This Tweet from writer Alexandru Constantin crossed my feed a little over a month ago, and like all good truth bombs, it's been stewing in the back of my mind ever since:
I'll have a great deal more to say on this subject in the coming weeks, because it touches on more than I can really drop into one single blog post without rambling.
Suffice to say, plenty of folks in my Twitter timeline have been talking about Westerns this past month or so.
I suspect there's a good reason for that.
With much of the country living under lockdown orders, restricted to "essential" travel only, and having to abide a government-mandated list of new social protocols when out in public, it's not hard to see the appeal of stories about rugged loners living by their own rules. Nor is it difficult to see the appeal of books and movies that dwell on the majestic beauty of wide open spaces.
Above all, Westerns are stories about personal freedom. After so many weeks being told where we can and can't go, how close we can and can't get to people, and what businesses we are and aren't allowed to patronize anymore, who can blame viewers for looking to John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Yul Brenner for a little cathartic release? Sure, the sound of a booming sixgun and the sight of a dying cattle baron or two might not get us out of lockdown any quicker.
But damn, will it feel good.
That said, here are a few suggestions as to where to start looking at the quintessential American Fantasy.
I first read this novel by Jack Schaefer back in middle school, and have probably watched the classic 1953 film version over a dozen times. It's one of my father's all time favorite movies, and every time we watch it together, he repeats Shane's taunt to the villainous Wilson (Jack Palance) out loud during the climax: "I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar!"
The story of a wandering gunfighter who temporarily finds peace after hiring on for a season with the Starrett family, Shane is pretty close to being the most archetypal of all Westerns. Both the film and the novel are awfully close to perfect in terms of execution. Themes of manhood, life on the frontier, family, and coming-of-age all come together in this tale. Book or movie? Take your pick. I heavily recommend both.
If you only ever see—or read—one Western, make it this one. You'll be richer for the experience.
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance
I watched this movie a few weeks back at Alexandru Constantin's recommendation, and it immediately become one of my top Western films. Directed by genre titan John Ford and starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is about a young tenderfoot lawyer named Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), and his arrival in the town of Shinbone. After being brutally victimized by the titular Valance (Marvin), Stoddard attempts to get the locals to organize a legal response through the marshal. But local tough hand Tom Doniphon (Wayne) scoffs. He knows the only law out west comes from the barrel of a gun. And as far as he's concerned, it's in Stoddard's best interest to learn how to use one before Valance comes back.
The rest of the film is a well-told drama about clashing world views: Stoddard and his steadfast belief in law and order, and Doniphan and his conviction that bullies like Valance only understand one thing.
While most Westerns play with themes of civilization versus lawlessness to some degree, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance arguably handled the idea better than any of them. In fact, it just might be the genre's final word on the subject.
After Shane, I consider this film an absolute must-see.
Elmore Leonard is mostly known for his crime fiction, but he got his start writing pulp Western novels. Hombre is routinely mentioned among fans as one of his best. Published in 1961, it's the story of John Russell, raised among the Apache, but traveling among the white men. When the stagecoach passengers he's riding with realize that Russell's odd ways and mannerisms come from his "savage" Apache upbringing, they refuse to ride with him. They demand he ride up in the boot, next to the driver.
Their fortunes turn quickly, however, when the stage is overtaken by outlaws. Stranded in the desert with no horses, one canteen, and only two guns, the passengers—none of whom regarded him as good enough to share a space with white folks before—are forced to follow him if they want to survive.
More than just a tale of desert survival, Hombre is a story about pride, honor, and doing the right thing, as well as being a tightly-paced chase story. John Russell denies the bandits their money early on, which gives them cause to pursue the stagecoach survivors to the bitter end.
Honestly, Leonard's slim little book is probably one of the best jumping-on points if you want to sample the genre's written works. Faster-moving than Shane and containing none of that book's family drama or coming of age themes, fans of thrillers and mysteries will find a relatively easy transition here.
The 1976 film version starring John Wayne was the last movie the Duke released before passing away. It also reunited Wayne with his costar from The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Shootist tells the story of an aging gunfighter dying of terminal prostate cancer.
This simple set-up, however, allows for an incredibly rich and powerful tale.
Set in January of 1901, just after Queen Victoria has died, The Shootist is a story about a modernizing West that no longer has a place for men like gunfighter J. B. Books (Wayne). Automobiles, electricity, and streetcars have come to Carson City, Nevada, alongside the carriages and horses.
And it's to Carson City that Books has come to die. With his diagnosis finalized by his old friend Dr. Hostetler (Stewart), and his days numbered, Books takes up at a local rooming house run by the widowed Mrs Rogers (Lauren Bacall). There, he sets about getting his final affairs in order. He also decides he doesn't want to go out in a stranger's bed, wracked with pain.
If the right people knew he was in town—and on his last legs—maybe the great shootist would have the opportunity to go out on his own terms: standing on his feet, with his gun in his hand, facing down the bad men one last time.
The Shootist is also the story of Books' relationship with the people of Carson City, especially Mrs Rogers and her son Gillom (Ron Howard). More than anything, it's the story of the siren song violence has over the young and the untested. The book goes into this theme in far more detail than the film does, and with much more satisfying results.
I'll have more to say on the subject in a future post, when I compare The Shootist to Eastwood's Unforgiven. For now, let's just say that if you want a less revisionist take on the same themes, The Shootist is the story you're looking for.
The film and the book also contain some sharp observations on the nature of violence and gunfighting, including one of my favorite lines ever given to a Western character when discussing his trade: "It isn't being fast. It is whether or not you're willing. The difference is, when it comes down to it, most men are not willing. I found that out early. They will blink an eye or take a breath before they pull the trigger. I won't."
