Jan 082014
You might know Bryon Quertermous (AKA my arch-nemesis) from his shameless self-promotion and whining on social media. But he recently took over the editing reigns at Exhibit A Books, the crime fiction imprint of Angry Robot Books. So now, we have to be nice to him.

The two of us recently got together for a little pow-wow via Google docs (hence all of the typing references) and discussed Exhibit A, publishing, and, of course, Bryon's favorite subject: himself.

What follows is part one of the (mostly) unedited transcript of this monumental event.
HW: Ok, first question: Quertermous is a weird last name. Where’s it from?
BQ: My father.
HW: Elaborate, please.
BQ: I've heard a variety of different stories, but the most realistic of them seems to be that it's French from my Louisiana relatives. Though I'm not entirely sure someone didn't just make it up.
HW: I can already see I’m a better typist than you are.
BQ: Brilliance comes at a cost, and in my case the cost is proper typing skills. Do you use the proper setting for your hands and everything?
HW: Why, yes I do. Thanks for noticing.
BQ: My paralyzing wrist pain and elbow cramps are reminders of how awesome I am. You don't get to experience that.
HW: True. Ok, let’s get on with the “interview.”
BQ: No. My turn for a question. Tell me about your name. Holly West sounds fake. Elaborate.
HW: My birth name is Holly O’Neill. My husband’s name is Mick West. I married him so that I could have a cooler name (and he married me for the greencard). Win-win!
BQ: Sounds like true love. Holly O'Neill sounds like a 90s sitcom name.
HW: Actually, O’Neill is still my legal name. I’ve been married 15 years and I still haven’t gotten around to changing it. Which should give you an idea of how lazy I am.
BQ: Oh, I already had a pretty good idea of how lazy you were. So in the interest of conflict of interest and such we should probably mention that at one point I was employed as an editor by your publisher [Carina Press], though we never worked together. Thank god.
HW: Yes, I don’t even believe in God and I’m still thanking him for that.
BQ: You certainly weren't the reason I left, but it certainly hastened my interest in outside opportunities.
HW: Speaking of outside opportunities, you’re the new editor at Exhibit A Books. I have to say, after weeks of your shameless teasing on social media, the announcement wasn’t a total let down. Are you enjoying your new job?
BQ: The readers of this interview won't see it, but as the interview has gone on, my typing has gotten better and yours has gotten much worse. Is it drinking time already?
HW: I noticed that too, but no, just coffee (so far).
BQ: So yes, Exhibit A. I was hoping that all the build-up I got carried away with on social media wouldn't dampen the announcement, but everyone seemed to be duly surprised that a real publisher found it in their best interest to hire me. What was your first thought when you heard the news?
HW: I’m at a loss for a snarky response for once. I was surprised but also very happy for you. It seemed like a great opportunity and probably a good fit. Time will tell about that, eh?
BQ: Eh, indeed. To be honest I was a little worried I wasn't the right fit based on their initial wave of releases that seemed to be geared toward thrillers, which is not my strong suit, and less toward what I saw as the Angry Robot brand I was a big fan of. But after being assured I could mold the list in my image, just as the previous editor had done, I was sold. I also felt more comfortable when I went to the UK to meet everyone in person and realized they're just as twisted as I am.
I also have to say, that once I went back and read the early books from Exhibit A, they were less glossy and vapid than I thought thrillers generally are so my prejudice was cracked.
HW: You see BQ, your prejudice will be your undoing. And I like the line “I could mold the list in my image.” I always knew you had a God complex.
But about that list. We’ve talked about it and you don’t seem to be into historicals (which I find tremendously insulting, of course). Exhibit A has a few historicals out there. Has that come to an end with your editorship?
BQ: It's funny you mention that because when I was sitting with Marc Gascoine, the publisher of Angry Robot and Exhibit A, we were talking about this and I mentioned I wasn't a fan of historical fiction. Our larger publishing overlord, Osprey, has a long history of publishing just the sort of thing I wasn't interested in so Marc pushed me to find out if I really didn't like historical or if I was just mouthing off stupidly. It turns out, I kind of do like historicals if they're gritty and weird and not of the standard historical templates. I'm a huge fan of steam punk and diesel punk and stuff like that so there will certainly be more historicals in the pipeline as we go along.
What I would really like to see is some Civil War era crime fiction.
HW: That brings me to my next question. Your dream manuscript just flew into your inbox (by carrier pigeon). Tell me about it.
BQ: Wait, no, it's my turn for a question dammit. With your tattoos and cursing and drinking and whatnot, you seem like the least likely candidate to write historicals I'd imagine. Where did that come from and will you ever write a contemporary crime novel?
HW: 1) Yes. I will write a contemporary crime novel. 2) I’d been interested in 17th century London since I was a teenager. I’d always wanted to write about it, so I did. But I think one of the reasons I had so much trouble selling MISTRESS OF FORTUNE is that it just didn’t fit into what you call the standard historical template. My heroine is gritty and sometimes not very likeable. There’s a twist at the end that shows just how gritty she is. But the message I kept getting was that I needed to make her more likeable. I needed to make her more sympathetic. She’s not a bitch but she’s also not very nice in some respects. Girl does what she needs to to get by, you know? But agents were looking for a more charming protagonist. More Jane Austen-like, I guess.
BQ: That sounds like just the sort of book I'd like to read if you hadn't written it. Do you believe in all of the fortuneteller hocum that's in the book?
HW: Not at all, and neither does Isabel Wilde, my protagonist. She’s a charleton. I believe in science, BQ. I thought we covered that at Bouchercon.
BQ: So back to my dream acquisition. That's a hard one and people have been asking me about it A LOT lately and I'm always at a loss for an answer. I'm intrigued more by voice than anything else, but I like dark voices and quirky voices and goofy voices. I think I'm less a fan of gimmicky post-modern stuff than I was initially, but just a good story told well. Also, one of the nice things about being a smaller publisher is I don't have to wait for my dream submission. I have the luxury of taking manuscripts with potential and working with them and helping the author in a way they might not get with a bigger house and I think that's more rewarding than publishing a perfect manuscript that lands on my lap. (Though I wouldn't mind one or two of those a year to keep the budget in tact.)
HW: Ha, suddenly I’m at a loss for words.
BQ: I do that to people quite a bit. I come off all snarky and mean and it's easy to respond to that and then I hit in with some genuine emotion and it always throws people off.
I think I'll leave it on this touchy-feely note. Join us next week for part two of the chat, when we discuss digital publishing, Bryon's plans for Exhibit A, and decide once and for all who has better typing skills. - H
Jul 102013

