Hello, my darklings!

Take a moment to center yourself and take a deep breath. Can you feel it? 2020 is drawing to a close, and 2021 holds a spark of promise for better things to come.

I think it’d be an understatement to say that it’s been a tough year. I don’t know that words can quite convey the insanity that the last twelve months have brought with them. So much has happened, yet it seems like time virtually froze in place for a while, as if even Old Father Time just decided to nope out of the world for a bit.

To that end, I just wanted to say to everyone who has lost a loved one for whatever reason this year, to those tired of being cooped inside, to those struggling to survive, to those fighting for their right to simply exist, to everyone affected by the craziness that life decided to throw at us this past year:

We don’t know each other, but I love you. And I wish you the very best 2021 ahead. I hope that you find healing, that you thrive and grow, that you find your light in the darkness.

I know it may sound sappy, but I genuinely mean it.

Okay, well. Now, to avoid further embarrassing myself, let’s move on to the review!

Cirsova is back this quarter with its winter issue. It’s the final installment for 2020, and the stories inside are oh so good. So, if war criminals, espionage, and aliens are up your alley, stay tuned. I quite enjoyed this issue, and I think you will, too.

Again, as with some of my other reviews, I originally wrote this review for Tangent Online (you can see the original here).

“Tiger, Tiger” by Teel James Glenn

Undercover in Berlin as Dieter Von Holms, spy Geoffrey Smythe has been assigned to investigate a rather dangerous rumor. According to British Intelligence, a man named Rudolf Ziesse is planning a violent coup. Ziesse, a known occultist, is considered to be the most dangerous man in Germany. Smythe’s first step is to figure out how to get close to the mage, so he decides to pay a visit to Klub Magus, a local hotspot for those associated with the metaphysical arts. After an encounter with Ziesse and his mistress, it quickly becomes apparent why England considers him such a threat. Smythe may well be in over his head this time.

Glenn’s pulp fiction-style story is a fantastic read. It’s fast-paced, imaginative, and a lot of fun. Threads of influence from William Blake’s 1794 poem “The Tyger” are readily evident, but don’t take that to mean that it’s derivative—it most certainly is not. I also like the feel of 1930s Berlin. Having never been there myself, I’m not sure whether Berlin is home to the weirdness Glenn has imagined it is, but it certainly makes for a scintillating setting, even capturing some of the psychological trauma that Germany as a whole suffered after losing the Great War, which played a large part in the events leading to World War II. I highly recommend this one!

“Making Good” by Jeff Stoner

Two federal agents, Anderson and Miller, are waiting for Dr. Paasche to answer his door. There’s a problem at the research facility, and they need his help. Once in the car, the doctor’s strange behavior unsettles Miller, a rookie, but his partner convinces him to remain calm. The job’s not done, and the night’s about to get much, much worse.

I quite enjoyed this story. I love Area-51-type alien tales, and this one doesn’t disappoint. In fact, I wouldn’t mind reading more from Stoner about this particular federal installation employing Dr. Paasche and the things its hiding. The only complaint I really have is that I wish I knew a little more about Dr. Paasche’s companion, how he came to be attached to her, and what she has to do with the creatures loose in the base. Other than that, this is a fun, if somewhat tragic, read.

“Pulsa” by Edward M. Erdelac

Former SS officer, Otto Heuber, has spent the last several years in Argentina, where he retreated after Germany’s defeat in World War II. His beloved wife, Iara, herself one the indigenous people of the area, passed away not long ago, but he still has their young son, Christian, and the two of them have managed to get on alright without her, although it’s admittedly been hard. A few days ago, though, weird things began happening. All the local water sources turned to blood, and now frogmen have turned up at the door forcing him and his son to flee. Otto can’t help but think of his time in the SS and the many people he murdered on behalf of the führer. Maybe his father-in-law is right—maybe he’s been cursed.

Erdelac’s tale is an enjoyable, if undeniably horrific, romp through the ten plagues of Egypt mixed with just a dash of Lovecraft—a delightful hybrid for those who love weird horror. Otto himself is a strange character; not so much because he’s weird himself in any way but because he’s difficult to classify. At first, you want to sympathize with him but, as more and more is revealed about his history and the façade of decency begins to crumble, his tribulations become increasingly satisfying to read despite the hints here and there that serve to bolster the hope that he may be a changed man. Of course, that optimism is dashed to pieces in the end but, oh, what an ending it is!

