Friday, December 4, 2020

Review: WHETSTONE #2

I will readily admit that WHETSTONE magazine got me started on the path to CLIFFHANGER. In my career as both a reader and a writer, I have always followed a fictional path that wove in between the realms of Adventure, and Cosmic horror. Where those two tenuously related trails often cross, I tend to label "Sword and Sorcery". Like Adventure (and Cosmic Horror), SnS has roots firmly placed in Pulp. So too does the genre come with trappings that waiver between eye-roll inducing to outright disgust when viewed through a modern lens. As the release of CLIFFHAGER draws nearer, I have begun to realize just how out of favor the Adventure genre has fallen. Mired in memories of Exoticism, Colonialism, and Conquest, many a modern reader seems to have turned away from these kinds of tales. Sword and Sorcery, on the other hand, is currently riding a wave of renaissance in many ways. I admit to grand delusions of such wave-making in Adventure. Ha! 

While I believe that SnS still struggles with archaic descriptors that harken back to fur-diapers and chainmail bikinis, I can honestly say that WHETSTONE is something of a harbinger of modern Sword and Sorcery fiction. That is not to say you can't see the Pulp. It is definitely there, though much more Clark Aston Smith than Robert E. Howard (sometimes to my personal dismay). The first issue of WHETSTONE was a delight that offered a number of short fiction stories that seemed fresh and new to me, drawing from numerous inspirations that are rarely encountered in a literary world rife with buff Viking dudes. 

The second issue came out today. 

Drum roll, please. 

This issue opens with a brief note from the Editor, Mr. Jason Ray Carney. It is brief and to the point, and lets the reader dive straight into the action. This note gives a great rundown of the resurgence seen in Sword and Sorcery fiction, highlighting the numerous outlets that provide genre related material. If this is something new to you, you would do well to follow Mr. Carney's suggestions and look in the various books, publications, and podcasts he points out. 

This issue opens up with The City of Tombs by George Jacobs. WHETSTONE labels itself as the "Amateur magazine of Sword and Sorcery", and to test that title I did a cursory search for each author just to see how "Amateur" they are. In this case, I couldn't find any other stories that I could attribute to the same Mr. Jacobs. I apologize if I missed some. This was a tale tailor made for me. The author evokes a mysterious and alien version of Ancient Egypt through the use of names evocative of that culture and time period. It was easy to picture the world and what it looked like through the careful use of language and naming-conventions. This story presents us with desert thieves, treasure hunters, sorcerers, traps-a-la-Dr. Jones, and a cosmic horror flavored climax. If this had been actually set in Ancient Egypt, I would be printing it in CLIFFHANGER for sure. 

The next story, and to some extent the one after that, are heavier on the Weirdness than I typically seek out. This is the Clark Ashton Smith influence I think. An Unforgivable Interruption by D.M. Ritzlin especially invokes that kind of atmosphere, especially in his use of language and names. I could easily see his world of Nilzitiria alongside Hyperborea, Zothique, or Averoigne. It is admittedly not my favorite of the SnS styles, but there is no denying that Mr. Ritzlin is a master of it. This is reflected in his rather prolific library or self-published material and anthology works. 

I think the most surprising of the stories for me, was Dark Meditations by J. Thomas Howard. This is his first published story, and a very worthy story indeed. This reminds me of so many things. In part it reminds me of Robert E. Howard's James Allison stories, where a sickly man recalls his past lives as ancient heroes. It also reminds me a little of the film Mandy starring Nicholas cage, though in a much more intangible way. It also deals with mental illness in a similar way to the indie throwback FPS Nightmare Reaper, about a woman in a mental hospital coping with trauma through her imagination. It's very well done, and surprisingly deep story that is wholly unique when placed against the other stories in this anthology. 

I think the story that most gets my own blood pumping is Houds by Chuck Clark. This is a WHETSTONE alum, and so is his returning character Turkael. In the first story, you could clearly see the inspiration of the late, great, Charles Saunders of Imaro fame. I am not sure what the inspiration here is, but the namesake Hounds are both fascinating and chilling. The main protagonist is at once innocuous and indescribably evil. The setting of a barren, twisting maze of desert rock and stone is claustrophobic and lends itself to a real CLIFFHANGER. See what I did there?I think this story reads most like a Conan story, which is the style of SnS that I most enjoy. It has aspects of the classic Adventure tale The Most Dangerous Game. I will admit that my personal tastes wish to see Turkael relish in a moment of heroic triumph. Perhaps another story. 

