Review of Cirsova #5

Steve DuBois posted an excellent review of our Eldritch Earth issue; I suggest you go and read it.

He brings up a few interesting points:

“I have found cause for gripe about a lot of fiction that’s labelled ‘Lovecraftian’—the biggest being that it is not particularly Lovecraftian at all. To a large extent, ‘Lovecraftian’ falls into the same rut as Steampunk, only instead of gluing gears to everything, it’s tentacles.” [editor’s note; this was quoted from my intro to the issue]

This begs the question:  what IS Lovecraftian fiction?  For me, the defining characteristic is a cosmic horror born of the sudden realization that humanity is not, in fact, at the top of the food chain; indeed, that from a universal perspective, we’re not even insects.  Lovecraft posits that entities exist whose motives are not exactly malevolent, but so far beyond our understanding that to even encounter them is a sanity-shattering experience.

Bluntly, I don’t know that this leaves much room for the heroic.  I don’t think Lovecraft’s stories would have been improved if Randolph Carter had been handed an SMG and he’d started mowing down shoggoths.  New Pulp is a celebration of human ability and potential.  Lovecraft’s message is “your abilities are irrelevant in a cosmic context, and you are potentially something’s dinner.”  I don’t think, in short, that heroic fiction can be made Lovecraftian by gluing some tentacles to it.

In many ways, yes, the stories in the issue weren’t Lovecraftian in either the modern or the traditional sense. To an extent, you could accuse some of the stories of “gluing tentacles” to heroic fantasy and calling it “Lovecraftian” and not be too terribly far off from the truth. However, one of the reasons why I was willing to pursue this direction and showcase it in Cirsova is because so much in the current field of “Lovecraftian” fiction is either a deconstruction of Lovecraft and his themes through identitarian lenses on one end and modern pastiches of detectives with guns vs. Cthulhu on the other end. I looked at the project as a reconstruction of Burroughsian (though in practice Howardian) heroic tropes and, in the case of Misha Burnett’s and S.H. Mansouri’s stories, a reconstruction of the identity-based horror.

The stories work least well when they try to transplant Robert E. Howard to the Triassic, with brawny iron-age heroes mowing down scads of enemy henchmen and advancing towards boss fights.  Additionally, the whole Eldritch Earth concept is still in an early stage developmentally, and as with other such experiments (notably Baen’s Grantville) there are times when the authors involved seem to be proceeding from fundamentally incompatible concepts of how the story’s world works.  I can just about buy that humanity was designed as a slave race by Mind Flayers, but what’s up with all these other late-Pleistocene mammals popping up all over the place?  The horses?  The dogs?  The tapirs?  Or even Cretaceous critters such as birds, for that matter?  These aren’t story-killers, but they’re anti-atmospheric and destructive of reader immersion, and the Eldritch Earth stories will become more fun for readers once the authorial community leaves the tropes of iron-age Earth behind.

This is an interesting critique, in part because he goes on to praise Sky Hernstrom as “unmistakably right as an author of New Pulp”, but also because he is right that in the early phases of this shared universe, there is some conflict of what everyone’s vision is. I did not impose an editorial hand to maintain a consistent sense of world-building, as I didn’t feel that was my job. In those cases, such as The First American and Beyond the Great Divide where there was conflicting information about the nature of the Slagborn or the stories that included but gave very different impressions of Deodanth, I decided to let the stories stand on their own rather than try to pick which story was canon and demand the other authors try to shape theirs to better fit that canon.

I do hope that the Eldritch Earth project has some life left in it, because I think it has produced some spectacular early tales. We have a new Darla tale in our current issue and will have a brand-new tale of the Plateau of Leng from Cirsova regular Donald J. Uitvlugt later this year.

This is absolutely the sort of feedback that we’re looking for when we say “Hey leave us a review!” I mean, yeah, a couple lines and some stars on Amazon helps us a ton, too, but this is excellent, actionable stuff that lets us know what we’re doing right, where we can improve, and what direction we should take the magazine in the future.

