In Mage Tome, Rod Walker turns his pen towards fantasy with the first of a series of adventures featuring master thief Rowan of Kalderon. While his The Thousand Worlds series follows in the footsteps of Heinlein’s juveniles, here Walker casts an eye towards the thieves of sword and sorcery pulps and dungeon crawl games for inspiration. Mage Tome thrusts a dying elf woman at Rowan, who now must guard a magical book sought after by a necromancer, a state wizard, and a lich. All Rowan has to master these challenges are his wits, his cunning, and his boldness.
But sometimes that is not enough.
Rowan is an amiable enough thief, at home among the high and low classes, competent with a blade, and educated enough to speak several non-human languages, including orcish and goblinese. He is proud of his status as a master thief, even as he grows a little too old for the more demanding heists. A charming storyteller, Rowan’s tales are the “good parts” version, lacking digression and diversion from the caper in hand, always with an eye towards the goal. Don’t expect detailed descriptions of heist plans or fiddling with locks here; Rowan is too busy lying his way to victory to tarry over describing devices. Speaking of lies, it is not uncommon for a master thief to boast of his success with the ladies, but Rowan’s bragging verges on the unbelievable at times. Unlike with his lockpicking skills, there’s a lot of tell and not much show concerning his ease with the fairer sex. But then, who expects a thief to be a reliable narrator?
Rowan’s capers reflect those of a gentleman thief. Don’t be mistaken; Rowan knows his way with the rakes and picks as well as with a sword, but his greatest strength is his wit and sincerity. His often improvised schemes rely on convincing multiple parties to act as he wishes. In Mage Tome, the quickest way to remove a person in Rowan’s way is to send them on a collision course with another party. Rowan’s success depends on managing a delicate balance between factions while lying to each to bring them to a final confrontation. So far, Rowan has managed to avoid catastrophe, but Walker throws in enough secrets and unknowns to keep Rowan scrambling for control of his circumstances, often with twists worthy of Lester Dent’s Master Plot. This approach differentiates Rowan’s adventures from the eerie dungeon crawls of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as well as the grand heists—and the wanton cruelty—of Locke Lamora.
Karma Upsilon 4 is a short story sequel to Mark Wandrey’s Cartwright’s Cavaliers, continuing the adventures of Jim Cartwright as he leads his family’s mercenary company across the stars. Besides being the foundation of the impressive Four Horsemen military science fiction series, Cartwright’s Cavaliers took Jim Cartwright from being an overweight washout mired in despair and debt, and through responsibility and the insistent nudging of his senior NCOs, he grew into a leader. Along the way, Jim picks up a kawaii alien sidekick, a smoking hot girlfriend, and a Gundam-style giant robot, yet the anime influence does not break the grit of milSF written in the classic Baen mold.
Now, with a couple years of experience under his belt, Jim Cartwright is searching for a refuge that will keep his company safe from the ravages of competing mercenary companies and blood-sucking lawyers. The abandoned space station in the Upsilon orbit of the Karma system appears to fit his needs. If he can get inside, that is. Someone has jammed the locks, sealed the hatches, and booby-trapped everything. Jim and the Cavaliers must cut their way through to find out just what Jim’s $125 million+ credits has purchased. It’s a straightforward story, enlivened by an unrelenting series of lethal traps.
Jim grew up in Cartwright’s Cavaliers, but still must deal with the consequences of his teenage rebellion and despair. Not in angst, but it takes time to turn fat into muscle. His size continues to be an issue, limiting him to older, larger equipment. In the tight corners of Karma Upsilon 4, it also means that he has to enter rooms alone, adding to his personal risk—and the risk of his company. But Jim also maintains his personal gains from Cartwright’s Cavaliers. He might not be the perfect captain—or soldier—but he shoulders his share of duty admirably, striving to improve instead of choosing the way of the malcontent. Growing up and leadership are not destinations for Jim, as they are in many adolescent fantasies, but gateways to greater, more satisfying duties and responsibilities.
As for what Jim and the Cavaliers found inside Karma Upsilon 4, that will be fodder for further stories.
I found Appalling Stories: 13 Tales of Social Injustice in my weekly new release searches and grew curious. Here was a pulp-tinged counterpart to Forbidden Thoughts that played on the Astounding Stories name but was not written by the Pulp Revolution or Superversive movements. And,as it skewered many of the sacred cows of today’s current political correctness, the writers touted the collection as anti-message fiction.
Not quite. This is a bleak collection exploring the evils of the ends and means of social justice, filled with inverted morality tales where the good suffer and the bad struggle under the lash of the much worse. It’s Black Pill Pulp, not quite speculative fiction as many of the stories, such as “Bake Me a Cake” and the military rules of engagement farce “Our Diversity is Our Strength!”, have a distinct “is this true or is this the Onion?” satire of modern headlines. Not so much “Could this happen?” but “is it happening right now?”As an Amazon reviewer said, “This is message fiction, and the message is, ‘Hold my beer…'”
Perhaps the best of the lot is “The Bitterness of Honey”, a tale that breaks the mold of the collection by combining eco-terrorism, weird menace, and paranormal horror. It would be perfect for a modern, spicier version of Weird Tales, if the editor had the stomach for it.
Appalling Tales is not for everyone. When it is not heavy-handed with message, it is smothering with mood. And, yet, among the despair is the laughter of the gallows, assuming the reader sticks around long enough to find it.