Cover Reveal: Barbarian Emperor

Newsletter readers and those who follow me on Twitter already know about my next release.  As a quick break from the Heroes Unleashed Universe, I knocked out a nice fantasy epic that features a gladiator clawing his way out of the arena, crossing half an empire and back, and confronting a derelict empire with sword in hand.

Along the way he must face the difficult choice between two enchanting women, and he must learn how to become the leader he was always meant to be.

This work can be enjoyed for the roller coaster twists and turns of a military fantasy adventure, but it also touches on some deeper themes.  The brotherhood of battle.  An Andersonian* Law vs. Chaos cosmology that touches every living soul, even if they don’t believe in it.  How to serve a beloved nation ruled by corrupt leaders.  This light fare packs some weight behind the veneer of action and suspense.

At heart, it deals with the strange dichotomy, the balancing act all men conduct when faced with the choice between barbarous effectiveness and civilized apathy.  In these polarizing times, it’s worth spending a little time asking yourself, “How barbaric would I become to save my civilization?”

This novel presents one answer to that question.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering whether it’s the right one or not.

*If you prefer the Johnny Come Lately term, one could also call this cosmology Moorcockian, as he borrowed extensively from Poul Anderson when he wrote the Elric series.

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Cirsova 8’s The Dream Lords, by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

Uitvlugt has become mainstay in the pages of Cirsova, with offerings going all the way back to The Hour of the Rat in the inaugural issue. This time around he takes the reader on a journey to one small corner of the Dreamlands, a strange village whose inhabitants serve alien and eldritch beings. With The Dream Lords, it’s easy to see why he has become a regular. A wandering adventurer passes through Leng and confronts…well, in fine otherworldly form he confronts creatures that aren’t really evil. They are just different, and they provide a kind of service with a subtle cost. It’s a refreshingly different take on the usual town full of cultists.

The one drawback is that the story reads like, and unabashedly is, just one chapter in a larger tale. Our hero is tracking his brother down to avenge the murder of their shared mother, and The Dream Lands represents a brief side-quest in that larger journey. While this particular chapter works fine as a standalone tale complete with introduction to setting and protagonist, rising action, and full denouement, the references to the wanderer’s overall goal detract from the tale as presented. They feel a bit like a commercial for a larger work, tacked on extraneous details that intrude on the story. A lighter touch, a more mysterious explanation for his wanderings, would have allowed the story as presented to breathe on its own.

Still, this is a minor nitpick of an otherwise excellent story.  And with a Kindle price of only $2.99, you’d be a sucker to pass up the issue.  Only halfway through, it’s already a bargain at twice that price.

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Cirsova 8’s Breaking the Accords, by Amy Power Jansen

With her people’s backs pressed to the sea, the Queen of a fallen empire convinces her high priestess to break the seal that binds a fell power. Locked away in previous generations, that fell power and her cousins nearly ruined the earth for mankind, and would have succeeded had not cooler heads prevailed. The terrible spirits of all nations were locked away as part of the titular accords, but our heroine’s people find themselves facing a terrible choice – accept annihilation at the hands of invaders, or save yourself by embracing a return to the savage ways of your ancestors.

That’s a dilemma that feels all too timely these days.

The faux-African set dressing works to lend this fantasy tale an extra level of remove from the ordinary, and Jansen was a knack for writing warfare in the spiritual realm that goes beyond the sort of force shields, energy blades, telekinesis, and lightning bolts typical of the magic duel genre.  When demons fight, they fight a war to the hilt, and it is in these scenes that the story shines.  The tale suffers a bit from the flat characterization of the earthly battles. A little more emphasis on the personal details, a few more moments spent with the people suffering at the hands of the invaders, or perhaps more signs of the rapacious nature of the invaders, any one of these would have anchored the story emotionally.  We are told that the fate of humanity – or at least one nation – hands in the balance, but Jansen can’t quite deliver the sense of impending doom that would make this story truly shine.

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Jack Ryan Closeout Spectacular

Episodes seven and eight manage to continue Jack Ryan‘s uneven trend.  A final showdown in which the villain’s plan slowly unravels, and an ultimate confrontation resolved though the sort of cunning instincts we’ve seen from Jack Ryan cap things off in a satisfying manner, even as these last two episodes confirm the romance subplot as the weakest link in the series.

The future Mrs. Jack Ryan was clearly written to appeal to one segment of the audience – the rootless cosmopolitan cool wine aunts – and they even mess that up.  The show pulls a head fake by presenting Blonde Doc as a huge fan of the casual sex version of Russian Roulette, and one who is only interested in that sweet State Department Logistics D.  She just wants to keep it casual.

