The 2020 July Short Story Challenge – Day by Day

For starters, Smashwords is currently having its annual summer sale, where you can get plenty of e-books at reduced prices or for free, including several of mine.

Also Camestros Felapton is currently running his Hugo Fan Writer Finalist Week and had some nice things to say about me here.

In other news, blogging will be light this month, because I’m currently doing the July Short Story Challenge again.

What is the July Short Story Challenge, you ask? Well, in July 2015, Dean Wesley Smith announced that he was planning to write a brand new short story every day during the month of July. The original post seems to be gone now, but the Wayback Machine has a copy here. At the time, several people announced that they would play along, so I decided to give it a try as well. And then I did it again the following year. And the next. And the next. If you want to read my post-mortems of the previous July short story challenges, here are the posts for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Because I’ve already done the July short story challenge five years in a row now and always found the experience very rewarding, I’m aiming for a repeat this year. Though for now, I’m only committing to doing this for a week, which is already half over. If things are going well, I’ll keep going, though I’m not sure if I can do the entire July this year, because Worldcon is at the end of the month and that will eat up my time and attention.

In previous years, I’ve always done a post-mortem post about the July Short Story Challenge in August. Last year, I also started keeping a running tally of all stories written to date right here on this blog to hold myself accountable. It worked well and so I will do it again this year and will update this post for every new story. This tally will be very basic, listing just the date, title, word count, genre, series, if any, and maybe a one or two sentence summary/comment.

Most of these stories will become longer in editing. Many will eventually change their titles and some may never see the light of day at all.

If you want to follow along with the challenge, bookmark this post. And if you want to play along or cheer me on, feel free to do so in the comments.

And now, let’s take a look at the stories:

July 1, 2020: Recruitment, military science fiction, 4778 words

Craig Hammer is a frustrated military science fiction writer. One day, he sees an advertisement for the International Independent Military Science Fiction Writers Guild, IIMSFWG for short. He joins up and finds friends. But the Guild is not what it seems.

This one started out as a parody inspired by a discussion on Camestros Felapton’s blog about yet another would-be SFWA alternative. Eventually, it turned into a more serious science fiction story. There’s even a sweet romance in here.

July 2, 2020: Jamaica Jerk Chicken (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1178 words

The Culinary Assassin is a series of flash stories about an assassin who kills people in restaurant – after first sampling the food. I wrote the first one to practice my description writing skills and then they sort of piled up. I should really publish a collection of these some time, since I have quite a few of them by now.

In this story, the world’s only gourmet hitperson eats Caribbean food and shoots a drug dealer. Inspired by having jerk chicken for lunch.

July 3, 2020: The Hand from the Deep (Thurvok), sword and sorcery, 3923 words

Thurvok and his friends liberate a village that is beleaguered by a monster that lives at the bottom of a lake.

Inspired by a favoured hiking spot and a book about mythological creatures.

July 4, 2020: Stark’s Diner (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1309 words

The world’s only gourmet hitperson eats an ice cream sundae and shoots a mobster in a diner in New Jersey.

The inspiration for this story was that I recently ran across yet another discussion about the controversial final scene of The Sopranos, where Tony Soprano gets killed – or not, whatever the case may be – to the sound of “Don’t stop believin'” by Journey. As I came across the umpteenth dissection of the ending, I suddenly remembered that the scene in question takes place in a diner. And I thought, “Wait a minute, so Tony Soprano was killed – if that’s what happened – in a diner. It’s obvious who done it. It was the culinary assassin.”

And that’s how this story was born, though I changed the name of the victim and the diner.

July 5, 2020: The City of the Screaming Pillars (Thurvok), sword and sorcery, 5209 words

Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha travel to Candalor, an abandoned town in the middle of the desert known as “The City of the Screaming Pillars”. They are looking for a legendary treasure of rubies big as eyeballs.  But once they there, they have to deal not only with the screaming pillars, but also with the unholy gods of Cadalor.

The initial inspiration for this one was the cover of the March 1965 issue of Fantastic Stories of Imagination, which caught my eye when it was reviewed at Galactic Journey some time ago. The cover illustrates a Brak the Barbarian story by John Jakes – yes, the North and South guy. Before he wrote Civil War family sagas, he used to write sword and sorcery.

Somewhere along the fairly straightforward desert quest, the story took a turn into Lovecraftian territory.

The City of the Screaming Pillars is also the longest story I’ve written during the challenge to date and now I’m tired.

July 6, 2020: The Nightlife of Statues, contemporary fantasy, 1599 words

What it says on the tin. Several statues come to life by night and discuss current events.

Inspired by the recent debates about removing statues that are no longer politicall desired.

July 7, 2020: A Grave Case (Helen Shepherd Mysteries), crime fiction, 7467 words

When a wave of muggings at Kensal Green cemetery leaves one victim dead, Helen and her team are called in to apprehend the cemetery bandit.

This one was inspired by a report about thefts and robberies on cemeteries. It’s also the longest July short story challenge to date, though the first draft wouldn’t quite cross the novelette line.

July 8, 2020: The Golden Deer Inn (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1638 words

The world’s only gourmet hitperson visits Alsace, eats Flammkuchen, drinks Edelzwicker,  and shoots a far right politician.

The inspiration for this story was an article on “How to make the perfect Flammekueche” (“Flammekueche” is Alsatian dialect, “Flammkuchen” regular German) on the Guardian website. I saw the article and my first thought was, “I really need to make Flammkuchen sometime.” My second thought was, “Maybe the culinary assassin would like to have some Flammkuchen.”

And even though you can get Flammkuchen all over Germany these days (not sure about France), I nonetheless sent the culinary assassin to Alsace, because my great-grandfather hails from there and I still have family there.

July 9, 2020: Attack of the Robot Turkeys, science fiction, 1235 words

Robot turkey beleaguer a small town. What is says on the tin, basically.

The inspiration for this one was an episode of the new Magnum PI of all things, where Magnum muses about the meaning of the name of a yacht and finally says, “Maybe the initials stand for ‘robot turkeys’.” Magnum and Higgins are then interrupted by a pirate attack and the robot turkeys are never mentioned again. But somehow they stuck in my head and so I wrote a story about literal robot turkeys.

July 10, 2020: The Hanging Tree, historical fiction, 3454 words

During the Thirty Years War, teenaged Elsa and her little brother Jan escape the besieged town of Weißenburg. They hide from the Imperial army under General Wallenstein, witness a mass execution (well, Elsa does) and meet Adam, a young deserter from the Imperial army.  Together, Elsa, Jan and Adam try to find a safe place for them all.

The inspiration for this story was a piece of concept art for what I think is a videogame.  In this image, a girl and a young boy are hiding behind a dead horse, while there is a mass hanging going on in the background. The image reminded me of the famous etching “The Hanging” from the “Great Miseries of War” series of etchings by French (sort of, since he was from Lorraine, which has been disputed territory between Germany and France for centuries), which depicts a mass hanging during the Thirty Years War.

This story will probably need more historical background, for while the Thirty Years War, one of the bloodiest in the history of Europe, looms large in German memory, to the point that if you mention Wallenstein, religious conflicts, the horrors of war and a mass hanging reminiscent of am etching that is in every second history textbook people will get what you mean. However, the Thirty Years War not nearly as well known outside continental Europe, so I’m not sure if people elsewhere will get it.

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Retro Review: “Intruders from the Stars” by Ross Rocklynne

Amazing Stories, January 1944“Intruders from the Stars” is a novella by Ross Rocklynne. It was first published in the January 1944 issue of Amazing Stories and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

“Intruders from the Stars” opens on a far off planet, where a decisive battle is taking place. It’s the battle for the fate of an empire, with insurgent forces led by the unnamed prime minister about to vanquish the forces loyal to the Empress, a former slave girl named Bess-Istra. Her forces beaten, Bess-Istra and her surviving soldiers retreat to their citadel, where an escape ship is being readied.

The reader quickly realises that Bess-Istra, though beautiful, is a nasty piece of work, a typical pulp fiction femme fatale. Her reign was bloody, the revolution necessary to depose a tyrant. The prime minister, who is in love with Bess-Istra, even offers her to rule by his side and rebuilt the planet together. However, Bess-Istra will have none of that. She even knocks out her own general Bandro, when he urges her to negotiate to save his own neck.

Bess-Istra and her surviving forces, including the unconscious Bandro, board the escape ship. Her plan is to leave her homeworld and head to a neighbouring solar system and conquer a planet there. The journey is supposed to take thirteen years, which all aboard will spend in suspended animation courtesy of sleep gas.

However, the inhabitants of the neighbouring planet spot Bess-Istra’s ship in time and deflect it away from their world. So Bess-Istra and her loyal troops float through space until they happen to land on Earth.

The scene now shifts to Mozambique in the middle of World War II, where American war correspondent Bill van Astor Smythe encounters two missionaries, the Reverend John Stevens and his assistant Thomas Reynolds, while both parties are hiding from the Japanese, who have invaded Mozambique. The young Reverend and his assistant are on their way to a village, for the locals have abandoned Christianity for a new god and also stolen the Reverend’s altar candles. Bill is on the run, for the squadron of British soldiers he was embedded with has been wiped out by the Japanese.

Now there never was any Japanese military activity in Africa during World War II – the only axis countries fighting in Africa were Italy and Nazi Germany and they had largely been driven out by 1944. Furthermore, Mozambique was a Portuguese colony and Portugal remained neutral during World War II, so what a squadron of British soldiers was doing there is anybody’s guess. It’s interesting that Ross Rocklynne messes up something as basic as World War II frontlines. Though the summary of events he gives is correct up to the point where the British take over Mozambique and the Japanese invade Madagascar and Mozambique. Was this a scenario that was considered plausible at some point, since it seems extremely far-fetched to me? I have no idea.

Bill, the Reverend and his assistant make their way to the village, where they find Bess-Istra’s spaceship. It turns out that the new god the locals are worshipping is none other than the sleeping Bess-Istra herself, who is conveniently visible (and conveniently half naked) through a porthole of the spaceship.

The Reverend is deeply upset that his converts have abandoned Christianity to worship scantily clad women. He is even more upset, when Bill points out that the sleeping woman is not from Earth, for the existence of extraterrestrial life is not compatible with his faith. Bill, the Reverend and Reynolds are still arguing what to do, when Bill spots a plunger and pushes it downward, because messing with an alien spaceship is obviously such a brilliant idea. As a result, the sleep gas is vented outside the ship, knocking out Bill, the Reverend and his assistant. Bess-Istra awakes.

The three men are taken prisoner and come to aboard the ship. They are subjected first to an interrogation machine and then taken to see Bess-Istra herself. The Reverend immediately accuses Bess-Istra and her people of planning to conquer the Earth. Bill tries to calm him down, but the Reverend has another fit when Bess-Istra mentions gods – in plural – and informs her that there is only one true god. If Bess-Istra had shot him at this point, I certainly would have understood.

However, Bess-Istra has a different plan. Instead of revealing her intentions outright, she tells Bill and the two missionaries that she has scanned their brains and thus learned not only English, but also much about the Earth, including that the world is at war and that the Allies are losing, which is certainly an interesting interpretation of the situation in early 1944, when the battle of Stalingrad (which is generally considered the turning point for Nazi Germany) was already over, even if the Normandy landings were still several months in the future. However, Bess-Istra can help. She and her people will end the war and bring peace to Earth, using their superior alien weapons.

Bess-Istra’s offer quickly convinces the Reverend that she is not evil after all, even though he would prefer world peace to be achieved without bloodshed. I have to commend him for this, especially considering the genocidal tendencies we’ve seen elsewhere on the ballot (“Arena”, cough).

Bill is a little bit more sceptical, probably because he spares the occasional glance for General Bandro and Bess-Istra’s subordinates who are having a hard time keeping a straight face at Bess-Istra’s sudden commitment to world peace. Furthermore, Bess-Istra is also a little too dominant for Bill’s taste, though he quickly becomes as besotted with her as everybody else. Bess-Istra, meanwhile, asks Bill and the Reverend (Thomas Reynolds has wandered out of the story and returned to the mission by now) where her forces shall begin their mission to bring peace to Earth. Bill and the Reverend both suggest liberating beleaguered Mozambique and Madagascar from the Japanese. And so they set off in Bess-Istra’s ship to disable the Japanese supply fleet, leaving it floating aimlessly in the Indian ocean. Cut off from supplies, the Japanese will be forced to retreat and surrender.

Next, Bess-Istra directs her spaceship to New York City and lands on the roof of the offices of the newspaper syndicate Bill works for, so he can deliver his report in person and will also be believed.

The next target of the campaign for world peace is Italy. Now by early 1944, the Allies had already invaded Italy and Mussolini had been deposed, arrested and subsequently freed by the German army and installed as a sort of puppet ruler in those parts of Italy that were still under Axis control. Nonetheless, the situation did not look particularly desperate for the Allies in Italy in the real world, though the battle of Monte Cassino happened in the winter of 1943/1944. And even though it’s never named in the novella itself, it’s clearly this battle that Bess-Istra’s forces interrupt by knocking out the Italian and German forces with a gas ray, causing Mussolini to flee to Germany.

The Russian front and the western front are next. Bess-Istra’s gas ray and another weapon which causes amnesia take out the German forces and the Allies converge on Berlin, where a revolution breaks out (which would coincide nicely with the group around Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and their ultimately failed plot to assassinate Hitler) and Hitler is deposed.

Once World War II has been ended in Europe – and with less bloodshed than in the real world, though we might have ended up with Stauffenberg and his fellow reactionaries in charge, which would likely have been worse for Germany in the long run – the next aim is ending the war in Asia and the Pacific. This time around, Bess-Istra’s forces deploy contracting fire rings around Japanese occupied cities in Asia. These fire rings destroy all sulphur and render gunpowder and therefore all firearms useless, leaving the Japanese soldiers at the mercy of the locals. In his review of the story, Steve J. Wright points out that even with alien super science, this scenario would not have worked, because modern armies including the Japanese forces had abandoned blackpowder by World War II.

As a coup de grace, Bess-Istra also teleports Hitler, Goebbels, Göring (at any rate, I assume that the fat, cruel man is supposed to be Göring, since it’s unlikely to be Churchill), Mussolini, Admiral Tojo, Emperor Hirohito and other Axis leaders aboard her spaceship as prisoners. Quisling, head of the Norwegian Nazi puppet government, commits suicide.

Bill finds himself falling hard for Bess-Istra, even though he knows it’s a bad idea. Meanwhile, Reverend Stevens tries to convert her – not entirely without success, for Bess-Istra is quite fascinated by the idea of a god who is not in favour of power and cruelty. And of course, the Reverend falls for Bess-Istra, too, because every man in this story eventually falls for Bess-Istra. Bill, however, still has sense enough to wonder just what exactly Bess-Istra’s motive is in all this.

During a broadcast to the entire world, Bess-Istra declares herself ruler of the Earth. Bill launches himself at her, only to be shot down by her stun gun. He and the Reverend are thrown into a cell aboard her ship.

Meanwhile, Bess-Istra has been busy. She has set up a world court to try the Axis leaders and other war criminals, has ordered all warships and warplanes scrapped, has redrawn the world map and set up new states, has introduced a world currency, set up a climate control system and overhauled the global transportation system to use the same technology her spaceship uses. In short, she’s been remarkably efficient and also hasn’t proven herself a cruel tyrant so far, because apparently she has been listening to Reverend Stevens extolling the virtues of Christianity to her and was convinced.

Bess-Istra frees Bill and the Reverend and makes Bill her personal press agent to make her look good, since someone from her own camp is feeding negative stories about her less than glorious past to the press. Bess-Istra refuses to suppress these stories, because she now believes in the freedom of the press. Bill, on the other hand, is still not convinced that Bess-Istra really has the world’s best interests at heart, even though she has only done good so far. By now, he’s also completely in love with her, even though he hates himself for it. Bess-Istra is also falling for Bill, though she hates the idea almost as much as he does.

Bess-Istra’s benevolent dictatorship is interrupted, when her former general Bandro, now head of the international world police, and chief scientist Sab-Hallo revolt against her, because they have had enough of Bess-Istra’s sudden desire for peace and democracy. They take Bill and Bess-Istra prisoner and end the trial of the Axis leaders by summarily executing them, turning Hitler into an oily stain on the courtroom floor. Bill and Bess-Istra are about to be executed as well, when Reverend Stevens crashes a power glider into Bess-Istra’s headquarters, takes out the rebelling soldiers with the gas ray and rescues Bill and Bess-Istra.

The Reverend explains that a convert among Bess-Istra’s soldiers tipped him off about the plot. Together, they head for the Reverend’s old mission in the jungle of Mozambique (which is still a Portuguese colony, Bess-Istra not having gotten around to eliminating the evil of colonialism yet), Bandro’s forces hot in pursuit. Bandro’s forces sweep the jungle with the green ray, a devastating weapon, but luckily Bess-Istra has an energy shield which can protect them – but only one, so they have to huddle together. They make it to the mission, where they find Thomas Reynolds and several of the converted locals dead, killed by the green ray. I honestly wonder why Thomas Reynolds is in this story at all, since his character serves no real purpose, disappears from the story about a third in and only reappears to be killed off.

Bill, the Reverend and Bess-Istra hole up in the mission house, where tension quickly comes to a head. Bill accuses Bess-Istra of not being sincere in her newfound conversion to Christianity and tells her point blank that deep inside, she still worships the terrible goddess Stuz, even though the priests of Stuz abused her and turned Bess-Istra into the warped person she has become. Bess-Istra hotly denies this and declares that she must kill Bill for his presumption, whereupon he hits her repeatedly, even though he normally does not strike woman.

This is one of my least favourite tropes in older works, where the masculine hero hits an “uppity woman” to make her more pliable and she goes along with it instead of kicking the bastard to the curb. This trope usually occurs within the framework of an “I hate you, I hate you, I love” relationship, which is of course what is happened between Bill and Bess-Istra. The “man hits woman” trope that’s extremely common in old Hollywood movies and also shows up in genre fiction, though it is not all that common in SFF, probably because golden age SFF is not particularly interested in interpersonal relationships. “I hate you, I hate you, I love you” relationships are somewhat more common. Examples include the relationship between Jirel of Joiry and Guillaume in “Black God’s Kiss” by C.L. Moore or the relationship between Eric John Stark and Ciaran in “Black Amazon of Mars” by Leigh Brackett or the relationship between Matthew Carse and Ywain of Sark in “Sea-Kings of Mars” a.k.a. “The Sword of Rhiannon”, also by Leigh Brackett. However, in all three examples attempting to use physical violence against the woman they definitely are not in love with does not end well for the men in question. Guillaume gets magically slain and has his soul banished into hell (Jirel eventually frees him, once she realises that she loves him after all), while Eric John Stark and Matthew Carse get whipped for their trouble and Eric John Stark gets decked by Ciaran, too (they both eventually get the woman after many exciting adventures). And while I suspect that Jirel, Ciaran and Ywain would get along just fine with Bess-Istra, none of them would allow a man to hit them and get away with it. I guess the difference here is that those stories were written by female authors, while “Intruders from the Stars” was written by a man.

And so Bess-Istra does not make Bill suffer, but instead starts crying, while her features becomes softer and less cruel, after Bill hits her. Her conversion to Christianity is also a lot more sincere now. However, Bill is still not happy, because Bess-Istra does start to become a bit too affectionate towards the Reverend John Stevens.

While Bill, Bess-Istra and the Reverend are busy with their own interpersonal drama, Bandro hasn’t been idle either. He executes all captured war criminals and completely destroys Berlin and Tokyo. Bill is not at all happy with the former – he believes in trials and due process – but does find some justification for the latter. After all, the Japanese and the Nazis considered themselves superior to others, which apparently excuses killing civilians who may not even have agreed with their respective regimes. It’s one of those slap in the face moments I occasionally experience when reading/watching Retro Hugo finalists – the realisation that as far as some long dead author is concerned, I’m not really a human being and deserve to be killed just because of my nationality. The worst examples usually occur in the dramatic presentation and graphic story categories, though I have also seen a few examples in the fiction categories. It’s not even limited to the Retro Hugos – there are alternate history novels written in this century that openly fantasize about how wonderful it would be, if the Allies had nuked Germany.