The final entry in this collection is a poem in a seemingly ancient style title Rolf's Ride, written by Frank Coffman. Having recently began re-playing Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, this poem gave me a nice little smile as it reminded me of warm hearths, frothy meade, and singing bards regaling weary adventurers with tales of ancient heroes. I can only assume that is what Mr. Coffman was going for, and he succeeded. There is definite mythic quality to it that pulls at the spirits of my ancestral Welshmen. I have to note that even though it might not sound like it, this is high praise from the likes of me because I don't really like poetry, and I lost interest in the world of European-esque fantasy a long time ago. For this work to engage me as it did, speaks volumes. 

As with my last review, I didn't want to talk about every story, but that isn't to say the stories are bad. If you are a connoisseur of Sword and Sorcery fiction, you will find a lot to like in this volume. The adventurer in me wishes he would see more of that "earthier" kind of fantasy that can be found in Conan the Cimmerian, as opposed to the trippy, metaphysical side, but he also understands the allure. 

I can't end this without mentioning the friggin' awesome cover artwork by Rick McCollum. It's like Conan meets John Carpenter's The Thing. Creepy. Cool. Beautifully detailed. Kudos!

Check out WHETSTONE for FREE here:


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Indie spotlight review: Shark Eater by K.D. McNiven

If I were forced to describe this book in one word, it would be "Nice". Nice people doing nice things in a nice way, all told in a voice like that of a kindly grandmother telling her grandchildren a story. The small stakes make this a refreshing read, as you are allowed a reprieve from international incidents and global catastrophe that so often show up in adventure thrillers. 

The action is extremely well thought out and precise, even if, as a reader, I never felt the characters were really in danger of being killed. In fact, the only principal character death happens off-screen and in a remote way. Far from hurting the narrative, it allowed other characters to have to wrestle with the feelings left in the wake of tragedy, though it would have been nice to explore those feelings just a tiny bit longer. Everyone in this book was so friendly and expressive toward one another it was almost too nice, and the dialogue suffered from “Nobody talks like that” syndrome. But, the book clipped along so smartly, with TONS of good action sequences. It was a total shame to have to step away from this world and it's characters. I would definitely recommend this to younger readers who could possibly get bored by the heavy amounts of research and talking heads present in other books of this genre. Also, younger female readers will have plenty here to look up to in the form of the several wonderful lady adventurers Ms. McNiven populates her story with. It’s got a lightning quick pace, an intimate setting, lots of fun maritime stuff, and a lack of the more smarmy or unsavory bits that make it into some of these adventure books. Great fun.

-Z.S. Reynolds

Note: Shark Eater the sequel to The Monkey Idol also by K. D. McNiven. It is followed by The Bermuda Conspiracy and Sheba's Treasure. She is also the author of the prehistoric thriller Bone Quarry and the crime thriller Blood Alley.

You can follow K. D. McNiven on Twitter at: @kady54033

Here is K. D.'s Amazon page:

Friday, September 25, 2020

Film Retrospective: As Above, So Below

I sit here in my quote/unquote office, looking out my window, and can clearly see the leaves of nearby cottonwood trees beginning to change from emerald to yellow. October is a mere five days away, but my mind has already turned to full Autumn. I have been drinking hot tea, smiling in the chill morning air, and have already prepped my copy of Manly Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil? for its annual read. I wish I could place a finger on just what it is that makes Fall the season for all things "spooky". It isn't just that Halloween happens there, it isn't just the pumpkin spice, or costume stores resurrecting dead outlet malls like some kind of consumer driven zombies. Maybe its the process of the world dying all round me, or the waning light that allows nighttime to encroach further and further into day, or maybe it's the harvest, or the myriad forgotten pagan rites that were once held in the light of ancient fires and the shadows of stone monoliths. Whatever it is that makes this season a time for ghosts and scary stories told in the dark, it is a season I genuinely look forward to all year. 

Can teacher's get Autumn off instead? 

My first real love in the world of fiction was horror. In an age where my friends had just wrapped their hands about first edition prints of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I was reading H. P. Lovecraft. Specifically, I had a collection called Waking Up Screaming, that I absolutely adored. I can still remember the cover; black, as you might expect, with an eerie green skull staring out at you. The story that really got me hooked on Lovecraft wasn't Call of Cthulhu or At the Mountains of Madness, but one that seems less highly regarded and has no mythos connection. The story I love the most was titled The Lurking Fear, and dealt with an abandoned house and the inbred family of mole people that lived beneath it. The ending still sticks with me despite not having read it in years, and I am sure I was drawn to it because the setting. That dilapidated manor was something familiar to me as houses very similar loomed in the corner of nearly every Nebraska cornfield. 

Now, here I am, firmly an Adventure/Thriller author that hasn't written true horror in over a decade, but my love of that genre has never really gone away. In fact, I do my best to add elements of horror throughout my own adventure tales. Not just because I love horror, but because it fits into the Adventure genre so well. There is the seed of an article there, but I am venturing off the beaten path, so to speak. What does all this have to do with a Shaky-Cam horror movie with a pretty rotten Tomato Meter? 

