Category: reviews

Stranger Things 2: The Belated Review

Here we are, more than a week after the release of Stranger Things 2: The Enstrangering, and thanks to the magic of Netflix and a culture that struggles with portion control, talking about this show feels like old news.  My own family, dominated by young girls, followed the cultural trend on this one.  Their old man prefers to portion out his enjoyment and savor each episode for a spell before moving on to the next.  After day 8 and episode 8, it’s time for a general review.

It was fine.

The decision to elevate the threat from one flower-face to a pack of flower-face dogs led by a sky-spanning thing with roots that undergird the entire town was a great decision.  It certainly raises the stakes on the danger posed by the creatures of the Upside Down, and with a sympathetic Lab Director, we even get to raise the power level of the resistance, even if that more organized resistance turns out to be no real aid.

The addition of Sean Astin as a third point on a love triangle for the adults was a nice touch, as was his character’s ready acceptance of the supernatural.  That guy barely blinked, and didn’t waste a lot of time in shock once the proof of the supernatural was put in front of him.  That made for a doubly nice touch given that he was shown as a smart guy throughout the series.  Typically, writers would knock 40 points off his IQ just to advance the plot, but they didn’t do that here.

Winona Ryder’s performance was much better this go-round as well.  Instead of the one-note panic-stricken maniac, she was allowed a much more grounded and expansive role.  She provided some much needed support for the kids, and we know from experience that the crazed trashing of her house represents an important part of the monster puzzle.  We still get that Lovecraftian vibe of a person who only looks crazy because they have seen beyond the veil of reality that stories like this need, but without the overblown misery porn of Winona chewing the scenery.

Naturally, with another eight hours to fill and most of the relationship drama resolved in season one, they felt the need to add new characters.  The skater girl and her Steve-To-The-Max older brother made sense from a drama perspective, but both represent deeply flawed characters from a storytelling standpoint.

Which makes for a nice segue into how the writers dropped the ball on the 1980’s storytelling vibe.  As Hollywood is wont to do, they simply couldn’t resist telling a Current Year story set in Current Year Minus X.  The new girl had to be both tougher, braver, and more geeky than the four boys.  Her older brother had to be given a moment of semi-redemption by showing he isn’t the bad guy – it’s his father that’s the bad guy!

Naturally.  God forbid you have a father on TV that isn’t either grossly incompetent or inexplicably vile.  Even the adoptive father (Sheriff Hellboy) morphs from reasonable and friendly and wise lawman to irrational and shouty once he dons the mantle of fatherhood.  The only guy who approached the realm of decent father, Sean Astin, was a comic relief character only briefly allowed a moment of heroism and sacrifice.

The inability of storytellers to craft a decent tale that features a competent and loving father is a massive red flag that once you notice it, you can’t stop seeing it EVERYWHERE.  We can all connect the dots between these observations and the recent revelations about the sorts of critters who call the shots in Hollywood, so I won’t insult your intelligence by detailing the connection here.

What did Steve do?  What did New Girl do?  What did New Steve do?  (And no, giving Steve his final episode beat down doesn’t count.)  At least Sean Astin got to have a moment of heroism, but there were way too many characters doing way too little.

There were also way too many missed opportunities.  Sure, we can forgive a few characters being tight-lipped.  The kid impregnated by the monster.  The kid raising a small monster.  That’s what they do, but given the huge emphasis placed on the “Friends don’t lie,” that riddle the series, when the revelations dropped, everyone shrugged, and the viewer was left with no real payoff.

Which is also true of the lead-up to the next season.  The monster isn’t defeated, only locked outside for a little while.  Everything they went through, all of the motions from the first season that the characters repeated in this second season just bought them a little time.  Perhaps it is in keeping with the 1980s monster movie tradition, but that’s one tradition that made people roll their eyes thirty five years ago, and it’s one tradition that hasn’t changed.

So, in the final analysis, Stranger Things 2 is fine.  It’s better than most of the drek on TV these days, but it is not without some heavy flaws.  If you can ignore the usual Hollywood foibles and antagonism to middle-America, then there are worse ways to spend eight hours.