Young mountain man Shooter York had been trapping with his cousin George Monk and returned to find his beloved Tennessee home in turmoil as the US Army enforced the Indian Removal Act in 1833.

Shooter hadn't agreed with the proposed action, but it hit even closer to home than he realized when a friend of his got caught up in the middle of it. Moon Bear was accused of killing an Army transport crew and of taking rifles.

After helping the Army find Moon Bear, Shooter learned that his friend was looking for his son, who was following Calling Owl, a renegade leader conducting raids on helpless settlers. Shooter and George had no choice but to free Moon Bear and take up the hunt. But with the US Army on their heels and riding into the teeth of dangerous renegades, Tennessee seemed more crowded than ever.

(As you can tell from the cover, this book is connected to the Rancho Diablo series, but since it's a prequel, you don't have to have read any of the others before this one.)

Jun 032013

Slaves Of The Empire #2: Haesel The Slave, by Dael Forest
August, 1978  Ballantine Books

This second volume of the Slaves Of The Empire series seems to bear out my theory that the five volumes were planned as (or at least written as) one long book. The story picks up immediately after the preceding installment, with no attempt at filling in readers who might’ve missed the previous volume. Author Dael Forest (aka Stephen Frances) whittles down his sprawling cast this time out, allowing the reader to better appreicate the story. And also he slightly increases the lurid quotient, something apparent from the first pages, which open on an orgy our main protagonist Hadrian attends.

