Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Slave Island

Author Simon Finch was born in Rio de Janeiro, where his father served in the Diplomatic Corps. Finch was educated abroad before attending university in England for studies in Classical History. His first three novels consist of the Vesuvio Trilogy, including Golden Voyager (1978), Pagan Voyager (1979), and Voyager in Bondage (1981). Avoiding any heavy lifting, I opted to try Finch's stand-alone novel Slave Island, which was originally published by Souvenir Press in 1983 as a hardcover, then later in 1984 in paperback by Pan with an amazing cover by Gino D'Achille.

The 300-page paperback begins in Boston with Billy Peake, a young English colonial, awaiting a shipment of Mexican silver to arrive on a convoy ship. However, the ship's captain and a local businessman named Easton conspired to swindle Peake out of the cargo. After convincing Billy to rut out all of his frustrations at the local whorehouse, the two get Billy drunk and throw him on a ship destined for Africa's slave coast. Two days later Billy awakens to find himself in bondage. 

Arriving in Africa, Billy is placed into caged slavery and forced to mate with a young white woman named Jenny. At first Billy refuses, but as time marches on the two do the wild monkey dance and get it on. Then, the two are forced to walk with a parade of slaves across the continent to an island north of Madagascar named Slave Island. It's a prison dedicated “for the worst Arabian, Turk, and European scum, a Tower of Babel in the ocean for more sinner than saints.”

I know what you're thinking – this sounds awesome! A wild adventure ripe with jungle savagery, the inevitable fight to the death on an island prison, nautical battles, and a revenge plot as Billy fights his way to freedom in the Hellish heat of Slave Island. Well, scratch all the excitement off that excursion list. This literary cruise is headed to a penis extravaganza led by a phallus-obsessed captain named Simon Finch.

I mentioned the page count earlier. Out of those 300 pages, approximately 200 is dedicated to just straight, plain 'ole porno. I'm fairly certain Finch is making up for something because nearly every word is “phallus”, “penis”, “meat”, “sheathed manhood”, “prick”, “throbbing member”, “shaft” or just “dick”. I thought author Dan Streib was fascinated with genitalia, but he's no stiff competition for Finch. This dude is dialed into dick in a big boner way. 

Look, Savage Island is mostly what I would consider a plantation novel or a slave gothic. Lots of African American men being sold into slavery and forced into wild sexual encounters with lonely white women. If that's your thing, you may dig this. There's also plenty of cathouse antics, tons of rape, and some wild (I mean wild!) stuff with dicks being sliced off and stuffed with sand and then being placed on sticks to...well you get it. Maybe 100 hundred pages is the rough and tumble adventure stuff, which is where I like it, and I mostly just skipped all the graphic sex. If you like the plantation stuff, Slave Island is probably a must. There's nothing particularly discouraging about Finch's writing other than his unhealthy fixation on dick. I'm not reading a word of the author's other stuff and will count Slave Island as a one-time sentence. I'm sure I'll never be a repeat offender.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, November 27, 2023

G.I. Joe - Tales from the Cobra Wars

Hasbro began production of the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toys in 1982 and licensed the line to Marvel Comics for an ongoing series. In 1983, the popular animated series began it's four-year television run, producing 95 total episodes. The franchise has spun into animated and live-action films, additional comic series titles, and an assortment of collectible toys that have lasted over 40 years. 

As a casual fan of the franchise (I grew up watching the animated series), I was surprised to find an anthology of short-stories set in the G.I. Joe universe. The book is called Tales from the Cobra Wars and it was published in 2011 by IDW and edited by World War Z novelist Max Brooks. The collection includes seven total stories authored by the likes of Jonathan Maberry, Chuck Dixon, John Skipp, Cody Goodfellow, and even Brooks himself. The book also features an introduction by Brooks and artwork by Michael Montenat.

I have always enjoyed the G.I. Joe ninja character Snake Eyes, including the 2021 Paramount Pictures film Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. I also really like Chuck Dixon's writing style, especially his amazing run on the Marvel Comics title The Punisher. So, the story I decided to review from this collection is simply called “Snake Eyes”, penned by Dixon. 

When the story begins, a mathematician named Hanover is lecturing at a conference in Geneva about an algorithm he has perfected over the course of ten years that can predict growth in the economy of a developing nation. After the performance, Hanover is interviewed briefly by a woman calling herself Anastasia deCobray, but fans of the franchise will quickly realize from Dixon's description that this woman is the heinous Baroness, a lieutenant to Cobra Commander. Hanover is then knocked unconscious and taken into a Cobra hideout in the French mountains. 

When Hanover awakens, he learns that he has been taken captive by Cobra in an effort to reverse his complex algorithm, ultimately creating a new formula that would quickly, and efficiently, decrease the growth of a developing nation. Cobra hopes to use Hanover's intelligence to cripple a nation. In an effort to force Hanover into working with Cobra they show the mathematician a camera feed from inside his daughter's apartment in Paris. Comply and she lives. Fail and she dies. 