Follow me down the rabbit hole, and I'll show you. 

My entire premise here is that the eponymous title, As Above, So Below, is not just a mediocre horror film, but a unique entry into adventure film, albeit steeped in horror. When looking at it from that perspective, you will find a much more interesting film, at least in my opinion. This is an older film from the Golden Age of 2014, so I'm not going to avoid spoilers. This will probably have a ton of them. You have been warned, there are SPOILERS from here on out. 

The movie opens up with the main character, Scarlett Marlow, illegally entering a cave system in Iran, seeking a historical artifact known as the "Rose Key". You see, Scarlett is an accomplished young professor of archeology, polyglot, and researcher in the field of Philosophy. She is following in the footsteps of her dead father, picking up his search for the fabled Philosopher's Stone. 

And there it is folks. 

The plot of an Adventure. 

Archeologist: Check.

Ancient Artifact: Check

Historical Mystery: Check

Then BOOM! Some terrorists blow the crap out of the cave. Scarlett narrowly escapes with the "key", but not before she sees a mysterious man calling out to her from within. 

Was that her father??

Seriously, if you aren't getting Lara Croft vibes, you should be. 

For anyone who isn't familiar with the artifact in question, the Philosopher's stone was supposedly an alchemical substance that could change metals into silver and gold, and also bring eternal life. The exact formula was supposedly discovered by French monk, Nicholas Flamel in the 17th Century. 

So far, what we have here, is the set up to a classic adventure where the protagonist travels to exotic, mysterious locales, solving riddles and following in the footsteps of history. I would not be surprised if this movie contained gun-fights with terrorists and rival treasure hunters, but this is not that kind of Adventure. 

We pick up a year or so later, and Scarlett has sought out her ex-boyfriend, a church historian and expert in Aramaic. With his help, they are able to decipher the text found on the Rose Key, discovering a cryptic message that indicates their holy grail lies 370 meters below the streets of Paris, France, hidden within the famous catacomb system. Together, they recruit a team of "Urban Explorers" that will aid them in their trespassing into the forgotten tunnels far beyond the eyes of tourists. 

We have a couple other aspects of Adventure Fiction here: exploration and wilderness. Exploration is a simple concept to understand. We have our team of characters boldly going forth into the unknown. The "wilderness" though, is a more interesting idea here. This film relies a lot on the myth of the "Urban Wilderness", areas of the urban landscape that have been cut off and forgotten by the rest of society. A lot of horror movies and media rely on this idea, of wrapping the unfamiliar and dangerous in a skin of the familiar. And it's not like this myth isn't based in reality. There are numerous places around the world where abandoned industrial areas exist beneath the city streets. Instead of using a desert, mountain crags, or a jungle as the setting, this film opts to place its adventurers into an alien underworld right below our feet. 

The cast of characters move through these hazardous tunnels, solving riddles and following clues, until eventually they reach the heart of the catacombs and find a hoard of treasure, alongside the sarcophagus of a Templar Knight. Nearby is a door, emblazoned with the Philosophers Stone, the Gnostic Star of David, as well as the phrase "Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here" in Greek. This is a well known as the message that marks the entrance to Hell in Dante's Inferno. Having been cut off from the tunnel entrance, the explorer's only option is to move deeper into "Hell" and find another way out.  

From this point on, the film takes a dive into the supernatural and ramps up its horror aspects as the remaining members of the teams travel through a dark reflection of the catacombs they had originally traveled through. This is where the movie gets it's title. The Star of David on the door was a representation of the Gnostic belief in "As Above, So Below". This is a concept used to different ends in the modern classic Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. The idea is lifted from Hermeticism, Sacred Geometry, alchemical philosophies, and medieval occult practices. 

Again, we see a list of tropes not unfamiliar to the Adventure aficionado. 

As a horror fan, I love when everybody in the film gets killed off. Normally, horror protagonists are put up against forces they have no chance of overcoming, and when they all end up dead in only re-enforces that horror for me, instilling the idea that we are lost a in a dangerous sea of stars. That being said, Scarlett and her ex don't die here. Because at its heart, this is not a horror film. Does it have scares? Yes. There is even a decent attempt at the feelings of claustrophobia and dread, though not as good as Descent. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, this film is an Adventure movie wrapped in horror dressings. Nothing hammers this home to me more than Scarlett's final line. 

After escaping the confines of Hell, they emerge through a hole in the floor that actually ends up leading back to the streets of Paris. Before the credits roll, Scarlett tells us that her "Mission is to find the Truth."

In my post, The Art of Zazz, I mention that the search for "Truth"is something I find key to a good adventure. That is the essence of what drives Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake, and Lara Croft. That undying need for humanity to find some semblance of explanation for humanity's place in a far grander scheme. 

