Monthly Archives: March 2012

More Science Fantasy at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

I’ve been swamped lately between dayjobbery and trying to finish a novel for review at Futures Past and Present, which is why I’ve not posted anything for almost a week.  The current issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies went out to subscribers nearly two weeks ago and live on the web a few days after that; I finished reading the stories last weekend.  It’s late Friday night and I’m just now getting time to sit down and write it.

Not that you want to hear about my chronological issues.  You want to know if the current issue is worth reading.  The answer is, of course.  The real question is, what are the stories about and how do they compare with the previous issue, which kicked off the science fantasy month?
While I enjoyed this issue’s stories, I didn’t think they were quite as good as “Scry” by Anne Ivy, which I consider to be outstanding, they were better than what you find in many publications these days. 

The first story is “The Book of Locked Doors” by Yoon Ha Lee.  It’s set in an occupied country that could be in Southeast Asia in the future or on another planet.  The author didn’t say, and I’m not familiar enough with the mythology and religion from that part of the world to know based on what was included in the story. 

The story concerns a woman who is a resistance fighter.  She carries a book along with her written by her dead sister.  Only this book talks to her.  Sometimes she takes its advice, and sometimes she doesn’t.  During a mission, one of the priests, who have been outlawed and killed by the conquerors manifests.  The death and destruction are appalling, affecting both conquerors and conquered. 

It took me a while to get into this one, but before it was over, I was hooked.  As the crisis of conscience the protagonist experiences grows, I was compelled to follow along on her search for answers.  I’ve not read much of Ms. Lee’s work up to this point, but I will gladly read more of it.

The second selection of the issue is “Juggernaut” by Megan Arkenberg.  This one had more of a space opera feel to it.  Normally that would be a big draw for me, but I had trouble buying into some of the setup.  The story is told from the point of view of a young man who, through fear of being arrested and tortured to death by the conquering evil space empire, allows himself to be used as a pawn in a political maneuver by the woman who controls the mines in one of the last free areas of this particular solar system.

I had trouble believing some of the decisions the nonviewpoint characters made.  The villains struck me as being a little too over the top evil for the sake of being evil.  Maybe I didn’t pick up on the political details well, but I struggled with suspending my disbelief for this one.

Still, the story was well written, the pacing was good, and to the extent I could buy into the characters’ actions, the character development had some depth to it.  While not my favorite, I would certainly give Arkenberg’s work another try.  I’ve discovered that my level of fatigue makes a huge difference in how well I enjoy fiction.  My fatigue levels have been growing for the past couple of weeks, in part due to allergies and in part due to an overload of commitments.  I’ve been so busy in the evenings that I’ve not been able to do much reading without staying up later than I normally would, and this has made a difference in more than one area.  My point is that you might have a more positive impression than I did.

So, while I didn’t like this issue of BCS as much as I liked the previous one, I still think it was worth the time invested.  “Scry” was an outstanding story, and I know on some level I’m comparing these two stories against it in a semi-subconscious evaluation of the Science Fantasy emphasis this month.  The author interviews were interesting and informative.  And BCS provides some of the most varied and interesting fantasy around. Furthermore, I think the Science Fantasy Month was a great idea and should be done again.

While it’s free on the web, I’ve found I prefer to pay a small amount for the convenience of reading the magazine on my ereader.  All proceeds of subscriptions go to pay authors and artists for their work, which was a major reason why I decided to subscribe.  Subscription information is here

A Little Something for the Discerning Steampunk Gentleman (or Lady)

Gearheart’s Steam-punk Glamor Revue
Antarctic Press Entertainment

Okay, I know this isn’t the usual thing I feature here, but a little variety never hurts.  I met the editor Guy Clayton Brownlee and associate editor Patricia Ash at ConDFW, where they had a copy of the first issue.  I was impressed the production values; this publication was clearly a labor of love.  Patricia Ash was kind enough to send me copies of the first two issues.

What Gearheart’s Steam-punk Glamor Revue is about is beauty, whether that beauty is the female form, well-designed costumes, or colorful art.  Just for the record, it isn’t porn.  The raciest the photos get is cleavage and/or thigh.  Each of the first two issues contains a piece of original short fiction as well.  The ladies in the photos aren’t professional models.  Rather they are steampunk aficionados who made their own costumes.  In keeping with steampunk culture, the magazine is, as stated in the editorial of the first issue, hands-on and do-it-yourself.