This was a fun 28 page story that thrusts readers into a search and rescue mission as the good guys' ninja works remotely in Moscow to gain intel on Hanover's whereabouts. By communicating with Scarlet and Mainframe, two of his Joe teammates, Snake Eyes is deployed to this monastery in the high peaks for a rescue mission. There's plenty of gunfire, and a few sword swipes, to satisfy G.I. Joe fans. Additionally, unlike the tame television show, Snake Eyes kills his enemies, which added some much-needed realism to the heroics.

“Snake Eyes” was a fun short with plenty of action-packed excitement. But, it did force me to wonder why we aren't getting any full-length G.I. Joe novels. A twenty-pager is fine, but it would seem there are a ton of stories to write about a variety of universe characters outside of the graphic novel and comic medium. Based on the box-office failure of the most recent G.I. Joe film, I assume Hasbro is content selling toys and comic licensing. 

Purchase a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Solomon Kane - The Skull in the Stars

One of Robert E. Howard's most iconic characters, along with Bran Mak Morn, Conan, and Kull, is Solomon Kane. The character's first published appearance was in a short story called “Red Shadows”, which was published in the August, 1928 issue of Weird Tales. Mixing sword-and-sorcery and horror, Howard's Solomon Kane stories feature a late 16th century Puritan who adventures around the world fighting evil. 

My introduction to the character is the January, 1929 issue of Weird Tales which features a Solomon Kane short called “Skulls in the Stars”. In the story, Kane is departing a small town in England and is faced with two separate roads to reach his next destination, a village called Torkertown. In the opening paragraph, Howard offers one road as a shorter, more direct route for Kane across a barren upland moor and the second option as a longer tortuous route through a dreadful swamp. Debating the decision, a boy passing by warns – downright prohibits – Kane from taking the moor road. He urges that Kane avoid the moor road because it is haunted by some sort of foul horror that claims men for his victims. Naturally, the adventuring Kane decides to travel the moor road.

Providing any additional insight into this story may spoil your enjoyment, so I'll stray from further plot points. But, Howard's story is just an exceptional blend of supernatural horror and the traditional monomyth of a hero's journey through danger. The author's descriptions of horrifying things lying in wait along the isolated, non-traveled road is superb. I love this:

“Then the thing began to take on shape, vague and indistinct. Two hideous eyes flamed at him – eyes which held all the stark horror which has been the heritage of man since the fearful dawn ages – eyes frightful and insane, with an insanity transcending earthly insanity. The form of the thing was misty and vague, a brain-shattering travesty on the human form, like, yet horribly unlike.”

What I really like about the Kane character, which I'm introduced to in this macabre tale, is his use of two long pistols as well as a rapier sword. There is a unique dynamic approach to the hero's skill-set, which will introduce yet another weapon to his repertoire – a magical staff – in future stories. He's a Puritan, with an eye for injustice and evil and a heart dedicated to the power of all things good. 

With just one story as my trial size, I can see why this character receives so much admiration and loyalty. “Skulls in the Stars” is one of the finest stories I've read this year. Highly recommended!

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Winter Chill

Joanne Fluke, John Fischer, Gina Jackson, Kathryn Kirkwood, and R.J. Fisher are all pseudonyms of Minnesota author Joanne Fischmann Gibson (b. 1943). In the 1980s, she used the name Jo Gibson to write young adult horror books like Dance of Death, My Bloody Valentine, and Slay Bells. My first experience with the author is her novel Winter Chill, originally published by Dell in 1984. The book was reprinted by Kensington in 2013 as a mass-market paperback and now exists in both physical, audio, and digital editions.

The book begins with Dan Larsen playing in the snow with his daughter Laura. The two are buzzing through the Minnesota powder on a snowmobile when Dan runs into a snow-covered plow. The accident leads to Laura's death and Dan's permanent paralysis. This opening chapter also introduces readers to Dan's wife Marian, who becomes the main character.

To help his wife's mourning, Dan comes up with the idea of writing little notes to Marian pretending to be Laura's ghost. Things like, “I'm in a happy place now Mommy”. It is just as weird as it sounds, and I had to suspend my disbelief that Marian, a teacher that had her own daughter as a student, couldn't recognize that this was Dan's handwriting. But, in bypassing the nitpicky stuff, I carried on.

Throughout the narrative, the kids in the tiny Minnesota town are being murdered by a shadowy killer. Two kids die in a garage when the killer turns the car on and closes the door. Little Becky is sawed to death in an icehouse. There's a throat-slashing on a snowy hill. You get the idea. It isn't nearly as compelling as an 80s slasher flick (or knock-off) because the dread and terror is simply stripped from the soggy narrative. The book's main focus is Marian's grieving, which sort of makes sense when the killer is unveiled, but the plot is buried in Dan adjusting to paralysis and Marian reading made-up messages from her dead daughter. I found Sheriff Bates the most interesting character, but he's third-string.

