Thursday, May 18, 2017

Broadswords & Blasters: Story Reviews Part 3

To get some background on the whole magazine see my post here. For an explanation of my thinking for these reviews, and for the first 2 stories see Part 1. Likewise, for stories 3 and 4 see Part 2.

Enough blather! Reviews!

Saturday Night Science
by Michael M Jones

Pulp: 1/7     Slick 3/7      Purple: 3/7      Tech: 5/10

Michael M. Jones has a theatrical background that has (mysteriously, perhaps) led to his active participation in a variety of magazine projects, both as editor and as author. View his full (and impressive) bibliography here. He also has quite a range of titles with his name on them available on his Amazon author page. Mr. Jones can be found online discussing writing and books at his reviews blog Shroedinger’s Bookshelf or on Livejournal, and also reviews SFF for the Tor blog. Naturally he is also active on social media such as Facebook, for those who like to chat with authors.

From the “real life weirdness starts at a fan convention” premise through the deliberately zany (and ironic?) treatment and on to the extreme cardboard cut-out characters it’s hard to fathom how this ended up in a magazine supposedly devoted to “pulp with modern sensibilities.”  But I confess: I really didn’t like this story, so I may be biased.

To be fair there’s a standard SF trope at the core: the protagonist’s (only) foil is a wildly dressed “mad scientist” type she met at the con - and whose get-up turns out not to be cosplay but actual evidence of her origins in a parallel universe. But the “big idea” is not really engaged at all, and merely serves as the backdrop of what I found hard to see as anything but an abusive and ultimately unbelievable romance[1].

In the space of just a few pages we go from what appears to be a con party hookup bondage scene to “let’s travel the universe together while I hold this gun on you.” The breakneck pace of the relationship would be hard to manage in a longer work with more space to develop the characters internally, but in a story so short - and with other moving parts to develop - the end result is impossible for me to swallow.

The problem of course is that we’re given nothing to hold on to.

The first person narrative style helps quite a bit for the protagonist, Camille, but even with her I found it very difficult to get engaged. She has a name, and we learn a bit about her and her life as the story progresses, but we get nothing to justify her decisions or even, really, to make us cheer for her. Part of this of course is that ultimately she does nothing - which means there’s nothing to cheer for. But mainly, and despite Mr. Jones’ quite engaging, upbeat voice in the narration, I found she barely manifests at all in the story.

This feeling is even worse when, on reflection, I realise that her one moment of agency before the flip-flop conclusion is essentially an accident.

As for Daphne the interdimensional traveller - well, her development is if anything worse, though admittedly not as potentially offensive as poor Camille. Again, Mr. Jones seems to have a good hand with energetic dialogue and when Daphne speaks we get the sense of an engaging, upbeat woman who brings a dash of zany to the table. And if you noticed a bit of repetition there, you’ve already sensed my problem: Daphne read to me as essentially Camille in mad scientist cosplay.

On the other hand, Daphne is at least active - and through Camille’s description and engagement with her we do at least get to learn a little more about the situation and its implications. We don’t get much, but at least for me it was enough to shift the story from “animatronic mad scientist’s lab diorama” into “alternative Doctor Who fanfic” territory[2] - it did seem to me as though there was a wider universe out there beyond the story, and the potential for more adventures, but sadly Mr. Jones declines to offer any glimpses of them.

OK so I didn’t like the story – a big part of that is probably personal – but perhaps the most frustrating thing about it was the fact that Mr. Jones does seem to know what he’s doing. As mentioned, the tone is upbeat and engaging, and on top of this the story itself tumbles from moment to moment at a quick pace that kept me reading - and hoping for deeper engagement with the characters or the idea. Likewise, he doesn’t burden the story with detailed “still life” description: he’s very economical and evocative in describing Daphne’s equipment and the events, and does so mainly by presenting them in motion. There is real skill here, and a good handle on the dynamism that would make a good pulp story pulse, but it never really seems to go anywhere.

It’s unfortunate and frustrating that the skill Mr. Jones demonstrates at this level of the story doesn’t translate into the wider scope of character and - more importantly for a piece this short - plot. The placeholder characters are forgivable in a short, fast-paced story like this one. It really does take a master to pack rich characters into such a small space. But it’s not even so much that he dropped beats or was out of tune, Mr. Jones doesn’t really give us any plot at all.

There’s an awful lot of noise and fury in this story, but in the end it signifies nothing: the frenetic action never congeals into a coherent shape.