My personal favorites of all Westerns are the Fargo books written by Ben Haas under the pseudonym John Benteen. The reason being that they're just so damned fun. Haas conceived soldier-of-fortune Neal Fargo after watching Lee Marvin's performance in The Professionals, and reading Fargo's physical description makes it obvious: Campaign cover concealing prematurely white hair, cropped short. Weathered face. Long Jaw. Craggy nose. Solid chin.
Fargo is as much a man's man character as you can get in fiction. He's only interested in fighting, women, and money, and when he has too much of one, he gets restless for the others. Best described as "Conan with a shotgun," the books take place across a 10-15 year spread in the early 20th century, following Fargo as he takes contracts in places as near as Texas, and as far away as the Philippines.
There were 22 Fargo books, of which Haas wrote 17. The one I read most recently was Phantom Gunman, in which Fargo is contracted by a mysterious oil baron to find—and kill—Billy the Kid. Of course, everyone knows Billy the Kid has been dead for over 30 years. Fargo thinks it's a put-on. But the $15,000 payday isn't a put-on. Neither is the deadly-serious gunman who just happens to show up in Lincoln county on the same trail as Fargo. Could there be some truth to the rumor after all?
Like any good pulp series, you can read the Fargo books in any order. While I haven't read the entire series, I've read several, and I haven't encountered a bad one yet. It is worth noting that Haas didn't write Sierra Silver, Gringo Guns, or Dynamite Fever. Many fans who have read the entire run say the writing quality on these three volumes is noticeably different.
So, why Westerns? Or more accurately, why Westerns now?
Like Alexandru says, they are the quintessential American fantasy. There's always been something powerful about the tough loner with a personal code, about a man who ranges the wide open spaces when and where he pleases. That's always been a part of the American fantasy, and I think that's a part of the fantasy we need more than ever right now.
But more than anything else, Westerns are fun. With all that talk of deep themes and stuff up there, what sort of gets lost is how much fun you can have—and how much comfort you can get—from a simple story with real good guys and real bad guys drawn in larger than life terms. A good, old fashioned shoot-em-up, coupled with a little romance and melodrama. Where the bad guys wear the black hats, and the good guys where the white hats.
Maybe that's part of it, too.
The Western gives us heroes, and it gives them to us unapologetically. The genre doesn't have to hide them in layers of irony, self awareness, or self deprecation.
Some might say that's unsophisticated or one-dimensional writing.
I say horse shit. While the daily news cycle is a never ending trash fire, you can keep your chronically depressed, fatally flawed "heroes." I sure as hell don't want to read about someone working through their personal issues right now.
Give me a larger-than life Tom Doniphon, a Shane, or a Neal Fargo. Give me a rat-bastard of a villain, a tense standoff, and a cacophony of roaring guns. Give me something to escape to, damn it. Give me some action, some adventure, and some heroes.
If that's too tall an order for other genres, then pardner, maybe it's time to saddle up and head back to the Mythic West.
I'm going to blame today's post on Alexandru Constantin, who motivated the hell out of me with his resolutions and goals post the other day over on Barbarian Book Club.
Constantin, Jon Mollison, and other writers in the PulpRev movement have been talking about a re-commitment to blogs over social media spaces in 2020. So consider this post my first step in solidarity with them.
Not that I plan to abandon the Beast that Tweets, mind you. It's been a remarkably good thing for me this past year. Among other things, it's introduced me to guys like Constantin and Mollison. And it was Mollison who helped inspire one of the biggest things I've got on the table for 2020.
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, here.
Before I get into the things I have on the burner for 2020, I want to take a brief look back at what I learned from the wreckage of 2019's writing year.
Longtime readers of the blog will remember that I wrote a similar "looking forward" post a year ago. I took myself to task for my failure to accomplish the previous year's writing goals, and I laid out my goals for the upcoming year.
Of the four upcoming projects listed there, only one of them came to pass: more blogging, including the guest post over at DMR Books' blog.
Blogging is about the only thing I'm going to put down as a win for 2019. I got barely any fiction written in 2019, and none published. But I did keep a fairly consistent blogging schedule. And that turned out to be a much bigger deal than I expected.
Doing that forced me to create some regular columns, like my 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews and my Kitbashing D&D series. Both of those proved to be popular, and have managed to get me some regular readers.
Several posts of mine got shared in regular PulpRev and OSR gaming blog roundups, like Castalia House Sensor Sweep, The DMRtian Chronicles, and Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog. Each time that happened, I've reached a wider audience and gained new readers.
One of those posts--in which I discuss D&D's baked-in, apocalyptic assumptions—flat-out exploded in popularity, generating 10,000 unique page views, a 300+ comment debate on Facebook, and a comment on my site from Luke Gygax.
All of which is small potatoes in Internet terms, I know. But considering that I'm a Twitter nobody with less than 200 followers, it's pretty damn impressive.
Bottom line, I'm thankful to all the PulpRev and OSR writers I've linked up with through my blogging in 2019. The most important lesson learned this year is to keep it up, and to keep it consistent. To that end, I'm going to have more of what worked in 2019: More 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews, and more D&D and gaming related posts.
As to the rest of the projects I mentioned in that "2019 and Looking Forward" post:
The project I didn't want to talk about never got the official traction, meaning it's more than likely dead in the water. That could change, but I'm not optimistic. In all likelihood, the IP holder has lost interest and moved on.
On the plus side, the other creators I was working with behind the scenes are all talented people, and we've stayed in touch. If nothing else, it will eventually lead to a pooling of resources on other projects.