Despite a great cover, and back-cover synopsis, Winter Chill is a Winter Bore. Unlike Dan, proceed with caution.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Punk & Other Stories

Cleve Adams (1885-1949) was a hardboiled crime-fiction author for the pulp magazines whose premature death robbed him from seeing his work be rediscovered in the paperback era. Author and literary scholar Ben Boulden has resurrected four of Adams’ best novellas from 1937-1941 into a modern volume called Punk & Other Stories. I’ve heard good things about Adams’ writing, so I was excited to dive into the title story from the March 1938 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly.

“Punk” is narrated by Jerry, whose job is collecting coins from slot machines and pinball games located in disreputable taverns. Jerry has two childhood friends: Big Ed, a local hood who owns the machines Jerry services and Slats, an honest police detective.

About a month ago, Jerry murdered a guy who also used to work for Big Ed. The cops are looking for the dead guy and suspect foul play. There’s a lot going on in this novelette: a love triangle, political corruption, more murders, mutilation, a frame-up and lots of hardboiled, tough-guy patter.

Adams was a solid writer with an ear for dialogue, and his style never slips into parody (like, say, Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner: Hollywood Detective). Like a lot of pulp writing of the 1930s, the novella is over-plotted with way too much happening. To his credit, the author does a nice job keeping all the plates spinning. It’s also plenty violent and action-packed with a tidy ending.

I’m thankful that a forward-leaning editor put this collection together, and I intend to dip back into it in the future. For reference, the other novellas are:

“Default With Doom” (1937)
“Frame for a Lady” (1938)
“Forty Pains” (1941)

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Little Sister

Robert Martin (1908-1976) wrote a fair amount of crime and mystery paperbacks under his own name as well as the pseudonym Lee Roberts. Little Sister was a 1952 stand-alone Fawcett Gold Medal hardboiled private-eye paperback that has been reborn as a Black Gat reprint, including an insightful introduction by Bill Pronzini.

Our narrator is Private Detective Andrew Brice, and he is summoned to a new client meeting at a large estate. His client is a wealthy, attractive woman named Miss Vivian Prosper who has just gone through a financially-advantageous divorce. Vivian shares the lakefront mansion with her little sister, Linda — and since the novel is called Little Sister, you probably saw that coming.

Little Sister Linda is a 17 year-old whiskey-swilling hellion, and she stands to inherit a pile of money from a trust fund soon when she reaches 18. Linda intends to marry a 30 year-old gas station attendant, and Big Sister Vivian wants PI Brice to break up the romance because the loser boyfriend is clearly just trying to get his claws on the trust fund cash.

All of this is conveyed in the Chapter One meeting between Brice and Vivian. The reader sees where this is going, and then Little Sister Linda arrives home in her convertible, drunk-as-a-skunk with a dead body in the trunk. And THAT’S how you start a private eye paperback.

As a licensed professional, Brice is duty bound to report the corpse in the trunk to the police, but sexy Vivian has other ideas. Could the prospect of getting laid with the seductive divorcee possibly convince our PI to dispose of the body with no police involvement? That’s the kind of thing that could turn a hardboiled private eye mystery into a femme fatale crime noir paperback.

You’ll need to read the book to find out how Brice handles this and other dilemmas he confronts throughout this lean paperback. The plot eventually settles into a pretty standard PI mystery with Brice interviewing one witness after another until the situation becomes both more clear and more messy as red herrings arise. It’s all well-written with a sexy undercurrent thanks to the seductive sisters at the eye of the storm and the fact that every female interviewee throws themselves at Brice.

The climactic conclusion is a scene where the villain, now revealed, explains the motivation and execution of the murder in painstaking detail while holding a gun on Brice. It’s an overused trope in mystery fiction, but well-executed in this case.

And that’s the thing with Little Sister. This paperback breaks zero new ground for a private eye mystery of the 1950s. However, if you’re in the mood for a completely traditional and readable genre paperback, you could do a lot worse. It’s about as good as a better-than-average Mike Shayne novel. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Conan - The Thing in the Cave

We've proven time and again that nothing is really off the coffee table here at Paperback Warrior in terms of books. We've covered graphic novels, magazines, paperbacks, hardcovers, and even audiobooks. So, why not a Little Golden Book review?

Chances are you've probably held a Little Golden Book at some point in your life. There are thousands of them. The first one was published in 1942 as a project of Georges Duplaix, then head of Artists and Writers Guild Inc. as a follow-up to the publishing concept of A Children's History. At the end of the first year, Simon & Schuster had a runaway hit with 1.5 million books sold. In 1958, Simon & Schuster sold Little Golden Books to Western Publishing, which then later sold it to Random House. 

