Aldair, Across the Misty Sea

Aldair, Across the Misty Seas is a book I bought by mistake. The bookstore was dark, and for some reason “Barnett” looked like “Brackett” when I was pulling various DAW, Ace and Zebra books off the shelf for a flea market haul.

Aldair is a pulp-style post-apocalyptic furry sword & seafarer science fiction. It could be that I jumped in on what turned out to be the third volume of a four volume series, but what left me gobsmacked was the appearance that it was written from a ‘place of furness’.

Now, what the hell do I mean by that? When folks talk about writers writing from ‘a place of whiteness’, they generally mean that the writer and the characters in the story take for granted the fact that they’re white – they are the default, and other races and cultures are “the other”. Well, in Aldair, it seemed as though the fact that everyone was an anthro furry was taken for granted.

It took several pages before I figured that something was up. The locations and races were described in terms of faux antiquity, so that it read like a historical adventure – the seafaring Vikonen, the fallen empire of the Rhemians, the Stygiann, rattling off places like Gaullia and Niciea… They were shorthand for the familiar used in a way similar to Howard’s Hyborian world. So, when the narrator mentioned that someone from Gaullia would come up to the chest of a Vikonen warrior, I thought that maybe it was just a figure of speech.

Then the main character describes his Niciean buddy, Thareesh, and his Rhemian dame, Corycia, who is the daughter (or niece, I forget) of Titus Andromeda (so she’s a princess!). The Nicieans are greenskinned and scaly. Cool, Aldair’s got reptile friends! Then Aldair describes the first time he met Corycia, with beautiful auburn hair and a revealing green dress that accentuated her rows of breasts.  Wait.  Rows of breasts?! Throughout the book, characters are described in terms of having paws or claws, muzzles and snouts, but with the exception of the lizardmen who are pretty specifically lizardmen (as a non-furry other), it’s left very vague as to what kinds of petting-zoo people these folks actually are. I’m proud of myself for having correctly guessed that the Vikonen were bears, and by the end I figured out rounds about what most of the characters were, but the book never came out and said “Corycia was a faux-Roman cat-girl” or “Signar is an axe-wielding bearman sea captain”, because the narrator never saw fit to expound on those details. Again, this could be that I just jumped in on the 3rd book of a series, but it made for an interesting reading experience.

But was it good?

Yes, it was pretty damn awesome. And considering that I had no benefit of having read (or until an after-the-fact Google search even known that there were) previous books in the series, it STILL held up on its own, that says something. It was a mix of Baron Munchausen and Horatio Hornblower with a touch of Frank G. Slaughter’s or Anya Seyton’s historical adventure romance; crazy adventures on the high seas, swashbuckling adventure, sword-fights, and even some robots.

In a dark and distant future, Man created anthro-furries, then Man destroyed himself in various wars, leaving petting-zoo people to repeat the history of man, building their own kingdoms and empires that would flourish, war, and fall into ruin.

Aldair is on a quest to find the secrets of Man, hoping that somehow he will find something that will allow beast-kind to break the chains of history’s vicious cycle. In this book, his adventure takes his small fleet from a Vikonen village in what is probably Greenland to North America and eventually to the Amazon, with countless disasters and fights with scary monsters happening in the intervening time. It’s well written and strangely compelling. Again, the comparison that springs most to mind is Forester’s Hornblower stories (particularly those early-ish in HH’s career). Reading Aldair’s travails as captain of a small fleet of ships supported by his quirky and likable lieutenants was a joy.

The only downside is that my reading list just went up by three books as I now need to track down the first two for some context and the last book to find out if Aldair ever rescues his dame from the mutineer who absconded with her into space.

aldair

Aldair and Thareesh in a hot air balloon scouting for the ship that got separated from fleet in a storm. Even the covers of the first 3 books make it impossible to tell what kind of petting zoo person Aldair is! (he’s a piggy man)

aldair 2

Corycia, Rhalgorn, Aldair, and Signar, shown in all of their beastness on the 4th volume’s cover, which was done in a completely different style from the other three. I kind of imagined Aldair looking a bit more dapper…

Guest Post – J. Comer: Review of Transit to Scorpio and The Suns of Scorpio by Kenneth Bulmer

The late Kenneth Bulmer (1921-2005) was a very prolific author, with more than 160 novels under his various names.  As ‘Alan Burt Akers’, he wrote fifty-two sword-and-planet novels in the Dray Prescot series between 1974 and 1997.  Later volumes (after #37!) were issued solely in German.  All are now available in omnibus volumes and as e-books. These include novels grouped into ‘cycles’ of three to five novels as well as stand-alone works. Reading the first two books reveals a competent grasp of adventure fiction.