Grade: F

Island of Skulls (part 1)
by Matt Spencer

Pulp: 4/7     Slick: 3/7     Purple: 2/7     Tech: 5/10

Matt Spencer is another established author with an impressive bibliography (in fact, this magazine has done well to attract some experienced talent). He’s known for his Deschembine trilogy (The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast and the forthcoming The Blazing Chief (Damnation Books)) but his bibliography includes a wide range of books and anthologies in which his stories appear. Most are also available on his Amazon author page. He bills himself as a writer of hard-boiled and horror fiction on his Facebook page, and he can also occasionally be found lurking on Twitter as @MattSpencerFSFH.

This one is more firmly in pulp territory than some of the other stories in Issue 1 of B&B, but is unfortunately to some extent missing some of the motivational elements - replaced by others - which makes it feel a lot more like a rough-edged 70s era story than something from the pulps’ golden era.

There’s an effort to build richer imagery via more extensive description, which is great, but in the first half of the tale this translates into awkward doubling of adjectives and other words that occasionally had me grinding my teeth. It was clear what Mr. Spencer was aiming for, and he seems to achieve greater control in the second half - just illustrating how much better the story could have been with careful editing, which is doubly frustrating since the story definitely has promise:

Mr. Spencer starts fast in the middle of the action and gives us a good look at the main players early on. The story moves ahead to follow Tia and Ketz as they investigate strange goings on and discover a troubling connection to a past disaster. At each stage more of the world - and the situation - is revealed to us, and the exposition was skillfully done, without much reliance on info-dumps. Though some of the early description is awkward, as mentioned, the story certainly provides a clear view of the landscape and enough handles on the two protagonists to get a good grip right from the beginning. It’s not quite clear who is meant to be the main character, as the author hovers between the two in terms of interior view, but his intent will no doubt be clearer in Part 2 (due in the next issue) - asked to guess, I’d say that despite the early focus on Ketz either Tia is the primary[3] or that the aim is for a kind of shared place at the very center of the story. Despite preferring Tia myself, the second possibility is intriguing as I’d like to see how Mr. Spencer handles such a challenging approach.

Overall, the story arc given to us in Part 1 is well timed and energetic, driving along from scene to scene in a manner that really reflects the earthy flavour of the characters and setting. I personally found the rather rough tone and language of the dialogue off-putting at times[4], and while Mr. Spencer did a good job of pulling me along it really weakened my ability to like the characters. I get what he was trying to achieve, but it came across as perhaps trying too much. This kind of heavy handed dialect building really works best when there’s some purpose to it - in this case it was simply jarring.

One puzzling element to both the characters and the plot, though, was the question of time. Not the time in the tale, though: the deeper time of the setting. Mr. Spencer is careful to build his exposition mainly into dialogue and description, but at times it’s very difficult to grasp history.

As an example, the initial impression given of the characters is that they are teens - still building up to adult skills and responsibility but with more independence and ability than children[5]. However, as is made very clear later in the story they are also hard-bitten veterans of a conflict some years ago. How old are they, really, and what is their place in society? It seems as if this would have important consequences, but these points are very slippery.

Similarly, the timing of the war, the expansion of an empire that seems like an important force lurking in the background, and even the history (and geography) surrounding the weirdness being investigated all hint at much longer periods of time than the timelines presented in exposition either explicitly or as a consequence of logic given what we are told.

The whole world feels compressed, with things somehow both closer together and further apart than they ought to be.

Still, despite the stylistic flaws and the occasional “huh?” moments inspired by apparent temporal scales this is a solid story, and Mr. Spencer does make me feel that something mysterious is afoot that requires my attention in Part 2. That alone, really, is a pretty good win.

Grade: C+

[1] This was a difficult story to read, because all I could think about was how horrifying the opening scenario was even if clear consent got them there.

[2] An improvement, even if it’s not exactly glowing praise.

[3] A good choice if so, as I think she is definitely the more interesting character.

[4] I’m not prudish about language, and I suppose it was realistic for the sort of setting we find in this story, but sometimes “realism” needs to be set aside.

[5] And this is a logical choice for this sort of story, as it gives the characters the ideal combination of competence and naiveté (and of freedom and constraint). 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Broadswords & Blasters: Story Reviews Part 2

Check out an alternate cover that was considered for this one!

To get some background on the whole magazine see my post here. For an explanation of my thinking for these reviews, and for the first 2 stories see Part 1.

Enough blather! Reviews!

