Thursday, April 21, 2022

Book Review: Pteranodon Canyon (2022)

Do you like the Old West? Do you like dinosaurs? Or perhaps even both? If so, you'll love author Tim Meyer's new novel Pteranodon Canyon.


The Plot

In an Old West where dinosaurs survived west of the Mississippi and have made life...interesting...for the settlers, the conservationist-leaning federal government has just heavily restricted the hunting of pteranodons. To deal with illegal hunting, the feds hire bounty hunter Charlie Archer, who has a very personal grudge against the outlaw Francis Burner. Acquiring two companions along the way--the female gunslinger Elinor Watts and the mysterious Finn Hampton--Archer sets off on his mission, facing threats both reptilian and human along the way.

The Good

*The book is fast-moving and fun to read. I read a lot of it on the elliptical at the gym and it's a fast read. It's never boring.

*The timing for laws against dinosaur poaching does make sense historically. Yellowstone National Park was founded in 1872 and the conservation movement was very active in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The possibility of dinosaurs--extinct in the Old World and in much of the New--being threatened in their last surviving redoubt could potentially galvanize the conservation movement even earlier than in our history.

*Meyer's use of Old West dialogue is clever and as far as I know, period-accurate.

*Meyer also clearly knows and loves dinosaurs. His descriptions of the animals and how they hunt is well-done.

The Bad

*There are some plot threads that could be developed more deeply. I'm not going to go too deeply for reasons of spoilers, but late in the book certain medicinal uses of pteranodon parts come up. I don't recall this being discussed earlier in the book.

*Also being vague here for reasons for spoilers, but one character has lost a body part to another character and bears a grudge over that. During their inevitable confrontation they rant in very specific detail about how this has hurt their life, but I don't recall those specifics coming up in earlier scenes featuring the character.

*Finally, the U.S. and Old West seem pretty much the same despite there being a surviving dinosaur population. Assuming there was no impact beyond the Americas (no pterosaurs making their way to Europe via Iceland and Greenland?), European colonization, the Native American cultures, etc. are going to be very different with dinosaurs being around. No attempts to weaponize the dinosaurs during the Mexican War or Civil War? No attempts at dinosaur domestication? What impact did mega-carnivores have on the bison? Meyer could have gone in a lot of different directions with this. Obviously he can't go too far and create a totally unrecognizable world if he wants a Western with dinosaurs, but there could've been Easter Eggs like references to Sherman setting loose raptors on his March to the Sea to further devastate whatever Confederate livestock he couldn't steal or Lewis and Clark bringing dinosaurs back to Washington D.C. to show Thomas Jefferson.

The Verdict

A fun read for the elliptical, although I'd recommend more for Kindle Unlimited borrowing than for buying. 8.0 out of 10.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Movie Review: The Northman (2022)

Thanks to an online group I'm in getting perks, I was able to score early passes to see The Northman, much like I did Dune. And just like I did with Dune, you're getting an early film review out of it. :)


The Plot

In ancient Norse Ireland, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns from raiding and slaving to his queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and young son Amleth (Oscar Novak). Treachery arrives with his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), leaving his son to flee and vow revenge. Years later Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) is a Viking raider pillaging in modern Russia, but a religion vision reminds him of his vow of revenge. Allying with the Slavic sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), he sets off for the end of the world -- Iceland -- and a final confrontation with his uncle.

The Good

*The cinematography in this movie is simply beautiful. Even though the film is rather ponderous (more on that later), the film simply looks so good that it doesn't matter.

*The soundtrack is also marvelous. I don't claim to be a great expert on authentically Norse music, but it stylistically sounds a lot like the Scandinavian-themed and actually Scandinavian music I've found on YouTube, like the Norwegian band Wardruna.

*The film does an excellent job captured just how alien the pagan Norse are to modern Westerners. Lots of strange (and often bloody) rituals, hallucinogenic sequences, unrepentant violence, and eschewing common sense in favor of belief in Fate. From what I know about Norse history and culture, they get it all correct. The fact that it was co-written by the Icelandic poet Sjón no doubt helps quite a bit.

*The acting is generally good, particularly Bang's Fjolnir.

*There are some unexpected and creative plot twists.

The Bad

*The movie is rather slow-moving at times. It's even divided up into sequences with title cards, something I found objectionable in The Free State of Jones.

*Per the above, Skarsgård stares at the camera a lot. Although he's by no means a bad actor, he's one of the least interesting performers in the bunch.

The Verdict

Definitely worth seeing once. 8.0 out of 10.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Apex Publications Is Having Big-Time Sale

The other day, I spotted a blog post saying that speculative fiction stalwart Apex Publications is "retiring" 42 titles and was offering a substantial discount until the end of January Given Apex's importance to the small-press scene and the business I've done with publisher Jason Sizemore, this was somewhat concerning, so I checked it out.



It turns out that Apex is reverting the rights to many of its older titles to their original authors, to "trunk" or republish as they see fit. Apparently they're not generating enough money to cover the administrative costs of maintaining them, paying the writers, etc.

