Secrets of the Nethercity – Backed!

One of the casualties of my nascent writing career has been my table time rolling them bones behind a DM screen.  To get a minor fix, I do still enjoy a good D&D read from time to time.  Lately though, even that limited amount of delving has suffered due to the dearth of quality material produced by companies that don’t hate me.

The flip side of the, “Don’t give money to people who hate you,” is, “Do give money to people who don’t.”  Given the way tabletop RPGs have been browbeaten by the hate mobs these days, it’s getting harder and harder to find new and worthwhile material suitable for the tabletop.  That’s where Alexander Macris steps in with, Secrets of the Nethercity, a fine new addition to the ACKsiverse.

For three thousand years, the secrets of the Nethercity have been hidden. Now the delving of man has breached the ruins, and the lore and treasures of the ancients wait in the darkness below for those bold enough to seize them. But an inhuman evil slumbers in that darkness, and the time of the Awakening is at hand….

It’s a big dungeon, but clocking in at 240 rooms geared for mid-level play it’s a little too small to be considered a mega-dungeon.  It’s also built for a more d20 style experience than this old grognard can enjoy, but as an old grognard, it’ll be a simple matter to streamline the thing for B/X.  If it ever hits the table, that is.  Just in case, I sprung for the hard copy, which is a requirement for the hasty notes and scrawled HP tracking in the heat of battle.

And if it never hits the table, this purchase will make for a fun read.  Macris knows how to write a functional adventure with an entertainment value holds up under the weight of tfw no players, without the need for extraneous details (read: the dreaded, “this room once held [long list of things] but is now empty.”)  Add to that the value of keeping the fertile ground of the tabletop hobby well watered so that it can outlast this temporary influx of social locusts who are like, totally into Big Bang Theory and all that nerd stuff, once they move on for other fields to scavenge.


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Sudden Danger – Now Live!

Princess Karenina never expected her honeymoon to include murdered frontier sheriffs, exiled mobsters, and murderous robots, but she never expected to spend her honeymoon married to one of the galaxy’s most stubborn smugglers.  A simple mission for the Star King’s spymaster turns ugly when she and E.Z. Sudden stumble onto a planetary conspiracy to steal the valuable land out from a quiet colony of communal scholar-farmers.

On sale now exclusively via Amazon, Sudden Danger continues the adventure started in the Happy Frogs Award winning Sudden Rescue.  It’s the story of a blue-collar long-haul space freighter captain and his surprisingly resilient new bride as they try to move forward in a universe plagued by genocidal robots, vicious mobsters, and roving shiploads of interstellar pirates.

With all of the thrilling fights and chases and escapes from certain doom you’ve come to expect from the humble and hardworking tramp space freighter captain E. Z. Sudden, and all of his princess’s charms, this novel touches on the deeper meaning of heroism, handled with a light touch that will leave you smiling and ready for more.

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More Alterna Praise – Lilith Dark

The second in my on-going affair with independent comics, Lilith Dark had few hurdles to overcome.  The concept of a brave little girl getting her swashbuckle on raises a lot of red flags in my mind.  The traditional narrative of these stories has lately given way to the same stronk wimmin who don’t need no may-an! message fiction that serves as kryptonite to well-adjusted readers.

I’m happy to report that Lilith Dark, written and illustrated by Charles Dowd, doesn’t fall into any of the usual traps.  Lilith is a normal little girl with an outsized imagination.  Her bravery smacks more of foolishness and naivete than trust in the guiding hand of plot immunity.  Her brother and sister are presented as annoyances – it is told from Lilith’s point-of-view, so this is a natural – but when push comes to shove, both prove to be as loyal and brave as their titular sister.

Lilith’s brother in particular bears the burden of ‘token cowardly boy’ that has become a prerequisite for modern storytelling, but never sinks to that level of cliché.  Instead, given the first opportunity to do so, he hitches his belt up and heroically strides into danger to save his younger sister.  His bravery proves unnecessary as the threat in his mind was greater than the threat in reality, but his ability to rise to the challenge serves as a useful example of how Lilith Dark avoids the pitfalls that snare so many comics creators these days.

The artwork is a bit cartoony, appropriately so given the target audience, and adds to the fairy tale nature of the thing.  Dowd’s illustrations stay well away from the flat and lazy artwork that seems to be all the rage these days and yes I’m looking at you, CalArts.

The pacing, characters, and threats in this story make for a perfect introduction to comic books for the younger set.  I read Lilith Dark in part through the eyes of my own five-year-old daughter, who laughed along with Lilith’s adventures and appreciated her bravery.  The ‘beasties’ in the story might have claws and sharp teeth, but they bring just the right amount of menace to thrill the younger set with the right amount of slapstick to ensure they don’t wake up in the middle of the night.  Though a little too childish for readers in the tween and older brackets, parents can rest easy knowing Lilith Dark hits the sweet spot for that four to eight-year-old range.