So, is this movie any good?

Yeah. I think it's quite enjoyable. Perhaps not as a horror film, but as an adventure film it does have a very intriguing premise. Like all the films in the Found Footage genre, this one suffers from that annoying shaky camera, but surprisingly, it wasn't as bad as other entries. Especially Cloverfield. Loved J. J.'s idea, but that movie literally made me nauseous. I don't think this movie is any worse than any other in this particular catalogue. I do think it shines more brilliantly when you look at it as an Adventure as opposed to a Horror piece. 

I hope this piqued your interest some. This will be the first in a handful of Horror themed posts throughout the month of October. Let me know what you think! We'd love to hear from you. 

Oh! And Submissions are still open!

L. D. Whitney


Monday, September 21, 2020

Archetype Exploration: The "Wildman"

Confession: I love character archetypes. I love the "Gunslinger". I love the "Dashing Rogue". Hell, I even love the "Great White Hunter". However, my most favorite is the "Wild-man". Characters that are products of nature and wilderness as opposed to civilization's refinements. I aim to explore that here. 

The concept of humans spending their formative years in the presence of wild animals is nothing new. Some of the most iconic (?), universal (?) figures in ancient mythology suckled at the proverbial teat of wild things. For example, Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers that would go on to found the Roman Empire claimed their mother as a She-wolf. In Mongolian myth, the hero Jangar, is taught various skills by a Tiger, Eagle, Antelope, Wolves, and Deer. The Greek Demi-Goddess, Atalanta, was abandoned by her father and adopted by a bear. In American folk-lore, Pecos Bill is fostered by Coyotes. My favorite of the lot, however, has to Enkidu, the barbarian warrior and best friend (maybe lover?) of Gilgamesh the King. Enkidu is born to a family of unnamed beasts before eventually being led into conflict with the King of Mesopotamia. Of course, there are many more examples in myth, especially throughout Cletic and Medieval European folklore. There is no doubt in my mind that these folkloric tales and myth cycles became the inspiration for many of, if not all, the fictional characters that eventually culminated in the figure head of the archetype, the one and only, Tarzan.

Tarzan was not the first of his kind to appear in the pages of fiction, being preceded by Albert Rabida's Saturnin Farandoul in 1879, and Ruyard Kipling's Mowgli in 1894. Both of these characters are raised among wild animals in the untamed wilderness and grow up to have their own adventures in the larger world. The character of Farandoul is, in my opinion, more like Tarzan in that he goes on wild adventures that involve pirates, cannibals, mummies, and even aliens, although the character's true influence Burrough's creation is speculative. Mowgli, the main character of the The Jungle Book, however, is noted as a major influence in the creation of Tarzan. Regardless of who came first, it is easy to say that Tarzan is the most iconic and everlasting of the bunch.

The story of Tarzan is a simple one, with an origin so well known, it is barely worth telling. The critical reception of the character's exploits, especially the latter novels, is interesting, especially when compared to the enduring recognizability (if not popularity) of the character. Through the two dozen original tales penned by Burroughs we see Tarzan (aka John Clayton aka Lord Greystoke) travel through Europe, Africa, Jungles, Deserts, Lost Cities, and beneath the Earth's crust. He meets all manner of people, from a diminutive tribe of Pygmies, forgotten Romans, to devolved Ape-things, and even Dinosaurs. Tarzan has appeared in all kinds of media, from novels, fiction written by other authors, television, radio, comics and film. Unsurprisingly, every iteration has it's own unique sensibilities due to the time and place of the particular creations. Despite these myriad differences, many simultaneously and contradictorily bemoaned by the various fandoms centered around each creation, the core of Tarzan as an archetypal adventurer remains intact. 

When thinking of Tarzan as a character template, an RPG class if you will, we begin with an individual that has been separated from civilization. In Tarzan's case, this is jolly old England. During his separation, he learns various skills and ways of life from the beasts that he grows up beside. In the case of Tarzan, these manifest as all the things you would expect from being raised by fictional apes; he can climb with trees, communicate with various animal species, he is strong, nearly inhumanly so, and his physical features (especially his hands) have become malformed from living life as an "ape". After all of our pieces have fallen into place, this character now uses his skills in feats of daring, danger, and heroics. 

In many ways, the "natural vitality" of the Wild-Man seems a progenitor, or at least influence on, the blood that runs through the fantasy "Barbarian" archetype. What we have in Tarzan and his ilk, is a hero/heroine more in-tune with the their wild side, not unlike Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian. In fact, while REH only mentioned Edgar Rice Burroughs in a single letter, his library was full of ERB creations. The concept behind this seems to be a contrast between what man "is", and what it "used to be". Tarzan, while wholly human, grew up an animal, in a more "natural state" than other products of civilization. While ERB himself draws many comparison between the contrasting states of mankind, I believe this culminates in Howard's "Barbarism vs Civilization" philosophy. 

