Year of Books 2019: Books of Pulp, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi

I read some older books. Now, I don’t think I read anything particularly ancient this year – nothing from the 1800’s or before – but I didn’t just read newer releases. I read some pulp! I also read some good ol’ fantasy and science fiction. Some of it was great!

…some of it, less so…

But let’s start out with some of the more fun stuff!

***

The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley

The governor abuses the Indians, takes from the church, and crushes the poor. A hero must rise – and that hero leaves the sign of the ‘Z’! 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Zorro story, and this is the original!

I grew up on Zorro – from the original black-and-white Disney version, to the Family Channel version in the 90’s, to the Antonio Banderas movie. (There was only one. There was only one.) I’ve never read the original before this year, though!

I was really surprised at how much romance is in this book! Rather than the constant action I expected, I found a love… rhombus? The governor, Don Diego, and Zorro all vie for the affections of Lolita, and this is a huge part of the plot.

I also loved the reveal that Don Diego is Zorro, saved for the end of the story. A lot of the Don Diego/ Zorro shenanigans reminded me heavily of golden age Batman stories.

This particular edition includes an essay talking about the history of this story, how it was mostly ignored until Douglas Fairbanks read it on vacation, loved it, and made the original Mark of Zorro movie. That movie is what secured the fame for Zorro, and Johnston McCulley went on to write numerous novels and fifty short stories with the character. I want to read those other stories! (And the entire opus is available in six volumes here! If you’re looking for a present for little ol’ me…) 

Not the edition I read, but I can’t find that edition on Amazon! 

The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

John Carter returns to Mars to find more adventure, as the death gods claim him for their own. They’ve set up an entire mythology around themselves so they can rule the red planet and never be attacked. They’ve never encountered a human before, though, and Carter’s fighting instincts may prove to bring an end to the deadly cult that has held Mars in its grip for millennia!

I really enjoyed A Princess of Mars, the first of the Mars novels. Well, why not read book two? I wasn’t disappointed, for the most part. Lots of solid he-man action. If you’re looking for delicate characters or realistic action, you won’t find it. If you’re looking for over-the-top setpieces and big strong heroes that are sure of themselves, well, this is the series for you!

One part I didn’t appreciate was that the book ended rather abruptly on a cliffhanger. I don’t usually mind cliffhangers, but this one seemed to come from just about nowhere. I read some reviews of book three, and it seems that its quality is nowhere near this one. I find that incredibly disappointing.

Agent of T.E.R.R.A. By Larry Maddock

#2 The Golden Goddess Gambit

#4 The Time Trap Gambit

Hannibal Fortune protects the timeline from the evil forces of EMPIRE! He travels to ancient Atlantis to face an insidious plot! He travels to Carthage, triggering a trap meant to erase his very existence! It’s James Bond with a time travel twist and a wonderfully sarcastic partner!

I had previously read the other books in this series a few years back and had a lot of fun with them. This year I was finally able to track down the rest of the series, and I’m so glad I did. These books are just plain fun. I love Webley, the sarcastic sidekick, and Maddock’s brilliant use of time travel keeps you guessing as a reader. The villains are truly villainous, the heroes are two-fisted and quick-witted, and Hannibal Fortune always gets the girl.

Again, not the cover I had… apparently I pick weird covers? 

Son of the White Wolf by Robert E. Howard

The name El Borak strikes fear in the desert. His steel is unmatched, his cleverness legendary, and no one knows his face. He protects the innocent and strikes at the guilty without hesitation. In Son of the White Wolf three of his adventures are collected, showing some of his most daring escapades.

I read this one at the beginning of the year, so honestly, I don’t remember a whole lot about it except I read it fast, so I must have enjoyed it. I do recall that in one story, you don’t find out who El Borak is until the very end. He’s a threat, and you know one of the characters is him in hiding, but you’re not sure who until the climax.

This was the first time I ever read Robert E. Howard, and man, it was good, solid action, and not at all what I expected from the creator of Conan!

And speaking of Conan…

Conan by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter

He comes from the north, a barbarian of great rage and great mirth, a restless savage who craves adventure. This volume collects the stories of Conan’s first adventures, including the classics “The Tower of the Elephant” and “The God in the Bowl.” Howard brings mystery, savagery, and strange gods to an ancient landscape, and Conan strides amongst it all as a great warrior.

So, I’ve read plenty of Conan comics, but never the original stories. After enjoying Son of the White Wolf, I thought I’d try Howard’s seminal creation.

I loved Howard’s stories. They show not just a lot of creativity, but a lot of craft. Here’s the problem with this volume: It also includes stories by L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter. Those are usually well-respected authors. However, here their contributions were… ok. I won’t say they were bad, but you can tell there’s a jump down in quality from the original Howard stories.

So maybe I need to just find collections of the original stories!

Flash Gordon Book One: Massacre in the 22nd Century by Paul Raymond

Hundreds of years ago, earth sent out exploratory vessels. One has come home… empty. Flash Gordon and his companions are dispatched to investigate, and find out what’s going on before business interests can interfere. While on the ship, it jumps to a place beyond explored space and brings Flash and his friends into a new adventure in an abandoned fantastic city, leading them into the middle of an ancient war.

I have fond memories of the 80’s Flash Gordon movie. I listened to some of the old radio plays, and have some reprints of the old comic strips. This book was my dad’s from years ago, and I finally tackled it!