To be fair to Ross Rocklynne, Bess-Istra immediately tells Bill that there won’t be any cities destroyed and civilians murdered on her watch, because they are better than that. And indeed, it is also possible to view this scene as a commentary on the large-scale bombing of cities and other civilian targets in which the US and UK were engaged at the time. After all, our heroes have always attempted to deal with their enemies via non-lethal means and with a minimum of bloodshed throughout the novel and also only aimed their operations at military and not civilian targets. The Reverend even feels ill, when he is forced to shoot some of Bandro’s soldiers.

Bandro also has temples dedicated to the cruel Goddess Stuz built and all other religions banned. Furthermore, he orders that all power gliders be equipped with a device that allows his police forces to take control of the vehicle, making it impossible to use the power gliders against him. And since Bess-Istra had all other vehicles scrapped in an attempt to make global transport faster and more energy-efficient, Bandro’s order effectively makes any resistance against him impossible.

However, Bill, Bess-Istra and the Reverend still have a power glider that Bandro’s forces cannot control. And so they embark on a desperate mission to sneak aboard the spaceship that brought Bess-Istra and her people to Earth and take out Bandro and Sab-Hallo.

The plan works, too. The three of them evade Bandro’s patrols, sneak aboard the spaceship, while it is en route to San Francisco, make their way to the control room, where they kill Sab-Hallo. Bess-Istra then floods the rest of the ship with sleep gas to render Bandro and his forces unconscious. However, Bandro has managed to make his way into the control room just in time and holds the trio at gunpoint, planning to kill them.

However, the Reverend won’t let himself be shot quite so easily. He commands Bandro to stop and drop his weapons in the name of the Lord. Bandro is not impressed by the Reverend’s religious fervour, but caught off balance long enough that Bill can jump him. In the resulting struggle, the Reverend is shot, Bill breaks Bandro’s neck and the spaceship is about the crash into the San Francisco Bay.

Once the dust settles and Bess-Istra gets the ship back under control, only she and Bill are left standing. Bill tries to comfort the grieving Bess-Istra and says that he knows how much she loved the Reverend. Bess-Istra replies that she of course loved the Reverend – after all, he was a truly good man. However, she only loved the Reverend as a brother. In turn, Bill assures Bess-Istra that it does not matter what she did on another planet millions of years ago, for on Earth she did good. They kiss, finally admitting their feelings for each other.

Science Fiction Adventure Classics“Intruders from the Stars” is the first story by Ross Rocklynne I ever read and I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much. I fully expected to read a weak story that would end up at the bottom of my Retro Hugo ballot, either below or just barely above “No Award”. And indeed, the only reason I read it before the remaining two novella finalists is because I found “Trog” unreadable and just couldn’t face another A.E. van Vogt story after struggling through “The Winged Man”.

However, I was pleasantly surprised, because “Intruders from the Stars” is not a bad story at all. True, it’s not a timeless classic either and probably wouldn’t have made the ballot at all, if 1944 hadn’t been a weak year for novellas. However, “Intruders from the Stars” was thoroughly entertaining and genuinely clever in parts in spite of its flaws.

I particularly like that after the alien mass slaughter in the prologue, “Intruders from the Stars” consistently goes for non-lethal solutions and seeks to solve the problems thrown at the characters – including ending World War II – with a minimum of bloodshed. After the “genocide is good” message in stories like “Arena”, the fact that “Intruders from the Stars” privileges non-lethal solutions and actually condemns large-scale slaughter was a breath of fresh air. Also, what happens after World War II is ended early by superior alien technology not only partly mirrors what happened in the real world, e.g. war crimes tribunals rather than summary executions, but also tries to envision a more peaceful postwar world. Interestingly, the picture drawn up of Bess-Istra’s new world order does mirror some quasi-utopian essays about how science fiction can contribute to a better world after the war that you can find in fanzines of the period.

Another thing I enjoyed was that a character who is introduced as an unambiguous villainess in the prologue and who has bad intentions for at least half of the story nonetheless ends up doing a whole lot of good. It’s also interesting that Bess-Istra (and likely Bandro and Sab-Hallo as well) are presented not as intrinsically bad, but as the products of a bad environment. Bess-Istra is a classic example of an abuse victim who becomes an abuser. Except that she changes, once she finds herself in a better environment and meets better people.

Bess-Istra starts out as a 1940s femme fatale, a stereotype that was extremely common at the time, but eventually grows into a character of her own, though I don’t like the taming part at all. Nonetheless, Bess-Istra is one of the more interesting female characters I’ve come across in the course of the Retro Reviews project.

Bill van Astor-Smythe and the Reverend John Stevens similarly start out as stereotypes. The Reverend is a true believer and a pompous fire and brimstone preacher, while Bill is a standard dashing reporter hero – another 1940s stereotype – and speaks in irritating period slang. Like Bess-Istra, both of them eventually grow into more rounded characters and become a lot more interesting. Too bad that the love triangle between the three of them and the “I hate you, I hate you, I love you” relationship between Bill and Bess-Istra never grows beyond cliché.

Intruders from the Stars by Ross RocklynneThose who know me are probably aware that I’m not a fan of religious content in science fiction. Thankfully, golden age science fiction usually doesn’t pose much of a problem in that regard, because if religion plays a role at all, it’s more likely to be a scam like the fake religion from the early Foundation stories or the equally fake and vastly more oppressive religion from Gather Darkness by Fritz Leiber. “Intruders from the Stars” in unusual, for religion not only plays an important role in the story, but even serves as an agent of character development, because it is the encounter with Reverend Stevens and his brand of Christianity that causes Bess-Istra to change. Nonetheless, the religious content in “Intruders from the Stars” does not bother me beyond some eye-rolling moments, probably because religion is also used as a shorthand for how the prevailing culture of a society influences character. After all, Rocklynne makes it clear that the cult of the goddess Stuz is the reason why Bess-Istra and presumably Bandro and Sab-Hallo are the sort of people they are. Once Bess-Istra comes into contact with a less violent culture and religion, she changes and becomes a better person.

Considering how prolific Ross Rocklynne was during the golden age and how long his career lasted (long enough that he embraced the New Wave and even had a story in Again, Dangerous Visions), surprisingly little is known about him. According to the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, “Rocklynne had one of the most interesting, if florid, imaginations of the Pulp-magazine writers of his time, and wrote very much better than most.” The first bit certainly applies to “Intruders from the Stars”. As for the second, I didn’t find “Intruders from the Stars” badly written, in spite of some clunky passages,  and dated slang (which is a common problem with older pulp fiction in general). However, I didn’t find it exceptionally well written either, compared to the likes of Clifford D. Simak or Ray Bradbury or C.L. Moore.

Rocklynne debuted in Astounding during the F. Orlin Tremaine era and published several of his early stories there, but by the 1940s, his fiction was more likely to appear in other venues like Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories or Fantastic Adventures. Was Rocklynne one of those science fiction writers of the golden age who just didn’t get along with John W. Campbell? Based on “Intruders from the Stars” at any rate, Rocklynne’s fiction wasn’t particularly Campbellian (the aliens triumph, religion saves the day, genocide is bad and non-bloody solutions are preferred), but then much of what Campbell published in Astounding wasn’t particularly Campbellian either. Given the role religion plays in “Intruders from the Stars”, I also wonder whether Rocklynne was a religious man. Does anybody who has read more of his work know whether Christianity appears frequently in his work?

That said, “Intruders from the Stars” does have its share of flaws. I’ve already pointed out some of them above. And while calling Joseph Stalin of all people gallant might be excusable in 1944, when the Soviet Union and the US were allies in World War II and little was known about the system of gulags and general regime of terror in the USSR, it has not aged well at all. Calling Winston Churchill gallant has not aged well either, even though people in the US and UK are only now getting around to recognising the many problematic aspects of the man. Still, it’s a known risk of contemporary set stories – and I’m surprised how many SFF stories I’ve read for the Retro Reviews project that are either directly or indirectly about World War II – that some things will age badly.

Another flaw that the story shares with Henry Kuttner’s “A God Named Kroo” and many other stories with non-western settings from the period is that it is full of dated racial and ethnic stereotypes, which can make a modern reader cringe, even though you have to give props to Rocklynne, Kuttner and others for at least remembering that the world does not solely consist of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans and maybe the occasional Irish stereotype. Rocklynne also remembers that World War II was a truly global war and mentions Chinese and Senegalese soldiers along with various westerners.

In the end, the flaws of the story are too many to make “Intruders from the Stars” a true classic and viable Retro Hugo contender, especially considering that “The Jewel of Bas”, “Killdozer” and “A God Named Kroo” are all better. Nonetheless, this novella was a lot more entertaining and enjoyable than I expected and takes an anti-genocide stand, which is more than can be said for many other stories of the period. That said, it does feel like a throwback to an earlier era of science fiction, namely the super science stories of the so-called radium era of the 1930s.

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Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month for June 2020

Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month
It’s that time of the month again, time for “Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month”.

So what is “Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of speculative fiction by indie authors newly published this month, though some May books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to Amazon.com, though I may add other retailers for future editions.

Once again, we have new releases covering the whole broad spectrum of speculative fiction. This month, we have epic fantasy, urban fantasy, cozy fantasy, dark fantasy, sword and sorcery, paranormal mysteries, science fiction romance, space opera, military science fiction, near future science fiction, alternate history, steampunk, time travel, non-fiction, dragons, ghosts, sea monsters, magicians, vampires, fae, superheroes, space outlaws, dinosaurs, capramancers, crime-busting witches, time-travelling taxmen, time-travelling detectives, killer clowns, stolen colonists and much more.

Don’t forget that Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Speculative Fiction Showcase, a group blog run by Jessica Rydill and myself, which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things speculative fiction several times per week.

As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.

And now on to the books without further ado:

The Attic Tragedy by J. Ashley-SmithThe Attic Tragedy by J. Ashley-Smith:

Sylvie never called them ghosts, but that’s what they were—not that George ever saw them herself. The new girl, Sylvie, is like a creature from another time, with her old-fashioned leather satchel, her white cotton gloves and her head in the clouds. George watches her drift around the edge of the school playing fields, guided by inaudible voices.When George stands up for Sylvie, beating back Tommy Payne and his gang of thugs, it brings her close to the ethereal stranger; though not as close as George would have liked. In the attic of Sylvie’s father’s antique shop, George’s scars will sing and her longing will drive them both toward a tragedy as veiled and inevitable as Sylvie’s whispering ghosts.

Black Sheep by Rachel AuckesBlack Sheep by Rachel Auckes:

An alien ship. Stolen colonists. All Throttle wanted was a vacation…

Fifteen years into a twenty-year voyage, war veteran Captain Throttle Reyne is looking forward to taking a break from dealing with malfunctions, glitches, and the hassles of monitoring a thousand colonists in cryo-sleep.

But when her colony ship breaks down in the middle of nowhere, Throttle and her crew must leave the colonists behind to search for help. They find a ship that’s not only missing a crew… it’s clearly not from their star system.

It’s the discovery of a lifetime. All they need to do is tow the mysterious vessel back to their colony ship for further study and
Throttle won’t ever have to work again. One problem. While they’re away, the colony ship is stolen—with the colonists still on board.

Throttle gives chase to a lawless star system on the outer rim. To get their colonists back, they must take on the pirates and ganglords who will do anything—and sell anyone—to make a buck.

They play dirty. But Throttle and her crew play dirtier.

The Beast from the Sea of Blood by Richard Blakemore and Cora BuhlertThe Beast from the Sea of Blood by Richard Blakemore and Cora Buhlert:

They seek a treasure and find a monster…

Thurvok, the sellsword, and his friends Meldom, thief, cutpurse and occasional assassin, the sorceress Sharenna and Meldom’s sweetheart Lysha are on the hunt for a legendary pirate treasure, when they find themselves marooned on a desolate isle. To add insult to injury, there is no treasure on the island. There are, however, monsters…

This is a short story of 5400 words or 20 print pages in the Thurvok sword and sorcery series, but may be read as a standalone. Includes an introduction and afterword.

False Security by Lindsay BurokerFalse Security by Lindsay Buroker:

I never thought I would date a dragon, or feed him chicken strips late at night, but life has gotten interesting.

My steady dragon—you may know him as Lord Zavryd’nokquetal, but I get to call him Zav—is offering to take me to the elven homeland to meet my father and learn to harness the magic in my blood.

Sure, I’m wary about his plans to force the elves to train me, but I need every advantage I can get. Especially when vampire attacks start cropping up all over Seattle, and my friend and business partner, Dimitri, disappears.

Unfortunately, my training will have to wait. If I don’t find my friend in time, I may never see him alive again.

Cold Case in Spell by J.L. CollinsA Cold Case in Spell by J.L. Collins:

Charming Springs – Where every day is colder than a witch’s kitty!

After ditching her cheating fiancé, Indie Warren hits the road in her trusty old truck, refusing to settle for anyone or anywhere.

But all that changes after Indie gets stuck in the frozen ghost town of Charming Springs, North Carolina.

In the middle of July.

This secret magical town was struck by a curse that brought on eternal winter and cast a barrier around it with no way in or out.

And Indie knows this because the talking owl told her so, obviously.

Suddenly Indie’s thrown into a world of magic, mayhem, and murder. And when she stands accused of the deadly deed, she’ll have to use her wits to prove her innocence… if she can keep her newfound magical powers under control!

Even with the help of her feathered friend and the mysterious reaper with his own secrets, she’ll need to find her own way out of this cursed place—dead or alive.

The Daedalus Job by M.D. CooperThe Daedalus Job by M.D. Cooper:

Jax Bremen is an outlaw… sort of…

Within the L, a tri-star system located inside the Aquilian Nebula, Jax makes a living trading and smuggling whatever goods pay the best. So far, he’s avoided being caught with anything too damning in his ship’s holds, but when he takes a job for Korinth, an infamous arms dealer, all that changes.

The haul is worth ten times his ship, and when the contents gets him embroiled in a tug of war between the major political factions of the L, Jax has to keep the criminals he works for from discovering that he’s playing both sides. Hell, he just might have to play all the sides to navigate the tangled web he’s in.

Every move he makes to get free of the quagmire draws him in deeper until Jax finds himself on the hook to run the hardest job he’s ever undertaken: rob the Daedalus, a military cruiser escorting a convoy through the Maelstrom.

Sure. Cakewalk, right?

The Hugosauriad by Camestros FelaptonThe Hugosauriad: A Dinographic Account of the Hugo Awards by Camestros Felapton:

A Dinographic Account of the Hugo Awards. Featuring essays on every Hugo finalist dinosaur story from 1952 to 2019, plus many more. This book traces a dual history. It is an account of how dinosaurs have been represented in notable science fiction stories from the 1950s onwards but is also an examination of the history of the Hugo Science Fiction Awards. Mixing humour and analysis, The Hugosauriad is a unique look at pop-culture over sixty-seven years.

 

Mountain Witch by Rachel FordMountain Witch by Rachel Ford:

From the mountains, a witch will rise.

Knight Protector Brynja knows why the people of her village never wander too far. There’s a witch who lives deep in the heart of the mountain. Some say she’s one of the last elves, who will have her vengeance on mankind. Some say she’s a myth, meant to frighten wandering children.

But Brynja knows better, because she was one of those wandering younglings. And she saw the witch as a child. She still sees her, in her nightmares.

When an army of dragon riders shows up at Brynja’s doorstep, the knight protector has to warn her queen. But the only way to the capital is through the impenetrable wall of riders.

The only way, except through the mountain caves. The only way, unless she’s willing to revisit her nightmares.

Contacts and Tax Cons by Rachel FordContacts and Tax Cons by Rachel Ford:

An alternate universe. A dystopian nightmare. A sinister plot.

When agents of the Interdimensional Bureau of Temporal Investigations start vanishing, IRS senior analyst and IBTI agent Alfred Favero is assigned to the case. His mission? Track down a mysterious contact known only as Krasnaya.

In a world where every word is overheard, every thought policed, and every action monitored, Alfred must stay off the radar long enough to find his quarry – and get back home before the brutal politsiya or the shadowy rebels get their hands on him.

Otherwise, the intrepid lawman may have pursued his last lead…

Android General 1 by C. GockelAndroid General 1 by C. Gockel:

The Darkness will strike again …

The last time Carl, Volka, and 6T9 fought the Dark, 6T9 failed Volka. If he wants her and all the carbon based life forms that he loves to survive, he needs to change. Change for an android is as easy as flipping a switch, but dealing with the consequences is not so simple.

To save Volka, he’ll have to give up part of himself that Volka adores. He’ll need to become something an innocent, peace loving sex ‘bot was never designed to be, something he despises.

To save Volka and the galaxy he’ll need to become … Android General 1.

Black Dawn by K. GormanBlack Dawn by K. Gorman:

Genetic engineering. Conspiracy. An unstoppable attack.

Karin Makos lives a lie. Genetically engineered from birth and raised in a scientific compound to gain unnatural powers, she has since escaped and built another life, hidden from those who created her. For her, the chance to pilot a small-time scrounging vessel to remote corners of space is the dream. After years on the run with her sister and enduring the constant paranoia of living planet-side, going off-radar gives her exactly what she wants: freedom.

That dream is shattered.

A system-wide attack decimates humanity and leaves the survivors scraping for clues. And Karin might know where to look.

But digging into her past comes with a whole new set of secrets and consequences, none of which she wants to face. Plagued by strange dreams of her sister and a sense of growing danger, Karin and the crew of the Nemina must race desperately across space to find their loved ones—and answers.

The Monstrous Seven by Lily Harper HartThe Monstrous Seven by Lily Harper Hart:

Life is going well for Hannah Hickok. Her business – a cosplay western town in Kentucky – is thriving and she’s even interviewing bartenders so she can finally take on different duties in her new world. All that comes to a screeching halt when a guest grabs what’s supposed to be a prop gun and fires it at another guest during an altercation.

Suddenly, death is calling in Casper Creek … and it’s wearing many masks.

Hannah is thrown by the brutality of the action. She’s also confused why her boyfriend Cooper Wyatt was acting out of sorts right before it happened. The questions about exactly what happened are only compounded when the coroner comes back with a shocking report: There was no bullet found in the body and the manner of death is undetermined.

In short order, an FBI agent is put in charge of the case, Casper Creek is shut down, and Hannah and Cooper are plunged into a sundry world of magical creatures with death and destruction on the brain. Thanks to a tip from local witch Astra, Hannah soon realizes she’s grappling with something bigger than she’s ever dealt with before … and it will be seven times as deadly.

War is coming. Hannah’s magic is still a work in progress but she’s going to be put through the paces on this one. She has a new family. It will be up to her to save them when magical forces collide

Is she up to the challenge?

Blood and Fire by D.N. HoxaBlood and Fire by D.N. Hoxa:

My name is Ruby Monroe, but most people know me by my other name: the One-eyed Hawk.

Back in the day, I wanted to be a superhero, hunt down bad guys and make them pay for doing bad things. Four years later, I’m still paying the price for thinking that there is such a thing as justice in the world. The only thing I have left of that life is a blind eye and the stupid nickname.

When the woman who raised me goes missing, I have no choice but to go back to my old home to find her. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some supervillain-wannabe starts kidnapping the most powerful magians in the city, and I somehow always end up in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The authorities are looking for someone to blame, and who better to take the fall than an already wanted murderer?

Lucky for me, I don’t give two shits about what people think. With the help of a walking, talking flame-thrower named Logan, who just so happens to be as hot as the fire he makes with his hands, I’m going to have to do the impossible and bring justice to this lawless city for once.

Better watch out, Mr. Bad Guy. Ruby Monroe is in town, and she’s coming for you.

Kwelengsen Storm by David M. KellyKwelengsen Storm by David M. Kelly:

You can turn your back on war, but sometimes it refuses to let you go.

When Logan Twofeathers takes on the job of head of engineering on Kwelengsen, the first habitable planet discovered by Earth, he thinks he’s leaving conflict far behind. But when he investigates the loss of a deep-space communications relay, his ship is attacked and crash-lands back on the planet.

With his new home destroyed by the invaders, Logan is stranded deep in the frozen mountains with an injured sergeant who hates him almost as much as the enemy. Against the ever-present threat of capture, he must battle his way through icy surroundings in a treacherous attempt to find his wife.