Conversely, the same characteristics that make Tarzan and Conan heroes, exemplars in a savage world, makes them outsiders nearly everywhere else. Tarzan, though born to English nobility, is not necessarily welcome in High Society. This culminates in his return to Africa with Jane and son. Conan too is seen as an outsider in a world rife with burgeoning civilization. Jane Porter, the eternal love interest of Tarzan, fears that their son, Jack, will be drawn to a life like his father, outside the trapping of modern civilization. This flip-side of the bull-strength, panther-like grace, tiger ferocity, makes for compelling interactions with the rest of the world. Does this character belong with humans? What of their bestial/barbaric family? Is there a place in society for such a creation of happenstance? 

In recent years, I have seen what I deem to be a new spin on the "Wild-man", specifically within the realm of video games. Two pieces of media stand out to me in particular. The first is Far Cry 3 by Ubisoft, and the second is the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. In all actuality, I could understand the argument that these represent a different archetype, but at their heart I believe they are firmly rooted within the Tarzan family. 

The first, Far Cry 3, is set on a tropical archipelago teeming with wildlife and vicious pirates. The protagonist, Jason Brody, is the nothing more than a spoiled rich kid surrounded by his rich kid friends. Essentially, the same kind of elite to which Tarzan was born in to. When things go south, Jason is left to "learn the ways of the jungle", save his friends, and escape the island. To do that, he masters skills taught to him by resistance fighters, CIA operatives, and the island's reclusive native warriors. By the end of his quest, Jason is no longer recognizable by the very people he once loved. He has essentially transitioned from a spoiled brat, to a Tarzan-esque killing machine, ultimately facing ostracization from the world to which he once belonged. In the end, the player is given a choice. They can either leave on a salvaged boat and attempt a normal life, or forsake everything they once knew. 

Following a similar path, the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider set out create a new Lara Croft; one shaped by her ability to survive strange environments and impossible odds. Again, we see our character born with a silver spoon in hand, Lara being the daughter of a wealthy Englishman. After her father goes dies, she sets out to prove herself and her archeological prowess by accompanying a crew of adventurers on an expedition into the Dragon's Triangle. Bad weather rips apart her ship, and Lara finds herself stranded in the Japanese Bermuda Triangle analogue, Yamatai. Throughout her adventure, Lara is molded by harrowing encounters with wolves, insane cultists, inbred samurai, and an undead princess. Whether it's shooting arrows, creating makeshift weapons, climbing and jumping from tree to crag, or solving ancient riddles, her skills are developed through the trials of the island. All the while, she too becomes an obsessive killing machine hardly comparable to her past self. This all culminates in the third (and best) installment, "Shadow of the Tomb Raider", where Lara has essentially become the Predator. 

While not one-to-one comparisons, the key notes of Tarzan still ring true in these examples. Our main character finds themselves in a stranger, wilder place, where they must adapt, or die. Perhaps not literally raised by animals, the settings into which they are thrust act as the beast. Upon choosing to live, to transform, they find themselves living a new life outside of their old reality. I too have played in this sandbox, twice actually, most recently in the main character of my first novel (Remnant due out in December and published by Primal Press!). I'm sure my fascination with this archetype stems from my love of Conan, who I obviously couldn't help but name drop, but also my love of the wild places that crafted Tarzan. You see, I used to be the kid that stayed inside and played video games. I was that teenager that would rather be somewhere virtual than someplace natural. But, as I slowly grew older, I found many things in nature that I once sought elsewhere, specifically, I found a sense of adventure. Climbing rocks gave me confidence, seeing natural wonders brought me curiosity, watching animals in their habitat brought me peace. Nature and the natural world had molded me, slowly, into a new person, the person I am today. Maybe not Tarzan, far from it, but someone new. I was alive. And there it is. Perhaps that is the most enduring aspect of the Wild-man, that, given the proper scenario, we too could find the King/Queen of the Jungle inside ourselves. 

What do you love about the "Wild-man" archetype? Did I get something wrong? Let's discuss, I'd love to hear from you!

- L. D. Whitney

Tarzan and the Antmen, Frank Frazetta


Review: “The Alexander Cipher” by Will Adams

There is a lot to like here for fans of the genre; it’s got ancient secrets, historical mysteries, fabulous treasure, acts of courage and hairsbreadth escapes.  But there is something a little bit off about this book, and I can’t decide if it hinders the book or makes it innovative in some way. In the acknowledgments, the author states that this book was a work of ten years’ passion and dedication, and this is clearly evident with the amount of meticulous research and historical information on display. Where this falls short however, is that at points the book feels more like a history lesson with a tacked on narrative than a ripping adventure with historical mysteries, seeming like a paper on Ptolemaic Alexandria with some people doing some things just thrown in.