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Cirsova’s Planetary Awards Nominee: Out of the Soylent Planet, by Robert Kroese

I’m killing two birds with one stone on this one. Robert Kroese’s Out of the Soylent Planet is my pick for this year’s Planetary Awards in the long-form category.out of the soylent planet

On paper, Kroese’s Rex Nihilo series seems like the last thing I’d enjoy—a snarky, self-aware, often parodic science fiction series featuring a sleazy protagonist whom I’ve described as a cross between Jon Lovitz’s Tommy Flannagan character and Zapp Brannigan.  But the strength of Kroese’s writing and his sense of humor accomplish the herculean task of keeping his premise from descending into obnoxious twee. While the first book, “Starship Grifters”, cleaves dangerously close to Star Wars parody, the sequel, “Aye, Robot” abandoned much of the familiar plot beats and moved away from parody, delving further into the realm of satire.

I was worried, then, that “Out of the Soylent Planet” might return to the safer realms of parody when it began with a direct send-up of New Hope’s opening, with SASHA standing in for 3P0. And it was a prequel, no-less!

My fears were quickly allayed, however, as Out of the Soylent Planet progressed rapidly into new territory, establishing the relationship between SASHA and Rex, further developing SASHA’s nature as a near-sentient AI without retreading the first two books, and using some wild and exciting set-ups to do so.

Out of the Soylent Planet is self-aware, and many of the characters are dangerously (wrong) genre savvy, but Kroese handles all of this exceptionally well. He uses Rex to explore the nature of the picaresque hero over the course of the series while even hanging a lampshade as other characters discuss what qualifies one to be a lovable rogue. Like Obi-Wan’s villainy, it all comes down to “a certain point of view.”

While Out of the Soylent Planet is a prequel, it is written in such a way that it could stand alone to a reader new to the series but does not belabor descriptions and exposition which readers of the previous books might be familiar with. The first installment suffered a bit from the “Only Sane Man” trope with SASHA playing the straight-man to the insanity of the entire universe. While there are plenty of mixed up characters in Out of the Soylent Planet, much of that burden is taken off SASHA’s shoulders, giving her a few odd but competent and reliable characters to play off of. This lets her character have some fun/self-indulgence without risking having the world fall to pieces around her. The only weakness it has is an absence of Pepper Melange. Then again, part of what Pepper brought to the stories was that sense that there were people in the universe besides SASHA who were competent (who were not stark-raving mad or lunatic idiots), and by giving SASHA and Rex other ‘straight men’ to play off of, her absence will not be felt by new readers so much as by existing fans of the character.

Even if you haven’t been reading Kroese’s Rex Nihilo Series, this one is worth picking up and diving into.

Just a reminder to readers and other book bloggers: You too can nominate for the Planetary Awards. As a publisher, Cirsova is abstaining from nominating in the short form category, but there’s been a lot of love so far for Schuyler Hernstrom’s “The First American.” All you have to do to nominate a work is post on your blog what you think should receive a Planetary Award and why. Feel free to nominate something we published in 2017.

End of the Year Round-up of Short Reviews

I realized it’s been ages since I’ve posted a round-up of my Castalia House reviews. I used to do them seasonally, but kept thinking “surely I must have already done a round-up” and never bothered to actually check. It turns out, the last one I did was back in March.

So, here’s a list of all the reviews I’ve done since then!

