REVIEW: War of the Ruby by Brian K. Lowe

Sunday , 2, April 2017 25 Comments

I’ve held off on turning a critical eye towards Cirsova magazine for several reasons. For one thing, I’d be crazy to say anything bad about the project. P. Alexander is a friend, sure. One of the few people to pay attention to me in those weird days of 2015 when sitting at my lunch table was still totally uncool. But something big happened when Alex came out of nowhere and offered to pay semi-pro rates for stories in the same vein as what I was raving about. I didn’t want to poop the party by harshing on the happening just as they came out of the gate.

No, that really is it. On a certain level I am really pessimistic about the prospects of an actual literary revolt. Dunsany and Merritt and Burroughs didn’t just come out of nowhere and invent science fiction and fantasy as we know it. They were the product of an actual culture. Us? I can’t imagine anyone setting things straight and moving us forward. Given where we are now and what we have to work with, where would we even begin…?

And then there is the special theme of this issue. I know, Misha Burnett’s idea for an Eldritch Earth setting is really fun and all, but…. Well, I’ll just let Ron Edwards explain this to you:

A fairly typical example for a pulp fantasy world set in an unrealistically pre-historic past might be:

  1. the Old Ones reign on Earth
  2. war of the Old Ones, with one emerging victorious but weakened
  3. rise of man and the first kingdoms
  4. human war vs. remaining Old One
  5. cataclysm and destruction of the first kingdom
  6. humanity reclaims the world, usually a thriving batch of new races, with a few old human races and remnant Old Ones still around

The above is of course so standard as to be boring….

That’s from Sorcerer & Sword, a role-playing game supplement published in 2001. This hot new idea that’s taking short science fiction and fantasy by storm right now…? It was old news in role-playing a decade and a half ago…!

So how is the opening story of this issue work in practice now that it’s actually here?

Well let’s start with the just the writing. It’s better than the bulk of what you see in Andrew J. Offutt’s Swords Against Darkness III. It is stronger and tighter and has more verve than the sort of ur-fanfiction that August Derleth and Margaret St. Clair wrote. Finally, there are moments where this tale feels like something that Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber could have written. It’s brisk, fun, energetic.

What is impressive is the extent to which the tale holds on to its pulpy charm in spite of its having a de rigueur seventies style warrior woman. My tastes run more towards A. Merritt’s brand of mysterious otherworldly elf-woman. The overall classiness of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Dejah Thoris is hard to beat. But though this tale fails to reach up into the transcendent romance of Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast”, it does manage to serve up a thoroughly believable and engaging female co-star.

In this day and age, that is no mean trick. Consider that Danny Rand’s Iron Fist is constantly upstaged by five uber-competent strong female characters that rarely fail or even have any shortcomings. Consider that, due to whatever socio-political programming that is the order of the day, Iron Fist cannot be shown as being heroic or assertive or even effective. Then flip back over to the alternate storytelling universe of Jessica Jones and see one male character after another shown up, bested, humiliated, cut down by snark, and cast down by the withering eye rolls of the a character that exudes bitterness from every pore.

In that cultural context, yes… rolling things back to about the mid-seventies’ standards of gender dynamics is liable to come off as being a giant leap forward.

Reading Brian K. Lowe’s story, though… I have to admit I don’t even think about any of that stuff. I’m just too swept up by the freaky monsters, the thrilling action, the all-around likability of the characters. If you read “Tower of the Elephant” and thought to yourself, why doesn’t anyone write something like that anymore?!”, then this is the author you’re looking for and this is the magazine you’re looking for.

It shouldn’t be possible, but something really awesome is taking shape here. But there’s a reason why Cirosva has been pulling down rave reviews grateful fans of heroic fantasy.

This is really good stuff!

  • Nathan says:

    “They were the product of an actual culture. Us? I can’t imagine anyone setting things straight and moving us forward. Given where we are now and what we have to work with, where would we even begin…?”

    And yet I’ve been reading a fair amount of indie novels that attempt to do that. How can you turn a NEET into a man, a prodigal son into a leader, a cadet into an officer? Indie writers are exploring what it means to be human and what it means to be a man through adventure.

  • ScottatCastalia says:

    If there is no actual culture anymore then no option but to gradually rebuild it one story at a time, one small action at a time.
    Haven’t opened my issue of #5 yet but this tells me I have a lot to look forward to.

  • Cameron says:

    re: “On a certain level I am really pessimistic about the prospects of an actual literary revolt.”

    I have to admit that even though I like the term “pulp revolution,” I’ve never seen this movement as anything other than the resurgence and growth of a neglected market. I don’t see it storming any metaphorical castle walls and overthrowing the Enemy or anything. Maybe revolution/revolt are the wrong words? I don’t have an answer for that since I’m a consumer not a producer, so I don’t have any skin in the game, but even as a consumer I’m still excited by all this. Adventure without sermons or ironic winking: neat stuff, man.

    • Jeffro says:

      Pulp Revolution is a joke that was embraced by fans of the movement. The name stuck.