After the Mariner and Viking spacecraft had made it clear that Mars was not Earthlike, writers of sword-and-planet fiction faced hard choices.  Michael Moorcock abandoned the field for straight-up fantasy; Mike Resnick decamped for science fiction and refused to reprint his Ganymede novels; Leigh Brackett took Eric John Stark to other stars.  Bulmer compromised: he created his own world, but made his stories old-school adventures.

The hero, Dray Prescot, is a sailor of the Napoleonic era transported to Kregen, a world of Antares (Alpha Scorpii) by the Savanti, a faction warring to rule that world.  He then has various adventures as he pursues Delia, a native princess.  Bulmer references Barsoom by having his hero trek to Antares (‘anti-Mars’).  Instead of arriving at random, as did John Carter, he is brought to Kregen and sent back to Earth.  His transits to Kregen at the behest of the Savanti and their rivals, the Star Lords, open and close many tales. Like John Carter, he is a swordsman and is also a sailor, with a modern grasp of race and gender issues.  He returns to Kregen, masters a nomadic horde, spurns a horny villainess, charms an elderly noblewoman, and seeks to find his beloved.  All this unfolds amidst a world of multiple societies and many intelligent species.  There are even sly digs at John Lange’s “Gor” novels.  Bulmer loses track of his hero sometimes and points to gaps in the ‘original’ tapes which Prescot is supposed to have used to record his adventures.  Birds serve as messengers of the warring factions, and scorpions crawl across the series, since Antares lies in the constellation Scorpio in the sky of Earth.

The second book brings Prescot to the Eye of the World, an inland sea full of rival nations.  Egyptian-ish Magdag seek to build colossi with armies of maltreated slaves, while the Sanurkazz command ships of war.  Prescot rows, battles, loses a dear friend, (and comforts his widow in a well-done scene) and commands ships in sea fights.  Will he find his beloved princess? Tune in next book!

These were pure fun, and, despite the fine craft of worldbuilding, not intended to be taken seriously.  If we can’t have adventures on Mars, with thoats and canals, then we can have them somewhere, and Kregen looks like fun!  I anticipate with pleasure the remaining volumes in this series. Recommended for all sword-and-planet fans.

The Force Awakens to Put Me to Sleep

In all of the ongoing discussions as to whether or not Rey from the Force Awakens was a Mary Sue, I seem to have missed anyone warning me just how boring Episode 7 was.*

Keep in mind, I’m someone who loved Rogue One and has gone to bat for it a few times – it restored in me a love of Star Wars I haven’t really felt since playing TIE Fighter. That said, if I HAD seen The Force Awakens, I probably would’ve skipped out on Rogue One.

Absolutely nothing in The Force Awakens seemed to have any real weight, and everyone was just sleepwalking through their roles. Han and Chewie looked as if they couldn’t wait for it to be over and done with. With Carrie Fisher’s passing, seeing Leia show up as tired and old and barely relevant to the story is even more of a gut punch and should’ve undercut anyone’s excitement that ‘hurr hurr, she’s a general now, because women are important in sci-fi for a change!’

Despite how much he’d been hyped everywhere I’d seen in fandom, Poe felt about as relevant as Biggs did before all of his scenes were cut.

Finn’s affections for Rey can only be excused as thirst, cuz she treats him like crap through the whole movie. He’d’ve been much better as an “I seen some shit” vet who’d finally had enough. He needed a better “God is not here today, Priest” moment.

Rey was more annoying than I’d expected because I’d never heard Daisy Ridley speak before. Her character comes off as a whiny scold. I disliked her from the moment she bullied that random desert nomad guy into giving her BB-8 for no reason. We’re told over and over that she’s special, but we’re never told why. We’re told Chewie likes her, and since Chewie is Han’s morality pet and supposedly a good judge of character, we ought to like her, too.

Starkiller was just there to have another Death Star in the background. It barely felt relevant. I don’t even remember if the not-Rebels were concerned about figuring out how to destroy it; it kinda felt like “it’s all good, we’ve got this, done this twice already”, so there was no tension.

No, the big secret everyone was after was Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts, because the Star Wars universe is obviously just as full as people obsessing over the canon as real life.

And what’s up with Snoke? Emperor just happened to have an ugly darkside giant tucked away somewhere to pick up the reins? No! I’d’ve much rather seen a Hellenistic Empire split between ex-governors and former moffs playing and being played by the Rebel Alliance against one another. Yet Hux and Kylo Ren are the best the Imperial remnants have to offer.

