Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The PulpRev Sampler Review [SPONSORED]

All right, so, first things first. This is, as it says in the title of the post, a sponsored review. I was not involved in the production of this anthology in any way, shape, or form, other than cheering from the sidelines. I was approached by one of the writers, who cleared this with the others, nearly all of which I know and communicate with on some personal level, and I was paid the fee I mention in the podcast ($20 for a month of advertising), and then I went and bought a copy of the book so that I wouldn't be lying when I made remarks as to the quality. Of course, I had total faith from the beginning that this would be the best damn anthology to come out of 2017, but I wanted to be sure before I ran my mouth off and got bit for it. So now that you know that they paid me not only for advertising on the blog, the podcast, and social media, as well as to write this post, you can decide for yourself how seriously to take this review. The review is going to be glowing, can't be helped, but I am attempting to remain as objective as possible on a subjective matter, and not let the cash I was paid color my opinion. If there were shitty stories in this, I'd let you know. But, again, how seriously you want to take that opinion is your decision.

Disclosure achieved, let's get into the review.

This is, in my opinion, the best damn anthology to come out of 2017. 

No, seriously. I know it sounds like I'm heaping praise because I'm being paid to heap praise, but I was paid for an honest opinion (and to advertise the work regardless of that opinion), and that's what I'm doing. The ads go on the social media, podcast, and blog. The opinion goes here. Guys.

This shit is really, really good.

There is not a single story in this anthology that isn't original, entertaining, weird, and downright fun to read. These stories, all of them that I read, are absolutely riveting. Now, I say, "all of them that I read," because two stories, the ones by Jon Del Arroz and David J. West, are excerpts from their novels For Steam And Country and Walking Through Walls respectively. These novels I want to read in their entirety, and so I skipped the stories. But I'm certain that if you choose to read them you will not be disappointed. I skipped them personally because, as they say, spoilers. There was also an excerpt by John C. Wright that I did read, and didn't realize it was part of a larger thing until he started using a lot of jargon that I just did not understand, so I guess now I have to pick up the rest of that series.

Anyway, back to the ones I did read. Most of these stories are fairly short (the entire anthology is only about 146 or so pages), and as such they're very action packed. Lots of them involve fighting of some kind, a couple involve romance, all of them are fun.

So this anthology opens up with The Knights of Aos Si, by N. A. Roberts. Knights is a very tight story about a duel between some elven knights and some witch knights. It's a straight up fight, with little sandwiching the fight itself. This story feels like a complete tale unto itself, as the fight only happens once every hundred years or so, and not much of a picture of the world outside the fight itself is given. For what it's worth, the elves in this story feel more Dunsanian than Tolkienesque, which was a very refreshing change up from the incredibly vast majority of modern fantasy. There's just enough there to whet your appetite, and leave you wanting more. Which, honestly, is true of all the stories in this anthology.

Next there is The Ghost Fist Gambit by Bradford Walker. This is a very impressive story about a battle between two space navies, whose commanders are rivals. There is a feint, a boarding action, a laser sword fight, and a victory, but I won't tell you who wins. It's well written, the action doesn't let up for a second, and I want to personally thank Bradford for stealing back laser swords from Star Wars. Somebody had to do it first, and it might as well be the PulpRev. Bradford's action flows like a raging river, pulling you along in a Flash Gordon-esque space opera (minus one exploding planet. Next time, Bradford) reminiscent of Star Wars but infinitely more interesting. At least to a jaded old fuck like me. 

After this there is Primitive Life Forms by Julie Frost. This was the first story that threw me for a loop. It begins with a man who is far too complacent about being infected (sexually) with lycanthropy. He's just kind of accepted it by the time the story starts, which is fine, but he seems a little too easygoing for someone who turns into an eight foot tall, razor clawed and fanged, damned near immortal killing machine. And then he gets abducted by aliens. You can see why I was thrown right about here. The aliens then proceed to regret abducting this particular human, very quickly. This story started as a standard werewolf story and then took a sharp left turn into fucking crazytown when the aliens showed up, and it's right about here that you realize that this isn't your usual sci-fi/fantasy anthology. 

The Plowshare's Lament is the next story, by Jesse Abraham Lucas. This was one of the more inventive or outside-the-box stories, as it's not about people, but sentient magical weapons. They live for centuries, change hands, see the rise and fall of kingdoms, and come to an ignoble end. I have to applaud Jesse's creativity here, because this is not a story that would've occurred to someone like me to even entertain the idea of writing, and it was an interesting take on a classic fantasy concept that I personally haven't seen done before.

Yes, we're going through all of them, because I need you to understand precisely how awesome and different all of these stories are.

