Thursday, 2 May 2019

The Big Book Blowout!

Which is why I take my time going through things

Have you ever gotten so off track that you find it embarrassing? 2018 for me was the year of distractions and as a consequence I didn't do quite enough when it comes to reviewing newer books. I read, but it was mostly older stuff. It is good to keep in contact with the old ways, but newer authors deserve the reading time, too. This is an attempt to make it up here. Today's post is an overlong set of reviews. So if you're looking for a good book to read then you've come to the right place.

Of course many of these works are Pulp Revolution being that I have been in contact with everyone of them before and that I know they are aware of what the movement is. It's also been about three years since the movement got going (as of now, anyway) so we should keep up with how it is progressing.

That said, there isn't really a theme other than I promised these reviews a while back but fell behind in producing them. So here they are! This post is meant to bring me up to date as best as possible and to hopefully spread the word about some good books. So everyone wins. The books I will talk about today are Reptilian Wanderer, A Traitor to Dreams, Going Native & Other Stories, and The Ophian Rising. That is quite the selection.

I've wanted to get these out for a while now so I stored them up in this one mega-post. I hope you are ready for a lot of reading because that is how much I had to do just to make these reviews reality.

*Note: I have met these authors before, and some of them gave me copies of these works to read. As usual it won't have any bearing on my reviews but I figure it is worth mentioning.

Find it Here

The first book to talk about is A Traitor to Dreams by Alexander Hellene, his first published novel. This is an Isekai fantasy story of the old sort. IE it's actually worth your time to read.

Elpida Kallistos is in her late-30s and is unable to establish a lasting relationship. Now, as doubt about the future creeps in on her, she begins to second guess her life choices. Instead of dealing with the problem beating her over the head, she finds herself an out. The Dream Trashcan! A new product for dealing with unwanted issues, it can give the user the sleep they desire and remove unpleasant thoughts. So Elpida uses it to remove her budding desire to build a family. All seems well at first, but did she make a mistake?

This is genre fiction, so yes.

She finds herself trapped in a strange dream world that looks suspiciously like ancient Greece. Crazy monsters from the myths, landmarks, and a strange sky all greet her at once. At the same time she is joined by a winged muscular man with the personality of a boy and wise-cracking bird who are not what they seem at first. Eventually the group is pulled into an adventure of creepy horrors, computerized knights, monsters and beasts, and some existential dread.

And that's just to begin with. There is far more to mention that I won't spoil here. Nonetheless, it is a quest for Elpida to find her way out again. But things will never be the same again.

This book is hard to peg. There are elements of Science Fiction with the creation of a device such as the Dream Trashcan, Elpida's desire also point to a sort of character piece as well. I could also mention the fantastical and horror elements, but I'll leave those surprises for those willing to dive into the book for themselves. Just talking about them is spoiler central. I would classify this story as pure weird fiction, the type that would have been serialized in a modern day edition of Weird Tales, if one existed, and still remembered its roots. The story manages to get stranger and stranger as it goes but it never loses its grounding as an adventure story.

It also manages to be a rare feat in that it stars an at-first unlikable main character who learns and grows as the story goes on into being someone you like hanging around with by the end. In an age where rotten characters are portrayed as ideal this is refreshing. There are other characters both good and bad that fit this mold, but not one of them is actively annoying or grating. In fact, the varied characters are probably the strongest part of the book.

If I had a complaint it is that some scenes stretch on for a good while past when a problem should be solved, though that might be a particularity of mine. Nonetheless, things are still happening which is usually not the case with modern Oldpub books these days. As long as things are happening on the page the author is doing their job.

I highly recommend this book for weird fiction fans and anyone who wants an example of how to modernize the old formula without ruining its mystique. It works great here and I eagerly await what Mr. Hellene has waiting for us next.

Find it Here

More weirdness!

Reptilian Wanderer by Dominika Lein is a novella about a strange spacecraft full of lizard people who appear lost at space without any clear direction and are very far from home. Ray wakes up from slumber with a bit of scrambled brain amnesia and is being trained to rejoin his brothers and re-learn how everything in the ship works. However, something is not quite right and he begins to think and remember things no one else who is reborn does. This slowly ends up building to an ending where everything around them is not what it seems and their quest turns out to be more important than any of them realize.

Along the way is romance, action, and wonder, the three keys to a good old pulp romp. The pulp revolution has attracted many authors with their own distinctive tastes, but so far of the ones I've read they all appear to value those three aspects of fiction above all else. This one is no exception.