And when he’s forced to ally himself with a disparate group of soldiers and their uncompromising captain, Logan must face the reality that he may have lost everything—and everyone—he loves. Will he choose to fight? And what will it cost him?

Kwelengsen Storm is the first in a gripping, new sci-fi thriller series from the author of the Joe Ballen novels.

Knights Magica by B.R. KingsolverKnights Magica by B.R. Kingsolver:

If the Knights Magica want a war, I’m willing to give them one.

I damned my soul long ago. What I do from this point forward is about redemption. If I burn in Hell because of fighting for others, for shouldering their sins, so be it.

The Knights are powerful, and they have taken control of the Universal Church. All across the world, the Knights find themselves in conflict with other paranormals and supernaturals. Human governments scramble to cope with the new reality of magic. Cities become battlegrounds.

And in Westport, Rosie O’Grady’s Bar and Grill becomes a center for organizing the Resistance.

Then the Fae decide it’s time to act.

Gravity is Heartless by Sarah LaheyGravity is Heartless by Sarah Lahey:

What will the world look like in thirty years’ time? How will humanity survive the oncoming effects of climate change? Set in the near future and inspired by the world around us, Gravity Is Heartless is a romantic adventure that imagines a world on the cusp of climate catastrophe.

The year is 2050: automated cities, vehicles, and homes are now standard, artificial Intelligence, CRISPR gene editing, and quantum computing have become a reality, and climate change is in full swing—sea levels are rising, clouds have disappeared, and the planet is heating up.

Quinn Buyers is a climate scientist who’d rather be studying the clouds than getting ready for her wedding day. But when an unexpected tragedy causes her to lose everything, including her famous scientist mother, she embarks upon a quest for answers that takes her across the globe—and she uncovers friends, loss and love in the most unexpected of places along the way. Gravity Is Heartless is bold, speculative fiction that sheds a hard light on the treatment of our planet even as it offers a breathtaking sense of hope for the future.

The Killer Clown Calamity by Amanda M. LeeThe Killer Clown Calamity by Amanda M. Lee:

Charlie Rhodes’ life is in turmoil. Her relationship with her boyfriend Jack is going well but Casey, the newest member of the Legacy Foundation, has dropped a bombshell and Charlie feels as if things are spinning out of control. While waiting for DNA results to prove (or disprove, for that matter) Casey’s identity, the team gets called out on a weird case.

It seems sadistic clowns with magical abilities are killing people in the suburbs surrounding Nashville, and the deaths are bloody and horrible. Upon arriving on the scene, Charlie and Jack stumble across an entire cadre of clowns hanging out at the fairgrounds and the game is afoot.
Mystic Caravan Circus isn’t what it appears to be on the surface. Poet Parker, second in command for the circus, is front and center as Jack and Charlie start digging for answers. It seems both sides are keeping secrets, though, and discovering the truth isn’t going to be easy.

Charlie has always zealously guarded her supernatural secret and it seems she’s not the only one, because the moment she crosses the threshold to the circus she senses she’s surrounded by a magical group of otherworldly individuals.

Trust takes time but that’s a precious commodity as the clowns ramp up their attacks. It’s going to take everyone working together to figure out what’s happening … and who is behind it.

Poet and Charlie make a fearsome twosome but they might not be enough to take on this particular threat. Everybody hates a clown, and when this trio declares war, the horror that follows will haunt an entire city.

Charlie is determined to deal with the clowns before focusing on her personal life. She has to survive to find answers, though, and it’s going to take every ounce of power she has to come out safely on the other side.

Fear is the name of the game, and two heroes are about to collide.

The Influencer by R.T.W. LipkinThe Influencer by R.T.W. Lipkin:

His secret was that he created her. Her secret is much bigger.

Beautiful. Mysterious. Unreachable.

Broadcasting from her perfectly curated room, she’s an instant sensation. Everyone wants to buy what she has. Wear her jewelry. Use her makeup. So they can be like her. Look like her. Feel close to her. Know her.

But no one can really know Ash. She’s just an illusion. A string of code I created to sell things and make money.

It was the perfect plan.

Until she starts going off script, saying things I didn’t program her to say.
Knowing things she can’t know.
Feeling things she can’t feel.
Or can she?

Phyllis Wong and the Crumpled Stranger by Geoffrey McSkimmingPhyllis Wong and the Crumpled Man by Geoffrey McSkimming:

When Phyllis Wong, that brilliant young magician and clever sleuth, discovers a mysterious stranger who keeps appearing by the rotunda in City Park, little does she know that the Time he brings with him will lead her into a world of danger, intrigue and undiscovered threats from the past!

Will Phyllis’s magic be enough to save her from the perils that will cross her path? Will she be able to solve the riddle of the stranger and the place from which he comes?

A haunting story, swirling through the world of words and the ticking of time!

The seventh Phyllis Wong: Time Detective mystery.

Free Fall by T.S. PaulFree Fall by T.S. Paul:

Mars is doomed!

While the idea of breaking away from the tyranny of Earth might sound like a good idea in practice it sucks. Riddled with quislings, the Martian government cannot hide from the inevitable. When the fleets away the warships play. Invasion of the worst kind.

Trapped aboard the Einstein space station Rowan Wolf is out of options. Should he fight the good fight or return home to save his family?

The Wounded Ones by G.D. PenmanThe Wounded Ones by G.D. Penman:

Demons and serial killers are Iona “Sully” Sullivan’s bread and butter, but nothing could have prepared her to face off against the full weight of the British Empire at the height of its power. With the War for American Independence in full swing, she finds even her prodigious talents pushed beyond their limits when citizens of the American Colonies begin vanishing amidst rumors of crop circles, hydra sightings and worse. Through a wild and lethal adventure that will see her clashing with the Empire around the world and beyond, the only constants in Sully’s life are an undead girlfriend, a giant demon crow that has taken a shine to her, regular assassination attempts by enemies on all sides, and the cold certainty that nothing and nobody is going to make it out of the war in one piece.

A Touch of Ice by Nita RoundA Touch of Ice by Nita Round:

To have a future, they must face their past.

Magda, Ascara and Lucinda must draw upon the strength of their trinity to seek out the truths of the past that hold the key to their future.

They travel north, to Magda’s place of birth amongst the Oceanics. For Magda, this is an unwelcoming place, a reminder that she was banished and dealt a cruel fate. Named Stoner and landlocked, for an Oceanic this is a dishonour and a fate worse than death. To return to the float again would place her life, and those with her, at risk.

In the freezing waters of the far north, Magda finds herself defending her honour and birth right. She must succeed as their fate depends upon it. Failure is not an option, the costs are too high.

If you like a mash-up of steampunk and fantasy, with strong willed and quick-witted women, then you’ll love Nita Round’s imaginative series.

Will Magda allow the past to hold her back, or will she find her destiny?

Hollis Whittaker by C.B.S. ShanahanHollis Whittaker by C.B. Shanahan:

It changed the course of WWII. In 1945, it was stolen. Now a ten-year-old boy has found it, and the government will kill him to get it.

When ten-year-old Hollis Whittaker picks up a strange medallion he stumbled upon at the edge of a stream, he suddenly begins exhibiting signs of brilliance, even discovering the solar system’s Planet X and astounding the astronomical community. The awkward, overweight fifth grader with heart problems is an instant media sensation, but all is not well. The genius-making medallion bonds to only one person for life and the U.S. government has been searching for it since World War II, which means they’re prepared to kill Hollis to acquire it so they can exploit the medallion’s immense power.

After a thwarted hit job by two military agents, Hollis treks cross-country with the aid of his best friend Kirby and a Navajo woman, Cha’Risa, whose family possessed the medallion—the Ní?ch’i—more than seventy years ago. They are hoping Cha’Risa’s aged grandfather will be able to help them. Unfortunately, the whole country believes she has kidnapped the boys, and the agents who are trying to kill Hollis have the system on their side.

The Peacekeeper Initiative by Glynn StewartThe Peacekeeper Initiative by Glynn Stewart:

Amidst the ruins of a broken empire
A new warlord rises to power
The worlds in his path call for help
And the United Planets Alliance answers!

The Kenmiri Empire has fallen, broken against the might of the Vesheron rebels and the United Planets Space Force. The alliance between the Vesheron and the UPSF has collapsed in turn, leaving the former empire as worlds without governance or leaders.

Amidst the chaos, the UPSF has launched a valiant effort to reach out to the weak and protect the defenseless. As part of the Peacekeeper Initiative, Colonel Henry Wong leads the battlecruiser Raven deep into once-hostile territory.

There, an old ally has begun to forge a new empire from the old slave worlds. As starvation forces worlds to surrender, Henry prepares a desperate plan to bring food to the hungry—and defeat to those who conquer!

Duelist by John TriptychDuelist by John Triptych:

Interstellar war has been outlawed, and all conflicts are now determined by single combat. The fate of entire planets rests upon the actions of a duelist—specialized gladiators trained and modified with the latest technology to win a death match against their equally formidable rivals.

Dyron Dyrge is an upstart who rises in power and prestige with each victory. Yet he shuns the limelight, for his secrets would tear the galaxy apart if they were ever revealed. Alix, an orphaned concubine with mysteries of her own, also begins her ascent within a corrupt, class-based society that rewards only the most cunning and ruthless of them all.

Together, these two individuals will eventually determine the fate of known space… unless their enemies kills them first.

The Capramancer Next Door by Danielle WilliamsThe Capramancer Next Door by Danielle Williams:

Down-to-earth mage Will Schafer has her hands full moving into a new house while keeping her mischievous herd of magical goats in line. Meeting handsome gardener Rickert Nash takes the sting out of moving…until his shadowy past comes roaring back to bite him in the butt.

Now Will and the herd must step in to save their neighbor from getting mulched—but can a girl and her goats defeat a formidable hunter…or are they all about to buy the farm?

Called “A wonderful read!” by the owner of GoatsLive.com, The Capramancer Next Door is an upbeat fantasy adventure sure to leave you smiling.

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Indie Crime Fiction of the Month for June 2020

Welcome to the latest edition of “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”.

So what is “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of crime fiction by indie authors newly published this month, though some May books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to Amazon.com, though I may add other retailers for future editions.

Our new releases cover the broad spectrum of crime fiction. We have cozy mysteries, small town mysteries, animal mysteries, historical mysteries, Jazz Age mysteries, western mysteries, international mysteries, Japanese mysteries, paranormal mysteries, children’s mysteries, crime thrillers, spy thrillers, disaster thrillers, action thrillers, police procedurals, noir, police officers, amateur sleuths, security specialists, relocation experts, Pinkerton detectives, spies, terrorists, serial killers, missing teenagers, missing nukes, missing gold bullion, crime-busting witches, crime-busting socialites, crime-busting librarians, crime-busting cats, crime-busting ghosts, time-travelling detectives, killer clowns, crime and murder in Louisiana, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Tokyo, the Wild West and much more.

Don’t forget that Indie Crime Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Indie Crime Scene, a group blog which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things crime fiction several times per week.

As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.

And now on to the books without further ado:

Murder in the Daytime by Blythe BakerMurder in the Daytime by Blythe Baker:

An elegant death…

When Alice Beckingham returns to London to see her sister and niece safely installed in the family home, she hopes for some quiet time of contemplation. But she has scarcely walked through the doors of Ashton House when she is greeted once again by mayhem and danger.

A visit from a mysterious stranger offers Alice an intriguing concept, an opportunity to turn her snooping talents into a profitable business. And who better to join in her new venture than the clever and capable Sherborne Sharp?

But a sudden death turns Alice’s plans upside down. Haunted by her failure to protect a client, Alice must discover who is behind a devious murder plot.

The Great Catsby by B.K. BaxterThe Great Catsby by B.K. Baxter:

Watch what you wish for… Some inheritances are literally death.

My life has been turned upside down by my inheritance, but my only complaint is the cat that came along with the new house.

I swear he’s judging me as I settle in and try to make new friends in my new small-town Louisiana neighborhood.

And just when I start to settle into my new job and get back to reading my classic novels, I’m pulled chapters deep into a mystery.

The Beauty Queen in the town has been offed. Someone has killed the darling.

Wouldn’t you know it? An innocent man has been framed.

I shouldn’t get involved, but somehow, my cat seems to have a way with finding clues in some of my favorite stories. Not that any of that makes sense.

Why would it?

The cat is the sleuth, I’m the amateur, and we have alligators in the backyard.

Throw in a dead body, a book club that’s filled with suspicious characters, and you have my new life.

And I thought being a librarian in Louisiana was going to be dull.

Mystery at the Edge of Madness by Beth ByersMystery at the Edge of Madness by Beth Byers:

July 1925

Severine DuNoir was twelve when she discovered the bodies of her parents, and the day after the funeral, she was sent to a convent in another country. By the time she resolves to go home, her sole focus is to reveal what happened to her parents.

Coming home, however, unveils a far more sinister plot than she could have expected. It’s clear from her first night that something is afoot. The motives are many and the target is clear: Severine herself.

Careless Whisper by Stacy ClaflinCareless Whisper by Stacy Claflin:

Someone is burying teenage girls alive.

It’s been nearly a full year since there were any local kidnappings, but now girls are going missing left and right. There are few commonalities linking them together, and the only evidence Alex Mercer has are the ransom notes left on each victim’s front door.

Tensions mount as clues point to the notorious kidnapping ring driven from town twelve months ago—the same ring that’s tormented him and his loved ones for years.

With so many young lives on the line, Alex is desperate. And he works tirelessly to solve the crimes before anyone dies. But if the ring has returned?

No one could be more determined to shut them down for good.

Cold Case in Spell by J.L. CollinsA Cold Case in Spell by J.L. Collins:

Charming Springs – Where every day is colder than a witch’s kitty!

After ditching her cheating fiancé, Indie Warren hits the road in her trusty old truck, refusing to settle for anyone or anywhere.

But all that changes after Indie gets stuck in the frozen ghost town of Charming Springs, North Carolina.

In the middle of July.

This secret magical town was struck by a curse that brought on eternal winter and cast a barrier around it with no way in or out.

And Indie knows this because the talking owl told her so, obviously.

Suddenly Indie’s thrown into a world of magic, mayhem, and murder. And when she stands accused of the deadly deed, she’ll have to use her wits to prove her innocence… if she can keep her newfound magical powers under control!

Even with the help of her feathered friend and the mysterious reaper with his own secrets, she’ll need to find her own way out of this cursed place—dead or alive.

The Monstrous Seven by Lily Harper HartThe Monstrous Seven by Lily Harper Hart:

Life is going well for Hannah Hickok. Her business – a cosplay western town in Kentucky – is thriving and she’s even interviewing bartenders so she can finally take on different duties in her new world. All that comes to a screeching halt when a guest grabs what’s supposed to be a prop gun and fires it at another guest during an altercation.

Suddenly, death is calling in Casper Creek … and it’s wearing many masks.

Hannah is thrown by the brutality of the action. She’s also confused why her boyfriend Cooper Wyatt was acting out of sorts right before it happened. The questions about exactly what happened are only compounded when the coroner comes back with a shocking report: There was no bullet found in the body and the manner of death is undetermined.

In short order, an FBI agent is put in charge of the case, Casper Creek is shut down, and Hannah and Cooper are plunged into a sundry world of magical creatures with death and destruction on the brain. Thanks to a tip from local witch Astra, Hannah soon realizes she’s grappling with something bigger than she’s ever dealt with before … and it will be seven times as deadly.

War is coming. Hannah’s magic is still a work in progress but she’s going to be put through the paces on this one. She has a new family. It will be up to her to save them when magical forces collide

Is she up to the challenge?

Kicked the Bucket by CeeCee JamesKicked the Bucket by CeeCee James:

Chelsea’s family life is pretty complicated. For starters, the family photo that she’s been carrying for her whole life has been a mystery in itself!

Before she can dig into her past, the present has taken a shocking turn… Chelsea finds a dead body in the pond and sitting on the shore is a bucket of flowers.

The more she learns about the dead man, the more she realizes he’s tied up in the knotted web of her own past. As the clues start to surface, Chelsea wonders if she’s better off leaving this one to the police.

Then a letter arrives threatening everything she ever loved. When the flowers begin to arrive, she realizes she can’t stop now or someone close to her will pay the ultimate consequence.

The Killer Clown Calamity by Amanda M. LeeThe Killer Clown Calamity by Amanda M. Lee:

Charlie Rhodes’ life is in turmoil. Her relationship with her boyfriend Jack is going well but Casey, the newest member of the Legacy Foundation, has dropped a bombshell and Charlie feels as if things are spinning out of control. While waiting for DNA results to prove (or disprove, for that matter) Casey’s identity, the team gets called out on a weird case.

It seems sadistic clowns with magical abilities are killing people in the suburbs surrounding Nashville, and the deaths are bloody and horrible. Upon arriving on the scene, Charlie and Jack stumble across an entire cadre of clowns hanging out at the fairgrounds and the game is afoot.

Mystic Caravan Circus isn’t what it appears to be on the surface. Poet Parker, second in command for the circus, is front and center as Jack and Charlie start digging for answers. It seems both sides are keeping secrets, though, and discovering the truth isn’t going to be easy.

Charlie has always zealously guarded her supernatural secret and it seems she’s not the only one, because the moment she crosses the threshold to the circus she senses she’s surrounded by a magical group of otherworldly individuals.

Trust takes time but that’s a precious commodity as the clowns ramp up their attacks. It’s going to take everyone working together to figure out what’s happening … and who is behind it.

Poet and Charlie make a fearsome twosome but they might not be enough to take on this particular threat. Everybody hates a clown, and when this trio declares war, the horror that follows will haunt an entire city.

Charlie is determined to deal with the clowns before focusing on her personal life. She has to survive to find answers, though, and it’s going to take every ounce of power she has to come out safely on the other side.

Fear is the name of the game, and two heroes are about to collide.

The Nuclear Option by Alan LeveroneThe Nuclear Option by Alan Leverone:

A Soviet tactical nuke has disappeared
and an American city may be targeted…

Still grieving the loss of her father, Tracie Tanner is back at work, tasked with infiltrating the home of a Russian general and acquiring intel regarding a rumored breakthrough in Soviet radar technology.

But what she finds is far more horrifying than a technological advance: a tactical nuclear device has been stolen out of a supposedly secure Soviet military base.

Together, Tracie and CIA Director Aaron Stallings determine that a shadowy group of Russian radicals – anxious for a return to the brutality of a byegone era in the Soviet Union – has acquired the bomb, intending to smuggle it into the United States and spark war by detonating it inside a major American city.

Now, racing against a ticking time bomb – literally – Tracie must get a line on the Russian radicals, desperate to learn where in the United States the bomb has been placed.

But what she finds shocks her to the core, because the group has a different plan for their prize. And Tracie Tanner may be the only one standing between the radicals and thousands of dead innocents…

Phyllis Wong and the Crumpled Stranger by Geoffrey McSkimmingPhyllis Wong and the Crumpled Man by Geoffrey McSkimming:

When Phyllis Wong, that brilliant young magician and clever sleuth, discovers a mysterious stranger who keeps appearing by the rotunda in City Park, little does she know that the Time he brings with him will lead her into a world of danger, intrigue and undiscovered threats from the past!

Will Phyllis’s magic be enough to save her from the perils that will cross her path? Will she be able to solve the riddle of the stranger and the place from which he comes?

A haunting story, swirling through the world of words and the ticking of time!

The seventh Phyllis Wong: Time Detective mystery.

Wired Ghost by Toby NealWired Ghost by Toby Neal:

Paradise is drowning in lava.

What would you do to survive during a volcanic eruption?

Security specialists Sophie and Jake take a job to rescue a teen girl shacked up with a dangerous meth cooker on the Big Island, and their wilderness destination turns out to be in the path of the biggest eruption Hawaii has seen in decades. Soon, they’re embroiled in a natural disaster too hot for anyone to handle.

Trapped underground in a lava tube, engulfed by darkness and heat, they struggle to outrun a deadly force that consumes everything in its path.

All in the Family by Tyler PorterAll in the Family by Tyler Porter:

A new case. A new monster. A city where no family is safe.

Detective Casey Norris has gotten his badge back, after coming out of retirement, and is back in charge of his team of detectives, which features a couple of new members. There is little time for introductions, however, as a new case has hit their desks featuring a monster unlike anything they have ever seen.