The lesson here—if there is one—is to always be open to possibility, but never be reliant on outcomes. If the IP holder emails me tomorrow, I'm still more than happy to drop everything and get to work for them.
But until then, I'm afraid it's just going to remain stuck in creative limbo. C'est la vie.
The ambitious self-publishing project I mentioned was an attempt to try writing a Japanese Isekai-style light novel series. I was attracted to the idea of slightly-longer-than novella length stories, cranked out at high volume. And I've always like the idea of second-world fantasy.
But the damned thing kept falling apart on me. I hated my protagonist. I couldn't make myself root for him, which meant I couldn't make myself write him. The story became a slog.
I eventually set the thing aside in frustration, deciding that it was just a genre I wasn't equipped to write. It was months later, when I ran across this little bit of writing advice from Misha Burnett, that the reason I hated my protagonist clicked.
Bottom line, I was breaking Burnett's rule #1.
In following the Isekai "earth loser gets reincarnated to a world of adventure," I realized I was opening an action adventure story like a frat-bro comedy. I was introducing the earthbound "hero" in a way that showcased him as a self-centered loser, and then trying to build him up through gradual change to a selfless, mature adult.
That change works great in a Seth Rogen comedy, where the goal is to get the audience to laugh.
But it works like absolute dogshit in an action adventure.
The lesson here? Embrace the mantra of the PulpRev. Regress harder. Traditional storytelling tropes work, traditional heroes work, and Man Plots are not ironic. And while I'm probably not going to circle back to that Isekai project anytime soon, I definitely won't be afraid to give my main characters some balls in 2020.
The second self publishing project I had planned for 2019 was dependent on the other two succeeding, so I can't really say much about it without spilling the beans on that first one. What I can say is that it was supposed to be a tabletop RPG.
Which is a nice segue into what's on the burner for 2020.
A couple of months back, one of Jon Mollison's offhanded comments about "Fantasy Effing Vietnam" got my mental wheels spinning. It was an older term I hadn't heard before, but that's mainly because I spent next to zero time online when the term apparently popped up in the mid-2000's. That first blog led to a few more, where I imagined what house rules and tweaks I'd use to mimic a hypothetical "Fantasy 'Nam"-type setting, in which the adventurers were unwilling, under-prepared draftees, and the goblins were a ruthless, brutally-competent guerrilla force.
Anyway, at the request of some readers, what started as a series of time-killing blog posts has now morphed into a full-blown, OSR-compatible RPG supplement.
My plan is to have it play-tested, formatted, and edited for release in the early part of 2020. More blog posts will be coming in the next few weeks, detailing some more of the features, rules, and the thoughts behind them.
I also plan to have another go at self-publishing novels this year. Adam Lane Smith's Write Like a Beast--reviewed in depth here—has made me seriously re-think my own outlining and drafting process. I plan to give his method a try, to see if it works for me. At the very least, a new avenue of approach should bust some of the rust off of my own methods, even if I do eventually go back to them.
I'm also armed with some new knowledge of the things I was doing wrong, courtesy of writers like Smith and Burnett.
Lastly, I have another guest blog at DMR Books coming up this month. Once again, Deuce Richardson and Dave Ritzlin are doing me the honor of inviting me to participate in DMR Books' New Year's Guest Bloggerama. Just six days in, and they've already had some fantastic writers covering some amazing subjects. I was humbled to be a part of it last year, and I'm equally humbled to be part of it again this year.
Bottom line, 2020 is going to be a full and interesting year. And I plan on grabbing it by the Man Plots.
I've been listening to a lot of latter-day Johnny Cash lately. And while the sentiment might get me strung up in some purist circles, I believe the American Recordings sessions represent the absolute apex of Cash's considerable career.
That's not meant as a slight against anything Cash recorded in his earlier days. Especially not At Folsom Prison.
Cash was just an artist who kept aging into his voice well into his late sixties, a man who sounded better the more his voice took on that gravelly timbre. His musical style also benefitted from the raw, stripped-down style of the American Recordings. Some of the best tracks on the American releases were just Cash and his acoustic guitar.
Personally, I'm glad they were the final releases of his career. They're the most fitting swan song I can think of for the Man in Black.
And while Cash's cover of "Hurt" gets most of the attention, with songwriter Trent Reznor famously quoted as saying "that song isn't mine anymore," the fact is Cash made a habit of doing flat-out amazing covers during this stage in his career. And for my money, most of them blow the originals out of the water. His versions of U2's "One," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" are just a handful of examples.
But my favorite of all the American Recordings—original or cover—is Cash's rendition of Marty Robbins' classic country ballad, "Big Iron." If you've never had the pleasure, I strongly urge you to take a few minutes to give a listen.
Anyway, this recent Johnny Cash kick probably had something to do with me grabbing John Benteen's Alaska Steel off the TBR pile on my way to the VA clinic a couple of weeks ago. I had a long day ahead, with several hours to kill between appointments, so I wanted some good, old-fashioned escapism.
It was a good choice.
In case you've never heard of Benteen, a brief primer: Benteen was an early pseudonym for novelist Ben Haas. And while he'd later go on to great literary acclaim with books like The Chandler Heritage, The House of Christina, and Daisy Canfield, much of his early work was in the pulp western genre.
The Benteen name was the one Haas used when writing the Fargo series, about professional soldier of fortune Neal Fargo. Taking place in the early 1900s, the Fargo series sees its hero traveling around the world, taking dangerous jobs for money. A rough wanderer with a talent for fighting, Fargo has been described by fans of the series as "Conan with a shotgun." And that's pretty damn accurate.
