it to level 4, had 9 hit points and a collection of faces she’d cured and turned into masks. Plus, with the way the Thief skill tables work, they can be pretty good at doing their jobs regardless of stats. It’s a great class to dump mediocre characters who survive the Funnel into.

But when it comes to funnels, the downside of killing sub-par characters intentionally is that it reduces your economy of action.

Still, as much as I want to like DCC and still want to play more of it, there’s something about it that leaves me feeling a little let down. I like a lot of DCC’s concepts, but every time we put them into practice, we’re all “Gee, I can’t imagine why we ever stopped playing this system D:<” Clerics suck, the magic system is clunky as hell, the crit tables are dumb and don’t work… Really the concept of the Funnel is the one part that my group actually finds appealing (which is why we ultimately rebuilt WHRPG around the concept of a perpetual Funnel).

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*:Ranged characters. If we’d all picked ranged weapons and not lost a few party members to the tax collectors, we probably could’ve taken the hordes with slings and javelins. Also, given the module’s name, I would’ve expected a more nautical theme, not just the train ride to the boss-fight involving a boat.