But break it up a little, would ya?  Go outside and take a walk or something instead of sitting in front of the TV for eight hours for God’s sake.

The Worms of Heaven

Misha Burnette’s “Book of Lost Doors” series has become my dessert reading.

A large chunk of the reading that I do these days is dedicated towards a purpose.  I’m beta-reading as many novels as possible.  I read to help the Castalia House Blog readers find the good and avoid the bad.  I read one book a month for the PotMB Club in order to get fresh perspectives and bond over a common title.  With all of that reading, it’s rare that I can sit down and enjoy the pleasure  of a good read for its own sake.

And a good read doesn’t get much better than this series.  Supermutants powered by extradimensional elder gods running around the unseen corners of Saint Louis and engaging in the sort of political chicanery that made Vampire: The Masquerade LARPing so popular for so many years?  What’s not to love?

It’s that rare sort of series that starts off with glimpses of the weird, and then the more Misha pulls back the veil, and the more sense you can make of what’s going on, the weirder it gets.  Most urban fantasy stories become more mundane the deeper into the eldritch corners of the world you go.  That’s true to a limited extent in the “Book of Lost Doors”, but only because even supermutants need a day job if they want to keep food on the table.  Which leads to an odd contrast between the regular joe mutants – like the superdense Blue Metal Boys who run a machine shop – and the high-powered executives that engage in corporate espionage and all of the petty and not-so-petty crimes associated with it.

And all of that – the action, intrigue, mystery, and adventure – all of it carries a weight far beyond those of most stories of this nature.  You care more about all of it because Misha deftly conveys the characters and the relationships with masterstrokes that don’t just breath life into his characters, they make you care about them.  Even the really, really weird ones.  It’s a shame more of the New Wave writers couldn’t balance the character studies with action with the same skill as Misha, because if the guys in the 1970s could do what Misha does, I’d probably be heading up the NuWaveRev right now!

Cirsova Four, Part Four

With the release of the fifth issue of Cirsova looming on the horizon, I’d really better start moving on these story reviews.  My reading backlog isn’t getting any smaller!

Lost Men

P. Alexander really doesn’t care for your genre distinctions, and just to prove it (again), he follows a weird fantasy epic up with a curious retelling of the story of Peter Pan and Captain Hook.  Eugene L. Morgulis plays with the notion of a grown-up Peter Pan in a way that makes the film Hook look even worse by comparison than it does on its own.  This story is one of those curious cases of deconstruction done in a loving manner that takes nothing away from the original.  It is as much an homage as it is a deconstruction, and that’s a neat trick.  This whimsical version of the classic might be one of my favorites from this issue.

…Where There Is No Sanctuary

Superficially, the plot of this story shares much with the earlier Cirsova tale, A Suit of Haidrah Skin.  Both feature a villainous wizard-astronaut(?) in a high tower-rocket(?) that needs to die to end his reign of terror.  Where Rob Lang went with a weird tales vibe and a far-flung, perhaps post-apocalyptic setting, here Howie K. Bentley uses a dark-age setting and feel to give it a much more mythic feel.  There are a couple of other parallels that are best left as an exercise for the reader, the better not to spoil any surprises.  The real take away here – the one well worth remembering – is that these two themes on the “assault the wizard’s tower” plot demonstrate there are countless ways to tell the same story.  The real question is not whether a writer has re-used an old plot, but whether or not he has infused new life into that old plot, and this issue of Cirsova features two such instances. 

Dust of Truth

Joyce Frohn takes a ‘barbarians raid the civilized lands to secure plunder’ tale, rolls in a romantic angle that gives the plundering a more personal motivation, sprinkles it with a bit of first-use-of-gunpowder spice, then botches the story with a completely pointless gender swap.  The women in this tale act like men, and the men act like women.  That sort of swap can work, if there’s a reason for it, and this story offers none.  Note that the complaint here isn’t that ‘girls can’t be heroes’; this is the fifth such story in Cirsova, but it’s the first instance of female protagonists that felt forced.  It’s also the first in which the men act like cowering simps or stupid degenerates, and the first in which that message was delivered with all the subtlety of a hammer to the face.  It’s a shame, really, the story itself had a lot of potential, but the awkward gender swap and expectation of an explanation for this world’s role-reversals pulls the reader’s attention away from the narrative.

