Thursday, September 28, 2017

Beyond The Black Enigma (Commander Craig #1)

Beyond The Black Enigma, by Bart Somers
August, 1965  Paperback Library

Clearly intended to be James Bond in space, Beyond The Black Enigma was the first of two novels to feature Commander John Craig; Bart Somers was prolific sci-fi author Gardner Fox. The story could easily have appeared a few decades earlier in one of the pulps Fox once wrote for; even the date in which the story occurs, the friggin’ 75th Century(!), gives it the feel of a vintage pulp.

And of course, despite taking place so far into the future, the world Fox gives us feels like the 1960s (or actually the 1940s); it is humorously quaint, with people still smoking cigarettes, writing on paper, even having “writing desks.” Square-jawed men stand around in offices smoking and drinking and discussing “girls.” The “science” throughout is preposterous and the characters have all the depth of Captain Future. None of this really could be seen as a criticism – I mean the only sci-fi I’ll read these days is pulp sci-fi – but the main issue is that Beyond The Black Enigma just isn’t very good. One suspects this is because Fox perhaps retconned some other manuscript into this James Bond-esque template; for in truth, he takes his gadget-wielding, superspy hero, sends him to a boring planet…and has him spelunking through ancient crypts and deciphering the “truth” in various stories from mythology.

Craig is a big blond-haired brawler who works as an agent for Alert Command, part of “the elite Investigation Corps, United Worlds Space Fleets.” He’s just got back from nearly a year of jungle warfare on some planet, and just wants to spend time with Elva Marlowe, his hoststuff main babe who makes her living as a fashion designer around the cosmos (despite which, and despite it being the 75th friggin’ century, Paris and New York are still the fashion meccas of the universe; as I say, this future is very quaint). But he’s summoned by his boss, Commander Ingalls, for a new mission – one that will have Craig fighting a menace “five light years away.”

As you’ll note, both Craig and Ingalls are commanders. This is because Craig apparently received a promotion sometime between the manuscript and publication stages. Craig is sometimes referred to as “the major” throughout, which implies that’s how he started before the publisher (perhaps) decided he should be “Commander Craig.” But for that matter, the novel is rife with typos and grammatical errors; “slowly turning slowly,” and “Craig felt his heart swell in his rib case,” and etc. Indeed, the novel is profoundly stupid, and these typos are really just the icing on the cake.

Craig’s assignment is to take his new ship, made of “densatron” metal and with “nucleatronic engines,” on a five light-year journey to confront the mysterious “black enigma” which has been known about for a thousand years but is only just now being seen as a threat(!). Two splace fleets have been lost in the massive black blob which eclipses an entire solar system, so far away; it’s like the Bermuda Triangle of outer space. For this impossible mission, Edmunds, “chief of Ordinance,” has whipped up a trio of gadgets for Craig.

First there’s the Imp, a metal rod that shoots a ray that causes people to implode. Next there’s a black box that “warps time,” so that if someone fires at Craig and he activates the box in time, it will shoot out a ray that will capture the bullet or ray or whatever’s been fired at him – and thrust it a hundred years into the future (or past; Edmunds isn’t really certain). In keeping with the moronic vibe of the novel, Edmunds fires at Craig point-blank, the shot captured in the box’s rays and thrust into the future, and Ingalls chuckles that someone standing there a century from now might catch a bullet in the face! But it gets dumber: Edmunds next produces “the halo,” a crown-like gizmo that unlocks the full potential of the brain. Slip it on your head and concentrate and you can make something from nothing; Edmunds jokes that the “boys in the lab” have been using it to make eggs, which pop right out of the thin air…tasteless, but edible.

These three items Craig tosses in a “sack” (it’s the 75th friggin’ century, folks, and all the guy has is a damn sack), hops in his ship, and heads on for his encounter with the black enigma. Already we realize the problem, here – our James Bond-esque hero is up against an enigma. Not a SPECTRE-like force or an enemy agent or something tangible that he can handle in his ruggedly virile two-fisted way. Nope, it’s a cloudy mass of nothingness that no one knows anthing about. And talk about underkill…Craig gets there, has a moment of foreboding, and then flies into it…and then takes a nap!!

I don’t know the first thing about Gardner Fox, but I’ve gotta hope that Beyond The Black Enigma isn’t a typical example of the dude’s work, cause this book sucks in a major way. Craig takes his little nap and then gets around to exploring the solar system which has been swallowed by the enigma…he finally settles on the third planet from the sun, figuring it will have life. From here the novel becomes a tiresome, repetitive trawl. Long story short, a vaguely-described alien race called the Toparrs have taken over this planet, Rhythane, enslaving the native folk.

That time-warp stuff isn’t limited to Craig’s box. The Toparrs wear belts which can take them past, present, and future. Craig is shocked when he lands and his ship promptly disappears; it’s because it’s been sent to the future, which is where it develops the two missing spacefleets are. Meanwhile he hooks up with a native gal, named Fiona, a “little pagan” with “faintly slanted eyes.” She’s one of the few native survivors of the Toparrs, and of course falls quick for the rugged Earthman, though it takes a while for Fox to get to the expected sex scene – and even then it’s relegated to nothing more than, “In the quiet night, [Fiona’s] sigh was loud.” Whether that’s a sigh of satisfaction or frustration is something Fox doesn’t elaborate on.

As mentioned, after imploding a few Toparrs with the Imp, which is still in that damn “sack,” Craig spends most of his time studying the mythology of the native peoples, as well as exploring the crypts beneath their fallen and deserted old city. It’s preposterous in how stupid it is…here our hero is, “five light years away,” ostensibly to stop a “black enigma” from swallowing the known universe but also to find out what happened to the missing space fleets sent to research the place, and all he does is basically rob a few graves and then sit around and listen to myths, trying to discern the “truth” in them.

Eventually he’ll get hold of a Toparr belt and send himself (and Fiona) to the future, where he finds the missing few thousand spacemen. They’re being used as slaves by the Toparrs, who worship a computer-god that looks like a “surrealist mobile.” Gradually Craig will learn that the enigma was created by this computer eons ago, and somehow it took on its own life, swallowing planets, even causing the Toparrs to leave their ancestral homeland to come to this one. Craig, armed with a sword he finds when the Toparr computer-god sends him into a sort of promised paradise to sway him over to its side, ends up smashing all the controls and destroying the enigma.

Fox has finally hit his word count; Craig, who had been falling in love with Fiona, basically shrugs her off in the final sentences, figuring his fling with her was just one of those things(!) and that she’ll eventually marry some member of her tribe and have lots of kids…indeed, it’s a “good thing” that Fiona likely thinks Craig is dead(!). Fox doesn’t even give us a reunion between Craig and Elva Marlowe; Craig just plops on his ass and begins waiting for the Alert Command ships which will no doubt soon be on their way, given that their monitors will have detected that the enigma no longer exists.

This book was really a wearying read, so dispirited and juvenile that it became a chore to get through. A cursory glance through the second (and final) installment, Abdandon Galaxy!, would indicate that it’s a more entertaining bit of pulp sci-fi. Surprisingly though, Beyond The Black Enigma actually received a second printing, in 1968. Here’s the cover:

Monday, September 25, 2017

Dragon Slay (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #261)

Dragon Slay, by Nick Carter
March, 1990  Jove Books

If you’ve ever woken up in a cold sweat, gasping, “How – how did  Nick Carter: Killmaster come to an end?”, then wonder no more, because this is that final volume and I’ve read it. But anyone hoping for a fitting conclusion to the 261-volume saga will be unsatisfied; indeed, it appears very clear that Dragon Slay was not even intended as any sort of series wrap-up by writer Jack Canon, who had turned in so many previous installments. Clearly what happened was that Jove decided to cancel the series and this volume was the last one they had in the pipeline, so by default it became the last volume.

But at this point, 16 years after series creator Lyle Kenyon Engel had left (and 4 years after he’d died), Nick Carter: Killmaster was a completely different thing. Particularly in Canon’s hands, as he’d refashioned it into a sub-Robert Ludlum thing, with a Nick Carter who lacked all of the likable qualities of the original model. Indeed, Canon’s Carter is a bit of an ass, constantly telling people how “bad” he is and going back on his word; even the way he’s referred to – “Carter” instead of the “Nick” of the volumes from the 1960s – is indication that we are dealing with a different dude.

For that matter, the original template of the series is gone. Carter’s boss David Hawk doesn’t appear in Dragon Slay and isn’t even mentioned. In fact, neither is Carter’s organization of AXE – I’m not sure, but I think the same was true in the other Canon novels I’ve read (just speaking of the third-person volumes he wrote in the ‘80s; it appears that his first-person volumes from the ‘70s hewed more closely to the original series template). But Carter is already on assignment when we meet him, having been summoned to Hong Kong by a series of apparently-planned events.

The pulp fun of the early books is long gone. This is sub-Ludlum all the way. Canon’s Carter exists in a world of shadowy spooks and paid informants. What little pulpy stuff there is, like this installment’s main villain, is either unexplored or quickly dealt with. What I’m trying to say is, it’s boring. Fairly good writing, and good dialog, but boring. Hell, the “Killmaster” doesn’t even kill anyone until page 114, and his assortment of gadgets is nowhere to be found. Even the pulpy names once given to his standard weapons are gone…his Luger is just that, no longer “Wilhelmina,” and his stiletto is no longer “Hugo.” All the pulpy spark of the original books has been sucked out, leaving us a dry-as-dust, bland espionage tale that has nothing to differentiate it from countless others. No wonder the series was canceled.

