Saturday, December 26, 2015

I Am Slaughter

I Am Slaughter by Dan Abnett. Book One in The Black Library's 'The Beast Arises' series, originally published December 2015. Approx. 238 pages.

The Beast Arises is The Black Library's ambitious project for 2016. It is proposed as a 12 novel (at least) series, centered on the greatest Waaaagh! of all; that of the monstrous warboss known simply as "The Beast", which put the Imperium on its heels in the 32nd Millennium.

At a time when many are complaining that The Black Library is losing it's focus, with too many short stories, audio books, and limited editions instead of just good old fashioned novels being released, The Beast Arises has the potential to be a refreshing throwback. It has a central theme, BL has committed some solid authors to it, the cover art and color scheme are excellent (in my opinion, at least. I've seen plenty of comments by those not so enamored with them). Kicking off the series is I Am Slaughter, a nice, trim little novel (another personal preference of mine. I usually prefer these succinct little novels over bloated doorstoppers) penned by 40K favorite Dan Abnett.

1500 years after the event of the Horus Heresy, there is a sort of "peace" born from laxity throughout the Imperium of Man. On High Terra, a High Council of Twelve, beset by all the expected conniving and power plays of any such ruling body, rules over the universe-wide affairs of humans. And on the planet of Ardamantua, roughly six weeks away from the Terran Core, the Imperial Fists are keeping in the practice of killing by engaging a race of insectoid xenos known as the Chromes.

As the purging of the Chromes progresses, a new anomaly manifests itself: massive noise bursts that accompany disruptive gravitic distortions. Is this a new weapon in the employ of the Chromes, a naturally occurring phenomenon of the planet, or the interference of yet another race?

The frequency and devastation of the noise bursts steadily increases, wreaking pure havoc on the world and atmosphere of Ardamantua, and putting the Imperial Fists - present in the near entirety of their Chapter - at grave risk. Will desperately needed help arrive from Terra in time? Or will the constant in-fighting and power grabs among the High Lords condemn the esteemed Chapter to oblivion?

Well, let's be honest here. We already know from the advertising blitz that there are orks involved. Tons of orks. But it's the hows and whys that matter. Does Abnett get us off to a roaring start here with I Am Slaughter? Or is this a stumbling start to a underwhelming series concept? I opt for the former. This is a very good, though not perfect novel. Let's take a look at the specifics.

Plot/Pacing: One of the things that has always distinguished Abnett is that he is not only possessing of an outstanding imagination, and solid concepts of speculative technology, but he is also a skilled novelist. All the authorial fundamentals are present: accessible writing, engaging characters and wordplay, and a complete story told by the end of the last page (well, to be fair, I Am Slaughter is an introductory novel, so the story threads are left intentionally open. But as an account of some opening moves in a grand chess game, it does its job well). I Am Slaughter moves along at a good clip, with no slogging or boring scenes. I will say, though, one thing that bugged me a bit is that Abnett uses a few too many cliffhanger endings to chapters.

I've seen some scattered dissent complaining that the big baddies - the orks, don't show up until too late in the proceedings. I disagree; Abnett made the best use of his time in establishing an overview of how things were going in the state of the Imperium circa M32.

World Building: An aspect where Abnett excels. He has been defining this universe and its denizens for two decades. Ardamantua, and its progression into decay, are detailed vividly. The images of High Terra are grand. And, best of all, the vessel carrying the ork Waaaagh! is extremely impressive (even though outstandingly ludicrous).

Characters and Creatures: A bit hit and miss here. Let's start with the creatures. The primary antagonist creatures for the first half of the book are the Chromes. With them, Abnett really captures the essence of "giant ant" creatures from sci-fi classics such as "Starship Troopers" and "Armor".

The orks are another big win, even given their limited page time. Abnett brings them to life in gruesome, vivid detail. If the rest of the series afforded them the same treatment that they receive here, then it would be an epic series indeed. That remains to be seen, of course.

As for humans and transhumans (the Space Marines), that is a far stickier matter. In my most recent rant, I mentioned how hard it is for even the best BL authors to make sympathetic characters out of the emotionally stunted Space Marines. Abnett is one of the few authors who can come close to doing so, on his best days. His Imperial Fists are enjoyable enough. Hell, all of Abnett's characters are "enjoyable". The thing is, Abnett has a very "cinematic" writing style. Meaning, his prose moves with the fluidity of a movie. Also, this means his characters are often presented in a manner most palatable for quick viewing, or, as is the case here, quick reading. All of these Fists have a distinguishing point of view, characteristic, or trait. And that is about all. One of the main ones, Slaughter (the Captain whose image graces the cover), is a solid enough character, but could have thrived much more with even two or three pages of solid detail. Another Fist, Daylight, one of the Palace guards on Terra, is a decent character as well. In a later chapter in the book, a moment of regret serves as the most emotional, and best written, portion of the book.

The weakest characters, however, are the humans on Terra. The main focus there is centered on Drakan Vangorich, Grand Master of the Officio Assassanorum. While not one of the High Twelve, Vangorich still weaves some high level of maneuvering and manipulation behind the scenes. The main issue that I have with Vangorich is that he is a prime example of the type of character that Abnett (and AD-B) so often writes: he is always the coolest cucumber in the room. His thinly veiled threats and promises resonate with a well-orchestrated combination of coolness, sarcasm, and snark. I mean, it's fine and believable that he is more efficient than almost anyone he comes across, but the character comes across as such by design, not as the result of a well-created character. The scenes with him become predictable; for example, one chapter opens with a page-long description of all the security measures in place in the residence of an Inquisitor. Before finishing the description, the reader can already predict that Vangorich will, of course, be in the room anyone. Why? Simply, because he is so awesome, I guess.

Something else that falls flat is the depiction of political intrigue. One example stands out glaringly. Vangorich and one of his allies are looking to convince the High Lord of the Imperial Navy to commit ships to the reinforcement of the Fists. Their grand plan? Phrase their proposal in a way that the High Lord will agree, in the hopes of grabbing glory. That's it. I mean,not every writer is effective in describing delicate power plays, but that is just juvenile. But, it all falls into the "cinematic" aspect. In a movie, that's how a situation like that would play out. In actual universe-spanning politicking, I highly doubt it.

The fact is, none of the characters here are well-rounded or thoroughly fleshed out. They all have good dialogue, and get their moments to shine, but that is it.

A few other things did not work well for me, either. I personally did not care for the concept of nicknames for the Imperial Fists. I don't know how long this has been canon, but it was a tad, well, corny to me.

Also, Abnett decides to have some "doubles" here. There are contrasting "Slaughters", both of whom get to utter the titular declaration.
To the detriment of the novel, this Slaughter did not make the final draft..

There are also two "Beasts", both of whom get a chance to "arise". I'm sure this all seemed clever in concept, but it isn't so much in execution.

All in all, I Am Slaughter is a solid entry book for this new series. It isn't Abnett's best (or worst) by any means, but it delivers on every promise that it makes, and it does so in a nice looking, trim novel. If the characterizations strengthen up in subsequent novels, this will be a great ride.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

As mentioned before, I really like the cover art for these novels. The human and Space Marine ones are decent, but the ork ones are truly excellent. Lots of detail abound as well. I also personally like the white background with the green trim. A bookshelf full of these titles in hardback would look spiffy on any shelf. Here's a pic of the cover with its original background:

Cover Final Score:


Friday, December 18, 2015

A Review Of John Coyne's Hobgoblin Re-release

From the Peace Corps Writers page....

"Boo! Trick or Treat?

No, this isn’t a Halloween novel with Ghosts, Vampires, and Witches. This is a murder mystery, with bodies everywhere. From Connecticut, where young Scott attended Spencertown Academy to Flat Rock, a rural high school in Crossroads, New York. Scott and his beautiful Mom Barbara have moved south after his father Warren dies of a heart attack. The mystery just gets started as Barbara takes on the position of Historian for a medieval castle known as Ballycastle. Built by wealthy Irishman Fergus O’Cuileannain, who is a rather weird individual, cared for by another Irish Serf named Conor Fitzpatrick. Conor resembles a fast walking Hobbit always carrying on in his Irish Gaelic.