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-i-like-you-too-by-joe-gibson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-yesterdays-doors-by-arthur-j-burks/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-square-pegs-by-ray-bradbury/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-miracle-town-by-william-f-temple/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-cosmic-jackpot-by-george-o-smith/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-date-line-by-noel-loomis-as-benj-miller/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-reverse-english-by-john-s-carroll/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-softie-by-noel-loomis/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-no-winter-no-summer-by-damon-knight-and-james-blish-as-donald-laverty/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-referent-by-ray-bradbury-as-brett-sterling/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-metal-chamber-by-duane-w-rimel/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-swine-of-aeaea-by-clifford-ball/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-house-where-time-stood-still-by-seabury-quinn/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-return-of-hastur-by-august-derleth/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-comrades-of-time-by-edmond-hamilton/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-quest-of-iranon-by-h-p-lovecraft/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-stratosphere-menace-by-ralph-milne-farley/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-smoke-fantasy-by-thomas-r-jordan/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-devils-of-po-sung-by-bassett-morgan/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-haunted-level-by-cassiter-wright/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-bull-dog-smith-by-james-mccormick/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-chasing-a-living-in-california-by-anon/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-old-white-face-by-allen-borders/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-ali-babas-cave-by-i-d-b/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-balu-the-bear-by-blanche-e-ward/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-dutchmans-gold-told-by-arthur-greyslen-and-set-down-by-alan-burgess/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-sandhound-strikes-by-ross-rocklynne/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-vanishing-venusians/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-happy-castaway-by-robert-e-mcdowell/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-silver-plague-by-albert-de-pina/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-double-trouble/

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

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-vandals-of-the-void-by-robert-wilson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-joe-carsons-weapon-by-james-r-adams/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-smoking-land-by-frederick-faust-as-george-challis/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-three-lines-of-old-french-by-a-merritt/

Review: Whispers From the Abyss

Sometimes life gets crazy and you don’t manage to juggle all of the things that you thought you could take on, but that’s really no excuse. I’m long overdue for reviews of 01Publishing’s Whispers From the Abyss series. I’ve made a few tweets about these, but that’s nothing compared to the actual reviews they deserve, considering the fact that the awesome Kat Rocha actually sent me physical copies to read.

It’s also not easy to review anthologies of flash fiction because there are SO MANY STORIES TO TALK ABOUT! So, rather than take on the daunting task of reviewing the hundreds of stories, I’ll say that the average quality and selection of these pieces is incredible. That’s not to say that I thought all of the stories were good or that I enjoyed them all, but there were some really great ones, some pretty good ones, and the bad ones were only a page or so.

I know it doesn’t sound like much on the face of it, but those who know me as someone who loathes “Lovecraftian” (fingerquotes) fiction understands what it means that I should have any praise at all for such an anthology, much less the high praise for it I’m now struggling to articulate.

I think where this anthology best succeeds is in finding short horror stories that seek to tonally match Lovecraft and others’ short weird fiction and horror rather than fill its pages with Mythos gobbledygook.

They’re worth checking out, and you can find them on Amazon.

Kirkus Withdraws a Review (and that’s a big deal!)

Recently, YA author Laura Moriarty wrote and sent out arcs of a book called American Heart. Its description:

Imagine a United States in which registries and detainment camps for Muslim-Americans are a reality.

Fifteen-year-old Sarah-Mary Williams of Hannibal, Missouri, lives in this world, and though she has strong opinions on almost everything, she isn’t concerned with the internments because she doesn’t know any Muslims. She assumes that everything she reads and sees in the news is true, and that these plans are better for everyone’s safety.

But when she happens upon Sadaf, a Muslim fugitive determined to reach freedom in Canada, Sarah-Mary at first believes she must turn her in. But Sadaf challenges Sarah-Mary’s perceptions of right and wrong, and instead Sarah-Mary decides, with growing conviction, to do all she can to help Sadaf escape.

The two set off on a desperate journey, hitchhiking through the heart of an America that is at times courageous and kind, but always full of tension and danger for anyone deemed suspicious.

Basically a story about how Muslims are people too and rounding people up in camps is a bad thing, probably handled with all of the nuance and subtlety of Margaret Haddix’s cheesy Among the Hidden series.  Not really my kind of thing, probably written as a genuine and heart-felt progressive kumbaya from a well-intentioned liberal YA writer.