I remember owning a lot of second-hand Little Golden Books, including some that were Golden Melody Books that played songs. But, my fascination was on the Golden Books special line of male-oriented titles published as A Golden Super Adventure. These special books, published in the 1980s, focused on toy-line franchises that often shared an animated children's television show. Brands like Masters of the Universe, Princess of Power, Centurions, Mask, Defenders of the Earth, and Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers

As a fan of Conan, I stumbled upon the lone Golden Book dedicated to the barbarian hero, The Thing in the Cave. It was originally published in 1986 as part of the Golden Super Adventure line. The book's cover was painted by the great Gino D'Achille (Fu Manchu, Barsoom, Flashman) while the interior pages were illustrated by the equally great Dan Adkins (Doctor Strange, Eerie, Creepy). 

Conan fans may remember a short story titled “The Thing in the Crypt”, which was authored by Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp and first published in the 1967 Lancer paperback Conan. This Little Golden Book publication, The Thing in the Cave, is a reworking of that story. It was authored by Jack C. Harris, a prolific comic book author and editor that worked for DC Comics penning titles like Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Robin, and the graphic novel Batman: Castle of the Bat. After leaving DC, Harris freelanced for DC, Marvel, and Darkhorse while also working for a trade magazine for the licensing industry. It was here that Harris received a press release from Golden Books about a series of Masters of the Universe publications being created for the Golden Super Adventure line. Harris connected with a colleague that led him to penning a number of Golden Books including Masters of the Universe, Batman, Dino-Riders, Super Mario Bros., Garfield, and this Conan book.

I would encourage you to read my review for the original “The Thing in the Crypt” (or just read that story). This Golden Book variation stays mostly true to form, but retains some safety measures for the sake of the young reader. In this version, Conan uses the chains to crack the hardened ice, thus allowing the snarling wolves to simply fall away into oblivion. In the original story, these snarling wolves chase Conan to the cave. The cave itself is substituted for the more sinister-sounding “crypt”. Also, the giant sword-wielding monster isn't so much a mummy, but instead is simply an animated statue made from rock. 

At 25-colorful pages, this was a fun little visual jaunt into “The Thing in the Crypt”, a fun, yet criticized story inspired by Robert E. Howard's literary work (mostly because it is the first story in the Conan paperback and is missing REH). My guess is this Conan title was inspired by the many Golden Book publications featuring He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Nonetheless, this is a great collector's item and worth a couple of twenty-dollar bills for the pure nostalgia.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Sins of War

 John Rester Zodrow was a screenwriter of made-for-TV movies in the 1970s and 1980s who also authored four novels, including a WW2 thriller called The Sins of War, originally published in 1986 and currently available as a trade paperback reprint.

In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. was focused upon filling the president’s request for 70,000 warships and 100,000 tanks. U.S. manufacturers worked around the clock to make this happen — particularly in New York City. The Sins of War is based on a true story about 1942 efforts to prevent the German sinking of newly-minted U.S. warships leaving New York harbor.

The allied victory in World War 2 is now the stuff of legends, but the early days of the war were anything but smooth. The U.S. and our friends suffered Naval defeats in Guam, the Philippines, Burma, and throughout the seas. Meanwhile, ships leaving the ports along the U.S. east coast were regularly sunk by German submarines waiting offshore, killing American troops and destroying supplies en route to our soldiers overseas. It was a grim dilemma, and the U.S. Navy was stymied in their efforts to stop it.

Meanwhile, in the book, a German-American secretive organization called The Bund are quietly loyal to Hitler and sabotaging the ships under construction through acts of terrorism and arson. Someone needs to do something, or America will be neutered in our efforts to save the world.

In the novel, President Roosevelt comes up with a plan: Have the New York Mafia patrol the waterfront ports where the warships are constructed looking for any signs of German saboteurs. Rather than having the U.S. Navy negotiate this deal with the mafia, the President tasks Roman Catholic Archbishop Francis Spellman to handle the deal since the mobsters are likely all Catholic. Roosevelt dubs the plan “Operation Underworld.”

Our hero is a welder in New York named Nick Remington working to secure the metal paneling on ships bound for the war in the seas surrounding Africa. Before becoming a welder, Nick was a Catholic priest driven from the clergy in the wake of a financial scandal. Nevertheless, the Archbishop chooses Nick to be the go-between with the mob and the Navy to coordinate the protection of the ports.

Along the way, there are conflicts and cooperation with Lucky Luciano’s New York mafia, a German social club in New York serving as a counterintelligence squad for Hitler, and a sexy military lady who partners with our defrocked priest to get the job done. Trust me, it’s a wild ride.