What a setting. Ballycastle is three hours from New York City and built in the 1930’s. Young 16 year old Scott is a master player as his classmates would shout, and his Hobgoblin game piece Brian Borù unstoppable. Brian Borù, a twenty-five level paladin, who had played dozens of adventures in the ancient land of Erin of long ago. The adventure of Hobgoblin is Scott’s life.

Yet when he and his Mom move to Ballycastle, he continues to live out the spirit of the Celtic knight and plans for more battles that Brian Borù could face and win . . . he is Brian Borù himself. Scott’s new and only friend at Flat Rock High is leggy Valerie. She is strong and stands up for her point of view, at times challenging Scott. And sometimes he takes on the Football Neanderthals like, Nick and Hank, who seem to be threatened by anyone with an IQ over 90.

The plot thickens and yes, Halloween is around the corner. Barbara begins to uncover strange events in Ballycastle’s past, where several very young women die within a year upon arriving at Ballycastle. There is even a small cemetery where the young Irish women, some as young as 16, were buried. And the “deathly departed” Fergus O’Cuileannain appears as the Black Annis out of the Celtic past.

I found that I could not put this book down, and later found myself having strange dreams of the little folks that make up Irish tales . . . one great and very special move into a murder mystery from a Celtic game board to a medieval castle in New York. Can’t say more or I give the ending away . . . check the body bags as events begin to roll."

Very nice synopsis there.

I recently got my copy of the new edition as well. All I have to say about it can be summed up in the picture below:

It's beautiful, and it looks very handsome on a shelf. My only complaint is that Dover isn't offering a hardback in the same size as well.

So anyway, if you are looking for a great last minute Christmas gift for the book lover in your life; especially someone that loves horror, 80's tales, RPG stories, or even fantasy lovers, get a copy of this new edition. And get one for yourself too.

Buy it on Amazon here.

What's it all about? Read my review of Hobgoblin here.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Non-Review: Cybernetica

This is going to be an odd one, folks. Please forgive the twists, turns, and other nonsense. I needed some time to talk here, and so this will not be an actual review. But some of the things I need to talk about will tie into some of my concerns as I read through I Am Slaughter.


I finished reading Cybernetica a while ago. Why? I'm not sure. Part of it is that I usually like Sanders' stuff. Part of it is because I've been enjoying a bunch of the Adeptus Mechanicus stories that have been released. Also, perhaps I had hoped that a Horus Heresy review would steer some much needed traffic here to the blog. Sadly, I think that was a lot of it. That was the wrong way to approach it.

And so, unsurprisingly, I really didn't enjoy the novella much. It isn't that it is bad, but it really isn't great. More on that as the diatribe rolls on.

I know I've said this in one way or another in almost every 40K review: I'm not as lore-savvy as I should be. I don't read the Codexes, and I don't navigate the tangled web that is the Heresy. I have the utmost respect for those with the time, intelligence, and disposable income to get all the goodies and commit it to memory. It is a commendable feat.

Also, as I've said before regarding the 40K stuff; I find it hard to get into a lot of the Space Marines stuff. No matter how good an author is, and The Black Library has a lot of good ones, it is near impossible to write efficiently for the mindset of these transhuman (superhuman? what is the correct term?) warriors. And for those that do, let's be honest: the emotionally truncated personalities of the Astartes make them hard to be sympathetic with for the duration of a novel.

I personally believe Space Marines work best when you see them in action; reading along with a human lead, and watching the Emperor's Angels do their work. Maybe I'm in the minority there, and maybe that's why I often prefer Guard novels.

Moving on. I had tried long ago to get into the Horus Heresy. I initially held out on reading them, worried that I'd finish them too quickly and end up champing at the bit for new releases. Then, of course, the Great Cash Cow rolled off into an avalanche of short stories, audio books, special whoosits, etc. etc.. And it's too lore-heavy for me. Sorry, that's my fault. I'm getting old, and I just don't have that much reading time in a day anymore. It just got away for me, and I'm not bitching, since, to be honest, I read the first three and the quality dropped like an anvil after Horus Rising.

But still, Cybernetica came along. Ok, novella, so quick read. Sanders is good. I like the Adeptus Mechanicus. Should be a slam dunk.

So why didn't it work? Why did the whole thing feel so, I don't know, manufactured? Well, it was made on Mars....
Sorry, that was bad....

Actually, I'd love to have seen the evolutionary process behind Cybernetica. How did something that began as a novella about a Sons of Horus Techmarine penned by Aaron Dembski-Bowden end up becoming a Sanders-penned retelling of the events of Mechanicum centering on a Raven Guard Techmarine-in-training sent on a covert-ops mission by the powers that be on Terra?

It doesn't really matter. Either take is an interesting tale, if done well. I don't even remember all the details of Cybernetica at this point. A trim novella, it still took me over a week to read. After it was done, I took nothing away from it. And I hate that this all sounds negative, since there are some really good things in there.

But also, something really bugs me about it, and I'm guessing it might have something to do with the editing (again, I might be totally wrong here). There are just too many parts here that don't work, or just don't add up. There is a huge battle towards the beginning that is completely superfluous. It honestly is inserted to showcase Mechanicus unit types. And, being unnecessary, it reads as mundane. The other Techmarines-in-training that appear early on feel inserted at the last minute; as if just there to give some other Chapters some page time. They don't get enough fleshing out in their brief time to justify why it was even those Chapters represented. And, worst of all, there is a subplot with a freed heretek that goes nowhere. This character could have added so much desperately-needed emotional presence to the story, but in the end he gets relegated to a tertiary role.

Other things don't work, either. There is a big twist that can be guessed from the onset, and the dialogue of Lord Dorn and Malcador simply do not fit what one would expect from figures of their importance.

Again, too much negativity. From what I remember, the novel boasts the usual fiercely intelligent writing from Sanders. The panorama of Mars which he paints is so, so, so intricately detailed, almost mind-numbingly so.

Then, came the big problem for me. What killed this novella for me is that it is, in fact, a Space Marine book. That's right. Rob Sanders is one of those authors good enough to portray Space Marines effectively. And where Space Marines already have truncated emotional palettes, those being tinkered with by the Mechanicus are almost entirely bereft of feelings (also, add into the mix that the lead character is a Raven Guard brother who can't be sneaky because of his augmentations, so a central aspect of his persona is gone as well)

Now, picture Cybernetica as a standalone, non-Warhammer 40,000 tale. Make it like Escape from New York on Mars. Let The Carrion be a real cyborg badass, on an urgent, time-sensitive mission, with his cyber-raven and his two sleek, sexy warrior-androids in tow, blasting wild cyber-mastiffs on the blasted Mars landscape. That's a bona fide cyberpunk classic there.

Well, that's about it. I guess this is looking like equal parts rant and review. Maybe what I'm saying, in a nutshell, is that it's getting harder for me to get into some of the 40K stuff these days. I don't even know, maybe next year will tell. I will say, though, that for all of it's merits, Cybernetica has a distinct whiff of corporate control about it. And that undermines the efforts of a solid author.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Battle Of Tyrok Fields

The Battle of Tyrok Fields by Justin D. Hill. A Warhammer 40,000 Ursarkar Creed short story, originally appearing in the Legends of the Dark Millennium: Astra Militarum anthology, published November 2015. Approx. 54 pages.

Rounding out the trilogy of Ursarkar Creed tales penned by Justin D. Hill in the Astra Militarum anthology is this hefty story, which chronicles the famous titular battle (fought on Cadia's holy soil), and finally shows us Creed's ascendancy to the rank of Lord Castellan.

Quick note: The Battle of Tyrok Fields is fairly commonly known canon, so I'll take it as a given that most frequent WH40K readers are basically familiar with it. Therefore, I assume that a synopsis won't necessarily be spoiler-y. For the new or casual reader, however, you might want to either brush up on it here, or skip to the closing comments. You can enjoy this pic while deciding:

The story opens with Creed and Colour Sergeant Kell back home on Cadia. Creed has been named Castellan of his own Kasr, and spends his days butting heads with and eviscerating the poor plans and decisions of the rest of the Cadian High Command (a running motif through Hill's stories is the ever-popular "most of the rest of the brass are incompetent nincompoops").