Abort, Jack! Abort!

Which makes her outrage at discovering Jack’s real job as a badass CIA operative who strangles terrorists with their own intestines ring hollow.  She has done nothing to earn that trust and even pushed him away, so she has no call to react so forcefully when his deception is revealed.  The poorly written aftermath of the discovery instantly casts a pall over the phenomenally acted moment of discovery.  Both John Krasinski and Abbie Cornish manage to convey a wealth of deep emotion, all barely concealed due to the setting in which their mutual discovery occurs, and do so in a way that adds a considerable tension to an otherwise mundane moment of exposition.  Forget the plague bomb, we want to know what happens between these two star crossed lusters…oh.  She throws a fit that he took her at her word.

Which, in retrospect, might actually be a valid reaction for a woman in that situation.  Under normal circumstances.  The problem is really that the show never takes a moment to acknowledge that Dr. Cathy doesn’t have a leg to stand on here.  Jack takes her tongue lashing like a good little thirsty boi.   Later, he crawls after her and begs for a second chance in a scene that makes him look so weak it might be his soy-twin taking advantage of the resemblance to go full-male-feminist-ally on Dr. Cathy.

On the other hand, the show sneers openly at the idea of using Tinder.  Both characters grimace and express a contempt for that site that is refreshingly in accordance with the sort of virtues teevee needs a lot more of these days.  Score one for chastity, even if it’s a bastardized version of that particular virtue and expressed by characters who fail to live up to it…nobodies perfect, but at least in this one instance, they recognize the classlessness of empty hookup culture.  It’s not much, but at least it’s something.

The show also takes a moment to do something you rarely see these days.  It paints prayer as a good thing, a healthy thing.  Of course, it has to be Muslim prayer to prove Greer is “one of the good ones” and not that icky backwards Christian prayer.  Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a respectful admission of decent Christian faith in a Hollywood produced teleplay that wasn’t twisting the faith to more woke ends.  We all know why, so I won’t belabor the point, suffice it to say that its the sort of uneven delivery we’ve come to expect from the show.

Another oddity – the main terrorist’s son ratted out the Mom we’ve been rooting for this whole time.  He’s a dope and a chump who nearly got his mom killed and his sisters raped, but he has some sads, so somehow we’re supposed to care what happens to him?  A redemptive arc needs more than a few years.  It needs action to convey the redeemed one’s true change of heart and prove that he is worth rooting for.  Suleiman Jr. gets none of those.  Given the abrupt end of that arc, it’s entirely possible that he serves as the Big Bad a few seasons down the line.  The biggest crime here is the clumsiness of the attempt to manipulate the viewer’s emotions.

When you turn to the person next to you and ask, “So we’re supposed to feel sad now?”  That’s a bad sign, and it happens with Sulieman Jr. a lot.

There’s a brief moment that conveys far more pathos and tugs at the heart strings with far more power.  Everyone in my living room let out an, “Awww!” of pity, and it’s almost an afterthought.  One of Jack’s fellow analysts provides a HUGE clue, the last piece of the puzzle that makes everything fit together at long last, and he grabs his coat as Jack and Greer dash to make an important meeting…and then turns to find himself without a date to the big dance.  His shoulders sag, and it’s a moment of genuine disappointment that we share.  It kind of makes Jack and Greer look like jerks, too.

It works so much better than most of the character moments in the show, it must have been an accident.

But hey, it’s a spy show and we get nefarious plots, sudden twists and wheels within wheels.  We get globe-trotting adventure and splodey times and gut wrenching fist fights and tense negotiations.  If only Jack Ryan could deliver all of that with a genuine romance and without the sly winking wokeness, this show would earn a solid A.  As it is, plagued with so many disappointing moments, it just barely clears the hurdle to reach B-.

I’ll give Season Two, if we get one, a two episode chance to right the ship.

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Cirsova 8: Brandy and Dye, by Jim Breyfogle

The second story in Cirsova 8, Brandy and Dye by Jim Breyfogle, is a delight to read.  Two mercenaries get thrown into a tight economic battle between the providers of the eponymous Brandy and Dye.  Let’s look at the things that elevate this story above the usual fare:

The Setting:  Anyone who has read my novel Sudden Rescue knows that I’m a sucker for a strange terrain and ecology.  Breyfogle sets the action at the peak of stone spires rising thousands of feet above what might as well be bottomless canyons.  The few patch of land are connected by delicate rope bridges that present a host of opportunities for action and puzzle solving, and Breyfogle uses them all.  The ecology of the area gives rise to the confrontation into which he thrusts our protagonists.