Cirsova Four, Part Two

My continuing quest to review every story in Cirsova’s fourth issue has me feeling a little nervous.  I fell in love with the first two issues, and enjoyed the third, but this one is off to a rocky start.  The first story was so-so, the second one pretty darn good, and now the next two have me wondering where the magic went.

The Unfolding of the World, by Harold R. Thompson

This is a short story that felt like a small story.  The basic premise, a soldier of fortune exploring the buffer-state hinterlands, is solid.  Somehow, despite the large scale of the tale, it just felt too darn small.  Exploring a poorly mapped area at the edges of an empire, and clashing with the great civilization beyond should evoke a much greater scale and drama than this story manages to achieve.  A one paragraph side trek or two, or maybe a short passage stretching out the journey there or back again, would have gone a long ways towards establishing higher stakes in the story.  Had the fantasy nation been fleshed out as well as the characters, this would have been a real gem of a story.  As it is, it feels more like a lone wanderer finding a strange small town, and escaping from it to no real purpose.  Harold’s characterizations are great. His writing is solid, and it isn’t a bad story.  It just felt small and inconsequential. 

The Sands of Rubal-Khali, by Donald Uitvlugt

A woman captured by slavers who escapes into the hands of a bounty hunter and then clashes with an ancient sorcerer in his tower fastness hits all the right notes, but this story has the opposite problem of the previous.  There’s just too much going on.  Our heroine is on a fantasy world, but she is a spacer from another planet, and there are references to historical cultures as well.  Throw in at least one alien/fantasy species that isn’t given quite enough description, and you wind up with a lot of extraneous detail that interferes with the story itself.  This reads like a short story written for people who are already familiar with the setting and its background.  It feels like there’s this big, beautiful setting out there, but we get the barest hints of it, few of which are particularly germane to the story before us. Combine that with the constant uncertainty of where the heroine is going and why, and you get a tale that feels far more disjointed on first reading than it really is.  While writing this review, I went back and re-read it, and that second reading – when I knew why everyone was behaving as they did – was an improvement.  Unfortunately, saying the story needs to be read twice to be enjoyable just shifts the criticism to a new angle, leaving this story not quite up to Cirsova’s typical high standards.

Review: Sword and Flower by Rawle Nyanzi

Sword and Flower, by Rawle Nyanzi, represents a huge load off of my mind. Rawle is one of the earliest adopters of the Pulp Revolution, and for me he represents a chance to get a good, solid assessment of whether this is really the early days of something special or a group of internet blowhards and posers mistaking meaningless trolling for honest analysis and workmanship. Granted, you’ve got successful authors like Brian Niemeier, Karl Gallagher, and Brian K. Lowe, all of whom were doing their thing before the term Pulp Revolution had even been coined. You’ve got magazines like Cirsova pumping out great stuff, too. It’s gratifying to stand side by side with proven quantities like that. But what about the fresh, new blood? Are these really the kinds of people one wants to associate with? Or are they just about of second-raters clinging to a thematic hook to cover their shoddy workmanship?

Enter Sword and Flower, by Rawle Nyanzi.

It’s not perfect. The stakes are unclear, partly due to the manner in which its protagonist finds herself thrust into a strange and alien world where a Puritan village struggles to fight off a demonic army. The near immediate introduction of miraculous healing drains the impact of wounds that might add to the tension and drama as well.

There’s a little too much telling and not showing, and sometimes at awkward moments. In the first chapter a young girl uses magic to heal a wounded warrior, and we’re immediately told, heavy handedly at that, that she has a romantic interest in the warrior which he does not reciprocate. Later, this becomes clear through her actions and words. By front loading the exposition, Nyanzi denies the reader the mystery of why the girl risked everything to save that particular warrior at that particular time.