Creed is losing himself in drink as well; trying to cope with the haunting memories of a shadowy figure known as "The Voice" (if any readers want to clear up that story arc for me, I'd be greatly appreciative). He seeks solace in the advice of his old mentor, Archivist Orsani Rudvald. After this, he prepares for the next mornings festivities: a welcoming celebration for another Guard detachment; the Volscani Cataphrachts.

Unbeknownst to the Cadians, the Volscanis have joined up with none other than Abaddon the Despoiler. The traitorous Cataphrachts unleash their might on the unaware Cadians, and the 13th Black Crusade is now in motion.

Needless to say, the Battle of Tyrok Fields is a momentous event. It is also obvious that Hill has tried to put together a grand spectacle of a story to capture the impact of this weighty milestone. I won't go so far as to say he succeeded in capturing the essence of betrayal, rage, and desperation, but the story is a nice chronicle of a massive battle.

In a way, characterization has been an Achilles Heel for this trilogy all along. Although Hill has added some very interesting fluff for Creed (backstory, personal demons, etc.), we have still spent the time watching him, but never feeling his magnitude. Jarran Kell, who bolstered past installments with some well-needed wit, is relegated mostly to his fighting mode (at which he excels). This is understandable; the whole tone here demands that seriousness. Plus, Hill looks to show us how the Colour Sergeant acts as a pillar of support for the Castellan. We also meet a new character in this story, the young, dedicated Commissar Aldrad. He makes himself noteworthy, but there is nothing groundbreaking about him.

One thing that worked very well was Hill's bringing back two of the Cadian soldiers from Last Step Backwards, Troopers Fesk and Lina. As the battle progresses, it alternates between the scenarios involving different units. These two were always fun to read about, especially Fesk. He is about as honest a character you see in these stories; he has an inner strength and nobility, but he also has definite fears and shortcomings.

As for world-building, there is not much to be said about how the landscape is rendered. Strong attention was paid to two set pieces that demanded it; the description of one of the Kasrs, and the Eye of Terror looming up in the sky.

What really matters most in this story, of course, is the action. As for volume, Tyrok Fields more than delivers. After the opening, which in all honesty plods and stumbles a bit, the remaining 80-85% is pure action. The story excels in this regard.

I can't imagine that it is in any way easy to portray a battle of this size, and still capture the reader's imagination. Hill paces this engagement in a way that you are caught up in the initial confusion, the rally, and the charge of the Cadians.

As I've mentioned before, I am a definite fan of Hill's fight scenes. He has a knack for bringing the bloody infantry battles to life; and here, you can almost hear the blood-soaked ground sucking at your boots. Another treat is the tank battles. I am a sucker for tank combat, and the scenes with Lina's crew are nicely done.

One other writing technique that Hill is pretty savvy with is maintaining the Guard's perspective; and showing how daunting or terrifying some of the unit types must appear to "mere" humans. The scenes with Titans are nearly terrifying, given the size and apparent invincibility of those metal demigods. And when Chaos Space Marines show up, Hill describes them as the huge, imposing boogeymen they would appear to be, to a human who has heard rumors of their existence but never seen them in the flesh.

In fact, if there is any place where the battle scenes falter a bit, it is with the Leviathan duels. Here, I give it a pass. I'd venture that there is no way to make that kind of situation entertaining; there will be no deft maneuvering, or dramatic banking turns. No, a Leviathan duel is just two monstrous mobile fortresses pounding each other until the void shields on one give out. So, in this case, Hill is wise to keep the focus of the battle on the human level.

As the story closes, we find Creed, in his elevated position of Lord Castellan of all Cadia, making some of the tough (and brutal) decisions to try and get some fingers in the dyke of the oncoming Black Crusade. We see how resolute he is in the time of crisis, but also just how shaken all of this has left him.

The Battle of Tyrok Fields is a good close to Hill's Creed trilogy. Hopefully, he has some more works in the pipeline. For whatever issues with characterization I've mentioned, or the jerky pacing that opened this story, these tales are all accessible, readable, and highly enjoyable.

Here's what it is:
A nice, fat short story giving the account of one of the greatest battles fought on Cadian soil. Hill once again makes Creed a thrill to watch, even if he hasn't immortalized him yet.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

See Lost Hope.

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Lost Hope

Lost Hope by Justin D. Hill. A Warhammer 40,000 Ursarkar Creed short story, originally appearing in the Legends of the Dark Millennium: Astra Militarum anthology, published November 2015. Approx. 30 pages.

The recent Astra Militarum anthology features a trilogy of Creed shorts from Justin D. Hill, including the recently reviewed Last Step Backwards, and two new ones. Lost Hope is the first of those two.

In Lost Hope, General Creed finds himself in a tough place; Cadian High Command is pressuring him to wrap up his campaign, and he is finding himself low on troops, with no replenishment forces being offered. Conferring with his stalwart aide, Colour Sergeant Jarran Kell, Creed comes up with a plan. In-system is a frozen penal planet known as Lost Hope - what better source for new troops to bolster the ranks? And so, Creed and his command staff head off to size up and sign up their new soldiers.

There is a promethium mining operation on Lost Hope, using the prisoners as labor. This operation is run by a connected family with supposed ties to former rogue traders. As is necessary in a story like this; there is conflict, there is battle, there is a resolution of sorts. It is just that kind of short, fun actioner.

Justin D. Hill is hitting a nice stride in this, his second Creed short. He is really making Creed his own character. All aspects of the story are improved a bit from Last Step Backwards; the dialogue is less silly and awkward, and the two main characters - Creed and Kell, are fleshed out better as they are thrust to the fore. Creed is still a huffing, puffing, stomping, lho-stub chomping 40K Teddy Roosevelt, leading men to their deaths and winning the hearts and minds of hardened criminal by simple act of being himself. Kell snatches all the comedic moments with his dry crankiness, playing dutiful straight man to Creed's roaring, testosterone-charged grizzle bear persona.

The world building is effective, and the depictions of weaponry are accurate and exciting. The action is a high point here. In a situation where the universe's two most abundant sources of cannon fodder - Imperial Guard and Chaos Cultists - clash together, the result is pulpy, juicy, squishy, and visceral.

Secondary and tertiary characters are relatively bare bones. We get a name, a look, and a trait to remember them by. Some of the command staff, and a few of the prisoners we meet look to be interesting.

The dialogue here is a step up from Last Step Backwards, but it is still a stew of motivational one-liners, declarations, battle cries, and threats. Then again, that's all you really need.

Another high point here: in a few well-placed flashbacks, we glimpse a look back at Creed's childhood. These are nicely done moments.

All in all, a nice little action-packed tale that makes for a great afternoon read.

Here's what it is:
General Creed looks to recruit some convicts and gets into a tussle. Great action. That's it in a nutshell.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

A nice little snippet from Raymond Swanland's great commissar print (is that supposed to be Yarrick?). Very, very nice indeed.

Cover Final Score:


Friday, November 27, 2015

Last Step Backwards

Last Step Backwards by Justin D. Hill. A Warhammer 40,000 short story, originally published by The Black Library, December 2014. Approx. 37 pages.

Is it just me or did this year fly by pretty fast? I read this short not long after it came out, and contemplated doing a review on it, and then opted not too since, well, it didn't blow me away at the time. I am not big on simply writing "a good Imperial Guard short with solid action" and leaving it at that. And now, almost an entire year has shot by.

Now, however, the new Astra Militarum book is out, and there are a few new shorts in it. I might read and review them in the near future, so I figured I'd breeze through the pages of Last Step Backwards again. Honestly, I'm glad I did. I think this story works a lot better on its second reading.

Last Step Backwards is an Imperial Guard short that debuted in 2014's Advent Calendar collection, and focuses on legendary Cadian Lord Castellan Ursarkar Creed as he helps to eliminate the Anckorite cultists from the planet Besana. Besana is a fairly non-distinct world, more notable for being covered in poisonous blue dust than for anything else.

