Review: Combat Frame XSeed

Publisher Description:

The future is over. 

Civilization on Earth has collapsed. Oligarchs have established a new order in manmade space colonies at the Earth-Moon LaGrange points.

A group of powerful colonies form the Systems Overterrestrial Coalition to re-civilize the earth, but grounders view the colonists as hostile meddlers. The Coalition counters the rising violence with giant manned robots called combat frames.

The independent L3 colonies denounce the war on Earth. In response, Coalition Security Director Sanzen takes L3 leader Josef Friedlander’s wife and daughter hostage. Amid the tense standoff, Friedlander’s son Sieg launches an unsanctioned rescue mission to L1’s Byzantium colony.

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Review: Combat Frame XSeed by Brian Niemeier

Here on the Periapsis Project, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Combat Frame XSeed. I encourage you to check it out!

Brian Niemeier revitalizes the mecha tradition in Combat Frame XSeed, a gritty action novel that blends mecha anime and military science fiction to deliver high-energy combat alongside thrilling intrigue. The dynamic combat frame designs turn dogfight combats into scintillating gladiatorial displays, and political subterfuge threatening to crush the heroes keeps the drive high. An exciting opening for the trilogy!

This review contains minor spoilers.

Mecha Combat

Niemeier has asserted that he intended to move beyond the tired Eastern and the bleak Western aspects of the mecha genre, integrating the best of both in a refreshing return to what makes the mech so appealing. The result is a bold blend of military maneuvers and one-on-one duels, mass-produced combat units and showy customized ones, guns and swords – or any other close combat weapon.

The action sequences are gripping. Early in the story, it is established that there are no guaranteed outcomes, and the combat frames consistently take serious damage or are lost entirely, which kept me on my toes. This made the second half of the novel particularly engaging, when the coordinated attacks gave way to one-on-one combat. These showcased more unique combat frames, weapons, and tactics – leaning into the mech aesthetic more.

Unfortunately, there are not as many antagonists as there were protagonists piloting combat frames. This resulted in many battles against a deluge of mass-produced models, although there is still variety in the execution. It also necessitates the near omnipresence of Metis, the most formidable antagonist combatant for the majority of the story. Still, the manifold multifaceted battles were gratifying.

Mech Design

Mech design is arguably the most important aspect of any entry in the genre. Niemeier does not disappoint in this regard either! The combat frames are varied in form and style, and come armed with all kinds of weapons from over-sized machine guns to plasma swords.

While many of the combat frames are a sort of standard military issue, these do change over the course of the story, so that even the fights against the generic baddies become more difficult as the technology improves.

However, the true pleasure lies in the custom combat frames. These come in a myriad of colors, wield multiple cool weapons, and are under constant repair as they give and take damage. But they also have more of the “organic in the inorganic” design elements that are so iconic to mechs. Instead of descriptions of mere machines, elaborate though they may be, the custom combat frames begin to take on auras of their own.

For example, when Ritter first sees Zane’s custom combat frame Dead Drop, it “carried no visible weapons but exuded menace like a coiled mamba.”

My personal favorite is Jean-Claude du Lione’s custom combat frame: a CF Veillantif. I found the descriptions of its garish design, coupled with its dueling capacity aesthetically pleasing:  “He fought to stifle a scream when a gothic monstrosity of bronze and burgundy crouched down beside the singed hole in the wall and leered at him with a giant, gargoyle-like head.”

Intrigue

An important element of Western military sci-fi – and, of course, present in Western applications of the mecha genre – is intrigue. Combat Frame XSeed applies this technique creditably, using multiple factions with conflicting agendas as its basis. The differing goals, secret meetings, betrayals, information leaks, red herring leaks, and more hype up the tension.

True to political intrigue form, it is not clear in the beginning who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. Even the two generalized groups – the grounders and the Coalition – are divided and not all the major players have clear motivations. However, Niemeier does not leave us in such bleak ambiguity. As the plot ramps up, disparate factions and characters unite in purpose, and the moral issues around the conflict make it easier to break down into good and evil.