“Some people” is a perfect way to describe the characters in this book, who the author tries desperately to get us to care for with pretty flimsy and transparent emotion bait that feels like RPG  backstory thrown on a character sheet to give at least some weight to the relationships therein. None of the characters feel like they do much, which is a problem in a genre that is built on pulpy tropes of good and evil. Daniel Knox, whom later books are eponymously associated with never seems to act heroic, rather he is acted upon and seems like a passenger borne along by the actions of others.  This calls into question whether the other books bearing his name will include him learning new skills, and improving as a heroic character which is a very interesting thing to do, though in this tale he falls a bit flat. With every hero comes a villain, and the principle  villain in this book doesn’t actually do anything villainous, merely acts with singular drive toward his goal (which is debatably a noble one) with no regard as to its effects, which ultimately lends a nice air of realism to the book. The secondary villain is definitively a scum bag that ends up not being stopped; in fact he ends up coming out the other side with even greater power and influence, adding realism to the book, because as we all know villains are never actually stopped in real life, they just accrue more power and influence after they escape justice. 

This book was published in 2007, though some of the social attitudes feel a bit older, with the women either being rescue bait or  coded as volatile and mean simply because they are career focused and driven toward their goals. There is also a tiny bit of completely needless homophobia in here as well, though I think it was inserted to give a character a bit of depth, though it just felt gross and dumb rather than any type of deep characterization. What was pleasant to see however, was the way the Muslim characters were handled. Because the book takes place entirely in northern Egypt, several principle characters were Muslim, and the author avoided treading on precarious ground quite well, never having characters dip into stereotypes or uttering buzzwords or catchphrases that made them feel like bad pantomime. 

The singular greatest strength of this novel lies in its absolutely breakneck pacing. Three main story threads are snap cut from one to the next in such a well executed way as to leave you with a cliffhanger on nearly every other page, driving you to hustle on through the story to see what happens next. 

I can’t decide if this was a novel of high adventure that just missed the mark or a clever piece of genre subversion that just missed the mark. I would definitely recommend it to someone looking for more grounded adventure, as it has zero elements of the fantastic or weird. No wild ancient technology, no ancient curses, no secret societies desperate to conceal ancient secrets; just people caught up in a treasure hunt. A very fun read, if not excellent or wildly exciting.

-Z.S. Reynolds-










Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Crafting Adventure: The Art of Zazz

Before I start out here, I have to be up front. I am not an expert. I am not a massively successful writer of New York Times Best Sellers. I have a single short novel published by an Indie Press, and half a dozen short stories that have been accepted and are floating around out there. What I can claim, is to be a connoisseur of what I call "Adventure Fiction". This post is really meant to benefit not just you, the readers, but also me since it is little more than a brainstorming exercise.  Now that my confession is out of the way, let us begin. 

Trying to curate and publish a collection of short stories is a new undertaking for me, and while we are only beginning this process, I have already learned a ton. 

We have received a decent amount of submissions so far. Quite a few of them good stories, to boot. The issue though, is that they aren't what I would call adventure, they don't scratch the itch, or have that "zazz" as my partner is crime would put it. 

So how does one achieve said "zazz"?

Good question. 

To be perfectly honest it requires a fairly precise mix of just the right ingredients in order to create the ideal concoction. 

But, before I get ahead of myself, I have to clarify something. I totally understand that Adventure means different things to different people. I acknowledge that there is adventure to be found within the realm of full on fantasy, and unabashed sci fi. That's not the kind of adventure I'm talking about. I would say the difference is that those examples are "fantasy and sci fi first", with adventure being secondary. I'm speaking specifically on a role-reversal that put adventure first and foremost. For my following discussion, I am going to rely on a formula that every adventure writer (and nerd) should be familiar with: Indiana Jones. 


Let's forge some zazz!

1. Setting

I know that a lot of people are going to be surprised by this, but I really think setting is the first and foremost ingredient for a good adventure. Let's think about the most iconic and memorable "adventure" media from the last century or so. Indiana Jones (of course), Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt. What do they all have in common? They use a real world setting, anchored in time and place, where mystery, maybe even the supernatural, lurks just below the surface. In the case of Indy, he exists in a world very much like our own. In every way, except a few key details, his world is wrapped up in all the trappings of what we would see had we too been living during the 1940's and 50's. The "zazz" we are talking about shines because of these familiar and relatable trappings. When the Ark is opened, revealing it's true nature, that is a moment of awe and wonder. We are forced to question and reconcile our reality and how this new information fits into it. Which is the same thing Indy is doing in that exact moment. In a fantasy world, or a high tech universe, this sense of awe and wonder is diminished because the very world is filled with wonder when compared to ours. It is the juxtaposition with the mundane that sets the wonder apart. 

