Previously published in “Dread Space,” my (very) short story, “This is the Genesis Ship Arkhaven” was produced by a podcast, Simultaneous Times, and is out today. Give it a listen.
Author: Jonathan Ficke
Review – Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s SILVER NITRATE is a slow-burning story about film history and the corruption lurking behind the glitz and glam of the entertainment industry, of cults and cultic syncretism, of magic and desire and the human impulse to cling to a destructive past rather than to grow toward a possible future.
Montserrat, a punky, horror movie enthusiast, and sound engineer and her former soap opera star friend, Tristán, meet the retired director of cult horror movies, Abel Urueta. One of Urueta’s films was never released, and stories of it became urban legends. In the course of asking about that lost film, Montserrat and Tristán discover its history involves cults, Nazis, and dark magic. Dark magic that their investigations might just reawaken.
There’s several lenses to view this work through.
The story is constantly one of looking back at a past that is gone but that the characters cannot or will not acknowledge is gone. The title of the book, SILVER NITRATE, is taken from a particular type of film that was phased out of use due to its propensity to catch fire. In fact, it’s noted that the images recorded on silver nitrate film are crisper, the blacks richer, the experience more immersive than modern film. Tristán is haunted by trauma and loss. Urueta is haunted by the failure of his directorial career. Other characters refuse to accept their youthful years are behind them, or their time as powerful mystics is past. Everyone, to some extent, is viewing their past as if it were recorded on silver nitrate film, and refusing to allow it to be something that is gone, unattainable, unchangeable. And, just as silver nitrate film is volatile by nature occasionally burning what it recorded away to ash, so too are the characters’ pasts volatile and subject to a conflagration that forces them to process what came before and what looms ahead.
Also, the magic “system” that is explored is almost self-referential, as though the work knowingly satirizes the SFF community’s interest in both the “hard” (e.g. Brandon Sanderson in MISTBORN) vs “numinous” (e.g. Patrick Rothfuss’ true names in THE NAME OF THE WIND) debate. The story explicitly discusses the lineage of late 19th Century and early 20th Century esoteric mysticism, from Helena Blavatsky through Aliester Crowley, and its pathway to Nazism. The manual of magic that Montserrat reads is evocative of “modern” esoteric mysticism (e.g. Order of Nine Angles and their ilk), and the overwrought language and references to divine motherhood, of the four elements, and so on is almost silly. And yet, is it any more silly than asking the reader to seamlessly acknowledge that some people can ingest iron and burn it to pull metals through the air? That truly understanding the very fundamental nature of the wind and knowing the name that captures that nature allows you to bend it to your will?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s past books have burned brightly to award nominations and bestseller lists. I expect this to do the same. SILVER NITRATE releases on July 18, 2023. Pre-order it from your local independent bookseller, Seattle if you must, Barnes and Noble, or Bookshop.org.
Review – The Tyranny of Faith (Empire of the Wolf #2), by Richard Swan
Richard Swan‘s THE TYRANNY OF FAITH is a fantastic follow up to THE JUSTICE OF KINGS. One of my favorite things about second volumes in a secondary world is that they expand the world you see in the first book. THE TYRANNY OF FAITH does that, and more.
In the first book, we met a lawman, his clerk, and a man-at-arms who were embroiled in the periphery of a political struggle that was undermining the very foundations of the empire they served. In this book, the move from the periphery to the empire’s heart, and discover the rot they thought they’d addressed ran far deeper than they possibly imagined
Interestingly, the nominal antagonist, power mad priest (sorry, “patria”) Bartholomew Claver is simultaneously present and absent from the story. His malign influence touches everything, but the real force of antagonism that Justice Konrad Vonvalt, narrator Helena Sedanka, and their small-but-expanded retinue confront is–to put it blithely–bureaucratic bloat. They arrive in the imperial capital and find an administrative state that is corrupt, inept, and immobilized by inertia. They see an imperial governance riven by factionalism that runs on familiar lines (secular vs religious) and new ones (political factions in a senate). They are tasked with righting the ship, but the ship itself seems reluctant to be righted. And as they struggle, each of them continues their transformation from idealized to pragmatic, possibly all the way to corrupt. To what lengths could one go to save an empire for itself?
Similarly to the first book, this volume draws fascinating historical analogies and raises complicated questions it leaves to the reader to answer. It is not hard to see the Roman Senate in the years before Julius Caesar crosses the Tiber in the Sovan Imperial Capital. It is not hard to see the corruption inherent in the Crusader States established in 11th and 12th centuries in the Sovan Templar’s wars on the frontiers. It is not hard to see the twisted incentives of our own modern politicians… shall we say… dubious relationship with the truth in the Sovan senate. What is more complicated is trying to discern what choices the characters make that were wrong?
Where, when you begin to walk a path of expedience or necessity do you cross over into being an agent of the corruption you ostensibly set out to combat?
Putting aside the cerebral aspects of the book, it kicks ass and is fun to read. The dark eldritch magic and cosmology is expanded and explored (and is freaking gruesome in the coolest ways, also to avoid spoilers I won’t describe the cerebral-philosophical implications of these explorations save to say they raise very interesting questions about mortality the nature of reality). Battles are fought, blood is spilled, lives are lost, people grieve and suffer and endure the consequences of doing these things.
Also there’s a dog. I’m reliably informed that people like dogs.
Buy it from your local independent bookstore, Seattle if you must, or Bookshop.org.
Review – The Justice of Kings (Empire of the Wolf #1), by Richard Swan
Richard Swan‘s THE JUSTICE OF KINGS turned out to be one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time. It scratched an itch I’d been missing in the speculative fiction I’ve read recently that I wasn’t quite sure I’d realized was missing, and (at the risk of disparaging other books by talking about why this is so good) that thing is (in part) that he wrote an epic book, threw me into the world, and trusted I’d have the interest and ability to swim.