Helena has a new serial killer. A killer who has hit a breaking point. A killer who is hunting young families. A sadistic individual who seems to have no limits and who refuses to leave anyone in the city with a feeling of hope or safety.

Norris and his team are in a race against the clock as this new predator allows less and less time between each kill. Norris must work to understand the individual he pursues while fighting through his own personal demons which threaten to derail his case, as well as his life.

Being a part of a family is supposed to create a feeling of comfort and love, but for this killer, it only creates a new target.

Tokyo Traffic by Michael PronkoTokyo Traffic by Michael Pronko:

Running from a life she didn’t choose, in a city she doesn’t know Sukanya, a young Thai girl, loses herself in the vastness of Tokyo. With her Bangkok street smarts, and some stolen money, she stays ahead of her former captors who will do anything to recover the computer she took. After befriending Chiho, a Japanese girl living in an internet café, Sukanya makes plans to rid herself of her pursuers, and her past, forever.

In Tokyo, street smarts aren’t always enough

Meanwhile, Detective Hiroshi Shimizu leaves the safe confines of his office to investigate a porn studio where a brutal triple murder took place. The studio’s accounts point him in multiple directions at once. Together with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi and old-school Takamatsu, Hiroshi tracks the killers through Tokyo’s music clubs and teen hangouts, bayside docks and byways, straight into the underbelly of the global economy.

As bodies wash up from Tokyo Bay, Hiroshi tries to find the Thai girl at the center of it all, whose name he doesn’t even know. He uncovers a human trafficking ring and cryptocurrency scammers whose connections extend to the highest levels of Tokyo’s power elite.

TOKYO TRAFFIC is the third in the Tokyo-based Detective Hiroshi series by award-winning author Michael Pronko.

Some Awful Cunning by Joe RickerSome Awful Cunning by Joe Ricker:

Ryan Carpenter is an underground relocation specialist who helps people escape the danger and traumas of their life and start over. After agreeing to help the young wife of a Texas oil baron relocate her stepson to escape criminal prosecution, Ryan learns more than he wants to about the oil baron, his wife, and the stepson.

Haunted by his own forced relocation, Ryan betrays his client and is forced to scramble for his life, which only puts him face to face with the childhood past he’s been trying to escape his entire life. His flight brings him from Albuquerque, New Mexico; back to New Orleans, Louisiana; where Ryan learned his underground trade as a relocation specialist or “travel agent.” There, Ryan seeks the help of his former mentor to escape the endless resources of the people who will stop at nothing to find Ryan and have him killed.

But first, Ryan’s mentor needs a favor, and that favor forces Ryan back to Ironwood, Maine, a small timber town where Ryan grew up, and where the one person who might figure out who Ryan really is, is an ambitious deputy will stop at nothing to become sheriff. A town where everyone remembers the tragedy that took Ryan and his family’s life.

Or so they thought…

No Man's Land by Ron SchwabNo Man’s Land by Ron Schwab:

“He told me to get the blood hounds. I knew who he wanted. That’s why I’m here.”

In the aftermath of a bloody train robbery, The Pinkerton Detective Agency enlists the newly married detectives Trace and Darby Crockett to track down the gold bullion that was stolen from the train, as well as one of the passengers who was abducted by the outlaws: the fifteen year-old daughter of a railroad executive.

Time is of the essence in bestselling author Ron Schwab’s second Blood Hounds novel, No Man’s Land, as this sprawling Western doubles down on suspense and adventure, providing Trace and Darby with their most dangerous mission yet.

Careful What You Dash For by Isaac SweeneyCareful What You Dash For by Isaac Sweeney:

A serial killer uses Door Dash to lure his prey. He’s got the local police fooled and his property booby trapped. But Sarah is his next target, and she may turn into his greatest challenge.

 

 

 

 

Pineapple Hurricane by Amy VasantPineapple Hurricane by Amy Vasant:

When a Pineapple Port resident is found dead during an approaching hurricane, Charlotte fears someone’s trying to disguise murders as storm-related accidents. The first two victims have more than the storm in common – both were hoarding valuable storm supplies like toilet paper and water.

Hm. Maybe the killer is karma!

Bringing together the area’s community leaders to spread a warning could lead to even more trouble. Last time the Five Families got together, someone ended up dead. But things could be much deadlier if Declan’s crazy ex is right and the Puzzle Killer’s broken out of prison…

And did that lamppost just explode, or is someone trying to kill Charlotte and Declan?

Charlotte vows to solve the crime before the storm hits. Mariska and Darla vow to find some toilet paper for sale, even if they have to call in help from their old neighbor, the revenge-genius, Gloria.

Buckle down for a blustery ride as the storm hits!

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Retro Review: “The Winged Man” by E. Mayne Hull and A.E. van Vogt

Astounding Science Fiction, May 1944“The Winged Man” is a novel by E. Mayne Hull and A.E. van Vogt. It was first serialised in the May and June 1944 issues of Astounding Science Fiction and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here and here. There is also a paperback version, which has apparently been expanded from the magazine version. However, I don’t have the paperback, so this review is based on the magazine version alone. The review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

“The Winged Man” opens in the present day, i.e. 1944, aboard the US Navy submarine Sea Serpent in the Pacific. The Sea Serpent is currently above water and one night, First Officer William Kenlon chances to observe a very large bird flying past. There is only one problem: The Sea Serpent is more than one thousand two hundred miles from the nearest atoll, so where does the bird come from? Furthermore, the bird Kenlon saw is considerably larger than an albatross, the largest bird who could fly more than a thousand miles.

Kenlon discusses this mystery with the Sea Serpent‘s third officer, one Lieutenant Dan Tedders, who almost never sleeps. However, he is asleep when Kenlon rouses him to annoy him with questions about the exact position of the Sea Serpent (which any officer worth his salt could have determined himself). And since this is a story published in Astounding, that conversation is full of infodumps and clumsy “As you know, Bob…” dialogue about albatrosses and the size of the Pacific.

After the infodump, Kenlon decides to take another look outside. The moon breaks through the clouds and Kenlon chances to see the bird again. Only that it isn’t a bird. It’s a man with wings.

Shortly thereafter, Tedders shows up to apologise and technobabble some more about what Kenlon might have seen. Lucky for the reader, Kenlon and Tedders are interrupted before they can launch into another infodump, because the winged man has landed aboard the Sea Serpent and is attaching something to its hull. Kenlon and the winged man fight, before the winged man takes off into the night.

Now we’re in for another endless round of technobabble and infodumping, while Kenlon attempts to remove the device the winged man has attached to the hull. Alas, the device cannot be removed. Though the radio operator of the Sea Serpent is fairly that it’s not a bomb, but some kind of radio device.

Kenlon and submarine commander Jones-Gordon decide to capture the winged man, for otherwise they would never be believed. They succeed, too, but not before the winged man has attached a second device to the hull of the Sea Serpent. The devices cannot be removed and emit a light so bright that the bones of the crewmen aboard the Sea Serpent become visible (I had flashbacks of The Day After at this point, though the device is not a nuclear weapon)

Interrogating the winged man proves to be difficult, for he speaks a language no one aboard can identify, let alone understand. Finally, they begin to communicate via drawings in a notebook.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Sea Serpent suffers various misadventures. One man drowns as Kenlon and several other crewmen fall into the sea. Later, they spot a bleak grey shoreline on the horizon, even though there shouldn’t be any land in more than a thousand miles. An attempt to explore the mysterious landmass causes two more crewmen to die, when they sink into quicksand.

Kenlon, who has a knack for languages, tries to learn the winged man’s language and teach him English. The effort is successful enough that they can communicate. The winged man, whose name is Nemmo, informs Kenlon that the Sea Serpent has been brought a million years into the future via the strange devices Nemmo attached to the hull. It’s amazing that no one aboard the submarine noticed this before Nemmo told them. You’d think they would at least notice that they have lost contact with their command and that no new orders are coming in.

The land is uninhabitable due to “water that fell from space” and created the treacherous quicksand. The winged people were genetically engineered to survive under the new conditions, as were their sworn enemies, a race of amphibious humans, while the regular human died out. The winged people live in a floating metal city in the sky, the amphibian men live in metal citadel under the sea. The two races have been at war for a long time now. Somehow, Nemmo’s people managed to bring a WWII submarine into the far future. They want the Sea Serpent to destroy the citadel of their amphibian enemies, then they will return them to their own time.

Commander Jones-Gordon has no intention of helping the winged people. The US Navy will not be drawn into a private war in the far future. And besides, the only hostile act – kidnapping the Sea Serpent and her crew – was committed by the winged people.

The Sea Serpent finally reaches the island city of the winged people. Kenlon spots other craft in the water around the island. He asks Nemmo about this. Nemmo tells him that other winged people have been sent through time to bring back war machines to defeat their amphibian enemies. However, the amphibians have not been idle either and drag Commander Jones-Gordon down into the sea. Thus ends part one.

Astounding Science Fiction June 1944

Astounding’s covers in the 1940s were hit and miss, but this one definitely falls on the “hit” side of the equation.

Part two begins with Kenlon, now senior officer aboard the Sea Serpent, staring at the spot where Jones-Gordon was dragged into the depths. Kenlon initially wants to go after Jones-Gordon and his kidnappers with the submarine, but quickly realises that’s futile, because Commander Jones-Gordon is surely dead by now, while the amphibians are headed for their underwater city. Kenlon plans to head there as well, catch up with the kidnappers/murderers of Commander Jones-Gordon and torpedo them. However, Nemmo claims not to know the coordinates of the undersea city. Only the council of the winged people knows the exact location.

Kenlon’s interrogation of Nemmo is interrupted by a delegation from one of the other ships the winged people have brought through time. This delegation consists entirely of women, who are escorting a political figure called the Sessa Clen to her wedding. Their ship comes from ten thousand years in the future. Luckily, the commander, a woman named Dorilee, speaks English that Kenlon can understand (though it is very unlikely that the English language will remain even remotely understandable even a thousand years into the future, let alone ten) and also implies that Americans are the only civilised people of the twentieth century. Coincidentally, Dorilee and her squad of Joannas are the only female characters in the story so far and they only appear partway into part two.

Kenlon is quite smitten with Dorilee, while Dorilee infodumps all over him. She explains how her own flying ship works (magnetism), gives him a rundown on the other ships the winged people abducted and also informs Kenlon that Nemmo has been in constant contact with the other winged people. Then Dorilee abruptly decides to take command of the Sea Serpent, because she believes that only a submarine can carry out the winged people’s mission. Kenlon pulls his gun on Dorilee who takes him out with some paralysing crystals.

“A woman was about to capture a fully armed, fully manned United States submarine”, a desperate and paralysed Kenlon muses, while at least this reader cheered Dorilee on, because she is a lot more interesting than the rather dull and bland Kenlon.

Meanwhile, Kenlon is still standing like a statue in his own control room, while musing about the humiliation he just experienced and how this will disgrace him in the eyes of the crew. He is also furious that Dorilee doesn’t even seem to care about the mortal wound she dealt to Kenlon’s honour, because women just cannot understand such things. At this point, my eyes rolled so hard that I almost sprained them.

But Van Vogt and his wife E. Mayne Hull are not yet done with the casual sexism. For when Dorilee, who apparently also likes infodumping to people who can’t answer, informs Kenlon that they need to return to their own time quickly, for otherwise the Sessa Clen whom they are escorting to her marriage will be replaced by her sister, Kenlon muses that a woman on her way to her wedding is more tigress than human being. At this point, my view of Kenlon changed from “bland nonentity, who unfortunately happens to be the protagonist” to “sexist jerk”.

By now, the second and third officer, who were both up on deck, realise what is going on. The second officer tries to retake the control room, only to fall to the paralysing crystals. Third officer Tedders, however, is manning the Sea Serpent‘s anti-aircraft gun and will not stand down. Dorilee now gives Kenlon a device that neutralises the paralysing effect and tell him to order Tedders to stand down. Kenlon, fearing bloodshed, does so.

Once Dorilee and her Joannas have taken over the Sea Serpent, they are eager to set off and destroy the underwater city. However, the winged people are no more willing to give her the coordinates than they were willing to give them to give them to Kenlon. For it turns out that the council of the winged people is still undecided on the plan to destroy the stronghold of their enemies. This is a problem, because the council is supposed to be omniscient. And so the council demand to see Kenlon first. They do not ask to see Dorilee, at least not now. But then, Van Vogt and Hull have been referring to the winged people as the “winged men” throughout. Apparently, sexism is still a thing one million years in the future.

Kenlon is taken to the city of the winged people and now Van Vogt and Hull finally remember that where there are winged men, there will be winged women as well. None of them get any lines – all we get are some descriptions of Kenlon ogling them, before he decides to ogle the flying city instead.

But before Kenlon gets to meet the council, he first finds his consciousness transferred into the body of a winged being. Kenlon experiences the wonders of flight and joins in with the winged people sunbathing, singing and dancing high above the clouds that now envelop the Earth. But before Kenlon can actually talk to anybody, he suddenly finds himself underwater swimming, his consciousness suddenly transferred into the body of an amphibian person. The amphibians are on a shark hunt with Kenlon along for the ride. And then, once the shark has been captured and killed, Kenlon finds himself taken to the underwater city. He notes that the amphibians are all busily working, whereas the winged people prefer to flit about, while singing and dancing. Kenlon also learns a little about the main problem facing the amphibians – more and more of their number are succumbing to the lure of the sea and deserting the city – and meets an amphibian woman. This one even gets a few lines, mostly to berate the amphibian menfolk for their fascination with the sea and to inform us that women who take to the sea can never return to the city. Whether in the air or under water, sexism is clearly alive and well in the year 999999 A.D.

The Winged Man

This psychedelic cover for The Winged Men dates from 1970.

The scenes of Kenlon experiencing the joys of flying and swimming are nigh hallucinatory. In fact, it is striking how many scenes there are in golden age SFF that read like transcripts of drug trips. I always assumed the association of SFF and drugs was mainly a product of the New Wave, but it was already a thing in the 1930s and 1940s.

Just before Kenlon is returned to his own body, he witnesses several amphibians dragging the limp body of Commander Jones-Gordon through an airlock into the underwater city and announcing that he will be easy enough to revive. So Jones-Gordon is alive after all.

However, Kenlon doesn’t have time to muse about this, before the council of the winged people asks him to decide which of the two humanoid species on this far future Earth – the amphibians or the winged people – should survive. For both species believe that the Earth is not big enough for both of them and are planning to destroy the other. The amphibians have the better chance, because they have powerful tractor beams that are slowly dragging the flying city into the sea. However, the winged people have Kenlon and a submarine.

There is no real reason why this weighty decision should fall to Kenlon other than that he is the protagonist and currently in command (at least in theory) of the lone vessel that can destroy the underwater city. The council of the winged people also make it very clear that they don’t want an alliance with Dorilee and her all-women troop of Joannas (who actually are in command of the Sea Serpent), for only Kenlon can resolve their dilemma. Gee, I wonder why.

Once the council of the winged men have said their piece, they return Kenlon to the Sea Serpent where a furious Dorilee is waiting for him. Turns out that Kenlon has been gone for three days, not a few hours as he initially assumed. It also turns out that Dorilee did not get the amazing drug trip of flying with the winged people and swimming with the amphibians, when she was questioned by the council. Instead, she was merely taken to a room with what sounds like a primitive computer.

Dorilee is eager to attack the undersea city, so they can all return to their own times. Kenlon, however, does not want to attack the city, because that would mean killing Commander Jones-Gordon. Of course, Kenlon doesn’t even particularly like the man, but he still feels dutybound to rescue him. Furthermore, Kenlon finds that he does not want to exterminate an entire species, even though his commanders are planning to do the same thing to the Japanese.

It is depressing that by the standards of Astounding Science Fiction in 1944, a character realising that genocide is bad is a step forward. After all, in Fredric Brown’s “Arena”, published in the same year, genocide was the solution to the protagonist’s dilemma. It’s also disturbing how many science fiction stories published in 1944, mainly in Astounding, but also elsewhere, feature two species so different and hostile to each other that the universe/galaxy/solar system/planet is only big enough for one of them. Yes, I know it was in the middle of World War II, but fanzines from the same era often contain musing about how science fiction can bring about a better and peaceful world for everybody, so why were the prozines so genocidal?

However, Dorilee is still bound on destroying the undersea city and the amphibians. The hatches are closed and the engines start up. However, Dorilee and her Joannas have made a fatal mistake. They use the Diesel engines not the electrical motors. And the Diesel engines require so much oxygen that they quickly exhaust the entire submarine’s air supply. One by one, the Joannas pass out. Kenlon, however, was lucky enough to grab an oxygen tank just in time. He disarms the Joannas, strips them nude, because they might have weapons or shields hidden in their underwear (yes, honestly, that’s the reason given in the story) and locks them in the torpedo room. However, Kenlon has regained his honour and standing in the eyes of his crew and that clearly matters more than the fact that he just stripped and groped more than forty women.

No sooner has Kenlon regained control of the Sea Serpent that the amphibians return Commander Jones-Gordon. It turns out that Jones-Gordon made a deal with the amphibians. They will return the Sea Serpent to its own time, if Jones-Gordon destroys the city of the winged people, using the warheads from the torpedoes as bombs and the submarine’s onboard sea plane to launch them. Kenlon wants nothing to do with this, after all he has just come to the conclusion that genocide is bad.

Luckily, Kenlon speaks the language of the winged people and Jones-Gordon does not. And so he tells the winged people to seize Jones-Gordon and himself. Then he sets course for the undersea city and fires torpedoes into the city’s central computer a.k.a. “council” and the tractor beam emitter, while leaving ninety-five percent of the city intact. This way, the amphibians no longer pose a threat to the winged people.

Jones-Gordon forgives Kenlon for his mutiny and the Sea Serpent is returned to 1944 – without Nemmo and the Joannas, of course.

The Winged Man by A.E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull

An impressive minimalist cover for “The Winged Man” from 1967.

Short fiction rather than novels was the beating heart of the science fiction genre during the golden age. As a result, the novel category at the Retro Hugos is often full of left-field finalist. However, pickings were truly slim in 1944 for The Winged Man to make the Retro Hugo ballot. For the novel is, to put it politely, not very good.

For starters, it’s much too long. There is no reason that this story needs to be novel-length. It would have worked just as well as a novella or even novelette. But as it is, The Winged Man feels padded. A large portion of the novel is being taken up by Kenlon musing about his commander, whom he dislikes because Jones-Gordon is too rigid and unimaginative, Kenlon nursing his wounded masculinity, after Dorilee takes over his ship, and Kenlon wondering whether to commit genocide and how to extract himself and his ship from the dilemma in which they find themselves. As a result, we spend an awful lot of time in the head of Kenlon, who’s simply not a very likeable character. He’s dull, bland and a raging sexist.

The same description could also apply to the novel as a whole. For while pulp science fiction can be many things, it rarely is boring. The Winged Man, however, is just dull. For large stretches of the story, very little happens. And even if something happens, it isn’t particularly exciting. Even action scenes are dull. What little happens is also quite often confusing. There were several moments where I thought, “Wait a minute, what just happened? Did I miss something?” The pacing of the novel is simply off.

Terra: Im Reich der Vogelmenschen

This German cover from 1967 accurately illustrates the story for once.

Submarines were a popular subject for pulp fiction from the 1930s well into the 1950s and beyond, not just in the US but in Germany as well. As a result, I have read my share of submarine adventures and none of them manage to make life and battle aboard a submarine as dull as The Winged Man. For SFF stories about submarines published in 1944 alone, “Undersea Guardians” by Ray Bradbury is much better than this turkey.

But while part I is merely dull, part II is so suffused with glaring sexism that it’s hard to imagine that The Winged Man was co-written by (and in the magazine version, solely credited to) a woman, E. Mayne Hull, A.E. van Vogt’s first wife. I forgive Hull and Van Vogt for not including any women in the first part, because there were no women on submarines of any nation during World War II. However, the treatment of Dorilee and her Joannas in part II is unforgivable. Yes, the idea of an all-women military unit was revolutionary in 1944 (and there are still plenty of people in the SFF genre today who have issues with the idea of women soldiers). And to be fair, Dorilee isn’t particularly likeable – after all, she does commandeer the Sea Serpent after taking out her crew, though she doesn’t want to kill anybody, if she doesn’t have to. She is also fully willing to commit genocide, but then so is Commander Jones-Gordon.