Here’s what the first two issues contain.

The first issue, coming in at 28 pages, contains a frontispiece of gorgeous artwork by Chris Ortega, an editorial by Brownlee, four photospreads each containing an interview with the lady featured, two art profiles (Brian Kesinger and Mahmud Asrar), and a short story by Patricia Ash.  Oh, and a photo on the back cover of a young lovely not featured in any of the interior spreads.  Plus a few pages of ads.

The second issue, the cover of which heads this post, had a little more variety and 32 pages.  There were only three photospreads.  The artwork for the frontispiece was by Brian Kesinger and was different in tone and execution from his art featured in the first issue.  Brownlee returned with another editorial.  Featured artist was Micheal Dashow.  The fiction in this issue was by Jules Cox; it was longer than the fiction in the first issue.  Of course there were some ads, all steampunk in theme, and another back cover with a different model than the interior shots.  What was new, and what I thought had the second issue a more interesting one than the first were the interview and the phony ad.

The interview (accompanied by several photos) was with Gail Carriger, author of the Parasol Protectorate series.  The ad, though, was the most fun.  It was for Dr. Oh’s Octopodiform Deterrent.  Cthuloid repellant, in other words.  It was illustrated in the style of a Victorian newspaper ad, and I found it quite clever.

While the fiction in the first issue was more to my taste, overall I liked the second issue better.  (Isn’t that what a publisher wants?  For a reader to like the new issue better than the previous, not the other way around.)  The addition of the interview added some depth to the magazine.  The ad for Dr. Oh’s added some levity.  I thought this combination made for a stronger issue.

I realize the fan bases of heroic fantasy and steampunk may not overlap that much, but those of you who enjoy a good zeppelin chase might want to check it out.  The photography is professional level, as is the art.  The fiction does more than allow one to say, “But, dear, I only read it for the short stories.”  Both stories were quite readable, although completely different in tone.  I suspect Patricia Ash intends her story to be the first in a series.  My feeling is that a sequel to the Cox story would probably destroy the tone established at the end, but I could be wrong.

I am confused about one thing, though.  The cover price, at least on the copies I have, is $3.99, while on the website the price is listed as $4.99.  Either way, I think the price is reasonable.  The production values are quite high, and the creators clearly care about what they’re doing.  This isn’t something churned out to make a fast buck.  That fact alone puts the publication miles ahead of much of what’s being published today.  Check them out.

Credits:  First issue cover model Katy Dehay photographed by Greg Daniels; second issue cover model Taja Varem Mohsen, photography by, styling by

Announcing the Human Wave

If you’re tired of fantasy and/or science fiction that has no story, tries to shove a political or philosophical viewpoint down your throat, seeks to improve you, or engages in literary navel gazing, well, pardner, you’re not alone.  If you’ve read many of my posts here, especially the (for lack of a better word) editorials, you know I don’t care much for that sort of thing either.

It seems neither does science fiction and fantasy author Sarah A. Hoyt.  Yesterday she issued a manifesto for a new movement within the genre that she calls the Human Wave.  Today she followed that post up with this one, in which she laid out the characteristics of what makes an individual a Human Wave reader/writer.  In short, she defines Human Wave fiction as fiction that is concerned with story, you know, that plot, character, something-happens, beginning-middle-end thing.  If this is the sort of fiction you like, check out what Sarah has to say.

New Online Magazine: Swords and Sorcery

I don’t remember now how I became aware of it, but there’s a new online fantasy magazine entitled Swords and Sorcery.  It’s a monthly, and the March issue is the second issue.  I read the two stories in it last night.  Here’s my overall impression.

The first story is entitled “Redwater” by Noleen Cavanaugh.  It’s about a lowland woman named Sorcha who is a guest in a highland home.  While there, the homeowner’s cattle come down with a disease called redwater, which similar to mad cow disease, except it’s a lot more fast-acting.  The homeowner is an old woman who has the ability to bind the disease.  It turns out Sorcha does, too, which is something that has almost been eradicated from the lowlands by the Red Priests. 