I’ve seen complaints that the characters in Rogue One were flat because they didn’t get much onscreen development. I think it worked there, though, because Rogue One relied on Tropes – you knew enough about the characters because you understood their functioning role in the story: Pilot, Heavy Weaponry Guy, Kung-Fu Dude, so on and so forth. It’s black and white cowboy hats and Henry Fonda’s blue eyes. The Force Awakens had nothing. It had neither character exposition/development nor fictional tropes to rely upon in the absence of development. As terrible as they were, the prequels were a hundred times better at character development and storytelling than The Force Awakens, and that’s saying something!

On a final note, Captain Phasma was a hell of a wasted character. How great would it be to see a Star Wars movie where the dashing rebel pilot ends up stuck with ice queen stormtrooper captain lady?

“Take the helmet off.”
“No…”
“I said take it off!”
::pretty dame under the stormtrooper helmet::
“I can see why the Empire would want to hide a pretty face like that.”
“Sh-shut up!”::angry blushes:: “I’ll have you executed when we get back to the Star Destroyer!”
“IF we get back to the Star Destroyer…”
::giant space monsters show up that they have to fight together before they fall in love::

Anyway…

@corduroyalist summed it up quite well: I found force awakens a disjointed pointless movie with the trauma of watching Han Solo be a loser & then die.

 

Rogue One Review (With Spoilers)

Star Wars Rogue One did something I did not think was possible: it made me feel excited about Star Wars again. Like, “I want to go out and grab a Star Destroyer model to build after I finish my next Gundam” excited.

I actually enjoyed Rogue One more than the last four Star Wars movies I’ve watched, at let me tell you, I’ve skipped a couple.images

Okay, yeah, it was not really pulpy, and as dumb as it sounded when those sites said “this is the first Star Wars movie about war”, they kind of had a point. This was not the Star Wars of the original trilogy, or the plastic and cartoony prequels and their spin-offs – this was expanded universe Star Wars: the Star Wars of TIE Fighter, X-Wing, Rebel Assault, and Dark Forces. In fact, it dawned on me when the blind Force Monk showed up: Rogue One is “Some Guy’s Star Wars d6 RPG Campaign: The Movie”, and I mean that in the best way possible.

There are no super powered characters here – folks rolled their stats 3d6 in order, and the casting choices reflect this. One of the striking things about Rogue One is how rough everyone looks; I mean, it really says something when Forest Whitaker is not the ugliest dude in your movie. Unlike TFA with all of the pretty but bland people, Rogue One’s cast is, while not traditionally beautiful, striking. Jeffro mentioned Jyn Erso having a fish-face, and once someone points that out, you can’t not notice it. I don’t know how to say this in a way that doesn’t sound mean to Felicity Jones, but the huge eyes, trout-pout and buck-teeth that together give her a touch of the Innsmouth look, give Jyn Erso a really distinctive appearance that’s in stark contrast to Daisy Ridley’s more generic Hollywood features. Jyn’s not a sexy, ass-kicking conventionally attractive Mary Sue who can do anything better than everyone else; she’s a weird, awkward girl who tries really hard and doesn’t give up, and you end up liking her for it.

It was kind of awesome having a Spaniard playing the male lead; every time he spoke, I kept thinking “My name is Inigo Montoya; I am looking for the plans to the Death Star!” The chemistry between Cassian and Jyn was subtle, never ham-fisted, but there were plenty of little moments, little glances that made me smile. I’ll admit, I was moved as Inigo and fish-girl held hands and embraced, watching the mushroom cloud of destruction roll towards them.

The rest of the characters filled the party nicely, again harkening back to the movie’s strong tabletop feel: Pilot, Heavy Weapons Specialist, Guy-Who-Likes-to-Play-the-Robot, and Guy-Who-Wants-to-Play-Eastern-Martial-Artist-in-Every-Game-Regardless-of-Genre. Seriously, the Force Monk is something I’d only ever really seen back in the 90s at the FLGS with people playing d6 Star Wars. His character worked, though, and frankly is far more like what one expected of the Jedi and wanted to see than what the prequels gave us.

Rogue One handled Vader much better than I could’ve expected. We got to see Darth Vader’s castle from Leigh Brackett’s Empire script, which was neat. We also get enough bits to reinforce the impression from New Hope that Vader thinks the Death Star is a dumb idea and Tarkin is an idiot who’s going to screw everything up. When Vader actually fights, he looks cool – he’s not jumping around flying all over the place like the prequels, and he’s not using the Force to throw hunks of trash at people like Empire. Vader was well done.

