The Roots of Grimdark:The Black Company by Glen Cook

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

No one will sing songs in our memory. We are the last of the Free Companies of Khatovar. Our traditions and memories live only in these Annals. We are our only mourners.

It is the Company against the world. Thus it has been and ever will be.

from The Black Company

oie_1471611MVbvsrErYou never know, when you pick up a book, the impact it will have on your life. In 1984, my friend Carl tossed me a copy of The Black Company (1984), a book I’d end up rereading half a dozen times over the next thirty-five years. It turned out to be the first book in what eventually grew into a ten book series (eleven actually, as the first new Black Company book in eighteen years, Port of Shadows, is to be published in September) and one of my favorite works of epic fantasy. Several of Cook’s other books are better written, better plotted, and more cohesive than The Black Company, but none of them has left as indelible a mark on me as this one.

The setup of the novel is this: a mercenary company unknowingly signs on to the service of Sauron’s wife the Lady, a great and powerful sorceress. Her empire has risen up in rebellion against her and her minions, the Nazgul Taken. Assassinations, intrigue between world-shaking sorcerers, and massive battles unfurl in a world notable mostly for its corruption, constant deceit, and an assumption that nothing ever really goes right. Never an especially good bunch of guys, by the book’s end, several important members of the company have grasped the awfulness of their employer and have started to have second thoughts about remaining in her pay. That may not sound original in 2018, but back in 1984, villains as protagonists was mind-blowing.

The novel is presented as a volume from the annals of the Black Company, a notorious band of sell-swords, as written by the company’s annalist and surgeon, Croaker. Not a senior officer, but not a grunt either, he serves as the perfect narrator of the book’s calamitous and epic events. He’s rarely in on the plotting out of the Company’s next missions, but he’s usually in a position to participate in the more important aspects of them.

There’s a sizable epic fantasy-sized cast in The Black Company, but by focusing so intently on a single character, Croaker, the story’s told on a very human scale. Croaker’s primary concerns, as a member of the company and as its doctor, are for the lives of his brothers-in-arms, more than for the concerns of empire. Through him we get a feel for the most prominent of the company’s soldiers and wizards. We see huge events from the perspective of someone effected by them but without any significant control over them. This is not a book about the destinies of kings and princes or heroes and wizards, but men who carry spears, grumble about bad rations, and worry about paying off their debts from losing at cards.

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Birthday Reviews: Dave Wolverton’s “We Blazed”

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Michael Sabanosh

Cover by Michael Sabanosh

Dave Wolverton was born on May 15, 1957. He also writes using the pseudonym David Farland.

Wolverton won the Grand Prize from the Writers of the Future in 1987 to start off his career with his story “On My Way to Paradise,” which he expanded to book length. The novel version received a special citation from the Philip K. Dick Awards. His novelette “After a Lean Winter” was nominated for the Nebula Award in 1997. After his wins and nominations, Wolverton served as a judge for both the Philip K. Dick Award and the Writers and Illustrators of the Future. His historical novel In the Company of Angels received the Whitney Award and he won the International Book Award for Best Young Adult Novel for Nightingale.

“We Blazed” was written for the anthology Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn, edited by Beagle with Janet Berliner, and Martin H. Greenberg. It was reprinted in the June 2011 issue of Leading Edge, whole number 61, edited by Chris Baxter. Later that year Wolverton re-issued the story as an e-book under his David Farland pseudonym.

Wolverton’s “We Blazed” is a wonder of misdirection. Seemingly the story of an immortal man on a quest to find his equally immortal lover, Wolverton provides some wonderful twists. No reason is given for Alexander Dane’s longevity, nor that of Kaitlyn, whom he is trying to find, but he walks through an Earth impossibly in the future, almost completely amnesiac except knowing that he is looking for Kaitlyn.

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Tell Me a Story: Upside-down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

Monday, May 14th, 2018 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady

Upside Down Magic-small Upside Down Magic-back-small

When it comes to my own preference, I like my audiobooks dark, spooky, snarky, and full of drama. But I’m not the only person in this house! In fact, I share it with (among several other mammals) a pair of elementary school aged girls for whom I am the staff. I mean mom. They’re five and eight, and some of my favorite books aren’t appropriate to play when they’re around. (I’m fairly progressive but I’m not ready to explain what exactly they’re doing on the movie set in Jim Butcher’s Blood Rites, for example.)