Alaska Steel is #3 in the series, but like all good pulp or adventure fiction, you can read them in any order. Here's the tagline:
"Fargo went north to find a beautiful woman's husband—and to make sure he was dead!"
Folks, that is how you grab a potential reader's attention!
The book opens in 1914, with Fargo between jobs. He's got a temp gig as an actor in Hollywood, mean-mugging the camera and falling over after fake gun battles. But as good as the money is, it's got him feeling hollow. He's itching to get on the move and into the wider world again. He craves the action of a real life-or-death fight. He's contemplating heading south, where the Mexican Revolution is heating up, when a job lands in his lap courtesy of movie star Jane Deering.
Deering tells Fargo that she recently heard from a lawyer representing her estranged in-laws. Apparently, her husband's dirt-poor parents struck oil on their land, shortly before dying in a car accident, and her husband now stands to inherit a fortune. The problem, Deering says, is that she hasn't seen her husband in more than five years, not since he ran out on her to seek his own fortune in the Yukon.
Her proposition is simple: she wants Fargo go to Circle, Alaska, where he was last heard from. It's worth a lot of money if Fargo can find proof that he's still alive. But Deering promises him an even bigger cut if he can prove her husband is dead.
The rest of the book follows Fargo and Deering as they trek up to Circle, seeking answers to the whereabouts of her husband. The man's name triggers a murderous rage in some quarters, and Fargo has to fight for his life more than once. Whatever happened in Circle, no one is willing to talk about it. It soon becomes clear there was more to Deering's missing husband than Fargo suspected.
The climax is the kind of explosive action Haas excels at writing. No high noon shootouts here. We get an all-out war in the streets of Circle, an over-the-top, balls-to-the-wall finale of gunfire and grade-A violence. There is a final, mano-a-mano moment between Fargo and the villain. But saying much more would spoil the ending.
And I highly encourage any fans of action, adventure, and good old fashioned shoot-em-ups to track it down and experience it for themselves.
Getting to the end of Alaska Steel, I realized how refreshing it was to read an unashamedly masculine story that didn't wink and nod at the audience for a change. Fargo is a man's man. He's only interested in fighting, drinking, and women, and he gets down to business with all three. He's as tough, as cool, and as professional as they come.
He's the kind of hero facing the kind of problems that are played for laughs in most quarters these days. Honestly, the tagline for Alaska Steel sounds almost like something that the Man Plots Twitter bot could have come up with.
With its shirtless Ernest Hemingway avatar and its cheeky offer of availability for script rewrites, Man Plots randomly drops pulp fiction buzzwords into an "elevator pitch" sentence, generating 3—4 action story ideas per day.
Folks, this Twitter account is a gold mine.
And while the whole thing is meant to as a joke, the sad fact is that at least half the ideas it spits out sound better than the neutered, anemic shit Hollywood is passing off as action these days. I'd take any of those plots—and their stoic, hard-bitten heroes—over the mainstream's idea of a "masculine" protagonist any day of the week.
There's an interesting exchange in the first chapter of Alaska Steel. One of Haas' side characters, movie star Roy Hughes, is talking to the movie's director. The director has just expressed incredulous rage over Fargo turning down the promise of a big studio contract to go join the Mexican Revolution:
"Don't you see?" Hughes tipped back the big sombrero. "He's not like the rest of us. We're phonies. And phony things don't satisfy him." There was envy in his expressive eyes. "If I was man enough, I'd trade places with him in a minute."
Neal Fargo inhabits a changing world. The wild places are becoming civilized, and the real struggles for survival are being replaced with phony copies, meant to entertain softer men than him. But Fargo himself is still a man of action. And he actively seeks out the places where his action will have meaning.
To a modern reader in an increasingly sedentary and regulated world, there's something powerful about that idea.
Understanding that idea isn't—and never has been—a joke is what separated the great pulp and men's adventure writers from the winking and sneering postmodern takes we get now. It's what gives their work the same timeless quality as Johnny Cash's soulful rendition of "Big Iron."
In a letter to his son Joel, Ben Haas said the following about writing a pulp western: "All Westerns are fairy stories and outlets for impotent people. The villain must be larger than life; the hero larger than the villain. These are dream-fulfillment books."
Haas knew the reader was reaching for a temporary escape. He created characters like Fargo to give it to them without any hint of holier-than-thou irony, smirking, or subversion.
Haas believed in the Man Plot, back when the Man Plot wasn't a punchline.
Some of us—myself included—still do.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
This week's review is one I've been looking forward to. Not only is it the first book review to join the 'Pocky-clypse Now lineup, it's a title I've been eagerly awaiting since the author announced it several months ago.
I'm talking about Adam Lane Smith's heavy metal, post apocalyptic, Christian knights versus devils pulp-stravaganza, Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross.
In the interest of full disclosure, I donated to Smith's Kickstarter for this project. And as a backer, I received an early copy prior to general release. Other than that, I don't know Smith. This is an honest review, with no favoritism given or expected.
If you're a first time reader of this column, a word of caution before proceeding. My reviews always include a detailed summary, followed by a breakdown of the story's essential genre elements, overall critical analysis, and a numerical "Rad Score" based on my personal rating criteria.
In other words, this review will be spoiler-filled.
Normally, I'd follow that format here. But since Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross won't be available to the general reading public until October 4th, I'm going to change up the format for this one. I'm going to put the spoiler-free Rad Rating first, followed by the somewhat spoiler-y Vitals.
I'll also put one, final spoiler warning before the summary. After that, Wastelanders, you're on your own. The rest of the review is going to be a spoilerific Thunderdome.
So, what did I think of Adam Lane Smith's blood-soaked demon-slaying adventure epic?