This story, while competently written, didn’t do as much for me as I’d hoped for two reasons.  For starters, it read like a first chapter in a novel, and there were parts of the backstory I would have liked to have known.  The crisis only serves to bring Sorcha into contact with the person who reveals to her the abilities she didn’t know she had, but other than that, we don’t learn much about her.  Based on the ending, there is clearly going to be more to come.  The second reason this one didn’t do a lot for me was that I’ve seen enough variations of the wise woman taking in an apprentice who was totally unaware of her power to get too excited about it again. 

Who the Red Priests are, or why Sorcha is in the highlands is not information we’re given. I’m assuming that information will be imparted in future installments.  I can’t imagine this story not being the inaugural installment in a series given how it ends.  In spite of this one not being entirely to my taste, I see a lot of potential here.  Kavanaugh implies that Sorcha is quite powerful but also lacks control of her abilities.  It would be nice to see a sorcerer/mage/adept who is either unable to control her gift or has some other obstacle to overcome in order to use it.  I’m sure that type of story is out there, but I’ve not seen much of it.  Since Sorcha has only discovered her talent, neither she nor the reader really has a clear idea of the extent of her abilities.  Depending on how Kavanaugh chooses to develop Sorcha’s talents, this could be a breath of fresh air, in spite of my previous comments.  I enjoyed the writing enough to be willing to read one or two more installments.

The other story in the issue was more along the lines of what I look for in a fantasy story.  “Hel Awaits” is a historical adventure by David J. West.  While David and I share a last name, we have never met in person, and we are not related (as far as I know).  Whereas “Redwater” had no physical action, “Hel Awaits” was brimming over with it.  It’s the story of Tyr, a Norse mercenary who has been hired to assassinate a caliph. 

The Robert E. Howard influence can be seen in this one, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  This story moves at a breakneck pace, and I found myself being swept up in the action.  While Tyr is almost more superhuman than I like at times, the tale had a nice twist at the end, where we learn why he accepted a commission to assassinate the caliph.

There were no fantasy elements in this one, or if there were, they were so minor that I missed them.  It was all straight-out action-adventure in a historical setting.  That’s not something you see much of these days, and I for one would like to see a lot more of this kind of thing. While the first story emphasized the sorcery, this one emphasized the sword.

So, overall, what did I think of this issue of Swords and Sorcery?  I liked it.  Will I read the next issue, or go back and read the first issue?  Yes.  In addition to trying to support a new S&S publication, I enjoyed the stories, even if one of them wasn’t entirely the type of thing I generally read.  These aren’t award winners, but with a new publication, that isn’t surprising.  The authors are more than competent storytellers, which is more than I can say for some of the work I’ve seen printed in more prominent publications.  I hope Swords and Sorcery succeeds.  I’ll be adding it to my list.

Tales of the Emerald Serpent Launced on Kickstarter

I came across something a few minutes ago I wanted to pass along.  Scott Taylor has launched a new project on Kickstarter.  It’s called Tales of the Emerald Serpent.  It’s a shared world anthology with a couple of my favorite writers signed on, as well as some I’ve heard good things about and have been intending to try.  The authors are Lynn Flewelling, Harry Connolly, Juliet McKenna, Martha Wells, Robert Mancebo, Julie Czerneda, Todd Lockwood, and Michael Tousignant. This will be an illustrated anthology, with Todd Lockwood, Jeff Laubenstein, and Janet Aulisio providing the art.  If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, then please click on the link above, read the description, and watch the introductory video.

Even if you don’t support this project, you might want to consider supporting other projects on Kickstarter.  Several fantasy authors and game producers have recently posted projects on the site.  This seems like a good way for niche audiences to find things they like that major publishers would never do.

Odds and Ends

I thought I’d pass along a few items of interest that have come across my computer screen in the last couple of days.

First, you may recall that I said Pyr books was the number one publisher you should be reading in 2012, and I stand by that statement.  The latest electronic newsletter, Pyr-a-zine, has an interview with Jon Sprunk, whose Shadow trilogy concludes this month with Shadow’s Master (reviewed here). I would include a link, but the interview is an exclusive to the newsletter.  Another advantage to the newsletter is it contains an exclusive discount on one of the Pyr titles.  You can subscribe at the Pyr main page on their website.