As we’ll recall Hadrian has been hired to build a new town, which he does with the assistance of his co-planner, the slave Haesel, who has a long-simmering sort of thing for Hadrian, and vice versa. But now at this orgy Hadrian also is asked to head up a new Games, so he must figure out how to get animals and prisoners and gladiators for the event; he tasks his chief slave Cornutus with this, so there’s yet another new character to contend with. Meanwhile Haesel’s brothers and sisters still are slaves, except for studly Saelig, who remember had a fling with Hadrian’s wife Areta.

Saelig was whipped very harshly at Areta’s command in the climax of the previous volume, and we discover that Areta is bereft and has gone down to Baiae to mope. Saelig meanwhile has made a full recovery and has forgiven her. So moved by the slave’s obvious love for his wife, Hadrian gives Saelig his freedom. He offers to do so for Haesel as well, but she’s vehemently opposed to the idea; for reasons unexplained, she is determined to remain Hadrian’s slave until he feels that she has rightfully won her freedom. She doesn’t want a free handout, and this rightfully puzzles Hadrian, given how outspoken the girl has been about the unjustness of her slavery.

Meanwhile Haesel’s sister Mertice still pines away for Alexander, despite that he’s given her to the lusty object of his affections, Melanos. As sick as we readers are of seeing Mertice moping around, Melanos orders her chief of slaves to fondle the girl on a daily basis! Melanos herself has some fun; while at the Baths in a nicely-elaborated scene, she runs into Plautus, a young soldier of high family who has just returned to Rome after years away. Frances here really brings to life the decadent atmosphere of the Roman Baths, and the new couple rush back to Melanos’s place to have sex.

Frances does a better job sensationalizing his otherwise tepid soap opera: the long-simmer relationship between Hadrian and Haesel catches a little fire when Haesel gets bitten by a snake on her thigh and Hadrian does the ol’ “suck out the poison” routine. He also has Saelig, now a free man, making obvious moves on Areta. The most lurid sequence though would have to be the very long scene at the Ampitheater (which Frances confusingly refers to as “the Forum”), all of it pretty much taken straight out of Daniel Manix’s Those About To Die, with virgins being raped, prisoners being gutted, and charioteers crashing spectacularly.

I’m still having trouble putting together when this all takes place. The Emperor briefly appears during the Games sequence, but he is not named and we are just informed that he’s old and that there are factions of highborn and soldiers aligning against him. At first I thought a clue might be found in the name of the town Hadrian is building, Trebula, but a cursory Googling reveals that there were three such towns in Italy during the Roman era, and all of them predate the Empire. At any rate the Slaves Of The Empire series definitely takes place after the days of Nero, mentioned here as “long dead.”

The lurid quotient continues apace as Frances dives straight into a chapter-long recounting of a Bona Dea ceremony, as Melanos and her fellow female worshippers strip down, anoit themselves with oil, and get themselves nice and randy so they can set themselves loose on some lucky men of their choosing. In Melanos’s case it is Platus, Frances having built up the anticipation between the two, Melanos abstaining from sex until the night of Bona Dea, and Platus grinning and bearing it.

Platus meanwhile serves to bring more action to the tale, at least indirectly; plotting against the Emperor with others, he maneuvers an assassination attempt which is quickly uncovered, and we learn in passing that Platus has been tortured to death! Oh well, so long Platus. Melanos however finds herself knocked up after that night of Bona Dea passion, so she politely informs Hadrian that she’ll no longer be having casual sex with him. So too does another high-born Roman gal Hadrian has a relationship with, so that within a short span of time Hadrian finds himself without any friends-with-benefits.

