Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Review

The Affinity Bridge: A Review
The Affinity Bridge is a novel by George Mann, set in an alternative London in 1901. Queen Victoria’s life has been preserved by the use of a clock-work respirator, airships fill the skies, and steam powered hansoms careen along the cobbles. This is the steam-punk world Mann gives us.
Enter Sir Maurice Newberry, an agent in Her Majesty’s Service. He is part Sherlock Holmes, part Indiana Jones, and part John Steed. He is the very image of proper English gentry, with the prerequisite dark secrets. (In his case laudanum addiction, and a practitioner of the arcane arts.) He has a female partner, Veronica Hobbes, that is part Emma Peel and not Watson-like in any respect, except for her dependability and willingness to jump into the fray.
The plot consists of intertwined events surrounding a zombie plague in the East End, a zeppelin crash with a young Royal on board, a ghostly blue faced police man murdering random people by strangulation, and the disappearance of Sir Maurice' secretary's brother, Jack Coulthard.
The zombies are actually called plague revenants, they are disease induced: infected with a virus that rots their flesh, makes them impervious to all but the most devastating of wounds, and gives the victim a ravenous, bestial hunger for human flesh before they burn themselves out when the virus turns their brain to goo. So…zombies but with new, inventive trappings.
The story ranges from the East Side to a well fleshed out air ship construction yard owned by Chapman and Villiars, central players in the drama, who also dabble in the construction of automatons: clock-work men. From the back rooms of gentlemen clubs to the inner sanctum of Queen Victoria, The Affinity Bridge touches on many of the aspects that make foggy old London a very cool, very pulp setting.
That is what is great about The Affinity Bridge, the familiar trappings of steam punk and gas light action, but giving them just enough of a twist and new flavor to make them fresh. Sir Maurice and Miss Hobbes are written with convincing chemistry and well fleshed out, each with their own motives and desires. Though I think Mr. Mann cheated a little bit with Miss Hobbes by not showing all her cards.
The story is well paced, the case laid before the reader logically, allowing them to see the mystery unravel, unlike Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's detective, who played it close to the vest with Watson and the reader. The action is the stuff of Saturday Matinees: daring do, near misses, cliff hanger delights, and heroic confrontations. You can almost see the action on the silver screen, either in black and white or Technicolor, though black and white is always creepier…..
Overall I found The Affinity Bridge to be fun and enjoyable reading. My only complaints about the story were some of the repetitiveness of the very daring that I enjoyed and what I felt were missed opportunities in story telling and fleshing out the very world being presented. Though it read well, I felt as if Mr. Mann had to make his story fit in a certain page count/word count for the publisher.
These a very minor complaints when the story is taken as a whole and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is a lover of pulp, Sherlock Holmes, or the gas light mystery, with all the steam punk goodness mixed in. 3 out of 4 stars for me. It didn't blow me away, but The Affinity Bridge was a great bit of entertainment that held my interest so that I burned through the book in a couple of sittings.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Fox and the Hound

I decided to keep with the War for American Independ- ence theme for another week by providing the beginning of a story that I wrote about a pulp hero of my own creation. So I will introduce you to Elias Jericho Kirby. A young privateer and smuggler for the rebellion. A man with a bit of magic and a whole lot of luck on his side. That is until he runs on a British sea captain that has the same gifts of Sight and Power!