Finding strong, good quality stories that are suitable for them and tolerable to me is a priority. Enter  Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and emily Jenkins’ Upside-Down Magic, a series of children’s novels that are delightful, original, and convey the kind of messages I don’t have to worry about them repeating in school the next day.

The central protagonist of Upside-Down Magic is Eleanor “Nory” Horace. Her father is the headmaster of a prestigious boarding school, and she’s preparing for entrance exams. By studying her shapeshifting. Nory is a “fluxer”, someone whose magic manifests as allowing her to change form. Nory is in most ways going through a normal adolescence in the world of Upside Down Magic. All people develop some kind and degree of magical ability, which manifests around their tenth birthday. Fifth grade, then, means transitioning from general education to magic school. Nory is expected to follow her father and siblings’ footsteps by entering the American magical equivalent of Eton.

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Birthday Reviews: Joyce Thompson’s “Boat People”

Monday, May 14th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Allen Koszowski

Cover by Allen Koszowski

Joyce Thompson was born on May 14, 1948.

Thompson has published several short stories, collected many of her early ones in East Is West of Here. She has published four novels, including the novelization of the film Harry and the Hendersons.

“Boat People” first appeared 1990 in Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine: Horror, the seventh issue, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Rusch also included the story in the anthology The Best of Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine, published by St. Martin’s Press in 1991.

Thompson has produced an oddly confessional story in “Boat People,” albeit one with little fantastic element. Her narrator lives in Montana and is dealing with a mother who was once liberal, but is now older and averse to all the change brought into her life by a more diverse population. A generation behind her mother, the narrator sees the influx of Asian people as part of the aftermath of the Vietnam War, a war she opposed, but which left an indelible mark not only on her friends who served in Vietnam, but also on those who remained behind.

The narrator has survivor guilt for not having served overseas, and to assuage her guilt, she has taken on the task of working with veterans who are trying to capture their experiences on paper, offering her services as a published author to former soldiers who need the catharsis of writing about their experiences, no matter how bad the experiences or their prose. As she reads more and more of their memoirs, she takes on more and more of their memories, expressing regret that she wasn’t able to take a more active role in the war or the protests, and never fully understanding what they went through, but taking on their traumas.

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Birthday Reviews: Gregory Frost’s “Farewell, My Rocketeer”

Sunday, May 13th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Jay Bone

Cover by Jay Bone

Gregory Frost was born on May 13, 1951.

Gregory Frost’s novelette “Madonna of the Maquiladora” was nominated for the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Frost has also been nominated for the International Horror Guild Award and World Fantasy Award for his novel Fitcher’s Brides. His Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet jointly were nominated for the Tiptree, and “How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes” was nominated for the Sturgeon. He also received a Bram Stoker nomination for the story “No Others Are Genuine.” Several of his stories have been collected in Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, published by Golden Gryphon in 2011.

Cliff Secord’s career as the Rocketeer, a 1930s style pulp hero who is a pilot in his daily life, but secretly has access to a jet pack, has been chronicled in a series of comics and one film. In 2014 several authors were invited to add to his legend with prose stories, one of whom, Gregory Frost, contributed “Farewell, My Rocketeer,” a lost treasure story set in the American Southwest. The shared world anthology The Rocketeer Jet-Pack Adventures was edited by Jeff Conner and Tom Waltz. “Farewell, My Rocketeer” story has not been reprinted.

Secord gets involved in the treasure hunt when he lands at a small airstrip and diner which has been taken over by a disparate group of villains who are seeking gold based on an old treasure map. To save himself and the staff of the diner, who have been taken hostage, Secord agrees to pilot the group’s plane to help them find the treasure after their pilot dies, even though he realizes his own usefulness to the villains will end as soon as he lands them back at the diner, theoretically with the gold.

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The Complete Carpenter: They Live (1988)

Saturday, May 12th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

They-Live-Theatrical-Poster“What’s the threat? We all sell out every day. Might as well be on the winning team.”

The career of John Carpenter spans four decades, but the 1980s was his special golden era. Although his ‘80s films may not have always succeeded at the box office, their run of quality is humbling: Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and Prince of Darkness (1987). While Christine (1983) and Starman (1984) aren’t in the same tier as that group, they’re good movies audiences still enjoy today.

