Steampunk Trails 2

Review: Steampunk Trails 2, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2014.

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Cover by M. Wayne Miller

 

Like its predecessor, it has an article, “Tumbleweeds: Western Icon or Martian Invaders” from editor Campbell. It looks at the hardy tumbleweed aka Russian thistle, an invasive species into the American West.

Beth Daniels, an author I’ve never read, offers an interview on writing steampunk, advice that can also be found in her Geared Up: Writing Steampunk.

This being a Science Fiction Trails publication, there’s a dog story. Here that’s Campbell’s “RCAF (Royal Canine Air Force)“, inspired by the cover illustration. It’s a slight story with dogs and cats dogfighting in the air, and the dogs blasting a factory. Airships, machine guns, and plasma cannon included.

More steampunkery is supplied by the heist/rescue story “Shell Games: A Hummingbird and Inazuma Con” from Peter J. Wacks. It, as the title implies, involves a couple of conmen and seems to be part of an intended series. Inazuma is a “brilliant swordsman” (though he’s not called a samurai). Hummingbird is a gunfighter. The story takes place in Canton, China, but, of course, a steampunk alternative. Here the technological divergence is the invention of the “airjunk” in 1890. There are the usual iconic sorts of things like “clockwork carriages”. Hummingbird herself is a cyborg with a “clockwork right arm”, specifically a smaller variant of the one used in the West. It uses acupuncture needles connected by steel threads to serve as musculature. Hummingbird is accomplished at tai chi. Our two con artists are sent on a mission to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of the police commissioner. There are some historical figures here. The villain is Grigori Rasputin. Winston Churchill shows up too as a lieutenant in the police force since this section of China is occupied by Britain. Hummingbird and Inazuma’s con is complicated and precisely timed. The bits with Churchill were nice. Rasputin is set up to be a running series villain, but I wished he was on stage more.

Another story that reads like part of a series is Jessica Brawner’s “Bad Altitude”. The story has a great opening with our naked heroine falling from an airship over Paris. The ending doesn’t entirely explain the villain’s motives for wanting her airship. Still, the stuff in between is entertaining enough. This is set in a 21st century world where Douglas Adams is a “great philosopher of the last century”.

And, speaking of clockwork, there’s O. M. Grey’s The Clockwork Heart”, a nicely done story which metaphorically puts that imagery to use in something of a feminist tale. It’s told by one woman and relating the story of another “woman”, Eleanor. Eleanor is a clockwork woman, but she used to be a regular woman as evidenced by the scars around her wrists (a suicide attempt) and neck and chest. The latter seem to be surgical scars from her one-time lover, Dr. Clague. Another woman, Penelope, is Clague and Eleanor’s daughter though the two were never married. Eleanor has been revived after her suicide attempt to hang about the house as a governess for Penelope. Emotionless during her second round at life, she wants to feel again, and Clague helps her have emotion again. Just in time to experience them when another man enters her life.

Lyn McConchie does no harm to her reputation as a reliable contributor to Science Fiction Trails publications. Here it’s with “The Steam Powered Camera”. The fantastic element here is slight. Was it really necessary to have a steam powered (in effect, a movie camera) with a wide-angle lens instead of just standard Victorian-era photographic equipment? Probably not, but it’s a fairly clever horror story in which a photographer doing psychic investigations comes across an impetuous youth, also with a camera, who mocks his equipment.

Lesbian lovers seem to be (or, at least, were back in the heyday of steampunk and judging by Amazon browsing) something of a steampunk cliché. Jeffrey Cook’s and Katherine Perkins’ “Opening Night” features two. Cliché is doubled by making one a warrior babe. The story intercuts between Emily’s stage performance as a clockwork doll (her own body has damaged limbs encased in mechanisms and she’s missing an eye) and Luca foiling an assassination attempt in the opera house.

The rest of the stories are kind of amalgams of steampunk and weird western.

Henry Ram, seemingly a name change by Henrik Ramsager who used to be credited for this series, gives us another installment in the life of Potbury the Necromancer in “The Courtship of Miss Henrietta”. The rich and dying Mr. Seven has his airship Azincourt parked above Name Pending, Wyoming. He’s hallucinating from products of “advanced science” put in his body and brain, and he needs Potbury to do his resurrection thing on him. Potbury says that’s not possible. Seven’s already been resurrected once. Another time is going to be technically difficult. Seven, not taking no for an answer, starts to threaten Miss Henrietta, the former local prostitute Potbury is in love with. Another engaging entry in the series with appearances by regular characters like the rapacious and two-faced madam Mrs. Broadhurst and worthless town marshal Wainscot.

I liked Liam Hogan’s “Horse”, a first person tale about a 15-year old boy and his mechanical, steam-powered, intelligent horse inherited from a beloved professor killed in a faro game. What the boy finds in a town — a gunsmith interested in the horse, local bullies, and a prostitute — makes an interesting story, but it’s not a coming of age tale.