It was… ok. A lot of good elements are there. The mystery of the spaceship and the conflict with the businesses on earth were well done. The eeriness of the alien city was fantastic. However, it just didn’t come together. It felt like someone had some good concepts, but didn’t really put them together well enough to tell a finished story. It’s too bad, too, as there’s some good building blocks here.

Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo by John Varley

And

The Star Pit by Samuel R. Delany

This slim volume offers two short novels in flipbook style!

Everything died on Tango Charlie. Something happened on the space station, that even those who boarded later with full protections died quickly. The station was quarantined, and anything getting close was shot out of the sky. But now its orbit has decayed, and whatever’s on the station is going to make it into the atmosphere. While specialists examine the problem, they find something horrifying: A little girl is living on the station right now. They need to find a way to rescue her and not spread whatever plague killed everyone in the first place.

And

Everyone’s trapped in this galaxy. Because there’s no gravity wells between galaxies, time itself functions differently, and every human who’s attempted the journey winds up dead or worse. Unless, of course, you’re golden. A mutant breed that thinks… differently… are able to handle the stresses in between. And if you’re a human living on the edge of the galaxy, fixing the golden’s ships, well, things can get a little frustrating…

Both of these stories boasted big ideas that caught my attention immediately. Unfortunately, Star Pit felt more like an examination of a concept than a story in itself, despite some very strong characters. Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo was far more plot-driven with strong characters, a few twists that were predictable, but a suspense-filled ride. I wish it ended… a bit more happily, but it was still a strong showing. Not bad, and both are short enough that you can wrap up the tales fairly quickly.

A Barnstormer in Oz by Philip Jose Farmer

Dorothy came home from Oz, eventually married, and had a family. Her son, Hank Stover, flies biplanes now for county fairs. And then one day, he comes to Oz to find what the place really is, how it really runs, and what Dorothy never knew.

I’m a big Oz fan. I just bought a first edition of one of the later books, Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz. I’ve never read Philip Jose Farmer, but I’ve heard great things about how he brings different properties together. I looked forward to reading this book!

And, well, I wasn’t impressed. It felt like a basic fantasy plot in an Oz skin. It didn’t have any of the whimsy of Baum’s creations, and unlike Wicked, it didn’t win me over on its own merits. In fact, this is one of the few books I finished this year that actually bored me.

I’m very willing to give Farmer another chance as an author, but this one just didn’t cut it.

Mustang Man by Louis L’Amour

Sackett comes across a covered wagon in distress. As he approaches to help, he finds it’s a con job: There’s a man lying in wait to shoot whoever comes to offer aid. From there, things get more dangerous as he finds both he and the conmen are heading to the same location: Buried treasure. Who will get there first, and who will wind up dead?

I’m not a huge Western fan, but it’s not because I hate them. In fact, every Western I’ve read I’ve really enjoyed, and this was no exception! What isn’t to love? Strong stories, usually at least decent characters, and some solid action. L’Amour is known as the master of the Western, and with reason. I really think I need to start reading more of these.

Dragon’s Blood by Jane Yolen

Jakkin’s only chance to escape servitude is to train a dragon in secret and win in the fighting pits. All he has to do is steal one of his master’s eggs, find a way to raise the dragon, train it to fight, and actually win. Should be easy, right?

I’ve loved just about everything I’ve read about Jane Yolen… but I think this is the first book of hers I’ve actually read! She notes that this is her first fantasy book, and I can tell. It’s a little slow in places, but certainly not bad at all. It feels a lot like Anne McCaffery to me, aimed at a slightly younger audience. Really, this is much more science fiction than fantasy!

I found myself cheering for Jakkin. The thought that went into the ecosystem, the economic system, and the history of this fictional planet are apparent, though I don’t remember there being any infodumps. I was a little annoyed at one of the naming conventions – anyone who is in servitude has two k’s in their name – but the story was still solid.

I’m quite pleased that my copy also happens to be autographed. It’s amazing what you can find at a used bookstore!

The Third Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen

The gods have gone to war, and those who attempt to play the game must win or die. Saberhagen brings his saga to a fitting conclusion, drawing all the characters together again in a final, cataclysmic battle, as the swords and their abilities come to the fore, gods die, and men must find a way to stand.

Each of the Books of Swords felt vastly different to me. I was wondering how the heck Saberhagen would conclude the saga in only one volume; it felt like there was so much left untold yet at the end of book two. I’ll say that there are threads he doesn’t directly address, though I understand there’s a set called The Lost Swords that ties in to this one that I may have to look up.

I’m impressed with the protagonist’s growth through the novels as well. It reminds me much of Taran from The Chronicles of Prydain, in very good ways. I can also tell that Saberhagen was a student of classical stories about the gods; this doesn’t conclude like a modern epic, but much more like one of the ancient sagas.

One Good Knight by Mercedes Lackey

Um.

I loved this book. I remember loving it. It’s book two in the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which has a concept I love: Lives in the Five Hundred Kingdoms are ruled by the Traditions. They’re fairy tales, and fairy tales go a certain way. It’s hard to live outside that mold. The first book, The Fairy Godmother, was just fantastic metastory and story wrapped into one.

And this one was fantastic. It really was. But I don’t remember anything about it, other than that I read it and enjoyed it!

I feel really bad about this.

So, yeah. It was great.

But, um, I can’t tell you anything about it.

***

Thanks for your time! Next week we’ll wrap up the novels I read this year!

Published by Jon

I'm a pastor in Wisconsin. Constantly writing, whether it be fiction or sermons or anything in between. Husband and father. Over all this, Christian, willing and joyful servant to good master Jesus.

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