While the headliner here is Creed, the better portion of the story revolves around a group of Cadian Whiteshields (cadets), most notably a youngster named Fesk. Fesk is a likable enough lead; he reminds us of nearly every green private in nearly every war movie.

Speaking of war movies, if you grew up on the great, jingoistic WWII movies of days gone by, then you have a good idea of the tone here. This story is not a passport to see the inside of the mythical figure that is Creed; it is a chance to sweat it out in the trenches against insurmountable odds.

Some of the dialogue is pretty bad here. I was wondering if Hill was intentionally going for a "classic pulp novel" feel here; if that's the case, he succeeded. And by bad, I mean kind of cheesy. So fun bad. There are moments that go something like "One does not simply say 'Oh, that is Creed. That is like saying Oh, that is only Yarrick'!" That's the kind of dialogue you run into in Star Wars EU novels.

But again, it fits the feel. Last Step Backwards falls squarely on the actioner end of the spectrum. It is a fun enough read just as an Imperial Guard piece. The action is nicely done, and the descriptions of the Anckorites are done well also. Just bear in mind; this isn't a case of the myth coming alive. It is more the case of your Castellan Creed and Colour Sergeant Kell figures coming alive.

Don't get me wrong. There are some strong aspects to the story. It's fun to watch Creed stomping around, saying the right rousing thing at the right time, while chomping on his cigar, err, lho-stick. And there is one scene at the end which is honestly emotional and tugs at the heartstrings fairly well.

One more comical note: when I first read this story, I had to put it down for a while after the opening scene. The Cadians are hopelessly pinned down, death is staring them in the eyes.

And then:

"Do you hear it?"

...over the din of men shouting and dying and the rattle of gunfire and las-rounds, came the strains of music.

Major Luka jumped up. "Sing, man! Sing!"

‘Creed,’ shouted Luka. ‘It’s Creed!’


Here's what it is:
A serviceable, enjoyable Imperial Guard actioner, with plenty of las-bolts and gobbets of blood. But what else do you expect from a tale featuring a legendary leader who is such a bear of a man that he has "Ursa" in his first name?

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I'm guessing this is in the Astra Militarum Codex? Nice battle scene with Creed front and center. Perfect fit for the material.

Cover Final Score:


Thursday, November 19, 2015

By This Axe I Rule!

By This Axe I Rule! by Robert E. Howard. A Kull the Conqueror story, appearing in The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 2: Grim Lands. Approx. 17 pages.

Note: By This Axe I Rule! is one of Howard's posthumously published Kull stories. It was re-written as the Conan tale "The Phoenix on the Sword", which appeared in Weird Tales in 1932.

The burdens of kingship weigh heavily upon Kull once more, making the former slave feel a slave again, bound by grander chains. His free spirit is tethered by bothersome, archaic laws; plus, although he has supplanted a despot, he finds that the fealty of the common folk is easily swayed by well-articulated words of malice....

As Kull toils under the weight of the crown, a quartet of usurpers have cast their lot with an outlaw named Ascalante to hatch a plan to murder the king. 

In a separate sub-plot, a local noble petitions King Kull to allow him to marry the love of his life, a beautiful young slave girls. Kull is again rendered impotent to the mandates of Valusian law, much to his frustration.

Taking inventory of all these ingredients, and knowing that it is Howard penning it, there is little doubt how events are going to unfold. The prose here is purple enough to leave bruising on the pages, but the action excels. The "dramatic" scenes have setups and dialogue that vary from meandering to cringeworthy. However, the opening scene is masterful and rousing, as the plotters solidify their intent and plan. Even though the bad guys are paint-by-numbers tropes (a scarred mastermind, a mad minstrel, a simpering fat lord, a brutish giant, and a dwarf with long arms whose reach overextends his stature - get it?), Howard lends this scene an emotional ferocity. In this scene, the crazed minstrel Ridondo utters what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes from a Howard story:

"My songs are nails for a king's coffin!"

And, of course, for all the peaks, there are the valleys as well. There is one moment, when the assassins are poised to strike, and Howard decides then and there to go into a lengthy expository diatribe as to how Kull knew to get ready for a scrap. What could have been summed up in a line or two, for those split second of action, instead read more like Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge than Kull the Conqueror.

There are also examples here of the unique cultural observations of Howard's day. One prime example of this occurs when King Kull visits the young slave girl betrothed to Seno val Dor, who is distraught over the law's prohibiting her marriage. He extends the courtesy of an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, and, well, let's just let Howard explain it:

"What's the matter, child?" he asked, and because a woman in extreme grief is likely to pour her sorrows out to anyone who shows interest and sympathy she whimpered: "Oh, sir, I am a miserable girl!"

I mean, I think it's a prime example of how hot-blooded youths thrive on the concept of a damsel in distress in dire need of a man's man to save them. It's the pinnacle of escapist fantasy. At its worst, we can chuckle at its cultural antiquity. Sadly, though, in this day and age, dialogue like that needs to come with trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Well, it seems puerile to nitpick on the literary merits of action yarns in vintage youth magazines. The fact is that the characters here are well conceived, as is the standard for Howard's works. In its dormant sections, the story suffers, but when it comes to action, or rousing declarations, there is great stuff here. Stuff that has stood the test of time - eight decades old and still thrilling. 

By This Axe I Rule! has a superb opening, and an exhilarating climax in which Kull makes literal mincemeat out of his would-be assassins. A great way to pass some afternoon reading.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fire And Ice

Fire and Ice by Peter Fehervari. A Warhammer 40,000 Tau novella, originally appearing in the Legends of the Dark Millenium Shas'o anthology. Originally published October, 2015. Approx. 79 pages.

I've been champing at the bit for the chance to tear into this novella since it popped up in last month's (Oc-Tau-ber) Shas'o anthology (which has received a hardback release as well, allowing readers to finally get the exceptional shorts Out Caste and A Sanctuary of Wyrms in print format). The promise of a new story by personal Black Library favorite Peter Fehervari generated a lot of excitement, to say the least. As I'm sure I've mentioned many times before, in my opinion no other author in the Black Library stable puts forward stories with the kind of twisted potential and depth that this created universe allows for. They are brutal, honest, puzzling, twisting, and unapologetically raw.

Fire and Ice takes that standard to a new high.

As a forewarning, I can only say so much regarding the structure and storyline of this tale, since that would compromise some of the wonderful and mind-boggling twists. Let me just say that it is no coincidence that the name of one of the central figures of the story, an assassinated Inquisitor, happens to be Escher. This will give you a good idea of how the narrative of Fire and Ice unfolds.

Set amidst the turmoil of the Damocles Gulf Crusade, Fire and Ice focuses on a meek Inquisitorial Interrogator named Haniel Mordaine. Mordaine is a man that truly finds himself wedged between a rock and a hard place; he is being pursued by the Inquisition's Grand Conclave for his part in allowing Escher to be assassinated, and he is still trying to do his duty by attempting to uproot the Tau influence in the sector. Along this precarious path, he is ushered and guarded by a shadowy man named Kreeger, who, along with providing safety, is preparing Mordaine for a rendezvous with his "contact", a shadowy figure known as the Calavera, who will hopefully provide some insight on quelling the blueskin menace.

His efforts reach a climax on the frozen world of Oblazt, where the Tau-engineered "Unity" revolution is born. As the hive of Vyshodd falls to the newly-minted human subscribers to the Greater Good, Mordaine beats a hasty egress aboard a maglev train (superb technological concept here) on a journey to.....well, let's just say fate.

That summary really does no justice to the the story; and, mind you, the real story begins once all the players are on that fateful train. Here, while convalescing from wounds suffered during the riot, Mordaine will work with the mysterious Calavera (obviously an Adeptus Astartes, but also obviously so much more), and he will attempt to fill the void of the fallen Escher's shoes by interviewing "the prisoner"; a Tau warrior who may or may not be the legendary Commander Farsight.