The (Almost) Entirely Untrue Legend of John Henry”, from David Boop, starts in 1855 with John Henry being sold for a 20 year period to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad. The story then shifts to the end of the ballad – John Henry pounding away at the end of a mountain tunnel. However, the mountain collapses on him since they tunneled through to an unmapped mine. John Henry and several men are trapped. We then get a different version of the famous John Henry vs. the steam drill story with a lot of exotic machinery. A nice bit of steampunkery and secret history.

Eric Aren’s “A Cure for Boundary Pirates” is set in a vaguely defined Old West of airships (with helium no less) and electric rifles where trade seems to be prohibited between the natives of the west coast and the people of the plains. A portion of the Great Plains has been turned into “the Colony” for those suffering from tuberculosis. The Colony forbids alcohol and tobacco. Simon, a pharmacist, smuggles “airflower” (seemingly marijuana given its analgesic properties) to the Colony. He’s been blackmailed by a couple of airship pirates who live in the Boundary (aka Rocky) Mountains into helping their smuggling. But the relationship is getting troublesome, so Simon takes steps.

Of course, this being a Science Fiction Trails book, David B. Riley channels karl, the dinosaur sheriff to introduce a collection of flash fiction about fog making machines.  Karl, in “Some Protection“, talks about meeting one H. G. back in the Cretaceous. H. G. thought his time machine’s fog generator would protect from the vicious local fauna.

Eric Aren’s entry “Victory!” is a rather confused entry about a war between Russia and Germany.

P. R. Morris’ “English Waters” is a grisly alternate version of the Boer War with the Boers trying to prevent Gordon from reaching Khartoum.

Pressure” from Guy Anthony De Marco is just jokey and underdeveloped.

Sam Knight is a weird western writer I usually like, but his “A Pirate Fog” shows, at least here, flash fiction is not his thing with a slight piece of naval combat in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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Steampunk Trails 1

I’ll be doing an actual review of the Steampunk Trails 2 in the future, so I thought I might as well put up this Retro Review.

From 2014 …

Retro Review: Steampunk Trails 1, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2013.515em6axcVL

“From the Editor”, J. A. Campbell — Brief statement by the editor stating how much she likes steampunk and the magazine’s commitment to articles and stories that capture the artistry and diversity of steampunk.

“From the Publisher”, David B. Riley — Publisher Riley’s brief statement that he had long seen steampunk stories of the western variety as editor and publisher of Science Fiction Trails and that he wanted to focus more on steampunk.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk Fashion”, Carrie Vaughn — An article by Vaughn about steampunk fashion in which she argues that, unlike most clothing we now wear, it is individualized and makes a statement about the character/persona of the wearer. I had no idea Vaughn was the author of a bestselling series until I looked her up. I’ve only read one thing by her.

Karl’s Korner, by Karl, the dinosaur sheriff”, David B. Riley — Karl, the dinosaur sheriff, is a running gag in Science Fiction Trails edited by Riley. Karl ruminates on their energy needs and fragile bodies relative to the pterosaurs he knew. Continue reading “Steampunk Trails 1”

Airship Stories

We’re returning to weird westerns again as I catch up on some back reviews.

Or, perhaps more accurately, think of this as a collection of steampunk works given they’ve all got the iconic airship.

Review: Airship Stories, David B. Riley, 2015.

Airship Stories

 

Riley adds to the same universe that his Miles O’Malley stories are set in with four stories and an essay, “A Most Baffling Event”, on the Great 1897 Airship in western America.

Two stories involve the U.S. Navy’s first airship, the Wanderer: “Wandering About: The Adventures of the Airship Wanderer” and “The Toy Men”.

In the first, the airship gets involved into Russian incursions in America, both on the ground and in the air. It seems the Russians have been in contact with Martians and hope to use the alliance to get parts of California and all of Alaska back from the United States. Good, genial fun that even the frequent talk about food doesn’t slow down. (And neither does frequent mention of the port wine President Chester Arthur inherited from his successor and is trying to foist of on visitors.) It features Penelope Hudson who shows up in Riley’s The Devil Draws Two.

The second story is shorter, quirkier, and funnier when a rogue State Department decides to launch a real war on Christmas – or, at least, Santa Claus. Continue reading “Airship Stories”

Heat of the Midday Sun

Review: Heat of the Midday Sun: Stories From the Weird Weird West, ed. David B. Riley, 2015.518UDqDhydL

Not all the stories in this distilled version of the first ten years of Science Fiction Trails are great. (And two stories were never published there.) Many aren’t even among my favorite stories from the issues I’ve read.

But they all manage to be at least acceptably entertaining. You’ll rarely find anything too serious or grim in that magazine.

I’m not going to review every story. Many I’ve read before and reviewed here. I’ll list them at the end.