No other film could have closed out the John Carpenter Decade better than They Live. It’s not only the last movie he made in the ‘80s, it serves as a DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY curtain closer on the entirety of the decade.

The Story

Only four characters in the movie have names, so let’s get the actor attributions out of the way: Nada (Roddy Piper), Frank Armitage (David Keith), Holly Thompson (Meg WATCH TV Foster), and Gilbert (Peter Jason). “Frank Armitage” is also Carpenter’s screenwriter pseudonym, giving the impression that a fictional character in the movie also wrote it. That nicely predicts the meta-horror of In the Mouth of Madness by six years.

Nada is a drifter who’s come to L.A. searching for work. He meets another construction worker, Frank, who introduces him to the shanty town and homeless shelter of Justiceville. There’s something strange going on under the surface of Justiceville, however, and Nada discovers the shelter organizers using a nearby church to develop strange science equipment — and a bunch of sunglasses, for some reason. After a suspiciously timed police raid demolishes Justiceville, Nada escapes and finds himself in possession of the sunglasses. When he puts on a pair, he can see the disturbing truth of the world: ghoulish alien creatures disguised as the rich and powerful actually rule the planet. They’ve peppered all visual media with subliminal messages of submission to mindless consumerism to cow the human population.

But Nada is all out of bubblegum and he ain’t having this. He gets Frank to work with him — after they savagely beat each other in a back alley for five minutes — and then seeks out the underground resistance. However, they’re not only facing alien invaders, but also the human collaborators who have sold out for their slice of ‘80s yuppiedom.

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Birthday Reviews: Barry B. Longyear’s “Collector’s Item”

Saturday, May 12th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Analog April 1981-small2 Analog April 1981-back-small

Cover by George Angelini

Barry B. Longyear was born on May 12, 1942.

Longyear received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1980, the year he won the Hugo and Nebula Award for his novella “Enemy Mine,” which was turned into a film starring Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett, Jr. That same year his novelette “Homecoming” also appeared on the Hugo ballot, as did his novelette “Savage Planet” the following year. His stories have twice topped the Analog Reader’s Poll and he has been nominated for the Prometheus Award three times and the Sidewise Award once.

“Collector’s Item” was first published by Stanley Schmidt in the April 27, 1981 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact. The following year it was translated into German to be reprinted in Analog 2, a German language version of the magazine. Longyear also included the story as the lead off to his collection It Came from Schenectady.

Longyear examines the unenviable task of cleaning out a parent’s belongings after their death. For Jay Hall, who barely knew his father and had little to discuss with him, the natural inclination is to just take everything and sweep it into the garbage. A call with his father’s attorney, however, causes him to look through some of the papers his father has collected over the years. Among those papers are essays written by five of his father’s students in 1955.

The essays were assigned on prosaic topics, “What I Did Last Summer,” “My Favorite Dream,” “Things I Think About.” As Jay begins to read them, however, he finds that these five students all had things in common… notable, references to someone known as the Major. Furthermore, their essays all seemed to indicate that they were being fed knowledge of America’s future involvement in Viet Nam.

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Birthday Reviews: Elizabeth Engstrom’s “Seasoned Enthusiast”

Friday, May 11th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Allen Koszowski

Cover by Allen Koszowski

Elizabeth Engstrom was born on May 11, 1951. She occasionally writes using the name Liz Cratty as well.

Engstrom’s collection Nightmare Flower was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and she co-edited the anthology Imagination Fully Dilated with Alan M. Clark, which earned them an International Horror Guild Award nomination.

“Seasoned Enthusiast” first appeared 1990 in Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine: Horror, the seventh issue, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Engstrom later reprinted the story in her 1992 collection Nightmare Flower.

The short work “Seasoned Enthusiast” tells two parallel tales, one about a dancer performing in front of an audience, the other the story of a divorced woman who is considering her own self-worth in light of her husband’s new life.

The more interesting story looks at Lillian, whose life has fallen apart after her divorce and she’s living in squalor while her husband and his new wife start their life together in an upscale house, a symbol of the success which eluded the couple while they were married. Unable to separate her life from his, and seeing herself as a failure because she lost him, Lillian drives over to her ex-husband’s house without a firm plan in mind, feeding her obsession with him without any plan of action.

In the other story, a crowd gathers around to watch a woman dance in an apparently primitive setting. As the dance sequences are interwoven with Lillian’s story, it becomes clear that things aren’t quite as they seem. There is an element of danger in the woman’s dance and she has suffered for her craft as she has perfected it.

