First of all, thanks to Cirsova for a free review copy of its first issue.
The pulps are fantasy’s father, or at least a similarly important family member. Unfortunately, for most people there is a huge cultural gap between the origins of that genre and what they actually consume now. As Jeffro Johnson wrote in his blog:
[…]the general view of science fiction history is that it just somehow jumps from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells straight on to Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein.
The same can be said about fantasy and other genres (and ever other artistic expressions that aren’t literature.) Nowadays, when thinking about the fantasy and fiction genre, the first that comes to mind are huge, Bible-like novels inspired by Tolkien or those never-ending trilogies. If you are a more voracious reader of contemporary fantasy, you will surely end up with dozens of indistinguishable books with some hodded male or female model (a Mary/Charlie Sue of some sort) posing with a sword on the cover. What you won’t find anymore is something like this:
And I’m pretty sure nobody would dare to print this thing:
It is easy to forget that fantasy’s roots are in short stories, from the more literary fantastic legends of Lord Dunsany to the improbable tales of pulp heroes. If you go even further back in time, you have Aesop’s fables, Brother Grimm’s fairy tales, and the lurid and exotic adventures of the chapbooks, penny dreadfuls, and dime novels. And I’m not even mentioning the classic literature that inspired those stories.
The quality, of course, has always been extremely varied, from literary genius to, well, quite modest. Nonetheless, the best fantasy has always strived for entertainment, excitement, wonder, awe, action, that feeling of “roaming free” I mentioned when I wrote about the decline of adventure in contemporary popular culture, and, yes, FUN.
Cirsova, a recently kickstarted magazine project, tries to reclaim the classic style and feelings from that golden era while focusing on two specific genres, Sword & Sorcery, and the now quite forgotten Planetary Romance, especially from their more pulpish era and its Sword & Planet style. Does it succeed? Yes, to a certain degree I think it does.
The two-line introduction at the start of every short story, and even their titles, already tell you the era they try to emulate. Hell, even the index: “A THRILLING NOVELLETE OF DISTANT EONS,” or “6 GRIPPING SHORT STORIES.” And this is the resume of one of the stories, “At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen“:
“Moments from being crowned King of Mars, Ch’Or was abducted, wrenched through time and space, by a woman as diabolical she was seductive. With the fate of his friends and Mars’ future at stake, he would not be made to kneel!”
The only thing that would have made it better (and cheesier) would be if the story’s title were added at the end of the introduction:
“Moments from being crowned King of Mars, Ch’Or was abducted, wrenched through time and space, by a woman as diabolical [as] she was seductive. With the fate of his friends and Mars’ future at stake, will our hero triumph or will he kneel AT THE FEET OF NEPTUNE’S QUEEN?”
(uppercase is mandatory for this kind of stuff.)
Jabari Weather made the cover art for the magazine, and it represents a scene from the first story (and, I would say, one of the best if not the best one ) of its first issue, The Gift of the Ob-Men:
(1) Written by Schuyler Hernstrom, The Gift of the Ob-Men is an epic (or even cosmic) story about an exiled Conan-like warrior, forced to wander a land dotted with the remains of mysterious, advanced, and incomprehensible (from his barbarian point of view) ancient civilizations. The writing is powerful and lyrical, something that may confuse some of the readers since its aim is not “realism.” The characters, some of them not even human, always talk in the style of mythic poetry.
As I said, the main theme is almost cosmic, and the rhythm, language, and plot of the story revolve around the cyclical rise and inevitable fall of civilizations and their gods. I may be wrong, but I think the Lord Dunsany is strong in this one.
I’m glad to know that Hernstrom will also write for Cirsova’s second issue, and if the quality of his writing is similar, I see and hope (with or without a third eye) a great future for him.
(2) Kat Otis writes the second story, This Day, at Tilbury. Tilbury is a town in Essex and it was where Queen Elizabeth I gave her speech to the soldier preparing to fight the landing forces of the Spanish Armada (1588.) If I’m not mistaken, the Spanish Armada had already lost by then, but Katis Otis’ story retells the events in her own fictional parallel universe.