For a shorter book Reptilian Wanderer has a slow build, which works to its favor. There's no padding and the suspense delivers its point without being blunted by being excruciatingly stretched like so many similar sff books these days to meet a corporate approved page count. I say "similar" but I only mean in their attempt to world build: most Oldpub books care more about aesthetics or background info that the reader finds trivial or gets in the way of the main plot. They are more impressed with themselves than they are the story. Here the background is very important for the plot but it also enhances the atmosphere as distinctly alien and the characters as both like us humans and different from us. We can understand them as far as we should be able to. You're learning about this spacecraft and its small society at the same time the story relies on it to slowly unfurl what is going on behind the scenes. By the end you will almost feel as if you are a part of the group and hate to see them go.

One of the aspects of the pulp revolution I have enjoyed is the shorter and sharper books that have come out of it to really emphasize how much unnecessary fat modern novels have and how much a good writer can really pack into a work under 300 pages if they really want to. Reptilian Wanderer would not feel out of step coming from C. L. Moore, Jack Vance, or even Roger Zelazny, and reads as the kind of book that would feel impossible coming out even five years ago. In fact, there is no chance a major publisher would touch this, and that's a shame.

Reptilian Wanderer is weird, sharp, distinct, and has a heart to it that I haven't read from an Oldpub book in a long time. You would be remiss skipping this one.

I eagerly await the next piece the author puts out. Surely even better works await than even this.

Find it Here

If you thought we were done with the weird stuff then you thought wrong.

This book is the most recent addition to this list, a short story collection by yet another writer of weird fiction (I think I might have a problem) this time it is Going Native & Other Stories by J. Manfred Weichsel. You might have recalled that I reviewed the title story during a review of a Cirsova issue. To refresh your memory it was an PSA against having casual sex with aliens. Yes, really. The story was utterly bizarre and horrifying but also funny at the same time, which is a hard trick to pull off. So when I was given the chance to read and review this collection of six stories including said weird tale I jumped at it.

After the clever title story is the first contact tale of "The Funniest Story Ever Told" about aliens that land on Earth and have a particularly odd effect on those who glance at their faces. In order to solve this problem and prevent the aliens from leaving Earth behind forever, a weird yet believable idea begins to be formed. This leads to an escalation of events leading up to an ending that does its title justice. Once again this is another humorous story with a great ending that will leave you smiling but also maybe a bit horrified.

Next is "Complicit in Their Bondage" about a soldier lost in the desert after a battle with the Taliban. Soon he is attacked by some monsters and meets a crazy broad with a thick British accent. He gets taken to a place where even stranger creatures are and certain people are held in a zoo. I'm not certain I can explain this one without giving the whole thing away, but it reminds me a bit of a certain horror story I read in a collection I reviewed a little while back. Except this one is less predictable with an ending I didn't see coming a mile away.

"The Garden of Prince Shi-Wiwi" is another curve-ball of a bit of an alien meets oriental yarn about plant monsters grown by the titular character. The story is really about a question of ethics and if they are as universal as we consider them here on Earth. It's a shorter piece but a good pace breaker and keeping with the weird theme. It also has another quite horrifying ending.

After that is "Alter Ego", by far the longest story in the collection and probably my favorite. A mental patient finds himself descending into a deeper sort of madness from the confines of the hospital. The main character goes on a strange journey about identity and what it means to be who you are. Oh, and his doctor is a Satanist in a pact with a demon that has a sexual urge to be with dudes. It brings a whole new meaning to the term "trap" and gives us the definitive answer as to their sexual preferences. This story reminded me of something you would read out of a later day Weird Tales issue considering how bizarre it is and how many turns it takes, although it s a bit more explicit. I was hooked until the end trying to figure out which character was where and doing what. I'm sure the author had fun trying to make as many weird turns as he could, and it pays off.

Finally we end on "We Might Not Have Fire, But We Sure As Hell Have Fury", and what a final story it is! A homeless Vietnam veteran is hired for a special job. At first this story starts out like a Cannon action movie might before it gets bizarre. Then it becomes Isekai, but good Isekai. Explaining where the protagonist ends up would involve quite a bit of spoiling but suffice to say that Burroughs, Kline, and Vance, would be proud. You're going to get your action and you're going to like it. The final speech at the end is a good place to leave the collection off, too.