The Fox and the Hound

AD 1777

The fog was an impenetrable wall of white mist, so thick that even the pink of dawn could not pierce it. Through the ancient gold coin embedded in the tiller arm beneath his palm Elias Jericho Kirby could sense the shifting currents and sand bars that made travel through the islands and shoals of Carolina's coastal waters so hazardous. The rigging of the main sail groaned no more than an old floor board. The men, even Rume, who was working the lead, were still. They were specters manning a ghostly schooner upon a shadow sea; slipping through a dream reality past the blockading British.
Elias’ mismatched eyes were slit in concentration that had nothing to do with trying to see beyond the prow of the Fox. He was feeling the world around him through the spells his Gran had taught him. He sensed the blockade vessels through the life energies of the men who manned them. With these magics, unknown to those that served under him, for they would see him dead for it, he had the reputation as the canniest smuggler ever to tread the deck of a ship.
The young man’s eyes flew open wide. The blue one, the one gifted with the Sight, saw the warlock as clearly as if the man stood across the deck from him. And the smuggler knew that the spell caster saw him too! “We are spotted!” He leaned the tiller hard to starboard, nearly throwing half his ten man crew overboard.
“Captain, how can they?” Egelbert, a portly man, who had been a merchant until the British took his own ship as a prize the previous year, asked his eyes huge behind his misted glasses.
“There!” cried Rume, the big sailor had escaped a British frigate after one too many lashes from the cat and had no desire to be taken.
She loomed out of the fog, a sleek, shallow drafted sloop of war; ten guns at the most. Well suited for chasing prey in these treacherous waters. She was prow on and would have drove the schooner under her keel had Elias not taken evasive action.
The two ships were so close that the cannon of the sloop could not bear down on the Fox; for the smaller ship sat lower at the free board. The enemy vessel let loose a thunderous broad side as the Fox bore away. The cannon were loaded with round shot and the six pound balls flew harmless among the rigging.
Elias felt the men of the British ship running about through the magic he possessed. “Marines!” came the order and the shadowy soldiers were at the rail. There were bright flashes in the white accompanied by the thunderous report of a dozen muskets firing almost in unison. The warlock was the captain of this vessel and the young Bostonian was sure he was a very successful hound for King George. Rounds zipped and whined smacking into the deck. Egelbert, his glasses blasted off his face, fell as an unlucky ball smashed him between the eyes.
“All sail!” Elias cried as he drew his flintlock his belt. As he pulled the hammer back his thumb brushed a silver stud among the diamond shaped cluster of brass studs on the grip. Whispering a word of power, the pistol bucked in the captain’s hand and the man who had killed Egelbert flew back mortally wounded. The silver stud now resembled the brass about it and only a few silver studs remained on the whole of the grip.
The men of the Fox flew about; setting gaff and foresail speed now outweighing stealth. Elias made for the open sea, hoping to tack back up the coast after loosing the enemy ship in the fog. He had little hope to accomplish that if the warlock had any kind of power or knowledge of these waters. Without sight the Hound could still follow him to his lair, sniffing out the trail of magic.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The American War for Independence: Pulp Fiction?

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

I am reading a book right now called Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. It occurs to me that The Revolutionary War is a pulp story that even the best writers could not imagine: one that if written as fiction today would have been rejected by publishers as simply trite with too many coincidences to aid the heroes. But it happened; we are a nation today because of unbelievable circumstances combined with determined men and women that stayed the course to make independence happen.
Anyone who knows me knows my passion for this period and those that created this nation. But this is not a blog on history or politics and none of this information is new, Joseph Ellis and many others have written numerous volumes on the Revolution. I was just thinking of what to post it occurred to me that I need to write pulp adventures set in the Revolution. This is actually not a new idea; there are several novelists who have written fantasy and romance in this era. I could compile quite a list.
Let's take the figures that are most prominent: Washington and Franklin.
George Washington: Commander and Chief of the Continental Army, first President of the United States, and pulp action hero. No? Many have called him America's First Action Hero long before me. Think of the man's life, Louis L'amour could have written this character! He was the right man at the right time, with the right experience and skill set to see this war through.
George Washington was a big man, standing at about 6'4", immensely strong, active, and sat a horse as if he were a centaur. As a young man (seventeen years old) he was a surveyor in the wilds Virginia. At twenty-two with the Virginia militia he fought in the Seven Years War, taking in French strength in the Ohio frontier. He took command of troops that had been routed through the inept leadership of General Edward Braddock. He had two horses shot out from under him and afterward found four bullet holes in his uniform coat, but had come through without a scratch!
After his brother's death he inherited wealth and land, securing his position in society with his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, adding her wealth and land to his own holdings. He was a brilliant business man, cunning in his political dealings, and had the uncanny ability to lead men. During the war he showed time and again, despite interference from Congress, he knew that the war would be won by wearing down the stronger, larger British army. He knew too that he needed victories, such as Trenton when his forces crossed the Delaware on that fateful Christmas.
Like true pulp fiction, a convergence of events aided Washington's victory as well as ramped up the tension which left success in doubt; from the mud and wet that bogged down Washington, to the storm that hit as he was trying to cross the Delaware trying to hamper his attack, putting the pre-dawn timing in question. This storm aided Washington because the weather kept the Hessians from posting the sentries that would have been on duty. As well as the British continental style of battle called "Winter Quarters". Howe having a mistress in New York helped hamper pursuit of Washington's army as well, but that is another story.
The battles that immediately followed were just as harrowing, from the Battle of Assunpink Creek to Princeton where Washington fought with guile to beat General Cornwallis. These battles were turning points of the American Revolution, giving Congress the confidence they lacked in Washington since the losses in New York. It also made the French take notice, helping bring that nation to the aid of the rebels.
Like a true action hero Washington laid down command (taking no pay while acting as Commander in Chief) when the war was over, refusing to lead an officer backed coup to set himself up as king. He was then asked twice to sit as President of the United States.
Ben Franklin was the cerebral hero of the pulps. In many tales of fiction he is mad inventor, a wizard, and spy. Reality is just as pulpish. He was an inventor, author, politician, ambassador, schemer, and sage. From his early printing days to creating the first public libraries and volunteer fire departments, he was always thinking. His greatest pulp adventures occurred when he was overseas in London then France. At first he fought hard to preserve America's ties to England, a warm fraternal affection should exist, but as time passed he saw that "an island cannot rule a continent". In France he used cunning and guile to persuade the French to give aid, money, and eventually troops to America. So great was his presence in that country that he was idolized like a rock star, including the sales of memorabilia. He was there to sign the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It seemed that Ben Franklin, almost through happenstance was present at ever major turning point that began the history of the United States.
Both Franklin and Washington had events in their lives that were the "calls to adventure" that drew them into giving their full fledged support to independence, when initially neither man were looking to break from England.
For Washington it seemed matters of honor, pride, and finance drove him to the new adventure. I think too, a drive to be a part of history. During this period the British military model had it own aristocracy; as a colonial, Washington, no matter his wealth, could not be a part of it. The most he could hope for was a commission in the militia, which would be subordinate to British officers, of even inferior rank. This left a bitter taste of second-class citizenship in the American aristocrat's mouth. Second were the taxes being levied by England to pay for the Seven Year's War, as an importer of finery and merchant, he was plagued by the unfair tax practice. And lastly, Washington saw himself as a military man. When he would order his clothes from England, he would order them in sizes that were actually too small for his robust frame because he was "outsized" to how a gentleman should be built. But his military uniforms, those were tailored to fit.
For Franklin his initial drive was to preserve the ties that bound America to England. He tried every diplomatic avenue, but the turning point for him was when he addressed Privy Council and was verbally humiliated. He had obtained letters of Governor Hutchinson's, proving that there was little serious consideration on England's part for peace. He left England and threw his efforts into the cause of Independence.
These two men were first among many, like Paul Revere, the Swamp Fox Francis Marion, even the vilified Benedict Arnold. They all were larger than life, living adventures that kept children wide eyed in the telling. These adventures were too wild for fiction.
History is rife with events and personages that create the stories that would otherwise be taken as heart stopping fiction, a lesson Jeff Shaara learned well when he wrote Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause, and has further followed the same formula with The American Civil War and both world wars. Pulp authors have looked to history for their inspiration for events and characters. Robert E. Howard and Arthur Conan Doyle are just two who did so to thrill and entertain.
So my suggestion is that you hit a wiki or better, the library, and read the real pulp fiction of our nation's founding and beyond.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Shadow Kingdom