There were a few really bad spots, but most are easily forgiven with an eye roll (the criminals from the cantina running into Jyn and Cassian in the alley, R2 and C3PO’s cameo). Tarkin was not one of them. They really needed to find a better way to include Tarkin than having a body double with a creepy Peter Cushing Gollum face CGed onto him. While CG has reached a point where it can create photorealistic faces, it has not reached a point where movements and expressions are not noticeably and horribly out of place. CGI-face Leia was weird, but thankfully only one scene. Speaking of Leia, having her at the battle and having her Corvette be an escape ship smacks of continuity snarl (the next cut of New Hope will have Vader saying “You expect me to believe you’re on a diplomatic mission?! I was on your ship at the Battle of Scarif not 20 minutes ago!”) Also, would’ve been nice to have some bit about the rebels evacuating Dantooine and moving their base to Yavin 4, but that’s not as bad as the somewhat rushed denouement that leads straight into New Hope.

I can’t remember which blogger I follow who said it first, but I would much rather watch more movies about the characters from Rogue One than any of those from the originals, prequels or new trilogy. Which is a shame, because like so many RPG stories, this one ended in a TPK. In a way, I’m sad, because while this movie made me excited for Star Wars again, I don’t know what else there is to look forward to. I really don’t care about Episode VIII, and I find the promises that subsequent stand-alone films will focus on Han Solo and Boba Fett less than intriguing.* Now, if they announced a Marek Steele movie, I’d be all about that. For now, though, I’ll just have to wait and wonder. And check out how cheaply I can find a decent Star Destroyer model…

*:One interesting tidbit was the hint that there was another jedi out there and that jedi was a woman (and therefore could not have been Obi Wan Actually the Main Villain of Star Wars Kenobi). This could be interesting or terrible. Given how most of the movies have treated Jedi, I’m leaning terrible, but Rogue One was good enough that I may cross my fingers.

Brief Addendum:

Why I liked it better than Empire:

  • Seriously, the Battle of Hoth was the only good part of Empire, and Rogue One had its Battle of Hoth as the climactic ending instead of the first act.
  • Empire’s pacing is a damn mess and its timeline makes next to no sense
  • Despite all the love for the romance between Han and Leia, it drips with a lot of bad cheese and still has a lot of cringe; Jyn and Cassian were nowhere near as cringy
  • Star Wars becoming terrible can be pinpointed to the moment when Darth Vader started to use the force to throw giant hunks of trash Luke. From that moment forward, the Force stopped being mystical and became about moving garbage by pressing down-to-forward + punch. Blind Force monk felt way more true to the mystical rather than mechanical concept of the Force

Why I liked it better than Jedi:

  • C’mon, bro, we all know Jedi was trash!
  • Just Kidding
  • (Not Kidding)

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them: Bigger Potential Makes for a Bigger Letdown

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came so close to being a good movie that it hurt. It had so many things going for it, and all they needed to do was just fall into place to tell a story far better than any of the Harry Potters. But alas, it was not meant be! The refusal to take the last necessary steps into awesome territory and a final fifteen minutes that came crashing down around what had been built up, as though to telegraph just how badly I was about to be disappointed, managed to drag the whole thing into the rubbish bin. When I found myself thinking “Oh, my God, a pulpy story in the Harry Potter universe?!” I realized that there was no way I would not be disappointed, and no amount of finger crossing could save me.

Fantastic Beasts has a lot of stuff going for it, especially early on. In fact, up through the scene where they’re at the goblin speakeasy, I’m thinking “Man, this is fantastic!”

To begin with, FB starts essentially the same way as Mo-Sanshon!; an outsider crosses the path of a normal guy and drags him off on a wild adventure. Newt Scamander, a squirrely wizard with a menagerie of monsters enlists the help of the unwitting Jacob Kowalski to help him recover creatures that have escaped. Kowalski is the normal joe, everyman hero like the kind you’d see in the pulps – he was a part of the expeditionary forces in World War One, he’s a blue collar worker, and he has a dream of starting his own business.* Where these two cross paths is in the bank where Kowalski is trying to get a loan to open a bakery; at this point, we don’t know if Scamander is going to be a shifty villain or wild trickster, given the trouble he’s causing, but we know right away that Kowalski is someone we’re going to be rooting for!