This collection features six stories, all of which are remarkably strong pieces and very different from each other. The only similarities are that they are all weird tales, proving that genre really is more than aesthetic and has its own voice. If you are in a mood to read new pulp stories with the beating heart of the old tales then this collection is for you.

It doesn't get much weirder than this one.

Find it Here

Or does it?

Finally, here is a book I've been meaning to get to for far too long. This is The Ophian Rising, the final entry in Brian Niemeier's Soul Cycle quartet and since I've reviewed every entry in it so far I wanted to cover the final one. It only stands to reason that I should finish what I started.

I'm at a bit of a loss to explain this book without spoiling the others. It's not so much because it's the last book in a series and that it is unavoidable but because this story could standalone without them. However, I have read the other three so I will keep it brief.

There is a place much like Hell where the dead are trapped in endless torment. However, it is not like the cartoonish fire and brimstone Hell you see in old Bugs Bunny shorts or in equally silly online arguments with atheists but one where the world is much like ours with a fantasy and science fiction bent. "Magic" exists in so much that manipulation of the natural world is possible via different methods and systems that are, mercifully, not explained in detail. More than that death and rebirth is a prison where souls remained trapped in this hell world and demonic beings roam free to rule over and torment the masses. This is where the Soul Cycle series takes place.

Through the events of the last three books it has been learned that this world is not the real Hell and these demons playing gods are power hungry monsters looking to rule over this chaos for their own gain. It is an endless cycle of death and despair. But there is a bit of hope. There is escape from this hell, a crack in the abyss that points to something a fair bit different than the world the main characters know. By the end of the third book the good guys have finally discovered this and decide to share it with those trapped in the endless cycle. That is where we were left off. In this final entry many years have passed but it looks as things haven't changed all that much.

Or have they?

In many ways this book is an epilogue to the first three as the third entry wrapped up a lot of character arcs. This one closes off the final few and adds a couple more to be sure. However, it does confirm a theory I had about the universe since the first book in regards to what this place really is and lets you know why it has been such a struggle to turn the hell around. By the end of the story the pieces come together and it leaves you with the feeling that Good will eventually win over the Evil this place is infected with. It will not be easy, but it will happen. Considering how much carnage and destruction these books have this says a lot that such a positive takeaway can be gathered from only a single plot turn..

And of course, being that this is an action adventure story I am happy to report the author has them both in spades here. Even though we have seen this universe four times now I never get sick of exploding buildings, demonic pits, eerie magic, exotic monsters, and trippy spacecrafts. Every event is punctuated with an action set piece that would leave Chuck Norris giving a solemn nod, and the story moves briskly from intrigue and reveal to yet another escalation in stakes without breaking a sweat. Of all four books this one has the best flow.

One thing the author should be praised with doing is going in the opposite direction of epic fantasy and science fiction writers when it comes to the length. Each book in the Soul Cycle is sharper and quicker than the last with this entry being the shortest and sharpest. Rowling would have learned well from this series.

But the key to the success of this series is the wonder. Niemeier doesn't explain everything. He doesn't tie everything up in a neat bow. The story ends when the threat has been defeated and the main character arc has ended. There are questions that haven't been answered and there are events that still must play out. Not everything is shoveled out, but the story has still ended.

This is a good thing.

This is what brings the Soul Cycle from being just another fantasy series that explains everything for my feeble brain so I can forget all about it five minutes after reading to being an adventure that keeps me thinking about possibilities and events that might play out after the last page has been turned. It sticks because it leaves you with questions about the world you will want to figure out for yourself.

It's a feeling a try to get across in my stories, and Niemeier has done it here and made it look so very easy. As a writer I admire what he has done here, but as a reader I am even more pleased.

This usage of wonder has successfully made the Soul Cycle one of the best series I've read in recent memory. If you haven't jumped in by now then what are you waiting for? Get going! You won't read anything else like it today.

In fact, this wonder is the best part of everything reviewed in this post. None of these stories had to suck the life out of by giving my imagination training wheels like I had a slow brain. No endless back stories to explain why every bad action can be explained away or over-focused explanations on why a spaceship can fly through warp speed or an in-depth explanation on why monsters are what they are and how humans are to blame for everything. These stories gave me a fantastical adventure and let me have my fun and speculations, along the way.

It shouldn't be forgotten how important that is for readers. Art is communication, not preaching.

This is what stories are for. You want to get taken on a journey to a new world where anything is possible and the good wins out in the end. For that I do hope you check out all the above.

And I also hope I won't fall so far behind again.

See you next time for when I hopefully get back on track.

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