Maybe it’s a holdover from a childhood in the local Harry W. Schwartz’s bookstore, grabbing random titles off the shelf and losing myself in wondering what the places on the maps at the front of the books could be, maybe it’s all downstream of the map at the front of the The Hobbit that I could flip back to to follow the journey, but there is something intoxicating about a book that gives us a window into a world far larger than the boundaries set by its covers. THE JUSTICE OF KINGS does just that. There’s a steep learning curve, plenty of proper names and places and long-standing conflicts that are second nature to the characters but foreign to me appear in the first chapter. I can imagine writing this book and being concerned that an agent or editor (or reader) might bounce off of that learning curve.
But, I submit to you that it’s worth the climb.
Beyond generally being “fun, tense, eldritch dark epic fantasy with an almost Holmes/Watson mystery setup” the specifics of the world are worth noting because they inform what I think are the most impactful themes that lend this book a weight and cultural resonance. Our narrator is the law clerk to Justice Vonvalt who is a kind of wandering sheriff/judge empowered with the authority of enforcing the civil law of an expansionist empire. Co-incident with this civil law is a strain of inescapable religiosity. The imperial religion is transparently constructed (we learn in the first handful of pages that it absorbed a traditional cultic practice, lightly reskinned it, and folded it directly into its religious canon) as well as simultaneously loosely held by many while also zealously adhered to by few.
That set up… erm… reminds me of a place (note, I believe Swan is British and living in Australia, and I’m unfamiliar with those two places so I’m not sure if whether what I’m seeing is merely my personal American projection onto a mere coincidence, if this comparison applies to either the UK or Australia in a similar way as it does to the US, or if it was an intentional secondary world conflict built without any reference to the real world, but it worked for me).
This conflict between secular (or loosely believed and shallowly performed religiosity) and zealous faith exposes the fault lines in the imperial system, and asks a handful of questions:
What happens when laws or conventions are simply… ignored? Pompey Magnus suggested an answer a long time ago and given events of the last decade or so it seems a particularly relevant question.
How resilient must a system be to prevent a hyper-motivated few from exploiting the system itself when they have the objective of shattering it? Again, relevant.
When a political system based upon secular law that is applicable to everyone (a very capital L liberal ideal) is pitted against religious/theocratic political system in a secular-is-progressive-second-is-regressive conflict, what does it take to prevent the moral arc of the universe from bending *away* from justice? Again (and horrifyingly) relevant!
And lastly, in a reference to Nietzsche that overly motivated early phil majors are wont to use, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Or, tailored to this book, what does it take for a man who fights to uphold justice to succumb to unjust tactics? Is it worth doing so? When, and at what cost?
Anyway, this is all to say that I think great fiction has something to say and even more asks questions of the reader *over and above* kicking ass and being entertaining. THE JUSTICE OF KINGS is both, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Besides, it also uses the word “consequentialist” in its technical ethical meaning, which is very niche content that appeals to a vein of nerdy that I just don’t see enough.
Buy it from your local independent bookstore, Seattle if you must, or Bookshop.org
Review – Wake of War, by Zac Topping
WAKE OF WAR is a near future novel about a civil war raging in the American West, Utah to be specific. It’s not so much about why the country fractured, or even really the effort to knit the fracture back together (or drive it further apart, depending on point of view) and more about how the people who fight the war enter a crucible of irrevocable personal change. This isn’t about Churchill inspiring a nation under siege, or even about the clash of Patton and Rommel, field commanders wiling to breathe diesel fumes and get dirty in a war with the hands on movement of units across a theater. No, WAKE OF WAR is about ordinary soldiers, rifle in hand, and how the war puts them into a crucible and leaves them behind, irrevocably altered by the experience.
We follow a young American soldier, James Trent, who enlisted in the Army seeking the advantages afforded to veterans when he completes his service period and returns to civilian life. Trent was no true believer, but rather simply someone who saw the Army as a means to further his life’s ambitions. Yet, he finds himself thrust into the front lines of an anti-insurgency in all the grim and brutal details that entails. We’re given a window into his journey as he gradually loses the touchpoints of the society he left behind and is ostensibly fighting to protect, until by the close of the book the young man is something cynical, damaged, someone who comes to see his old life as something distant and foreign. The life he envisioned for him before his combat experience comes to be something foreign, his hopes and aspirations twisted and changed so that to whatever extent he emerges “victorious,” doing so comes at a personal cost that is visceral to experience as a reader. In a way, he’s a symbol of how the trauma of war changes those who fight it.
Trent’s experiences are juxtaposed against a rebel sniper, Sam Cross, who is a young woman who fights with the insurgency and does so for her own reasons. She enters the story as an avenging angel, a sniper who will earn the moniker “Reaper.” Where Trent fought because the needs of the Army dictated he fight, Cross fought because she believed in the cause. Yet, much as the war changed Trent, the fighting does the same to Cross. Regardless of why you enter the crucible, the heat of combat changes you just the same.
Lastly, the book provides us with the perspective of a grizzled mercenary, Markus. Unlike Trent or Cross, Markus has chosen war as his trade. He and his company have been in one war or another for ages. But even for someone like Markus, war has a way of reaching out and making itself felt.
Nobody, it seems, is immune from being affected by the wake that war leaves in its passing.
Ultimately WAKE OF WAR is a pulse-pounding novel. It’s short, punchy, and relentless. There’s more than just gunfire and military trappings. It’s captures the souls of its characters and gives you a front row seat to how those souls bear the trauma of combat. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Buy it from the Seattle store,
or your local bookstore.