Some of the emotional moments slide past with little impact on the action. When one of the biggest heroes of the piece dies, no one bats an eye. That hero gets an appropriate epilogue, but the death doesn’t faze the two heroes during the final confrontation. If the characters in the story don’t feel anything over the death of a major character, that’s a sign that the reader shouldn’t either.

Part of the issue here may be cultural. The Sword and the Flower wears its anime influences on its sleeve. It may be that the lack of emotional beats and light and airy combat sequences are considered a feature of the genre and not a bug. Speaking as somebody with little experience of the genre, I can only judge it based on how well it resonates as a piece of narrative fiction. My mind’s eye did not see anime characters posed against garish backdrops, but flesh and blood people. That they failed to act as flesh and blood people, but instead acted as animated ones set in a universe full of very different assumptions, could very well be true.

Bear in mind, that this is an enjoyable read. You don’t have to be well versed in anime tropes to appreciate the story. It works well even for those of us who don’t appreciate the anime aesthetic or assumptions. The story has drama, the story has emotional beats, and the story has plenty of, “show don’t tell”. The above criticisms are not meant to suggest what’s missing altogether, but rather what the story could use more of. 

That said, let’s look at what it does have.

It’s certainly creative. You’ve got Japanese sorcery, Christian soldiers, Valkyries, clerics, and bizarre extra-dimensional living fortresses. That’s a heck of a recipe, and yet all of those disparate myths and legends are sewn together to make a seamless whole. Not a single one of those items feels out of place or shoved in at random – a common failure of ‘kitchen sink’ style tales.

The action sequences are stellar. The action rides along at a fast clip, and within each sequence, we know why the combatants are fighting. The fortunes of each fight ebb and flow, and although the outcome is never within doubt, each combat features a surprise or two along the way, keeping things from feeling predictable.

The characterizations are great. Each of the major characters is distinct from the next, and they each have plausible and believable motivations. Even the Puritan villagers’ frustrating hostility towards the sorcerous girl that saves them, are presented in a sympathetic light. Over the course of the story, thanks to the compassion shown by the protagonist, one begins to understand them, even if that understanding doesn’t make them any less frustrating.

The take-away here is that Sword and Flower is a great story. It’s easily on par with anything the major publishing houses are producing these days. It would have fit right in on the pages of a pulp magazine of old. It’s well worth the price of admission on Amazon.

But it’s not just a fun read that hews to my favored aesthetic. It’s a vindication that the people driving the Pulp Revolution forward really know what they are doing. It’s validation that Rawle Nyanzi isn’t just talking the Pulp Revolution talk, but he’s also walking the Pulp Revolution walk. It’s verification that the judgement of the people within the movement isn’t clouded by friendship or nostalgia.

This is one reader that’s looking forward to watching Nyanzi improve as a writer. He’s already pretty damn good at it.

Tough Love

A few weeks back I had the misfortune of writing an honest review for a book that I really wanted to like.  The author is a great guy, and his book hit a lot of the right notes, but just didn’t work.  I was concerned that my rationalizing the need for a negative review was just that – rationalizing.  

This past weekend, Rawle Nyanzi reviewed Forbidden Thoughts, and the results were messy.  Like me, he loves the authors, but couldn’t in good conscience recommend the book.  When he mentioned it on social media, it sparked a bit of conversation that’s worth highlighting:

That’s a critical point.  Many of us involved in the fight to make sci-fi and fantasy great again are relative neophytes at adventure fiction.  Our early works shouldn’t be our best works.  As Rawle says, we’ve got to do better, and keep pushing each other to get better.  Unearned positive reviews provide a brief spark of satisfaction, but honest negative reviews that push us all to improve provide a long-term benefit not just to the author, but to the readers who deserve the best we have to offer.