The author wrote the novel in the style of a propulsive men’s adventure paperback with short chapters — 70 of them over 300 pages — and pulpy dialogue with limited character development. The Germans are cartoonishly-evil and the Mafia characters are all walking stereotypes. To his credit, the author did not make this a faith-based novel as the characters find themselves in graphic sexual and extremely-violent situations. The action scenes are remarkably vivid and exciting.

This paperback is so much fun to read. It’s an audacious bit of historical fiction begging for a Hollywood adaptation. The reader can’t help but want to know more about the reality surrounding the implementation of this audacious plan. It seems that the facts largely came from a 1977 non-fiction book called The Luciano Project: The Secret Wartime Collaboration of the Mafia and the U.S. Navy by Rodney Campbell.

The climactic ending was a fun series of harrowing adventure set pieces similar to something you’d read in a Doc Savage pulp story. Overall, The Sins of War was, without question, one of the finest adventure novels I’ve read this year. Highest recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The Magpie Coffin

The genre “splatter western” came to fruition when Patrick C. Harrison III of Death's Head Press made it a company goal to release a series of western trade paperbacks featuring explicit violence and gore. There have been at least 13 paperbacks published by Death's Head Press as their “splatter western” offerings, but countless others have appeared from various self-published authors and small publishers. I've always enjoyed the western genre, so I borrowed a friend's copy of The Magpie Coffin (2020). It was written by Wile E. Young and represents the very first Death's Head Press splatter western title published. 

The Black Magpie is the book's anti-hero protagonist, a moniker heaped upon a notorious outlaw named Salem Covington. He's an American Civil-War Veteran that prowls the wild frontier (for reasons never really disclosed) killing and torturing bad people (?). He collects pieces of his victims – pieces of flesh, scraps of clothing – and uses them in black magic rituals to gain power. He possesses a gun that apparently (and magically) doesn't miss and it is revealed that Covington can't be killed by bullets. So, who the Hell is he then?

That's the part that Young never really dishes out to his reader, and that's the most frustrating part of the book's narrative. For reasons unclear to me, the author only provides hints of Covington's backstory and life purpose. For example, there is a brand of some sort below Covington's eye that provokes stark fear for anyone that sees it. But, what is it? Young really doesn't elaborate. There's an entire scene in the book where readers finally have the opportunity to learn more about Covington's mission when he meets “the coffin maker”. This man has some sort of history with Covington, but nothing specific is ever mentioned. It's all incredibly frustrating and senseless.

The Magpie Coffin's narrative features Covington on the revenge trail for the group of killers that murdered his mentor, a Comanche shaman named Dead Bear. Covington locates Dead Bear's corpse (far too easily) and puts him in a coffin wrapped in chains. But, Dead Bear is still somehow alive spiritually, which begs the question on why Dead Bear doesn't just perform his own revenge. Nevertheless, Covington rescues a young Union soldier and a prostitute and takes the two with him on a quest to hunt down the killers.

If you enjoy graphic violence often found in the horror and splatterpunk genre, then the sheer levels of brutality should be a pleasure for you. Like I wrote in my review for Suburban Gothic (co-wrote by a splatter western author Bryan Smith), the details of raping a corpse, scissoring off testicles, or sewing lips shut does nothing for me. It's all shock and awe, which isn't a satisfying substitute for a riveting story. There's not enough left in The Magpie Coffin contents to warrant a compelling read. This is standard volume feedback with gore. Nothing more, nothing less. Skip it.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Bounty Man Kildoon

Conventional wisdom is that Jory Sherman (1932-2014) was the man behind the Robert Eagle pen name for the paperback Bounty Man Kildoon. The novel was published in 1975 by Major Books and features an Old West manhunter who delivers the severed heads of his prey to collect rewards.

A skeptic might think the headhunting thing was just a cover artist’s gimmick, but the opening chapters establish that Kildoon is the real deal. By page two of the novel, the reader is treated to a description of the putrid, rotting head hanging from Kildoon’s saddle horn. He rides the trail cognizant of bushwhackers who may seek to swipe the decomposing head in exchange for the bounty.

It takes a couple chapters for a plot to develop, but once it does, it’s a familiar one. A comely young widow inherits a modest ore mine that a rival mine-owner wants to buy for a lowball price. The widow and her Oriental helper are being threatened by thugs to put pressure on her to sell. She hires Kildoon to protect her homestead from her enemy’s henchmen. And that’s the problem. 

The range war between two rival landowners was a serviceable western, but nothing you haven’t read before. It was quite different in tone and execution from the opening chapters about a decapitation freak bounty man. I wanted more of the loony hero galloping around the Wild West with a decomposing heads strapped to his saddle.

In the opening chapters, the author writes fantastic scenes of bone-crunching, stomach-turning graphic violence - likely in an attempt to one-up or surpass the Edge series, which predates Kildoon by four years. He falls more into a ho-hum, traditional western rhythm for the rest of the novel with hardly any violent gore or dismemberment.