However, Kenlon’s blatant dismissal of Dorilee’s motives grates. Yes, it’s only a wedding, but Kenlon himself admits that he has no idea how weddings work and what they mean in the future world from whence Dorilee hails. It’s well possible that the failure of the bride to appear at her wedding might mean summary execution for the bride and her retinue. It might mean that the bride’s home country is bombed into submission – after all, it’s clearly a political wedding. We don’t know the consequences of the bride missing her wedding and neither does Kenlon. Nonetheless, he is convinced that the Sessa Clen, the woman Dorilee serves, is merely a bridezilla willing to do whatever it takes to get her perfect wedding.

The fact that Dorilee and her Joannas are defeated by their lack of knowledge about how WWII submarines work grates as well, even though the text makes it clear that the reason for their ignorance is the fact that the technology is so old that any knowledge they have about it is spotty. Nonetheless, there is an unpleasant undertone of “women are just too stupid to understand science” here, especially since oh so superior Kenlon manages to stay conscious, because he knows how his own submarine works.

The Winged Man by A.E. Van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull

I assume the woman on this 1980 cover is Dorilee, but why are the men dressed like extras from Battestar Galactica, when they should be wearing Navy uniforms?

But the most annoying thing is being treated to pages upon pages of Kenlon nursing his wounded masculinity and worrying that the crew will no longer respect him, now he has been beaten by a woman (Dude, I’m pretty sure the crew can’t stand you anyway, because you’re an insufferable prick). And then we get Kenlon whining that Dorilee will never understand how she has humiliated him, because she is just a woman. Never mind that Dorilee is a military commander as well and therefore Kenlon’s equal and would probably understand his worries about losing the respect of his subordinates. Most likely, it simply never occurs to her that the fact that she is a woman would be a problem for Kenlon. And don’t even get me started on Kenlon personally stripping every single Joanna aboard naked. But he doesn’t do it because he enjoys it (yeah, I bet he doesn’t), but because the Joannas might have hidden weapons or shields in their underwear. Honestly, the supposed hero of this story gropes and strips more than forty unconscious women. I cannot imagine such a scene flying anywhere in modern SFF.

All of the above could be blamed on the fact that the POV character of the novel just happens to be a sexist jerk. However, the sexism in The Winged Man is not just in Kenlon’s head – no, the whole novel is suffused with casual sexism. It begins with the fact that the two species competing for dominance on the Earth of the far future are referred to as the winged men and the fishmen throughout the novel. And while we do meet females of both species, the winged women never get any lines at all and the lone amphibian woman only gets to nag the menfolk for being too enamoured with the sea. Finally, there is the fact that it is Kenlon of all people who is asked to make the final decision about the fate of the winged people and the amphibians. Not Dorilee or Commander Jones-Gordon or the Sessa Clen or any of the people aboard the other ships that have been abducted into the future, but Kenlon, whose only distinguishing qualities are that he is an annoying jerk who happens to be the protagonist.

The Winged Man

This cover of “The Winged Man” depicts the citadel of the winged people.

Talking of which, I also find it extremely unlikely that a WWII submarine, even a particularly advanced one, is the mightiest weapon to be found in one million years. That’s like claiming the Wilhelm Bauer, the most advanced submarine of its time (which – though still powered by both diesel engines and electrical motors – was a lot less likely to accidentally suffocate its crew than the Sea Serpent) built in the last days of WWII, was the mightiest weapon in all of creation. Yes, if you want to destroy an underwater city, a submarine is a good bet. And while the military usefulness of submarines will eventually decline – though I suspect that the aircraft carriers the Americans love so much will be gone before submarines – grabbing a nuclear submarine with nuclear warheads from a couple of decades later would have been much more effective. And yes, Van Vogt and Hull had no way of knowing this. But claiming that a WWII submarine is the most mightiest weapon of all time is extreme even for John W. Campbell’s well known superiority complex.

So far, I have been very harsh on The Winged Man and frankly, the novel deserves it, because it really is not very good. However, there were some aspects about the story that I liked, so let’s focus upon them: For starters, I like the fact that genocide is not the answer in this novel. Yes, I know that “Genocide is bad” is a low bar to clear, but there are 1944 SFF stories (as well as many later ones) which fail to clear even that low bar (“Arena”, cough). I also like that Commander Jones-Gordon is initially unwilling to get involved in the conflict between the winged people and the amphibians, because it’s not the US Navy’s job to get involved in other people’s wars. Of course, Jones-Gordon still goes fully genocidal at the end and the US would get involved in other people’s wars plenty of times over the next seven decades, but by 1944 standards “Genocide is bad” and “We keep out of other people’s conflicts that we neither understand nor do they have anything to do with us” are remarkably progressive statements.

Another thing I liked about The Winged Man is that the plot largely makes sense and is free of the random plot twists every 800 words or so that Van Vogt was so fond of. I suspect that this is the influence of E. Mayne Hull.

De Gevleugelde Man

This Dutch cover from 1974 is probably my favourite of all the many covers “The Winged Man” has had over the decades.

I also liked some of the worldbuilding details such as the fact that the winged people’s numbering system has a base of nine rather than ten. The descriptions of the citadels of the winged people and the amphibians respectively are suitably alien and yet make perfect sense for the beings that inhabit them. Van Vogt and Hull also at least considered the biological implications of the humanoid beings they introduce, e.g. the winged men have hollow bones to allow them to fly and the amphibians are bigger than regular humans and have gills.

However, the few good aspects don’t make up for the fact that The Winged Man is a slog and simply not a good novel. If not for the fact that there are still many fans who like Van Vogt’s work, I doubt it would have made the Retro Hugo ballot. Cause it’s just not Hugo-worthy in my opinion (unlike Van Vogt’s much better “Far Centaurus”). If it wins, I shall be very cross, especially since both Shadow Over Mars and Sirius are much better.

 

 

 

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The Return of Richard Blakemore and a Long Overdue Multiple New Release Announcement

It has been a while since I had a new release announcement, even though I have had new releases in the meantime. However, some of the vendors were really dragging their feet in getting the books up. Still, better late than never.

In May, I – or rather, Richard Blakemore – published two new Thurvok sword and sorcery stories. Both stories grew out of last year’s July short story challenge. Talking of which, July is around the corner. I’m planning to continue the tradition and do another short story challenge this year, though it will probably be truncated, especially with Worldcon taking place at the end of the month.

But now back to Thurvok: The first story has Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha facing off against a swamp monster and rescuing a damsel in distress.

So buckle up and accompany Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha, as they battle…

The Thing from the Dread Swamp
The Thing from the Dread Swamp by Cora BuhlertWhile travelling through the Dread Swamp, Thurvok, the sellsword, and his friends, Meldom, thief, cutpurse and occasional assassin, Meldom’s sweetheart Lysha and the sorceress Sharenna come across an overturned wagon and the terrified merchant Polyxo who babbles that a monster has taken his daughter Cerissa. Because they are heroes – and because Polyxo has offered them a sizeable reward – the quartet of adventurers offers to rescue Cerissa from the thing that lives in the Dread Swamp.

This is a short story of 5300 words or 19 print pages in the Thurvok sword and sorcery series, but may be read as a standalone. Includes an introduction and afterword.

More information.
Length: 5300 words
List price: 0.99 USD, EUR or GBP
Buy it at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon France, Amazon Netherlands, Amazon Spain, Amazon Italy, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Japan, Amazon India, Amazon Mexico, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple iTunes, Google Play, Scribd, Smashwords, Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, Buecher.de, DriveThruFiction, Casa del Libro, Vivlio, 24symbols and XinXii.

In the second new Thurvok story, Thurvok and the gang take to the high seas go in search of a legendary treasure. Unfortunately, it happens to be guarded by a Lovecraftian horror.

So prepare to face…

The Tentacled Terror
The Tentacled Terror by Richard Blakemore and Cora BuhlertThurvok, the sellsword, and his friends Meldom, thief, cutpurse and occasional assassin, the sorceress Sharenna and Meldom’s sweetheart Lysha set sail for the sunken city of Nhom’zonac, looking for the lost treasure of the Sea Kings. But they have to get past the Lovecraftian horror guarding the city first.

This is a short story of 5300 words or 19 print pages in the Thurvok sword and sorcery series, but may be read as a standalone. Includes an introduction and afterword.

 

 

More information.
Length: 5300 words
List price: 0.99 USD, EUR or GBP
Buy it at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon France, Amazon Netherlands, Amazon Spain, Amazon Italy, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Japan, Amazon India, Amazon Mexico, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple iTunes, Google Play, Scribd, Smashwords, Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, Buecher.de, DriveThruFiction, Casa del Libro, Vivlio, 24symbols and XinXii.

But Richard Blakemore hasn’t only been busy writing. After all, he still has his other career as the masked vigilante known only as the Silencer going on. I actually published a new Silencer story in late January and only now realised that I never officially announced it. With everything that happened this year, I just forgot to announce that story.

The story in question is called The Heavy Hand of the Editor and I have described it on Twitter as “The Silencer meets John W. Campbell – ’nuff said.”

The inspiration for that story was that – inspired by the Retro Reviews project – I was planning to write some deliberately retro style science fiction adventures (more on that soon). And since I already had a pen name for retro SFF, I thought, “Why not credit those to Richard Blakemore as well? He was a multi-genre author, after all, so why wouldn’t he have tried his hand at science fiction?”

That got me thinking what sort of science fiction Richard Blakemore would have written. He would probably have written the sort of adventure oriented SF that you used to find in magazines like Planet Stories, Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, because I couldn’t imagine Richard writing the sort of infodumpy hard science fiction found in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction. And even if he had tried to write for Astounding, John W. Campbell‘s rewrite requests and general personality would have quickly driven Richard up the wall to the point that Campbell might well have found himself staring into the Silencer’s silver-plated twin .45 automatics.

And then I thought, “Actually, that’s a great idea for a Silencer story.” And this is how The Heavy Hand of the Editor was born.

Though The Heavy Hand of the Editor doesn’t feature the actual John W. Campbell, but a stand-in called Donald Angus Stuart, editor of an upstart new pulp magazine called Stunning Science Stories. Don A. Stuart was of course the pen name Campbell used to publish what is probably his most famous story, “Who Goes There?” Several other science fiction and pulp writers of the era appear as well.

So prepare to accompany Richard Blakemore a.k.a. The Silencer as he tackles…

The Heavy Hand of the Editor
The Heavy Hand of the Editor by Cora BuhlertNew York City, 1938: Richard Blakemore, hardworking pulp writer by day and the masked vigilante only known as the Silencer by night, has faced many a horror in his day. But few of them can match the terror of the blank page. Especially since Donald A. Stuart, the upstart young editor of an upstart young magazine called Stunning Science Stories, has already rejected Richard’s story “The Icy Cold of Space” four times.

Stuart demands changes that Richard does not want to make. Worse, he also holds Richard’s story hostage. Unless Stuart permanently rejects the story, Richard cannot sell it elsewhere.

There are a lot of shady practices in the pulp business, but Stuart’s actions are beyond the pale even for the wild west of publishing. And so the Silencer decides to pay Stuart a visit to put the fear of God into an editor who believes himself to be one.

This is a novelettes of 10800 words or approx. 38 print pages in the Silencer series, but may be read as a standalone.

Any resemblances to editors, writers and magazines living, dead or undead are entirely not coincidental.

More information.
Length: 10800 words
List price: 0.99 USD, EUR or GBP
Buy it at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon France, Amazon Netherlands, Amazon Spain, Amazon Italy, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Japan, Amazon India, Amazon Mexico, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Google Play, Scribd, Smashwords, Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, Buecher.de, DriveThruFiction, Casa del Libro, Vivlio, 24symbols and XinXii.

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Rogue One Revisited

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story happened to be on TV last night. I had spent the afternoon putting up bookshelves, only to be interrupted by a neighbour dropping by, when I was just about finished, so I was too tired to do more than watch TV. And I hadn’t seen Rogue One since it was in theatres three and a half years ago, I decided to give it another watch.

Do we need a spoiler warning for a three and a half years old film? In that case, consider yourselves warned.

Rogue One was always a bit of an oddity among the Star Wars movies. It was the second new Star Wars movie made after Disney took over Lucasfilm and the first (unless you count the two Ewok movies of the 1980s, which most people don’t consider official Star Wars films) that only tangentially touched on the core storyline of the saga of the Skywalker family, even though two members of that family appear in the movie.

The original idea behind the movies marketed as “A Star Wars Story” was to fill in gaps and holes in the ongoing saga of the Skywalker family and focus on side characters from the main saga. It’s not a bad idea at all – one of the things that makes the Star Wars universe so rich as that every character, including the person (in the loosest sense of the word) who just walked into the frame in the top right corner, as their own name and backstory and that story will likely be a compelling one. Fanfiction and the various tie-in novels quite often filled that gap – after all, even the guy seen running through Cloud City carrying what looks like an ice cream machine (The Mandalorian revealed that it was really some kind of secure storage box) for about five seconds in The Empire Strikes Back got to have his own story.

Nonetheless, Rogue One‘s choice of narrative gap to plug is a weird one, because “Just how exactly did the rebels come by those Death Star plans?” was not exactly high on the list of burning questions about the original trilogy that Star Wars fans had. Never mind that the underwhelming prequels showed that the answer to such questions is often better left to the imagination.

As a result, I initially wasn’t particularly excited about Rogue One and neither – as far as I recall – was anybody else. The Force Awakens had come out barely a year before and had revigorated the franchise better than anybody could have hoped. Rogue One, by comparison, felt like a step backwards, yet another prequel that no one had asked for. I did become more interested once the trailers came out and looked pretty good. I also went to the see film in the theatre, because hey, it was Star Wars. I also recall that I liked Rogue One quite a bit at the time.

However, when I rewatched it last night, I realised that I remember comparatively little about the movie apart from the basic plot and the end. Particularly a lot of the scenes on Jedha and Eadu had completely escaped my memory. And considering that I can quote much of the dialogue of the original trilogy by heart, me having only vague memories of a Star Wars film is certainly unusual, even if I’ve only seen it once.

Rogue One was darker than I remembered, both literally (it’s dark in little’s Jyn’s hiding place, dark in Saw Gerrera’s hideout on Jedha, dark and rainy on Eadu, dark in the Rebel HQ on Yavin IV, dark in Darth Vader’s citadel, dark in the Imperial installation of Scarif) and figuratively.  Of course, I remembered that Rogue One was not exactly a happy Star Wars film. After all, every single character in the film who’s not someone we have seen elsewhere in the Star Wars saga dies. Even Bail Organa, whom we have seen in the prequels, also portrayed by Jimmy Smits, will only go back to Alderaan to die.

Nonetheless, I remembered more banter and more jokes between the various characters than there actually were in the movie.  Hell, even the trailer had more banter than the actual movie.  But then, many of the scenes shown in the trailer don’t actually appear in the movie. Jyn Erso’s first meeting with the council of the Rebellion is quite different (and IMO better) in the trailer. I recall that Rogue One was extensively reshot, which may be the reason for the disparity between the trailers and the actual movie.

The main characters – Jyn, Cassian Andor, Chirrut Imwe, Baze Malbus, Bodhi Rook and K-2SO – are all compelling, which makes it even more of a pity that they all die, before we can get to know them better. Jyn, being the protagonist, is the most developed. Cassian and K-2SO clearly have an interesting backstory. And since Disney is working on a Cassian Andor TV series, we may well get to see more of his life and his missions pre-Rogue One. Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus make a delightful couple (and come on, we know they are a couple, since it’s bleeding obvious) and I really wish we would have seen more of them. As for Bodhi Rook, I mainly remembered him as a plot catalyst, but I had forgotten how good Riz Ahmed is in the role, perfectly conveying the fact that Bodhi is likely shitting his pants throughout the entire movie and does what needs to be done anyway. Forest Whitaker is always good, though he doesn’t get  a whole lot to do as Saw Gerrera. Also, it’s notable that the main crew the movie is named after consists of four men of colour, a white woman and a droid, making Rogue One the second Star Wars movie in a row after The Force Awakens featuring not a single white man among the main heroes. The Last Jedi would make that three movies in a row the following year, causing the usual suspects to completely lose their shit.

On the Imperial side, Ben Mendelsohn is brilliant as Director Krennic. Yes, Krennic may be the villain, but he’s also a lot of fun to watch as he barks orders and struts around the Death Star or the Imperial bases on Eadu and Scarif, cape swooshing. Mads Mikkelsen only briefly appears as Galen Erso, Death Star chief engineer and father of Jyn, but he’s always worth watching. Peter Cushing returns from the grave (literally) as Grand Moff Tarkin and is his usual cadavrous self. Darth Vader shows up as well – including a scene sans armour where he’s in the bath, which is not something I needed to see. Vader’s scenes are only brief, but he does get to force-choke Krennic and single-handedly take out an entire battalion of rebel soldiers. And yes, I know that I shouldn’t consider a scene where Darth Vader kills approximately fifty of the good guys cool, but damn it, that scene is cool.

The production design of Rogue One has been much praised, because it takes great pains to mimic the look of the original trilogy, particularly the movie now known as A New Hope. And indeed, Rogue One looks like a lost 1970s Star Wars movie – more than the prequels or the sequels or Solo ever did. The actors who plays the various Rebel leaders uncannily resemble their counterparts in the original trilogy, though the addition of a black woman Rebel leader is a welcome update. The technology is deliberately dated as well, whether it’s Cassian Andor’s headphones, the primitive computer graphics of the Death Star plans that match the then revolutionary graphics in the 1977 orignal, the fact that the plans are stored on what looks like a hard drive and are retrieved via a Waldo or the fact that a tense scene which gets three main characters killed involves physically plugging a cable (stored on a cable drum, no less) into a socket. It’s obvious by now that the Star Wars films take place in an alternate universe where technology progressed very differently. Rogue One embraces this fully and I for one love how retro it looks and feels.

Rogue One has also been described as a war movie set in the Star Wars universe. It’s not a description I would use – and indeed Rogue One is not that much more military than many other Star Wars movies, though it does focus on regular Rebel fighters rather than Jedi knights and the Rebel leadership. And war films have always been part of the genre mix that makes up Star Wars. The aerial dogfights in Star Wars were famously inspired by the 1955 war movie The Dam Busters. And indeed Rogue One delivers plenty of the space battle action that we have not only come to expect from the Star Wars saga, but that Star Wars apparently made a lot more popular in the space opera genre than it used to be. For more about the connection between Star Wars and war films, let’s not forget that the movie George Lucas initially wanted to make after he finished A New Hope was Apocalypse Now, a Vietnam war movie. But with the mega success of A New Hope, then only known as Star Wars, Lucas focussed on The Empire Strikes Back instead and handed Apocalypse Now over to his good friend Francis Ford Coppola. And indeed, there are some parallels between Apocalypse Now and Rogue One. Both focus on a desperate mission behind enemy lines and both involve the (illegal) order to take out someone who has become a problem. Furthermore, the original trilogy was strongly influenced by the war in Vietnam, so it’s only fitting that the same influence shows up in Rogue One. Though I still wouldn’t call it a war movie. Maybe we can settle on military science fiction.

In my massive Star Wars post-mortem post following the release of The Rise of Skywalker, I noted that even though there are so many romantic sparks flying between various characters in the sequel trilogy, every single one of the main characters is alone at the end, even if they are at leats alive – unlike the protagonists of Rogue One.  Just as the sequel trilogy pretty much proves that there are no happy romantic relationships anywhere in the Star Wars universe, unless we count two elderly lesbians briefly hugging at the end of The Rise of Skywalker. Rogue One cements this trend, for even though Cassian and Jyn are clearly attracted to each other – and it’s pretty obvious that the reason that Cassian does not shoot Jyn’s father is because he liked Jyn a lot, not because he suddenly had an attack of conscience (but why, oh why doesn’t he shoot Krennic?) – they never get beyond smouldering looks, holding hands and hugging. Yes, I know that they die in the end, but would one kiss have been too much to ask? For that matter, a kiss between Chirrut and Baze would have been lovely as well, though I know there was no chance of seeing that, considering that the characters were specifically supposed to appeal to the Chinese market, where a same sex kiss would likely have been cut anyway. And talking of LGBTQ characters in the Star Wars universe, two of the rebel soldiers who join the fight in the end are implied to be a couple as well, though we only see it when one of them is killed and the other holds his body.