Herald of the Dead by Todd Everhart is next. This story is more of a prologue to a fantasy novel in feel, as it deals with the invasion of a village by an undead army from underground. One teenage boy escapes, and runs to warn the king that his kingdom is in danger. As I say, it feels more like a traditional fantasy story, but the way Todd handles it makes it immediately engaging, and as with most of these stories, it ended too soon and I wanted more.

Silence in the Cell Block by T. T. Arkansas is an incredibly weird story that accurately captures the ethos of "weird fiction." It would've been right at home in the pages of Weird Tales right alongside Lovecraft and Howard. It's the tale of an innocent man imprisoned, who dies in his prison cell and meets a creature that's described like Nito from Dark Souls but in reality just wants some company. There is danger in the hereafter, but there is also hope of peace, however distant. This story is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and not a lot gets properly explained with expository dialogue or prose, which is precisely how I like it. It keeps one guessing, and there is fodder enough here to keep fan theorists busy for several months at least.

The King's Portion by David Skinner is the tale of a ruler in exile, fleeing the userper's hordes, who is dragged from a hopeless fight by his servant and into a demon-haunted wood to speak with a terrifying forest spirit. It seems, though, that even deadly demons respect royalty. This was, once again, very competently written, and highly enjoyable. It's a take on the king-in-exile trope that I haven't personally seen done before, and makes a point of how human nobility, arrogance, and a touch of hubris can help you live to fight another day, if not outright win the war. 

Excerpt: Assassin in Everest by John C. Wright is the one I was too stupid to realize was part of something larger till about halfway through the story. This story features a technologically advanced group of people called "The Lords of Creation" with tech that is functionally indistinguishable from magic. One of them, Aeneas, is attacked in his room by an assassin with a similar level of technology. The entire story is a fight scene, and an incredibly entertaining one, at that. It really has to be read to be believed, but now I understand why Wright garners so much respect with regards to his fiction.

Into The Hands Of A Living God by Dominika Lein was another that threw me for a loop. It takes place in a fancy ballroom in space, with the humans in the room captivated by an alien creature. The story is told first-person, and our protagonist is infatuated with this creature as well, despite being no human. A man shows up to fight for her hand, but as the title says, what chance does he have against a living god? The tone of this one is remarkably consistent, and I loved the way it was written. It never once deviates from the first-person perspective, which is no mean feat in writing, and the reader knows precisely as much as the character relating events at the time those events happened. It also has far more bloodshed and monsters than your average ballroom, which is always a favorable thing.

Lucky Spider's Last Stand by JD Cowan is next, and this was one of my favorites. In a collection this good it's hard to pick a favorite, or a few favorites, but this is one of them for sure. It's the tale of a gangster who was his boss' right hand. The boss is dead, there's a legit, no-shit superhero who is immune to bullets called "A Crusader" (nice touch btw), and Lucky Spider has to fight this superhero with a healing factor in a god damned sword fight. This story read like an old-school Dark Horse comic, and I loved every line of it. Spider was sympathetic without having a tragic backstory, the Crusader was a kickass honor-at-all-costs hero presented more as a force of nature than a man, and the action was quick paced and very well detailed. You'll want to watch all the writers contributing to this anthology, but I'm going to be paying special attention to JD's career in the future, because hot damn can that boy spin a yarn.

Avatar of Pain by PR Marshall is an interesting tale that might be a little too out there for its own good. Don't get me wrong, it's a very good story. It's the tale of a warrior sent by the chieftain of a tribe to rescue his daughter from the cult of the god of suffering. Very cool stuff, and I liked the touches with the alcohol and the ax. It's essentially Conan on another world, and that, honestly is what lends to the overall busy-ness of this story. None of the characters are humans, and the various skin tones vary wildly, so it leads to a lot of description about the various players in the story that tends to weigh it down a bit in parts. However, this is not a critical flaw, just something I noticed while I was reading it. Very good story, awesome premise, a well told tale that I thoroughly enjoyed, as I enjoyed all the stories in this anthology.

The Red World Dies by Fenton Skeegs is another example of the diversity of ideas in this anthology. It's the tale of a barbarian warrior come into the ruin of the former civilization to kill a wizard, and they wind up banding together to escape the encroachment of faceless savages as the wizard goes on about the people of another planet whom the previous civilization modeled their...well, pretty much everything after. A very interesting concept, it had me riveted throughout, and left me wanting to know more about this. I hope that most of the stories in this anthology are continued in some fashion, because quite a few of them, this one included, sound like tales just begun.