So let this be an open call for negative reviews.  They might be harder to write, but decent writers who can take one on the chin and keep coming back for more, appreciate them just as much.  I know I do, and if you don’t believe me – just try me:

You can review my latest novella, The Sorceror’s Serpent, right here on Amazon.

The Yanthus Prime Job

It looks like this blog may just be turning into a book review blog.  Things are pretty crazy right now what with the audio book recording, trying to finish “Five Dragons” before the end of the year – a long shot, to be honest – cranking away on a couple of sooper seekrit projects that will be revealed in the new year or forever hidden…oh, and family and overtime in the salt mines. 

Those are all excuses.  To be honest, in the last few months I’ve just been thrilled to discover great writer after great writer.  Reading Cirsova, and finding a couple of great social nodes on Twitter, have introduced me to a number of great writers.  It’s an embarrassment of riches.  Combine that with technology that allows me to sneak in a chapter or two at lunch or in quiet moments at work, and it’s almost embarrassing how much reading I’ve been able to accomplish over the last few month.

Eventually things change, as they are wont to do, and you may find things in these spaces other than reviews.  You know, things like politics, film, writing, wargaming…I do miss wargaming…and philosophy.  But for now, it’s books, Books, BOOKS!

 Why, lookee here!  It’s another book.  Not just another book, but another @RobKroese book.  Remember when I said, “[Starship Grifter is] just not my cuppa joe.”?

Yeah…about that.

The Yanthus Prime Job is a novella for a dollar.  It’s short.  It’s fun.  It’s protagonist has the standard, “one last job” motivation, but we all know that for characters like this, there’s always another job waiting just around the corner.  A writer’s gotta eat, after all.

This title is set in the same universe as Starship Grifters, and it features the same sorts of characters – grifters, conmen, and thieves.  The protagonist of this work is a bartender trying to go straight after a career working for the Ursa Minor Mafia*.  Deep in debt, she hatches a plot to steal a valuable thing and use the proceeds to buy her way out of debt to the mafia and escape Yanthus Prime for parts unknown. 

The story is half standard heist, half science-fiction.  The heist is easily recognizable from movies ranging from the 1940s to today – break into a secure museum and steal a valuable macGuffin – but includes several clever science-fiction nods.  Her (sort of?) low tech solution to defeat the standard high-tech security measures is the sort of plan that could only work in science-fiction or fantasy.  Otherwise, most of her gear (grapple guns, chameleon suits, and plasma glass cutters, for example) is the standard thief kit.  Aside from the key plot-point used to defeat the security cameras, the break-in and escape could be plunked into any setting.  That’s actually a compliment.  Rather than succumb to the temptation to make everything whiz-bang gee-whillickers new SF you’ve never seen before, Kroese wisely stops while the stopping is good.  The hook is all you need.

If you’ve watched a lot of heist movies, you’ll see a few of the double and triple crosses coming a mile away, but there are enough surprises left in Kroese’s pockets to make it worth reading through to the end.

  *  Get it?  Ursa Minor Mafia?  Ursa means “bear”.  It’s the Russians.  Kroese has a gift for nomenclature that is downright Futuramaian.  I mean, the man has a book out called Shrodingers Gat, for crying out loud.  How can you not love that?


Let’s Get This Over With, or, Two Reviews

Writing difficult reviews isn’t a lot of fun, so this post features two.  Let’s get them out of the way so we can get back to the good stuff.  I’ve got a hard copy of Cirsova burning a hole in my queue.

First up, Castalia House’s Loki’s Child, by Fenris Wulf – one of the all time great names.  This came highly recommended, but it just didn’t float my boat.  It’s a modern day comedy about the music industry, what the film types call a slapstick caper?  I guess?

The set-ups, the characters, the plot, everything about it is extremely well done, but it all rests on an understanding of the music culture that I lack.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the music industry, I’m talking about the music culture.  This isn’t one of those books that would only be funny to people working inside the music industry, but to should be appealing to anyone who loves music and follows music culture (or one of the subcultures).  They would catch a lot of references and see the loving tribute to the culture that this book represents.