The Factions:  Which brings us to our protagonists.  Partners, the man and the woman, mercenaries thrust into this situation serve as excellent viewpoint characters as, by their introduction, we are also introduced to the zero-sum game that pits Team Brandy against Team Dye.  Slowly, we realize that both sides have valid arguments even as both sides are guilty of a sort of strip-mining that will leave everyone in trouble unless a third path can be found among the needle-peaks.

The Characters:  Evoking a strong sense of the wild west, we get characters that harken toward prospectors and those that feel like farmers.  Vying for control of the berries that allow for either Brandy or Dye, but not both, they need a couple of touch hombres to slide into the picture, fight off the hot heads, and implement a “everybody not dead can win here” solution that works.  Breyfogle also avoids the all-too-common-these-days pitfall of a female partner who drives EVERYTHING and thus sinks into Mary Suedom.

That’s a pretty good trifecta, even without the well done action and the perfect dash of humor thrown into the mix for good measure.  Brandy and Dye is the reason I subscribe to Cirsova.

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Jack Ryan Turns Six

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan pulls off a neat trick in its sixth episode.  The conclusion of the show presents a four sided Mexican standoff with more guns and more seriousness than a Tarantino movie.  It also resolves a hell of a lot more satisfyingly than a Tarantino movie, which isn’t that high a bar to be honest.

Forget the plot.  The most important part of this episode is that we finally see Jack Ryan come into his own as a hero.  Where everyone else sighs and does the expedient thing, Jack seethes and chafes and lashes out at the situation.  He says the exact words that we want to hear a protagonist say when faced with the choice between the lesser of two evils.  “There has to be another way.”

Yes!

For that line alone, I forgive most of the sins of this show.  For all the usual Hollywood “no right side” silliness we’ve seen up to this point, watching Jack Ryan punch a rapist because he just can’t stomach working with him – even if it means failing to stop the next big terror plot – feels damn good.  And the villain’s protest, that he would make different choices with his life if only he were born in the luxury of Cincinnati ring hollow given that the words, “Geography is destiny,” are uttered by a reprehensible man.  Set against the sterling example of Jack Ryan, the rapist doth protest too much.  We are products of our actions, and being born in a palace or a gutter does not absolve us of our sins.

Screw the writers.  Perhaps they mean to make us think about our privilege and consider that “there but for the grace of God go I,” but I no longer care what viewpoint they are trying to sell.  The world is a hard place, and it is a hard place because of the decisions of men like Rapey McTrafficker, not the decisions of men like Jack Ryan.  Birthplace be damned, this episode could have come from the fevered mind of an alt-right writer without a single change.

Except for the lust interest.

Hoo boy, talk about a turd in the punchbowl.  The Future Mrs. Jack Ryan was clearly written to appeal to just one specific sort of viewer.  Okay, two.  You’d have to be a dried up old bitterbitch with a houseful of cats or the larval form of that particular species to find The Future Mrs. Jack Ryan appealing.  She’s a man, baby!  A hard swearing, hard working, cock carousel riding, relationship driving aggressive personality who lives life on her own terms and who don’t need no man.  Making her such a complete cartoonishly two-dimensional stock go-grrl really sucks the suspense out of the romance plot.  Jack Ryan is a wealthy, good looking, badass who beats terrorists to death.  We’re supposed to care if he can win the heart of this useless bint?  The Future Dr. Jack Ryan scenes have sunk to the level of ‘fast-forward to get to the good stuff’ scenes.

That’s particularly true given the writer’s decision to ratchet the Fail Dial up to eleven by showing this highly education and driven PhD with a brilliant mind…takes a really long time, in the wake of terrorists going full Aum Shinrikyo on a French Church no less, to imagine a scenario wherein two Arabic men would have any interest in an Ebola ridden corpse.  I mean, what use could middle-eastern men who steal corpses possibly have for a source of Ebola?


She does the right thing after a montage of frowny faced thought that would make Doctor House proud, but still.  Come on.

The inevitable, “Wait, you mean they don’t haul logistics techs out of lavish parties on Coast Guard helicopters and you’re really a highly competent CIA agent,” scene is barreling down on us like a freight train.  I can’t look.  Not after that aspect of the Jack Ryan character was handled so adeptly in the film Jack Ryan starring Captain NuKirk.  The best part of that movie was, “I’m a spy, honey.  And so are you.  We’re going to meet the Russian president in two minutes.  Don’t make us look bad or we’ll be gulaged.  kthx.”

That’s a hard act to follow, and I just don’t think Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has done enough legwork to get us to care what happens to Jack’s bang buddy the way that film made us care about that Jack Ryan’s young and attractive wife.