Unfortunately, it was less-than-well received by certain individuals on Goodreads:

Jabba the hudge

It’s easy to laugh about this, because progressives have the tendency to eat their own–you can never be progressive enough to satisfy those more progressive than you. So, “ha-ha, look at the lady who tried to virtue signal and got dog-piled for ‘doing it wrong'”, right? Well, it gets more complicated than that.

Moriarty had submitted her book for a Kirkus review, a site that will write reviews for authors on a for-pay basis. Now, paid reviews are sketchy as it is, but this is gonna take the cake!

Originally, Kirkus gave a positive review for Moriarty’s book. It was apparently even reviewed by a Muslim woman who “is an expert in children’s &YA literature and well-versed in the dangers of white savior narratives”, and “she found that American Heart offers a useful warning about the direction we’re headed in as far as racial enmity is concerned.”

So, ironically, Kirkus has chosen to silence a Muslim woman because people disagreed with her review. They’ve backpedaled and thrown up this new review calling the book problematic.

Here’s the thing about reviews. Reviews are always going to be subjective. They are the opinion of the reviewer giving the review based on their experiences, prejudices and believes as they make contact with the content they’re reviewing. So, yeah, even ‘fuck muh whiteness!’ up there is perfectly entitled to her review and I don’t have any real problem with it. But if you’re a review site whose sole purpose is, well, reviewing stuff, then you need to stand by reviewers’ reviews. You may feel like you need to say, as an editor, “I don’t necessarily agree with what this reviewer said,” but to pull down a review and take it out to the woodshed because people have different opinions from the reviewer means that you should probably get out of the reviewing business because your credibility is shot.

More from Slate.

Eternal Soulfire Vol 1. Review

One of the free comic book day comics I got last year was the issue Zero of a World of Aspen: Eternal Soulfire whatever. The free comics on that Free Comic Book day were largely meh (nowhere near as bad as this year), but I’ll admit that I liked the use of color on this one. I’d nearly forgotten about it, though, when my GF brought volume one home from library.

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Frankly a story about a weird fairy girl in high school, trying to fit in, like the cover implied, would’ve been more interesting than what I actually read. The first chapter, which hinted at this premise, was probably the best in the book.

I burned out on this short collection with two chapters to go. Whatever comic universe this is set in, Eternal Soulfire is not a good introduction to it. Best I can tell, it is grimdark Winx Club, with fairies and dragons and high-tech swat teams that hunt them.

es2

Despite the interesting colorwork I mentioned, a lot of the art feels kind of muddy and hazy, particularly in backgrounds . And while the character art isn’t bad, there’s something that just feels off about the sequential nature of much of the art here—it just doesn’t flow particularly well in a lot of places. One of the middle chapters, a flashback backstory of one of the major characters that had been done by a different team, was one of the few exceptions—while the colors were not so over-the top, the visual flow of the artwork was much better, but not enough to really save it for me.

es3

From Issue 3, where the art probably flowed best.

Soulfire strikes me as people who really enjoy drawing edgy punk fairies (and don’t do a bad job at it) but struggle to find some sort of excuse to do something besides portfolios.

5118807-miya-cassidy_eternal-soulfire_issue4.png

How are you so much less interesting than you look?!

If you’re more familiar with the Soulfire universe, maybe this Jubilee-story of ‘undisciplined teenage girl character has powers and needs to shape up to fit into the new team’ will be up your alley, but I think I’ll give this one a pass for now.

Review: Frayed Knights, Skull of S’makh-Daon

This review is long overdue. Of course part of it is just that life and business got in the way, but originally one of the biggest stumbling blocks was I was at a loss for what to say about something I enjoyed so much but had so many complex thoughts on. And for the time it’s taken me to get around to actually writing this, I apologize, since the time it’s taken has not actually made it proportionally better.