Not only does it have the perfect pulp adventure setup, it’s got dames! Tina Goldstein is tough and no nonsense; she takes her job seriously and she’s capable – unfortunately, her compassion (and a bit of temper) had put her in a bad spot with her superiors and it’s shaken her confidence a bit. Her sister Queenie is smart and sexy, a powerful master of domestic arts (I know how this sounds, but watching her make dinner for Kowalski was absolutely one of the best scenes in the whole movie), and devilishly clever, but even though she can read people’s thoughts, she doesn’t resent men for thinking she’s a bombshell. She even falls for the normie every-joe!

The fact that Kowalski holds his own fairly well, a few bumbles aside, and isn’t reduced to a punching bag works out really strongly for a good chunk of the film. Unfortunately, the movie can’t fully embrace the fact that Jacob Kowalski is the real hero of the story. Wizards can do, get into, and get out of just about anything; Kowalski can’t, which is why the stakes for him as a mere mortal who’s won the heart of a gorgeous wizard dame are incredibly high and why he’s the one to root for. Unfortunately, when things reach their head with the uninteresting A-plot-that-feels-like-a-B-plot with whatshisname the evil wizard and the crazy orphan boy, Kowalski never gets his big-damn-hero moment that he desperately needs…that WE desperately need. Frankly, Scamander doesn’t get one either, and the whole unmasking of the bad guy as being some other bad guy felt incredibly anti-climactic. I didn’t care about the kid with the crazy chaotic magic powers or the guy trying to manipulate him; I cared about whether or not Kowalski would be able to break the no-normies-hooking-up-with-wizards taboo and if he’d get that bank loan!

Spoilers! There have been spoilers before, but I’m really going to spoil it now.

Even though the movie was starting to completely fall apart by the big wizard… conversation at the end, I’m thinking “Okay, there’s still a chance… there’s still a chance!” President Wizard Lady says ‘this is a disaster, we can’t wipe the memories of everyone in Manhattan’, and Scamander says ‘lol, yeah we can, cuz this thing I have’. Kowalski has to get wiped. There’s a teary scene as Kowalski steps into the rain where he’ll forget his big adventure and his love with Queenie. While Scamander gets pardoned and is allowed to go off back to England with his monsters and publish his book, the best he gets is an awkward derpy scene with Tina; we needed a moment of ‘Damnit all, New York is the publishing capital of the world, I’ll stay!’ with a big kiss on the docks. The final scene where Kowalski has his bakery with pastries shaped like the half-forgotten monster and a smiling Queenie shows up tries to bring things back around, but it’s nowhere near as good as we’d gotten to see him stand up to the President Wizard and say “I’ll have any dame I want, and I want her, and she wants me, and you wizards be damned if you’re gonna stop us!”

 

This movie came SO CLOSE to being what I wanted from a gonzo fantasy movie set in the Roaring 20s New York, and that’s what makes it hurt the worst. Frankly, the characters were far more likable than anyone else in the Potterverse. But one of the major problems the movie had was trying to work in a good versus evil conflict that just wasn’t nearly as interesting as the main good-guys and the host of cool, scary, and cute monsters. If they had completely excised the stupid and inane plot about Grindelwald pretending to be Graves and the kid who’d gone crazy supernova from being forced to hide his magic powers by a crazy magic hating orphanarium marm and just made it about tracking down a bunch of weird monsters that had escaped and undoing the damage they’d done, it would’ve been a much better story, because all of the parts of the movie focusing on the later were absolutely wonderful. Supposedly, there are going to be several more movies about Grindelwald, which sucks, because his storyline was the worst part of the movie that dragged the whole damn thing down. I don’t care about what the wizards do with boring generic evil wizard-guy, I wanted to see Scamander throw his British reserve to the wind and give Goldstein that hero’s kiss she obviously wanted and was literally crying because she knew she would not get.

*:Normal joes tended to be a lot more awesome back then; it’s a law of averages thing.

Black Gate Magazine Spotlights Cirsova in Their Summer Short Story Roundup

Last we saw them, with Issue #1back in April, I wrote “If this is what the first issue looks like, I expect future ones will blow me away.” Having just plowed through the 108 pages of #2, count me blown away.

One of the ongoing conversations about writing these days is the place of narrative storytelling. Personally, I’m for more of it, and it’s clearly something editor P. Alexander favors as well. If you prefer stories like tone poems, or with deep introspection, this is probably not the publication for you. Action, adventure, and vivid scene-setting are the hallmarks of every story.

Read the whole thing here: https://www.blackgate.com/2016/08/16/summer-short-story-roundup-part-one/

Or better yet, back us on Kickstarter for issues 3 & 4!