Now I’ve got to see if Mother Russia can make this a hat trick for Alterna.

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New Book Review At Castalia House

Today the Castalia House house blog hosts my review of one of the most creative alt-history novels that I’ve ever read, The Devil’s Dictum.  It’s a darkly humorous American Fantasy sure to please both the historyphiles and the cynics, although one wonders whether the latter doesn’t always devolve into the former.

It (the review and the book) are both worth a read.  Check it out here.

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Trespasser – Alterna Comic Review

My recent foray into Alt*Hero comics left me with a hankering for some new hard-copy sequential art to enjoy, and one of the better purveyors of said artistic style is Alterna Comics.  They’ve done a masterful job threading the Charbdyis of fans of SJW comic publishers (Marvel and DC) and the Scylla of fans of reactionary comic publishers (Arkhaven and D&C).  Granted, I’m a member of Team Scylla, but you have to give some respect to an apolitical outfit like Alterna that refuses to be sucked into the ongoing cultural war and instead focuses on content and sales.  Their business model depends on short run series printed on traditional comic stock paper with traditional art styles and coloring, and they deliver each title for less than half the competition.  At $1.50 per issue, picking up a series or two was a low risk gamble.

Trespasser, a four-issue series written by Justin M. Ryan with art by Kristian Rossi and lettering by DC Hopkins, follows a single father trying to raise his young daughter in the midst of an unspoken apocalypse.  The hows and whys of the end of the world are left vague.  No clear explanation is given, but the small details of dead cars full of bullet holes left to languish in a barn, the unremarked vestigial limbs of the adopted family dog, and the need to check one’s food with a Geiger counter all paint a bleak picture for our protagonists.

The dreary monotony of the constant struggle for survival shatters when one of the farmer’s snares catches an unexpected visitor – a gray alien whose capture sets in motion a series of unfortunate decisions for the farmer and his daughter.  The story that follows is grim and weird in the best traditions of the Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone with all of the heart and authentic character moments amid the confusion that made those shows so entertaining.  Like those low budget shows, Trespasser eschews action and adventure for the character drama, suspense, and mystery, with only a few glimpse of the adventure to be found in the wider world beyond.

The art of Trespassers conveys a sense of loneliness and dread throughout the tale, and the verbalized information dumps as the farmer and his daughter talk to themselves work well.  Instead of a clumsy method of exposition, they serve as a reminder that the farmer and his daughter are alone, have been for a long time, and aren’t entirely sane by our pre-armageddon standards.  Despite its efficient storytelling, The Trespasser’s ending feels a little rushed, with a final resolution that skips over an incredible story that this reader hopes will be fleshed out in a subsequent series.

At six bucks for the entire run, this series costs less than some single glossy issues by the power studios, and it delivers far more entertainment in its pages than its price warrants.  It’s also available in an omnibus through Amazon.

I’m looking forward to reviewing the other series ordered at the same time as Trespassers, a more light-hearted comic aimed at a younger audience, Lilith Dark.  I also enjoyed this series enough that I plan to pick up more titles from Alterna, specifically Mother Russia.  Available through Alterna Comics’ ETSY store, you can also order them from your local comic book shop as well.

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When Did I Become A Comic Book Fan?

Or, more precisely, when did I re-become a comic book fan?

Like many Gen-Xers, the bright colors and heroic escapades of pre-1980 comics called to me from spinner racks in grocery stores and the last few lingering drug stores, a few of which even retained their soda fountains and counters.  When the comics made their big shift to specialty stores, usually dingy low rent places run by men with more love of the medium than business sense, I didn’t follow them over for a full decade.

Part of that was discovering tabletop RPGs and dedicating the rare trips by Mom to the local game shop, but part of it was also that by the time I had the money and self-owned transport to get back into comics, the publishers were chasing the quick and easy collector dollars.  The fun and adventure of the comics I’d fallen in love with had given way to the drab and depressing all grimdark all the time mid-90s nihilism, so I stayed away for another two decades.

I’m back, baby.  In the last few months I’ve backed three comic books:

  1. Vox Day’s Alt*Hero  –  Hey, the guy pays me to read the books he publishes.  Plus, he’s a great writer.  Even if it takes the production a few months to find its legs, you can count on Vox’s world to be well thought out, his characters believable, and the action fun.  So far, I am not disappointed.
  2. Cirsova’s Wild Stars III – C’mon, it’s Cirsova.  The man has an eye for storytelling, for the fantastic, and for the sort of old school adventure that gets the blood pumping.
  3. Chuck Dixon’s Ravage! Kill All Men – Normally my media preferences lie on the PG-13 side of the scale, but lost worlds are a favorite setting of mine.  And the couple of audio books written by Chuck that I voiced, a vampire novel(ahem) and a zombie novel (ahem) showed a nuance and consideration, and a flare for innovation in tired genres that allayed any fears that Ravage! might be selling titillation at the expense of storytelling.