If you need a straight-forward, linear Tau story, with clearly defined actions and arcs, please refer to my last review, for Phil Kelly's Farsight (no insult there, it is a really good novella). Also, if you are looking for seeing cadres of Fire Warriors lined up, with Crisis Suits soaring overhead, go with Farsight. But if you want a representation of what it would mostly be like to deal with the confluence of Tau socialism, Inquisition dogmatic totalitarianism, and Warp-infused Chaos, then read this novella. If you want a psychological power play, and the formation of grand-scale chess match (both figuratively and literally), then read Fire and Ice. Everything is offered in carefully calculated contradiction. Everything is everything and nothing at once.

There are no easy reveals here. Like all of Fehervari's other works, the reader finds themselves sorting through tangled webs in a house of smoke and mirrors. You will be asking yourself throughout, what is the ultimate point? Why is this character being chosen for these grand trials and responsibilities? And when an answer, of sorts, posits itself, revealing its truly ugly face, it is a true shock (and a nice little nod to one of my favorite movies of all time. But like I said, no spoilers from me).

Assessing the individual parts that make the whole, Fire and Ice is, like all of Fehervari's other works, very strong. If you were to strip away each outer layer, its core fundamentals are still strong. Take away the 40K universe, and it is still strong sci-fi. Take those concepts away, and it is still a strong character piece. Peel that back, and see the dark recesses of the mind. Claw through that, and fall into the blackest valleys of the soul.

There is real strength in the words employed. Every line has structural and philosophical importance. And, like in Fehervari's other stories, there are puzzles and riddles abound. Names are a central motif here; the meanings of them, the importance of them, and the grave missteps of addressing someone by the wrong name.

World building and scenery is excellent too. The technology of the anchor hive pulses with legitimacy, as does the maglev train which serves as the vessel for a trip to Hell. The partisan politics of those who would embrace the Tau'va over Holy Terra is especially poignant given the socio-political overtones so prevalent in today's society. Indeed, there is nothing so tragically comedic as low-information consumers rebelling and fighting for the opportunity to be another regime's disposable assets.

Of course, the most important aspect of such a story as this is characters. We have a fantastic dramatis personae here. Mordaine is an well-portrayed in his role; frayed, emotionally crumbling, and yet capable of an inner strength (bolstered, perhaps, by the inner voices which plague him). His guardian, Kreeger, is also a standout character. He embodies the physical characteristics and nihilism of Fire Caste's Holt Iverson, and yet, I find it hard to believe that they are one and the same....

The real puzzles, of course, are the shadowy pupeeters: the Calavera and the traveler. Their true motives are as well-hidden as their true identities, and even when there are some reveals, their ultimate goals are still out of sight.

Fehervari also shows that he can still craft well-conceived, if somewhat unconventional Imperial Guard regiments. Here we have the Iwujii Sharks, brutal, efficient, and unabashedly more gang-like than regimental. They give us some truly memorable personalities, especially the priestess La Mal Kalfu.

There is also a very nicely done minor arc involving an outcast kroot shaper. Here, as in some of his previous stories, Fehervari has shown a real flair for portraying this alien race. He truly gets their physiology, their bearing, and their base warrior instincts.

The dialogue here is beyond amazing. Sometimes I list a favorite quote from a story, one that resonates with something deep within with its poignancy. Here, almost every line fits that bill. So, for my favorite quote, I will choose these three simple words, which come from the most welcome character in the novella:

"It's a lie."

Fans of Fire Caste will be happy to know that there are some references in Fire and Ice to that classic piece. They are not as obvious, or as directly connected as the ones in stories like The Crown of Thorns or Vanguard (which acts more of an epilogue to Fire Caste than a separate work). It is just another cold reminder of the great story cycle that might have been if the Black Library had given Fehervari another book or two to tell a story that really deserved to be heard.

I'll put forward Fire and Ice as what I believe to be required reading for Warhammer 40,000 fans. This story shows the true potential for a created universe. These stories don't need to be constrained to the depictions of the battles acted out by tabletop miniatures. What makes those stories possible are the schemes and machinations of greater forces, and that is what you get in Fire & Ice. Like Fire Caste, this story might polarize some fans, and isolate those who prefer more clear cut tales. But it is the kind of story that a legend like Farsight deserves - complex, full of deception and obfuscation, calculated and calculating, brutal, and merciless.

Here's what it is:
Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it beings no profit to the wise.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Another Crisis Suit Codex grab, I presume. You won't be seeing it in this story. But this isn't the only story in the anthology. Not a bad pic.

Cover Final Score:


Saturday, November 7, 2015


Farsight by Phil Kelly. A Warhammer 40,000 Legends of the Dark Millennium novella, originally published by The Black Library, October 2015. Approx. 108 pages.

The nice folks over at The Black Library decided to make last month into Oc-Tau-ber, with a month of Greater Goodies, some old and some new. Two offerings definitely piqued my interest; the first is this nifty novella, focusing on the iconic Tau badass (bit of an oxymoron there, no?) Commander Farsight. The other is Fire & Ice, a new short story by blog favorite author Peter Fehervari which appears in the Shas'O collection. I will be reading and reviewing that very soon.

Farsight is an action-packed novella which centers on the actions of Farsight during the Arkunasha War. Before I get into further detail, let me say this: I know that most 40K readers are read-up on the canon and lore, but if you are like me, and only have a cursory knowledge, read up on Farshight's wiki entry first. He is a very intriguing character. The big question then becomes: does the story do justice to the legend? Well, I have to say that I really, really like this novella. But it falls more firmly into the mold of actioner than character study. And I think that was the best choice here; you can't help but get sucked into and thoroughly enjoy this tale.

The Tau bio-habs of Arkunasha are under siege by the monstrous Waaagh! of Dok Toofjaw. The sheer size of the ork assaults, and the placement of the habs is starving each individual location out, as supply lines have been broken, with little hope of re-establishing. To make dread matters even more hopeless, there is a matter of a strange phenomena on the planet: deadly, violent rust storms which seemingly have a mind of their own (and which inflict rather peculiar injuries on those caught in them).

Descending into this seemingly hopeless quandary is the celebrated Farsight and his team. The would-be savior enacts some pragmatic, sneaky, fast-strike attack plans, crafted around existing knowledge of ork behavior. Unfortunately, things do not work out so well. Facing censure from his colleagues, he must re-evaluate his tactics, study the bestial xenos further, and deduce the cause of the mysterious "ghost storms", if there is to be any hope of saving the Tau citizenry.

There are many things that Phil Kelly packs into Farsight to make it a solid read. Let's look at some of them:

Characters: This might actually be the weakest category in the novella. Farsight does not sell the character, but it sells his greatness. This is satisfactory in and of itself, though. There is very little fleshing out of the characters here. Farsight himself is an enjoyable protagonist; although there is little done to make the readers feel as though they have slipped into the skin of a socialist alien. He could just as easily be human. I understand the challenge of writing for a xenos mentality; the onus is to maintain the authenticity of the alien psychology, while still weaving in some characteristics that the end-user can sympathize with. The secondary characters are pretty thin too; Commander Brightsword is a highlight, but mostly he "out-cools" the "cool" lead. Other members of the Tau hierarchy run the gamut of helpful to somewhat underhanded and conniving. There is also a side story focusing on a mentor in one of the habs that sadly goes nowhere. I don't know if the meat of that story got gutted in the editing room to make more space for action, or what.
The tau dialogue is somewhere on the level of Shao-lin philosophy via Kung Fu:The Series, punctuated with expressive hand gestures. It's kind of fun, to be honest. The story is also peppered with quotes from The Art of War, um, I mean the Tau'va. You have to love these moments of Fortune Cookie Philosophy:

Lottery numbers on rear.

Creatures: The orks, on the other hand, are masterful here. These are classic, brutal and comical greenskins. Better yet, Kelly is not just writing for Tau legends here. In Farsight, we get to see some Ork heavyweight bosses as well. Toofjaw makes a fine antagonist, way smarter than the average ork. All in all, I enjoyed this story much more for the orks than for the Tau.

Action: There is tons of action in this novella. It is, by and far, the best selling point. Kelly presents the lore here very well: we really get great representations of the weaponry and vehicles. Some of the best moments are those which involve battlesuits. Here, Kelly alternates between the exhilarating action taking place outside with the split-second decisions being made within the piloting cocoons on the command suites. This "back and forth" technique worked so successfully in the Iron Man movies, and allows the reader a nice sense of immersion.
Kelly also makes sure to incorporate a wide spectrum of unit types in the story, and he makes them pop off the page as well with vivid descriptions. I really cannot give him enough credit on that front.