This leads to the culmination of the Hadrian-Haesel situation, at least. Growing increasingly short-tempered due to his lack of sex, Hadrian finds himself snapping at others and even checking out the female slaves. Plus Haesel has become more and more distant ever since he sucked the poison out of her thigh, and it gets to the point where Hadrian can’t take it anymore and orders Haesel to remove her tunic in his presence. He’s going to make her his sex-slave whether she likes it or not, even giving her a place of her own and calling on her every once in a while – there will no longer be any need for her to actually work.

But Haesel again turns the tables, going into “slave mode” and telling Hadrian she will do whatever he orders, when Hadrian can easily see that she is against the whole thing. But it all finally leads up to the two having sex, at long last – the trick being that Hadrian breaks down and tells Haesel he can’t order her to love him, he can’t make her do what it is against her nature to do, she can only do what she wants to do, and this it turns out is all Haesel has been waiting to hear.

And with this long-simmer relationship coming at long last to boil, the book abruptly ends. It would probably be smart to go immediately into the third volume, but the placid nature of this series sort of dulls the reader’s senses, so it’s best to take some time between installments. But overall Haesel The Slave was at least more entertaining and sordid than its predecessor, which makes me hope that future volumes will continue the trend.
Feb 262013
RIVERS OF GOLD: A NOVEL OF THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH is now available as an e-book for both the Kindle and the Nook. This is a book that Livia and I wrote a number of years ago, and it's the sort of big, sprawling, historical epic nobody writes much anymore. And if I do say so myself, I think it's the sort of book that we do really well and it's one of my favorites among our historical novels. Lots of action and romance, colorful settings and characters, some historical background, a little humor, and a final scene that I really, really like. Check it out!
Oct 112012

Slaves Of The Empire #1: Barba The Slaver, by Dael Forest
August, 1978 Ballantine Books

This was the start of a five-volume series, originally published in the UK in 1975, which takes place during some unspecified time in the Roman Empire. The author, Stephen Frances posing as “Dael Forest,” namedrops a few people here and there: Poppaea for one is often mentioned, but it’s never stated if in fact this is the same woman who was Nero’s Empress of Rome (or, for that matter, Poppea the Elder). And one of the protagonists is named Hadrian, but it’s certainly not the future emperor. So there's no way to exactly pinpoint when it all takes place.

Anyway, the awesome Boris Vallejo cover and the exploitative title have you expecting a full-on blast of toga porn, but the novel itself is moreso a drawn out soap opera. The story is very domestic, with none of the empire-spanning travel you normally get in such books. Instead everything plays out on an almost humdrum level, not even bothering to play up on the salacious aspect of life in the ancient world.

Five young siblings from Briton are taken captive and imported to Rome as slaves, and I assume they will be the driving force of the series: Haesel, a pretty young girl who hates slavery; Saelig, a good-looking hunk of muscle who makes the ladies quiver; Redwall, who takes up a smidgen of the narrative but thrives in slavery, given his business acumen; Thane, a hot-tempered leader who quickly revolts and therefore is sent into hard labor; and beautiful Mertice, with the flowing blonde hair to her waist who falls in love with her handsome young master.

This first installment is titled “Barba The Slaver,” but Barba himself has little screen time. He’s the Rome-based slavemaster who sells the five youths, but other than a brief scene where he oversees their selling he doesn’t have much to do with the book. I’d imagine the book was named after him for the exploitative effect…which, again, the novel itself really doesn’t have much of.

Instead we hopscotch across a wide group of characters, sometimes from the point of view of the slaves, other times from their masters. Nothing much really happens, and given the book’s short length (barely 160 pages) it comes off more like the opening quarter of a larger novel – my assumption is all five books were written at once, but that might not be so. What I mean is, you could probably just read all five books as one novel.

But really, the multitude of characters overwhelms the paucity of pages…it’s like Frances has a hard time juggling everything and just says to hell with it and spins his wheels. So for one storyline we have Hadrian, intelligent business leader who has been given the job of building a new town. His slave is Haesel, who herself is intelligent, given that she was a high-born Briton. But as mentioned Haesel burns with a hatred of slavery and takes to her new lot in life hard, especially when she begins to grow feelings for Hadrian. Frances appears to be building up something between her and Hadrian, but leaves it open at the end of the novel.