Of course, there is still an element of uncertainty at the end. Not everything is explained, and I wonder if there isn’t information that the reader lacks, sustaining the mystery and incentivizing read-through for the trilogy!

Characters

Combat Frame XSeed does struggle a bit under the weight of so many point of view characters. It can get a bit confusing when changing between them, especially when that switch comes mid-chapter, and the impact of any one of them is diluted.

That being said, I did not find it too difficult to track who was who. I did not even have to reference the “Principal Characters” annotated list at the beginning, although it is a nice resource. It was a tad intimidating to see it sandwiched between “About Combat Frame XSeed” and the Glossary before the story started, but, again, it was needlessly so.

This can be attributed to Niemeier’s skill at quickly developing sympathetic characters. As the cast grows, it does not become bloated with people you don’t care about.

If I had to identity a singular main character, I would point to Ritter, who begins the story as an outsider joining the EGE and ends as a hero. But in keeping with the anime tradition, there are multiple quirky characters that could stand alone in their own right. From Maximus Darving, a software engineer with a weirdly affectionate relationship with his custom A.I. Marilyn, to Zane Dellister, a crazy guy who built a combat frame from scratch using stolen parts, the characters populating Combat Frame XSeed are captivating.

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Combat Frame XSeed is an entertaining execution of the best elements of the mecha tradition: compelling fight scenes, grandiose robot designs, and thrilling intrigue. Whether you are a long-time fan of the giant robot tradition or interested in them for the first time, this is a must read!

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Review: Corona-Chan

Publisher Description:

Stuck inside? Quarantine got you feeling down… or even worse, BORED? 

Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love is here to rescue you from the existential horror of indoor life, by offering you a glimpse into other worlds of wonder, whimsy, and warped humor.

Tales of high adventure, escapist fantasies, and thrilling stories of suspense await within, from some of the keenest and most rebellious minds in pulp fiction, with a foreword by the infamous Daddy Warpig.

With 200,000 words of exciting fiction, most never before published, including four books, Corona-Chan is serious about spreading the love!

Read it today!

The complete catalog of collected chronicles:
“Quarantine” by artist Jesse White
Anacyclosis by Brian Niemeier
“A Song of I.C.E. and Fire” by Jon Del Arroz
In the Forest of Wast by Alexander Hellene
“Exiled in the Desert” by John Daker
“Iron and Steel” by KP Kalvaitis
“Someone is Aiming for You” by JD Cowan
Immortal Thunder by Matt Wellman
“Bringing down the Mountain” by Nathan Dabney
“At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen” by Abraham Strongjohn
“Going Native” and “Warrior Soul” by Manfred Weichsel
The Battle of the Turasa Nebula by Yakov Merkin
“An Eye for Eligos” by Alexandru Constantin
Adventure Constant (full-length novel) by Jon Mollison
“Star Support” by Val Hull
“The Age of Petty States” by Rawle Nyanzi
And
The Crown of Sight by David V. Stewart

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Review: Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love organized by David V. Stewart

Here on the Periapsis Project, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Corona-chan. I encourage you to check it out!

Corona-chan is a fantasy / sci-fi short story anthology spearheaded by David Stewart and featuring 17 authors and their works that delivers adventure in a kaleidoscope of settings, characters, and tones, sure to leave you looking for more! Every tale has something to offer: action, suspense, heroics, and even the weird. This anthology is full of entertainment value. It can “rescue” you from boredom in the ordinary and mundane (no quarantine required)!

Don’t Skip the Forward!

Daddy Warpig’s foreword to this anthology is a gem. It starts off the collection with humor and the very focus on entertainment value that he touts: “Put entertainment first, put the audience first, and stop worshiping things that don’t matter.”

This anthology delivers on that promise of entertainment!

His comments certainly philosophize about writing and its purpose, particularly regarding the stated goal of this anthology, but if you are expecting the boring, puffed-up, academic air of superiority usually associated with traditionally published anthologies, you are in for a pleasant treat!