Bradley P. Beaulieu is holding a giveaway to promote the forthcoming publication of The Straits of GalaheshNight Shade Books was second on my list of publishers you should be reading, and Beaulieu’s debut novel, The Winds of Khalakovo was one of the main reasons why.  There are some cool prizes in the giveaway, including tablets and ereaders.  Details are here

Beaulieu is also giving away copies of his short science fiction novel, Strata, that he co-wrote with Stephen Gaskell.  The giveaway is next Tuesday and Wednesday, March 20 and 21.  I recently reviewed Strata and found it to be exciting, fast-paced, and a lot of fun.

And speaking of The Straits of Galahesh, it’s in my list of titles to review.   It’s number 3 on the list, after Echo City by Tim Lebbon and Trang by Mary Sission.  Echo City is for the David Gemmell Awards, but I’ll post a link to the review here when it goes live.  Trang is science fiction, so that review will be posted over at Futures Past and Present.  After that, I’ll review The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle, which hits shelves here in the US at the end of the month.

With all the novels I’ve been reviewing, I’ve had very little time to read any short fiction or work on my own writing.  As a result I’m going to cut back on the number of novels I review once I fulfill my current commitments (approximately 3 others not listed).  I’m also going to punctuate the novel reviews and other posts with some short fiction centric posts, like the one the other day on the current issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  I’ll still accept review copies, but I’m going to be a lot pickier for the next few months.  There’s a lot of great short fiction I want to read (and hopefully write).  Working in academia means I don’t have much time during the academic year as I would like, which is why the frequency of posts here and at Futures Past and Present have slowed down since the middle of January..  Things should pick back up during the summer.

Science Fantasy Emphasis at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

If you check out the current issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies and happen to be paying attention, you might notice references being made to Science-Fantasy Month.  This in my opinion is a good thing since science-fantasy is one of the subgenres we don’t see much of these days.  And since BCS is published every two weeks, and this is the first issue of March, there should be another issue with this emphasis next week.  So how does this issue hold up?

The first story is “The Mote-Dancer and the Firelife” by Chris Willrich.  It’s the story of I-Chen, a widow who has journeyed to the homeworld of the aliens who killed her husband on what appears to be a mission of revenge.  Of course it’s much more than that.  Willrich comes up with an interesting alien culture, and while we don’t get a great deal of detail about how that culture works (this is short fiction, after all), what he does show us is original and intriguing.  For instance, in order to determine who picks up the check in a restaurant, patrons solve a puzzle of dried noodles, and the one who makes it collapse buys. 

I’m not sure I would have labeled this one as science-fantasy if the story didn’t involve an application of Clarke’s Law.  There are remnants of alien technology, and one of these is dust that creates a telepathy like state.  It’s common affect in the Spinies, the aliens in the story, but rare in humans.  I-Chen is one of the rare cases of the dust having this effect in humans.  It’s the reason why she can still see and talk to her dead husband.  And that’s the driving element in the story.

Willrich is a writer whose name I’ve seen, but I don’t recall having read anything by him.  I may have, but nothing comes to mind at this point.  I’ll be keeping an eye out for his work in the future.  Hopefully we’ll see more of this universe.  The Glyph Lords, the aliens who’ve left the relics and vanished are intriguing.  And the division among the Spinies between the Sanchos and the Quioxites is clever and original.  And totally believable the way it’s presented.  There’s also a podcast version of the story available.

The second story is “Scry” by a collaborative sister team writing as Anne Ivy.  This is the tale of Eyre Isri Esthe, a woman with the ability to see the future who is abandoned by her husband when he flees with the prince from an invading warlord.  He leaves her in the house thinking he has provided her with a way out.  Instead, he leaves her a vial of poison while takes off with the prince and his mistress. 

Esthe decides that just because she is going to die doesn’t mean her death can’t be on her own terms.  What follows is a dark and surprisingly moving story of a strong but damaged woman making the most of a difficult situation.  There are multiple layers to what one sees in the future, as well as what one doesn’t see.  This is one of the more powerful stories I’ve read in quite a while.  The authors are working on a novel featuring the warlord, Karnon Dae.  He’s not human, but what exactly he is, well, we’re given hints but never enough to make an exact conclusion about him.  I’m looking forward to the novel.