Longman & Cobbledick (snrk) by David Godward was another of my favorites, because it played with a lot of ideas and had a good time doing it. It was obviously set in a kind of modern day, but the main character has had interactions with gods that let him bend reality a slight bit, and give him a bored, hard-boiled detective internal monologue that serves as the prose of most of the story. This was Longman. Cobbledick is a kind of magic-user, who's infiltrated a magic cult to rescue the son of a rich family, and he can hear Longman's internal monologue. This story was incredibly fun to read, had good amounts of action, a few twists and turns, and a couple of good funny surprises that got me to chuckle more than once. 

Danger On The Colony Ship by John Daker is a classic action story about a security officer on a ship that has been boarded by raiders determined to kill the civilians, and so he dons his armored boxing gloves and proceeds to beat some aliens to death. This was a lot of fun as well, and I liked the idea of honest-to-god fisticuffs against a multi-limbed alien monster that could end your life by putting one of its claws through your heart. If there was a problem with this story, it's that there were a few echoes near the beginning, meaning a word was used twice in the same sentence. The idea of the sentence was put across without an issue, but that's one of my personal bugbears in my own writing, and it's something I tend to notice easily when reading the work of others. Apart from that, this story stands proudly alongside the rest in this anthology, and the heroism of the main character was very inspiring. Particularly that little bit at the end, and if you go read it you'll know what I'm talking about. But again, spoilers.

Defiance by Jon Mollison is the last story in the group, and here's another one of my favorites, but I might be biased because I've read Jon's work before and I greatly enjoy it. He writes with a Robert E. Howard flair and attention to heroism and bravery in the face of seemingly unbeatable odds, and that is most certainly not lacking in this story. The King of Eternity, master of multiple universes faces down one defiant man who has vowed to kill him and free the multiverse from his tyranny. There's some good banter, high stakes, a gorgeous redhead (bonus points, btw), and no small amount of good old hack and slash action. It was definitely the right choice to end the anthology on, because I'm not sure much else could've topped it in my estimation, even the venerable John C. Wright's work. But then again, Jon and I come from the same school of writing, so I might be biased in that regard. 

I have to stress that there are no, zero, absolutely not a single damned low spot in this anthology. All of the stories fire on all cylinders, and it seemed to me that all the authors were trying to out-do one another in sheer gonzo levels of action, adventure, and wild ideas. Some succeeded more than others in my personal opinion.

As I said, I'm quite partial to the stories by Bradford Walker, Dominika Lein, Jon Mollison, JD Cowan, and David Godward. But this isn't meant to disparage or put on a lower tier the other writers. These people merely appealed to my sense of enjoyment in fiction more. This is without a doubt the craziest collection of short stories I've ever read in my life, and quite frankly they're undercharging by only asking one dollar American for the whole kit and caboodle. 

This anthology is worth what the big name publishers charge for their collections of garbage think pieces dressed up as science fiction and fantasy. It blurs the lines between action, adventure, horror, fantasy, and science fiction in the best spirit of the old pulps, and I'm currently trying to convince them to put it in print via Createspace so that I can bother friends, family, and strangers by breaking into their houses in the middle of the night and leaving a copy on their coffee tables. Whether or not that happens is up in the air at the moment, but we'll see.

Without doubt this is an anthology that you do not want to miss. It contains, and I speak from the heart and head with all the honesty I can muster in my being, stories by the absolute best of the best up and coming authors writing in the field of speculative fiction. Some of these stories are on the level of my personal deity Robert E. Howard, and the rest are at least as good as Fritz Leiber. 

These people set out on a mission, that being to prove that the PulpRev wasn't just bluster and hot air. That we were serious about this shit, and we meant what we said when we wanted to recapture the spirit of the pulps, not merely ape them for brand recognition or to tug on the heartstrings of those nostalgic for the days when scifi and fantasy didn't have to be ideologically motivated. To, in a phrase, make fiction fun again.

After reading the book, I can safely report that they have accomplished this goal in spades and then some. There's merely meeting a bar, then showing you're better than everybody else currently trying to meet that bar, and then there's The PulpRev Sampler. With the possible exception of Cirsova Magazine, this is the absolute best anthology to be published this year. Buy it, and tell your friends that fun fiction just came back in style.

Here's a link to the Amazon store page where you can get this landmark in the revival of SFF literature for one measly dollar.

I'm sure you've got a dollar to spare. Put it where it counts and get this anthology on your kindle or phone. I can guarantee that you will not in any wise regret it.

1 comment :

  1. Actually, "Assassin in Everest" was the *beginning* of that online novel (SUPERLUMINAL--it's on Mr. Wright's blog). The regular readers were as lost as you--he loves throwing you in at the deep end. His GOLDEN AGE trilogy is just as shameless that way.