The Rad Rating:
Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross has all the makings of an instant cult classic. Over-the-top violence and blisteringly paced action meld perfectly with gruesome horror imagery, nightmarish monsters, and deep theological themes. The result is something truly unique and memorable. It's a roller coaster ride from start to finish, a high-tech Crusade through the blasted wastelands.
That said, it's not all blood and thunder. There are genuinely human moments in the story, moments of brotherhood, tenderness, and kindness that remind Gideon of the grace humanity is fighting for.
All in all, Adam Lane Smith has crafted a vastly entertaining book, a solid first entry into what promises to be a cult hit series. Highly recommended.
Wastelanders, of all the areas where Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross shines, this might be where it shines the brightest.
Simply put, Adam Lane Smith has a fantastic gift for writing violence.
His knack for pacing a fight sequence is exquisite, and the way he weaves the horrific details of the demon-infested world into the action helps to create something that feels fresh and unique with each scene.
One of the best examples of this is from Chapter 12, when Gideon battles a demon in what can only be described as a Cathedral of Bones:
With a huge foot, Zagoroth kicked Gideon in the chest. The knight's battered breastplate and the hit hurled Gideon through yet another bone pillar. His armor was so compromised that one of the sharp human spines stabbed into his lower back. Gideon slammed into the ground and skidded to a crashing halt with his back against another pillar. His HUD shrieked at him about a serious penetration, and when he looked down, the bloody tip of a bleached spine stuck out from his belly.
Because of details like this, the battle scenes never feel repetitive. Each one is genuinely edge-of-the-seat exciting, with stakes that matter, villains you want to see dead, and heroes you want to root for.
What more could an apocalyptic fiction fan ask for?
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Mostly simple and straightforward, with brief but effective descriptions of ruined cities, abandoned highways, and villages made from salvaged parts. Smith prefers to keep the story moving, without bogging his prose down.
That said, he manages some nice, clever touches here, brining his post apocalyptic world to life in ways that reflect the characters and their outlook. For example, Gideon muses about the words UNLEADED and DIESEL, reasoning that they must have been sacred to the Ancients, since they wrote them everywhere. To the wandering knight, only something of religious significance could be so common and so widespread. No other explanation makes sense.
One wonders what he'd make of the real explanation if someone gave it to him. Especially when the fuel source his Order uses to power their hovercraft is revealed later in the book.
Of all the passages describing society's destruction, though, the real show stoppers are the ones describing the ruined city in in chapters 17 and 18. With its enormous pyramid of packed, piled scrap in the center, this nameless ruin is an awe-inspiring monument to death and carnage, a cultists' and demons' hive built in the hollow corpse of the ravaged world.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
For a bunch of demon-worshiping cultists, the Ba'al cult displays a surprising level of sophistication. There's a clear hierarchy among the demons, the fallen angels, and their human followers, including lines of succession and chains of command. During a pre-mission briefing near the book's climax, mention is made of the vast amount of territory they control to the north.
In other words, this isn't some unruly rabble. This is a thriving civilization, one that's coming dangerously close to ruling the mortal realm.
That said, the legions of hell are prone to jealousy, backstabbing, and infighting, and the power vacuums created by the knights' Crusading can lead to bloody power struggles.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
None in evidence yet, although the series is just getting started. I wouldn't be surprised to see depraved gladiator games and contests to the death between the cultists in future installments. I also wouldn't be surprised to see something a bit more civilized, like some kind of futuristic jousting or tournaments taking place among the knights.
Barbarian Hordes -
The highway bandits from Chapter 6 represent the only truly lawless faction in this world, the only reavers and raiders that owe no allegiance to anyone but themselves. That said, their quick and brutal end shows what a stupid choice that is.
Smith's post apocalypse is one where demons and fallen angels walk the ravaged Earth. Powerful necromancers and witches stalk the ruins, along with legions of demon cultists. Opposed to them are the anointed warriors of God, using salvaged weapons of the Ancestors to hold the darkness at bay.
In other words, this is a world built on faith in—and faith to—something greater than oneself, be it God or devils.
Red Hat and company are the only ones foolish enough to try holding themselves apart from that. In doing so, they've tacitly declared themselves as powerful as those major players, as the demons and devils stalking the world.
Of course, Gideon Ira makes laughably short work of them, and in doing so, reinforces to the reader that this is not a world of human conflicts. Rather, this is a world of supernatural and metaphysical conflicts.
And men like Gideon are merely its foot soldiers.
Badass Warrior Women -
Sister Heather, of the The Iron Doves. She's a stealthy, brutally efficient killing machine, and the Chapter 17 infiltration showing off her skills is one of the book's absolute highlights.
In the interest of keeping this section relatively spoiler-lite, I will say no more.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
Swap out "demons" for "mutants" in this case. I'm not going to make any semantic quibbles. Bottom line, the monsters in this book are memorable and awesome.
As with violence, Smith has a gift for creating unique and vile creatures. From the feathered Pride demon in the opening chapter—described as hulking and ape-like, with reptilian jaws and insect-like chitin covering its body—to the fallen Angels with their profane, stained glass wings and molten silver eyes.
What's more, Smith doesn't shy away from showing us these demons are evil. Casual atrocities like the slaughter of a village's adult population are just the prelude to the organized, large-scale sacrifice of that same village's children. Screaming girls have their entrails ripped out on altars. Temple floors are gore-soaked charnel houses, with the demons promising momentary power and respite to those that would serve them.
These aren't a bunch of misunderstood muties, Wastelanders. These are unholy abominations in need of a good purging.
And Gideon Ira is just the man for the job.
FINAL WARNING: DETAILED SPOILERS AHEAD!