The plot has Carter being drafted by Chinese intelligence, as for hard-to-buy reasons they want a non-Chinese agent to help figure out who has been sabotaging Chinese interests lately. Actually they already know who it is – Dr. Chiang Sim, a hardcore anti-Communist who lives on an island off Taiwan. One of the greatest misses of the novel, Dr. Sim is a Dr. No-type villain who has his own army of henchmen and runs his affairs from a converted monastery, watching his various activities unravel via a bank of monitors in his control room – and Canon, per his usual, does absolutely zilch to exploit his own pulpy concept. In fact, Sim doesn’t even damn appear until page 187, of a 195-page book!!

Rather, Canon is more into wasting the reader’s time with Carter hopscotching around Hong Kong, trying to get clues on Sim and his plans. He doesn’t even have much time for the series-mandated sex; Carter’s been drafted by Lu Ty Yong, Chinese Intelligence chief (who gives Carter the codename “Dragon Slayer”), and Yong places his lovely daughter Myang as Carter’s minder. She is a spy agent in her own right, and throws herself at Carter early on; surprisingly, Carter denies her. Only later do they have a somewhat-graphic sex scene, Myang again offering herself to Carter during a moonlight swim in the nude, “her high, round breasts demanding to be fondled.”

Canon also pulls a fast one on readers; there’s actually a supporting character of sorts in Dragon Slay: Christie Greer, a hostuff blonde mega-babe who is a reporter based out of San Francisco. She’s also mega-skilled in kung-fu, almost a match for the Killmaster himself. She’s on a story that has her racing from SanFran’s Chinatown to Hong Kong, researching an apparent Chinese plot to flood the US with heroin – yet another of Sim’s ploys, of course, and one which attempts to frame Lu Ty Yong’s son as a drug dealer.

The reader endures these scenes with Christie, constantly reminded of her hot bod and great looks, knowing from the previous 260 volumes that it will only be a matter of time until she and Carter meet…after which the inevitable will occur…only it doesn’t!! Believe it or not, folks, but Carter and Christie do not engage in the series-mandatory boff! She becomes his comrade in Taiwan, zipping around town on a Honda cycle, in tight black leather and a visored helmet (a la Uma Thurman in the first Kill Bill), and she kicks plentiful Sim henchman ass, but she drops out of the climax, only to return in the final pages; in exchange for scuppering her story, Carter promises to take Christie out to dinner in restaurants around the world.

As mentioned most of the narrative is boring stuff about Carter hunting clues on Sim. The above-mentioned first kill is when a professional hitman attempts to get the jump on Carter, which takes us into an overlong fight in which this guy almost gets the better of the Killmaster. In the ‘60s books “Nick” would’ve taken down without breaking a sweat. But that’s really it on the action front, until the narrative moves to Taipei, and Carter and Christie become a two-person task force, wiping out various Sim installations.

In a bit of clumsy plotting, though, Christie is abruptly yanked out of the action, so that Carter and Myang team up for the assault on Sim’s fortified island – as if Carter always needs a woman with him while on the job. Anyway they suit up in scuba gear and infiltrate the place, taking out some guards silently and moving in on the converted monastery that is Sim’s lair. And we’ve only got like a dozen pages left in the book. This complete unexploitation of the pulpiness reminded me very much of a previous Canon misfire, Blood Raid. That one too suffered from inordinate padding, while serving up a hasty and absolutely pulpy (anti)climax.

So how does the series end? Unspectacularly, again proving out that Dragon Slay was just another contract job and Canon did not write it under the impression that it would be the series finale. After Carter and Myang storm the island – Sim almost perfunctorily dealt with – Carter as mentioned offers Christie a series of dinners around the world, as repayment for keeping her from publishing this bombshell of a story. And that’s it! No saynora from David Hawk, no “they lived happily ever after” for Nick and Christie, no nothing – just another random adventure in the life of Nick Carter. 

Overlong, listless, more focused on real-world mundanities than the pulp thrills the series was once known for, Dragon Slay is an ignoble end for the Nick Carter: Killmaster saga. But then, it’s becoming more apparent to me that the true ending of the series was when Lyle Kenyon Engel left it, in 1974.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

People Of The Talisman and Black Amazon Of Mars

The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman, by Leigh Brackett
No date stated (November, 1971)  Ace Books
(Original Ace Double edition, 1964)
(Also published as Eric John Stark: Outlaw Of Mars, by Ballantine Books, September 1982)

As mentioned in my review of The Secret Of Sinharat, People Of The Talisman also started life in the pulps, as “Black Amazon Of Mars,” before it too was expanded in 1964 as the flipside of this Ace Double. I’ve reviewed the original novella below.

Whereas The Secret Of Sinharat mostly stayed true to its original incarnation, with only a few changes here and there – though not all of them to the story’s benefit, I’d argue – People Of The Talisman is almost a straight-up rewrite, save for the opening pages. It’s also a little longer; Sinharat came in at a mere 94 pages, whereas Talisman runs to 124.

“Black Amazon Of Mars” was the last Eric John Stark adventure Leigh Brackett published until 1974 (The Ginger Star, being the first volume of the Book Of Skaith trilogy), though it appears to occur before the 1949 Stark novella “Enchantress Of Venus” (review forthcoming), and also before the unpublished-until-2005 novella “Stark And The Star Kings,” which was written in 1973 (review also forthcoming). This is mostly because Stark is still on Mars in the story, which is where we left him at the end of “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs”/The Secret Of Sinharat. He’s made his way from the deserts of the Drylands up into the snowy expanses of the Norlands. There’s no pickup from the previous story, but we’re informed that Stark has been carrying on guerrilla warfare with some of the Dryland barbarian tribes featured in the previous story, and a few times he mentions he’s been to Valkis – whereas it was made clear in Sinharat that it was his first time visiting that Martian city. 

When we meet up with Stark this time he’s in the rugged, snowy expanses of north Mars, on his way to the sequestered kingdom of Kushat along with a Martian friend named Camar. But Camar is dying, presumably from wounds in the guerrilla fighting. Camar is from Kushat, and apparently only a few people have ever left the city. Camar actually fled, having stolen the sacred Talisman of Ban Cruach, a Martian who saved Kushat around a million years ago, taking some sort of power from the Gates of Death, ie the unexplored, hellish region which looms beyond Kushat, the titular “Gates” being a pass through the black mountains outside the city. The talisman is a lens in a leather boss that Camar has hidden on his belt; Stark vows to take the talisman on to Kushat, as a favor to his dying friend.

But there’s more to the talisman than meets the eye; when Stark exploringly puts it on his forehead, he sees visions that appear to come from Ban Cruach’s actual experiences, all those millennia ago. The talisman is the fabled protector of Kushat; whatever it was that Ban Cruach found out there, the promise was that if ever Kushat was in trouble, the talisman would provide its people with the means of overcoming it. Given this, Kushat has never been conquered, and the superstitious Martians have given it wide birth. Now, without its protective talisman, the city is unprotected. 

Posthaste Stark is captured by “the riders of Mekh,” a barbarian tribe that roams the wilds outside Kushat. They take his few belongings – a recurring bit is that Stark is basically penniless everytime we meet him – but leave the cheap belt which was once Camar’s, and now rests on Stark’s waist, because it looks so worn and worthless. The barbarians take Stark to their leader, a badass warrior in black armor, who wields a black war axe and wears a black mask that appears to be inspired by samurai armor:

His head and face were covered by a thing that Stark had seen before only in very old paintings – the ancient war-mask of the inland Kings of Mars. Wrought of black and gleaming steel, it presented an unhuman visage of slitted eyeholes and a barred slot for breathing. Behind, it sprang out in a thin, soaring sweep, like a dark wing edge-on in flight.

This is the Lord Ciaran, ruler of the riders of Mekh, on his way to sack Kushat – something that’s never been attempted at this time of year, where it seems to be a gentleman’s agreement that no battles will be waged in the dead of winter. The expansion features a big gaffe of omission – sitting by Ciaran is an old pile of rags named Otar, a crazed old runaway from Kushat, and he is not introduced in the expansion as he is in the novella. Yet Stark abruptly refers to him by name. Clearly Brackett (or was it her husband Edmond Hamilton who did the ghostwriting for the expansion?) overlooked the fact that she’d edited out his intro from the novella. Not that it matters; Otar eventually disappears from both the novel and the novella.

One thing fixed up in the expansion is that here no one promptly assumes Stark has the talisman, as they do in the novella – they just demand to know if Stark knows where it is. He’s strung up on a rack and whipped, but breaks free thanks to his Tarzan-like abilities, getting the jump on some riders who think he’s passed out. He takes up a spear and lays into his captors – “He killed, and was happy.” Stark escapes on one of those lizardlike “mounts” which Brackett has yet to describe, and gradually loses the Mekh riders, ending up in Kushat.

This is another of those fallen Martian cities, though not so depraved as Valkis was in the earlier story. No one believes Stark’s story that barbarian riders are about to storm the wall that surrounds Kushat, and he also soon discovers that the rulers of Kushat are lying to their people that the Talisman of Ban Cruach is still here. A waif-like girl from the Thieves’s Quarter named Thanis argues with young soldier Lugh and company compander Lord Rogain(!) that she be given responsibility for Stark, as they plan to throw him in prison for his “lies.” Thanis takes Stark back to her apartment in the Quarter, which she shares with her brother Balin.