This story clearly falls into the science-fantasy camp, what with the scrying, even if it does seem to have a scientific basis of some sort..  It’s never stated upon what world the story takes place.  It could be a future earth, but I don’t think so.  Some of the hints about Karnon Dae make me think this is a far future tale.  Whichever, it’s still a top-notch piece of short fiction.

Also included in this issue are interviews with the authors of both of the stories.  The interview with Chris Willrich is only available in the subscription edition.  Speaking of which, although the stories are available for free, you can subscribe to Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  It’s available in both epub and Kindle formats.  The convenience of having it on your ereader more than makes up for the cost.  If you like what BCS publishes, then consider supporting them so they can continue to do what they do.  I consider Beneath Ceaseless Skies to be one of the top fantasy publications, print or electronic, currently in existence.  Subscription information is here

What I Thought of John Carter

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris

Yeah, I know the movie is entitled John Carter, not Dejah Thoris, but I’d rather look at Lynn Collins than Taylor Kitsch. Besides, in many ways she’s the central figure of the film.

This review is going to be a little different than some of the ones I’ve posted. Confession time:  As much science fiction and fantasy as I’ve read over the past [ NUMBER DELETED] decades, I’ve never actually gotten around to Burroughs until now.  (Please don’t judge me.)  Every time I’ve intended to, something has disrupted my reading schedule.  Which is not to say that I’m not familiar with the basics of at least some of his work.  I just don’t have a strong working knowledge of the details.  I’m about one-third of the way through A Princess of Mars right now, and I will definitely read the other books in the series.  So I won’t discuss where the film deviates from the written work; there are plenty of people more knowledgeable than me to do that. Start with Ryan Harvey’s review.  Instead, what I’m going to do is approach the film from the perspective of someone who would be a member of the general public rather than a fan.

Having said that, and acknowledging I want this film to succeed, I think it scores a home run.  At no time does the movie insult the audience’s intelligence, or at least not much.  More on that in a bit.  The plot is coherent and makes sense.  The characters behave in rational ways, with motives that are believable.  There are plenty of little moments that develop the characters.  This could have been a brainless mishmash of fight scenes and bombastic dialogue. 

Instead, we’ve got people, regardless of how many arms and tusks they have, about whom the audience comes to care.  While the CGI is great and in many ways makes the movie, what ultimately propels the film is the story.  This could have been another Avatar, all fancy CGI with no depth, originality, or individual characters.  Thank God that didn’t happen.  Instead there’s a real respect for the source material here, and it’s evident in almost every frame.  I’ve not gotten far in the book, but I was picking up on details.  Yes, there are a lot a changes from what Burroughs wrote, but the film remains true to the spirit of the novel. 

John Carter battles the White Apes

The CGI brings Barsoom to life.  The aliens are believable, as are the cities and the flyers.  This one has got eye candy galore.  And I’m not talking about Lynn Collins in that sentence.

Speaking of Ms. Collins, she steals half the scenes she’s in.  Her character is a little different than Burroughs wrote her, at least as she’s appeared in APoM to the point I’ve read.   Dejah Thoris is every bit Carter’s equal in courage and heroism, especially early in the movie where she often surpasses him in these qualities.  And she’s better than him when it comes to swordplay.  The character of Dejah Thoris as she’s presented her is one that very possibly could go down as a model for strong female characters in fantasy.  If there’s one thing she’s not, it’s a damsel in distress.

I only have a few complaints.  First, the movie opens with a prologue which is nothing more than an infodump.  I found it confusing, and I knew the basics behind what was going on.  I’m not sure what the general audience thought of it. 

Second, and this point and the following one are where I felt my intelligence insulted, every time the moons of Mars are shown, it’s the same picture.  Even Burroughs knew and discussed that the moons have very different orbital periods, something we’ve know since long before Burroughs first put pen to paper.  There was no variation in their relative positions or any discussion of waiting on the moons to align.  I bring this up because it does have a bearing on the plot near the end.