From a business perspective, this makes sense. I've looked over the list (more on that below) and a lot of them seem to be short-story collections or shorter works. Collections are generally not strong sellers--on Amazon I've sold three copies of Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire in the last six-odd weeks in comparison to five sales of The Thing in the Woods and three sales of its sequel The Atlanta Incursion. And that's fairly unusual--Thing, TAI, and Battle for the Wastelands typically sell at least all right, while FSFF languishes. This is even more blatant at conventions, where I move lots of novel-length works but few copies of FSFF, my novella Little People, Big Guns, or, in recent years, The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2. I put all of my shorter work (with the exception of Battle prequel "Son of Grendel") on Draft2Digital for wide release and only "Ten Davids Two Goliaths" and "Discovery and Flight" (both set in Lindsay Buroker's Fallen Empire universe) seem to sell.

Since I'm a one-man show without any authors to continue to pay or actual employees (the artists, designers, etc. are all contractors), keeping FSFF and the other shorter works available for purchase is no big deal. However, if for every sale I had to do the paperwork, royalty computation, etc. for multiple authors, that wouldn't be worth the minimal return I get. However, I do have to store my convention stock and the fewer boxes sitting around my apartment the better.

I took a look at the books on the Apex list and here are some that interest me. Appalachian Undead is a collection of zombie stories set in, well Appalachia. It leads with a story entitled "When Granny Comes Marchin’ Home Again," which is certainly attention-grabbing, and even has another story alluding to a John Denver song. Harlan County Horrors operates in a similar vein, with lots of ugly doings in coal country. Breaking The World is about what might happen if the apocalypse actually started during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco and certain sounds interesting. HebrewPunk is a group of short stories or novellas featuring characters based in Jewish tradition, culminating in all of them joining forces for a heist. Kentucky Kaiju is a Dungeons and Dragons-style monster manual for large creatures inhabiting Kentucky of all places. Severance is about the mishaps that can befall a generation ship bound for another star system. Stay Crazy has a pretty interesting concept--is this woman insane, or is there a being from another dimension recruiting her to fight another extradimensional being? Starve Better by Nick Mamatas is about the writing life; I already own it, but it's been awhile since I've read it. To Each Their Darkness and Yours to Tell also books about the craft of writing, and I'm seriously considering snagging that one while I still can.

My to-be-read pile (including several library books that might lead to fines) is pretty substantial as is, so I'm not sure which of these I'll actually purchase when all is said and done, but those all sound cool. However, if you're interested in helping out someone who's helped me, Sizemore has done a lot for my independent novelist career, including editing Battle back when I was still pitching it to publishers, connecting me with cover designer Mikio Murikami and laying out and assembling some very well-designed e-books.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

A (Somewhat) Realistic North Korean RED DAWN

The YouTuber The Alternate Historian, whom I know from my former days at the Internet's premiere alternate history forum, posted on Twitter recently about making a video discussing a realistic war between the U.S. and North Korea. In the Homefront video game and the 2012 Red Dawn remake the North Koreans manage to land forces on the American mainland and actually take control over much of the continental United States.

Sufficient to say, that isn't going to happen. North Korea's air force is obsolete and owing to lack of fuel, their pilots have little training time. North Korea's navy is primarily focused on its own river and coasts. They're realistically not going transport a whole army to the American mainland and good luck keeping them supplied even if they could get here. Their army is large, but their equipment is obsolete. Their main strengths are masses of artillery threatening the South Korean capital, their nukes and ballistic missiles, and their cyberwarfare capability.

(North Korea's nuclear capabilities seem much more advanced than I'd earlier believed...I thought at best they could manage a "Super-9/11" on one or two cities on the West Coast and then they'd be annihilated, but what the Council on Foreign Relations describes is something more like what's depicted in this faux Congressional commission's report on a North Korean nuclear attack. Yikes.)

So how could you have a realistic Red Dawn where it's the North Koreans of all people landing on the American mainland? Commandos. Before I left the alternate-history forum, I suggested the "more realistic Red Dawn" story would be a small North Korean force taking over an isolated small town in the rural West Coast. In my idea they'd be hidden aboard a civilian ship, while TAH suggested on Twitter they could use submarines. North Korean cyberwar techniques could be used to conceal their approach to the West Coast. The goal isn't to actually conquer the United States; the goal is to seize a town during an international crisis as a bargaining chip to get the U.S. to back off militarily, lift sanctions, etc. Northern California is rather isolated (a large land area with few roads) and if they take a large number of civilians hostage, that would complicate any response from the California National Guard or the regular U.S. military. That means the locals will have to liberate themselves, and so we enter Red Dawn territory.

And that's when things get tricky. There are lots of guns to be had in the rural U.S., even in Democratic states like California, but a force of North Korean regulars is going to have much heavier gear even if they're dramatically outnumbered. I'm imagining them herding captured civilians into camps beneath a battery of portable artillery and then defending said artillery with machine guns. A few dozen guys with rifles might be able to make life difficult for North Korean infantry patrols or do hit-and-run on isolated enemy positions, but good luck with successfully attacking this.