In fact, one thing that really irritates me about the Disney era of Star Wars is the complete lack of any kind of romance, especially since Star Wars never was like that during the George Lucas era. The relationship between Han and Leia is one of the best parts of the original trilogy and the romance between Anakin and Padme, though handled badly, lies at the heart of the prequel trilogy. Romance has always been a part of space opera in general and Star Wars in particular, so its complete absence in the Disney Star Wars movies is baffling. What makes it even more baffling is that there would have been plenty of possibilities to inject a bit of romance. Was Disney worried about the fanboys who want no romance in their science fiction? But then, those fanboys don’t really exist. I have never seen anybody object to the Han/Leia romance and the romance between Padme and Anakin was widely decried, because it was badly handled, not because the fans didn’t want romance in their Star Wars.

Another thing that has drastically changed between the Lucas and the Disney era of Star Wars is the portrayal of the Rebellion. In the Lucas era, the rebels were generally good and heroic people, even if we didn’t see a whole lot of rebels not named Luke, Leia or Han. In Rogue One, on the other hand, the Rebellion is not just far from heroic – Cassian Andor is basically a hired killer for the Rebellion – but also bloody incompetent. They not only manage to bomb their own team and almost kill them on Eadu – no, when faced with news about the Death Star, half of the rebel council doesn’t believe Jyn and the other half wants to surrender at once. Jyn, Cassian and the rest of the Rogue One team only make the eventual victory over the Empire possible, because they explicitly ignore orders and go off to Scarif on their own. The Rebel fleet eventually comes to their aid, but it’s too late and every single member of the Rogue One team dies. And they don’t even get a posthumous medal, all they get is a “May the Force Be With You” from Admiral Raddus (the Mon Calamari commander who’s not Admiral Ackbar), before Raddus dies as well. How exactly did this bunch of incompetents triumph over the Empire again?

That said, the different portrayal of the Rebellion in the original trilogy and Rogue One isn’t as irreconcilable as it seems at first glance. For in the original trilogy, we mainly see the Rebellion through the eyes of Luke and Leia, both of whom are young, idealistic and true believers. Luke was a naive farmboy anyway and Leia was likely sheltered from the nastier aspects of the Rebellion such as the fact that the Rebellion sanctions assassinations of people who are not enemies such as Galen Erso and the guy Cassian kills in the beginning. Han Solo likely had a more cynical or more realistic view of the Rebellion – after all, he only joined out of friendship for Luke and love for Leia and not for any political reasons – but the original trilogy does not choose to show us his point of view. It’s also interesting that Rogue One reverses the Han/Leia dynamic. In Rogue One, Cassian Andor is the one who have been a supporter of the Rebellion since childhood – though his life is far less sheltered than Leia’s – whereas Jyn is the cynical opportunist and petty criminal who is initially only out for herself, before she sees the light.

Rogue One was the first Star Wars movie which gave us a less than glorious image of the Rebellion and did set the tone for later stories in the Star Wars universe. I suspect we might never have had the delightful Cara Dune, former Rebel shocktrooper turned mercenary in The Mandalorian, if we hadn’t had Cassian Andor first. In fact, here is an idea for the Cassian Andor TV show: Have Cassian and Cara team up for a mission.

Rogue One also reinforces the portrayal of the Star Wars universe as a truly horrible place that permeates all of the Disney Star Wars movies. Not that the Star Wars universe was exactly a happy place in the original trilogy, but then it was a galaxy suffering under a brutal dictatorship (which actually seems more brutal in Rogue One and the sequel trilogy, because instead of blowing up Alderaan from a distance and a blink and you’ll miss it look at the charred corpses of Owen and Beru Lars, we get plenty of scenes of people getting killed and tortured on screen). However, the original trilogy allowed us the illusion that the Star Wars universe was a better place once and would be a better place once again. Even the prequels did not destroy that illusion, because they were clearly set during the decline of the Old Republic rather than at its height. The sequel trilogy, on the other hand, showed that everything Han, Luke and Leia fought for in the original trilogy was for naught in the end. The Empire was never fully beaten after all, but reared its ugly head again as the First Order. And our heroes were not allowed to find personal happiness either. Even Palpatine did not have the decency to stay dead. With the sequel trilogy, the Star Wars saga changed from the story of the fall and rise of the Republic and the extermination and rebirth of the Jedi Order into an endless cycle of misery. As I wrote in my massive Star Wars post-mortem last December:

The Star Wars universe is a crappy place, always was and always will be.

Furthermore, Rogue One demonstrates once again the biggest problem of the Star Wars universe, namely the huge number of orphaned and abandoned kids created by the endless wars and the complete lack of any kind of social services infrastructure to take care of those kids. Luke and Leia were the lucky ones, since they found loving and stable homes homes with Owen and Beur Lars or Bail Organa and his unnamed wife respectively (and though Bail Organa appears to have been a good father, he did drag Leia into the Rebellion and almost got her killed), whereas Han Solo grew up as a nameless street kid. Baby Yoda got lucky, too, since he found himself a good Mandalorian Dad. And Mando himself didn’t fare too badly either, because the Mandalorians do seem to genuinely care for the orphaned kids they take in, even if they turn them into soldiers following their warrior religion, because “this is the way”. The Jedi, meanwhile, don’t even have the decency to take only orphans – instead they take kids away from their families to turn them into warrior monks. And while the Jedi didn’t fail every kid they took in, they certainly failed Anakin and they also failed those Force sensitives they mysteriously missed like Chirrut Imwe. And honestly, how did the Jedi miss Chirrut Imwe, considering he must have been about thirty when the Republic fell and thus would have been of Jedi training age when the Old Republic was still doing well? And because snatching kids from their families worked so well for the Jedi, the First Order decided to do the same and snatched kids like Finn and Janna from The Rise of Skywalker to turn them into Stormtroopers. Jyn Erso, meanwhile, loses both her parents in the opening scenes of Rogue One and is an orphan for all intents and purposes, even though her father is still alive. She does get relatively lucky, because she is taken in by Saw Gerrera. Alas, Gerrera trains her to be a soldier in his radical rebel splinter cell and later abandons her as well (supposedly for her own good), when Jyn was only sixteen. I remembered this bit of the movie, but I did not remember that Cassian Andor was an orphan, too, inducted into the Rebellion at the tender age of six! Jynn and Cassian are basically former child soldiers, as are Finn, Anakin, Mando, Janna and basically every Mandalorian or Jedi we see. And frankly, the proliferation of child soldiers in the Star Wars saga is disturbing, especially since the narrative never comments on this, because “this is the way”. The Star Wars universe is basically one huge failed state, which first creates countless orphans due to its endless wars and then proceeds to turn said orphans into cannon fodder for those same wars.

But whereas the sequel trilogy – even though I like the individual movies – changed the whole dynamic of the Star Wars saga to a cycle of endless misery, Rogue One being a dark and depressing movie – probably the most depressing of all Star Wars movies – is actually appropriate. Because Rogue One is not just set at the height of the Empire’s power, it literally represents the darkest hour that comes just before the dawn, that dawn being A New Hope. And indeed, Rogue One ends just before A New Hope begins, with Princess Leia being given the Death Star plans.

Even though the above may sound a little harsh, I still like Rogue One. Visually, it comes as close to the late 1970s aesthetics of the original trilogy as no other Star Wars film has ever come. The story is solid and the characters are likeable and compelling, even they die before we can really get to know them. Rogue One was also the first attempt of the live action part of the Star Wars franchise to move away from the Skywalker family, the Jedi and stories focussed on them, paving the way for the delight that is The Mandalorian. Of course, Rogue One also shares many of the issues I have with the Disney Star Wars movies. Nonetheless, in retrospect it’s amazing that a movie like Rogue One that tells a story no one was particularly interested in was made at all, especially since other planned Star Wars anthology movies like one focussed on popular characters like Obi-Wan or Boba Fett have long been scrapped or relegated to TV. In the end, Rogue One may have done more to move the Star Wars saga forward than the entire sequel trilogy.

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Retro Review: “A God Named Kroo” by Henry Kuttner

Thrilling Wonder Stories, Winter 1944

This cover has nothing to do with “A God Named Kroo” and instead illustrates “Venusian Nightmare” by Ford Smith

“A God Named Kroo” is a novella by Henry Kuttner, this time writing under his own name. It was first published in the Winter 1944 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

“A God Named Kroo” begins with Kroo, a minor village god in the Himalayas. Kroo has a problem, for his last worshipper died fifty years before. Ever since then, Kroo’s temple has lain abandoned, avoided by the villagers. Now the only follower that Kroo has is a yak, which wandered onto the temple grounds one day in search of food and now belongs to Kroo according to ancient tradition.

And so Kroo would eventually have faded away for lack of attention and worshippers, if American archaeologist and ethnologist Dr. Horace Danton hadn’t come along in dire need of a yak, for two of his have died and the rest are exhausted. The villagers are reluctant to sell Danton the yak, for it belongs it Kroo, but eventually the almighty dollar wins out. Danton now has a yak and Kroo has a new acolyte.

The point of view shifts to Danton now. We learn that he has been travelling the Himalayas for two years, cut off from all news. Idly, he wonders how the European war (what we would call World War II) is doing, unaware that the war is purely European no longer (and frankly never was in the first place, though Danton views the war between Japan and China as a separate conflict).

Kroo first makes his presence felt, when his sacred yak falls into a ravine and Kroo levitates it to safety. He also follows Danton and his native guide Jieng in the form of a thundercloud. When Danton mentions the mystery of the floating yak to Jieng, Jieng points out that he initially assumed the yak was a magician or a god in disguise, but when he questioned the yak, the yak did not answer. Jieng also noticed the thundercloud long before Danton did (but then Danton is your typical absent-minded professor type rather than Indiana Jones) and suggests that Danton may have become a living buddha. When Jieng mentions the goddess Kali whom he worships (Kuttner does not explain why a man with a vaguely Chinese name worships a Hindu goddess), there is a sound of thunder, which Jieng takes for a sign that another god is present. Danton, being a sceptical westerner, will have none of this.

Before the debate can go any further, Danton and Jieng are interrupted by a native attack. However, Kroo will not lose his newfound acolyte and so he picks off the attackers with well-aimed lightning bolts. And as if all this were not yet strange enough, Danton and the yak are suddenly lifted into the air and briefly find themselves sitting upon the thundercloud. And once Kroo sets them down again, he suddenly begins speaking through the very confused Danton, demanding the Jieng and the rest of the expedition worship Kroo or suffer the consequences.

Kroo also declares Danton his high priest. A conversation between Kroo and his new high priest follows, even though Danton is basically talking to himself. Danton understandably thinks that he is having a mental breakdown and also drinks a lot of whiskey, while Kroo tries to convince Danton that he is real. But only when Kroo levitates Danton into the air again and threatens to fly him halfway to the Moon does Danton relent. Kroo now demands that his high priest provide him with a temple. Danton meanwhile tells Kroo that he doesn’t want to be his high priest, because he has no idea what to do. All he wants is to go home to the States. Kroo asks where the States are and Danton says eastwards, ever eastwards. He is clearly confused by the experience, because New York, where Danton wants to go, is west of Tibet. Nonetheless, Kroo obliges and flies Danton and the yak eastwards.

However, Kroo is weakened and so he only gets as far as Burma (nowadays, we would call it Myamar) to a town called Myapur (likely fictional, at any rate no town by that name exists in modern day Myamar), where he decides to find a temple, evict the resident god, if necessary, and rest awhile. However, the “temple” upon which Kroo decides is really a power station and it is guarded by Japanese soldiers who have taken over the formerly British colony of Burma. Kroo dumps off Danton and yak inside the power station and goes in search of the resident god to challenge him to a duel.

Danton, meanwhile, finds himself confronted by some very angry Japanese soldiers. But though Danton speaks Japanese, he has no idea that the US are at war with Japan now. The Japanese soldiers assume that Danton is a spy, arrest him and take him to their commander, one Captain Yakuni. There he also meets another western prisoner, a young woman named Deborah Hadley, who came to Burma as a singer in a travelling show. Deborah is no wilting wallflower. She smokes, wears pants, curses (in Gaelic, so not to upset the censors), knows how to fly a plane and banters with Yakuni and Danton (whom she calls Dan, because she dislikes the name Horace). At one point, she tells Yakuni to have the hapless Danton shot, because he obviously doesn’t have the brains to be a spy. Imagine Katherine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall playing her in a movie and you’ve got the idea.

When Yakuni qustions Danton, Danton manages to put himself perilously close to the wrong side of a firing squad. He politely asks Yakuni for transport, because he urgently needs to get his specimens and data back to the US, which goes down about as well as you’d expect. Yakuni also wants to know how Danton got from Tibet to Burma. Danton obviously cannot tell the truth, so he claims he was hypnotised and only came to in the power station.

Yakuni decides not to shoot Danton for now and instead asks Deborah to show him around. Deborah takes Danton to a bar and catches him up on recent events. She also tell Danton that Yakuni needs the power station, because he is manufacturing bombs from a special, electrolytically created superexplosive. Deborah wants to either get word to the allied forces or destroy the power station herself and enlists Danton’s help. Danton also tells Deborah about Kroo, but naturally she doesn’t believe him.

Kroo picks just that moment to return and work another miracle. He levitates Danton and the yak into the air and has Danton order Burmese and Japanese (and Deborah) alike to worship him. The Burmese comply, the Japanese try to shoot down Danton and get fried by lightning bolts for their trouble. Deborah procures a dead goat as an offering to Kroo, which pacifies him for now.

Yakuni, on the other hand, is not at all pacified. He has Danton arrested again and demands to know what exactly is going on. Danton of course can’t explain and then Kroo starts speaking through him again, demanding that Yakuni worship him. And when Yakuni refuses, Kroo starts to curse him using Danton’s voice. As a result, Kroo almost gets his high priest shot by the furious Yakuni, but luckily he decides that discretion is the better part of valour and teleports Danton and Deborah to his “temple”, before Yakuni can pull the trigger.

At the “temple”, really the power station, Kroo makes Deborah his priestess, informs Danton that he has gotten rid of the men who defiled the temple (Japanese soldiers who were supposed to repair a broken dynamo, before Kroo reduced them to piles of ashes) and demands that they prepare the temple for a sacrifice. Kroo departs and Deborah and Danton discuss what to do now. They both realise that the Japanese will shoot them, should they find them in the power station. Deborah suggests wrecking the power station and Danton grabs a sledge hammer that is conveniently lying around and proceeds to smash the dynamos. This brings Kroo back, who considers the dynamos his altars and will not have them touched. Deborah persuades Kroo that this was all part of the ritual. Kroo relents and demands that Danton go outside the temple to bring Kroo’s commandments to the people.

“I’ll tell the Japanese what you want”, Danton tells Kroo, “But they won’t listen. They’ll just shoot me.”

Kroo confidently replies that he will protect his priest. So Danton goes out and promptly finds himself starring into the barrels of dozens of Japanese rifles. Yakuni orders his soldiers to shoot Danton, but Kroo intervenes and freezes them. He then declares a holiday in his honour and demands that his worshippers celebrate. A Burmese man points out that they don’t have any food, because the Japanese took it all, so Kroo promptly raids the Japanese stores and teleports that food into the street, much to the delight of the Burmese and the chagrin of Captain Yakuni.

Kroo finally unfreezes the Japanese soldiers and demand that they join in the celebration. And just to make a point, he incinerates several Japanese soldiers who advance upon the power station. So Yakuni and his soldiers pretend to go along and join the festivities to honour Kroo. Several soldiers try to seize and shoot Danton, but once more Kroo intervenes, incinerates the soldiers and then erupts into a thunderstorm. He also lifts Yakuni up into the air and has Danton order him to worship Kroo or be incinerated. Then Kroo orders a tournament to be held to determine the chieftain of his tribe, which Kroo personally will oversee while inhabiting the body of the yak.

Left alone at the power station, Danton and Deborah decide to steal some of Yakuni’s bombs and blow up the power station, even if that will infuriate Kroo. However, they find that Kroo’s taboo is too strong. Nor can they radio for help, because Yakuni has disabled the radio. Danton is also certain that Yakuni has not truly given in, even though he is pretending to go along with Kroo for now.

Over the next few days, Danton proceeds to manipulate Kroo. First, he persuades Kroo to make Danton and Deborah invulnerable. Kroo does grant them invulnerability, but only if they remain near the sacred yak. Next, Danton persuades Kroo to have the people build a floating temple, which conveniently doubles as a raft. Finally, Danton persuades Kroo that in order to become a better and more legendary god, he needs to symbolically die and be reborn.

So Kroo goes into hibernation. Danton and Deborah take the chance to board the floating temple together with the yak, claiming to make a sacrifice to Kroo in a secret place. They also tell the Burmese that if they do not return within two days, the town of Myapur is a taboo place in order to protect the Burmese from a possible allied bombing as well as the enraged Kroo.

Danton and Deborah get away from the village without incident and travel down the river on their raft. However, they fail to find an Allied base. Worse, Kroo awakens from hibernation to find Myapur deserted, his high priest, priestess and worshippers gone and his “temple” desecrated, since the Japanese took the dynamos with them, when they left. So Kroo seeks out his faithless priest and priestess, fully determined to kill them for the sacrilege. However, Deborah and Danton manage to persuade Kroo that it was the Japanese who desecrated the “temple” and that Deborah and Danton were just trying to get help. This satisfies Kroo for now, though he demands that Danton get his “shining altars” – the dynamos – back.

Danton deduces that Yakuni must have transported the dynamos downriver and that he must have set them up near a waterfall to utilise water power. So he asks Kroo to fly them down the river to search for Yakuni and the missing dynamos. They finally find Yakuni’s new power station, which is fully operationally. The dynamos are up and running and Yakuni is manufacturing bombs again.

Confused, Kroo asks what happened to his temple and his altars. Danton tells him that an evil god has taken up residence in the temple, an evil god worshipped by the Japanese, and that Kroo should challenge this god in battle. Kroo promptly flies off to do that and succeeds in blowing up the dynamos, the Japanese and himself. The yak drops dead the moment Kroo does. Danton and Deborah are finally free. They mourn Kroo, who may have been a barbarian god, but wasn’t a bad sort overall. An allied plane comes to investigate the explosion and Danton and Deborah are rescued at last.

The point of view now switches to Kroo again, who finds himself on the rainbow bridge to Asgard – pardon, Godheim, the afterlife for deceased gods. Kroo is confused, because Godheim is for great gods and Kroo was just a Tibetan village god who never had the chance to grow to greatness. However, the other gods inform him that Kroo was brave enough to go up against a mighty deity whom none of them have ever dared to face. And even though he was slain in that battle, this more than qualifies Kroo for a place in Godheim. Is the point here that science and technology are more powerful than any of the gods of old? Or am I reading too much into this?

Fantastic Story Magazine 1954

I have no idea which story this cover illustrates, but it’s not “A God Named Kroo”

“A God Named Kroo” is a charming and highly entertaining adventure story. The plot moves at a brisk pace and so the story feels shorter than it actually is. Occasionally, SFF novellas from the golden age can feel padded and overly long – the authors were paid by the word, after all. I never had this feeling with “A God Named Kroo”.

Thrilling Wonder Stories was mainly a science fiction magazine, but “A God Named Kroo” is pure fantasy without even a hint of science fiction. I could easily imagine it in John W. Campbell’s Unknown – the science versus religion angle would have appealed to Campbell and Unknown published a lot of contemporary fantasy and also published lighter and more humorous stories than Weird Tales – and maybe that’s what the story was intended for. Alas, Unknown fell victim to World War II paper rationing the year before and so “A God Named Kroo” wound up in Thrilling Wonder Stories instead.

Danton, Deborah, Kroo, Yakuni and even the yak are all fully developed characters with their own goals and motivations. I liked the fact that Danton – though brave and intelligent – is also something of a bumbler. Nor is he technically proficient – he is an archaeologist and ethnologist, after all, not an engineer. Deborah is a great example of a 1940s take on a strong female character, written by a man no less. I bet she’d get along just wonderfully with Mayo McCall from Leigh Brackett’s Shadow Over Mars. Even Kroo, village god with an inferiority complex, is a remarkably sympathetic character – especially considering he is a barbarian god with a taste for blood sacrifices and the tendency to incinerate recalcitrant worshippers.

