IF: A Sci-Fi Anthology

When the Isolate and Swarm crowd decided to take a swing at the good guys over at Alterna Comics, I (along with a few thousand other comic book fans) advanced my purchase schedule to send a financial signal to Peter Simeti that he has a lot of people in his corner.  The titles were already on my list, they just motivated me to send in my money a little sooner than expected.  That means ordering Issues 2 and 3 of Zero Jumper before Issue 4 hits the newsstands.  To round out the order and minimize shipping costs, I threw a copy of IF into the mix, and I’m glad I did.

A digest sized comic clocking in at about 6-inches by 8-inches, and drown entirely in black and white, this anthology features 36 creators and 15 stories with mixed results.  That’s no surprise with an undertaking like this.  Each story clocks in around 12 pages in length, making them a mix of short-short fiction and short vignettes that feel like part of a much larger story.  Some are great, some are not.

Of particular interest to a casual comic fan like myself, some of the stories feature great writing and mediocre art, and some vice-versa. Sitting down to read all of the stories back to back really helped a neophyte like me appreciate how the two aspects of the sequential art format interlock and see what happens when they don’t.

My favorite was Love By Numbers about a helpful household robot who learns to love, but maybe not in the way you think.  The 50’s style art plays well with the storyline and presents a chipper front that clashes with and thereby emphasizes the dark underpinnings of the story.

“Love By Numbers”, Art By Dan Lauer

In contrast, Alex Eckman-Long writes and does the art for Moon, which isn’t much of a story, perhaps by design, but looks fantastic.

No stakes, just pretty art and a punchline

This collection would make a great bathroom reader. Physically, it’s the perfect size for the back of the toilet – just don’t resell it when you’re done, for the love of Kirby – because the short nature of the works. Also, reading the stories back to back can result in some jarring changes of pace and mood. Some of the tales are just plain goofy, such as Chas! Pangurn’s Big Foot, Little Hope, which feature’s sasquatch’s existential crisis, which is immediately followed by the scariest work in the collection, Jon Clark’s Cling, which pits two young boys home alone against a mobile and hungry portal to a dark dimension.

My one real complaint circles back once again to the emphasis on strong girls who don’t need no man.  While not universal, and by no means present in a heavy enough way to make for a deal-breaker, the stories tilt strongly towards the heroic women and those goofy old menfolk at it again.  That’s the zeitgeist, and if you need to up the fantasy element in that way, more power to you, but the strong adherence to Current Year counter-instinctual storytelling represents a flaw in the writing and editing that detracts from the enjoyment it might have otherwise provided.  If you’re the type to favor go-grrl stories, you’ll have one less complaint that I did, at any rate.

Overall the quality reaches a level that makes this a worthy by for comic fans ready to step out of the usual capes.   It’s also a nice sampler that can help a hungry reader find new talent they might not otherwise locate.  It was a little over-priced for what I got in hardcopy, but at six bucks for the Kindle version, it’s worth a shot.

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Cirsova 8’s “Only a Coward” by Jennifer Povey

If you want to catch the eye of a Catholic, you could do a lot worse than the opening to Jennifer Povey’s Only A Coward:

“Only a coward chooses death over a difficult life,” Selien spoke those words as the knife hacked through the braid of her hair.”

As a minor quibble, the sentence would have more impact if it were made clear Selien is cutting her own braid off. While it’s not strictly passive voice, it’s also not the knife doing the hacking. It’s Selien. She’s mad that her kinsfolk want her to throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre instead of haring off after his murderer. She turns her back on her people and rides out on a stolen pony, eludes escape, and now we’re cooking with gas!

Otherwise, the opening scene of this story is a clinic on tight writing.  The stakes are made clear immediately, as are the challenges, and the ultimate goal.  Povey does in the space of a couple of hundred words what many writers can’t do in a thousand.

Only A Coward consists of a chase scene in which Selien gets a little supernatural help catching the man that did her wrong. Like the chase, the climactic ending has a lot of twists and turns. Povey shows a real knack for efficient storytelling that could have used a little more fleshing out. Speaking as a big fan of minimalist descriptions in fiction, this story really cried out for more details of the world Selien inhabits. With so little to go on, the reader winds up with a scene in his head that lacks focus. The geography receives plenty of attention, an important factor in a tracking and chasing sequence, but a little more indication of the tech level, the style of dress of the characters, the cultural motivations and assumptions, all of that world building would have helped flesh out the story and deliver a more satisfying resolution.

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Happy BE Day

Today’s the day that my loyal fans receive their comeuppance in the form of the high-octane adventure of a slave turned emperor.  Pre-orders are over, it’s time to sit back and let the struggle of a regular guy forced to claw his way onto the Imperial throne to save the world from the ravenous appetite of dark and mysterious powers inimical to the forces of justice, law, and order.  Hot babes, furious fights, and a journey to edges of the known world await those who delve into the pages of Barbarian Emperor – the sort of tale no New York City problem glasses NPC editor would dare let escape from her slush pile.

Don’t worry about the spoilers inherent in the title of the work.  I can guarantee that the journey is worth taking for the view along the way, and that the destination isn’t quite what you think!

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The Barbarian Emperor On The Air

Soon.

If you already pre-ordered a copy of Barbarian Emperor, thank you.  If you haven’t because you’re still sitting on the fence, here are a couple of interviews that I did over the last week showcasing the work and a whole lot more.  The first video deals with a lot of current event issues, particularly those the difficulties faced by independent authors.  The second takes a more timeless turn as we delve into the deep magic of fantasy cosmologies, alignment, and play styles.  Whether sword and sandal adventure with a hearty sorcery mix tickles your fancy or not, both of these interviews will entertain you – the hosts are universally funny and clever and offer up engaging conversations.

Enjoy!

First up is Jon Del Arroz’s Lunchstream, with Katrina:

And the always entertaining and informative Geek Gab with YOUR HOST, ME, DADDY WARPiiiIIIIG! and John McGlynn:

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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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