Fortunately, northern California is a major haven for illegally growing marijuana, and the local weed baron "just happens" to have some mortars. Think how mobster Eddie Valentine flips on the evil actor (and Nazi spy) Neville Sinclair in the climax of the film The Rocketeer--like Eddie, this man might not have a problem making money illegally, but collaborating with a totalitarian enemy is something else entirely. A bunch of irregular infantrymen bum-rushing machine guns isn't going to end well for them (and even a successful attack would give the North Koreans time to slaughter the hostages with artillery), but a surprise mortar bombardment could cripple the guns or kill their operators, wreck the machine gun positions, etc.

And that gave me the idea for an analogue for the traitor Daryl from the 1984 version. I'm imagining some young Twitter tankie (an apologist for authoritarian anti-American regimes--think Western leftists defending China's repression of Hong Kong or Xinjiang or Russian bombing of Syrian rebels) initially collaborating with the North Koreans. He erroneously thinks they're "anti-imperialist" or believes the U.S. provoked the North Koreans into this crazed long-shot gamble with economic sanctions or military drills. 

Sufficient to say, the scales fall from his eyes real fast. Although the guerrillas initially don't want his help, he's read the Anarchist's Cookbook and knows how to combine chlorine and bleach to make a crude chemical weapon or can make other chemical concoctions ISIS-style. Putting the trust the North Koreans gave him to good use, he sets off the chemical bomb in the North Korean headquarters at the same time the guerrillas use their new mortars to destroy the artillery the North Koreans are using to hold the townsfolk hostage. If the guerrillas or their weed-baron allies have got some decent machinists, they could make gas shells to make absolutely sure the gun crews are dead.

(Daryl could have some Redemption Equals Death for having been a collaborator initially, or more creatively, survive and everybody believes he was the Wolverines' inside man the entire time.)

I've got a lot going on, so I'm not going to try to pitch this to Hollywood (which wouldn't be interested, especially with the failure of the Red Dawn remake) or even write a book. Still, it might be interesting.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Book Review: SWORD AND PLANET (2021)

"Sword and Planet" is a sub-genre mixing science fiction and fantasy tropes that, although one of the oldest in modern SF (think the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories featuring heroic Earthman John Carter on a habitable Mars) doesn't get the attention it merits. Fortunately Baen put out Sword and Planet, a collection of several such stories, which I got the pleasure of reviewing. Here goes...


The collection starts out with a bang with Tim Akers' "A Murder of Knights." Basically a member of a high-tech knightly order has to investigate some sinister doings and finds himself facing off against something abominable, with a very bloody deadline. It seems like an origin story for a particular character and according to a conversation I had with the author, there's more content out there set in this universe. The fact my first reaction to the story was to see if there was more of it reflects very well on this collection.

Another story I enjoyed was R.R. Virdi's "A Knight Luminary" in which a trainee knight in a future war with a machine intelligence *still* hasn't manifested the psychic powers he needs. He and his fellows investigation an outpost that's gone silent and, as can be expected, things go very, very wrong.

"Bleeding From Cold Sleep" by longtime Warhammer 40K author Peter Fehervari features a fugitive member of what are essentially humanity's Cossacks (the vanguard of human expansion against a myriad of alien races, the first of which are based in a more pulp-fiction version of our own solar system) and just why he's a fugitive. It turns out there's a threat much, much closer to home.

In T. C. McCarthy's "The Test," a world that has regressed into a medieval state features a king, his son who reminds me a lot of Prince Hal from Shakespeare's HENRY IV, and another son who'd like to usurp him. And did I mention there are monsters and priests using advanced technology? This was fun too.

Rounding out my favorite stories is the novella "Queen Amid Ashes," set in author Christopher Ruocchio's SUN EATER universe (which begins with the novel Empire of Silence, the first of several). Our hero Imperial noble Hadrian Marlowe and his companion, the foreign cyborg doctor Valka, and their Imperial troops must liberate a world under attack by the predatory alien Cielcin, but there's much more going on than an alien invasion. There are some very vivid descriptions here.

Unfortunately, not every story in the collection is so grand. I loved the Deathstalker novels when I was in middle school, but Simon R. Green's "Saving The Emperor," which describes the origin of the titular Deathstalker noble family, was disappointing. I had a hard time following Susan R. Matthews' "Operatix Triumphans."

Still, no collection is perfect and I would definitely recommend this one. 8.0 out of 10.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

New Year, New Cover for THE THING IN THE WOODS

The first cover for The Thing in the Woods, originally published by Canadian small press Digital Fiction Publishing, was assembled from two pieces of Adobe stock art I found for the publisher. However, the cover for its independently-published sequel The Atlanta Incursion was illustrated by artist Matt Cowdery and laid out by designer Mikio Murikami. Although the fonts are the same, the illustrative style is very different and this is something that has been remarked upon.

Well, since Cowdery's art has been highly praised by pretty much everybody I run into at in-person events and he has done the cover for the planned third novel The Walking Worm, it's time to make the whole "Long War" series consistent. Furthermore, according to some writing podcasts I listen to, a new cover is a good way to spike sales for an older book.

So here's Cowdery's cover for Thing, featuring male lead James Daly and female lead Amber Webb (her first canonical image) confronting the titular horror.



Both the e-book and print book are now live with the new cover. Enjoy!