Considering how many American works of the WWII era portray the Japanese as grossly racist caricatures (e.g. last year’s Retro Hugo winning Wonder Woman comic or the Retro Hugo nominated Batman serial), it is a pleasant surprise that Yakuni, though the antagonist, is still very much a human being. Nor is Yakuni portrayed as pointlessly cruel, which is even more of a rarity. Yes, he plans to shoot Danton, but that’s actually understandable given the situation. He also does not sexually harass Deborah, though one of his subordinates does. But then, Earth’s Last Citadel, a 1944 Best Novel Retro Hugo finalist by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, has two main characters who are Nazi spies and only contains one offensive scene. Kuttner and Moore do not dehumanise their antagonists, which makes me like their fiction even more.

That’s not to say that there aren’t several moments in “A God Named Kroo” that will make a modern reader roll their eyes or grit their teeth. Because there’s quite a bit of casual racism in the story. Jieng, Danton’s guide, is described as monkeylike. The Burmese and Tibetan people are described as superstitious and backwards, even though they are generally sympathetic characters. The Japanese are repeatedly described as “yellow-skinned” (Has Kuttner ever seen a Japanese person? Or any Asian person, for that matter?) and referred to as “Japs” or “Nips” in the dialogue throughout.

Furthermore, Kuttner also seem to be an adherent to the Lester Dent method of writing adventure stories in foreign settings. Foreign words are scattered throughout the text to evoke a sense of authenticity, whether the terms make any sense in that setting or not. Jieng is described as Hindu, even though he appears to be Chinese or Tibetan and would therefore most likely be Buddhist. Finally, Kroo manifesting as a thundercloud and striking down his enemies and insufficiently worshipful followers with lightning bolts is based on a very western and Christianised idea of religion. For manifesting their anger as thunder and striking down enemies with lightning is something western deities do.

But in spite of these criticisms, “A God Named Kroo” is highly enjoyable story. I could easily imagine this as a movie, a sort of cross between Indiana Jones, African Queen and Bringing Up Baby.

Talking of Indiana Jones, his inspirations are not as well documented as those for Star Wars, though in general Indiana Jones is believed to have been inspired by the movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s with maybe a dash of Doc Savage thrown in. However, I have also come across several science fiction and fantasy stories from the golden age which were more than a little reminiscent of Indiana Jones. “A God Named Kroo” could actually be an Indiana Jones movie – down to the protagonist and his female partner being saved and the antagonists being destroyed by divine intervention. For though Indy is more of an action hero than Horace Danton, he nonetheless is saved by divine intervention in his first three movie and by alien intervention in the fourth that we shall not talk about. I don’t know if George Lucas ever read “A God Named Kroo”. However, we know that he was an avid reader of pulp science fiction, so I wonder if there isn’t a little bit of Horace Danton or Leigh Brackett’s various archaeologist protagonists in Indiana Jones.

The fact that “A God Named Kroo” is such a delightful and entertaining story makes it even more of a surprise that the story is relatively obscure. It is probably my favourite of the Kuttner solo stories I’ve read so far. At any rate, I enjoyed “A God Named Kroo” more than the better known Gallegher stories from the same period. Nonetheless, “A God Named Kroo” has only been reprinted once in seventy-five years – in 1954.

This very obscurity may well count against “A God Named Kroo” in the Retro Hugos, which tend to reward stories and authors with name recognition – which is why substandard early stories by future stars get nominated and occasionally win Retro Hugos over better, but lesser known stories. And though the novella category for the 1945 Retro Hugos is a tad weak, “A God Named Kroo” is up against the well-known and very good “Killdozer” by Theodore Sturgeon as well as also very good “The Jewel of Bas” by Leigh Brackett and “The Changeling” by A.E. Van Vogt, who still has a lot of fans. Furthermore, Henry Kuttner has somewhat fallen into obscurity, probably because he died much too young. “A God Named Kroo” would certainly be a worthy winner, but I suspect it’s too obscure to win.

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Retro Review: “The Children’s Hour” by Lawrence O’Donnell a.k.a. Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1944

Astounding had some good covers in 1944. This is not one of them.

“The Children’s Hour” is a novelette by Lawrence O’Donnell, one of the many pen names of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. It was first published in the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

The protagonist of “The Children’s Hour” is a soldier named Sergeant James Lessing. Lessing has a problem, for during a psychological experiment to use hypnosis to desensitize soldiers against pain, hunger and other hardship (Am I the only one who finds this slightly sinister?), Lieutenant Dyke, the psychologist running the program, noticed that three months of Lessing’s life were simply missing, hidden behind an impenetrable hypnotic block. Lessing, on the other hand, does have memories of those months, memories of a perfectly mundane civilian life as an advertising executive in New York City.

Nowadays, a soldier with three months of his life missing and a hypnotic block in his mind conjures up sinister scenarios along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate. However, the novel version of The Manchurian Candidate was not published until 1959, fifteen years after “The Children’s Hour”. And even though “The Children’s Hour” was written at the height of World War II, it is the product of a more innocent time not yet affected by Cold War paranoia. And so the novelette goes into a completely different direction.

The story catches up with Lessing as he is about to see Lieutenant Dyke for the decisive session, the one where Dyke will finally break through the barrier in Lessing’s mind. Dyke hypnotises Lessing and asks him to go back to the summer of 1941.

At first Dyke sees a shadow and gets the first lines of a poem, “The Children’s Hour” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem is not identified in the story itself. Kuttner and Moore obviously assumed that their readers would recognise it. And since the poem was frequently taught in American schools in the first half of the 20th century, the average Astounding reader of 1944 probably did recognise it. I have to admit that I had to look it up, even though I do own The Complete Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and wrote a paper on “Evangeline” at university.

As a matter of fact, the story is full of literary allusions – not just to Wordsworth, but also to Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, James Branch Cabell and H.G. Wells – that make me wonder whether a contemporary reader in 1944 was expected to recognise them all without Google at his disposal. Coincidentally, it also belies complaints from certain quarters that science fiction and fantasy used to be simple, plain good fun, but now everything is so political and literary. Because here we have an SFF story full of literary references in 1944. But though the literary references enrich the story, “The Children’s Hour” also works without them. In fact, I am now reminded of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, another work full of literary references (reading it as an adult after watching the 1985 movie when I was way too young for it, I was stunned how many references there were) that was a genuine mega-bestseller in the 1980s and was read and enjoyed by lots of people who didn’t get the references at all, but just read the novel as an exciting historical mystery.

Gradually, Lessing remembers that he met someone at a drinking fountain in the park that summer. At first, he has problems recalling that person, then he gets another line of verse – this time a quote from Romeo and Juliet – and finally remembers.

The person Lessing met in the park was a woman named Clarissa. Clarissa made Lessing see the world anew, as if he were a child again, and Lessing was very much in love with her. However, there was someone standing between them. Shadowy guardians, who had snatched Clarissa away and taken Lessing’s memory. Lessing also remembers that Clarissa had an aunt, an aunt who disapproved of him. However, he cannot remember what that aunt looked like or what she said to him on the last day he saw Clarissa. All he remembers is Clarissa and her tears.

Gradually, Dyke and Lessing unearth more buried memories, such as the first time when Lessing noticed something off about Clarissa, when she suddenly vanished in a vortex of pulsating concentric rings, while they were witnessing a car accident near Central Park, only to reappear a moment later.

Strange things keep happening. The next time, it’s not Clarissa who vanishes, but a pavilion in Central Park, where they want to take shelter from a sudden rain shower. Due to being caught out in the rain, Clarissa develops a fever and Lessing does not see her for a few weeks. During these few weeks without Clarissa, life become dull and drained of colour to him. But then Clarissa is sufficiently recovered that Lessing can visit her again in her strange windowless apartment that is filled with mirrors.

Lessing is completely in love with Clarissa by now and they begin making marriage plans. But then, Clarissa begins to slip away. Lessing blames her aunt for keeping them apart. Then, one day he tries to visit Clarissa at her apartment, but no one answers the door, even though he can see a shadowy figure – the aunt – moving around inside. Lessing gets angry and breaks down the door, only to find the apartment empty.

And suddenly, Lessing sees Clarissa enveloped by a golden shimmer and begins to fall through a portal of mirrors, until he is suddenly somewhere else. Two men armed with strange weapons threaten him, protecting a group of women, one of whom is Clarissa. The armed men are as surprised to see Lessing as he is surprised to see them. Only Clarissa isn’t surprised. She smiles at Lessing and tells him that he doesn’t have to bother explaining where he came from, because they would only forget anyway. One of the guards attacks Lessing with a whip and suddenly he is back in the real world, lying flat on his face outside Clarissa’s apartment. He chalks the whole episode up to bumping his head, while he tried to break down the door.

However, Lessing’s adventure in the mirror world was so vivid that he plans to talk to Clarissa about it, forcing his way past her aunt by any means necessary. He comes to the apartment again, but this time the door is open and the only person at home is Clarissa, who is standing there in a shower of golden stars. Lessing, who is rather erudite, is immediately reminded of the antique myth of Danae, locked away in a tower from all men, only for Zeus to transform himself into a golden rain and impregnate her.

Lessing comes to the conclusion that the strange occurrences surrounding Clarissa must mean that she is being courted by a godlike being just like Zeus once courted Danae. Lessing also muses whether the Greek legends have a basis in experiences like his own with Clarissa. However, he cannot tell Clarissa what is going on, because she does not seem to be aware of what is happening and he has no idea how Clarissa will react, once she learns the truth. However, Lessing plans to open her eyes, before his supernatural rival comes to claim his bride, so that Clarissa can choose freely. Whatever else you think about Lessing, you have to admire his guts, considering he believes that he is about to go up against a god.

The next evening, Lessing takes Clarissa dancing at a seedy nightclub. He is determined not to get drunk, but a mix of alcohol, drugs (marihuana is namechecked) and the intoxication of love make him decide to take Clarissa away from New York City, away the aunt who keeps her imprisoned and his godlike rival. So they get into Lessing’s car and drive along the Hudson River.

It’s interesting that neither Lessing nor Dyke nor the authors sees anything wrong with Lessing driving, while drunk (and the story makes it very clear that he is at the very least drunk, if not high as well). Considering how strong the taboo against drunk driving and the respective laws are today, I have to admit that I found that scene jarring. Investigations reveal that New Jersey, just across the river from where “The Children’s Hour” is set, had a law against drunk driving as early as 1906. The state of New York followed in 1910. So Lessing’s drunken ride along the Hudson River was no more legal in 1944 than it would be today.

In the end, Lessing and Clarissa’s drunken flight is for naught anyway, because the powers guiding Clarissa’s life force them back via traffic jams, road closures and Lessing suddenly realising he is going the wrong way (Uhm, are you certain that’s not just because you’re drunk?). The golden rain appears again to envelop Clarissa and Lessing suddenly finds himself in a forest, watching a procession of sombre figures in black hooded cloaks. One of them is Clarissa, who is oddly, deliriously happy. Lessing tries to approach her, but before he can, a person in a red hooded cloak embraces her. Lessing cannot see that person’s face, just a golden glow, and assumes it’s his divine rival. Then the world starts spinning again and he is suddenly back in his car, double-parked (Lessing really is intent on violating traffic laws, is he?) outside Clarissa’s apartment. Clarissa bids him good night and tells him to phone her in the morning.

However, it’s Clarissa who calls Lessing and asks him to come at once. She seems upset and point blank asks him, if they did something wrong last night, because she had a feeling that they did, only that she cannot remember. Now Lessing tells her everything, all the strange occurrences surrounding her and that he has the feeling that someone is guiding Clarissa towards something.

Clarissa tells Lessing that she never really noticed before how she was being guarded and guided, but that she cannot unsee it now. She also tells him a fairy tale she heard from her aunt, about a princess who grew up among the blind in the woods, never opening her eyes, even though she can see, because the sun would still be too bright for her. Clarissa has no idea how the fairy tale ends, but she knows that she is the princess. She also tells Lessing that the powers have always protected her. Lessing is doubtful about their true intentions, but Clarissa insists that they are benevolent and that of course, the powers will let them get married.

But then, one of the guardians – the unseen aunt – appears and tells Clarissa quite clearly that there will be no marriage and no future with Lessing. Clarissa cries, while Lessing is paralysed as the aunt tears them apart. A voice tells Lessing that he has served his purpose and shall now forget, which he promptly does, until Dyke recovered his missing memories.

However, “The Children’s Hour” is still a story published in Astounding and so Dyke now takes over to deliver the solution to the mystery, complete with the requisite technobabble, including equations. Dyke theorises that Clarissa is a young human superior. As adults, human superior are so highly developed that ordinary humans cannot even perceive them, just as Lessing could never truly see Clarissa’s aunt. Meanwhile, human superior children are about as developed as ordinary human adults. And that is what Clarissa was, a human superior child come out to play in the world, a four-dimensional being in a three-dimensional world. Once she has become mature enough, she was returned to her own people, while Lessing had his memories wiped.

However, Dyke also has another, more likely theory. After all, both Lessing and Clarissa were caught in the rainstorm in Central Park. Clarissa fell ill, developed a fever and experienced delirium. But maybe Lessing fell ill as well and simply imagined all the strange things that happened afterwards.

Lessing decides to settle the question once and for all. He will go back to the apartment and pay Clarissa a visit. After all, she might be waiting for him. Dyke does not think that this is a good idea, but goes along with it. So Lessing heads for Clarissa’s apartment and rings the doorbell.

The door opens and Lessing sees the mirrors, but he can no longer see Clarissa. She is an adult now, to evolved for him to even perceive. Lessing briefly grasps the truth. Clarissa is not just homo superior, but a multi-dimensional being existing in many worlds and places at once. Those were the visions of other Clarissa’s in other worlds that Lessing saw. Once all of these different Clarissas have developed, they will combine to form the full, adult Clarissa. This is exactly what happened and not only can Lessing no longer even perceive Clarissa, to her he is merely a child’s toy, a plaything to be put away for more adult pursuits.

The story ends with Lessing getting into a taxi (at least, he’s not driving drunk or high this time) and asking the driver where to find a good nightclub. He has forgotten everything once more and this time, the memory block is complete, which is probably for the best.

4 for the Future

This 1959 anthology only credits the story to Kuttner.

“The Children’s Hour” is a very beautiful and very strange story. Not a lot happens, the bulk of this very long (likely close to the novella borderline of 17500 words) novelette consists of two men sitting in a psychologist’s office, while we are treated to a long flashback of one of the two’s doomed romance with a superior being. And while there is a mystery to solve, there is no huge world-threatening menace involved. Lessing was hypnotised and had part of his memories taken not for some sinister purpose to sabotage the war (and it’s very clear that the story is set during WWII, even if the war never impinges on the narrative except via brief mentions of military ranks, barracks and marching soldiers), but to protect him from a truth to great for him to understand.

Even though “The Children’s Hour” is a love story between an adult man and what is essentially a child, it manages not to be skeevy. For starters, Lessing has no idea that Clarissa is a child, even if she does seem childlike at times, as Dyke points out. Furthermore, Clarissa appears to Lessing as a woman of his own age. Physically, they are similarly developed, even if Clarissa will evolve and Lessing will not. Finally, there is also no indication that Lessing and Clarissa ever had sex – mostly they just walk hand in hand through the parks of New York City. Of course, there is very little in the way of sex in golden age science fiction in general and in Astounding in particular. However, in C.L. Moore’s earlier Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories, it’s very clear that both Northwest Smith and Jirel have sex at times, even if the scenes are vague and the sex only alluded to. There is nothing along those lines in “The Children’s Hour” and I also suspect that if Lessing and Clarissa’s romance had ever threatened to go beyond handholding in public parks, Clarissa’s unseen guardians would have intervened – just as they did when Lessing attempted to elope with Clarissa.

Livre d'Or de la science fiction

I have no idea what is going on on the cover of this French Kuttner/Moore collection, though it does seem to show Kuttner and Moore in bed with a buddhe statue and a naked black woman.

A lot of people have claimed that with Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore’s collaborations, it’s difficult to tell who was responsible for which parts. And reprint anthologies and collections have frequently attributed their collaborative stories to Kuttner alone. However, I have never had any problems telling Kuttner’s and Moore’s contributions apart, because their solo writing styles are quite different. And the dreamlike quality that suffuses the entire story, particularly the flashback scenes of Lessing and Clarissa, is highly reminiscent of C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories of the 1930s. After all, both Jirel and Northwest Smith spent more time exploring strange worlds and having nigh psychedelic experiences than swinging swords and firing blasters, something which regularly exasperates those who prefer their SFF with a large dose of fighting action. But fighting action is not something that C.L. Moore delivers. However, she could create otherworldly landscapes and moods like few other writers of the era. At times, the story feels almost psychedelic, like a drug-fuelled dream. Steve J. Wright calls it a 1940s fairy tale in his review.

Because the rest of the story is so dreamlike, the infodump towards the end, complete with equations, sticks out like a sore thumb. I strongly suspect that Kuttner wrote that part, if only because Moore’s infodumps sound very different as can be seen in “No Woman Born”. I also don’t think the story really needs the infodump and that it would have worked just as well, if the mystery of Clarissa’s true nature had remained vague. But Astounding editor John W. Campbell liked his infodumps and since he paid well and upon acceptance, his writers obliged him.

Aliens from Analog

Another anthology, which includes “The Children’s Hour”, even though the story neither contains aliens nor was it published in Analog

Talking of which, “The Children’s Hour” is yet another highly atypical Astounding story. In his review, Paul Fraser says that while he was reading “The Children’s Hour”, he kept wondering what this story was doing in a 1940s issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Frankly, I had the same reaction. Because while the other atypical Astounding stories I have reviewed for the Retro Reviews project such as e.g. the City stories by Clifford D. Simak are still very much golden age science fiction stories, “The Children’s Hour” doesn’t feel like a story of the 1940s at all and certainly not like a science fiction story, technobabble infodump complete with equations notwithstanding.

I know that I say this a lot, but I’m very surprised that Campbell bought and published this novelette, because it is so very much not the sort of thing you’d expect to find in Astounding, even if the character who cracks the mystery is a psychologist who uncovers hidden memories, a subject Campbell had a keen interest in. However, “The Children’s Hour” is very much the anti-Astounding story, if there is such a thing. Once again, the mood is bittersweet and melancholic, which is remarkably common for Astounding in the 1940s (see also the City stories or Moore’s own “No Woman Born”). There is a mystery to solve here, but science and technology do not help to solve it, even if Dyke throws around some equations towards the end. Never mind that Dyke’s efforts have been for naught, because Lessing has his memories wiped again at the end and most likely that pesky meddler Dyke will receive a visit from a shadowy presence as well. Nor are the humans triumphant or superior in this story. To superior multi-dimensional beings like Clarissa’s “aunt”, humans are little more than children, to be used to socialise and educate their own young. And yes, Dyke and Lessing refer to the adults of Clarissa’s species as homo superior, a popular concept in Astounding during the golden age, which eventually found its way into the Marvel comics of the 1960s and beyond. But we have no way of knowing if they really are human, since Lessing cannot even perceive the adults of the species. And while the adult beings are not malevolent, unlike Alexander, the homo superior baby and psychopath in training from Kuttner and Moore’s “When the Bough Breaks”, they are simply so far above humanity that they barely show any interest in us at all, except as playthings for their kids.

Maybe “The Children’s Hour” was left over from Unknown Worlds, Astounding‘s fantasy-focussed sister magazine, which fell victim to WWII paper rationing the year before. This might also explain why the technobabble infodump feels so tacked on, because it was retrofitted to turn into a science fiction story for Astounding.

