Review: Three Fictional Non-Fiction Books from Osprey

Thursday, May 28th, 2015 | Posted by M Harold Page

Coming June 23!

Coming June 23!

Kurtzhau – aged 11 – squees. “It’s got all the tropes. They’ve obviously read Scott Westerfield…!”

I’ve just unpacked Osprey’s Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms and Weapons from the Age of Steamone of three review copies acquired as a result of me ruthlessly parlaying a short story gig – Frostgrave tabletop game, coming soon, it rocks – into a pipeline of free books to review.

OK – Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! – moral hazard! Integrity in heroic book reviewing! Disclaimer! I wrote a short story for Osprey. I’d love to write a book for them. However, the reason I want to do all this is because Osprey rock. So bearing that in mind, read on.

Steampunk Cover

“…got all the tropes!”

I received three books from Osprey.

Steampunk, The Wars of Atlantis (coming July 21) and Orc Warfare (coming June 23).

They are odd.

Not as odd as the stand of Osprey books I once spotted in a local store…. It turned out that the manager of the History Department hated the books and would only reorder to fill gaps created by sales.

When the stand first went up, the military history gannets swooped and grabbed all the Templars/Waffen SS at War type books, and everything else with tanks and siege machines on the cover, leaving only the 10% of weird nerdy titles like German Civilian Police 1935-45, and Swiss Catering Corps 1866 (I made that one up).

So the manager filled the resulting gap with a random selection of books. 10% of these were yet more nerdy titles that did not sell. Fast forward a couple of years, and you have stand of possibly the most odd but boring military history titles in history.

Great, though, if you want to know about 19th century West Swabian Militia Civilian Servant Uniforms…

These books, in contrast, are odd, but not boring odd. They are odd because they are entirely made up and aimed squarely at tabletop gamers, without committing to a particular system.

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Dragon’s Rook (The Lost Sword, Book 1) by Keanan Brand

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_26031584LVummnLet me start by stating that I am an inconsistent person with inconsistent tastes and opinions. I tend to get overly emphatic and dramatic when discussing things I like or dislike. In the light of what I’m about to write about Keanan Brand’s epic fantasy novel, Dragon’s Rook, I need to look back and see how many times I disparaged thick books and those set in European-styled worlds. Because that’s exactly what Brand’s book is and I really enjoyed it.

I actually like novels set in pseudo-European worlds. Tolkien, King Arthur, and much of the earliest fantasy reading I did was set in such places. The best included Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and Poul Anderson’s various excursions in fantasy.

Brave farm boys, daring princesses, wise old women, and wicked kings (plus dragons!) are endemic to the fairy tales read to me by my dad. Mysterious huts in dark forests, dire castles towering over the countrysides, and dank, fetid caves were common locales for those characters’ exploits. This is good stuff that speaks deeply to me for nostalgic and cultural reasons (about 99% of my ethnic heritage originates north of the Rhine River) and it all makes its way into Brand’s novel.

It’s just that often I feel like it has been done to death. Prior to the late 1970s, fantasy was a pretty diverse field. While Tolkien loomed above the genre, he spawned few direct imitators. In the first part of the decade, fantasy writing was all over the place. Sure, there was plenty of swords & sorcery, but there was also Roger Zelazany’s wild romp, The Chronicles of Amber, Ursula K. LeGuin’s very non-European Earthsea trilogy, and Tanith Lee’s phatasmagorical Tales from the Flat Earth (books I need to reread and review).

And then came Terry Brook’s The Sword of Shannara. For the unitiated, many of Shannara‘s events parallel those of the Lord of the Rings closely, and it was a monster success. That was enough to convince publishers and authors that the key to sales lay in the same sort of mimicry. In the years that followed, dozens of quest stories set in very familiar Euro-style worlds appeared. The worst were slavish imitations of Tolkien’s masterpiece, while the best took advantage of the familiarity of quest and fantasy tropes and used them to explore original ideas. Either way, though, Dark Ages and Medieval Europe came to be the default setting for fantasy fiction.