Then there’s Areta, Hadrian’s wife, who has dedicated her life to pleasure and so is very much the cliched Roman harlot-wife. Her daily routine consists of going to the Baths, gossiping, and going home with some random guy – not that Frances ever gets explicit in the least. In fact the whole novel is written in a sort of antiseptic tone, which as I’ve mentioned before I find pretty common in British pulp. Dammit, I want trash, not psuedo-literature!!

Anyway, Areta initiates the novel because she’s envious of the oft-mentioned but never-seen Poppaea, who shows up at the Baths with a studly male slave that has all the women atwitter. Areta wants one of her own. So Hadrian takes her to Barba’s slave shop, where they spot Saelig, who is everything Areta could want. While there Hadrian kills the proverbial two birds by picking up Haesel, not because she’s Saelig’s sister but because he needs a new slave anyway. I guess Barba’s is like the Wal-mart of slave shops, but he does not discount on the double purchase.

The majority of the novel is given over to the interractions between Hadrian and Haesel and Areta and Saelig, with for example much focus given to Areta preparing Saelig for his debut at the Baths, where she’s sure he will be the envy of all the Roman women. Frances also dwells on initially-unrelated characters, like Melanos, a highborn Roman lady who has a casual sex thing with Hadrian and who enjoys competing against men in various pursuits. Frances intimates she might have Sapphic tendencies as well, but doesn’t elaborate.

Then there’s Alexander, studly young Roman of the priviledged class who gets ownership of beautiful Mertice, but doesn’t even notice her given that he owns a few hundred slaves. Mertice notices him, though, and so pines for him throughout the book, in what is by far the most annoying part. In fact Mertice is so stupid and docile that you eventually get a sick delight in her ensuing bad treatment, particularly when Alexander only notices her in his attempts to gain favor with Melanos, whom he lusts for (Melanos meanwhile loathes him).

A problem with the book is not only the similarity of characters and situations but also of names. Frances does himself no favors with character names like Melanos, Mertice, Areta, and even Rheta (Areta’s female slave steward). There are others besides, and it gets to be a chore keeping them apart.

Another problem is the aforementioned lack of events. The novel moves at its own torpid pace, with nothing major occurring. Saelig mimics various people for Areta’s amusement, Areta later throws herself at him demanding that he love her, Hadrian works on his new town with Haesel eventually becoming his right-hand woman, and in the only moment when the novel comes out of its own lastitude Alexander orders Mertice to wrestle another slave-girl, again in the vain hopes of gaining Melanos’s favor.

What’s missing is the sense of escapism one looks for in historical fiction, or the feeling of a lost age. Frances relates it all in a casual, offhand manner. I guess that could be seen as part of the book’s charm; whereas other Rome-centric historical fiction goes big and flashy, Frances here instead plays it low key and subdued, but still. When you read a novel titled Barba The Slaver which is announced as the first installment of a series called Slaves Of The Empire, you want something more than “low key.”
Jun 292012
Frederick Faust is most famous for the Westerns he wrote under the name Max Brand and numerous other pseudonyms, of course. But like any good pulpster, he wrote a lot of other things, too, including historical novels. WHITE HEATHER WEATHER, which was serialized in the pulp magazine ARGOSY – ALL STORY in 1921 under the name John Frederick, is set in England in the 17th Century, during the reign of Charles II. Its protagonist is a young man named Samson Integrity Northam, and it's no coincidence that his initials spell out the word SIN.

Samson's father, you see, is a former Puritan soldier who served under Oliver Cromwell, but following Cromwell's death and the restoration of the monarchy, John Northam has retired and is running an inn with the help of his son Samson. Then, one moonlit night, destiny rolls into the inn's courtyard in the form of a coach carrying a mysterious, beautiful blonde. The coachman – who has secrets of his own – has a sprained wrist, so he asks Samson to help him drive the coach on to London. Samson, who has caught a glimpse of the blonde, has fallen in love at first sight, and since he's the fanciful sort who has always longed for something more the drab life of his father, he agrees to the proposal.

