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.

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