If you’re looking for the most violent westerns in print, stick with the Edge or Apache series titles. Bounty Man Kildoon showed great promise, but failed to deliver the bloodshed as advertised.

Acknowledgment & Addendum:

Thanks to James Reasoner for his assistance in unmasking Jory Sherman as the likely author of Bounty Man Kildoon. If you’re looking for a great stand-alone western, check out his new one, Texas Bushwhack, available HERE.

There was a sequel to Bounty Man Kildoon called Bounty Man’s Target: Wanted Dead or Alive by Buck Adams, also published by Major Books. Why they didn’t use the same house name as the author of this two-book series is a mystery lost to the ages. Nevertheless, I’ve ordered the paperback. Whether I read it or not is anybody’s guess.

Buy a copy of this book HERE. 

Friday, November 10, 2023

Joe Gall #11 - The Fer-De-Lance Contract

James Atlee Philips (1915-1991) authored 22 novels in the Joe Gall espionage adventure series between 1963 and 1976 under the name Philip Atlee. Much of the series has been reprinted by Mysterious Press, so you won’t have to do much digging to score a copy. The Fer-De-Lance Contract is the 11th Joe Gall adventure from 1970.

Grouchy CIA assassin Joe Gall is our narrator, and the novel opens with his arrival on the Caribbean island nation of Antigua, which Gall hilariously describes as a “sunbaked poorhouse.” He’s a politically-incorrect curmudgeon and no fan of the Caribbean islands or their native people. He’s also rather hilarious in his narration leaving me surprised at the quality of Philips' prose. He really was a delightful writer.

The mission involves a group of black rebels planning to seize all transportation and communication facilities throughout the Caribbean islands. This includes cruise ships, freighters and private yachts as well as radar and weather stations. The only nations exempt from this plan are, of course, Haiti and Cuba. The Black Militant mastermind behind this planned regional disruption of the public order is employed as the purser on a cruise ship, and Gall needs to be on-board to stop the scheme.

The plot is interesting and easy to follow as the story bounces from the Caribbean island of Antigua to Dominica to St. Lucia. However, halfway through the paperwork, a nemesis from the previous installment, The Trembling Earth Contract (1969) — in which Gall famously goes undercover as a black man by dying his skin — returns to continue the fight. The author does a nice job of getting the reader up-to-speed, but in a perfect world, one would read them in order (I didn’t).

The Joe Gall series has a reputation among Men’s Adventure Paperback connoisseurs as having plotting problems. The stories either make no sense or go off the rails midway through the novel. This one was pretty straightforward. The action scenes were solid. The social commentary involving the black power movement of the era wouldn’t fly in today’s world, but that’s part of the fun of reading paperbacks from 53 years ago. Overall, The Fer-De-Lance Contract was fun adventure novel and an easy recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Raven #01 - Swordmistress of Chaos

As I cited in prior genre reviews here at Paperback Warrior, the 1970s was a fertile time for sword-and-sorcery to dominate pop-culture. The British publisher Corgi took advantage of the marketing explosion to offer a five-book series of genre titles called Raven. These aren't to be confused with the men's action-adventure series of espionage titles also called Raven, authored by Donald MacKenzie. Instead, these were bonafide sword-and-sorcery novels authored by Piccadilly Cowboy writer Angus Wells (Breed, Hawk) and horror and fantasy writer Robert Holdstock (Berserker, Night Hunter) using the pseudonym Richard Kirk. The first novel, Swordmistress of Chaos, was published by Corgi in 1978 with a cover by Chris Achilleos (Conan, Heavy Metal). Beginning in 1987, the series was published in the US by Ace using new covers by Luis Royo (Conan). 

Like the 1960s Conan paperbacks published by Lancer and edited by Lin Carter, the Raven books have a handy map at the front indicating a large body of water with two islands in the center, surrounded by places called The Frozen Peaks, The Lost Mountains, The Ice Wastes, The Lost Lands, etc. This sprawling kingdom is where the Raven novel takes place. In the far south is a tiny shoreline village called Lyland, lying in the Southern Kingdoms. It is here where the Raven origin story begins.

Su'an was a young girl when a large gang of Karhsaam slave-raiders invade her village. Her father is brutally tortured and killed and her mother is raped and murdered. Su'an is hauled off to a slave-pen that will be used for prostitutes in Karhsaam. These slave-raiders are led by a cruel warrior named Karl ir Donwayne. Thankfully, Su'an escapes her bonds one night and escapes the pen. As she's running across the tundra to flee her captors, she runs into a trap led by vicious snarling hounds. Just before she's re-captured, a band of outlaws led by a man called Spellbinder sweeps in to save her with the help of a large raven. Soon, Su'an is renamed Raven and told by the outlaw gang that she has a great destiny awaiting her. 