I mentioned in my review of The Secret Of Sinharat that some of Stark’s bad-assery had been whittled out, in the transition from novella to novel. The same thing happens here; to put it plainly, Stark gets laid in “Black Amazon Of Mars,” but he doesn’t in People Of The Talisman. This is due to the character revision Thanis experiences; in the novella she’s a sultry vixen who promptly throws herself on Stark, referring to him lovingly as “animal” afterwards, yet in the novel she is much more naïve and innocent, and has what amounts to a big brother sort of love for Stark.

The novel also features this incredibly goofy bit of coincidence in which Balin announces that he’s discovered Stark has the talisman, because not only did Balin know Camar, but he also recognized Camar’s belt!! We get a lot of insight into Kushat and the myth of Ban Cruach, perhaps a bit too much. There’s a massive statue of him in the city square and Lugh lies to Stark that the talisman is there. Stark’s story of impending invasion is only half-heartedly listened to, so soldiers man the wall. The siege of course happens a few days later, with Ciaran in his black armor marshalling his forces. Stark is crazed with vengeance, and gets in a brief swordfight with Ciaran.

Here comes the big shock – ruined of course by the title of the original novella – Ciaran is actually a she. Stark knocks off that ancient Martian helmet and is surprised when he finds himself looking into the face of a beautiful woman with black hair (she had “red-gold” hair in the novella, by the way). There’s a moment where it looks like her barbarians will abandon her, having discovered they’ve been following a woman, but Ciaran leaps into the fray and thus becomes a “goddess” to them. Stark meanwhile bands together some Kushatians, knowing the city is doomed, and leads them on a long escape through the tunnels beneath Kushat – this novel is very heavy on the atmospherics, lacking much of the action of the source novella.

Determined to help save Kushat, and also get his vengeance on Ciaran, woman or not, Stark leads his group into the Gates of Death, to find whatever power Ban Cruach found there. He ends up cutting off a pursuing Ciaran and capturing her, and succeeds in keeping his group of survivors from killing her – they can use her to barter for their safe passage. Meanwhile they explore the ghostly ruins in the Gates of Death. They are soon confronted by aliens who look much like the one depicted on the cover, and these aliens predate the human-stock “Martians” who now run the planet.

The talisman allows conversation with these stalking aliens, and Stark detects that there is something untrustworthy about them, despite their apparent kindness. They vow to help Kushat, as Ban Cruach made the same promise to them, so long ago – these aliens want to live alone in their own kingdowm, and Kushat was like a barrier between them and the rest of Mars. In a stupid moment they happily hand over all their weapons to the band of survivors, and off they rush to reclaim Kushat from the riders of Mekh – it’s all very rushed and sort of goofy.

But it turns out to be a “game;” the aliens have tricked the Kushatians, and the lights in the eerie city go out so the aliens can now hunt the survivors for sport. The talisman is revealed to be worthless, and one of the aliens smashes it. Eventually Stark runs into Ciaran, and the aliens have contrived it so these two could fight to the death; instead, they take up their swords, stand back to back, and commence to hacking and slashing. They escape, along with Thanis and Balin and a few other survivors, and Ciaran promptly vows to leave Kushat, taking her barbarians with her…as long as Stark helps her fight to reclaim her birth kingdom of Narissa; Ciaran, daughter of the now-dead king, was ridiculed by her people for being a girl who wanted to rule, but now she will return to Narissa and claim it for her own.

And here People Of The Talisman comes to its unsatisfying, rushed end. Having read the novella first, it occurred to me as I read this expansion that what appears to have happened was that Brackett, for whatever reason, toned down the pulpy fun of the source material and attempted to make it all more “straight” and “serious.” Gone is the fast-moving action of the novella, replaced with lots of scene-setting and needless tours of Kushat. It’s my understanding that Brackett’s sci-fi gradually lost this pulpish vibe as the ‘50s went into the ‘60s, so maybe these expansions were just reflections of that.

As with The Secret Of Sinharat, I read the 1971 reprint shown above. Here is the cover of the original 1964 paperback; it’s interesting that ’71 reprint cover artist Enrique “Enrich” Torres basically just redrew it, same as he did for his Sinharat cover:

On to the original pulp version – as with “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” I found “Black Amazon of Mars” to be vastly superior to the expansion. “Black Amazon Of Mars” appeared in the March 1951 issue of Planet Stories, and you can find a scan of it for free download at The Internet Archive. Not only does the novella move faster – which would be a given as it’s shorter than the expansion – but the character motivations and climax are all superior, and Stark comes off as a stronger character. It’s also in even more of a Robert E. Howard mold than “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs,” filled with warriors in armor battling it out with swords and axes. Here’s the cover:

As with my rundown of “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs,” I’ll mostly go over differences here, so spoilers will run rampant. The novella starts off basically identical to People Of The Talisman, up to the point where Stark arrives in Kushat. As mentioned above, Stark gets lucky with Thanis, who is much more sultry here, less the innocent waif. There’s also none of the business of Balin having known Camar and recognizing Camar’s belt. But the novella does suffer from a strange tendency of various characters abruptly assuming, apropos of nothing, that Stark has the talisman of Ban Cruach and is hiding it from them.

But the main thrust of the story proceeds the same; Stark warns of the approaching hordes of Ciaran, and his story is doubted. He gets involved in the fighting during the eventual siege, and unmasks Ciaran as in the novel, but here she has red hair. Also in the novella it’s revealed that Ciaran is really “Ciara,” something not addressed in the novel. Despite her unmasking Ciara still leads her riders to a conquest of Kushat. In panic Balin flees through the Gates of Death, to find whatever power Ban Cruach left there. Alerted to this by a shrieking Thanis, Stark goes off in pursuit – and he himself is chased by Ciara and several of her barbarians.

The Gates of Death are guarded by a mummified figure in armor, holding a massive sword: Ban Cruach himself. Rushing past this figure, Stark encounters “the ice-folk,” the faceless, looming creatures of ice who live in this hellish, frozen area. They scare off Ciara’s men, and she proceeds alone after Stark. The duo fight the creatures but are captured, taken to an ice palace. Speaking telepathically, the ice-folk reveal that they were the original rulers of Mars, but Ban Cruach fought them back a million years ago, segregating them in this frozen section of the north – when they ruled Mars, the entire planet was covered with their ice castles, but Ban Cruach defeated them and gave the world to the current human-like Martians.

Ban Cruach did this, somehow, with his sword, the radioactive properties of which still in some mysterious way prevent the ice-folk from leaving their ghetto. They force Stark to get the sword, figure out how it works, and use it to free them so they can once again take control of Mars. This is the exact opposite of the goal of the aliens in People Of The Talisman. Stark refuses until the ice-folk threaten to freeze Ciara and Balin to death. Stark complies, and puts on the talisman, still hidden in his belt. With it he is granted the knowledge of how to use the sword.

The finale is a weird burst of near-psychedelic action as Stark waves the magical sword around, melting ice-folk and structures alike. The sword has a sort of microwave beam that wipes out anything in its path, and also protects Stark from the black light beams the ice-folk shoot at him. He also uses it to melt the ice that has nearly killed Ciara and Balin, and the three escape after Stark destroys the entire palace. The finale sees them emerging back into normal Mars, and here, unlike the clunky finale of the novel, Ciara does not vow to leave Kushat – indeed, it’s specified that she will remain there as ruler. There’s none of the business of her seeking to reclaim the throne of her father, either. She does though extend the same sort of offer to Stark – she asks him to stay with her, and Stark figures he will, at least for a while.

This was the last Eric John Stark story Brackett published until 1974, with The Ginger Star, being the first volume of the Book of Skaith trilogy – that is, if you aren’t counting the expanded versions of “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs” and “Black Amazon Of Mars” from 1964. However it would appear that Brackett, like her inspiration Robert E. Howard, didn’t write her Stark stories in chronological order, so that the second-published Stark yarn, “Enchantress Of Venus” (Planet Stories, Fall 1949), actually would follow after “Black Amazon Of Mars,” which was published two years later. I’ll be reading that one next, as well as the other stories collected in the 2008 Baen eBook Stark And The Star Kings And Other Stories.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Razoni & Jackson #4: Down And Dirty

Razoni & Jackson #4: Down And Dirty, by W.B. Murphy
May, 1974  Pinnacle Books

The penultimate volume of Razoni & Jackson is another murder mystery more involved with sleuthing and bantering, but this time our temperamental protagonists actually see a bit of action themselves, getting in a very brief firefight before resuming the bantering. But truth be told, Down And Dirty seems a bit winded, the banter at times almost lame – as if desperate – and one gets the impression Warren Murphy was growing weary of the series. Which might be reason enough why the next volume was the last.

The cover art once again faithfully captures all the events that transpire in the text – it opens with a sequence of sadism in which two black men torture and then murder a hapless beat cop, one who works the Little Italy section and has gone out of his way to keep his nose clean from corruption. We get a bit of history on this section of Manhattan, how it was once run by Italians but is slowly being taken over by the blacks – there’s lots of commentary here on how black neighborhoods quickly fall into disrepair, which would no doubt trigger sensitive modern-day readers, yet it should be noted that there is also a defense of these very same people, arguing that these slums are all they have and that in time, no doubt, they’ll clean the place up.