Well, it won't come as any surprise that the girl is in danger from pursuers, and the first half of the novel is a fast-paced adventure full of swashbuckling action as Samson risks his life numerous times in order to get her safely to London.

Once they're there, however, the story takes a different turn and settles down to become more of a dramatic comedy about romantic and political intrigue. Samson stays in London instead of returning to the inn and is soon mingling with all sorts of historical figures at the royal court. He meets another girl, a serving wench named Sally, who like nearly everybody else in this novel has secrets and unexpected depths of her own.

This is the first of Faust's swashbucklers I've read, and he has a great touch with the swordfights. In fact, I could have done with a few more of them and a little less angst in the second half. Still, Faust writes so well and does such a fine job of depicting English society during this era that I never lost interest in the story. As I got close to the end of the book I wondered how he was going to pull everything together into a satisfying finish, but sure enough, he does.

This is a pretty old-fashioned yarn, as you'd expect from a novel first published more than ninety years ago, but I enjoyed it a great deal. Our friends at Beb Books have rescued it from obscurity and will have an affordable reprint edition available soon. If you like historical novels and all you know of Frederick Faust is his Westerns, you ought to give WHITE HEATHER WEATHER a try.
Jun 132012

Empress of Desire, by Jack Mertes
March, 1982 Pocket Books

Here's a sentence I don't get to write every day, but I got burned out on toga porn. A couple years ago I went through a fit of madness, trying to find these trashy works of historical fiction, the majority of which were long forgotten. (I listed all of the ones I'd found on two Amazon Listmania lists, which can now be found on my Toga Porn Mania post.) I read a lot of them at the time, but unfortunately it was before I started this blog...back then I'd post reviews on Amazon, where they'd just collect dust, due to the obscurity of the books.

Anyway, I've been meaning to read Empress of Desire for a few years now. This is a late-model release in the genre, which had mostly dried up by the late 1970s. But it's a big fat paperback original which promises a trashy excursion back into the days of Imperial Rome, detailing the sex-filled maneuverings of Poppaea Sabina as she plots to ensnare emperor Nero and marry him, thus becoming empress of Rome.

Poppaea in my mind will always be the ultra-sexy Claudette Colbert (my favorite actress, by the way), as she appeared in the role in Cecil B. DeMille's 1932 sex-and-sin extravaganza The Sign of the Cross:

And that's not even a shot from her infamous (and topless) milk bath scene!

Ironically, even though Claudette only appears in about a quarter of the film, her portrayal of Poppaea is more memorable than the one Jack Mertes presents. Claudette's Poppaea is a powerhouse of erotic force who dominates every character (not to mention scene); Mertes's Poppaea is more of a shrill harpie who, if her wiles don't work, throws tantrums to get what she wants. But then, the Poppaea of the film is already empress of Rome. Mertes shows the torrid path she took to get there, though he does take a few liberties with history. Not that it matters - this is fiction, after all.

The majority of the novel is given over to Poppaea's scheming to first meet Nero, and then seduce him. Really though Empress of Desire is in the vein of the sex-filled Romance novels that were all the rage in the late 1970s, with a duplicitous and headstrong female character who thinks she wants power, but it turns out that all she's really been searching for is a good orgasm. There's also the obligatory love-hate relationship, in this case with a gruff horse-breeder named Tigellinus (an actual historical figure, but changed here), whom Poppaea just hates and hates...that is, when she isn't jumping his bones or planning to give up her dreams and marry him.

But Poppaea's sexual antics aren't limited to Tigellinus. Over the course of Empress of Desire she beds a veritable army of men, Mertes never shirking on the good stuff -- though, humorously enough, he likes to employ euphemisms that were all the rage with early 20th century Loeb Classical Library translators: mound of Venus, love-spear, etc. So while it doesn't get full-on Baroness hardcore, the book still packs a hefty punch. Just to give you an idea, Poppaea seduces (then poisons) her present husband while carrying on an affair with the porcine Otho, whom she later marries -- all in a bid to meet Nero. Along the way she manages frequent encounters with Tigellinus, even at one point hooking up with a Gallic barbarian. And all of this is before we even get to Nero!