Other Factors: The pacing in Farsight is nice and brisk. The story does not lag in any parts, or rush matters. There are even some well-placed, clever parts as well. Some of my personal favorite scenes are a Tau-Ork parley (which goes exactly as expected), and a Tau autopsy of an ork cadaver (which goes exactly as expected). Even in these scenes, where the outcome is never in doubt, the ride is just too enjoyable to resist.

In closing, don't pick up Farsight expecting to see the finer nuances of the psychology of the Tau's greatest warrior to be explored. Read it to experience first-hand just how consummate he is in battle, and enjoy each page of this blistering actioner.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

A close up of a picture of Farsight in his custom XV8 Crisis Battlesuit. I'm pretty sure the original pic is from the Codex. They should've just used the whole original pic, instead of this odd crop job.

Cover Final Score:


Friday, October 30, 2015

Tomes Of The Dead: Empire Of Salt

Tomes of the Dead: Empire of Salt by Weston Ochse. Originally published by Abaddon Books, April 2010. Approx. 301 pages.

I really enjoyed the two Tomes of the Dead that I read last year, Stronghold and Viking Dead, so it was a given that I would review at least one this Halloween season. The first one I tried (not mentioning the name now, I'll give it another go another time and maybe a review next year) was pretty difficult to get into, so I shifted Empire of Salt to the top of the pile. Weston Ochse has spent way too long on my "to read" list, especially since I've heard nothing but rave reviews of his work in both the military fiction and horror genres.

So, what was Ochse's take on the shambler trope? And how did it fare? Empire of Salt is, quite simply put, an excellent zombie yarn. It combines a fresh take on the often stale undead formula, mixes in a good amount of shoot-em-up action, and incorporates a solid young adult underpinning that is enjoyable, not annoying or cloying. This is no mean feat.

The titular Empire of Salt is, in actuality, none other than the actual Salton Sea, the man-made sea resort in California, which is now derelict, and almost vacant, its penned-in waters an acrid, rotten, beer colored body of water, yielding daily bounties of dead and decaying fish.

Into this faded resort rolls a broken family; teen siblings Natasha and Derrick, their alcoholic father Patrick, and their live-in nanny, Auntie Lin. They've been drawn West by an economy in shambles, and the inheritance of a restaurant on the Salton Sea (due to Patrick's father dying in a sudden, rather gruesome manner). They leave behind the relative domesticity of Lancaster County, PA, in search of a new start. This is all quite hard on the teens, especially since they recently lost their mother as well. So, they have to place all their eggs in one basket and hope for the best. At least there is the promise of life near the sea.

Of course, as mentioned before, the current state of the Salton Sea is, well, less than ideal. Living among the decrepit trailers is an oddball mix of resident leftovers and castaways. Those who were too stubborn to sell or leave when things literally turned sour, and those who simply had no place else to go.

But there is more. Always, there is more. In addition to the inherent weirdness of the area, there is a sense of danger and foreboding. Rumors. Cryptic warnings to "beware the green", whatever that means. Mysterious traffic in and out of the local desalination plant. And then, just when Natasha and Derrick's family opts to stay and try to keep the restaurant going, people start disappearing.

Then things get much, much worse. Well, you can guess that there are zombies involved, naturally.

So let's take a gander at the story elements and see how they gelled into a solid tale.

Setting the scene: Ochse brings the Salton Sea to life for the reader. Given its current state of affairs, I cannot testify if that is a good thing or not. Seriously, though, he has a masterful grasp on descriptive writing. And it's not just in the background painting. Actions have a genuine fluidity as well. But as for the environment, Ochse throws us headfirst into a warped postcard with a panorama of piss-colored water and rusty trailers, hollow shells of dreams that once were.

Characters: Very good. The dramatis personae are all fun. The characters are given a lot of respect in honest portrayals. Every one is flawed; and most very much so. But all characters have something noteworthy, or catchy. They work well as comic book standouts, or memorable folks from a great B-horror movie (honestly, I would love to film Empire of Salt as an 80's style VHS horror flick). The core group, however, especially the teens, are outstanding. Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against teen leads, or YA fiction. It's just that it seems that much harder to do well, and maintain any semblance of authenticity. Oches does it here. In the acknowledgements, he mentions using his own kids as source material. He must have really been paying attention to what they said and how they acted, because he nails the teen portrayals.

Pacing: Pacing is good. We get a satisfying kill early on, that a good chunk of introduction before things take off. Some of the character interplay does not work as well as it should here. These folks are fleshed out well enough to carry the scenes, but it seems more written in a way to endear them, with all their individual quirks, to us.

There is no lagging in the middle of the narrative. The climax redefines breakneck. And brutal. Plus, even though the book ends in a somewhat open manner, it is a satisfying conclusion.

Action: Plenty. And it is some of the best described action you'll read in this type of book. The military sequences ooze authenticity. The zombie scenes play on all the potentials for horror these creatures bring to bear. There are some real tense moments, some scenes that made me jump a bit. That doesn't happen all too often, and it happened a few times at the end here.

Zombies: So what does Ochse do to make zombies, which some may think are stale and oversaturated, something unique and fresh? First of all, he crafts his scenario to explain why the zombie outbreak here is a localized, contained threat, and not an epidemic. He also creates a unique backstory for the existence of the zombies, and this gives him room to play with appearance. These guys are pretty frightening; green, mottled skin, glaring yellow eyes, and physical capabilities on par with there condition at the time of infection. Plus, they are pretty hard to put down. Ochse does not do them the disservice of having them drop like ragdolls with any old glancing blow to the noggin. No, it takes a dead-on shot right through the brain (and Ochse also knows that that particular money shot is not always obtained on either the first, second, or even third shot). In short, these zombies are winners.

Fear Factor: Yeah, there are some scares here. You really expect some levity based upon the fun back and forth early on. It doesn't last. Then you realize that Ochse doesn't wear kid gloves when he writes for his characters. Absolutely no one is safe here. And that gets scary after you spent fifty or sixty pages getting to really like people too.

All in all, this particular Tome of the Dead comes highly recommended. Only in general release in ebook format right now, you can still get a paperback copy in the secondary market (although the price tag is sometimes a little higher due to Ochse's name value). I got my copy pretty cheap on eBay, and I think that it most have been an early edition that didn't go to market, because there are a bunch of typos throughout. Some pretty glaring ones too. Or maybe that's in all editions. If anyone has a copy and sees them, please let me know.

Anyway, grab Empire of Salt. Definitely great zombie reading.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

That's a great cover. Look at the color scheme and rot effects on that zombie. Plus, this is one of the few times where you do get the cover scene in the book. Most of these Tomes of the Dead books have solid covers, and this is one of the top ones.

Cover Final Score:


Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Valley Of The Lost

The Valley of the Lost by Robert E. Howard. As appearing in The Black Stranger and Other American Tales anthology. Approx. 19 pages.

Although I was raised on Robert E. Howard's sword & sorcery epics, the older I get, the more and more I can appreciate his Western tales. Especially his weird Westerns. The Valley of the Lost is a horror Western, taking cues in its basic framework from another Howard masterpiece, the Bran Mak Morn epic "Worms of the Earth". But don't get me wrong; this story is much, much more than a literary palette swap. The Valley of the Lost is one of Howard's strongest yarns, in terms of tone, terror, and ferocity.

In Worms of the Earth, we had the tension stemming from the Roman occupation of Pictish lands. In Valley, what we get is a good, old-fashioned early Texas family blood feud. This one involves two clans; the Reynolds and the McCrills (plus a slew of cousins, friends, and hired guns). As the story opens, John Reynolds, one of the last of the fighting Reynolds, is on the run from a mob on the McCrill team following an intense shootout in town. His egress leads him into hiding in an area that the Natives term "The Valley of the Lost", which the white man had truncated to "The Lost Valley" (it's amazing how a small alteration changes the meaning entirely). As he waits for the McCrill clan to regroup and resume their pursuit of him, Reynolds ventures into a mysterious cave where his enemies have left one of their fallen members, in an attempt to retrieve the dead man's ammunition. What he discovers in the cave is a horror beyond his imagination.