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Station Eleven = The Stand + The Road – (Supernatural Occurrences + Cannibalism)

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015 | Posted by Kelly Swails

Station Eleven-smallIt’s great when a book can be summed up by an equation as well as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

Like King’s The Stand, the world is wiped out by a flu virus that kills ninety-nine percent of the population; like McCarthy’s The Road, survivors travel by horse or foot and encounter grim realities of a decimated world. What St. John Mandel brings to the table, however, is an unusual structure and omniscient POV that shouldn’t work but somehow does.

Arthur Leander is a famous actor that dies in Toronto during a performance of King Lear. All of the characters the reader follows are in some way related to Arthur. Miranda, his first wife; Elizabeth and Tyler, his second wife and son; Kirsten, a young girl and King Lear actress; Jeevan, a former paparazzo-turned-EMT; and Clark, Arthur’s best friend. Even Station Eleven — the graphic novel that Miranda creates — becomes a character of sorts. On the night Arthur dies, an extremely infectious and thorough strain of the swine flu — called the Georgia Flu since it originated in the country of Georgia — descends on Toronto. This flu has a short incubation period (four to five hours) and quick course from onset of illness to death (less than two days). It turns out that Arthur is the lucky one, because most of the world’s population is dead inside a month.

The novel jumps between all these characters but spends the majority of its time on Kirsten, the child actor who joins a Traveling Symphony. The Symphony is a theater troupe and orchestra that travels from town to town to perform Shakespeare plays and classical music concerts. The tagline for the Symphony is “because survival is insufficient,” which they borrowed from an episode of Star Trek.

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Seeking Revenge Against the Shades of the Dead: S.E. Lindberg’s Lords of Dyscrasia

Sunday, May 24th, 2015 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

LORDS OF DYSCRASIA-smallLords of Dyscrasia
By S.E. Lindberg
Ignis Publishing (258 pages, $15.96 in trade paperback, $2.99 digital, July 7, 2011)
Cover and interior illustrations by the author

S.E. Lindberg is an original voice in fantasy. His prose is lush and colorful, and his style leans toward that of classic literature, without being stilted, self-conscious or pretentious. He has a gift for putting words “down on paper” and constructing sentences that flow with a poetic nuance.

Lords of Dyscrasia (an abnormal or disordered state of the body or of a bodily part) is touted as “Graphic Sword and Sorcery,” but to me it has more in common with the dark fantasy of Clark Ashton Smith and the gothic tones of Mervyn Peake’s first two Gormenghast books. There is some nice Lovecraftian shading to this novel, as well, with a touch of Edgar Allen Poe to lend it a feverishness of tone, and even a psychedelic flavor in style.

While Lindberg channels his influences with a deft hand, he has mapped out a beautifully grotesque world that is truly his own unique creation. This book was described to me as being part of the Grimdark subgenre of dark fantasy, and it is indeed a grim, dark tale.

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Into the Wastelands: Enchanted Pilgrimage by Clifford D. Simak

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

Enchanted Pilgrimage-smallClifford Simak is often described as a pastoralist, his sci-fi stories set in rural Wisconsin or some reasonable facsimile thereof. Kindly robots as well as smart and faithful dogs feature in many of his books. Scholars are more likely than soldiers to figure as his heroes. There’s more kindness and sense of wonder than violence in most of his stories.

If you haven’t read him (which wouldn’t be surprising since most of his twenty-six novels and multitude of story collections are out of print in the US), snag a battered old copy of City or Way Station to start. City holds a place in my heart as one of my favorite books. Simak brought a gentle humanity to his writing. Love of an unhurried life and respect for common decency run through many of his stories.

Inspired by John O’Neill’s post about The Goblin Reservation, I dug out the first of Simak’s three fantasy novels, Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975). In it, a disparate party of travelers leave the safety of humanity’s lands to explore the dangerous, magical Wasteland. He would revisit this theme twice more before his death in 1986, in the structurally similar The Fellowship of the Talisman (1978) and Where the Evil Dwells (1982).

I remember liking the book thirty years ago and thirty years later, I still like it. It’s fully fantasy and science fiction, both. While there are goblins, gnomes, witches, and trolls, there are also UFOs, a robot, and a traveler from an alternate Earth.