For me, it just felt like watching a Bollywood movie.  It’s very well done, and it’s understandable why somebody else would like it, but it just isn’t for me.

Why was that so hard?  Well, I love Castalia House.  This is the first book they’ve published that didn’t grab me by the lapels and force me to sit up and take notice.  I wish them all the best, and not just because they pay me to record audio books for them.  I don’t love their works because I do voice work for them, I do voice work for them because I love their works. 

So it goes with JD Cowan’s “Knights of the End”.  Cowan is one of my favorite book bloggers.  His posts are well thought out, appeal to my sense of righteous anger at a culture that was drifted too far from its roots, and force me to think hard about aspects of the culture in ways that would never have occurred to me.  But don’t take my word for that – he made Castalia House’s list of Top Book Bloggers of 2016.
I had high hopes for this book.  Cowan is a smart man who understands the deeper connotations of publishing and storytelling, and I was eager to see how he used his insights and understandings.  This was a prime opportunity to forget about theory for a bit and look at implementation.  Theory is easy, it’s where the rubber meets the road that things get hard.
“Knights of the End” has its heart and its mind in the right place, but it didn’t work for me.  This may be because I am not the target audience.  Cowan has explicitly said that this book is written for younger teens, and as a modern day juvenile adventure it could be that it works like magic.  Everything from the bullied protagonist being granted terrific powers, an exploration of a world beyond the mundane, and a supporting cast that just doesn’t understand the hero of the story seems calculated to appeal to younger readers.
My chief complaints – that the Chekov’s guns are broadcast to heavily, that the mentor’s alternate between acting wise and childish, that the descriptions lack subtlety and nuance – likely result from Cowan’s desire to match the text to the target audience.  If so, this is the one area where we disagree.  He has a great position on heroism, responsibility, and fighting back not just against alien invaders but against a culture that feels wrong.  But these are all conveyed by older works written for more adult tastes and still enjoyed by pre-teens to this day.  The pulp authors beloved by so many of us as youths ( Howard, Burroughs, and I’d argue even Rowling) didn’t scale back the grade-level readability in order to appeal to younger readers, nor should Cowan.
“Knights of the End” has a great super-heroic plot, and a number of high points.  It has the right beats and the right twists and turns in the right places.  I particularly enjoyed the an early switcheroo Cowan plays on the reader with the protagonist’s best friend.  But in the end, it’s really written for younger tastes than mine.  If you have a younger teen in your life that you’d like to introduce to a more modern take on the fantastic, and one where you can feel comfortable that the plot serves traditional values more than those foisted on us by the maintstream culture, then you can be comfortable giving this to him or her.  But I wouldn’t recommend it for more mature tastes.

Perhaps it mitigates my review when I say that I’m looking forward to Cowan’s next work.  He’s doing the right things, his head is in the right place, and my hopes remain high that when writing for more mature audiences, the problems that kept me from enjoying this book will vanish.

Don’t Read Anything Written After 1980

The adventures of King Conas returns, and we learn why the three sorcerers attempted to kill him in Issue 13.  The January Issue of Marvel’s King Conan sees the barbarian explore a demon haunted volcano home to an artifact that contains the soul of the first King of Aquilonia.  Written by Doug Moench, it includes this scene where-in Conan’s bride, Zenobia, insists of accompanying the King on his quest:


Check the date – yep, 1983.  You can tell.  She doesn’t just prove her mettle.  She doesn’t surprise Conan with a cheap shot.  She completely bests him in open combat.  Because of course she does.

And not for any real reason, either.  Through the rest of the issue she never really does anything but stand back and give Conan somebody to talk to other than his chief advisor.  She never faces any real danger, never provides any aid, and never provides any solid advice.

Disappointing, but not entirely unexpected.

Dipping a Toe in the #NewPulp Waters

You may have noticed that I talk a big game.  Well, over on twitter, Barry Reese called me out. 