“Tales” vs. “Short Stories”

In my initial description of this anthology, I called Corona-chan a collection of short stories. However, that is not a term used in the anthology itself. That would be “tales.”

This is, perhaps, a more appropriate label, as the “short story” has almost become a genre unto itself, piling expectations of form and story events on top of those within the primary genre. In particular, it pushes an element of surprise or a “gotcha” moment. I find them disorienting at best, off-putting at worst, and nearly always unsatisfying.

It was such a breath of fresh air to read stories—written for adults—that were each “sized to fit” without also being twisty or gimmicky. Instead, they are complete stories with momentum, build, and even foreshadowing. They just don’t take as long to read!

Jon Del Arroz’s “Song of I.C.E. and Fire” is a particularly good example of this. Reading on my Kindle (with my font size at a reasonable setting), the story was only 26 pages long. But it is undeniably a complete story with engaging action, sympathetic characters, and a satisfying “got the bad guys” conclusion!

Compelling Plots

None of these tales could be accused of wasting my time when it came to getting the plot up and running. They were all fast-paced without skimping out on either character development or immersive settings. Even when the action slowed, there was a momentum that continued, pulling the reader forward with anticipation. This momentum continued to build, never leaving me stagnant or tapped out.

This resulted in a series of very entertaining stories, united by a common, engaging pace.

“Anacyclosis” by Brian Niemeier stands out in this regard. The central drive of his main character is simple, but that allows it to be both sympathetic and quickly communicated. The action that grows out of this drive builds rapidly before falling off. At that point, I was invested in both the character and his situation, and a sense of anticipation pulled me forward. When the action was not there, the story did not stall. I pressed forward, eager to know what would happen next.

Efficient Character Development

The stories in Corona-chan vary a great deal in length. However, even the longer tales were extremely efficient.

Character development is particularly important in this regard. Rather than waste time and space in their stories with scenes that served no purpose except to introduce their characters, the authors threw their characters into action to demonstrate their mettle. This resulted in characters who were quickly sympathetic, especially in those stories which had limited point-of-view characters.

I really enjoyed the character development “Star Support” by Val Hull for this reason. The situation was unique, featuring a woman at a call center for space ship technical support. I found her particularly relatable in her office job, dealing with the public and overbearing management. When she is suddenly thrown into an intense situation a mere six paragraphs into the story, her character begins to emerge and grow beyond her job. I couldn’t wait to see how she would handle the next complication that came her way!

Effective World Building

The stories in this anthology also shared a tendency for effective world building. Not that there isn’t a place for lengthy anecdotes about a world’s system of government or readers who will obsess over details of a magic system, but due to the length limitations there had to be minimal ponderous descriptions of elements irrelevant to the story at hand.

That is not to say that there was nothing to hint at a bigger universe, however. Science Fiction and Fantasy are largely defined by the worlds that they immerse us in! Settings, political situation, timelines, etc. were all hinted at with tantalizing brevity. I finished several of these stories with my appetite whetted for more.

So many of the stories are worth mentioning here, particularly those stories that obviously came out of a larger established concept such as “Someone is Aiming for You” by JD Cowan. The longer, “full-length” novels that the anthology boasts – “Immortal Thunder” by Matt Wellman, “Adventure Constant” by Jon Mollison, “The Crown of Sight” by David V. Stewart, and “The Battle of the Turasa Nebula” by Yakov Merkin – had significantly more space to work in, but I found that they were similarly streamlined.

“The Battle of the Turasa Nebula,” in particular, exposed me to a complex world with characters from opposing factions, who had intricate histories relating to each other and the larger political powers.  However, I never felt like I was being over-burdened with extraneous information. Merkin gave me just the information I needed to understand the characters, their motivations, and the action and only when I needed it. This resulted in a suspenseful story in which both parties were sympathetic and compelling, and when it ended, I was eager for more from both them and the larger scope of the conflict.