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Belated Movie Reviews #5: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Monday, May 18th, 2015 | Posted by Adrian Simmons

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome poster-smallContinuing the story from my last post (Belated Movie Reviews #4: The Road Warrior), we come to the final movie of the original trilogy: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (MMBT).

Since this was a big Hollywood movie, the sound is good and the visuals are good — both pretty much run rings around the first two. This film, as opposed to The Road Warrior, is a bit more expansive, which is only logical, given that they can’t just repeat the conflict from the other two movies. Meaning they couldn’t simply have a mad-dog gang leader, or a siege, without looking lame (I’m looking at you, Highlander 3).

So they delved deep into shades of grey. Very, very grey. Setting up a conflict that isn’t so much two-sides-of-the-same-coin as as two jackasses out to get each other.

To the makers’ credit, MMBT really contains no “bad guys” at all. Just antagonists, opponents and opportunists. Aunty Entity says it up front — this is all really more of a family affair. Max is just a dude caught in a clash of two mighty wills, and as usual, he just wants his car back.

The movie lacks some connective tissue. Why is the gyrocaptain from Road Warrior here? Isn’t he the leader of the Great North Tribe? And while it makes sense that Max and the gyrocaptian don’t recognize each other at first (Max is all swathed against the wind and sun), it is pretty clear that the gyrocaptian does recognize him later — although he doesn’t particularly do anything. In fact, while he could barely keep his trap shut in RW, the gyrocaptain doesn’t say much of anything at all in this one.

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Fantasy Literature: Blade of Tyshalle

Saturday, May 16th, 2015 | Posted by Edward Carmien

Blade of Tyshalle, sequel to Heroes DieMatthew Stover’s sequel to Heroes Die (which we discussed last week) begins not in media res but in deep prologue, establishing a new perspective character who meets and becomes friend to a 19-year old Hari Michaelson. Hari, sponsored by the “gangster” businessman Marc Vilo into the Studio Conservatory, the institution that trains actors to “risk their lives in interesting ways” on Overworld, nearly flunks out of battlemage school.

Vilo won’t have that; the Conservatory administrator forces a top student to mentor Hari, and after some kilometers of narrative the top student and Hari both get what they want. Several stock school bully characters end up in the hospital — but that’s an occupational hazard of getting in Hari Michaelson’s way.

Hari has it all, but of course he’s miserable, some seven years after victory over his foes in Heroes Die. Former Studio boss Kollberg works as a temp laborer; Ma’elkoth (“Limitless”) is now Tan’elkoth (“I was Limitless”) and works for the Studio. He calls Hari “Caine” and Hari himself runs the San Francisco Studio — badly, as one might expect of a man with limited executive experience.

Two significant sections in to Blade of Tyshalle and as Kollberg once complained after sending Caine to Overworld, nobody has even been killed yet.

Better, perhaps, to skip to the arresting scene in which a frazzled, semi-disabled Studio boss Hari Michaelson views a feed from one of his actors, Rossi. Rossi, part of a soap-opera like entertainment project, works as a sort of private investigator on Overworld. He’s been captured and knocked out.

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You Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady

ODY-C 4-smallIn my review of issue #4 of Ody-C  I said that it might be my last. I read Issue #5 hoping to be proven wrong.

I wasn’t.

Artistically, Ody-C is still strong, and a lot of people out there are going to love it. I’m just not one of them. What I love about Homer and the direction Fraction and Ward are taking the work are two very different things. And that’s ok. That’s how re-creations work. But as someone who has far less time to read than things she wants to read, this is going to have to drop off the list for now to make room for something else.

And that in turn made me wonder: what is it that makes you, as a reader, stop reading? When I was younger I always finished books, even when I didn’t like them. I wanted to really dissect what I didn’t like about them. I’m also just too curious to go without finding out how a story ends.

As I’ve gotten older, though, the reasons I drop a book or series have multiplied. There are those that I simply don’t like, like Ody-C. There are those that I’ve just gotten tired of, like a TV series that shall remain unnamed but is in its tenth season and probably ought to go. Even the actors look tired of their parts, my favorite side characters are gone, and the sense of peril has completely drained away.