The book opens in a warren deep below the earth, where power armored knight Gideon Ira is locked in a death struggle against a feathered demon.
Ira battles the creature tooth and nail, and the reader gets a glimpse of the power-armor's capabilities. Ira deploys revolver, sword, and enhanced strength to little effect, but the creature does not fall. It's only when Ira wraps his rosary beads around his fist, literally beating the demon monster down with his own faith, that the creature begins to show signs of defeat.
Now, with the creature weakened, Ira is able to activate his sword's hidden plasma cutting edge. He finishes the monster, removes its head, and rides back to the nearby town of Blackbriar.
And with that, Wastelanders, Adam Lane Smith earns my implicit trust as a reader. He isn't here to waste my time. He's here to deliver on the promise he made when he announced this project months ago: Knights in power armor battling demons across an atomic wasteland.
And deliver he damned well does.
In Blackbriar, Gideon stops at the church to deliver the demon's severed head, and to give his report to the village priest, Father Harris. The priest then takes Gideon's confession, and just as the knight is preparing to leave the church, a blinding light and a booming voice from the heavens stops him in his tracks.
The radiant being has eyes of molten silver, and wings like stained glass windows, depicting the Lord Jesus Christ.
Far from being overawed, though, Gideon is unimpressed. The being is Azaria, an angel who's been standing by his side through his many battles, and who has appeared and spoken to him dozens of times in the past.
After his initial, dramatic entrance, Azaria takes a more human aspect, and the angel and the knight settle onto one of the pews to talk like old friends.
Azaria wants to know why Gideon appears so sullen and upset. The battle against the demon was far from the worst he'd faced. Gideon admits that he's frustrated at how long it took to track the monster. Months of battling through underlings, slaying cultists, and hunting for clues, when Azaria simply could have revealed the demon's location to him.
The angel reassures him that there was a purpose to the seemingly aimless running around. Many evils were removed from the world as he fought his way to the demon, including a powerful necromancer.
But the angel promises that his next task will be simpler, and more straightforward. All he must do is go to the tavern, and the location of the next target will reveal itself.
Gideon, still frustrated, asks if Azaria will just tell him directly. The angel's response isn't exactly what he wants to hear.
Another roundabout purpose, I'm afraid. Giving you a list of exact tasks does nothing to build your faith. My job is not to interfere in your life. I'm to guide you on your path, help you make sense of your experiences, and assist you with the choices you make. I cannot make your choices for you, and I will not rob you of your chance to experience a life of discovery which builds your faith.
With no path open to him except the angel's vague hints, Gideon heads next door to the tavern. After a short meal from the grateful proprietor, Gideon overhears news that cultists have massacred the adults in the village of Juniper, about a week northwest of Blackbriar, and taken the children away to use as human sacrifices.
Without saying a word, Gideon leaves the tavern and heads for the road. His first few days' travel are uneventful, but he eventually has a run in with a pack of bandits, led by one he mentally tags as Red Hat. He warns them off, seeking to avoid a fight and urging them to go to Blackbriar and confess their crimes. He says that they are not yet beyond redemption.
The bandits leap to attack, and Gideon makes short work of them. In the end, the only bandit left standing is Red Hat. The knight urges him to surrender, offering to take him along on his quest, to give him a chance to atone for what he's done.
But when Red hat learns that Gideon is bound for the territory of the Ba'al cultists, he takes a desperate last shot at the knight. But Gideon's power-armor enhanced reflexes are quicker, and he kills the bandit leader with a single, well placed shot.
Before Red Hat expires, Gideon again attempts to get him to repent, pleading with him to accept Christ in his final moments and be saved. But the bandit leader dies without uttering another word.
Another day's travel brings him to the corpse-strewn ruins of Juniper. True to the rumors, he finds no children among the bodies, and signs of a caravan headed northward.
Before he can begin his pursuit, though, he encounters another knight in power-armor. A quick ID between them reveals the man beneath the helmet is his old friend and academy classmate, Sir Caleb Davis.
Caleb has been on the trail of the same cultists that kidnapped the children, and he is visibly shaken by the carnage. He admits that the evil in this world sometimes makes him feel like giving up hope. The things he has seen battling against the demons and their human servants haunt him, and he sometimes believes that the darkness is winning.
Gideon does his best to reassure his friend, and urges him to give confession and ease his spirit. Caleb refuses, saying they must press on and finish the job first.
Gideon and Caleb follow the wagon tracks into the ruins of a nearby city, one from before the apocalypse that destroyed the civilization of the Ancients. The sign near the outskirts identifies it as Minneapolis.
They silently make their way through the ruins, eliminating sentries with brutal efficiency until Gideon gets spotted. The sentry manages to squeeze off a burst of machine gun fire just as Gideon impales him, and the rest of the infiltration into the cultists' hideout is a running firefight through the streets.
In the middle of the chaos, Gideon notices Caleb executing wounded enemies. He confronts his brother knight, saying it is not their way. Caleb counters that killing the enemies of the faith, and making sure they can't return to prey on the innocent, is the only way, and believing otherwise is naive.
Before they can settle the argument, the firefight resumes, and they're forced to fight and maneuver their way to the massive, bored out tunnel that serves as the cult's lair. Gideon, having seen this before, surmises that the cult is led by a demon.
Clearing the entrance, Gideon and Caleb work their way inside. They manage to locate and free the children of Juniper, but they cannot risk letting the cult leaders escape. Placing the oldest child in charge—a thirteen year old girl named Mary O'Rourke—the two knights work their way deeper into the tunnel.