By page 40, Raven has spent over a year with Spellbinder and the outlaws perfecting her fighting skills. Her weapons of choice are sword, shield, and throwing stars that she keeps hooked to her belt. While she makes love to Spellbinder, readers quickly learn that Raven belongs to no man or woman. She is fiercely independent, making her character similar to that of Red Sonja

Over the course of this 170 page paperback, Raven's goal is to hunt down and kill Karl ir Donwayne. She discovers that he has joined forces with the Kraggs, the larger of the two islands sitting in the large body of water shown on the map. To get to him, the narrative takes Raven and Spellbinder on a ship to join a gang of Viking-esque raiders called Sea-Wolves. Raven has a sexual relationship with the Sea-Wolves leader, a cunning warrior named Gondar. Teaming with the Sea-Wolves, Raven must locate a sacred skull to gain access to Donwayne's location. The search for this skull makes up a large portion of the book's narrative, with the ragtag group journeying through a desert, navigating a harsh mountain pass, and ultimately fighting hideous Beastmen in a sweltering jungle. When the skull is found, the narrative switches to Raven and the group fighting the Kraggs. There is a side-story of a rival magician wanting revenge against Spellbinder as well as a number of one-on-one battles between Raven and various other combatants. 

Swordmistress of Chaos is an adult-oriented sword-and-sorcery novel that does feature some R-rated sex scenes. These are never as graphic as an adult-western like The Trailsman or Longarm, but still possesses some mature content. Raven not only has romantic encounters with Spellbinder and Gondar, but also two sessions with another female. While I've read that these Raven books are pure porn, nothing could be further from the truth. None of this is what I would consider particularly provocative. 

As a sword-and-sorcery novel, this Raven debut is chock-full of action and adventure complete with nautical exploration, sea battles, sword-fighting, magic wielding, political strife, and the obligatory revenge-plotting. While I think the last 20 pages were disappointing, the “big baddie boss-fight” was extremely rewarding and vividly violent. While the main story is wrapped up in this book, I'm anxious to discover what adventure is awaiting Raven and Spellbinder next. I'm all in on this series and you should be too. Recommended!

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, November 6, 2023

The Trailsman #87 - Brothel Bullets

Jon Messmann (1920-2004) created the popular Trailsman adult western series and the superior, but less successful, Canyon O’Grady series. In Trailsman #87 from 1989, Messmann brings these two heroes together for the first time in a battle against the white-slavery skin trade.

The paperback hits the ground running with Skye Fargo (The Trailsman) rescuing a teenage girl from a thug who snatched her off the trails to make her work as whore in Cactus Corners, Arizona. Fargo is a sex-positive kinda guy, but this forcible arrangement offends his sensibilities. The girl’s sister is being held at the brothel, and there’s a rich father who will pay to have his daughters returned. It’s hero time.

Recovering the girls is simple enough, but Fargo is re-hired to capture the human traffickers behind this kidnapping operation and deliver them to the father’s ranch for some frontier justice. Along the way, he teams up with a plucky woman whose best friend was kidnapped by the same crew.

Brothel Bullets was released in March 1989, three months before the first Canyon O’Grady novel. It’s clear that Messmann was hoping to hype the character in The Trailsman before rolling out the full O’Grady experience. O’Grady doesn’t make his appearance until page 122 of this 166 page paperback. It’s a brief team-up, and O’Grady doesn’t even get laid or discuss his day job as the President’s own secret agent. In fairness, O’Grady’s appearance isn’t mentioned on the book’s cover, description or inside blurb, so the publisher wasn’t overtly hyping this prequel. I suspect I’m probably the only reader mildly excited about this glimpse into the Jon Sharpe Extended Universe.

In any case, Brothel Bullets is a damn fine installment in The Trailsman series. There’s a solid mystery regarding exactly who is behind the sex trafficking operation and plenty of action sequences along the way. Because this is an adult western, there’s many hot sex scenes, if that’s your jam. The adult westerns tend to be fungible with little to distinguish one title from another, but this one is a standout among them. Read and enjoy.

Fun Fact: Canyon O’Grady and Skye Fargo team up again in Trailsman #100: Riverboat Gold from April 1990.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, November 3, 2023

Barsoom #02 - The Gods of Mars

The second of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series of sword-and-planet novels is The Gods of Mars. It was originally published as a five-part serial in The All-Story between January to May, 1913. In September, 1918 the serial was compiled into a full-length novel and published by A.C. McClurg. I thoroughly enjoyed the series debut, A Princess of Mars, and I encourage you to read my review of that novel HERE.