(OK I lied. It’s Supernatural. Bobby’s gone, Ellen and Jo are gone in a way I’m still angry about, and there are only so many times your main characters can die before it stops meaning anything. Also, I think they have run out of new monsters.)

And maybe it’s age leading to crankiness, but there are storylines and characters I’m getting tired of. I’m really, terribly bored with ‘very tough on the outside and won’t accept any help but deeply emotionally vulnerable on the inside with a load of childhood traumas’. Of all available genders. This makes reading entire genres difficult.

But again, these are my objections. What are yours? What makes you drop something: a show, a comic, a book? And what could bring you back to it?


Dragonfly: A Tale of the Counter-Earth at the Cosmic Antipodes by Raphael Ordoñez

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_113524h6c8tSPCMuch of my reading is for sheer entertainment. It’s like a carnival ride: you pay your money, get whipped around a little, then deposited back on the ground. The next day a fond memory of the overall experience lingers on but the details have faded away. And that’s cool. I have never regretted the time or money spent on an Agatha Christie or Stephen King novel. I’ve passed many an enjoyable hour reading (or watching) a decent bit of fiction for a transient thrill. But sometimes, there’s something so compelling about about a book that I’m drawn to it again and again over the years.

There are certain books on my shelf that have an aura around them. Three that leap to mind are The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Last Coin by James Blaylock, and Faces in the Crowd by William Marshall. In each, the combination of prose, plot, and character drew me in so deeply that I feel the desire, for various reasons, to revisit them from time to time.

With the first, I’m looking each time to absorb and understand a bit more of Bulgakov’s dense work. It’s a great story, rich with ideas on art, politics, love, and religion. With the second two I recapture a bit of the sheer joy I felt the first time I encountered the vivid characters and utterly bonkers plots. When it comes to books in this class, I can remember when I first read them, under what circumstances, and where I got them (Science Fiction Book Club, The Forbidden Planet (NYC), and borrowed from the St. George Public Library, Staten Island). I suspect Raphael Ordoñez’ Dragonfly will get added to this list.

Dragonfly is the first of a planned tetralogy. In this day of calculated, mass-marketed, trend-following books, here is a self-published adventure, practically handcrafted, with cover, map, and interior art all done by Ordoñez himself. It tells of a young prince let loose in a world of steam engines, complacent aristocrats, and tunnel-dwelling workers, and a social order on the verge of being overthrown. Ordoñez’ style hearkens back to the likes of A. E. van Vogt and Jack Vance, as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs. Heck, as you can see from the cover, Dragonfly would look right at home on a shelf full of volumes from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

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Fantasy Literature: Heroes Die & We Killed the Blonde

Saturday, May 9th, 2015 | Posted by Edward Carmien

Heroes Die Matthew Woodring Stover-small

She would never forget the surge that had slammed up her spine when a shout of dismay had risen from the vast ranks of the Horde, and she had looked down to the battlefield to see the huge banner of the Khulan himself burn with smoking yellow flame.

Among Talann’s gifts was extraordinary vision; like an eagle, she could see — even from a mile or more away — the black clothes and fringe of beard on the man who held the burning banner up for a moment longer, then cast it down to the mud-churned earth at his feet. She had watched breathlessly, mesmerized, her duties forgotten, as the Bear Guard closed around him like the jaws of a dragon, and a tear had tracked through the dust of her cheeks for the death of this unknown hero — but an instant later, she saw him again, still alive, still fighting, cutting through the finest warriors of the Khulan Horde as the prow of a warship cuts through waves.

Thus was a hero born on Overworld, a hero born of heroic deeds witnessed first hand, at a pivotal moment — one of the pivotal moments of this not-quite-parallel earth — in the history of Overworld. Talann, a military page in a human-centric military order, watches a battle lost turn to a battle won. Caine, of course, toppled the enemy standard, killed the great enemy leader, single-handedly saving Ankhana, a human-centric polity, from “the infinite savage warriors of the Khulan Horde.” Ogres, as it happens. Like in the tales of old, they eat humans.

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