When I opined in 140 characters or less that the New Pulp writers trade on the term pulp by slapping on the chrome while the Pulp Revolution focusses on the horsepower under the engine Reese wanted to know what New Pulp stories I was talking about, because he could name check two authors that he considered to be the best of the New Pulp writers working today.
Challenge accepted!

Within minutes I had bought a copy of Four Bullets for Dillon, by Derrick Ferguson.

Just to be clear, the conversation was civil, and even if Mr. Reese and I have different tastes, he’s a good guy that I’d gladly sit down  with and talk books for hours.  We’re going to bypass the subject of which modern pulp writers soured me on ‘pulp’ as a term any more indicative of quality than ‘punk’.  Instead, we’re going to look at a pair of modern action stories from Derrick Ferguson.

This review was difficult to write.  Reviews in the one star and five star range are easy.  These middle-of-the-road reviews of works that show so much potential but just miss the mark mean that I can’t just rant or rave, but have to really analyze and understand where the problems lie.  And Four Bullets for Dillon has a few problems.  It’s not a bad work, but it’s go issues.

The first story in the book, Dillon and the Bad-Ass Belt Buckle, features the eponymous hero and his sidekick Eli rescuing an Oscar winning actress from the jungles of Cambodia.  It starts with the duo having already rescued the actress from the clutches of the kidnappers and – wait, what?  Go back, Derrick, that sounds like a great story.  How did they get her out?  The dynamic duo mention lots of bullets and action…can I read that?  Perhaps that is another story in the Dillon-verse, but if so, the reader is given no indication – even editorially – of that. 

For my money, in cinema res serves as the gold standard for opening up action heavy stories. In any media.  This story opens at least twenty minutes after the cinema is done res-ing.  Which forces an early-story pause in the already limited action to provide the reader with an awkward information dump.  “Here’s what you missed out on,” paired with a blunt recitation of the damsel in distress’s resume, and a dry explanation that our hero is a soldier of fortune hired by outside agents to save her.  The whole opening section of this purported action story chooses exposition over action.

Compare that to my own ‘rescuing the damsel’ story.  In Bring Back Our Girls, the action starts just as the hero is on the cusp of breaking into the compound of the bad guys.  The first line of the story features the hero slitting the throat of one of the sentries.  The backstory leading up to that point is only slowly introduced over the first half of the story.  Thatset-up is wedged into the spaces between action, with only the goal, save kidnapped girls from vaguely Boko Haram-esque terrorists, mentioned in the first few parargraphs.  And that was crammed in just to ensure that the reader knew where their sympathies should lie – that the guy they just saw commit murder was the good guy killing a modern day slaver.

Speaking of opening, the introduction to Derrick features him climbing out from under the shot-up getaway Jeep and beating it with a wrench, frustrated that he cannot repair it.  He explicitly says if it was a horse, he’d shoot it.  Even granting that as the hyperbole it clearly is, following the “show, don’t tell” pattern, Ferguson shows us the hero is a petulant man-child for whom violence isn’t a last resort, but a means of expressing himself.  That doesn’t sound very heroic.  You might get away with that scene if Dillon has already been established as a hero in other ways, or if this was the last of a dozen bad breaks, but it’s a strange choice for setting up reader expectations.

Then you have the damsel in distress.  She is a fierce and independent successful modern woman who doesn’t need no man…except when it comes to being rescued.  Even that can be forgiven.  A high value hero needs a high value damsel, and although this seems to be the only kind of woman we see in media these days, they exist, they add drama, and my weariness of the trope amounts to mere personal preference.  What cannot be forgiven is that for all that we are told how great she is, we are shown a rather stupid woman.  Stupid or unbelievable.  Neither is flattering.

Let me explain.  The trio leaves their broken Jeep and sets out through the jungle on foot.  They come upon a new asphalt road and follow it to a small bandit settlement surrounded by log walls topped by sharp wire and broken glass.  With little choice, they decide to enter the settlement.  This provides an excuse for an important character moment.  The hero must explain to the damsel, Jenise, that this is serious.  There is danger here.  If she doesn’t listen to him, she could get badly hurt.  She resists at first, not understanding that she is out of her element, and that his words are not patronizing, but are driven by legitimate concern.  Did you notice what just happened there?  Having been kidnapped by a gang of violent men seeking to ransom her back to her benefactors, and rescued by a pair of violent men in a manner we are reliably informed was most violent, she doesn’t understand how high the stakes are at this moment. 