2. Characters

I am unabashedly not a character guy. That's not to say I don't understand what makes characters good and bad, or that I don't try and write good characters. I do try. But that is not the reason I read or write. I read specifically to go on that eponymous adventure. That being said, of course the character/s play a role in that, but maybe not in a way that you would expect. When one goes on an adventure, whether it is real world hiking or travel, or the fictional quest for the holy grail, there is an element of danger. That danger needs to be conveyed through the characters we are following on the journey. When we watch Indy scramble across the top of tanks, or react to spreading flames, we understand that he is human. These hurt and are a danger to him. The reader needs to see (and ideally feel) every punch, kick, fall, and bullet graze. Feel that adrenaline pumping? That's the zazz talking. Now that our hero or heroine has fallen from the pan into the fire, do they give up? No! That would be lame! No matter the situation that they are faced with, our characters rise to the challenge, if only to find what new danger dwells on the horizon.

3. Action

So we already talked about our characters reacting to, and overcoming danger. What left is there to talk about in regards to action? THAT IT NEEDS TO EXIST! Is the plot slowing to a crawl? GUNFIGHT! Is there no way out of your vital historical information dump? CHASE SCENE! How do you solve your problems when all intellect, reason, and logic fail? PUNCH SOMETHING! I am aware that there exists the literary idea of the "cozy" adventure, where problems are not solved with violence and no real danger is present. I reject that idea and push it into a pit of spikes! In my mind there are essentially four kinds of action: running, jumping, climbing and fighting. A good adventure should have at least two of them, because fighting is always necessary. The best thing about these categories is that they are extremely versatile. Swimming? That's running in water. Car chase? That's running on wheels! See? Easy peasey. On the topic of fighting, that is not to say your character has to be a mass-murdering psychopath. MacGuyver and Doc Savage are known for non-life threatening resolution. Indy himself has a fairly low body count, often resorting to fists, and whip. Creative resolutions to violence are always welcome, and a character that doesn't kill everyone he meets makes them easier to relate to. 

ProTip: To ensure maximum zazz, use all four categories. 

4. Balance

This, I think, is the hardest but most key thing to achieve in a good adventure. This ties a lot into the setting and what I said there, but you need need need to strike the right mixture of wonder, weird, and mundane. Indiana Jones is always faced with something out of this world, whether supernaturally so, or literally. The caveat is that it comes in small doses and doesn't hit full force till the climax of the episode. We may get small hints of weirdness throughout the journey, but the true nature of the universe isn't revealed till we reach our peak's zenith. This weirdness can come in all sorts of forms, from strange creatures like Sasquatch, Nessie, and El Chupacabra, it can come in the form of strange weird created by man with just the right application of pressure to bend fact, or the straight up supernatural and divine. This is not a 100% necessary ingredient, I admit, but there is something about these kinds of additions that push an adventure into a more elevated category. Maybe it is the human desire to discover, to explain? Our craving for answers to the unknown? Why am I asking these questions? Of course that's it. Much of our drive, our call to adventure, so to speak, is because humans have an innate curiosity and desire to see what lies beyond the next horizon. There lies the zazz at the heart of all of this. 

Of course there are many more things that go into a really good adventure, and a good adventure doesn't necessarily need some of these items either. Conspiracies, both modern and historical, are common. Exotic locales and interesting people are almost always a must. I would argue that a treasure, like those Indy searches for, are not a necessity. Or maybe your treasure takes on another aspect. A war journalist on the heels of a war criminal, looking for just the perfect shot to expose the bastard. That's an adventure. Finding your way down from an isolated mountain top after an avalanche while being pursued by a clouded leopard. That's an adventure too. It is not necessary to have a treasure at the proverbial X, or a J.J. Abrams style McGuffin at the center of your plot. The best example of Adventure sans treasure that I can think of, would be the El Borak stories by none other than Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Cimmerian. Set in the days before WWII, a Texas Gunfighter lives and fights his way across untamed Afghanistan, helping friends and toppling foes. Good, rollicking stuff. Check it out; there is an amazing collection published by Del Rey. 

Phew, that was a lot of brain power put into this. And you know what? If you didn't learn anything, I sure did. Do you think I missed anything? Am I wrong? Let's discuss! We love to hear from you!