But the Italians run a lucrative gambling business here, one that the blacks are cutting in on, and a gang war appears to be imminent. Murphy in his prescience even has “fake news,” what with the local news constantly talking about the possibility of one, so as to drum up circulation and viewership. The media indeed comes off poorly here; when we meet our heroes, Razoni and Jackson are scoping out a famous local newscaster for reasons that are not explained to them. They discover that the guy is a “closet queen,” with Razoni finding the dude in bed with another man at a big party – this elicits a string of outrageous slurring that would really trigger the sensitive types of today. As usual with Murphy, this also sets off a chain of riffing that continues through the novel, with the newscaster himself frequently appearing on TV and Razoni launching into a new anti-gay tirade.

Our heroes are tasked with finding out who killed the cop in Little Italy and to prevent any potential gang war. Murphy must’ve been feeling a little lazy when he plotted this one out, as it all amounts to Razoni looking up a bigtime crook he knew in childhood, and Jackson looking up a bigtime crook he knew in childhood, and each arguing with the other that their childhood acquaintance isn’t the guilty party. In Razoni’s case, the crook is Ruggerio, a Mafia bigwig who gave Razoni one of his first jobs when Razoni was just a little kid, and who only deals in graft and gambling and the like. In Jackson’s case, it’s Sugar Man Lawson, an obese black guy whom Jackson tutored many, many years ago, and who now has used his intelligence to corner a huge slice of the gambling market for himself.

War has been brewing between Ruggerio and Sugar Man’s gangs in Little Italy; this cop-killing just being the latest incident. Previous to this two of Ruggerio’s runners were gunned down; as the narrative ensues, one of Sugar Man’s employees is killed by a car bomb. Our heroes try to navigate through all this while tracking down the two men who killed the cop. The two killers are quickly – almost casually – revealed to be a loser pair of brothers who served time for breaking and entering and blame Sugar Man for it. Razoni and Jackson, who have asked both Ruggerio and Sugar Man for their help in finding the killers, basically bump into them during a festival in Little Itlay.

Here’s where the only action scene in the novel occurs. The brothers, Willy and Filly Smith(!), run back to their apartment and one of ‘em grabs up a submachine gun, blasting away at their pursuers. Jackson takes out the subgunner, and when the other brother barricades himself in the apartment, Razoni grabs up the dropped submachine gun and opens fire at the door. When they discover the second brother also dead, the two cops quickly deduce that the submachine gun did not kill him – but they hide this fact from their fellow cops for their own reasons. They’ve begun to suspect that someone was just using the two brothers for their own ends.

Murphy had a proficiency for mysteries, so Down And Dirty works very much on a whodunit vibe, one that I won’t ruin. Murphy doesn’t cheat, and the killer – the mastermind behind the entire near-gang war – is a person introduced early in the story, and his outing is believable, if a bit underwhelming – as is the fact that he isn’t himself blasted by Razoni or Jackson. Instead the hero cops make their collar, the villain having exposited on all his kills, and then they go on with their bickering and bantering.

As with The Destroyer, this bickering and bantering is the true star of the series. But Razoni and Jackson’s bantering lacks the fun of Remo and Chiun’s. Theirs mostly revolves around racial differences, or Jackson’s grumblings that Razoni drives too slow, and Razoni’s grumblings that Jackson drives too fast. It just sort of goes on and on and lacks much verve or spark, coming off as listless, which I say again is more an indication that Murphy perhaps was wearing himself thin with the similar material he was writing for Remo and Chiun, and didn’t bring his A game to Razoni & Jackson.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Secret Of Sinharat and Queen Of The Martian Catacombs

The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman, by Leigh Brackett
No date stated (November, 1971)  Ace Books
(Original Ace Double edition, 1964)
(Also published as Eric John Stark: Outlaw Of Mars, by Ballantine Books, September 1982)

Where the hell has Leigh Brackett been all my life?? I grew up reading the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, but never really got into Edgar Rice Burroughs, though I was aware of his Martian tales and wanted to read them. (Something I still intend to do someday.) 

But I knew a sort of subgenre of “sword and planets” (aka “planetary romances”) existed which sort of took the sword and sorcery of Howard and mixed it with the alien worlds of Burroughs; after a recent hardboiled pulp binge abruptly petered out with no warning, I found myself suddenly interested in this subgenre, discovering a whole slew of books and series that were new to me.

Leigh Brackett’s material jumped out at me more than any other, and I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without reading her. Brackett still has a sizeable following, with info about her all over the web as well as many reviews of her various novels and scripts, so I’ll keep the preamble short. She may be new to me but I’m sure many of you have known about her for years. Sadly it would appear she is most remembered these days either for her Hollywood scripts or for the fact that she wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, so her name is prominently displayed on posters for that film. She got her start in sci-fi, though, specifically for the pulps, and she was herself a big fan of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Her writing I feel comes very close to REH – certainly more close than any of the Conan pastiche authors I’ve ever read. One gets the impression that L. Sprauge de Camp should’ve hired Brackett instead of Lin Carter when he began anthologizing the Conan books.

Brackett wrote a variety of pulp sci-fi, but her main series character was Earthman Eric John Stark, who is basically a combo of Tarzan and Conan – a big, brawny dude who was raised in the wilds of Mercury, where he was known by the natives as N’Chaka. Now Stark serves as a mercenary around the solar system, violently sworn to protecting the rights of his fellow “barbarians.” The Stark stories are very much in a “Conan the Barbarian of Mars” sort of vein, ie as if Conan had starred in those Burroughsian Martian tales. Brackett’s Mars (and other planets in the solar system) are basically Howard’s Hyperborea, with only occasional mentions of laser pistols or space ships (or even cigarettes!). Otherwise they are very much in the sword and sorcery realm, with combat handled mostly with bladed weaponry, warriors in chain mail, and people speaking in the formal, almost stilted tones of Howard’s Conan work.

Stark appeared in three pulp novellas: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” from 1949 (reviewed below); “Enchantress of Venus,” also from 1949; and “Black Amazon of Mars,” from 1951. There was also a novella titled “Stark and the Star Kings,” which Brackett wrote with her husband Edmond Hamilton in 1973; it wasn’t published until 2005, though was originally slated to appear in Harlan Ellison’s never-published Last Dangerous Visions in the mid ‘70s (it is mistakenly copyrighted 1949 in the Baen eBook Stark And The Star Kings And Other Stories; I will be reading/reviewing it soon). In 1964 Brackett expanded two of the Stark novellas into the paperback I’m reviewing: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” became The Secret Of Sinharat, and “Black Amazon of Mars” became People Of The Talisman, which is the flipside of this Ace Double. “Enchantress Of Venus” was never expanded, but was included in the 1977 anthology The Best of Leigh Brackett; it apparently takes place after the other two Stark novellas Brackett published, but before “Stark and the Star Kings.” Stark would later appear in a trilogy Brackett published in the mid-‘70s (The Book Of Skaith).

Folks with a lot more background on the subject than I claim that Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton actually expanded these two novellas in 1964. Having read both the originals and the expansions, I myself am undecided on this. I tend to think this myth is untrue, mainly due to the foreward Brackett and Hamilton wrote for “Stark and the Star Kings,” presumably for Ellison’s anthology, but included with the 2005 publication of the novella. In this foreward, the authors claim that “Stark and the Star Kings” was their first and only collaboration; during the writing of it they found that their styles did not jibe. My argument is that, if Hamilton had done the expansion on these two novellas, why wouldn’t they have mentioned it in the “Stark and the Star Kings” foreward, which was written several years after the Ace Double was published?

Anyway, all that is moot, and is likely a mystery that will never be solved anyway. What matters is the work itself, and folks, it’s pretty damn cool. I mean, I’m 42 now, but reading Brackett’s work made me feel like I was 12 again. Who cares that science has buzzkilled the possibility of her inhabited solar system? This to me is pure sci-fi as it should be, not bogged down with technical jargon or attempts at “realism.” It’s just straight-up fun, featuring a grim but likable protagonist and his colorful adventures on various planets. If you are looking for escapist sci-fantasy that is written with incredible polish, look no further.

Speaking of colorful, let’s get to Eric John Stark himself. His history is only sprinkled here and there throughout The Secret Of Sinharat; interestingly, Brackett doesn’t add anything more to what she’d already hinted at about Stark’s history in the original 1949 novella. Raised by “half human aborigines” in the wilds of Mercury, Stark’s skin was burned so black by the relentless sun that it is almost as black as his hair (dude, it’s called sunscreen!!). This black skin contrasts eerily with his light eyes. Otherwise he is a total Conan/Tarzan type – tall, brawny, but lean, able to move faster than normal men and given to red rages of violence. Sadly, some of this violence is toned down in the 1964 expansion, most notably in the glutting of Stark’s vengeance in one central part of the story; in the original pulp novella, Stark strangles an enemy, but in the ’64 expansion someone takes the kill from him. But more of that anon.

Brackett wastes no time on world-building or scene-setting; another wonderful element of vintage pulp sci-fi, unlike the reams of exposition you’ll encounter in the genre today. The cover painting (on this edition above and the original ’64 edition, below) captures it nicely; Stark, riding a lizardlike beast across the desert wastes of Mars, is vainly trying to escape an Earth Police Control squad. But one of them calls out for “N’Chaka,” which was Stark’s native Mercurian name, and one known only to a few. It is Simon Ashton, of the EPC, Stark’s foster father – apparently Stark’s tribe was killed when he was a child, and Ashton found the boy in a cage and raised him. There is absolutely no maudlin glurge here; the two have not seen one another in sixteen years, and Ashton conscribes Stark’s service in exchange for tossing out Stark’s imprisonment sentence – Stark’s up for life on the prisons of the moon for various illegal activities.

