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:
- the Old Ones reign on Earth
- war of the Old Ones, with one emerging victorious but weakened
- rise of man and the first kingdoms
- human war vs. remaining Old One
- cataclysm and destruction of the first kingdom
- 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!