“White Casket” by Ville Meriläinen

Vilja has been cursed by a forest god called the Nattfader to raise orphaned children to sate his hunger lest she forfeit her own life. Tonight, she leads the latest victim, Emil, into the snow-packed woods after dark. Once the deed is done, the grief-stricken Vilja finds one of the Nattfader’s servants, a Sister of Silence, seated on her porch preparing a candle from what little tallow was left on the boy’s remains, to be used when the next sacrifice was ready. The Sister tells her that the Nattfader was most pleased with this latest meal, and a new child has been brought for her to raise. The following morning, Vilja returns to the ritual site with a white casket to bury Emil’s remains and lay his ghost to rest. Upon returning home, however, she finds that Oscar, a child of six who’d been with her since he was an infant, has just lost two teeth, a sign that the Nattfader expects another meal that night. Having just buried Emil, a boy that she’d grown to love as a son for the last four years, can she endure yet another loss?

There’s not much I can say about Meriläinen’s story except that I loved it. It’s dark and heartwrenching. The ending is not one I saw coming, although looking back I can see where it is hinted at. It completely pulls the carpet from under your feet, because you spend most of the story pretty sure you know where every character stands only to find out that’s not true at all. Like the previous tale, this is about a villain appearing as if they’ve found redemption, only to find they’ve no one to blame but themselves for what is happening to them. Seriously, read this story.

“The Murmurous Dead” by Eric Del Carlo

Young assassin Corth has only recently completed his first mission for his guild and has now been given his second. Not long ago, his eagerly-awaited visit with the Wise Man, himself once a renowned killer whose name, Shink, still commands awe and respect from assassins everywhere, had been a dud—he’d received only a rather anticlimactic direction to mourn for his victims so that he may replace some of what he takes from the world to maintain its balance. This advice sounds more like a waste of time to the young assassin. Corth doesn’t feel remorse, only pride in his accomplishment, and can’t imagine a scenario in which he might. Now, with the admiration for his former idol evaporated, he deftly put into action the first step of his plan without a thought to the old killer’s words. After all, Corth had endured much more hardship in his life than any targeted by those contracting the guild’s services. What about them could possibly make him feel remorseful?

This is a rather short tale but well worth the read. Given the title, I had expected a very different story than the one presented, but even so it does not disappoint. For such a short piece, the author nails Corth’s character arc, and he walks away from his mission with a very evident change in outlook. And, really, that’s sort of the point of this story—it’s not so much about the events as it is the changes we see in Corth as a person. A very well-done tale, indeed.

“Hunt of the Mine Worm” by Jim Breyfogle

Kat and Mangos are back, and this time they’re hunting a giant acid-breathing worm that’s been terrorizing a bunch of miners. The catch, however, is that they’re not the only ones to answer the foreman’s announcement. Two other mercenary bands have arrived to claim the contract, and the silvecite payment will only go to the successful party. Can Kat and Mangos bring down the worm before the others?

Ah, Jim Breyfogle. I do so enjoy his stories featuring Kat and Mangos. They always feel like just another day in the life of an adventurer trying to make a living, which is a nice change from the more epic-focused, morality-driven, or serious narratives that one often comes across in the fantasy genre. This one is no exception. As usual for this author, this tale is a lot of fun. Fans of RPGs or fantasy in general will love this story.

“The Cunning of Artocris” by Jeffrey Scott Sims

Artocris is the finest sorcerer in service to the Pharaoh, second in skill only to his mentor, the deceased Imhotep. Knowing that he, despite surpassing all others, still falls short of the prominence and esteem his master once commanded, Artocris has determined that the key to Imhotep’s success must lie inside the small ebony box he had insisted be interred with him. After bribing the tomb’s guards and hiring a band of grave robbers to gain entry to the crypt, Artocris stands over the crumbling corpse of his old master, the tiny receptacle clasped in its boney fingers. What wonderous power awaits within? And at what cost may it be wielded?

Another relatively short story, I quite like the highly stylized manner in which this story is written. It gives the narrative an old world feel that’s rather lyrical. The characterization is also well-done. Artocris himself isn’t someone for whom readers are necessarily going to root. He’s actually quite distasteful and doesn’t try to pretend to be anything else, but he’s very realistic in his villainy. In fact, I quite appreciate that we’re not reading this story from the perspective of a hero, but rather a villain. It’s a side readers don’t get to experience too often, which is a shame because I’ve found that villains often tend to be far more fascinating characters than many heroes. Again, I certainly recommend giving this one a read.