The Executioner’s Daughter
by R. A. Goli

           Pulp: 1/7   Slick: 4/7   Purple: 3/7   Tech: 7/10

R. A. Goli is an Australian author of speculative fiction, who can be found online at her authorial homepage here, or if you prefer to stalk authors more personally she can also be discovered on Facebook. Her profile (and other sources) informs me that she mainly writes horror and horror erotica[1] and the tomes listed on her Amazon profile certainly backs that up. However, her profile also informs me that she writes fantasy and science fiction – and I’d say that The Executioner’s Daughter suggests I’d be interested to see more from her on that front.

To be frank, there is nothing pulpy about the story, and nothing particularly compelling about the characters - we ultimately learn next to nothing about them other than their various involvement in execution. But simply saying that obscures what is actually a well-written and interesting tale.

I found the premise quite interesting: what does happen when a hereditary profession falters because of the combination of cultural change and the facts of progeny? For that matter, the actual challenges raised in Ms. Goli’s narrative are well developed and while the solution is relatively obvious to the historically inclined it is cleverly engaged.[2]

One curious element of Ms. Goli’s story is that although there is some exposition - necessary to provide us with the background we need to understand Felian’s situation and provide the crisis with sufficient weight - we actually learn very little about the world in which events take place. Indeed, Ms. Goli leaves certain details such as the consequences of failure until quite late in the story, which changes the tone considerable and reduced my sense of risk by making it feel like a late addition simply to head off “no big deal” shrugs.

As a slick piece it works quite well, and is actually an amusing twist on the “girl in a boy’s world” conceit. Unfortunately Ms. Godi’ isn’t really literary-rich enough to make it atmospheric, and the length precludes much depth to the examination of the questions posed – though the consequences she does explore are interesting enough to keep attention. I confess I would have liked to see a bit more “crisis” rather than the smooth flow of problem-solution Ms. Goli gives us, but in fairness this story isn’t really long enough to support that.

The quick hint of romance at the end is a nice touch, though, and makes the package remind me a bit of Margaret St. Claire – but I really would have liked to see more “exploration” of the ideas and the world.

Likewise, the narrative style in such a short piece made it hard to get a good view of the characters or sense their urgency as the crisis is met and dealt with.

Given the constraints of space, this might have been better achieved via a more active narrative style or more dialogue.

But for all my complaining this is a.solid story, despite being quite different from what is apparently Ms. Goli’s usual fare – and that is actually quite impressive. This story does work well as slick, albeit one too short to really get a grip on the “big thinks” or the characters. I suspect Ms. Goli is a name to watch in the future.

Grade: C+


Pension Plan
by Dusty Wallace

           Pulp: 3/7  Slick: 2/7  Purple: 1/7  Tech: 6/10

Dusty Wallace is findable online at his blog, or stalkable on Twitter if you’re not satisfied with his rate of updates on the blog. Mr. Wallace has published in a fairly impressive variety of anthologies viewable on his Amazon author page, and also in such publications as ARES Magazine, Flapperhouse, and Bete Noir Magazine. For more on Mr. Wallace himself and his thoughts on fiction, you can also check out this interview with him by Martin Ingham.

This piece is a fairly straightforward heist story, with the twist that it takes place on an abandoned mining colony and involves Mr. Wallace’s own alien race, the Cransh.

It starts strong, in the middle of the action - or at least the situation. Immediately it’s clear that it will be hard to call the situation or the characters “pulp” in the heroic aesthetic sense: the protagonists are there taking advantage of the mob’s MO to score big, and they’ve started the deal with a massacre. It’s obvious nobody is innocent, and there’s really no moral direction here as we are firmly in noir territory.[3]

The story is presented in a first person narrative - again a signal that noir sensibilities will be required - and Mr. Wallace makes a good effort to embed key facts about his world and his characters early on in both the narrative and the characters’ banter that will play a part later on. Indeed, there’s a piece of foreshadowing that bears fruit at the end.

The banter is perhaps a bit too strong for my liking, however – it’s clear in the first page or so that Mr. Wallace’s intended take here is going to have a bit of humour to it.

I had the feeling through the whole piece that it was heavy with irony and sly jokes, and Mr. Wallace seems to have taken “pulp with modern sensibilities” to mean taking a fairly standard formula story and branding it with unnecessarily puerile conceits and obvious parody. The universe in which he places the action is painted in comical extremes, from the bizarre alien-human melding to the economics to the frankly silly twist[4] that decides the crisis.

This isn’t entirely unreasonable, I suppose: if he was taking his model from the mid to late 40s, especially the second tier (and lower) pulps of the era, a kind of devil-may-care attitude

Technically, Mr. Wallace has a good hand with the pacing of action and I found the way he built the world up in the first third of the story quite deft. This could have been a nice, tight, noir-flavoured heist but for the choice to poke fun with what are ultimately not particularly clever jibes – though I’m pleased to say that the way he set up the final twist was actually quite clever, even if it fell on deaf ears with me.

