Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Magical Parrots and Power Suits! ~ Cirsova #3 Review

By this point everyone who reads this blog should be aware of what Cirsova is. It's a magazine that runs stories of heroism and daring-do in fantastical backdrops of science fiction, fantasy, or horror backgrounds . . . and sometimes in all three at once. If you've stuck around for issue 3 then there's a pretty solid chance you're a fan.

So the question might be if it has stuck to what it does best, or has finally turned to modern spec fiction muck.

The answer is that issue 3 contains some of the best stories so far, but it also contains some of my least favorite so far. Press on to find out what I mean.

The main theme of this issue, as one can gleam from the cover, is pirating. I could make a complaint that there were no stories that contained pirate ninjas, but all told the pirate stories are all top notch here. It's the ones that lean in other directions that didn't hit the same highs.

Starting from the beginning we have "War in a Way that Suits You" by Michael A. Michaels, a story about a group of mercenary soldiers who wear suits to enhance their capabilities. There is a lot of great action here, commentary on the universe the characters live in, and a great denouement where the main character is shown the error of his baser actions. I liked this one. It's not one of my favorites, but it works tremendously well to open the issue and set the tone for what's to come.

"The Lion's Share" by J.D. Brink and "Blood & Bones: Caribbean 1645" by Jim Breyfogle have much in common; they are both about pirates, they both feature a brisk plot with interesting characters and over the top action, and they are the two best stories in the issue. The former is about space pirates ransacking a ship that turns out to have more going on than first thought, and the second is a swashbuckler tale featuring mages, demons, and a brilliant ending. I have to confess, these stories alone were worth the full price of the magazine.

"The Mad God's Scepter" by Edward McDermott is the type of story that would have been more common before the 1980s but is positively refreshing now. Seafaring, pirate battles, lost islands, mystical relics and monsters, and a climax as eerie as it is exciting, makes story work better than its slow start may have you first think.

I lied a bit before. When I lumped "The Lion's Share" and "Blood & Bones: Caribbean 1645" together as the best stories, I made it seem as if they alone were the peak of this issue. "The End of the Golden Age" by Tyler Young is easily up there with them. There are magical parrots that grant incredible abilities. There are crazed pirate battles. There is revenge in the air. There is an ending that melds history and fantasy together in a way Tolkien would approve. The wistful look back at the Golden Age and the magic lost since is tragic, and yet the realization that magic could exist on such a grand scale fires up the imagination and hope for a different sort of better day. I was a big fan of this story as you can tell.

Next is "Othan, Liberator" by Kurt Magnus, a story of a warrior up against an evil cult. It's very action packed with a final face off with the villain that I really enjoyed. It stands out a bit in this issue for being a bit different from the overall theme, but that is no fault of the story. It is very much in the style of older sword and sorcery stories, and a perfect break from the over the top pirate story before it and the short that comes next.

That short is "The Space Witch" by Schuyler Hernstrom, who is quickly becoming the staple Cirsova author. His mushroom men tale in issue 1 set the tone for Cirsova to come, and his novelette in issue 2 was incredible, and this small story lives up to them in spades. It's the end of a crazed battle, a lone warrior stands against his enemy, the Space Witch, and the two make a deal to see who will win the war. As far as heroic stories go the resolution to this short epitomizes them.

Unfortunately, I don't think the issue comes close to these highs again.

"Clock's Watch" by Michael Reyes annoyed me. It is about a . . . being called Clock who has fallen out of time and is hunting . . . monsters that control people's brains. I can say that it is a good set up. I had no problem with the story, or the resolution, but everything surrounding it. It is written in present tense. The POV jumps around too much. Not much of anything is actually explained outright. I'm still not even sure what the enemy was. It was weird at least. This might be to your taste, but it wasn't to mine.

Now, the novelette has usually been one of the best parts of any issue of Cirsova. "A Hill of Stars" by Misha Burnett was a great mix of Lovecraft and weird fiction that never let up, and "Images of the Goddess" by Schuyler Hernstrom was at once fantastical, funny, exciting, and off-kilter. "The Wooing of Etroklos" by J. Comer, in contrast to those, is a bit flat for my tastes.

A warrior woman disguised as a man sets out to find a woman for her master, the wizard Etroklos, and ends up in the middle of a bandit scuffle. My major issue would be that despite being the longest story in the issue, it has about as much happen as any of the far shorter tales. The pacing is sluggish. No characters really stood out to me either as they had in every other tale here. There isn't anything that hooked me into the story or the character's predicaments. I have to say that this is the first story in Cirsova that really didn't do anything for me.

We end with an essay on C.L. Moore by Jeffro Johnson which I found fascinating. I'm late to the whole pulp revolution having only started reading them a few years back, but C.L. Moore has always been one of the storytellers that interested me the most. Feminine, dark, hopeful, masculine, horrifying, stoic, and exciting-- C.L. Moore was the full package, All this essay did was remind me to read more of her. And since that was the goal of the essay, it was a huge success.

The issue ends with the editor's note, as it always does, though this one intrigued me. Mr Alexander relates that one complaint he received was how much more Cirsova ended up like Weird Tales instead of Planet Stories. All I can do is shrug and note that there's a reason for that. Planetary Romance stories are still being written and can be found everywhere. Author John C. Wright is currently in the middle of just such a tale. But Weird Tales?

I recently listened to a podcast by JimFear138 where he cuts into the exact problem with the current horror and weird tale atmosphere.

*Language Warning*

For those who don't wish to listen to the whole thing (though it is a very good explanation as to what has happened to the genre), Mr Fear goes on to explain that more stories than not in the weird fiction/horror area* have become overwritten by message fiction. Political agendas inform stories instead of concept or character ideas leading to alienating segments of the audience and morality plays with predictable endings where the group the author hates ends up suffering their wrath, often with a heavy handed moral message. In short, this is what the Horror and Weird Tales markets looks like now. Is it any wonder Cirsova is getting so many submissions in the Weird Tales format?

There is no place for the authors of traditional horror/weird tales stories to send what they have when pedestrian stories like the one Mr Fear mentioned are chosen by the gatekeepers. Cirsova is one of the few options open to these authors.

Anyway, I'm fairly certain that's why Cirsova is getting far more of one style submitted than the other.

The final assessment is that Cirsova #3 is a worthy addition to your library. It has some of the best stories yet run, but a couple miss the mark for me. However, it still evens out to another great read that is well worth your time.

Issue #4 is on the way and is currently looking for advertisers, so if you have a project in need of publicity, look them up. If issue #4 is as good as the rest you definitely won't mind being in the company of such great stories.

*I realize Weird Tales do not equal Horror. My point was that both styles come from the same place, they overlap a lot, and they both suffer from the same problem.


  1. Thanks for the kind words! And yes, the Gatekeepers with their literary standards... I had to wonder how many people really wanted only that brand of SFF for years, decades even! Was there no one else who wanted to read SFF stories about action and cool characters rather than purely public service messages that make you feel warm and fuzzy about people with disabilities or politics? There is certainly a need for that too, but *only* that? Luckily the Gatekeepers don't hold all the keys anymore. (That said, I was trained toward that kind of writing in college, and I like to think I kept some of that disposition, but prefer to mix it in with more entertaining elements too.) Thanks again for talking about this issue (and these "issues")!

    1. You're welcome, and thanks for the great story!