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‘Member Jack Ryan? Episode Five

The kids reminded me that we are long overdue for the next installment of Jack Ryan and the Sarin Gas Ensemble Show sponsored by Monsanto, doing our part to keep internet mobs gainfully employed since [redacted].

In  this episode, our main character makes her way ever so slowly toward the relative safety and generous welfare payments that make the European Union such a miserable place to live as French Lady Cop so artfully explained in a previous episode.  Meanwhile, in the B Plot of the show, Jack Ryan lays out a trap for Suleiman.

Now that I’ve had some distance and gotten over most of the woke aspects, which are considerably reduced compared to most modern drek, I’m elevating my opinion to a soft recommendation.  For all my cynicism, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan manages to produce at least one moment of gripping television per episode that makes wading through the clumsy bits worthwhile.  It’s an uneven show, and many of the scenes are built upon flawed premises, but it when it shines, it’s as good as anything on TV.

In this episode the best moment occurs when Jack pretends to be the criminal mastermind’s dead brother.  The result is a tense scene pregnant with possibilities as two very smart men test each other.  It’s as suspenseful and well written as anything I’ve ever seen on TV, with high stakes, real drama, and character moments galore.

And then there’s a flashback scene that seems designed to excuse or explain the evil mastermind’s origin.  He doesn’t get the job he wanted, because raciss.  Then the mastermind and his brother are shown to be engaging in illegal activity, are braced by two cops who can sense trouble when they see it.  The premise of the first seems to be that if only the old white bankers had given the Arab applicant a job, a church full of mourners wouldn’t have been gassed.  Except that the banksters didn’t trust the applicant, and given his later actions – nerve gasses a crowded funeral – they were right.  The latter scene wants the viewer to sympathize with the two young lads out for a chat, but they were engaging in two different crimes, and as such the cops weren’t at all in the wrong.  The disconnect between what we’re shown and what we’re supposed to feel is palpable.

Despite that, the tension as the cops begin searching the kid brother for evidence of a crime when we know the kid as a gun on him makes the scene work.  If you can shut off your brain.  Which, given the puzzle solving nature of the show, runs at odds to the general appeal of the show.

Likewise, we get treated to a scene with Sadface Drone Pilot in a diner with his wingmate Vasquez.  (Brief aside:  How impressive is the actress that played Vasquez in Aliens that she is the yardstick by which every tough-as-nails ladysoldier gets measured?)  We’re probably supposed to think she is tough as nails, the wise Latina who slaps some sense into Sadface Drone Pilot.  She is written as the mentor figure, the clear headed thinker who gets the job done, but she comes off instead as a complete psychopath.  Again the writers set themselves up for failure by pairing her off with Sadface Drone Pilot.  They have gone to great lengths to show us that his heart makes him human, and to then turn around and expect us to appreciate the view of his diametrically opposite number buries the potential power of the scene under a profound layer of cognitive dissonance.  If you want viewers to feel something, you can’t give them whiplash.

And again, the scene where Sadface Drone Pilot makes amends is powerful.  The restrained acting of the two men who don’t share a language conveys so much heart and warmth, and the eternal wisdom of the old soldiers on opposite sides of the trenches who understand each other harkens back to the images of old French and German soldiers meeting up at a café near the border every year to reminisce and lament the vagaries of war that they should have been forced to fight.

There’s enough good stuff in here that it’s worth watching, but the lack of a clear vision really hampers the show in some frustrating ways.  Let’s call it a solid B-.

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Littermates (Pt. 1 of 2)

It’s high time I got back to doing some short reviews and got caught up with my hard copy reviews, all too many of which languish in my to-read pile.

In issue number eight of this fine magazine, the editor’s thoughtfully present us with a space pirate tale that doesn’t quite reach anthropomorphic animal levels.  J. D. Brink’s Littermates uses the first person narration of the Captain of the space faring pirate vessel Lion’s Pride to deliver a straightforward skirmish between rival pirate crews in a nominally neutral space station.

Our narrator has a great personality, full of the salt and vinegar and colorful phraseology you’d expect from an old seadog.  Brink has knack for inventive slang terms that are descriptive and natural, and he uses this to great effect to create an atmosphere of sci-fi piracy that exceeds that of even the most faithful Northwest Smith character.  If anything, he doesn’t go quite far enough in that direction – our narrator has the salty seadog dial turned up to about eight, where a full ten, even with half the jargon incomprehensible, would have really made this story shine.  As it is, Littermates makes for a fun read with plenty of personality, great pacing, and enough violence to satisfy any reader.