I’m left thinking that the author has promise but that perhaps his effort here is marred by over-focus on the shallow end of the pulp pool. Not an uncommon ailment, but disappointing to see in an ostensibly pulp-oriented magazine. The technical skill he shows in pacing and the action scenes, not to mention the deft way he builds the world around his characters without resorting to too much exposition make me want to give the story a better score, but sadly I just didn’t like it as much as I could have.

I would love to see what would happen if Mr. Wallace took the assignment over and wrote something more serious though - I imagine he might produce a tightly-written noir planetary romance: and that would be awesome!

Grade: D (reluctantly)

[1] No, I’m not quite sure what that is either.

[2] I’d say this puts the lie to her “claim” that although she’d like to say she writes science fiction “simply putting a robot in it doesn’t make it so” – taking the solution that’s obvious to people in the know and engaging it in an interesting way is pretty much the formula for good scifi of some varieties.

[3] I hasten to say that’s not a complaint, simply an observation that the range of what the editors (and authors) were thinking of as “pulp” includes some other aesthetics that I would have excluded. But chacun son gout I suppose – and anyway, I like a good noir story so let’s see where this goes.

[4] There’s that chacun son goût thing again – I’m sure there are plenty of readers who would find it clever, I’m just not one of them, unfortunately, and the joke left me flat.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Broadswords & Blasters: Story Reviews Part 1

Way over on the other side, I put together an overview review of the new SFF magazine Broadswords and Blasters.

Briefly, despite being initially sceptical I was pleasantly surprised: there’s an interesting mix of story styles here, though the quality does vary a bit. There are a couple of winners here, a number of solid if unremarkable pieces, and (though it pains me) a couple of duds. In all, a pretty respectable showing for the first issue of an experiment, especially considering how little money they had to throw around at authors.

I don’t know if I’d really call the magazine “pulp” – with modern sensibilities or not – but there are a few stories here that either make the sorting pile or come close. It will be interesting to see how they develop it.

Now, on to the reviews!

For each story, I’ve utilized a highly complicated biological algorithm processor[1] to assign a score in four categories:

Pulp is my sense of how well the story matches the pulp aesthetic as I’ve discussed here and elsewhere. At the top of the scale you’d find hell-for-leather action tales like Doc Savage, REH’s less introspective heroes, ERB and the like.

Slick is my sense of how much “big idea” the story engages – ie how “high brow” it is in content. Here we’d see things like Asimov, or Larry Niven’s “engineering puzzle box” stories score well. Likewise stories with a strong underlying political or moral message like Octavia Butler’s work.

Purple is my sense of the richness of the style – how literary is it? Vance (especially later works) definitely scores well here, as would Dunsany’s 51 Tales.

Tech is my sense of how well the story is put together – how are the beats aligned? Does the story flow? Does it feel complete? How well does the author apply technique and form?

For various reasons I’ve chosen to use a 7 point scale for the first three, and a 10 point scale for the last.

And finally I’ve melded all these scores together with just the basic “did I like it” gestalt in the deepest recesses of my mind to give each story a letter grade – not objective in any sense of course, but perhaps a measure more accessible to others.

So here we go:

Skin Deep
by Nicholas Ozment

            Pulp: 4/7    Slick: 5/7    Purple: 3/7   Tech: 6/10

Nicholas Ozment is a contributing blogger over at Black Gate, and in fact his most recent post there was a promotional piece for B&B. He has been publishing in SFF since 1998, with a bibliography viewable at the isfdb, including his 2010 novel Knight Terrors: The (MIS)Adventures of Smoke the Dragon (Ancient Tomes Press – currently out of print). He has been interviewed by Every Day Fiction back in 2008, and (very) occasionally makes an appearance on his Livejournal, but appears to be otherwise internet invisible – a shame!

This story is a basic moral vehicle rooted in the selkie mythology of the Northern British Isles: the actors are warriors travelling north to find the legendary ilsilke, who are reputed to rise from the icy waters to bathe in the sunlight, and to be supernatural beauties. Our heroes are clear early on, both because of the narrative focus on the young Kenrin and Haralt, and because of the nearly comical contrast painted between them and the unpleasantly rough usurai sword masters. There are some interesting ideas here, and the author has done a creditable job of building up hints of the wider world without resorting to ponderous exposition. Unfortunately the beats of the tale seem off, and I had a strong sense that there is more story here than really fits in such a short piece: ultimately we’re not really given much reason to like the protagonists other than for the fact they’re not the grizzled thugs travelling with them North. And lest we mistake their nature, the thugs are - in addition to being arrogant, boastful drunkards - given several opportunities at “puppy kicking” early on, both in dialogue and action.