In Augusts 1929, eighty years ago this month, Weird Tales introduced its readers to King Kull, in The Shadow Kingdom, by Robert E. Howard. The Kull stories, in general, many unpublished in his life time, were not Howard’s best, but this story, I feel, belongs in the top ten of Howard's stories. This story is one of those that hit on all cylinders for me, from story, to prose, to action, and emotion.
A quick synopsis of The Shadow Kingdom: (yes there are spoilers)
The opening of the tale introduces the reader to Kull; an Atlantian barbarian has ascended the throne of Valusia, a decadent and crumbling empire, through strength of arm and steel. The Tiger of Atlantis must face foes with courtesy and guile rather than brawn and axe. There are factions within the nation that want the barbarian off the throne; others find the infusion of such blood into the ruling line as a revitalization of the Land of Dreams.
Kull is asked to attend Ka-nu, the Pictish ambassador from the Western Isles who warns the king of plots and offers him an ally in the coming battles in the form of Brule Spear-slayer. Kull, never trusting of his races’ ancient enemy is reluctant. When Brule does come to him he reveals to Kull the plot by a race of ancient serpent-men, who through dark magic can mask their form to appear as anyone they choose. The serpent-men wish to assassinate Kull as they have done to strong Valusian kings of the past, replacing them with doppelgangers. Brule reveals to Kull the phrase: ka nama kaa lajerama, the meaning of the words are lost, but their effect was not, no serpent-man can utter them, because their mouth and jaw cannot form the shape of the sounds. A defense for mankind in his ape-like days when he did battle the beast races of the young world.
The pair battle serpent-men guised as advisors, members of the court, and Kull himself. Finally, the pair is triumphant with Kull swearing a war of extermination on the serpent-race.
On the surface The Shadow Kingdom appears to be a string of brawls that would do Howard’s other barbarian Conan proud. It is, but so much more.
The story is a perfect blend of plot, conflict, and introspection. The tale runs 15,000 words or so, and in it Howard blends layers of conflict and world building. He creates images of a world before Atlantis rises to her cataclysmic height, even further back; establishing the serpent race to be as old as the age of dinosaurs. This he does with poetic prose without loosing the thread of the main tale.
The two barbarians, as Howard said: Like rival leopards turning at bay against hunters, these two savages made common cause against the inhuman powers of antiquity. Brule and Kull’s races were mortal enemies, and Bruel proclaimed no love for the king, but it was a matter of alliances and the bidding of Ka-nu to consider. For his part Kull did not trust the Pict, even going so far as keeping his blade pointed at Brule’s back so that he would at least die before Kull if he turned treacherous. There is no petty bickering or name calling to show such distrust or some proclamation of trust that comes later, but rather actions like that note above and when: ….but Kull heard Brule’s breath hiss through teeth and was reassured as to Brule’s loyalty... and when Brule is described as the power beside not behind the throne; again woven through out the tale effortlessly.
A final, deeper layer is Kull’s self-doubt. Kull is troubled as any king, but more so because there is an underlying sense that he doubts his ability to rule a civilized nation, this is a theme that prevails throughout the Kull tales, he is introspective and probing, even at his own failings, these things make him vulnerable, both as a character, making him more real, and as a device to challenge the hero. In the final act he sees a double of himself on the throne and wonders who the true Kull is, momentarily questioning his sanity; but like a true pulp hero he ignores these doubts that threaten to make him inactive, to strike at the usurper.
For me, the above elements strike the core of what makes great pulp fantasy known as sword and sorcery. The ancient, evil sub-human race bent on subverting humanity; warriors that face the evil unflinching, and eventually defeating magic with steel and courage; with world building done subtly so you are reading good fiction and not a dull, detail laden travel log to a mythic place.
The only thing missing, and it is not truly missing is the female element. So much of the sword and sorcery includes the damsel in a dress, rather a flimsy negligee or chain-mail bikini. This tale does not require it, nor is it shoe-horned in by some manner. Dark Horse comics recently did an adaption that did include the feminine element. (Which I will review at a later date.) Howard would learn and use the value of the damsel in a dress in story sales, but this story shows a purer writing for Howard, one though driven to sell, not driven by sales. The Shadow Kingdom is essential Robert E. Howard, exemplifying the elements that made Howard’s style his own. It glorifies the noble barbarian over the decadent civilization, the ability of men to face horror and evil to win out through strength and determination, all with bold prose and red action