The expansion features one bit of explanation I appreciated; I read the original pulp novella first, and had a hard time understanding what these various “aliens” looked like; they all seemed to be humans. The ’64 expansion explains why this is: “Earth’s sister worlds…[populated by] descendants of some parent human stock that long ago had seeded the whole System.” In Brackett’s solar system, all the planets are habitable, and all apparently have oxygen and native life, as well as human inhabitants, though there are various differences – usually in body size, eye color, and the like. So it would appear there’s no “hatching from eggs” as in the Barsoom novels of Burroughs.

Despite this “parent human stock” which seeded the planets, Stark is still often referred to as “the Earthman,” which again gives the book a Burroughsian (or Flash Gordon) feel – that is, when he isn’t being called a “barbarian” or “wild man” or even “animal.” As mentioned he is drawn to barbarian causes, and was already on his way to ancient Martian city of Valkis to serve as a mercenary for barbarian tribe leader Delgaun. Word has it that all the various tribes are gathering for a war on the “Drylands” of Mars. Simon Ashton says that there may be more to it than that, and the EPC is worried, particularly over rumors of the ancient Ramas cult – basically the ancient Egypt of Brackett’s Mars.

Stark takes the mission, not only so as to get rid of his prison sentence but also out of respect to his father foster – and also so as to prevent the shedding of “barbarian blood” in whatever vain pursuit Delgaun and his colleague, fellow barbarian leader Kynon, have in mind. This brings us to the city of Valkis, which is now a “beautiful corpse” of the glorious city that once was – again, the parallels to ancient Egypt are hard to miss. Stark meets Delgaun, who is “lean and catlike, after the fashion of his race,” and has yellow eyes like “hot gold.” He meets the other mercenaries called in for the war, among them Luhar of Venus, who sold Stark out on a previous job; the two men are determined to kill one another.

Soon fellow barbarian leader Kynon makes his appearance; riding in from the desert amid great pomp, Kynon is younger and brawnier than Stark expected. His is filled with the wonder of the ancient art of the Ramas, which he claims to have rediscovered after many years searching in the endless desert; this art is displayed for the agog masses. The Ramas were known for transferring minds from one body to another, thus granting themselves immortality, their minds living on and on in an endless tide of young bodies. Kynon puts on a show, with an old man and a young boy, using a glowing scepter to transfer the mind from the former into the latter. The barbarian crowd is duly impressed, but Stark sees the con, and calls Kynon on it later. Kynon admits to the deceit, but claims it is all for the good of the rabble, something for the various tribes to gather together under.

With Kynon is a hotstuff babe with red hair named Berild; she seems intrigued by Stark’s impertinence. Serving Berild is the equally pretty – but more young and naïve-seeming – Fianna. Stark notices a strange struggle going on between Delgaun, Berild, and Fianna, but takes care of more pressing issues when he’s ordered that night to go pull a fellow mercenary, Freka, out of a Shanga den on the outskirts of Valkis. One of Brackett’s more novel creations, Shanga is an illegal drug, known also as “the going back.” People sit under quartz lights and regress back to various stages of bestialism, with their faces changing accordingly – the real hardcore users changing almost entirely in form. Interestingly, the original ’49 edition contains a line that was edited out of the ’64 expansion: “[Shanga] was supposed to have been stamped out when the Lady Fand’s dark Shanga ring had been destroyed.” This is a reference to Brackett’s 1948 novella “The Beast-Jewel of Mars,” which was included in the early Brackett anthology The Coming Of The Terrans (Ace Books, 1967).

Fianna has warned Stark that this is going to be a trap, and it is – there follows a cool, Island Of Lost Souls-like scene where Stark is attacked by several bestial-faced Shanga users. Luhar is also there, with a knife ready for Stark; the entire thing has been an assassination attempt, courtesy Luhar and Delgaun, the latter presumably wanting to take out Stark due to his jealousy over how Berild’s been checking out “the wild man.” Stark acquits himself well in the fight, though there’s no Conan-esque moment, as I’d hoped, where he starts to hack and slash. He also doesn’t kill Luhar – who promptly begins plotting, almost in the open, with Freka. Brackett appears to imply that Luhar and Freka are an item, something which is slightly more apparent in this expansion than in the original novella.

The midpoint sees the two hatch their revenge; as the barbarian troop is making its way across the vast desert to Sinharat, ancient “island city” of the Ramas which Kynon has taken as his own base of operations, a sand storm strikes. Freka and Luhar manage to knock Stark from his mount in the vicious pounding waves of sand and leave him for dead. However, Berild is stranded with him, and there follows a harrowing trek across the red wastes of the desert. The two have only one skin of “stinking water,” and they struggle inhumanly as they march for days and days – Sinharat is a seven-day journey, and they don’t have nearly enough water to survive the walk. It becomes even more grueling when the enter “the Belly of Stones,” which is like the Saharra of Mars.

Days later, passed out from dehydration and the heat, Stark wakes to find Berild walking around an ancient well, and it looks as if she is remembering something. After much digging she points out a hidden, ancient well. Two days pass, during which the two apparently have lots of off-page interspecies sex – something Stark practically confirms to Fianna later on. When they arrive in Sinharat, ancient fallen city of the Ramas built on a mountain of coral, no one believes that they were able to survive the trek. Stark makes for Luhar, to sate his vengeance, but Berild denies him this, courtesy a dagger she’s hidden in her dress. I found this unsatisfactory. Berild argues with a raging Delgaun that Luhar and Freka’s treachery almost “ended” her, a strangely-chosen word which she stresses strongly, much to Stark’s suspicion. 

Sinharat is more captured here than in the novella. Millennia ago it was surrounded by an ocean, but now it’s just desert, and when the wind blows through the honeycombs of coral beneath it, strange cries fill the air, freaking out the superstitious barbarians (and Stark himself). The temples and palaces are fallen down, some roofless, with ancient statues all over the place – again, pretty much ancient Egypt. This part is a bit padded, compared to the original version, more so focused on Stark figuring out the truth about Berild. There is a nice part though where he’s attacked one night by Freka, hopped up again on Shanga and in pure beast mode. Stark deals with him with his hands, for which he’s arrested – Delgaun has demanded absolutely no fighting or killing, and Stark has increasingly made himself a nuissance.

The finale is almost like Zardoz – Stark has already figured out that Berild is more than she seems, something Fianna confirms. Skip this paragraph and the next if you don’t want to know. But Fianna reveals that she, Berild, and Delgaun are all Ramas, impossibly ancient, only in new bodies. Berild, tired of her ancient consort Delgaun, secretly plots for power; she is the one who duped Kynon into assembling the barbarian rabble, and she will replace Delgaun with someone else who can rule beside her into eternity – she offers this to Stark, but instead he arms himself with a sword and goes to deliver death. This is where the Zardoz vibe occurred to me.

Brackett isn’t much for gore or overdone violence; when people are hit by swords they just fall down. So in (what little) of her work I’ve read, there’s none of the hacking and slashing Howard did so well. And truth be told, the climax of The Secret Of Sinharat is a bit harried, at least to me – Berild is dispensed with almost casually by Kynon, who has been fatally stabbed by her…and then he goes to the ramparts and informs the throngs that it’s all been a lie, while Stark just stands there. In the end Fianna decides not to smash the globes of mind-transference, saying that she might change her mind and want a new body, after all. She invites Stark back in “thirty years” if he changes his mind and wants to be immortal with her! Stark says no thanks. The end.

Shown above is the cover of the edition I read – this reprint features no publication info, other than the original copyright date of 1964. It does however carry the inscription “cover by Enrich.” This refers to artist Enrique “Enrich” Torres, and according to a listing of Ace Double publication dates, this The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman reprint is from November, 1971. I actually prefer this cover to the original 1964 edition (which itself is nice), mostly because I think it more faithfully captures the vibe of the novel – and also I enjoy Enrich’s sub-Frazetta/Vallejo art. But anyway, here is the cover of that 1964 edition:

Just for the sake of completeness, here’s the cover for the 1982 Ballantine reprint of The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman, which was retitled Eric John Stark: Outlaw Of Mars. It retains the Ace text, though it’s not a flipover as that earlier Double was; it is however missing the “cast of characters” which was provided for Sinharat in the Ace edition. This is my least favorite cover of them all:

Now, on to the original pulp edition, which appeared as “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” in the Summer, 1949 issue of Planet Stories. You can find this novella at The Internet Archive for free download; be sure to select the PDF option, as it’s a scan of the original issue, complete with illustration and breathless editorial blurb. All I can say is, the original version is better – like, much better. It’s leaner and more brutal at times, and features a bit more action. It also, unsurprisingly, moves a lot more quickly than the expansion.  Here is the cover:

I’m mostly going to go over the differences here, so spoilers will be heavy – if you want to avoid all this, just skip the next couple paragraphs. The novella is mostly the same as the expansion, for the first half, at least. Only a few changes here and there, as mentioned above. But once Stark and Berild are lost in the Belly of Stones, the novella is much different. Here there is none of Stark spying on Berild as she seeks out the ancient well; she doesn’t bother to hide the fact that she’s apparently recalling her own ancient memory to remember where it is. And also, after their few days of humpin’ and bumpin’ here in the oasis by the well, Stark in the novella promptly accuses Berild of being a Rama – in the expansion this is drawn out much longer. Berild fiercely denies the accusation, even up to the point of threatening Stark’s life.