This point is where the similarities between and differences in execution arise between Worms of the Earth and Valley of the Lost. In Worms, there were subterranean creatures which Morn sought to contract to enact his revenge. These were abominable creatures, who had degenerated badly from their once human stock.

In Valley of the Lost, there is no employment being pursued. Reynolds stumbles upon the lair of the remaining threads of a serpentine race, whose once thriving civilization had fallen victim to tide after tide of marauding hordes. This last vestige of that once proud, magical race has also suffered genetic blows due to the many years in exile below ground. In essence, they are shorter, beady-eyed versions of Sleestaks...

One of the many things that terrified 5 year old me.

They also still retain some of their magical prowess, including a terrifying ability to control the dead, giving us a taste of remote control zombies (there are two scenes with these; one an action sequence, and one a flashback, which are done very well). 

Also, in one vivid scene with a nice Lovecraftian touch, Reynolds is treated to visions of these creatures' history across the panoramic eons of time; their rise, their fall, and their degradation. Of course, the instant accumulation of such base knowledge is beyond maddening, and for the second time in this story, Reynolds has to mount a ferocious escape. Will he succeed?

I will say that The Valley of the Lost has some of Howard's strongest writing. Note: I don't know when this story was first published, but the editor's note in this anthology states that the text was taken from REH's typescript. Reynolds is a fierce character; here is a man driven solely on rage and anger. Howard's Western tales always have this strong vibe to them - it might be argued that his Western yarns are of an actual stronger quality than his sword & sorcery ones (quite a statement given the immense impact of his fantasy work). Perhaps it is also the benefit of writing what is near and dear to you. Whatever the reason, native Texan Howard makes this Wild West Texas come alive. 

The creature effects are fairly well done here. The darkness, permeated with an eerie green glow sets an effective mood. The action scenes are fast and furious. Best of all, these culminate with a very strong ending. 

With a few genuinely chilling moments thrown in to boot, The Valley of the Lost is a superb Weird Western that is perfect for Halloween Season reading!

Score: 9/10

P.S.: You can enjoy an audio reading of this story here. Personally, I'm not too crazy on the voice acting, but it still makes for a good hour of background noise.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Nightmare At 20,000 Feet

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet by Richard Matheson. Originally published by Ballantine, 1962. Approx. 21 pages.

Ah, now here we have a true classic. It is unlikely that you have not seen at least one of the screen adaptations of this, one of horror Grandmaster Richard Matheson's most popular stories. Whether you prefer the Shatner version or the Lithgow one, they are both terrifying in their own rights.

But how many of us have actually read the story that serves as the basis for this tale? And what exactly makes this yarn so enduring?

The fact is that Nightmare at 20,000 is more than a story of what may or may not be an actual monster tampering with the works of an airplane. It is about fears, phobias, and frustrations.

Our protagonist, Wilson, is traveling coast to coast on a business trip. we get the sense that he is pretty harried; no big fan of flight, irritable stomach issues, a general dissatisfaction with his life in general, Even his job comes with the fear of attack from looming youth gangs; hence, Wilson has taken to carrying a gun with him for safety.

But are these boogeymen real or in his head? The true test comes when, during the storm-tossed plane's flight, Wilson is sure he sees something, something very much like a man, tampering with one of the plane's engines. Not only that, this hunched, hairy creature is taunting him; taking advantage of the apparent fact that only Wilson is aware of him.

Wilson's calls for help make him seem, of course, all the more irrational. But, the creature's tampering is upping the stakes more with each minute. Who will ultimately win this battle of wits?

Matheson starts this story off extremely well. He uses a situation most of us can sympathize with: wariness of air travel, as the basis for understanding the danger. Along with this fear is the crippling claustrophobia of being in a plane, and the utter impotence of not being able to help in any way should anything start to go wrong.

The plane roils, so does Mr. Wilson's stomach. Even his mental state is tossed and turned. This really sets the overall tone.

The climax, however, is a tad bit rushed. It could be argued that the endings to either the TV episode or the movie version tied things up in a more satisfactory manner. Each of those end with a "kicker"; there is some evidence that shows something odd did, in fact, happen to the engine. The close here is a bit ambiguous; which is fine as well. We are left more to ponder whether Wilson lost his sanity, or made a desperate grab at something meaningful in what he already felt was an meaningless existence. Or, was there actually a creature on the wing? An actual gremlin, like the ones the men returning from the War talked about.

Track this story down and give it a whirl, it makes for a nice half hour of reading in the days before Halloween. Or revisit one of the film versions. The original Twilight Zone series is on Netflix, and this is Season 5, Episode 3. The movie version isn't too hard to find, just skip to this story (the last one, because the other ones kind of suck).

Final Score: 8/10 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Girl Next Door

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. Originally published by Warner Books, 1989. Approx. 320 pages.

Did you ever consider that the monsters, boogeymen, and other fantastical, grotesque creatures we envision are actually security devices? Identifiable, somewhat other-than-human manifestations of all the attributes we can easily point at and say "See that? That there is the face of evil." Why is it that we do that? We do it for so long, we do it so naturally, that we embrace the fallacy, the vain hope, that these values come from these monsters, as if our world would be utterly devoid of them.

We should only wish.

The truth is that the roots of these evil tendencies lay nowhere else but in our own black hearts, our own twisted minds. It is so convenient to paint an ugly face and say that it is the evil one. But no, evil is in us. It festers behind our flimsily constructed moral barriers; it oozes out in casual displays when there is general consent and allowance. And sometimes, true evil is right next door.

The Girl Next Door is a terrifying story. It is a true horror tale. It is not horror in that there is a demon, or devil, or slithering creature. It is horror because it tells what man can do to fellow man; or, as is the case here, woman to woman. And the horror aspect is amplified by its true crime underpinnings; yes, The Girl Next Door is based loosely upon (but fairly close to), the real life tragedy of Sylvia Likens.

The Girl Next Door is told from the first-person perspective of a boy named David, a seemingly normal All-American kid in the 50's, living in an idyllic little down in New Jersey. His house is on a row near the woods, and everybody knows everybody, all the kids play together, you know the deal.

Well, you also know going in that something bad is going to transpire. The opening chapters center on an adult David, and the whole account is being recorded as his testimonial. Or perhaps it is a confession.

Whereas David's house puts forward a semblance of normalcy (or at least a facade of one, since divorce for his parents is always seemingly on the horizon); his next door neighbors, the Chandlers are another story. There are three boys there; twins roughly David's age, and a younger urchin nicknamed Woofer, whose experiments with insects shows the hallmarks of a budding psychopath. Without a doubt, though, the most dynamic character at the Chandler's is the matriarch; single mother Ruth.

Ruth Chandler is a fantastically realized character. She is an aging beauty, who feels somehow that it is life that didn't meet her halfway. To her, her life has been a tragedy of circumstantial failures; she came from comfortable means and should have become elevated higher, she managed an office building when the men were fighting in World War II, only to find herself unemployed when they returned. Plus, her husband never made good on all his grand plans; he promised her the world and then handed her a desk globe. She condemns him as a lout, but a helluva man's man as well. The fact is, of course, that none of these portions of her past were as grand as her hindsight storytelling. All her confidence derives from regaling the ever-present clutch of pubescent boys with these tales of hers, as she drinks and chain-smokes her days away. The boys are infatuated with her manner and her looks; she's pretty hot as far as moms go, and the way she acts - she's one of the guys. She'll sneak you a beer or a cigarette, and you can always come and stay over. And so, she runs her home like a faded queen in her castle.

And then Meg and her little sister Susan arrive. Second cousins, they become orphans when their parents die in a horrific car crash. The girls did not emerge unscathed either; Meg (who is roughly two years older than David), carries a jagged scar down the length of one arm, and frail Susan is left in braces; most of the bones in her lower body shattered. Being a last family option, Ruth agrees to take them in. There is no way this could have been easy, though; her resources were already stretched thin with her own brood of boys (although, like most examples of American Trash, there is no shortage of beer and cigarettes in the house).