Mertes though has this super-strange tendency to always specify that the men stink. It's really weird and disconcerting, mainly because it's mentioned in every sex scene. The men either reek of garlic, cheap wine, or just a general funk, and it gets pretty old after a while. Even pampered Nero, we learn, has an unsavory smell about him. Maybe Mertes's theme is that men just stink in general, who knows. But after you've read for the umpteenth time about Tigellinus reeking of garlic as he hops on Poppaea, you've pretty much had enough.

Another strange quirk of Mertes is his occasional attempt to gross us out. There's a sequence where Otho, as a way to teach her a lesson, has Poppaea thrown into the Mamertine prison. After enduring this squalid existence for a few days, Poppaea is freed during a slave revolt. (Here is where she bumps uglies with the aforementioned barbarian, right on the street!) After which Poppaea passes out; it turns out she has contracted some plague from the prison, and over the next several pages Mertes delights in telling us all about Poppaea's vomitous spewings and so forth. Later on there's an even more nauseating sequence where Poppaea gives herself an abortion. I mean, not that I'm squeamish or anything, it's' just that these scenes don't seem to fit into the trashy decadence of the novel itself.

For Mertes proves himself a master of trashy decadence. There are some great scenes here, from when Poppaea rents out a room in a whorehouse in the hopes of fooling Nero into thinking she's the house's prized courtesan, to Poppaea and Nero's later plotting to kill off Nero's family. Mertes generally does a good job bringing to life the torrid world of Imperial Rome, though not with quite the mastery that Sylvia Fraser displayed in her 1982 The Emperor's Virgin (one of those toga porns I read before I started this blog -- and it was a good one). But there are many scenes here that capture the exotic glory of Rome, even an overlong sequence in the Circus Maximus.

Empress of Desire could almost be seen as a psuedo-sequel to Jack Oleck's Messalina. Poppaea's mother killed herself as a result of Messalina's scheming, and Poppaea grew up consumed with vengeance. Poppaea's story is unusual because you know this woman deserved to gain her revenge, but fate robbed her of it -- everyone who deserved comeuppance was dead by the time she reached adulthood. So instead, Poppaea just became as cruel, vindictive, and calculative as Messalina herself; there are many scenes in the novel where she goes into conniptions when someone actually compares her to Messalina.

So, Poppaea sets her sights on Nero, because she wants the power of being empress. She quickly ensnares him, Poppaea's beauty such that Nero is overwhelmed (Mertes skirts over the popular notion -- as intimated by Charles Laughton in The Sign of the Cross -- that Nero was gay), and soon enough she has the emperor eating out of the palm of her hand. Nero, constantly dominated by women throughout the novel, plots the deaths of various people at the behest of Poppaea, who sees all of them as obstacles in her path to becoming empress.

Top target is Agrippina, Nero's mother. Like Poppaea, Agrippina suffered a miserable childhood in which most of her family was murdered, insinuating herself into politics as an adult. And she sees Poppaea using the same wooing tricks on Nero that Agrippina herself used on emperor Claudius. Mertes delivers some awesome soap opera-esque catfights between Poppaea and Agrippina, complete with delicious putdowns and the like. Agrippina is losing her firm hold on Nero, even resorting to incestual propositions in a desperate attempt to keep him in tow.

But those who know their history know that Agrippina's time is limited, and Mertes enacts her famous murder toward the end of the tale, having Tigellinus witness it. (Empress of Desire by the way also takes place around the same time as Lance Horner's Rogue Roman, but in that novel at least Agrippina was busy counter-plotting against her son.)