-L. D. Whitney

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Monday, September 14, 2020

Review: "Hell's Gate" by Bill Schutt and J. R. Finch

This is a tough one for me. I really want to like this book. It's not that I don't like it, but I want to like it more than I do. On paper, hell, on the back cover, it has all the ingredients that would make it a top notch read for me. It has glowing blurbs by Clive Cussler and James Rollins, with additional praise from James Cameron. That's a lot of hype for someone like me. And you know what? Maybe that's it. Maybe it was hyped too much for me. 

But let's take a look-see, shall we?

Ostensibly, this book is about a zoologist-turned-adventurer that is tasked by the U.S. military to seek out intel on shady Nazi goings on deep in the Amazon. The Nazis and all their ne'er-do-well have awoken something better left forgotten by the world. 


Sure sounds like it.

Temper that excitement though.

The protagonist, R. J. MacCready, is a rough and tumble zoologist that may or may not have inherited schizophrenia from his mother (at least I think that is what was being eluded to). He has a background in the military and isn't afraid to throw a punch, pull a trigger, or blow some stuff up. But unfortunately, there wasn't a ton of that. I always enjoy a protagonist with a science background. It allows for a lot of that good scientific detail to flow from the characters naturally as opposed to an omniscient narrator dumping exposition. I also enjoy the trope of a brainy guy/gal doing some butt kicking. I think what is most endearing though, is the 1940's slag that is bantered about between MacCready and friends. 

The other two main supporting characters on the good guy side are Mac's friend Bob, a shroom eating botanist gone native, and his wife Yanni, a beautiful and adaptable indigenous woman with a unique gift. Bob and his friendship with Mac is believable, and the historically accurate issues that led Bob to leaving civilization in the rear-view add a lot to his character. Yanni should be more awesome than she is though. I love the idea of an indigenous character, and there is a lot about her that is eluded to, but I never felt like she had that much to do. Her special ability doesn't even really come into play until the (long) epilogue that is clear set up for a sequel. 

The Nazis/Japanese have a a large cast of characters, but almost too many for me. There is the evil General Wolff, who is evil. The evil Japanese scientist who is also evil. A rocket scientist that is evil. A conflicted rocket scientist that is not evil, but works for the Nazis so he can go to space. And to round it out, a female Nazi pilot who is evil. The most compelling fictional character in this lot is the conflicted rocket scientist who gives the reader an interesting perspective on the state of science in that time period. There is also a lot of time devoted to him, a bit too much. The evil rocket scientist and evil woman pilot were actual people, people that ended up having a lot of impact on various parts of history post WW II. Unfortunately, none of that really plays into the story. I would have almost preferred fictional characters as opposed to historical personages that kind of move in and out fiction without any real gravity. 

Oh. There is a Nazi captain that is also evil. 

The real draw here for me, other than the glowing praise by some of my favorites, was the creatures. There are some interesting ideas in here, ones that I really love. Even some truly horrifying bits. But there's the rub. They only remain bits. I am not sure if it was the author's plan to subvert expectations, but mine were definitely subverted, just not in a good way. The best scene involving creatures doesn't even focus on the main species that is key to all of this mess. There is a lot ton of good speculation and bending of scientific fact that goes on in this book. The naturally occuring "monsters" were genuinely well done and could be quite creepy. However, when I read "Will haunt you long after you put the book down." as quoted by James Cameron, I have to disagree. I am not haunted. I want desperately to be haunted. I wish I was and was sooooo close to being haunted, but it just never came to fruition. 

Haunt me, damn it!

Ultimately, I think this book suffered from a pacing issue. There were times when the action was ramped up to a 10, but only for like two seconds and then it was a 1 again. There were large spaces of this "adventure" that were dedicated to the sad backstories or relationships of people that just never resonated with me. Worst of all was the choppy and disjointed epilogue that went on far too long. I got it. I understood its purpose. But it wasn't satisfying to me. I really appreciate the later Marvel movies that understood it was bad to end a movie just to set up a sequel. That's what happened here. It wasn't a cliffhanger sort of thing, but a lot of pages throughout the book seemed solely dedicated to setting up a sequel. Of which there are currently two, I believe. 

Now, can I recommend this book?

Yes. I can. 

Especially if you need to take a break from Cussler or Rollins because their formula is growing stale. 

Will I read the sequels? 

For sure. 

There are some really interesting ideas present in this book, and MacCready partnered with Yanni have a lot of potential for cool things. I want to see them grow and I want to see what trouble they will stir up. 

I have high hopes for the next titles, but I have learned to temper my hopes some. I am not usually one to fall prey to the hype machine, and this book has reminded me why one should always be wary of marketing.

- L. D. Whitney 

Did I miss anything? Maybe my perspective is askew? Maybe you just want to talk about this book? Leave a comment!

Review: WHETSTONE #2

I will readily admit that WHETSTONE magazine got me started on the path to CLIFFHANGER. In my career as both a reader and a writer, I have a...