A few months back, Cirsova contributor Jay Barnson sent me a copy of his FPRGP Frayed Knights: Skull of S’makh-Daon. While I was playing it, I was absolutely addicted and could not stop until I finished it.

On the surface, Frayed Knights is an exploration-focused first person RPG with a fair share of hack-and-slash, but there’s a great deal of nuance to it that really scratches a lot of itches that someone who has played a lot of CRPGs and maybe burned out on them because of that “seen it all before” feeling will end up still getting a kick out of it and find it highly engaging.

First of all, the writing is great; which should come as no surprise, as Barnson’s a great writer. But the party’s dialogue is consistently witty and entertaining, giving the characters all a unique feel and personality and giving life to a world which is less a spoof than a humorous homage to old-school dungeons and dragons. While not so self-aware as KoDT, fans of that franchise would certainly enjoy the tropes played with. Plus, there are plenty of Easter Eggs that a fan of old D&D would enjoy, not the least of which being that it is set in an expy of the Caves of Chaos.

Something you can’t say about very many CRPGs is that combat was always a dynamic and engaging challenge. Except in areas you may have backtracked to for whatever reason, there was almost never any time where you could just hold down the attack button and expect combat to go your way. While you might settle into a few strategies that are more consistently effective than others, the combination of the pseudo-realtime initiative, exhaustion system, and variable equipment abilities, it was often a unique puzzle to figure out just what the best strategies against certain groups of foes might be – battles could often swing back and forth, and a lucky break or skin-of-the-teeth play could bring you from the edge of defeat back toward victory. One kinda funny part that may be unique to Frayed Knights is that in any fight, even a gimme fight, it is more effective for a magic user to cast a low-level spell than swing with their weapon—your level 1 damage spell is likelier to hit than the weapon against many foes and will also probably accrue less exhaustion.

While there were a couple of particularly tough fights, though, there was never much need for grinding – the biggest problem I had was, due to recognizing the homage to the Caves of Chaos and applying certain assumptions to Frayed Knights, was doing certain dungeons out of order and suffering the consequence. For instance, the Ogre caves present far less of a challenge as a smaller mini-dungeon than the Goblin Caves which, as a major plot dungeon, are filled with a much wider range of tough nasties (like those Shamans who will dish out damage and keep you from downing front-line gobos).

There are some obvious negatives; you might be put off by the low-res textures and simple models or, in some cases, the incongruous assets (generally non-animated NPC models). Graphically, it’s somewhere in the middle-ground between Daggerfall and Thief: the Dark Project. I love both of those games, but the look won’t be for everyone. Really, for me, though, the biggest problem I had was with the game’s scope. And it’s a weird complaint, but Frayed Knights is just big enough that once I was truly impressed by how large it was, I ended up being disappointed by how small it felt. It has a very Episode 1 feel to it; it set me up with expectations of a truly huge world with multiple hub towns, with even more areas to visit and explore, because what IS there is off the one hub town we’re given IS impressively vast.  A part of me wishes that instead of a new game with a new system, Frayed Knights would continue with new cities and new content added (nodes and hubs appear listed as you visit them, and newly visited areas can be quick-travelled to). Frayed Knights ends on something of a cliff-hanger, and it made me wish I could actually go and visit some of those other towns and locations mentioned beyond the original hub. But still, there’s an impressive amount of real estate to explore; maybe not to the extent of an Elder Scrolls game, but enough that you might come to expect it, forgetting that the game, as huge as it is, was developed by a small indie team.

The upside of Frayed Knights 2 being on a new system is that obviously it will allow the dev team to make improvements to the engine and graphics, and hopefully optimize things a bit (you get some vast and seamless 3D environments in each location, but at the cost of some really long loading times). I also hope that you’ll be able to port characters, but that may not necessarily be in the cards.

Still, I absolutely think that if you dig D&D and/or CRPGs, you should check out Frayed Knights!