Once they get a few more issues into the mix, I’ll be scoring Dixon’s Right Ho series as well.  I just want to give them a few more months and maybe buy the trade paperback for maximum fireside reading.  I might even back van Scriver’s Cyberfrog if it wasn’t so pricey.  At  $110,000 funded in just two days, he’ll just have to get by without me.

So what’s the deal?  What brought me back in – other than the obvious charm of these independent efforts to revive a dying industry?

What else am I going to do?

Seriously – those of us following a policy of, “Don’t Give Money To People Who Hate You” are being boxed into ever tighter corners.  Can’t watch TV.  Can’t go to the movies.  Can’t even enjoy vast swathes of tabletop gaming.  (At least I still have hex and counter wargaming.)  What’s left over, independent authors, can only fill so many hours.  Sometimes you just need a little bite-sized entertainment.  Sometimes you want somebody else to do the heavy lifting of visualizing the action for you.  And thanks to the miracle of western civilization and the technology it made possible, you don’t have to suffer through films that sneer at you, through comedy shows that hate you, or through comics that insult you.

We don’t need Los Angeles.  We don’t need New York City.

All we need is each other and a few brave creatives to throw their work out there.  With the support of good men everywhere, we can still right this sinking ship of pop culture.


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“Well Worth Checking Out”

One of my short stories found a loving home at Milhaven Press.  Specifically in this month’s new release, “Tales of Suspense“.  Milhaven has adopted a rather clever quarterly schedule for their short fiction.  Unlike the ‘everything goes so long as it’s action’ of a StoryHack, or a focus on the fantastic as seen Cirsova, Milhaven rotates genres by packaging each quarter along a theme.  The first edition, Tales of Wonder would fit on a shelf alongside Cirsova or Planet Stories.

This second installment focuses on stories of mystery, crime, and espionage, and features nine stories along those lines including another Karl Barber story by yours truly.  This time around, Karl goes up against a criminal underworld using a pizza place as a front for their dirty work.  Those of you tuned into the conspiracy theory wavelengths can guess the relevance of the location.

As reviewed by the always trustworthy Misha Burnett, a regular contributor to Cirsova Magazine and a fine author in his own right:

This isn’t “retro-pulp” where the authors are camping it up and leering at the audience to make sure that everybody knows they are just making fun of that kitschy old-timey junk–these are stories in the spirit of Bradbury and Lovecraft and Frederick Brown.

…these are not pastiches or parodies that randomly drop hardboiled gangster slang into a stew of moral ambiguity. There is irony here, and some black humor that reminds me of Roald Dahl’s stories for grownups, but it’s not poking fun at the form. These are stories that would be at home in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

Go read the rest of his review, and then stick around for more reviews and thoughts on writing.  Misha is top notch, and his advice has helped me round out my own written word in a lot of ways.

But first, pick up your copy of Tales of Suspense, and settle in for some of the best new author voices on the market today.

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Wild Stars III

Cirsova is at it again:

Michael Tierney’s Wild Stars have a history in print going back nearly 35 years. In the Wild Stars, the stakes are high and the scale is grandiose. Aeons ago, a godlike being led an exodus to stars—the Wild Stars. Unbeknownst to those who remained on earth, mankind flourished in space, but it also found new dangers and new enemies.

Michael’s new novel, Wild Stars III: Time Warmageddon, picks up where II left off, in the future history aftermath of the Brothan/Artomique war, but can be read as a standalone story in the Wild Stars universe.

I am absolutely thrilled to be working with Michael Tierney to put out this new story. Cirsova is all about high-octane action sci-fi adventure, and Wild Stars delivers.

It’s an exciting and brave new world out there in publishing land, and five years from now there are going to be a lot of people wishing they had had Cirsova’s foresight, because catching up to this publisher will get harder with every passing publishing season.  This project might not have the raw number of backers of a Jawbreakers or Alt*Hero, but it’s quality will stand alongside them without shame.  If Cirsova Magazine is any indication, it will more energy, creativity, and adventure to comics than any five mainline titles combined.

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Coming Soon: Sudden Danger

I have good news for those of you who enjoyed my first full-length novel, Sudden Rescue, winner of the prestigious Happy Frog Award.  Sudden and Karenina return in their first action as members of the Star King’s intelligence service.  Sudden knows that every simple job has the potential to get real complicated real quick, especially when a guy has to show his naïve and adventurous new wife the ropes.  In Sudden Danger, the two of them uncover a hidden conspiracy on the fringes of the Ragged Edge – a plot by the local corporation to steal the land of a few humble farmers that leads them into a larger web centered in the very court of the Star King.  This novel’s look at one small corner of the Sudden-verse delivers all of the thrilling fights and chases and escapes from certain doom you’ve come to expect from my work, and the deeper meaning of heroism handled with a light touch that will leave you smiling and ready for more.