Friday, August 7, 2009

It begins......

Well I am finally launching the blog! So I think I should give readers an idea what to expect. This is to be a place that I can share my love of the old adventure serials, pulp fiction, and the adventure cartoons of my fondest memory. And what ever else comes to mind in that vein. Story reviews, movies, and even self-serving snippets of stories that I write. If I had grown up in another era, I would have been one of the kids with the sling shot in his back pocket, slouch cap, and trailing dog running along a dirt track trying to find glass cola bottles to exchange for nickels so I could go catch the matinee.
I was pretty close, and like many other of my generation the first “pulp” action-adventure that thrilled me in the theater was Star Wars, closely followed by Indiana Jones and Conan. At home, the old Errol Flynn and Bogart movies would come on Sunday afternoons and I was hooked. Captain Blood and Maltese Falcon respectively, in case you were wondering. Saturday morning cartoons didn’t help with Johnny Quest and later, Thundarr the Barbarian.
Somewhere in there I started discovering the mental stimulation of reading. The first real primers I remember were, again Johnny Quest stories for really young readers, and then my father made sure we went to the library in the summer and stacks came home with me. As my tastes matured so did the subject matter and I discovered Robert E. Howard, Raymond Chandler, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The list could go on forever with Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Vern and so many more that I hope to explore later.
Where does this love come from for any of us that are fans of these action adventures? Is it the wish to be the hard boiled PI or rapier wielding Warlord of Mars? To have those hair raising, death defying adventures without actually risking our necks, or legal entanglements? To be that clever, that strong, or that resourceful?
I think part of it is the fervent wish that such men and women did exist somewhere out there, doing those things that only they could do; righting the wrongs only because the cosmos or fate had chosen them to do it.
Yeah, that too.
There is also a love of the art form, the turning of phrase, the poetry and cadence. As beautiful as the story telling traditions of Homer’s Illiad or the Saxon Beowulf. The innovation and imagination that brought such adventures to life in the era of the first moving pictures with stop motion special effects to the talkies and the vibrant color of the Wizard of Oz. In the case of the original Star Wars movie, the creation of special effects to bring that galaxy far far away to life as envisioned back in 1977. The lurid covers of the ‘30s pulps so epitomized by Rafael de Soto, J. Allen St. John, George Rozen, and many more; to the color and life brought to the pages of favorite comic books, which has become a literary art form itself with “graphic novels”.
I hope to explore all these and more as I ramble on about these things that I love that I have such a passion about.
So that is the beginning of this particular story. And like the old serials, there will be installments. My goal is to post as the title suggests, on Saturdays. Because that was when that kid in the slouch hat got his nickel and sat in the dark to dream with his eyes wide open.