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.
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.
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.
Have you ever been to a freeform jazz concert, or maybe a Phish or Grateful Dead concert? In these shows the artists give themselves license to play around and freely experiment on stage in front of a live audience. The audience knows this going in, and understands that sometimes the experiment fails. Sometimes the bass and drums just aren’t jiving with the lead guitar, and sometimes the modulation that one guy tried didn’t get matched right by the rest of the crew and the whole thing comes crashing to a halt. Everyone takes a deep breath, shrugs, and then the show resumes with a new song.
- It gives the writer a chance to try, fail, learn, and get better. It offers the writer a chance to see what works and what doesn’t, and since the experimenting doesn’t cost all that much, there’s no reason not to keep on doing it.
- It gets the ideas out there, like a jazz riff, that some other writer might pick up and play with it. It allows other minds to pick up the notes, smooth out the rough edges, and build something even better.
- Those combined help push the general culture in a direction that it never could under the old centrally planned autocratic culture. Even the failures help move things along – we could never find the one success if we didn’t have the nine failures to lead the way.
This power that arises from the freedom to fail is an amazing thing. It’s a deadly threat to the gatekeepers, because it means that even the clumsy voices are pushing back against their plans. It means even books and stories that sell five or six copies are moving the culture in a direction that the gatekeepers didn’t pre-ordain. That’s got to scare the hell out of them.
At the end of the day, this amazing power of failure means that there really are NO failures. There are only varying degrees of success. If you throw a title down on Amazon and sell a dozen copies, you didn’t have no effect, you just added your voice and your vote to the conversation. You just struck a blow for what you believe, for what you think should be in the market, and maybe only a few people immediately agree. But maybe you planted a mustard seed. Regardless, you just added – you had an effect. It’s an amazingly liberating feeling.
If you take away only one thing from this post – take that. Everything helps. Every little straw aids in breaking the back of the jackasses who don’t like your taste, who don’t like your works, and who don’t like you.
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.
You might think you’re done with sprawling multi-volume works of fiction, but if you’re the sort to read 30+ books per year – and since you’re reading this blog it’s a safe bet you are – then you know full well you can run but not escape falling into a one now and then.
Nick Cole’s The Wyrd Series, is the latest honey trap to snare me, and the latest title in the series, The Lost Castle, is also my latest dip into post-apocalypse fiction. As is usual with Nick Cole, the action moves, the characters intrigue, and the prose bounces back and forth between gritty and dreamy. If you’re a fan of good PA tales, you need to add this one to your queue.
I’m actually not going to review the series does for readers here. Rather, I’m going to talk about what the book does for writers. Nick is a smart guy and a great writer, and he does a few things with this series that aren’t obvious.
The first thing to understand is that the Wyrd series isn’t really an epic start to finish tale. It’s a framing device for different kinds of stories. We’ve seen this in television shows such as Doctor Who, X-Files, or Lost. All of these franchises are specifically set up to tell different stories from week to week. This week may be a gangster story, the next a closed dining room Victorian murder mystery, and the next a mad scientist unleashing a monster of the week story. There may be a an overarching story line within each, but the set-up is such that the writers can play around with different kinds of stories within the setting.
So it is with Cole’s version of the apocalypse. Without spoiling any details that you can’t learn from the back blurbs, this isn’t An apocalypse, it’s All The apocalypses. So what starts as a zombie story morphs into a robots-victorious story. What starts as the story of a drunkards redemption segues into an autistic child’s glimpse into the last days of humanity. The latest book bounces around a bit, (we continue to follow two other character’s story lines,) but it is primarily a 1970’s Lovecraftian spy thriller.
The other thing for readers to note when reading this book is how Cole plays with tenses. It took me some time to notice how he did this, but it’s really quite simple. The primary narrative is written in the past tense, but Cole uses present tense writing for the flashback scenes, which lends them an airy, dream-like quality that reinforces the narrative in some subtle and powerful ways. There’s more to the magic of his prose than that, but it’s an obvious and effective tactic that every writer should add to their quiver.
The last thing to point out is that Cole’s creativity consists largely of taking a lot of old ideas and throwing them into a single pot and stirring them up to create a new kind of tale that is both complex and approachable. He doesn’t need to reinvent zombies. We know. He doesn’t need to reinvent terminator bots. We know. He doesn’t need to invent dark suited devils orchestrating the end of the world. We know. But by writing the old stories in surprisingly new ways, and tying them together in ways we haven’t seen before, he gives us a whole new kind of fiction that is both familiar and refreshingly new.
Maybe we readers can get a lot of enjoyment from the Wyrd series, but we writers can learn a lot from it.
|Come on in!|
Jeffro Johnson, the editor over at the Castalia House blog just published his year-end retrospective of the best book bloggers of 2016, and it turns out your host made the list. I won’t spoil the surprise for those of you who haven’t read that post yet.