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The Ties That Bind: Mike McQuay’s The Nexus

Thursday, May 10th, 2018 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

The Nexus Mike McQuay-smallThe Nexus, by Mike McQuay
Spectra Special Edition (Bantam Books, 474 pages, $4.50 in paperback, May 1989)
Cover by Bob Hickson

Amy Kyle, an Autistic girl on the threshold of puberty, has divine powers. She can cure the sick, heal the lame, mend broken bones and make horrible scars disappear. She also has incredible powers of teleportation and telekinesis, and can manipulate reality in such ways as making a horde of food appear out of thin air, the way Christ is said to have done with the loaves and fishes. Thus, the comparisons to Christ and discussions about the nature of God and divinity are at the core of this story. Amy’s mother, Tawny, is a booze-addled, chain-smoking, sometime prostitute and train wreck of a human being who can channel her daughter’s powers. This she does in old-fashioned “revival” type meetings, charging people a modest sum to be healed and cured of their physical limitations and ailments.

Denny Stiller is a nearly washed-up newsman for WCN, a Dallas, Texas cable news network, who lives and breathes for “the story.” He is a self-professed seeker of the Truth who lives a life avoiding most relationships and commitments. Part hero, part rogue, his whole adult life has been devoted to being the ultimate newshound, the ultimate reporter. Frank Hargrave is a Vietnam veteran with a badly scarred and damaged leg. A one-time storm chaser who can barely hang onto his sanity; he’s one of the walking wounded who drinks too much in an effort to numb himself from the nightmares, the cruelty, and the violence of the world. An overly sensitive soul, he leads a troubled life filled with pain and terrible nightmares, but none of this intrudes on his talent for “capturing the moment” on film. The head honchos at WCN would have dumped him long ago, if not for Denny’s support and belief in his friend.

But Denny himself, once the top reporter at WCN, was demoted to covering less-urgent news because of a scathing interview he once conducted with the President of the United States of America. Now he’s trying to redeem himself and work his way back to being king of the news hill.

Molly Hartwell is a producer at WCN, and is also in love with Denny. She stands by him, backs him all the way, and risks her own career in order to help him rise to the top of the heap again. But Denny often mistreats her, uses her, and her love for him is not always reciprocated, not in the way she wants. Their relationship is further complicated when she finds out that she’s pregnant with Denny’s child, something he neither wants nor cares about; although she asks and expects nothing from him in return, he tells her that he is willing to help her out in any way he can.

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Birthday Reviews: John Scalzi’s “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis”

Thursday, May 10th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Edward Miller

Cover by Edward Miller

John Scalzi was born on May 10, 1969.

John Scalzi won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2006. He won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2008, breaking David Langford’s nineteen year winning streak. He won a second Hugo in 2009 for Best Related Work for Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008. In 2013, he won a fiction Hugo Award for his novel Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. His novel The Collapsing Empire is currently a Hugo Finalist. Redshirts earned Scalzi his second Geffen Award, which he previously won for the novel Old Man’s War. His novel The Android’s Dream received the Kurd Lasswitz Preis and the Seiun Award. Scalzi served two terms as the President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Scalzi wrote “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis” for an audio anthology he edited, METAtropolis, produced for Audible Frontiers in 2008. The following year, the anthology was published in print form for the first time by Subterranean Press. Brilliance Audio issued the original audio anthology on CD and as an mp3 in 2009. In 2010, Tor reprinted the anthology and in the same year, it was translated into German. The story has not appeared outside its original anthology, whether in audio or printed form.

Benjamin Washington is living in the fully self-sustaining city of New St. Louis. Despite, or perhaps because of, a high-powered mother, Benjy is something of a slacker, putting off tackling his required aptitude test until the last possible moment. His poor scores, and lack of time to retake before the deadline of this twentieth birthday, coupled with his mother’s refusal to expend her political capital on nepotism, mean that he must take a job as a pig farmer working with genetically modified swine.

Suffering through life as a pig farmer, Benjy’s realizes how much he has screwed up, especially when he sees the girl he cares about together with a boy who is constantly needling him. Even as Benjy deals with the repercussions of his laziness, his learning experiences are presented in a manner that is designed to get a laugh, although Scalzi uses those same lessons to great effect later in the story.

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