I can’t stress how damaging this is to the narrative of the story.  We’ve been told how smart and fierce she is.  Now we’re being told that getting kidnapped, shot at, and stranded in a jungle miles from civilization wasn’t enough evidence for her to understand.  We are expected to believe in a contradiction.  That sucks all the wind out of the sails.

Finally, about a third of the way into the story we have some real tension as Jenise is essentially kidnapped by the leader of the bandit camp.  We have a threat and some tension and we’re starting to get invested when…it turns out Jenise has seduced the bandit leader and is going to be fine without the hero after all.  So the ensuing action is driven entirely by Dillon’s ego with a touch of greed and envy on his part for a minor MacGuffin.  That’s it.  There are no outside stakes involved at all.  It’s just action for the sake of pew-pew-pew. 

I’m going to stop here.  These are all problems, and they get repeated throughout the book.  Rather than list them off in great detail, let’s look at the positives for a bit.

But before we do, I’m going to throw in one last complaint.  The book has for stories… and no Table of Contents.  That’s an editorial comment, but a valid complaint.  Self-publishers, you’ve got to do the little things to make your reader’s lives easier.  If you don’t take care of the little things, readers have no reason to think you’ll take care of the big ones.

I’m done, seriously this time.  Back to the positives.

Ferguson’s descriptions are great, and his writing just plain works.  His prose is solid without un-necessary touches or flash.  Some of his descriptions are tight from a word count, but really fire the imagination in ways that I found impressive.

Ferguson’s action is ferocious.  The man knows how to write fast and fun action scenes.  He knows how to ratchet up the physical tension.  He knows how to pace the action with those all-important breaks to catch your breath, and he throws in enough twists and turns to keep the reader just off-kilter enough that they can’t possibly guess what’s around the next bend.  Dillon’s skills at swinging away from bad guys Tarzan-style was a nice nod to the old pulps and much appreciated by this reader.

The twists in the plot are well executed.  The good guy and bad guy are forced to work together, and the way that happens is…if not believable, at least understandable.  This is a pulp story we’re talking about here.

Ferguson himself is fearless in the settings of his stories.  He pays just enough attention to the real world to keep them grounded, but doesn’t let overly complex rationales interfere with a good story.  The lost bandit camp city in the heart of Cambodia was a brilliant setting.  It’s preposterous and over the top from a real world standpoint, but that shouldn’t stop an action writer from using it anyway. It’s just the sort of setting that you should expect – nay, demand! – in a pulp story.  That goes double for the characters who are without exception distinct and personable.  Even the bit players are provided with enough character to draw the reader in.

In the final analysis, I can’t recommend this book.  Ferguson’s writing is solid, his descriptions great, but it’s all surface detail.  There’s no depth to this work.  There’s nothing to hook the reader into the protagonist except for the protagonist himself.  Everything he does is for him, and we don’t have any real reason to care what happens to him outside of the fact that he is the central character in the story.  Dillon could have walked away from any of these stories at multiple moments with no affect on anyone in the world but himself.  An arrogant narcissist can make for a fine protagonist, but the pulps that excite me don’t just have protagonists – they have heroes.

You might like this book.  You might like empty action, and you don’t need actual heroics done by a hero.  In which case, go crazy.  Enjoy.  Who am I to judge your tastes.  I just need more that that.  I need a reason to root for the good guy other than that he is really handsome and cool.  I need him to struggle and take risks and sacrifice himself for others.  I need him to fight for something bigger than himself, and Four Bullets for Dillon just doesn’t meet that need.

Reading these stories just confirmed my complaint about so much of the new pulp fiction on the market today.  There’s a lot of flash and chrome, but there’s no heart and soul to it.