Even with the implied attempted rape, the signals of villainy aren’t over the top - but there’s too much in such a small space, and the author’s effort to make the bad guys bad overshadows any sense of good I might have had from the heroes. This feeling was worse at the climax: the story promised selkies, and it delivers. It also hinted at a wry discovery, and it delivers there as well - though it did perhaps telegraph the exact discovery a bit loudly. But this is just where the story really stumbles.

The two young sur apprentices[2] were positioned as being really equal to the veterans right from the beginning, so of course we anticipate the eventual confrontation - and the nature of the tale and the usurai’s moral evil tells us who will win. This is why it felt so unfortunate and disappointing how brief and anticlimactic Mr. Ozment’s treatment of that battle turns out to be. Not only that, but he undermines the affair by clawing away a heroic victory with deus ex machina, and then topping it off with the double punch of a reward that feels undeserved and a “deep” moral to the story - which itself fails for me exactly because the heroic dimensions have been undermined.

Still, though the heroes suffer from shallow treatment the story hits the heroic pulp notes in one respect: they are painted as clearly moral superiors to the veterans (even if I think the balance was ungainly) and indeed at the crisis point it is the decision to stand by principle despite the risk that pushes the story forward.

There is definitely a strong story here, but it’s obscured by the author’s focus on other angles and the effort put into amplifying the moral conceit from which the tale springs.

Grade: C


Dead Men Tell Tales
by Dave D’Alessio

              Pulp: 4/7    Slick: 2/7    Purple: 2/7   Tech 7/10

Dave D’Alessio has an impressive line-up of titles under his name on Amazon, a number of which have encouraging ratings on goodreads. Remarkably, his entries on isfdb include only one of his stories, which makes it tough to really see the full range of his work. He also has a healthy social media presence (if you can call Facebook healthy) including a regular interview by fellow author Martin Ingham,  an “interview” with the protagonist of his book Yak Butter Diaries , and a face-to-face with Dr. D’Alessio himself on aliens on Author Talk.

This story starts briskly with a murder and goes downhill (for PI John D. Arbogast) from there. It’s not immediately clear whether it’s a real SF mystery or just a standard detective tale with a few verniers and flashing lights duct-taped on for looks.

Turns out it’s half-way between.

Let me start by mentioning that one point that took me rather by surprise, considering the stated goals of the magazine, was the rather bluntly racist depiction of the Triad thugs that play a part in the mystery. This seems a strange choice in context, but perhaps the same things that led me to overlook it got this story past the editors.[3]

In true pulp fashion the story starts with action, and at every stage the protagonist - our undoubtedly square-jawed gumshoe - is at decision cusps. While the actual technology is only vaguely relevant Dr. d’Alessio does work it in skillfully and very naturally, and the beats of the scene presented work very well. He focuses very closely on the protagonist’s actions and to some extent the technical details however - with the consequence that we learn relatively little about the universe in which the story takes place. And one consequence of the first person narrative form - which of course is de rigeur for a story like this, and a perfect tone for the tale - unfortunately gave me little to hold on to when it comes to the protagonist.

Indeed, all I really saw to sell him was his evident dislike of organized crime and his almost-witty narrative style (which actually is quaintly noir in tone). This is unfortunately compounded by two problems.

The first is most obvious through the continual crises: we are simply given no reason to believe in Arbogast. There’s no history, no context, none of the usual autobiography that comes with this sort of first person account - not even the sort of side comment like “when I was in the colonial marines” which hints at experiences and can render later competence believable.

The second actually explains all the rest: the story ends abruptly in a way that suggests it is actually a fragment of something larger. As a longer piece, we might expect a bit more meat, more feeling for the setting (and more opportunity to see the Triad trio as more than cringe-worthy caricatures), and more reason to root for Arbogast.

To be honest I think that I’d read a noir gumshoe “pocketbook” that expanded this story.

Grade: B (and could easily be a B+ in a longer version) 

[1] My gut.
[2] This little fantasy language conceit – the relation between usurai and sur – actually goes a long way toward hinting at the nature of the broader world, and is really quite clever.
[3] I’ll note as well that the depiction is also a fairly de rigeur over-the-top cyberpunk gangster archetype, which fits with the technology depicted, and the noir style. As such my response to the approach may be more knee-jerk, again related to the shortness of the piece.