In events that aren't particularly clear, John Carter is transported back to Mars after his ten year absence from the Red Planet. The hero apparently died on Earth, and when he awakens it is in the afterlife area of Mars known as the Valley Dor. Think of this place as a sort of purgatory. When Carter arrives here, he witnesses a race of Green Martians savagely attacked by flesh-sucking “Plant Men”. If this purgatory isn't horrible enough, any survivors of the Plant Men vampire-like monstrosities are then consumed by the “gods” of the place, a white-skinned race called Therns, which also eat their victims. 

These opening chapters depicting the events associated with Carter's arrival in Valley Dor are similar to  the horrifying descriptions found in Dante's Inferno. Burroughs' pulls no punches submerging these opening segments into a nightmarish not-so-traditional horror setting. Even in 2023, Burroughs proves to be quite the impactful horror writer (intentional or not). The descriptions of the howls from the cliffs and the “sucking” of blood and flesh were just so memorable. These chapters are amazing. 

This descent into “Hell” continues when Carter, and his old friend Tars Tarkas (Tars is here searching for Carter) escape the Thurns (with a slave girl). However, their escape is short-lived when they run into another race of Gods populating this part of Mars. The Black Pirates of Barsoom, referred to as “First Born” are an ancient race of Martians that feed off of the Therns. Carter and Tars are transported to the underground caves of Omean, a giant prison empire controlled by a “goddess” calling herself Iss. 

There is more action, horror, swashbuckling, science-fiction, sword-and-planet, fantasy, and genre-defying literature in this 190 page paperback than countless other genre novels combined. The Gods of Mars is a more superior work than A Princess of Mars and takes into consideration a lot of religious theory. Valley Dor is a self-indulgent scam created by self-proclaimed Gods to further their own interests. The concept of multiple races in combat over religion is parallel to our own culture now. Burroughs uses aspects of religion, politics, and world history to create Mars' culture, lineage, and all of the various empires, races, and competitors vying for superiority through aggression. It's really a mesmerizing mix that is equally entertaining as it is clever. 

Like the Tarzan novels, Burroughs does fall into his own literary traps with events that are cyclical. In the Tarzan series, Tarzan eventually has a son that displays all of the same heroic characteristics. The same can be said for this series as Carter discovers he has a son on Mars that is an expert swordsman. Tarzan's love interest is often captured by various bad guys and the story revolves around her rescue. The same is found here as Carter jaunts from place to place freeing his enslaved lover and friends. Often, I found that the story was an endless cycle of “capture and rescue”, which I've come to accept as the signature of Burroughs writing style. Love it or leave it. 

The Gods of Mars is extraordinary even with the above-mentioned flaws. It is a high water mark  of Burroughs literary legacy and one that may not be topped with future series installments. I'll be the judge of that as I continue my journey through Barsoom. However, this novel is a mandatory read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Zanthodon #03 - Hurok of the Stone Age

Lin Carter's third installment of the Zanthodon series, also referred to as the Eric of Carstairs series, is Hurok of the Stone Age. It was published by DAW Books (423) in 1981, and features illustrations by Josh Kirby (Krull, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi). If you aren't familiar with the series, I encourage you to read my reviews of the first two installments before reading this review. 

The prior novel, Zanthodon, ended in a cliffhanger as Darya was captured by Barbary Coast Pirates. In this novel's beginning, both Eric and Professor Potter (both men from our present-day USA) have been snatched by what the folks of Zanthodon refer to as Dragonmen. They earned this title because they wear magic armbands that allow them to telepathically control dinosaurs! So, these Dragonmen capture Eric and Professor Potter and take them across miles of Zanthodon's baked Earth to the Scarlet City of Zar. There, the two meet the Sacred Empress of Zar, a woman named Zarys (who is like the twin-sister of Darya).

Meanwhile, Hurok and Jorn the Hunter embark on a rescue mission to retrieve their friends from the Dragonmen. This side-story adventure has the two facing near-death experiences as they cross a treacherous mountain pass called the Wall of Zar and an inland sea known as the Lugar-Jad. Additionally, there are other side-stories that involve a guy named Garth searching for his daughter Yualla, and Tharn searching for Darya. 

Make no bones about it, Hurok of the Stone Age is a convoluted novel packed with alternating side-stories within chapters that make up “parts” of the book. Often, I lost track of who the characters were, which tribe or type of people they represented. When you have characters that are Zarian, Drugar, Sagoth, Cro-Magnon, Thanadar, Gorpaks, etc., I nearly needed an organization chart to just figure it all out. At one point, I decided to just enjoy the adventure and let it all just sort of flop over my head on the who's who battle for clarity. In doing so, I found I really enjoyed the book, particularly Professor Potter's participation in the narrative and his quest to bring gunfire to this bizarre world. 

If you enjoy Lin Carter's absorbing, self-indulgent storytelling – high on character count, exotic locales, plot holes a mile wide – then this is a really fun read. Punt the logistics, suspend disbelief, and look over the convoluted meshing. In doing so, you'll not only love this novel, but appreciate the entire series. 

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