Friday, 13 June 2014

Book Review - Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire: A Short Story Collection

Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire: A Short Story Collection

First, a disclaimer: several years ago I met the author on the alternate history website he mentions in some of his introductory pieces, and later in person. He's a nice chap.

The book comprises ten short stories, each around 20-40 pages in length. They cover a wide range of topics: alternative history (or alternate history), horror, science fiction and fantasy, often in combination. Two of the stories (Coil Gun and Picking up Plans in Palma) are set in an alternative world in which a racist Boer empire takes the place of our history's Soviet Union in opposition to the United States. They are quite different in tone, as one is adventure-filled and surprisingly romantic, with a clear villain, while in the other the prevailing feeling is that both sets of protagonists are real people faced with terrifying choices.

Lord Giovanni's Daughter is a rip-roaring yarn in the mould of Robert E. Howard's Conan adventures, featuring a barbarian hero who comically subverts expectation by planning to buy a library with the money he aims to get for rescuing the beautiful princess from the villainous snake-men. Two of the stories (Nicor and I am the Wendigo) deal with the two different perspectives of monsters feasting on men - the men it hunts in Nicor and the beast itself. The protagonist in Nicor has a disturbingly close-to-the-bone epiphany, which echoes in one's head as one finishes the latter story. I recommend reading the two in sequence to get the full force of it. Melon Heads takes urban legends and runs with the idea for a story that is truly disturbing on several levels, while making you wonder whether the humans are as bad as or worse than the monsters.

Illegal Alien and Westernmost Throne deal in different ways with protagonists in circumstances beyond their control, who are still trying to master their bleak situations. Both have to make hard choices to survive. Lord of the Dolorous Tower is a delightful story about two young adventurers exploring an ancient warlord's ruined tomb, and getting rather out of their depth. The Beast of the Bosporus is a fun and creepy homage to the Lovecraftian canon in an oft-ignored historical setting. There are some very telling depictions of human character in these tales, particularly in Coil Gun, but Matthew's main strength is in zippy, entertaining - and often rather alarming - tales. I heartily recommend this work. It's available here on Amazon, in both paperback and in electronic format for the Kindle.

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