      An accurate term for the wider cultural pulse would be “Reader Revolt”. People are finding the sort of stuff they want being produced by independents that are bucking the dictates of the narrative machine. For people that spent the past couple decades without a whole lot of good stuff to read, this is a huge deal.

    • deuce says:

      “Maybe revolution/revolt are the wrong words?”

      As I said back in mid-February:

      ‘Is it too early to just start calling it all “PulpRev”?

      That encapsulates Jeffro’s “Revolution” AND the “Revival” of some others. Plus it can stand for stuff like revitalization, revisioning, revolt, what have you. Hell, just plain “Rev” as in, “Rev your engines!” Honestly, I’m just tired of typing out “revolution” every time. 😛 ‘

      “PulpRev” can mean a lot of things. Let the individual readers fill in what comes after the “v”, if anything. Just my take.

      • Jeffro says:

        Too right.

        The OSR never worked out what their “R” stood for, either.

        If you’re reading, creating, commenting, or critiquing, you’re part of the scene and helping to make something happen.

        • Cameron says:

          Kind of curious how heavy the crossover is between the guys who knew about the OSR and this.

          • cirsova says:

            Well, as a datapoint, I came into the OSR fairly late (2012) and was part of what was one of the last generations of OSR bloggers.

          • Jeffro says:

            Appendix N was a continuation of discussion and analysis that began in the OSR. The book is basically congealed OSR type writing packaged in a format that (hopefully) people outside the OSR would actually read. P. Alexander and I were tabletop games bloggers before we came over here. I think Misha Burnett was reading my Car Wars posts way back. Jon Mollison definitely was– he was one of the first people I ever blogrolled back when Car Wars was all I covered.

            If you’d asked me last year, I would have said that Pulp Revolution is what happens when you drag OSR blogging culture into the book blogging scene. There’s more to it than that now given who all showed up and why, but if you listen to Rick Stump talk about what is awesome about the OSR on Geek Gab we definitely have that same type of excitement and open collaboration happening.

      • Hrodgar says:

        While I realize I’m in the minority when it comes to this kind of thing, I’ll admit that one of the main reasons I have trouble getting excited about this is basically because of “Revolution.” Something like Pulp Revival or Pulp Restoration would be a lot easier for me to get behind.

        I doubt it’ll change this late in the game, though.

        • Jeffro says:

          It’s a leaderless movement, so you can declare what the “r” really stands for all you want. If something really ought to be done or addressed and it bugs you that it’s not, the best thing that you can do to help is just to go do it. No one takes to the time to forge a consensus but then these crazy projects just randomly emerge from the chaos. It’s awesome!

        • deuce says:

          Hmmm. Yes, there may be cause for concern, Hrodgar. My suggestion? Just type “PulpRev” and let the reader figure it out.

          “Pulp Revamping”? “Pulp Revitalization”?

          Aw hell… we picked the wrong name. We might as well give up while we’re behind. It was fun while it lasted. 😀

  • NARoberts says:

    On the one hand, I don’t see us making a revolution happen. Or even a revival, that would matter in the broader sense. But on the other hand, the reader revolt is so real that in a wider sense, we can’t lose, whether we make a difference ourselves or as an isolated group chipping away at the castles, with all the other little cliques chipping away alongside, even if we don’t know about them yet. Some group is going to get big. Is it us? I hope so, but I can’t say.

  • deuce says:

    The simple fact is: The fight is there to be fought. Call it whatever you want. The American Revolutionaries didn’t call themselves “The United States of America.” That’s just where they ended up.

  • instasetting says:

    Just like all those stories where the heroes have to put society and tech back together again, while being opposed by merciless enemies….lots of stories like that.

  • Brian says:

    Don’t fret about the “revolution.” If you’re having fun and excitedly sharing that fun with others on the internet, the revolution will happen without you even trying.

    Make the fun happen. That’s the keystone to the whole edifice. Once you’re having fun, everything else will fall into place.

    Make the stories you want to read, encourage those who are making the stories you want to read, analyse and understand what makes a story you want to read, or just share neat stories you’ve read with your friends. There’s space here for everyone. Get involved in a way that excites you, get out of the way of folks doing other things that might not excite you but feed the work, and above all, keep having fun!

  • Jasyn Jones says:

    We ARE a Revolution. Rejecting the domination of PC culture, looking to the GASP SHOCK regressive past, being Right Wing or Christian—ALL are Revolutionary acts.

    Love it or hate it, there is an establishment and we are set on upending it.

  • GithYankee says:

    Also relevant in this discussion: Paul Joseph Watson’s video “Why Modern Art is Crap”, and Stefan Molyneux’s recent literary podcasts with Vox, Cernovich and Duke Pesta.
    Obscurantism is waning, thank God, in all areas of culture. PulpRev shows us the way to make art that is exciting AND high quality.

    • deuce says:

      Eerie coincidence, here. I just clicked over to the blog and saw there was a new comment on this post. I see it is from “GithYankee”. Just before — for the first time in years — I had googled up Russ Nicholson and looked at some of his old Githyanki art. Coincidences happen.

      BTW, I agree about the retreat of obscurantism.

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