Once the two get to Sinharat, the novella differs even more greatly. Here occurs the vengeance-glutting I mentioned above, which Brackett denied Stark in the ’64 version; as soon as he sees Luhar, Stark strangles him to death. For this he’s tossed into a dungeon, chained, and it is Freka who wields an axe, waiting for him to waken. Hence the bit from the expansion, with Stark fighting a Shanga-drugged Freka, doesn’t happen here. Fianna appears, as in the novella, and guns down Freka, though her gun apparently shoots flame or something – the expansion makes it seem like a regular gun, but here it’s more of your typical pulp sci-fi raygun deal, which I think is cooler. After this Fianna explains the truth of it all – that she, Berild, and Kynon are all really Ramas. In the expansion, Brackett made Delgaun the Rama, and Kynon the dupe; it’s the other way around in the original.

The climax is much imrpoved in the novella, and one wonders why it was even changed for the expanded version. Here Berild reveals to Stark that she wants him to rule beside her, in Kynon’s body – and Stark accepts. There follows a cool scene in which the “Sending-On of Minds” of the ancient Ramas is employed, and Stark’s mind is placed in another body; he can barely stand to look at his old body, filled with barbarian dread at the sorcery. Turns out though it’s just a con – he declares to the assembled throngs that Berild has tricked them and that he is not really Kynon and etc. This is so much better than in the expansion, where a dying Kynon exposited all this. Now chaos breaks out, and in it Delgaun kills Berild off-page, then comes after Stark (still in Kynon’s body), and fatally stabs him before Stark kills him. The novella ends with Fianna getting Stark’s mind out of Kynon’s body just in time, returning it to his own. She also smashes the globes of mind transference, unlike in the expansion, and tells Stark she needs time to think about her new life. The end. 

End spoilers. Folks, the novella is super cool and I’d recommend it in a hot second over The Secret Of Sinharat. If you’re at all interested in checking out Brackett, I’d recommend going to the link above and downloading the PDF of “Queen of the Martian Catacombs.” It’s a ton of fun, and when I read it I couldn’t wait to read more of Brackett’s work. I’ll be doing a review of People Of The Talisman and its original version, “Black Amazon Of Mars,” next.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Assassin #2: New Orleans Holocaust

The Assassin #2: New Orleans Holocaust, by Peter McCurtin
November, 1973  Dell Books

The Assassin, that ur-text of The Marksman and The Sharpshooter, continues with a second volume which Lynn Munroe theorizes is a collaboration between Peter McCurtin and an author named George Harmon Smith. But perhaps what is most notable about New Orleans Holocaust is that it marks the origin of the infamous “hippie disguise” that Philip Magellan wears in so many volumes of The Marksman, particularly those written by Russell Smith.

It’s now over a year after the first volume (despite this book being published in the same month) and hero Robert Briganti has become a legend in his own time; something whittled out of the Marksman books is how famous Briganti/Magellan has become due to his mob-wasting activities. We learn that psychiatrists even appear on late-night talk shows, offering their own analyses of Briganti, and newspapers offer him “free legal counsel” if he’ll just turn himself in. Another element dropped is Briganti’s constant stream of audio tapes which he sends to the FBI, which themselves only serve to further the legend about him.

A big point of difference between The Assassin and the two series that followed after it is the attempt at making Briganti seem human – at least when compared to Philip Magellan or Johnny Rock. In fact if one were to argue that the Marksman novels (and those Sharpshooters which started life as Marksmans) really are the continuing story of Briganti, only with his name changed to Magellan, the validation could be found in this book, as here Briganti a few times finds himself thinking of his happy past, with his wife and child, only to quickly cut off any emotion and shut out the past. As readers of the later books know, Magellan is practically a robot, his flashbacks to his pre-Mafia war life few and far between, and one could argue that he has become the perfect mob-killing machine that Briganti aspires to be in this origin trilogy.

Not that Briganti isn’t perfect enough already. He pulls off a series of superhuman feats in New Orleans Holocaust, like when he scales down the side of a building while people gawk up in awe at him from far below. This is explained by Briganti’s circus past, where he was taught such tricks. Another hallmark of the later Marksman books is that, while Briganti denies himself memories of his wife and child, he has no problem seeking out people he knew prior to his married life. In New Orleans Holocaust Briganti briefly meets up with Anne Brady, daughter of Wild Bill Brady, the man who taught Briganti to shoot; Wild Bill himself appears in The Marksman #7 – which ironically was published one month after this book. I wonder if anyone back then collected these two series from different publishers and noted the bizarre overlap.

Anne, who makes her living as a topless dancer named Starfire LeFevre, comes on strong to Briganti when he meets her in New Orleans; she claims to have carried a torch for him since she was a kid. But Briganti’s just as much a sexless robot as Magellan and tells the gal to shove off. She promptly disappears from the narrative. McCurtin is more concerned with action. The novel immediately displays its laissez-faire approach to reality in the opening pages; Briganti takes out two Mafia chase cars which are pursuing him in the Everglades with a handy bazooka, then goes on his merry way. His target is Benito Bonasera, in Sarasota – who is in reality Benito Coraldi, brother of Joe Coraldi, the Mafioso who was responsible for the death of Briganti’s family, and who met his own death in the first volume.

Briganti is a helluva lot more unhinged than fellow mob-buster Mack Bolan. Within the first few pages he’s screaming about “Mafia pigs” and shooting down unarmed and injured men. He is in fact “sick with killing,” as a “Mafia whore” informs him, for which she’s slapped around. But Coraldi’s in New Orleans for a big Mafia summit, so off Briganti goes to bust ‘em up. There he seeks out old friend Sam Rubi, in whose shooting gallery young “Bobby” Briganti learned how to handle a gun; Rubi’s now an old pimp, and one of his gals is sleeping with Mafioso for intel. Humorously, absolutely nothing is made of this, as if the author(s) completely forget about it, though it seems clear the intent is for Briganti to meet up with this woman, who doesn’t even appear.

Rather as mentioned the focus is on action, action, action. Posthaste Briganti’s hiring a chopper and having himself dropped off on the roof of a hotel where some mobsters have made their HQ; he guns some down, realizes he’s gotten in over his head, scales down the wall like Spider-Man, and makes his escape. Before this he’s somehow used an everday portable radio as a car bomb to take out a bunch of mobsters at the airport. He doesn’t have the “artillery case” that Magellan would use in the Russell Smith books, but his main weapons here are that bazooka, a grenade launcher, and a Browning Hi-Power, which is gushed about so much as the greatest handgun in history that you wonder why Magellan started using a Beretta in the Smith books.

In addition to Sam Rubi, Briganti’s comrade this time is old retired police captain Donofrio, who was sent to prison years ago on trumped-up charges. He’s an old cop type, very much in the William Crawford mold – indeed there is a definite Crawford vibe to this novel – and he helps Briganti blow punks away with his magnum revolver. The two get involved in this endless action scene midway through; a certain character has been killed by two Mafia hitmen, one of whose father runs a voodoo church in New Orleans(!). Calling himself “The White Zombie” (after “an old Bella[sp] Lugosi movie;” as usual with a McCurtin novels, classic movie references are rife), this guy, whose real name is Connolly, ends up siccing his armed followers on the two interlopers.

Unlike his later incarnation of Magellan, Briganti often gets in tough scrapes which he fears he won’t survive. So this shootout just goes on and on, with Briganti ducking and weaving heavy fire as he beats a retreat. The same is true when he takes on one of the hitmen: Connolly’s son, a gay bodybuilder who hangs out in a gay joint. There are all kinds of slurs here that would quickly trigger the sensitive types of today. These two get in a knockdown, dragout fight, heavy with the Crawfordisms, particularly when it comes to kicking an opponent to death. Whereas superhuman Magellan would take out this guy with no fuss, Briganti sweats and struggles and strains – not that he’s much winded afterward. And he’s just as brutal, killing people he’s promised not to. Another miss here – and perhaps indication that two authors wrote the book with little collaboration – is that Briganti doesn’t even bother telling Connolly Jr that Connolly Sr is dead.

Another humorous miss is when Briganti goes back to the home of Sam Rubi’s equally-elderly sister, where Briganti’s been staying, and finds a sleazy PI there trying to threaten the old woman in her bed for info on where Briganti is. Briganti wastes him, and Sam’s sister dies in fright. Yet old Sam doesn’t even seem to care, and in the very next scene is joking around with Briganti! Sam does help out in the climax, though – that is, after Briganti’s staged an anticlimactic (and brief) assault on the Mafia summit, which is being held in a newly-opened convention center; he tosses a few grenades in there and that’s that.

But Benny Coraldi’s still alive, given that he’s been on a boat all this time, refusing to go to the summit meeting. He’s imprisoned a bunch of hookers out there, and later we learn he tossed ‘em all overboard and ran ‘em down for sport. Sam pilots a trawler and Briganti, once again hefting that damn bazooka, metes out another dose of justice to the Coraldi family. And that’s it – we’re presented with an overlong “transcript” of Briganti’s latest audio missive to the FBI that basically goes over everything we just read. Briganti figures that it’s only a matter of time before “the best hitmen in the world” are hired to kill him, apparently setting up the events of the next volume – or perhaps a Marksman or Sharpshooter I haven’t yet read.