Weaknesses

I would like to touch very briefly on a couple of weaknesses in this anthology. I did not find these to be disqualifying in their scope, but in the spirit of complete honesty, I want to acknowledge them.

Thrown Together

It is sadly apparent that this anthology was thrown together in a very short amount of time. This in itself is not bad, but it is the cause of an unfortunate lack of polish. There were many errors that could easily have been caught with a bit of review, even with a word processor. Of course, the number and types of errors fluctuated between stories, some having minimal problems and others having an abundance.

That being said, most of them were forgivable and decipherable. I did not find them so distracting that I could not enjoy the experience.

Lacked an Explanation of Context

I enjoyed Daddy Warpig’s foreword, as I said in the beginning of this review, and the tone of humor and even irreverence it lent to the collection.

However, the anthology lacked the standard formal introduction: a word from the editor to explain why these particular stories were included and in the chosen order. Even the formatting, particularly the attributions and calls to action following each tale, was irregular. Obviously, this also has to do with the haste involved in Corona-chan’s implementation.

I found the tales to be unified in many of the components I have discussed, but I felt this almost coincidental. Perhaps the shared elements could be explained by the term “pulp,” which appears in the tagline, “Infectious Tales of Fantasy and Suspense Designed to Spread the Pulpdemic.” However, as someone who had no context for the term at the time of reading, this only highlights for me the need for some official comment, some explanation of what makes these tales qualify for that descriptor.

Again, I understand that there was not time for this kind of curation, let alone explanation, but perhaps then the claim that it was “designed” to do anything is a stretch.

Check it Out!

Those frustrations being recognized, Corona-chan: Spreading the Love succeeded in delivering entertainment. Furthermore, it is an excellent collection featuring this group of authors, whether you have never read any before or are familiar with all of them.

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Review: Mortu and Kyrus in the White City

Publisher Description:

Once upon a time, short fiction was the mainstay of science fiction and fantasy readers. Titans like Robert E. Howard and Jack Vance worked their magic on magazine and pulp pages, delighting readers with strange visions and pulse pounding action. In 2016, editor P. Alexander dared to bring those days back with the launch of Cirsova, a magazine of science fiction and fantasy fiction.

DMR Books is proud to present a collection of one of Cirsova’s rising stars, Schuyler Hernstrom. These stories will take the reader across strange and sweeping landscapes of adventure. Life and death, blood and desire, greed and sacrifice, all and more are contained within. Classic barbarians and classic rogues are here, along with Dunsanian knights and witches, sentient computers and savage beasts. This collection includes all of Hernstrom’s stories from the first three years of Cirsova along with three tales that have never appeared in print before.

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Review: Mortu and Kyrus in the White City by Schuyler Hernstrom

This review originally appeared on David Roome’s blog:

https://www.davidroome.com/2020/05/short-story-book-club-mortu-and-kyrus.html

Recently, Alexandru Constantin announced the Short Story Book Club to advance robust discussion and criticism of fiction. I’ve been looking for an excuse to read, review, and blog more, so I thought I would join in. The story is “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” by Schuyler Hernstrom, which is found in The Eye of Sounnu.

Spoilers below.

Setting

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, and it left me with a lot to think about. The primary thing I admire about it is how developed its setting is given its length. The author does something effectively that I consider a hallmark of good worldbuilding, where he mentions many interesting details in passing (and I’m not talking about just tossing out fantasy-esque names for common things—I hate that) but does not exactly explain the worlds history or many general facts about it. The result is a world that feels very large, since the reader begins asking questions and filling in the blanks.

The details provided, however, are grounded and specific, and the world is easily imagined. One of my favorite images was how one of the nomad warriors wore shoulder armor made from pieces of the exoskeletons of giant centipedes that lived in the desert.

From various conversations, especially between the main characters Mortu (a muscular barbarian warrior) and Kyrus (a Christian monk who has been transformed into a monkey) the historic struggle of humans versus the alien Illilissy can be assembled. The aliens came to the world, interbred with humans creating the northern barbarian race (that Mortu is a member of), and eventually left after being defeated by them, leaving behind technology ranging from Road Warrior style motorcycles and trucks to entire cities with decidedly more advanced technology.