“The Cat, the Hand, and the Plight of the Sacred Bull” by Christine Lucas

The High Priest of Anubis, Ankhu, is in no mood to suffer fools lightly today. He’s got a terrible case of constipation, and his cat, Nedjem, keeps dragging human body parts into his garden from gods-know-where. The last thing he needed was to arrive home to find that his intestinal distress had spread through the court widely enough that the Pharaoh has sent his personal bottom-wiper, the Shepherd of the Royal Anus, to help. To make things worse, there’s also a wine-addled courtier begging him to assist with some ridiculous request regarding the new Apis Bull, a task better suited to a healer than an embalmer and priest of Anubis. After sending both visitors away, Ankhu retires to his chambers for the evening, where he’s visited by the Divine Bovine, a clear message from the gods that he has no choice but to assist the Apis Bull. And where does Nedjem keep getting these severed human hands?

Another tale set in Ancient Egypt, Lucas’s tale provides a nice juxtaposition to the one by Sims. The writing style is straight forward and far more lighthearted. The humor in this story is on-point. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read, one that made me giggle nearly every other sentence. The curmudgeonly Ankhu is a likable character, and I think cat lovers everywhere will relate to his exasperation with his cat, Nedjem. If only for the laughs, you need to read this one.

“A Touch of the Lokiean” by Rev. Joe Kelly

The Lokeian dwarv Arnbjörg is on trial for killing his rival, Leifr, in a dishonorable fashion out of revenge. According to the condemned, Leifr had raped his sister, who then killed herself out of shame. As far as the clan is concerned, even if Liefr was guilty (and they don’t believe he was), the greater crime was not allowing Leifr the chance to die with honor. Chieftain Hrafn wants the prisoner executed immediately, calling Arnbjörg a liar and sentencing him to die by drowning. Arnbjörg requests an appeal, asking for the chance to summon and face Leifr’s shade knowing that, if he’s telling the truth, Leifr will return as a draugr, thus vindicating Arnbjörg of any wrongdoing. Oddr, holy warrior of the god Wotan and counselor to the Chieftain, knows that Arnbjörg isn’t lying but stands idly by as Hrafn denies the request and condemns the man to death. Having to deal with the draugr that will likely arise, after all, is far too terrifying a prospect. Later that evening, a conversation with the elf Isabella has him rethinking the matter. Arnbjörg may have committed a dishonorable act in killing Leifr, but he had good reason. Can Oddr really stand aside and let a man die for avenging his sister, even if it means dealing with a draugr?

I like the twist on Norse mythology Kelly devises in this story. It’s familiar enough to make the reader feel comfortably oriented in the tale while at the same time being unique enough to maintain interest without being derivative. For the most part, it’s a genuinely good story, but there are things here and there that strike me the wrong way. For example, how can Isabella’s eyes be described as onyx-black in one paragraph and as opal in another? I know it’s a little thing, but that kind of inconsistency pulls me out of a story immediately.

The draugr is also an issue. I love the folklore surrounding draugr (and Scandinavian folklore in general), so I was really into this story until I read the description of Leifr when he is summoned. It’s too out of place, as if too many creative liberties were taken with the source material, and it doesn’t match what Oddr tells Isabella earlier. Seriously, why does Leifr return as half walrus? I’m sure that, in this world, other draugr have been created on land. Are they, too, half walrus? It just seems goofy. The above aside, this story is still worth a read.

“Out Here” by S.H. Mansouri

Zephi, a Togaz girl, has been captured and enslaved by the Throk, a war-like people from a frozen land. Frequently beaten and starved to near death, she’s forced to hunt and fish for her captors, then watch them eat while she gets nothing for all of her efforts. She dreams of her family and the soft warm sands of home, only to be kicked awake and forced once again to find food for the Throk—that is, until she finds friendship in an unexpected place.

I really didn’t care for this story. For one thing, the insults hurled at Zephi are repetitive. It’s quite literally the same two-word phrase every time. I realize that’s an odd complaint, but it’s a symptom of a much greater problem with the dialogue, in general. It all comes across as unbelievable and forced. As for the Throk, I know we’re supposed to dislike them, but they’re nothing more than two-dimensional caricatures of clichéd villainous tropes, with little to no real development. They don’t seem like real people, and their words and actions make little sense for the role they’re supposed to play. Zephi herself isn’t much better in terms of characterization. While I felt for her plight in the most general sense, I never really connected because the rest of the characters and their actions seemed so fake and unrealistic, and I spent most of the story scratching my head and wondering what I’m supposed to take away from this.