Cirsova: Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 5, ed. P. Alexander

Front cover of Cirsova: Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 5, ed. P. AlexanderAlexander gathers a series of tales that suggest what might happen if people of violence and cunning rather than book-learning faced Lovecraftian threats.

This edition contains eight short stories, one novelette, and one poem, The majority of the prose works are set in the Eldritch Earth, an alternate prehistoric era that blends classic swords-and-sorcery with dinosaurs and Lovecraftian weirdness.

  • ‘War of the Ruby’ by Brian K. Lowe. With night closing in and fog-choking the streets, Lannic wants an evening drinking by the fire. His new companion Senela would prefer they retire to bed. However, dark forces searching for an artefact that she stole deny them both their wish. This story has a strong pulp fantasy feel: a less-than-honourable swordsman, a female thief of equal morals and agency, magical artefacts, sorcerous priests; each presented in prose that focuses on action rather than introspection.

  • ‘Darla of Deodanth’ by Louise Sorensen. When a rich woman hires Darla to find her missing dog, it seems like easy money—until the trail leads to the home of an Elder Thing, one of the pre-human builders of the city. Sorensen’s Elder Thing is a skilled blend of original source material and new setting: readers familiar with At the Mountains of Madness are likely to have no doubts this is the same species, but the nuances of behaviour are entirely plausible for a city where humans and Elder Things coexist as—if not equals—not slave/tool and master/user.

  • ‘In the Gloaming O My Darling’ by Misha Burnett. As the Yrrowaine age, they withdraw to the depths of the sea; however, their queens need to mate with human men, a mating that is rumoured to seem like sex with the most beautiful woman imaginable. For Tak and Michorn, chained on the shore, the truth is deeply relevant, but how can they plan a response when there have been no known survivors? Burnett reimagines how the breeding of Deep Ones and humans, subtle and cultish in ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, might happen in a world of slavers and commonly accepted weirdness. Drawing upon the commonalities between all humans, however different a world they inhabit, he skilfully balances the proactivity of classic pulp heroes with the dread of the incomprehensible of Lovecraft.

  • ‘The Queen of Shadows’ by Jay Barnson. Jorgan left Deodanth, and the feuds between noble families, years ago. However, a letter from his sister claiming she dreads for her life draws him back into the city and into the dark spaces beneath the city that were home to its pre-human builders. Mixing the assassin-filled politics and insane experimentation of pulp fantasy with the hyper-science of Lovecraftian history, Barnson besets a classic hero with betrayals and threats that offer less certainty of human victory than usual.

  • ‘Beyond the Great Divide’ by SH Mansouri. The insectile Slagborn are the rightful inhabitants of the equatorial wilds. Certain of his place SB-13 leads a slave raid against a human tribe who dare to encroach; however, the visceral chaos of war is very different from the purity of the hive. Mansouri skilfully walks the line between protagonists who are merely humans in ‘rubber masks’ and those whose psychology is inaccessible to readers—or at least offers no opportunity for sympathy—providing a glimpse of an alien culture while also showing the struggle of all sentient beings to balance group and self that unites even the most ostensibly different social structures.

  • ‘The First American’ by Schuyler Hernstrom. When the reptilian Dryth raid his tribe and carry off his love, Tyur swears vengeance. But, with the raiding party having withdrawn into the searing deserts, he will not survive the chase—unless he breaks the law of the tribe and petitions the sorcerer who lives in the peak of the mountains. Hernstrom’s novelette blends the trope of a barbarian warrior’s epic quest for vengeance with hyper-science that sits in the liminal zone between magic and futurism. Thus, while this is a solid action piece with strong characters, some readers might find the juxtaposition of hunter-gatherer tribes with modern science a touch jarring.

  • ‘Through the Star-Thorn Maze’ by Lynn Rushlau. A mere archivist in a rigidly hierarchical society, Corree’s only way to escape the lecherous Sir Trahan is to flee the Citadel; but that would require navigating the deadly maze that surrounds it. Her only hope is to free Lark Waymaker, a slave who was once an honoured visitor from beyond the maze. Focusing on character and fear of the unknown, rather than overt magics and strangeness, Rushlau reframes the heist or jailbreak narrative for a fantasy world.

  • ‘The Bears of 1812’ by Michael Tierney. When hunters killed a grizzly and gave her cubs to the President of the United States as a gift, natives warned they would bring a curse down on themselves. As British troops advance on the White House, one US army officer is tasked with bringing a native guide back to appease the spirits. Deviating from the official story of her death, Tierney speculates that Sacagawea (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) was summoned to Washington by the First Lady in case the curse on taking grizzly bear cubs was true. With few documents providing insight into the real Sacagawea, and native oral tradition contradicting some of them, it is hard to tell whether readers with a specific interest in her life will find her portrayal convincing or not; however, the characterisation is plausible and the spiritual aspects subtle rather than overt, so those interested in alternate histories and colonial war stories are likely to enjoy it whatever their stance on magic being real.

  • ‘A Killing in Karkesh’ by Adrian Cole. Having purged a lost city of the Cult of the Goat, Arrul Voruum pursues his quarry to Karkesh. However, the authorities are not welcoming of witchhunters and the survivors of the cult have dispatched foul assassins to end his threat. While this is a sequel to another story that featured in a previous edition, Cole focuses on character and immediate issues rather than grand arcs, and integrates backstory smoothly where necessary; thus the story functions equally well as a solo tale in a slightly more fantastical vein than Solomon Kane.

  • ‘My Name is John Carter (Part 4)’ by James Hutchings. Captured by the monstrous Tharks, Dejah Thoris attempts to win them to her side. When they respond with further cruelty, John Carter strikes back hard. This is the fourth part of Hutchings’ retelling of Edgar Rice Boroughs’ Barsoom series as an epic poem. The start and end points are well chosen to allow this to stand as a complete arc for those readers unfamiliar with the previous parts; however, as with the lays and sagas of Tolkien and other such authors, readers are likely to either see it as a skilled use of poesy to enhance narrative or an example of an interesting story buried by form depending on their stance on poetry in general.

  • ‘Shapes in the Fog’ by Brian K. Lowe. As Lannic and Senela race through the fog-covered streets, the barmaid who served them is caught up in the chaos. In this companion tale to ‘War of the Ruby’, Lowe provides insight into some of the mysterious events of that story.

While each of those authors who have used the Eldritch Earth setting have placed their own slant on it, there are commonalities that are likely to divide reader opinion of the topic as a whole. Alexander describes the setting as a mix of Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs; and it is certainly both more weird than either Tarzan or Mars and more muscular than classic Mythos. However, the result is not an even division between the two points: the protagonists are thieves, warriors, and priests, each persons of action rather than Lovecraft’s academics, creating a contrast with his tales; but classic pulp in the vein of Conan already includes the trope of magic that is foul and illogical, weakening the impact of cosmicism. Thus, although the stories are likely to provide pleasingly fresh stories of people facing adversity and accepting their agency for fans of pulp action, those fans of Lovecraft who consider the insignificance of humans as the core trait of his work might disagree with Alexander’s claim that the stories are a change from authors sticking some mythos trappings on and calling it Lovecraftian.

Overall, I enjoyed this edition of the magazine immensely. I recommend it to readers seeking less cerebral Lovecraftian plot arcs or rollicking fantasy stories.

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