There is no Queen or speech in her story, but there is a battle, which serves as the cause for a coming-of-age short story for the young protagonist. I think I should mention that this young teenager has superpowers. Because the power of the gods (or God, in this case) is real in this alternate universe, and “Calling the wrath of God” is quite literal here. Fire and brimstone and all.
As a side note, Kat Otis’s website has a very useful page with resources for writers. I really recommend the Submissions Grinder.
(3) The already mentioned At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen is Cirsova’s third story. Written by someone with the improbable name of Abraham Strongjohn, it’s an equally improbable story about almost-naked warriors from Mars, absurd space-travelling technology (magic, basically,) Ice Bugs from Neptune, dragons, and the stark naked, blue, cruel, voluptuous, alluring, and supple Queen of said planet. Yes, naked, on freaking Neptune.
But, you see, it actually works… somehow. The story is not a “parody,” although it may seem one, and I guess an apt comparison would be to say that On the Feet of Neptune’s Queen tries to be to Planet & Sword what the Last Action Hero was to 80’s action movies. It’s absolutely self-aware of the genre’s cliches and doesn’t hide its silly elements, but in fact exposes them, celebrates them, and raises them to the max. Something like this:
Well, perhaps not THAT much, but you get the idea. The writer knows the scientific absurdities of what he is writing, but, so what? They are fun and, speaking of movies, the writing style is very cinematic and visual. I suspect the actions scenes were thought first as movie scenes or, at the very least, they’d fit well in one.
The story ends with an even sillier (scientifically-speaking) cliffhanger, and although I think the writer does not intend to continue the story, I wouldn’t mind more of it.
(4) Rose by Any Other Name, by Brian K. Lowe. Well, that’s a weird one. I know the writers are looking back at the pulps, but whoah. Time travel, dwarf humans, werewolf-like creatures, talking gorillas, a very distant Earth when the Moon is scarred but nobody knows why, and hints of a much bigger plot lie behind this short story.
Brian K. Lowe has written a book that also involves an unwilling time traveler from the 20th century, so perhaps that explains the feeling I had about the story being part of a much bigger one.
At first, I was ambivalent towards this one, but later I found myself thinking about the characters and the implied background story, and if making you think about the world the writer has created is not a sign that you liked a fantasy fiction story, I don’t know what it is.
(5) Melanie Ress wrote Late Bloom. Perhaps it’s the rose-theme, but this one also involves time travel, but with an even more outrageous explanation. The time machine is basically a wooden box “adorned” with cogs and levers. Yes, adorned, because there is no indication that most of that stuff does anything at all.
At first, I did not like this story, and I though it was because it’s written in the present tense and I have always found that style difficult, but then I realized what I had just read. It’s the inverted plot of something that in a book would look like one of those romance novels with garish covers, but set in a steampunkish universe. And with time travel.
“He hitches up her skirt, slides a warm hand along her inner thigh and secures the weapon under the elastic of her undergarments. Against her leg, the metal is cool and hard.”
Yep, I think that says it all. And that’s how it should be read.
The protagonist, Cassandra, is the abused and corset-wearing slave (“courtesan”) of the mustache-twitching (almost literally) villain Lord Shackleston, an outrageously evil time-traveling air pirate. In his quest to plunder new worlds (or time-worlds, I guess) he travels to the future, where he captures a defiant, strong, and dashing pilot. Naturally, it takes him half a second to hit on our female protagonists and declare how special she is compared to all the woman she has met. Then they both try to escape from the shackles of, uh, Shackleston.
Something that bugged me was that, although it should have been obvious, I did not realize it was a “pirates” story. Sure, there are ships (but only two pirates) and the prospect of plunder, but Shackleston and Reginald are not names I usually associate with pirates. That word doesn’t even appear, by the way. It may be a minor issue, but being aware that you are reading a pirate story in a bizarre setting would set the mood and make reading the rest of it much easier.