Those happy few, that band of brothers that signed up for my newsletter saw this cover a few weeks ago (hint hint).  Get in on all the latest news and early updates by entering your email into the field on the top of the right hand side-bar today.  It’s what Sudden would want you to do.

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Confusion in Cell Block 99

Give Brawl in Cell Block 99 credit, it’s a gutsy movie. It has the guts to make the primary hostage of the film an unborn child – that this conceit slipped past the Hollywood gate-keepers astonishes me. It has the guts to cast Vince Vaughn as a near-superheroic brawler – despite his age and soft physique. It has the guts to cast the bad guys as a Latino drug cartel – rather than the near-obligatory Russian mafia that seems responsible for 99 percent of American crime these days if Hollywood’s output is anything to go by.

(Spoilers: It isn’t.)

You have to respect a film that takes as many risks as this one. The list continues. The protagonist is a straight up drug running bagman. His wife isn’t a stronk wimmin who don’t need no man. The lead pair actually love each other and fight for each other. The first half of the movie is a slow burn character drama that leads to a second-half bloodbath as brutal as any put to film. The secondary henchman is a stomach-churningly emotionless abortion doctor.  It’s both a slow-build character study and an over-the-top gore fest all at once. This film does so many things that simply aren’t done that it’s hard not to recommend it.

And yet…after some serious consideration, I can’t recommend it.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (available on Amazon Prime) starts with a down on his luck tow-truck driver, who in fine Country-Western fashion loses his job and finds out his wife has been cheating on him on the same day. His response is measured and provides the first real handle on the character. We learn his marriage hit troubled waters after a miscarriage, but we also see them begin to work things out and choose to salvage the wreckage of their marriage.

Brief aside – the casting doesn’t work here. Vince Vaughn only has ten years on Jennifer Carpenter (the wife), but she looks so much younger than he does in this movie that it took me several minutes to understand that she wasn’t his daughter. Kudos to Carpenter for playing romantic leads into her late 30s, but if Hollywood is going to keep pushing May-November couples on screen (hello again, American Made!) they’ve got to learn how to distinguish husband-wife from father-daughter with more speed and clarity.

So we’re given reasons to root for this struggling couple, and it’s enough for us to forgive the fact that Vince Vaughn is a drug runner. He seems troubled by his career choice, which helps us sympathize with him, even if we can’t forgive him for helping to destroy the fabric of America. It also helps that the heavies in this film are shown to be uncaring, vicious, and stupid monsters. If the film had been consistent in this regard, I might actually have been able to recommend it.

As it stands, the film tries too hard to be gritty, and makes a few strange choices that suck the burgeoning emotion out the experience. What’s left is another schizophrenic film that elevates internal conflict above emotional manipulation.

That’s not a compliment. Movies are supposed to be manipulative. When we got to the movies, we are paying to be manipulated. We pay for a comedy trusting that the film will manipulate us to laugh. We pay for a romance trusting that the film will manipulate us to feel the love. We pay for exciting films because we want to be excited. The only manipulation this film provides revolves around confusion. If you want to be confused, go see a mystery. A straight-ahead action film stiff-arms any attempts at audience engagement when it fails to ground the protagonist’s struggle in doing the right thing.

Two examples from this film help illustrate.

  1. Our hero has been remanded to medium security prison.  He needs to be transferred to the nearby maximum-security prison by showing himself to be a raging psychopath.  He can do this by beating the holy hell out of the sadistic guards that surround him.  The set-up is there, but moments before the pay-off, the worst of the guards is given several moments to show a touch of humanity that sucks the cathartic release out of his defeat.  The heel-face ruins the emotional impact of the fight, turning it from a well-deserved come-uppance to a sad and nauseating display.
  2. Later, our hero needs to moved from Cell Block 56 to the worst, blackest hole in the maximum-security prison.  He makes a reasonable request of a violent gang, knowing that his request will spark a fight.  The tension of the fight carries far more weight than the previous one specifically because it’s more fun watching people who deserve a beat-down get one than it is watching a decent guy get beat down.  For decent people, anyway.

Sometimes they get it right. Sometimes they get it wrong.

In the final analysis, despite everything the movie does right, those repeated little mis-steps and risks that don’t pay off cost my firm recommendation. The barrage of difficult choices thrust upon Vaughn’s character left me repeatedly thinking, “I don’t know if I like that.” It became a litany that I still feel when thinking about it, and as a result I don’t know if I feel like recommending it.

Hey, Brawl in Cell Block 99, you succeeded in manipulating me into feeling very conflicted about you.  Congratulations on that, I guess?

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