Overall New Orleans Holocaust is passable entertainment, filled with “Mafia pigs” getting gunned down, but Briganti isn’t as interesting as Magellan, despite being the same character. Magellan’s just more crazy and unpredictable, but admittedly I’m mostly thinking of the Russell Smith version. In McCurtin’s installments, Magellan’s basically the same as Briganti, only without the “regular audio transcripts to the FBI” bit. The writing is also good, all things considered, very spare and economical, but not as seriously presented as in the first volume – which in itself might be evidence of Lynn Munroe’s speculation, that this one was possibly ghostwritten (or just co-written) by George Harmon Smith.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Richard Blade #6: Monster Of The Maze

Richard Blade #6: Monster Of The Maze, by Jeffrey Lord
December, 1973  Pinnacle Books
(Original publication 1972)

In this very special volume of Richard Blade, our hero ventures to the land of the Happy Little Elves, where he learns the healing power of Love. Just kidding – Blade once again hacks and slashes his way through Dimension X, banging some big-busted babes along the way. Once more Manning Lee Stokes turns in a variation of Voyage To Arcturus (or better yet any Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom pastiche), but this one lacks a bit of the sub-Conanisms of previous installments.

Stokes wrote in total eight volumes of Richard Blade, and while he wrote many more volumes of Nick Carter: Killmaster and The Aquanauts for producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, I get the feeling that this series was Stokes’s favorite. I think he invested himself more in this series, perhaps because it’s so different than any of the others he penned for Engel. Each volume follows the exact same template, yet each volume has this bizarre vibe to it that sets it apart from its predecessors, and certainly from the average “sword and planet” novel.

Despite this interminable preamble, Monster Of The Maze is my least favorite installment yet. Stokes seems to have a hard go of it, this time, and one could hardly blame him; after the nigh-allegorical masterpiece that was the previous volume, Stokes had to do it all over again! Indeed, one can almost respect the guy’s ability to come up with sub-Robert E. Howard worlds again and again. Each book he has to introduce a new world for Blade to encounter, with its own traditions and royalty and etc. (That each world and its setting is basically the same is a little fact we’ll overlook.) But one can’t help but feel that Richard Blade’s growing exhaustion from his trips into Dimension X is a mirror of Stokes’s own exhaustion, and likely the reason why, when this series was picked up by Pinnacle in 1973, he didn’t continue writing it.

Anyway, as usual there’s precious little continnuity here. We are informed Blade has gone to Dimension X six times previously, which would seem to be a mistake, but recall in the last volume he actually travelled to “DX” twice. In the finale of the book we are reminded that Blade usually forgets his experiences in Dimension X upon his return to “Home Dimension,” given that his brain reformats itself to the latest dimension, Blade becoming someone other than the “true” version of himself on HD. When returning to his true state upon his return home, Blade ends up forgetting all the stuff that he underwent in DX, though it’s implied that sometimes he’ll gradually remember. But it’s a good out for Stokes not to have to constantly refer back to previous volumes – with, again, the unfortunate side-effect that a lot of the books come off like retreads.

Despite which, Blade – and thus apparently Stokes himself – is in a damned hurry to get to DX this time. There’s even less HD-stuff than normal, with Blade’s boss J only given a token appearance. Mad scientist Lord Leighton has implanted a crystal in Blade’s brain, one which will enable a sort of communication between Blade and HD when Blade is in his latest dimension; eventually we’ll learn that the crystal is slowly making Blade go insane. This is the latest invention of Lord L, who is under pressure from the new prime minister; if the DX Project doesn’t start generating any money, it will be cancelled. Ostensibly Blade’s purpose is to figure out how to exploit these various dimensions for Britain’s profit, though as we know from the previous five books, he’s failed miserably each time. At any rate this will be Blade’s “last mission” into Dimension X – a ridiculous concept which is of course jettisoned in the last paragraphs of the book.

The crystal has other effects on Blade; a glaring element missing from Monster Of The Maze is the “bluff and brawn” aesthetic which is paramount to the entire series – ie, the macho mystique one finds in all of Stokes’s work, but in particular in the Richard Blade novels. Blade this time around is a bit off his game, “only” scoring with three native babes – and what few sex scenes we get are woefully brief and nothing along the lines of previous encounters. Indeed, Blade finds himself disinterested in sex for long portions of the narrative, wondering what is wrong with him, and even finds himself unable to fully satisfy one of the native babes, no matter how hard he tries. Eventually we’ll learn this isn’t his fault – demonic possession is to blame – but still, it only adds to the picture that this time out we are presented with a Blade something less than before. 

Unfortunately, the same could be said about the novel itself. My least favorite stuff in previous installments has been all the courtly intrigue Blade encounters, each voyage into DX – all the internecine palace stuff with scheming priests plotting to take power from aging rulers. But at least in previous books this stuff didn’t take up so much space. Monster Of The Maze though is basically all palace intrique, and doesn’t get to the good stuff until fairly late in the game. Reading the book I truly got the impression that Stokes had worn himself out with the previous book and thus, in his own way, was just as impotent as his protagonist.

The crystal in his brain causes even more problems – when Blade arrives in this latest dimension, he’s got the body of a baby, with the brain (and head size) of a grown man. I was afraid it would be like this for the duration, but Blade’s only a baby from pages 23 to 47; he finds himself in the royal harem, and crying out he’s able to attract one of the women to him. She’s a beautiful brunette named Valli who is drawn to the baby because her own was killed before she could have it – it’s illegal for harem women to become pregnant, and child-killing runs rife in the kingdom of Zir, with mentions throughout of this or that child murdered for some reason or other. This means that, after Slaves Of The Crime Master, this is the second book I’ve read recently with stuff about babies getting killed, and good grief it has to stop now!

Valli ends up hiding Blade and feeding him from her breast, with Blade suckling and hiding from her that he can both speak and talk like a grown man; otherwise, he is a horrific sight, a baby with an oversized head. He knows somehow that it’s a computer snafu that has caused this, and via that telepathic link provided by the crystal he’s able to convince Lord L to hold off on returning him to his full-grown size for one month. Unsurprisingly, there is a prophecy in Zir that a mysterious child will be born to the aging Izmir, and the child will become his heir and ruler – Blade snatches upon this prophecy, having Valli sneak him into the Izmir’s chamber one night.

The old man turns out to be less the stupefied believer than Blade suspected, but goes along with Blade anyway – he’s impressed the “child” can speak like an adult and do all sorts of things. A month later and Blade is accepted in Zir as the Izmir’s son and heir, and he’s back to his “brawny” normal size, complete with the usual wild beard that the cover artist always refuses to illustrate. Curiously, he has no interest in the harem the Izmir has given him – and when Valli comes to him, it takes Blade a while to realize he lusts for her, despite her being his temporary “mother.” After all, “Had he not from the first, even with his infantile penis, wanted the girl?”

Valli has helped Blade because she wants a baby to keep – who will be surprised, then, when she reveals to Blade that she wants his baby? Blade knocking up native gals seems to be another recurring theme of the series, by the way, and he quickly complies with Valli’s request, though bear in mind the scene isn’t as graphic as previous books. It does however contain the unforgetable line from Valli: “You spewed a fountain into me and of it will come a child.” We never do find out if Valli gets knocked up, as she disappears from the narrative soon after, with Blade occasionally telling his underlings to ensure she’s okay and whatnot; in other words, there’s none of the “Blade’s woman gets wasted” stuff as in previous books. Valli just disappears. Before she goes, though, we do get a bit of that casual Blade/Stokes misogyny that makes this series so special: “[Blade] wished that Valli were brainier, cooler, more like a man than a woman.”

The Izmir has locked horns with Casta, skullfaced ruler of the black-garbed religious order of Zir. Blade’s vassal, Captain Ogier, urges Blade to kill off the priests, even though they outnumber the army by thousands, but Casta ensnares Blade’s cooperation – Casta casually reveals a “useless rock” he has gotten from the Hitts, the warlike nation that is in constant combat with Zir. It is the largest diamond Blade has ever seen. Casta claims that there are mountains of such things in Hitt – somehow he has divined that Blade would be interested in this. And he is correct, for here Blade finally sees a means to get some money back to England; Stokes toys out this “teleportation test” scenario, with Lord L occasionally “radioing” Blade via that damn crystal in his brain that they’re working on teleportation Home Dimension, so keep looking for those diamonds.

Oh, and Blade must also marry Princess Hirga, the series-mandatory evil-but-gorgeous babe. Even here Stokes does little to exploit the gal, as he did in previous books. Hirga is the woman Blade’s unable to satisfy. Hell, she even checks out his equipment on their first boff and sort of sneers – a big jolt for Blade, given his bigger-than-average uh, girth. This bit is annoying because Blade soon begins to suspect Hirga’s screwing someone else, though he can never find anyone in her chamber, and also each time he finds a small sort of incense holder and there’s this weird smell…all Blade has to do is ask Ogier or something, but he never does. As mentioned, eventually it will be revealed that this is sorcery, though Blade doesn’t learn it until the final quarter.

Blade sure seems to be on this particular mission a long time – he takes a month to grow to adult size, and after that there are long portions of him ingraining himself into Zir society and plotting his war against the Hitts after the Izmir dies. Speaking of which, the eventual battle scene takes up way too much of the text; pages 97-117 are comprised of this endless battle between Blade’s soldiers and the Viking-like Hitts. But Blade himself is mostly relegated to general status, ordering his soldiers about; this volume very much misses the “hack and slash” vibe one might expect from a sub-Conan yarn, and it lacks for it. To make the book seem even more clumsy, Stokes abruptly jumps ahead (yet another month has passed), casually informing us that Blade is now a prisoner of the Hitts, even though we just saw him defeat them in the previous chapter.