At last, they find the grand central chamber, where they interrupt the end of a sacrificial ritual in progress. Gideon and Caleb make short, bloody work of the cultists, before they enter the final corridor and the heaped earthen throne room of the demon Zagoroth.
Zagoroth taunts the knights, saying their quests and their suffering have been meaningless, and offering them a chance at true power. Gideon resists, but Caleb, whose faith has already been shaken, succumbs to the temptation.
Demonic power flows into and transforms Caleb, and Gideon is forced to fight his old friend while the demon watches. It's an emotionally powerful, gut wrenching duel, and Gideon narrowly prevails, striking a death blow with his plasma sword.
Zagorath then traps Gideon in the plane of demons, and the already weakened knight is forced to fight for his life and soul against the demon in a cathedral made entirely of human bones. The demon spends most of the battle toying with the knight, as Gideon's armor gets weaker and weaker. At last, Gideon defeats the demon, but not before he is gravely injured.
Barely clinging to consciousness, and with only the thoughts of the freed children and prayers to the Lord for the strength to see them to safety driving him onward, Gideon crawls his way out of the tunnel and activates his distress beacon before darkness finally overtakes him.
When Gideon finally regains consciousness, he's on an air transport back to Belltower, the human stronghold and headquarters of the knightly Orders. Seated across from him is Sir Andrew Stone, another old friend and companion from his academy days. Andrew tells him they found the children, and all of them are safe and accounted for. They also found the remains of Caleb.
Gideon spends a day in recovery at Belltower, while his power-armor is undergoing repairs. He enjoys a day of quiet reflection and an evening Mass. Then Andrew picks him up for a major operations briefing. Something big is happening up north.
High Paladin Tharson, the regional commander of the knights, announces that they've identified an advisor to the Ba'al cult's regional high priest. If they capture the advisor, they can learn the identity and location of the high priest. And if they can kill the high priest, they can break the hold of the Ba'al cult in the region, potentially freeing hundreds of square miles of territory from their demonic influence.
The operation is going to be a small, surgical strike, with a team of just three knights. The priority is to get the target out alive without being noticed.
Andrew is named team leader, with Gideon selected as his number two. Also attached to the mission is Sister Heather of the Iron Doves, an order of covert intelligence specialists.
What follows is the single most thrilling action sequence in the book, an extended and harrowing infiltration and exfiltration filled with grotesque horror imagery, edge-of-the-seat action, and Smith's trademark, over-the-top violence.
These two chapters are worth the price of admission alone, Wastelanders.
By the end of it, the advisor is in the custody of the Belltower's interrogators, and Sister Heather predicts he'll reveal the identity of the High Priest in a matter of hours. The knights get a little downtime, but not much. It turns out Heather's prediction is right. The prisoner talks early, and soon the High Paladin is calling for another mission briefing.
Tharson identifies the target city, another Ancestor ruin to the north, and instructs the knights that they'll be riding out at first light. This is a search and destroy mission. The goal is to hit the city, and to slaughter every cultist they find, with the high priest being the raid's primary target.
The knight's have one last evening of quiet reflection and camaraderie, and Gideon and Andrew choose to spend it sharing a beer and reminiscing about old, departed comrades. The war against the demons has caught up with too many of them, it seems.
The knights depart the next day, and from here on out the book is non-stop action. The column of knights is attacked by flying demons en-route, forcing them to push on instead of resting. After a hard ride, they finally come to a ruin dominated by a huge, obsidian dome. Arrayed before it is an army of demons, necromancers, risen corpses.
With a battle cry, the knights charge the host. The fighting is fierce, bloody, and chaotic, and the knights gradually begin losing ground. Then last-minute salvation arrives, in the form of a Belltower gunship. The gunship manages to clear a path through the demonic host, and Gideon, Andrew, and three other knights manage to make it as far as the Obsidian Dome. High Paladin Tharson orders them to locate and kill the high priest.
Gideon and the others find him, but killing him turns out to be difficult. The priest—a demonic sorcerer called Snapdragon—has the ability to command a sort of living fog, whirling and shaping it into the shape of a vicious dragon. The priest more than holds his own against the gathered knights, and he even manages to kill one of them. It's only through some impressive teamwork, tactics, and faith that the other knights pull off their final victory.
The rest of the knights finally breach the dome, gathering their wounded and their dead, and planting a nuclear warhead to ensure the Ba'al cult will never use the site again. And as the transport ships speed back towards Belltower, Gideon Ira, Knight of the Blood Cross, watches the mushroom cloud form on the horizon.
I'll put this as bluntly as possible. Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross fucking rocks. It's a rollicking roller-coaster ride of righteous violence from start to finish. Fans of post apocalyptic action and military SF will find lots to love here. For some reason, the hive-like pyramid of the Ba'al cultists, in Chapters 17 and 18, reminded me of the Ant Nests in John Steakley's Armor.
That said, I think it's the quieter moments that truly define this book. Gideon's sense of brotherhood with his fellow knights, his tenderness towards the rescued orphans, and his simple, quiet faith when he's alone in the church are what make him a compelling character.
Sure, I may be following Gideon's adventures because he's a futuristic knight in badass power armor. But I want him to win because of the gentle kindness he shows to Sister Mary Brigid, and the easygoing humor he shares with William the armor smith.
Speaking of relationships, a special mention needs to be made of Gideon's relationship with the angel Azaria. It feels organic and real, with all the one-sided gravity a relationship between a mortal and an immortal should have. Azaria genuinely loves Gideon, and he's doing his best to guide him and nurture his faith. And we get the sense he finds it painful to see his friend go through these tribulations. But like Gideon, he's just a servant. He has a role to play in this grand design, whether he understands it or not.