For David, meeting Meg is like a bolt of lightning hitting him straight in the heart. I do believe that this is what they refer to as a "sexual awakening". Ketchum writes these scenes fantastically; truly capturing emotions I haven't felt in almost thirty years, making you feel them like it was only yesterday. The awkward nervousness, the hesitations, the fear, the awe at the pure beauty and goodness of a young lady who seemingly stepped down from Heaven and into your life.

But, for some reason, things just don' t seem to click between the girls and their new mother figure, especially between Meg and Ruth.What starts out as tension and dislike for the beautiful teen descends into a cycle of hair-trigger punishments handed out for minor infractions.

Of course, things only get worse from there on. On beneath the anger is a seething undercurrent of sexual tension. Tension from Ruth's boys directed at Meg, and Ruth's inability to deal with her star fading as Meg's continues to rise.

As the severity of the punishments and mental abuse escalate, Meg tries to seek help from a local police officer. This, of course, being a small town in a different time, offers no help whatsoever to Meg, and only leads to Ruth finding out about her plea for assistance. Here is where everything takes the dramatic turn for the worse.

In the basement of the Chandler house is a concrete bomb shelter, built by Ruth's husband during the Red Scare. Meg is moved down here so that more brutal and intricate punishments can be unleashed on her. And the frightening thing is, because we are the creatures we are, the punishments do indeed get worse and worse, and attract a wider swathe of participants: local neighborhood kids.

At this point even David is a silent participant. Guilty of doing nothing, he watches and witnesses. In a brutal show of honesty, we are told the full palette of emotions that these scenes evoke in him; from horror and fear to excitement, arousal, and, perhaps most frightening of all, a sort of indifference. For as the sheer volume of pain inflicted rises, it seems possible to desensitize yourself to the shock of it all.

Isn't that always the case, though? As soon as the venue changes to somewhere private, out of public view, these true, abominable aspects of ourselves can shine through? That's why the bomb shelter is such an apt metaphor for the dark caverns of our own hearts.

Jack Ketchum can write great slasher fiction, we all know this. I think there is a part of us that wishes we could write off this book as spinner rack horror novel exploitation, going for shock value by upping the ante and putting a child in danger. But it isn't. Too often, way too often we read or hear about extreme cases of cruelty. Where people can make a concerted effort to systematically torture someone. Even as I write this, not two hours away from me here in Upstate New York, six members of a church are being held for beating a young man to death over the course of a 14 hour "counseling session".

It all goes back to what I was saying before about morality. We are simply not moral creatures; we just all consign ourselves to silent, mutual agreements to not to certain things to each other in the hopes that we get extended the same courtesy. But take someone off that map, and all bets are off. Plus, couple this with the fact that assent spreads through crowds like a plague.

Back to the book, Ketchum has written it very well. The characters are all brought to real life; even the background ones. The setting and scenery are real to the touch as well. He shows a mastery of tone as well. Since he introduces the lingering knowledge that something bad will transpire right from the opening chapters, all mundane and normal things come with a sense of dread. He chooses situations that will reflect that "up and down" feeling; from David's first meeting of Meg to the utter terror of trying to go next door and talk to her, to the elation of going up in a Ferris Wheel together, only to experience the gut-churning descent.

Ketchum also sets a perfect tone in depicting the violence. In the beginning, it is a shock, even a sort of grand event, that matches the heady excitement of the assailants and audience. But as it continues, it is just numbing depictions, mind-numbing, soul-crushing, life-destroying. As it reaches a climax, you don't even wish for just a miracle or a rescue, just an end. Any kind of end. Any kind of respite for this poor girl.

David makes an identifiable and sympathetic protagonist. On paper, it is easy to hate him. Hate him for "doing nothing", for bearing witness, even for his understandable arousal. But remember what it was like to be his age; under the full authority of adults, and small town protocols. These were oppressive guidelines to abide by, and in the end, he really does try his best.

In fact, the only problem I have comes towards the end. This is where there is a sense of justice is exacted. Sorry, but that is too clean of a resolution. The fact that the real life perpetrator of these crimes, Gertrude Baniszewski, was allowed a life, and ultimate parole, perfectly shows us how truly warped this world's priorities are. Other than that, it is a great book. Not a book to enjoy, and not a book to hide from. Truly a heart-wrenching experience.

If you are so inclined, you can watch the movie based on the book here:

You can also watch the movie An American Crime, based upon the actual Likens case, here:

And here are some interesting photos and such from the Likens case:

Final Score: 9/10

Friday, October 16, 2015

Hobgoblin Is Getting Republished!

It is very rare these days that a snippet of news gets me truly excited. You know, those announcements that stoke a new excitement, or tap a nostalgic vein and yank you forcefully down memory lane. On a recent saunter through some familiar sites, I spotted one such example.

I think I made it abundantly clear in my review of it how much I love John Coyne's 1981 fantasy role-playing inspired horror yarn Hobgoblin. If you haven't read my review yet, please give it a look here.

Well, on a visit to John Coyne's website (where my review is generously linked), I saw the news: Dover Publications is repubshing Hobgoblin, to be released on November 18th! Check out the great new cover:

Isn't that neat? I mean, I love the cover on my old copy, but this really taps into the influences of Celtic Mythology that is utilized in the book.

You can pre-order the new edition of Hobgoblin on Amazon here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Hounds Of Tindalos

 The Hounds of Tindalos by Frank Belknap Long. Originally published in 1929. Approx. 14 pages.

Today we take a look at one a classic Lovecraftian tale that has had a massive pop culture impact, Frank Belknap Long's The Hounds of Tindalos.

Hounds tells the tale of a tragic author named Halpin Chalmers, who decides to undertake a foolhardy experiment. By obtaining a mysterious East Asian narcotic, be plans to achieve a mental state in which he can perceive what is referred to as the Tao - which apparently is not a philosophy, but a way of seeing the true spectrum of time. To Chalmers, the concept of true time transcends so far beyond Einstein's concepts of curved space. Chalmers believes our present time is just the limited view available to the average person, a tiny slit of a glance into the real truth. Chalmers believes that with the help of the drug, he will see and experience all of the pasts, and futures, along with the present, running concurrently. And so, with his friend (and our narrator) Frank attending to him, he embarks on his narcotics-induced voyage.

Chalmers gets to see all the he dreamed, and more.

Chalmers also discovers nightmares he never expected, and worse. And, as is the true threat of these scenarios, sometimes when you look into the eye of evil, evil looks back.

The Hounds of Tindalos is a perfect primer for Lovecraftian myth. In fact, it had such a lasting impact that the Hounds themselves were incorporated into Cthulhu Canon. These creatures, born from a dark deed that transgressed in the infancy of time, move, as do other dark denizens, along angular time (not the curved time that we pass through). Once they have caught your scent, they are tireless in their pursuit, and they can reach their quarry through angles. Just think about that; look around whatever room you are in, and count all the right angles, and think of how you might best avoid the dread demonic dogs.

Frank Belknap Long writes this story extremely effectively; it moves along at such a brisk clip. The concepts posited here are both astounding and terrifying. Like some of the best horror readers, he leaves the actual conceptualizing up to the end user, and just crafts the accommodating mood. The reader is left in doubt of exactly what is there; the only constant is terror.

There is wonder here as well. Perhaps the most thrilling scene in the story is where Chalmers recounts his journey through time, bearing witness to so many major historical events. For those raised on classics and not Twitter feeds, how grand that concept must have been.

As mentioned, the hounds pop up in many other stories, and have influenced other pop culture genres as well. Take a look at some of them on the wiki page here.

The Hounds of Tindalos reside in the public domain, which is full of angular space. So watch the corners of your computer screen. Read the full story here.

Or, need some nice Halloween listening? Why not enjoy an audio reading of the story?

Need more tunes? How about the classic song by Beowulf?

Or the Metallica song influenced by The Hounds of Tindalos?

Or maybe the group that took their name from them?

Enjoy! And remember, "They are lean and athirst!"