The stuff in the Hitt capital is just as slow-going as the stuff in Zir; once again Blade is given a royal babe to bang: Lisma, gorgeous daughter of Hitt ruler Loth Bloodax(!). Yep, folks, her name’s really “Lisma Bloodax.” Stokes even informs us this, as if he wants us to laugh along with him. “Put your man weapon in me and have done with it,” she informs Blade; she has been commanded by her father to get knocked up by this “god” from Zir. As I say, this is a recurring element in the series, though in this sequence’s end Lisma is so angered with Blade that she vows to kill any baby she might have by him – again with the baby-killing, dammit!

Blade sews a big balloon for himself(!), given that he’s imprisoned in a house on top of a cliff or something, and makes his escape shortly after he’s gotten to see where the Hitts keep a cavern of lifesized diamond statues of ancient rulers. One of them is of Janina, first queen of the Hitts, who ruled a thousand years ago; Blade is in love with her, and vows to screw her. Only now does he begin to suspect he’s going insane. He escapes via the big balloon, somehow making it across the sea that separates Zir and Hitt. Now the book is taking on the nigh-allegorical tones of the previous book. Back in Zir, Blade finds that Casta’s “crows” are slowly taking over the kingdom.

Now, too late in the game, we get to the good shit. Hirga reveals to Blade that Casta, who lives in the twisting mazes beneath the Izmir’s pyramidal tomb, creates monsters through magic; one of them, called Urder, is “half dragon, half serpent.” Hirga meanwhile has been screwing a massively-endowed demon, one summoned by Casta’s magic; Blade witnesses her doing the beast when he makes his climactic assault on Casta’s lair. And by the way, for this assault Blade is naked save for a helmet, armed with a sword and dagger. He watches as the creature stuff its massive “phallus” into the screaming girl. When the thing disappears, Hirga reveals that she is addicted to the monster, and begs Blade to kill her – not only that, but to chop her head off and take it with him, as it might prove some use to him!!

We’re getting into some heavy mythology-type shit now, folks, and if only the entire novel had been like this. Blade, naked, covered in blood, carrying a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other, can only bring to mind Perseus. But even here Stokes proves unable to keep it up; one hopes for a sequence of Blade venturing deeper into the tunnels and hacking up a slew of creatures, but instead the only one he encounters is Urder, who is of course the titular monster of the maze – and Urder appears and is dispensed with in less than two pages. (Blade distracts it with Hirga’s head.) This is unsatisfying to say the least. So too is Blade’s final confrontation with Casta, which comes off just as perfunctory.

Rather, Stokes saves his ammo in the climax for Blade’s near-psychedelic screwing of Janina, millennia-dead Hitt queen and current life-sized diamond statue. Stokes writes the sequence masterfully, with it never being clear if Blade has slipped through the time-space continnuum for this boffing of the ages, or if he’s just plain nuts and imagining it all. It proceeds to get more hallucinatory and dreamlike as they fall off the crevice upon which all the diamond statues are perched, passing by corpses and skeletons of other Hittians who attempted to jump the chasm and failed (long story) – and, right on cue, Blade is zapped back to Home Dimension.

Three weeks later, Blade’s let out of the nursing home – another recurring element is that he’s nearly destroyed each trip into DX – and he can’t recall anything, not even his consuming love for Janina. Meanwhile, he’s somehow managed to bring that statue of her back into Home Dimension – and it’s valued “millions of pounds.” Lord L keeps it in a closet in his private chamber (he, J, and Blade all live beneath the Tower of London, by the way!) and claims that sometimes he feels that the statue is actually alive, and calling to him. Not that this much perturbs Blade – he figures it’s just a statue, and further figures he’ll either remember this latest trip to Dimension X or he won’t. Meanwhile, he’s gonna go bang some broads. The end!

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Peacemaker #1: The Zaharan Pursuit

The Peacemaker #1: The Zaharan Pursuit, by Adam Hamilton
June, 1974  Berkley Medallion Books

Who thought putting a picture of our hero talking on the phone would be badass? Look out, troublemakers, or Barry will make a few calls!Zwolf 

Marilyn Granbeck, who as “Allan Morgan” gave us the trainwreck that was Blood, returned the following year with another short-lived series (4 volumes), this one from Berkley and with cover art by the same guy who did the Jason Striker covers. With Blood, Granbeck took a protagonist who was a kick-ass mercenary and turned in a slooow-moving cozy mystery that was more along the lines of a TV movie of the time. With The Peacemaker, Granbeck takes a protagonist who is a wealthy crime-fighter devoted to achieving global peace in his time…and turns in a sloooow-moving cozy mystery that is more along the lines of a TV movie of the time. 

According to Hawk’s Authors Pseudonyms, Granbeck wrote this book with someone named Arthur Moore – Hawk only lists two Peacemaker books for the writing duo, but I’m going to assume they actually wrote all four. As I mentioned in my review of Blood #3, Granbeck appears to have mostly written mystery novels, and this is what she turns in for The Zaharan Pursuit. The action scene on the cover is incredibly misleading; Zwolf, as usual, was on-point in his pithy comment, for all Barrington “Barry” Hewes-Bradford really does in the novel is make a few calls.

Barry (and I had a hard time constantly seeing that name and not thinking of a certain past president) is 31 and massively wealthy due to an inheritance. He has armies of employees and properties all over the world, though this book mostly occurs in Hawaii, and in particular aboard Barry’s yacht, the Seabird. Despite my assumption, Barry is not a freelance spy along the lines of The Baroness; rather, he’s just a super-rich dude who secretly uses his wealth to ensure peace is maintained at all costs. While this is a goofy concept, Granbeck does little to exploit it. In reality much of the entirety of The Zaharan Pursuit is given over to Barry trying to find out who owns the boat that swideswept his yacht in the middle of the night on a stormy sea.

Not only that, but Barry, being a billionaire and whatnot, usually has his underlings handle the heavy lifting. This means that there are long portions of The Zaharan Pursuit where one-off characters take center stage, snooping here and there at Barry’s orders. Some of them aren’t one-offs, though, like Lobo, Barry’s right-hand man who was once a star linebacker. Lobo has his own vassals in the security wing of Barry’s company, and sends these dudes out to investigate the hit-and-run boat; two of them get involved in the first “action scene” in the book, engaging in a chase and shootout with some dudes. Later on one of these guys is killed in revenge…and meanwhile, our “hero” continues to sit on his yacht and ponder.

Unlike the Blood novel I read, this one at least has some sex, as Barry scores with two jetsetting hotties: Aura, a Eurasian who has inherited vast wealth from her old (now deceased) husband, and Jessica, an international sportslady or somesuch. But Granbeck doesn’t get down and dirty in the least; here’s the extent of Barry’s boff with Aura: “He made love to her on pale-yellow sheets.” That’s it, folks. The women aren’t as exploited as they’d be in the usual genre offering, perhaps unsurprisingly; and as for Barry himself, we just learn he has the expected rakish good looks. If I’m not mistaken, no mention is made of a beard, meaning that interpretation on the cover is solely the artists’s rendering.

During the interminable investigation Barry comes upon the name Zaharan, an infamous South American revolutionary who has never been seen but who has funded various left-leaning revolutions. (George Soros?!) Barry had his own run-in with Zaharan’s forces a while back, in a revolution the mysterious man started in a South American country Barry had invested in. Now it appears “Z” is running ammunition and was the secret owner of the ship that hit Barry’s yacht that night – at length, we’ll learn that Z is stirring revolution in fictional country San Martin, and that ship was carrying arms for the struggle. In this latest tangent of the investigation Barry heads to Mazatlan, where he eventually finds a Z-owned plane that crashed on land owned by a wealthy local resident. 

Here in Mazatlan Barry gets in one of his few action scenes, being chased by a would-be sniper – the same dude, by the way, who has tried twice to kill one of Barry’s secretaries, failing each time. As I say, there is very much a TV movie or series vibe in play, with corny “tense” scenes that are the print equivalent of the swelling music before a tense commercial break; here, Barry’s secretary is in a hospital after the previous near-miss and the sniper shoots at her, chapter end. Next chapter, we eventually learn he missed!! I mean it’s all just so lame and tedious. But at least Barry manages to lose the annoying failure of a sniper, using his fancy fast-driving skills.

A nice scene occurs later on, as Barry and Lobo suit up in scuba gear and snoop around an island that’s being used to store Z’s weapons. While there isn’t much action here, Granbeck captures a nice vibe of potential action. Barry’s first actual kill occurs on page 159, here in this sequence – he takes out a guard dog! The Peacemaker, baby!! From there it’s back to the clue-tracking, with Barry certain Zaharan is in reality someone wealthy and powerful, “Z” just a guise this person uses. George Soros?!!

Spoilers for this paragraph, so avoid if you give a damn – well, Barry figures out sort of late in the game that he’s been close to Zaharan all along. It’s none other than Eurasian sexpot Aura, who has been working with a sleazy entreprenneur named Sevill, funding various revolutions. The finale sees a stupefied Barry slowly digesting this shocking reveal, and then chasing after Aura, who attempts to escape on her private helicopter, which Barry shoots out of the sky. But “the Peacemaker” is such a lame duck of a protagonist that his employees have to save Jessica, who meanwhile has been abducted by Z’s forces.

With that at least the book ends. It’s slow-moving, tepid, and not very exciting. Granbeck’s writing is good, though, which leads to the unavoidable conclusion that she was working in the wrong genre. Here’s hoping the next volumes are a bit better.