Detour to Otherness by Henry Kuttner and C.L. MooreHowever, if I had read “The Children’s Hour” blind, I would have assumed it was either a fantasy story from an early 1930s issue of Weird Tales (and of course, Kuttner and Moore both got their start writing for the unique magazine) or a New Wave story from the 1960s. The fact that “The Children’s Hour” is either fifteen years behind its time or twenty to twenty-five years ahead of it may also be the reason why the story is not particularly well known. Adventures Fantastic points out in their review that it has only been reprinted a handful of times over the past seventy-five years. It does not show up in either Moore’s or Kuttner’s Best of collection. Nor was it included in Isaac Asimov’s and Martin H. Greenberg’s anthology The Great SF Stories Vol. 6 – 1944, probably because they already included “When the Bough Breaks” and “No Woman Born” and felt that “The Children’s Hour” would be one Kuttner/Moore story too many. Even though I vastly prefer “The Children’s Hour” to “When the Bough Breaks” and will have a hard time deciding whether to rank “No Woman Born” or “The Children’s Hour” in first place on my Retro Hugo ballot, because they’re both very good, if very different stories. That said, 1944 readers seem to have liked the story, even it is highly atypical, and voted it in first place of Astounding‘s reader poll for the March issue.

“The Children’s Hour” is a beautiful, almost dreamlike fantasy romance. I’m not sure if Retro Hugo voters will go for this story over the better known “No Woman Born”, “City” or “The Big and the Little”, but do I hope that it will do well, because it is story that deserves more recognition.

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First Monday Free Fiction: The Kiss of the Executioner’s Blade

The Kiss of the Executioner's BladeWelcome to the June 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.

So far, most of the free stories I’ve posted on this blog have been science fiction, fantasy or crime fiction, since those are my main genres. However, I also write historical fiction and historical romance on occasion and today, I will share one of those stories.

Trigger warning: There are some scenes of physical and sexual violence in this story, not overly graphic.

The Kiss of the Executioner’s Blade takes us back to France in the year of the Lord 1516, where the disgraced nobleman turned travelling executioner Geoffrey de Bressac finds himself faced with a dilemma. For the traitor and assassin he is supposed to behead turns out to be a young woman. Worse, she insists she is innocent.

So witness as Angeline de Golon faces…

The Kiss of the Executioner’s Blade

The key turned in the lock and the iron gate opened with a pitiful moan. A red-faced guardsman squinted at the black-clad figure towering in the doorway. “Are you the headsman?”

Geoffrey du Bressac nodded, even though the guardsman’s words had stirred an old wound. It was not right that he, whose forebearers had been knights of the realm, should now be reduced to the ignoble profession of executioner, forced to hide his face behind a mask. But even though none knew his face, Geoffrey was renown as the most skilled headsman in all of France. And on this day in the year of the Lord 1516 he had come to the town of Charentes to see that a most despicable traitor received his just punishment.

The dungeon of the Chateau de Charentes was a place of darkness, misery and despair. The men and women interred here knew that they would never again see the light of day. And even if they should be blessed to set their eyes on the sun once more, they knew it would be the last thing they would see in their lives.

The moans and the cries of the damned could be heard everywhere, as the guardsman led Geoffrey though the gloomy corridors. Upon seeing the shadow of the executioner, many prisoners scurried away in horror, tearing at the chains that held them. All feared that he was coming for them. Yet Geoffrey had not a glance, neither of condemnation nor of pity, for the doomed. He just stared straight ahead into the darkness.

They left the common gaol and its squalor and dirt behind and entered the part of the dungeon that was reserved for ‘special’ prisoners. It was even darker here than before and more quiet, too. The silence served its purpose, for here the prisoners were held whose incarceration should remain a secret until the day of their execution. To Geoffrey, the sudden absence of the usual mixture of screaming, crying, whimpering and mumbled prayers came almost as a shock. It was as if the shadows themselves had swallowed up all sound.

He followed the guard along the silent corridor, his heart beating in perfect tune with the echo of their booted feet on the bare stone floor. Finally, the man stopped in front of one of the heavy oakwood doors. “Here we are.”

A grated window was set into the door. It was covered with a piece of black cloth to indicate that the prisoner therein was condemned to die. Geoffrey swept the cloth aside and pressed his face to the peephole. The cell beyond was lit by a single tallow candle. Two figures could be seen in the dim light. One was clad in the black robe of a priest, come to give the condemned the last rites no doubt. The second figure, kneeling before the priest, her hands clasped in prayer, was a young woman, scarcely more than a girl. She was clad in a dress of crimson silk, now dirty and torn. Her long dark hair was falling loose over her bared shoulders. Suddenly, her head shifted and for the merest of instants, her large pleading eyes seemed to look straight at Geoffrey.

He turned to the guard. “I was not told the condemned was female.”

The guard shrugged. “Traitor is traitor.” He licked his lips. “Though I admit that it’s always a special treat when a woman is put to death. Particularly a highborn lady like Angeline de Golon.” He leant forward. “They say she’s still a virgin,” he whispered.

“What is her crime?”

“A crime of the foulest kind. She is an assassin. Stabbed the Comte with a knife.”

“She is hardly an assassin then…” Geoffrey remarked, “…considering that the Comte is still alive.” In fact, Henri, Comte de Charentes, had personally requested Geoffrey’s services.

“The Comte was only wounded, Mother Mary be praised. Nevertheless, any attempt on the life of a member of the royal family constitutes high treason. And for that she must die. Were she a man, she would suffer on the spokes of a wheel. But due to her birth and sex, the Comte has decided to be merciful and grant her a less shameful death.”

Geoffrey cast another look through the grated window at the kneeling girl. She certainly did not look like an assassin and high traitor.

“I wish to examine the condemned.”

***

Angeline de Golon knelt on the bare stone floor of her cell. The abbé had urged her to confess her sins and go to the scaffold repentant so that her soul would be welcomed in heaven instead of cast down into eternal damnation. But what sins could she confess, when she was wholly innocent of the crime she had been condemned of?

The bar slid back, the cell door opened and Angeline froze in terror. For in the doorway, a sinister figure loomed, tall and clad entirely in black. The figure stepped into the cell and Angeline saw that his face was covered by a mask. She screamed and shrank back into the farthest corner of the cell. The headsman had come. He had come for her.

The abbé reached out and placed a calming hand on her bare shoulder. “Have no fear, my child. Be brave, sincerely repent thine sins and thou shalt sit by the Lord’s side in heaven.”

The executioner hovered in the middle of the cell like a malign shadow. “Bring the prisoner into the light,” he commanded, “I wish to see her.”

In response, one of the guards, the fat one with the foul teeth, barged into the cell and grabbed hold of Angeline. Within seconds, her arms were pinned behind her back and she was thrust into the circle of light. Coarse hands tore at her dress and ripped the fine Lyonesse silk, exposing her tender breasts for all to see.

The priest at least had the decency to avert his eyes. The guardsman knew no such scruples and grabbed her right breast, squeezing it like one would an orange. The executioner just stood there, unmoved. “Leave us alone,” he ordered, “I will interrogate her in private.”

Obediently, the guard trotted out of the cell, murmuring something about never getting any fun. The abbé paused in the doorway. “Confess, my daughter,” he urged, “Confess, repent and thou shalt be saved.” Then the heavy door fell shut and Angeline was left alone with the man who was to put her to death.

Shivering she knelt before the executioner, very conscious of her nakedness. The cold air of the dungeon hardened her nipples until they resembled rosebuds about to erupt in bloom. She felt the executioner’s eyes, invisible behind his mask, on her body, examining every inch of her bared skin with a cold, clinical gaze.

“You are very beautiful,” the man said.

Angeline had heard tales about what happened to virgins condemned to death on the eve of their execution and she was gripped by a shudder that was deeper than the cold.

The hangman, however, abruptly turned away. He took a blanket from the floor and tossed it at Angeline. “Cover yourself.”

Gratefully, Angeline pulled the blanket around her shivering body, covering her nakedness. The executioner was circling the kneeling girl. “Do you wish to confess your crime?”

“I… I have nothing to confess.”

“Do you deny then that you attempted to murder the Comte de Charentes?”

“I was only defending myself,” Angeline whispered, not daring to look at the black figure towering above her, “Defending my honour.”

A gloved hand touched Angeline’s face, cupping her chin and gently forcing her to lift her head. “Speak,” the executioner ordered.

“The Comte, he wished to marry me. He wanted to add my lands, my wealth to his own. But I could not love him. So I refused.”

The executioner stroked her cheek, curiously gentle. “Go on.”

“The Comte, he is a powerful man and used to getting his will. So he had me kidnapped and brought here. He was polite at first, even though I was his prisoner. One night, he dined with me in his private chambers. And for dessert, he attempted to… ravish me.”

The executioner let his fingers trail across Angeline’s skin, his touch prompting her to continue.

“The Comte said I could no longer refuse a marriage when it had already been consummated. He threw me onto the table and then he was on top of me and his breath was in my face and his hands were everywhere…”

Unbidden the horror of that moment came back. The Comte’s weight pressing her to the table, the stench of cognac on his breath, his mouth, his tongue, his hands defiling her body. The gleam of silver, promising salvation.

“And then I saw the knife,” Angeline said, “And I took it and stabbed the Comte.”

“Yet you were convicted of high treason and sentenced to die? Did you not appeal to the king?”

“How could I possibly appeal when the Comte de Charentes is a cousin of King Francois himself? Who would believe me? No, there is no escape for me. Except one. After the trial the Comte said that he would pardon me if I consented to marry him.”

All of a sudden, Angeline realized that the hand that was calmly caressing her skin would only a few hours from now slaughter her just as calmly. In horror, she pulled away.

“But I shall never marry such a fiend. No, better to die.” She wanted to be brave, go defiant to her death, but tears overcame her and she buried her face in her hands.

The executioner said nothing, even though Angeline could still feel his eyes on her body. Gathering all her courage together, she wiped the tears away and looked up straight into that expressionless mask. “Please, will you grant me one last request?”

“If it’s within my power…”

“Could… could you take off your mask, please? I want to see the face of the man who… who will…” She broke off, unable to say the unthinkable out loud. Come sunrise, this man would kill her, snuff out her life as casually as one might extinguish a candle.

In silence, the executioner removed his mask. The man beneath was younger than she would have expected. And unlike the way men of his profession were commonly depicted, his features were not coarse and brutal. He was clean-shaven, his hair was dark, his eyes were the colour of steel. Under different circumstances, one might almost have called him handsome.

“You have the face of a nobleman.”

For an instant, regret clouded those eyes of steel. “I was of noble birth… once.”

Angeline took a deep breath. She had to know all. “Tell me, how will it happen?”

“You will die by the sword.”

Beheading? At least that was an honourable death, not as shameful as the gallows or the wheel or the stake. “Will… will it hurt much?”

“You need have no fear,” the executioner said, “I will be swift. And gentle.” Again, he reached out for her face. Tenderly, his gloved hand ran down her cheek and neck. And this time, Angeline did not shrink back. “You will scarcely feel it. Just the touch of the blade, as light as a lover’s kiss. And a brief flash of pain, as brief as the one that turns the maiden into a woman.”

***

In spite of the early hour, a great crowd of townspeople was already gathered at the place of execution. The times were dark and the joys but few, so the people saw an execution, particularly that of a young and beautiful maiden, as excellent entertainment.

On a dais, Henri, Comte de Charentes, was seated in a comfortable chair, surrounded by courtiers and advisors. A tall man of middle age with a pointed beard still unmarred by silver, the Comte cut a splendid figure in his doublet of black velvet lined with scarlet silk. He did not look like a man who had only narrowly survived an assassination attempt. Yet few in the crowd seemed to notice, as their eyes were directed elsewhere.

For the centre of attraction was the scaffold that had been erected on the market square of the town, just outside the walls of the chateau. A company of soldiers surrounded the scaffold, but the platform itself was empty except for the executioner, an intimidating figure all clad in black. His face was covered by the traditional mask and at his side, still sheathed, was the blade that would soon sever the head of Angeline de Golon. Apart from the sword, the only other objects on the scaffold were a pillow of scarlet velvet upon which the condemned would kneel and the coffin into which her headless body would be laid. There was no block, the condemned would have to kneel and bend her head to receive the deadly blow.

From his raised seat, the Comte surveyed the arrangements. Then he looked towards the East where the first rays of the morning sun were painting the sky in fiery splendour. Satisfied, he rose from his chair. A wave of his hand silenced the crowd.

“Citizens of Charentes, we have gathered here today to witness the execution of a most despicable traitor and assassin. For her crimes against our glorious realm and against my own person, Angeline de Golon shall now be put to death. Have the malefactress brought before the headsman.”

Upon another wave of the Comte’s hand, the palace gates were opened and a small procession marched out into the square. The abbé led the way, murmuring Latin verses. He was followed by four guardsmen escorting the condemned.

Up to now the spectators had been cheering and jeering, as they customarily did during public executions. But once the condemned appeared, the crowd suddenly fell silent. There was no one present whose heart was not touched by the sight of the beautiful girl who was being led to her execution, so brave and composed in the face of death. She seemed so young, scarcely more than a child. A life barely begun that was now about to be nipped in the bud.

She was clad in a gown of thin white linen that was little more than a shift. The gown was low cut, exposing the girl’s shoulders and neck to the sword. Around her throat, a ribbon of scarlet silk had been tied to mark the executioner’s aim. Contrary to custom, her head was not covered by a veil. An early morning breeze pressed the thin execution gown to her naked body, outlining the gentle curve of her thighs and the firm mounds of her breasts.

The small procession had reached the wooden platform. Three of the guards remained below, the last man led the girl up the seven steps to the scaffold. The priest followed, still murmuring prayers to himself. Once they had gained the top, the executioner dismissed the guardsman with a nod.

Of the two men left on the scaffold, the priest was the first to administer his attentions to the condemned. One last time, he urged Angeline to confess her crimes. Silently, she shook her head. Undaunted, the abbé touched the girl’s forehead to bless her. He placed a crucifix at her lips and in response Angeline bowed her head to kiss it. Finally, the abbé handed her a simple rosary. “Repent, my child,” he urged, “Repent and pray for thy soul.”

When the priest had finished his ministrations, the Comte de Charentes himself rose from his seat to read out the sentence. “Angeline de Golon you were found guilty of high treason. For a crime of such magnitude there can only be one punishment: Death. Death in the most shameful and public manner. Therefore, we decree that on this day you shall be taken to a place of execution where your head shall be severed from your body with a single stroke of the blade.”

The Comte paused and looked straight at Angeline, hunger in his eyes

“However, in our most infinite mercy, we have also decided to grant you one final chance of saving your worthless life. Should any man of noble birth declare his willingness to take you for his wife, you shall be pardoned the moment the vow is spoken. And in spite of the cowardly attempt on my life, I have in my boundless magnanimity already made you an offer of marriage. So what is your answer, Angeline de Golon? Which do you choose, the ring or the blade?”

“I choose death,” the girl replied bravely.

An angry flush raced across the Comte’s face. “So be it. Headsman, do your duty. And may God have mercy on your soul.”

“Amen,” Geoffrey du Bressac thought, even though he knew that the last sentence was addressed to the girl and not to himself. Yet he realized that he needed the Lord’s forgiveness as much as the condemned, maybe even more so. For while Angeline had solely fought to protect her virtue against those that would strip it from her, Geoffrey was about to murder an innocent woman. He who had once sworn to protect the innocent.

Gently, he took Angeline by the arm and led her towards the pillow of scarlet velvet. Without prompting, she knelt down, clumsily but unafraid, and raised her hands. She was still clutching the rosary. By right, Geoffrey should have taken it away from her, but he did not. Instead, he produced a length of rope and proceeded to bind her hands, careful that the rope would not cut too deeply into her wrists. He wanted her to be as comfortable as possible.

Angeline seemed well aware of the uncommon tenderness with which she was handled and gave him a brief smile of gratitude. Then she calmly lowered her head, awaiting the fatal blow. Geoffrey brushed the raven tresses of her hair aside to expose the nape of her neck. She was beautiful. Those eyes, so large and pleading, that skin so milky white. The perfect curve of her neck and shoulders, those firm breasts, nipples already hardened in expectation of the blade’s caress.

The sight of her, kneeling before him quietly awaiting the kiss of his sword, sent fire streaming into his loins and blood rushing into his privates. It was not the first time that Geoffrey had experienced arousal during an execution. Sex and death, Eros and Thanatos, were closely related. No one knew that better than Geoffrey. But this time it was different. This time, it was more than mere arousal. He felt as excited as a man on his wedding night, about to lead his bride to the conjugal bed.

Geoffrey always made sure that the condemned, particularly those that were female, suffered as little as possible. When he had hanged a girl at Dieppe, he had ordered weights tied to her feet to ease her passing. At Amiens he had seen to it that three condemned witches were quietly strangled before being burned at the stake. And at Lille, he had beheaded an adulteress and her lover with a single stroke, uniting in death what had been separated in life. But no condemned prisoner had ever touched his heart like Angeline de Golon.

Why was she not veiled as was the custom? To make it easier for the girl as well as for her executioner. So Geoffrey pulled a square of fine black silk from beneath his tunic and proceeded to cover Angeline’s face. “Have no fear,” he whispered.

“What are you doing?” the Comte de Charentes demanded.

“Veiling the prisoner.”

“It has been decreed that due to the gravity of her crime, this malefactress does not deserve the privacy of the veil. She is to die with her head bared, so that her shame is for all to see.”

“I refuse to behead the prisoner unless her face is covered. They tend to shift at the last moment, making things very messy.”

Messy executions tended to cause uproar and uproar was the last thing the Comte wanted. “Have it your way then”, he grunted, “And be about your business.”

The time had come. The first rays of the morning sun were spilling across the horizon. Geoffrey unsheathed his sword and raised the blade high above his head, ready to deliver the fatal blow.

Angeline’s bound hands were clasped in prayer around the wooden beads of the rosary. Every muscle in her body tightened, in the knowledge that the next breath, the next heartbeat might be her last.

The sun crossed the horizon, its rays striking the executioner’s blade. The Comte’s intestines were quivering with anticipation. With his left hand he was surreptitiously massaging his crotch. With his right he gave the final sign. The crowd held its collective breath. The priest crossed himself and averted his eyes. The executioner finally… did nothing.

“What are you waiting for?” the Comte demanded in irritation, “Do it!”

Geoffrey did not move. “I refuse to carry out the sentence.”

“What?”

“I refuse to carry out the sentence…” Geoffrey repeated, lowering his sword, “…and I demand this woman, Angeline de Golon, for my wife.”

Angeline raised her head and a stray gust of wind tugged at the black veil covering her face. Geoffrey laid a calming hand on her bared shoulder. “Hush. Stay where you are and not a word. Trust me.”

“You have no right to demand anything of that sort,” the Comte thundered, “Now carry out the sentence or suffer the consequences!”

One of the Comte’s advisors leant forward. “Actually, my lord, he does have that right. You yourself said that any man of noble birth may…”

“A man of noble birth, yes. But this is just an executioner. A lowly executioner.”

Geoffrey ripped off his mask, “I am the Chevalier du Bressac…” he declared, “…and my blood is as noble as your own, Comte.”

“You have no choice,” the advisor urged, “You must grant his request.”

The townspeople had been watching the proceedings with the mixture of horror, morbid curiosity and perverse gaiety that such displays usually attracted. But with the sudden interruption of the execution, the tension of the crowd had been growing like the string of a bow drawn by the archer’s hand, until it had to be released. One by one, clamours for mercy arose until the townspeople were shouting in unison. It seemed as if a turmoil was about to break out.

The Comte de Charentes had no choice but to relent. He turned to Angeline. “Are you willing to accept this man as your husband?”

Angeline hesitated for the merest of seconds, seeking the eyes of the man who would save her.

“Yes, I am,” she said firmly.

The Comte glared at her, but there was nothing he could do. “Citizens of Charentes…” he announced, “…this woman, Angeline de Golon, has committed most heinous crimes. Crimes which deserve the strictest of punishments. Nevertheless, I have decided to be merciful and grant the executioner her life and her hand. But be warned, headsman, that my mercy is limited. Should you or your woman ever enter the city walls again, you shall be both put to death at once. Abbé, perform the ceremony.”

And so Geoffrey, Chevalier du Bressac, and Angeline de Golon were wed on the very spot where the bride was to have been beheaded. Angeline was still clad in her execution gown and instead of a bride’’s wreath she wore the black veil of death. Yet her eyes were full of hope and gratitude as Geoffrey’s hand tightened around hers.

The Comte de Charentes remained true to his word and formally pardoned Angeline as soon as the vows had been exchanged. Once the ceremony was over, Geoffrey swept his bride up in his arms and carried her from the scaffold. Within the hour, they had left the town of Charentes behind, never looking back.

The End

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.

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