But let’s take a look at the new stuff.

C. J. Killmer and Sam Kepfield, two stalwarts of the magazine, produce the best efforts.

Killmer’s “Forewarned Is” splices well-done, detailed gunplay and a science fiction concept together. It’s hero, Lefty Bolingbroke, a Southern aristocrat, is into Madam Chang and her gang for a lot of money. But, being the honorable sort (he did, after all, visit all those high-priced girls and smoke that premium opium), he doesn’t try to shoot his way out of trouble. Instead, he offers to pay his debt by taking care of “Big Jim” McCready, an outlaw who stole from Chang and is also wanted by the law. Oh, and Big Jim has four arms. Continue reading “Heat of the Midday Sun”

Low Noon

Review: Low Noon: Tales of Horror & Dark Fantasy from the Weird Weird West, ed. David B. Riley, 2012.Low Noon

There’s a lot of strange and dangerous places in the weird west, and editor Riley assembles his usual reliable gang of writers to give us a look.

Mesilla in Arizona Territory is a nice town. It’s even got a town character: Old Man Foster. He comes to town once a month, drinks his whiskey, pays for it in gold, and leaves. Except Old Man Foster doesn’t seem to be a likeable old coot. More than once someone followed him home to find out about where he gets his gold. They’re never seen again. Emily Crawford, a talented artist, comes to town looking for her vanished fiancé. Naturally, she and Old Man Foster are going to meet, and Don D’Ammassa’s “Drawn Out” ends on a mysterious note with much revealed about Crawford and Foster’s true natures but not all.

Mysterious Dave Mather, who he last heard about in this blog when he was hanging around with Wyatt Earp, is on the “Trail of the Brujo” in a story by Matthew Baugh. The Brujo’s soul is the body-switching survivor of a man Mather’s famed ancestor Cotton hung once. A couple of centuries of living and sadistic pleasures have started to lose their luster, but the Brujo just can’t check out. His soul belongs to the Devil, and he doesn’t intend on dying. Mather and the beautiful madam of a Dallas brothel join forces to combat the Brujo. A memorable and entertaining story. Continue reading “Low Noon”

Six-Guns Straight From Hell 2

Review: Six-Guns Straight From Hell 2, ed. David B. Riley, 2014.Six Guns Straight From Hell 2

This weird western anthology isn’t as good as its predecessor, but it’s full of acceptably entertaining stories.

I didn’t say I remember the stories as being good.

I finished this book in November, and, when I went back to make my notes on them, I found only three that I remembered.

But I had a lot going on in my life then, so that may account for my memory deficiency. I do remember the book being acceptably diverting at the time.

So, let’s start with the ones that didn’t stick in my brain after five months.

Vivian Caethe’s “The Feast of Hungry Ghosts” features Pinkerton agent Beatrice Jones dispatched to Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885. (Yes, Rock Springs is a real place, but I have no idea how much of the background is based in history.) Like a lot of Pinkerton work, there’s labor problems involved. To bust a strike of railroad workers, Chinese laborers are brought in, and the workers kill them. That’s where the hungry ghosts come in. The story is a bit predictable in stereotypes. Displaced union members, evidently, get no sympathy when replaced by foreign scabs. And Jones is helped by a local Taoist priestess. The story is a bit too long though Caethe does some interesting things with the ghosts at the end. Continue reading “Six-Guns Straight From Hell 2”

Gunslingers & Ghost Stories

I’ve read a lot of weird westerns lately. Most of them were, like this one, from Science Fiction Trails which seems to specialize in them.

Review: Gunslingers & Ghost Stories, ed. David B. Riley, 2012.Gunslingers and Ghosts

You get exactly what you would expect from the title: stories combining gunfighters and ghosts.

The majority of these 11 stories go past acceptable and into being memorable or well-done examples of typical ghost story motifs.

A couple of the standout stories were from series.

Joel Jenkins “Old Mother Hennessy” features his Indian bounty hunter Lone Crow. Here his partner is Six-Gun Susannah, a very quick draw with a gun if not a very good shot. In tracking down the vicious Hennessy boys to their mountain lair, they come across the graves of their victims. At the end of the trail is the beautiful and witch Mother Hennessy, the worst of the lot. As is usually the case in the Lone Crow series, Jenkins effectively mixes credible gunplay, magic, and characterization. Here Susannah pines away, in her unrequited love, for her partner.

Laura Givens “Chin Song Ping and the Hungry Ghosts” is a follow up to her “Chin Song Ping and the Fifty-Three Thieves”. Ping is a charming character given to romantic impulses and possessing equal parts of naivete, ignorance, and cunning. Here he gets involved hauling dynamite, and he and his partner camp for the night in the infamous Donner Pass. What better place to find hungry ghosts? And a band of Mexican bandits complicates things. Continue reading “Gunslingers & Ghost Stories”