(6) The Hour of the Rat, by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt, is the last short story. It’s perhaps the one that (apparently) deviates most from the magazine’s preferred genres, but it is nevertheless a good example of the adventure genre.
The protagonist is an ordinary young woman -not counting her great ¿or suicidal? courage, of course- in a Japanese-looking feudal setting. She is on a personal quest to recover a stolen heirloom, and to accomplish that she has infiltrated the compound of cruel noble (cruel even by the abysmally low standards of aristocrats in that world.) Indeed, the whole endeavor looks a bit too dangerous or even ill-thought, but her plans will quickly change when she discover that she is not the only one who’s there on a personal vendetta.
As with A Rose by Any Other Name, this short story seems like part of a bigger one, but it can be read and understood perfectly as it is.
James Hutchings wrote the poem My Name is John Carter (Part 1,) and as someone who doesn’t know much about the John Carter saga (except the basics,) I was pleasantly surprised. Poetry is not my expertise (well, or anything, for that matter) but I liked it.
The poem is a retelling of, I presume, the first two chapters of A Princess of Mars. It starts presenting John Carter as a Confederate war veteran of the American Civil War,
My name is John Carter. I hail from Virginia.
I held to her customs and lore.
I greeted my neighbor and worshiped the Savior
and fought an unwinnable war.
and ends with him being pulled by an unknown force towards Mars. After I had finished the poem, I felt like reading the original novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I guess the poem accomplished its goals. The book is in public domain, so I don’t know what I’m waiting for.
Finally, the “Thrilling Novelette” is A Hill of Stars, by Misha Burnett, a writer who has already published a few books. It’s not much longer than the other short stories, just a few pages longer than The Gift of the Ob-Men, and it’s an easy and entertaining read.
I’d rather not explain too much about the story, but it’s one of the bests in the whole magazine. My biggest problem with it is the scientific approach of the protagonist against the creature. Although it makes sense from his point of view, it detracts a little from the fear that such Lovecraftian aberration should induce. A few more unknowns or mysteries regarding the monster would have helped.
In any event, it is a good story.
Finally, Jeffro Johnson, the already quoted writer of Castalia House’s Appendix N series (one of the inspirations for the Cirsova’s magazine, by the way,) writes a retrospective on E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest saga and its relation to the Traveller roleplaying game. I don’t know much about either, so I won’t comment the article. I found this bit amusing, though:
Going by the books, it turns out that Traveller’s High Passage is called “traveling high” not just because it includes all of the “high-end” amenities. The passengers are actually high on the drug called quick-time, which slowed their metabolism so that “time streamed past and a day seemed less than an hour.
The more you know…
Conclusion: Well, that was longer that I expected. I’d probably give Cirsova a 3.5/5 or 4/5, and although I saw some typos and perhaps a proofreader may have helped, I enjoyed the magazine (obviously, some stories more than others.) I would recommend it to those who enjoy the wackiest (although there are also some great “serious” stories there) but, also, the most classical side of fantasy and science fiction. And I really hope they keep attracting good (and even better) talent. The genre certainly needs it.
Cirsova doesn’t pretend to be just another magazine in a fantasy market oversaturated with plots, protagonists, and cover arts about a bunch of 21th-century cosplayers. The editor (P. Alexander) and some of the writers (don’t know if all, but at least some, that’s for sure) are part of an informal group of people who are aware of a science fiction and fantasy generational gap, not only regarding knowledge of its existence but in appreciating it too. They are not driven just by blind nostalgia (you’d need to be quite old for that,) and many have just recently discovered the genre’s golden era books, but they know quality when they see it. As a reviewer named Carlos Carrasco wrote in his Amazon review:
“Somewhere up there Edgar Rice Boroughs and Robert E Howard are smiling, happy in the knowledge that their brand of high-adventure, daring-do fiction is alive and well on the pages of Cirsova.”
I hope so, and I wish Cirsova luck and success in its future issues.