The last thing, and this probably bothers me more than anything about the movie, is that at times there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of consistency in Carter’s enhanced strength.  When he’s first captured by the Tharks, he breaks his chains and escapes from the nursery where he’s imprisoned.  Later, during the arena scene, he can’t seem to break the chain holding him in the arena.  He seems to have whatever strength he needs do what whatever the plot requires at that time.  Ditto for how high and far he can jump. At least some of the time.  There are other times when he clearly has limits on what he can do.

Still, those things weren’t nearly enough to spoil the movie for me.  It was well handled all the way through.  The fight scenes are great, the characters have depth, and the story never flags.  John Carter is fantastic and an example of how to Get It Right.  Go see it.  And take a friend.

Mastering the Shadows

Shadow’s Master
Jon Sprunk
Pyr Books
trade paper, 313 pp., $17.95

Jon Sprunk is a relative newcomer to the fantasy field, this being only his third novel, the conclusion to a trilogy.  And a right satisfying conclusion it is, at that.  The story that was begun in Shadow’s Son (reviewed here) and continued in Shadow’s Lure (reviewed here) wraps up in Shadow’s Master.  This one is darker, bloodier, and better than its predecessors.

While I won’t give any spoilers to the present book, I might let a few slip from the previous volumes.  Just giving you notice.

The story picks up where the previous novel left off.  Caim, accompanied by three companions, is heading north into the Northern Marches.  There’s something in his head that’s pulling him in that direction.  As she died, his aunt Sybelle told him to look for a dark fortress if he wants to find out what happened to his mother.  Caim thinks he’ll find her when he finds whatever seems to be calling him.

Meanwhile, in Nimea, Josie has survived several assassination attempts and much political intrigue.  She, too, is heading north, ostensibly to tour the northern portions of her kingdom, but in reality she’s searching for Caim.  If she can’t find him, she at least hopes to find some word of him.  She carries his child, something that would give Lady Philomena apoplexy if she knew.  What Josie finds is squabbling nobles, starving peasants, and an invading army.

Most of the book focuses on Caim.  The land he travels is blighted, with the Sun never shining, even on the longest day of summer.  The people barely manage to survive, and those that do, do so by the sword.  If Caim is to reach his destination, he’s going to have to do it over spilled blood.

Sprunk’s handling of the characters shows greater depth than in his previous works, not that those works didn’t show depth of character.  They did.  It’s just that Sprunk is maturing as a writer, growing and expanding.  Much of the territory over which Caim travels is bleak, and the story reflects that.  While Caim struggles to understand his feelings for Josie and his conflicting feelings for Kit, Josie is wrestling with her feelings for Caim as well as the attractive young nobleman who joins her guard.  All of this is in addition to the deaths that Caim and Josie have on their consciences, and knowing that they both have to make decisions that will cost people their lives.

To my mind, though, it was the minor character of Balaam who was one of the most fascinating.  Favored servant of Caim’s grandfather, Sprunk shows us enough of the choices the man has made to paint a picture of regrets and internal conflicts.  This is more than just a bad guy from central casting.  This is one area in which Sprunk’s skills can be seen to have matured.  None of his villains are truly evil except for one, and even with that one the evil is understandable.  Instead, Sprunk gives his villains motives, and noble motives at that, at least from their point of view.  Balaam at one points says that if he’s a killer, at least he’s a killer for a cause while Caim is a killer for profit.  While Sprunk doesn’t beat the reader over the head with them, he does raise some philosophical issues for which there aren’t always easy answers.  Honor, duty, and sacrifice all play a role in the story.  Without them, this would be a far lesser book and a far more generic plot.

There’s plenty of action and combat, and Sprunk handles it with finesse.  Fans of action oriented sword and sorcery will find plenty to cheer about here.

I don’t know if Sprunk plans on returning to this world.  He leaves enough loose ends that further volumes could follow naturally.  I would especially like to see more of Josie.  By the end of the book, she has grown into the role of Empress and is a woman not to be trifled with.  There is still enough unresolved intrigue for at least one novel centered on her.

Shadow’s Master is scheduled for a March release.  I haven’t been in a bookstore in a few weeks, so I don’t know if it’s on the shelves or not.  Barnes and Noble and Amazon both list it, but Amazon shows a release date of March 27.  I’ve seen Pyr books in B&N before their release date, so you may be able to snag a copy sooner than the end of the month.  This one is an example of why Pyr is one of the best publishers of fantasy and science fiction around.