If you have any interest in the Pulp Revolution or the burgeoning literary discussion of the old masters and the new talent, you need to read through that list. It’s a veritable who-is-who of the literary smart set, and if you look close you’ll see that it’s the source of most of my own magic.
As mentioned in the comments, I jumped into the blogging pool because the Puppies, both Rabid and Sad, showed me that there really was good stuff out there after all. I’d pretty much given up on the sf/f genre for reasons already elucidated on this blog and elsewhere. Jeffro showed me that talking about great books wasn’t just something that established authors like Vox and Hoyt and Wright could do, but that there was room in the swimming hole for average everyday fans like you and me. On the flip side, Cirsova showed me that there was great new stuff worth talking about – stuff that wasn’t getting near enough attention from fans.
So I did what any self-respecting fan would do – I went on the internet and complained about it.
For a while I just dove into the comments sections of places like Castalia House and Cirsova and such. After a while, my comments became long enough and drew from enough different posts from other people, that it only made sense to kick off my own blog to expand and expound on my comments elsewhere.
Turns out, that’s a great way to drive traffic to your blog. Talking about books actually leads you to other people who like talking about books. Elementary, dear reader. Put together a few observations or tie together observations made by two other bloggers, and before long…you’ve got a blog.
You see how easy that is? If you’re here, it’s because you’re at least a little interested in this stuff. So why don’t you start a blog and join the conversation? It’s a mighty wide swimming hole, and there’s always room for more.
Great news for those of you waiting for the third installment in the Five Dragons series of novellas! The Sorcerer’s Serpent will be available for purchase this Friday, December 16th. For those who can’t wiat, it’s available for pre-order on Amazon.com now.
This time a band of hapless sneak thieves interrupts an aged wizard’s study when they accidently unleash the wizard’s guard dragon. Now loose in the wizard’s basement and threatening to revive an age of terror, the man who locked the dragon safely away for centuries is forced to deal with the monster once and for all. It’s a vicious battle that sprawls through caves, alien planets, and even through the arms of a seductive temptress, with the fate of worlds hanging in the balance.
For those of you playing along at home, the first book in this series featured an armored man with a sword, the second featured a clever street thief, and this one features an aged wizard. If you sense a pattern here, you can guess what the fourth installment will bring.
You may have noticed that I talk a big game. Well, over on twitter, Barry Reese called me out.
Within minutes I had bought a copy of Four Bullets for Dillon, by 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Grab me by the neck, push me into the stall, and threaten me with a humiliation shampoo and toilet water rinse, and I’ll admit to being a member of the Pulp Revolution. But I may not be a very good member, because I’m not all that interested in which branch of the literary renaissance you want to stick me on. Granted, I have more in common with the guys really digging into the heart and soul of the pulp attitude, and that crew shows up in my social media circles more than any other. But I fear too much spent time defining and pigeonholing writers and works will prove to be counter-productive.
|Gang, cult, or club, sign me up for recapturing some of this!|
Kevyn Winkless has been establishing himself as one of my favorite G+ denizens lately. His blog deserves to be in any writer’s feed as it is always though provoking and informative. Even better, he drops idle thoughts in G+ that leave me feeling like Watson watching the whole mystery unravel before mine very eyes. Here’s one example:
He recently posted a link to Charles Akin’s Dyvers Blog which was ostensibly about describing things in RPGs using terse language. The rule of thumb for maintaining people’s attention is about three sentences, and Charles touches upon that rule when he says:
One of my strengths as a GM has always been my ability to describe the locations that my players explore with a brevity that leaned heavy on mood and the big details.
Yet another brick in the Pulp edifice elucidated. This is critical I think, in getting the aesthetic heart of pulp style fiction right, and is something many authors aiming for “pulpiness” fail to grasp. Yes, the vocabulary may be rich, there may also be lovingly lingering description, but the skill with which the best pulp era authors paint scenes in a handful of sentences is amazing.
Anyone who has read my work knows that I favor that level of terseness in my descriptions. But that’s not why I’m telling you about Kevyn today. We got to talking about pulp writing and – aside from feeling like one of those late-night dorm room speculative conversations – it really opened my eyes to a few trends. In particular, Spence Hart chimed in with this idea bomb:
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a fair amount of us starting up the Pulp Revolution come from a background in RPGs… specifically the OSR movement. We’ve already been through rejecting what the gatekeeper publishers were trying to force-feed us and went back to older-style games, then after a period of re-acquaintance building on the old games into new directions.
It gets better. Click here and read the whole thing.
You see that thread? That’s what I call writing advice. That’s what I call literary criticism. That’s what I call, “The Good Stuff”.