This legend left me with many questions. Were the Illilissy actually extraterrestrials or simply more technologically advanced humans? Did they create all of the technology, or is some of it a remnant from the human side of the war? Is the story set on a future Earth? I assume the answer to the last question is yes, given the fact that Kyrus’s order is specifically Christian, as well as some of the place names lake “Zantyum” (Byzantium?) and “Amerza” (America?).

I love these questions, however, and I’m happy that Hernstrom created them. I feel like a visited a real place, big enough to have mysteries and aspects of its history that are not clear-cut.

Two Moralities

I’m a sucker for setting, but the other notable aspect of the story is the back-and-forth between the pagan Mortu and the Christian Kyrus.

It’s always welcome to encounter explicitly Christian characters in works of fiction, especially in stories like this one. While Mortu always sees things as black and white and acts decisively, Kyrus argues for a nuanced Christian morality between boasts about his intellect.

The conflict reaches a climax when, after discovering the sinister and abusive actions of the citizens of the White City, Kyrus argues that they should get external forces involved, while Mortu decides that justice is best served by killing everyone himself. Of course, Mortu only kills a dozen or two before some actions they took earlier end up killing everyone else indirectly.

The problem is, I’m not sure what the purpose of this moral conflict was, since it seemed like the author portrayed both sides as correct in some way. I could see an argument that the author intended Mortu’s pagan approach of relying on his personal conscience to determine right and wrong and how to deal with it as the correct morality. However, Kyrus is certainly a protagonist, and not an uncharitable caricature. And I think that the author intended him to be a likable character, especially since the narrator often takes his viewpoint.

Perhaps contributing to to this interpretation is the fact that the character Nathia’s role in the White City’s abuse is ignored. While she revealed the problem to the protagonists, she evidently did nothing about it for twenty years, and she furthered the abuse by helping new children into the city via the caravan. One could argue that she was forced to do these things against her will, but she did defy orders in the story to warn the protagonists. Why didn’t she rebel earlier? In the end, Nathia is forgiven Mortu’s wrath because she had a change of heart and because she is a beautiful young woman. A more objective morality would not let her off the hook so easily.

Another possibility is that the author is using Kyrus’s ramblings to depict and argue against an overly-philosophized, stunted morality, while Mortu has the law written on his heart.

Complicating things, I didn’t discern any growth or change in either Mortu or Kyrus’ views. I have no problem with flat-arc characters, but if there’s no development and ambiguous interpretation, the moral conflict seems to serve little purpose other than the occasional joke.

At a higher level, if we take Alexandru Constantin’s view (from his original blog post) that this story is a “direct assault on the moral degeneracy of mainstream science fiction and fantasy,” it’s unclear to me on what basis that assault is being made. With God-revealed morality from Christianity? With philosophy? With arguments from conscience or what is natural? All of the above? Let me know what you think!

Even though this aspect of the story left me dissatisfied, it provoked interesting analysis.

Other Criticisms

In addition to the above points, I have a couple of smaller criticisms, but these are mainly based on personal preference.

I think the story would have been stronger with a single viewpoint character. This might have clarified which side of the moral conflict between Mortu and Kyrus the author intended the reader to take (if he did intend a correct side).

Also, descriptions tend to get in the way of the pacing of the story. As I mentioned above, specific details like the centipede armor really flesh out the world. But more generic observations, like the colors of everyone’s hair and clothing or the appearance of sunlight or starlight in a specific instances, often interrupt the story’s drive and diffuse tension.

Final Thoughts

“Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” is a great story on many levels. If the other stories in The Eye of Sounnu are half as good, it’s well worth picking up for fans of sci-fi and fantasy. It also provides a lot of material for discussion! I’m looking forward to reading what the other #ShortStoryBookClub bloggers have to say about it.

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