Really enjoyed this one.  Would read again, and would look forward to part two.  Even though Part one ended at a suitable place and without anything resembling a cliffhanger.

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Not Tall Enough for the Wild Stars Comics

Are you up for a galaxy spanning multi-versal tale with dozens of characters, settings, and a whole lot of strange goings on? Have I got a comic series for you!

Michael Tierney first came to my attention with his modern man against gods tale, Shark Fighter, in Cirsova #2.  A somewhat dreamy tale of a scuba diver facing a threat far worse than a mere shark attack, it was one of the highlights of the issue.  His Bears of 1812 in Cirsova #5 (the Eldritch Earth issue) stands out for the criminally underused setting of a fantastic colonial era United States.

So it was without hesitation that I plonked my hard earned cash down on the digital barrelhead for the crowdfunding of Michael Tierney’s Wild Stars comic series.  I’m glad I did, because it’s a fun read, but it takes a lot more brainpower to get through than I’m used to using when reading funny books.  Like some of the best literature, it seems written more for the re-read than the first time through, unless you are prepared to go back and cross check events and characters mid-stream.

Essentially, it’s the story of a time-travel war.  Several realities are fighting for control of the future, and the somewhat disjointed nature of the earlier issues weaves together by the end of the series in one big showdown.  What I took for a framing device – a way to tell a bunch of different stories in different settings – turns out to be a carefully constructed narrative replete with call backs and foreshadowing.  I probably should have paid more attention to the first few issues, because the ending fell a little flat with my confusion over where all the pieces fit into the puzzle.

It’s a fun read, but be prepared to pay close attention if you get into it – you’ll get more out of your read through than I did mine.  I’m also hoping that Wild Stars: Force Majeure will help fill in a few gaps.  That was part of the Kickstarter, and I’m eager to see how it helps round out my understanding of what came before.

Stay tuned.  I’ll let you know

 

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Cultural Strength, Not Organizational Strength

Regular readers of the blog know that I’ve enjoyed a few titles from Alterna Comics based solely on the proprietor, one Peter Simeti, being a stand up guy who just wants to publish good stories.  This naturally put him square in the cross-hairs of Team Awful who dragged him up on the modern version of the Committee for Public Safety’s stage where they could give him the full Madame Defarge treatment for not denouncing large swathes of his somewhat limited fanbase.  His refusal to do so cost him more than a few of what he mistakenly thought were friends, including a few creatives whose works he published(!).

Thankfully, it also saw his sales skyrocket as Team Story-First leapt to his defense and showered him with sales.  Not just money, mind you, but the purchase of actual product.  His usual weekly sales of 200-400 jumped up to 18,000.  In gratitude for fans sticking by his side, he fired up the camera and spent three hours detailing his experience and thanking fans for their support.  It’s an interesting listen, an dyou can get the gist in the first couple of minutes.  What follows here is a subsequent video with less drama and more sales.  I can’t really recommend it over something like a Seabury Quinn short storyas recommended here, unless you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of the comics front of the culture war.

What’s worth pointing out is that, as you listen, all too many of the commenters fall victim to the myth of the monolith.  Out of a misguided desire to bring all of their interests under a common banner, the questions Peter responds to, and many he doesn’t, revolve around the possibility of Alterna publishing books by the owners of Comicsgate.

Stop.

Just stop.  Peter has a very different take on comics than the Comicsgatekeepers.  Both differ from the alt-comics produced by Arkhaven Comics under the mothership banner or the Dark Legion banner.  They don’t need to work together, and it’s better for everyone if they don’t.  What’s growing here isn’t a new Big Two, it’s an entirely new culture built along the new realities of marketing and sales, and given the hatred expressed by the foes of this culture, the long term viability of the culture requires diversity – genuine diversity – in every aspect.  All three prongs of the alternative have different goals and tactics, and they will see different amounts of success.  Some in the short term, some in the long term, and some not at all.

But give them space to experiment.  Not only does this attack on multiple fronts put additional pressure on the Big Two and their little cousins, the experimentation they undertake will help others find the weak points in the mainstream comic armor that they can exploit as well.  Staying small, nimble, and separated, also guards the nascent culture against coordinated attacks.  As one wag put it on the twit box, “If we’re all in the same house, they only need to burn one down to kill us all.”

All your friends don’t have to be friends with each other.  As a consumer, you don’t have to take sides.  You can drink Coke and Pepsi.  You can eat McDonald’s and Burger King.   You can enjoy Alterna Comics, and Arkhaven Comics, and stuff produced by the Comicsgatekeepers.  It’s okay!  Really!

Just make sure you don’t buy from people who hate you.

Like DC.

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