This being the first book in the series, Adam Lane Smith lays plenty of groundwork for future installments. There are mysteries hinted at in Gideon's past, as well as a startling reveal involving Sister Heather of the Iron Doves. We're also introduced to a fallen angel who makes some menacing appearances, but otherwise doesn't do much in the course of the narrative. I'm expecting that all these strands will be developed in the next books.
Honestly, if there's any criticism to be had here, it's that Smith places the most emotionally powerful and complex fight scene too early in the story.
The battle against Caleb is the fight where the personal stakes are at their absolute highest for Gideon. A lifelong friend and brother has just succumbed to darkness. Gideon has no choice but to fight him, not just out of self defense or self preservation, but to honor everything Caleb once stood for and believed in. Only by standing true and refusing to give quarter can Gideon honor himself, his God, and the lost soul of his one-time brother.
The problem is, none of the battles that come after it have quite the same sense of gravity. After we've seen him forced to kill a comrade in arms, the personal stakes just don't feel as high when Gideon is battling the cultists and the demons. This is an admittedly minor quibble, one born more of my writer brain speaking up when my reader brain just wanted it to shut the hell up and enjoy the damn story.
The simple fact is, Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross kept me glued to my seat from start to finish. It's a wildly fun and entertaining story with a compelling hero, a vividly imagined world, and kick-ass action. And when I reached the last page, I sure as hell wasn't second guessing Smith's placement of that one fight scene. I was far too busy thinking about Gideon Ira and his next adventure.
Wastelanders, I suspect you will be, too.
Until next time.
So my most recent post created a little bit of a stir.
In case you missed it, I joined in on a debate between masculine culture writer Jared Trueheart, pulp sword and sorcery expert Morgan Holmes, and scholar Jason Ray Carney. I agreed with Jared and Morgan that sword and sorcery is a subset of the venerable Men's Adventure genre, and that it serves much the same purpose: delivering thills and chills to its primarily male audience.
To reiterate and clarify my position a little, I think that--like the post apocalyptic genre—S&S can do more, and can speak to universal human truths. But it absolutely must function as an exciting, thrilling S&S story first. Otherwise, its just an essay masquerading as a S&S tale.
Carney disagrees. He feels the primary purpose of the genre is to do more, and speak to those universal human truths.
One person who agrees with him was respected S&S writer David C. Smith.
On the incredibly off chance you're following this debate but are unfamiliar with him, Smith authored and co-authored several Robert E. Howard pastiches, including the six-volume Red Sonja series. He also created the well-regarded Oron series.
In a lengthy comment on my post, Smith offered insight into the publishing industry of the 1980's, shifting markets, and the work of writers intentionally pushing the genre's boundaries.
Despite Smith coming down against my position, I don't see that many of his observations actually refute it. In fact, Smith's point about "masculine-oriented S&S" gradually giving way to epic fantasy and YA fiction just reinforces the idea of the genre being primarily written for and marketed to men.
But his main argument—one contradicting the point referenced above—is that nobody is trying to get rid of the old-school masculine fiction. In his own words:
"And why be so threatened by an intellectual such as Jason Carney who wishes to discuss the gender boundaries of a genre when such new fiction is included with, but does not replace, the old-school masculine fiction?"
"No one wants to take away the 'visceral' fiction, as Daniel Davis calls it."
"Why are you so hung up on this one specific image of masculinity? Would you prefer to keep all of the bookstore racks as they were in 1981? Can't you just relax and enjoy the wealth of masculine fiction that continues to be available? It's a fair question."
Leaving aside his attempt to frame me as somehow "threatened" by an opinion I simply voiced a disagreement with, Smith's right.
It is a fair question.
I just wonder if before he asked it, he'd heard the news that scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge is shaking up the iconic—and inarguably masculine—James Bond franchise by replacing 007 with a new female agent.
Quoting the article:
"Bond, of course, is sexually attracted to the new female 007 and tries his usual seduction tricks, but is baffled when they don't work on a brilliant, young black woman who basically rolls her eyes at him and has no interest in jumping into his bed. Well, certainly not at the beginning."
"This is a Bond for the modern era who will appeal to a younger generation while sticking true to what we all expect in a Bond film,' the source added. 'There are spectacular chase sequences and fights, and Bond is still Bond but he's having to learn to deal with the world of #MeToo."
"Waller-Bridge, who wrote the BBC comedy Fleabag and the female-led thriller Killing Eve, was recruited to ensure the 57-year-old franchise moved with the times. She said: 'There's been a lot of talk about whether or not Bond is relevant now because of who he is and the way he treats women. I think that's b******s. I think he's absolutely relevant now. [The franchise] has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly. He doesn't have to. He needs to be true to his character.'"
Reducing the cool, suave, and hyper-competent Bond to a man "baffled" by rejection? Replacing him with a brilliant young woman who simply rolls her eyes at him and displays no interest in jumping into his bed? Forcing him to confront his history of sexual harassment?
With apologies to Mr. Smith, that sounds an awful lot like "replacing the old-school masculine fiction" to me.
Ms. Waller-Bridge's comment is the one I find the most illuminating. In other words, she's saying Bond can be "true to his character," provided the movie takes pains to portray him as backwards and wrong.
Which brings me back to a point I made near the beginning of last week's post. Genre fiction doesn't have to apologize for what it is, or what audience it's trying to court. That's true whether we're talking about a suave secret agent, a savage barbarian, or a certain red haired she devil in a chainmail bikini.
Turning Bond into an apologetic, baffled parody of himself in hopes of pulling in a broader audience isn't going to work.
For starters, we've seen it already. And with respect to Ms. Waller-Bridge, it was funnier when Mike Meyers did it.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.