The title of the novel is misleading in that Poppaea doesn't actually become empress until the last page. Mertes leaves Poppaea's fate unmentioned, and indeed serves up foreshadowing in the narrative that he doesn't follow through on, leaving it up to interested readers to seek out Tacitus or Suetonius. For example, he intimates that Poppea may one day regret having Nero ban her former husband Otho, but never tells us why -- namely, because upon Nero's death Otho himself became emperor for a brief time, and actually ordered the death of Tigellinus (who in the novel as in history becomes the leader of the Praetorian guard). As for Poppaea's fate, which again Mertes doesn't cover, she was killed (accidentally?) by Nero, who either kicked her or fell on her while she was pregnant.

Given that he ends the tale so early in Poppaea's life, Mertes doesn't even get to the well-known stuff. We don't get to see the infamous "Great Fire" of Rome, Nero's Golden House, or any of the other sordid events as recounted by the ancient historians. It makes me wonder if Empress of Desire was planned as the first volume in perhaps a trilogy about Poppaea -- as it is, the novel ends with the fate of all the characters still in question.

In a final note, Mertes thanks several people on the opening page, and closes his acknowledgements with the statement, "This is only the beginning!" Ironically enough, this appears to be the only novel Mertes published. So I guess it was the beginning and the end.
Jun 062012

The Western has long been criticized unfairly as being morally black and white, a simplistic, heavy-handed genre full of clearly defined good guys and bad guys trying to kill each other. And to be honest, there have been plenty of Western stories and novels just like that, and the ones that are done well can be pretty doggoned entertaining, at least to me.

But you can go all the way back to the days of Zane Grey and Max Brand and find plenty of other Westerns that don't fit that description at all. Frederick Faust, who wrote as Brand and a dozen other pseudonyms, loved to put his characters through all sorts of emotional torment as they tried to decide what was right and what was wrong. Many of the protagonists found in the work of Luke Short (Frederick Glidden) and T.T. Flynn were just as morally complex, and then you have stories like Robert E. Howard's "The Vultures of Wahpeton", which is about as different as you can get from the simplistic "gun-dummy" stories that editors such as Rogers Terrill tried to get away from in the pulps during the Thirties. You can't really call it a trend since it was always there in the Western (the Virginian's dilemma of how to deal with his friends Steve and Trampas, anyone?), but that realism and complexity became the dominant force in the Western field with authors such as H.A. DeRosso, Lewis B. Patten, and Dudley Dean McGaughey, and continues in many of today's Westerns.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that Julia Robb's excellent new novel SCALP MOUNTAIN fits perfectly into this area of Western realism. It's the story of former army scout Colum McNeal, who is haunted by the accidental death of his younger brother at his hands. It's not just emotional torment, either. Colum's own father has sent a hired killer after him, a former friend who has an agenda of his own, and this stubborn refusal of the sins of the past to go away complicates Colum's efforts to establish a horse ranch in New Mexico Territory.

Throw in an Apache war chief with a grudge of his own against Colum, a Texas Ranger dogged by the past as well, a beautiful young woman who adopts an Indian baby and faces all the prejudices that come with that, and you can see that the tagline of this book is very fitting: "Everybody was right. Everybody was wrong. Everybody got hurt."

In less skilled hands, this story could have become a soap opera (not that there's anything wrong with that), but Robb writes very well, really capturing the landscape and the people in a style that reminds me a little of James Lee Burke. As confident and well-executed as SCALP MOUNTAIN is, it's quite impressive to think that this is a debut novel. I don't know if there's going to be a sequel, but if there is, I'll gladly read it.
May 242012

Messalina, by Jack Oleck
July, 1960 Dell Books

Published in hardcover in 1959 and continuously in print for the next several years, Jack Oleck's Messalina is now long out of print and barely remembered. Yet it is historical fiction of the best sort: trashy, exploitative, packed with violence and sex. No "detectives in togas," no poorly-written military fiction, no thinly-veiled Christian glurge -- this is a full-on romp in the salacious world of Imperial Rome, more Technicolor than Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra.

Messalina recounts the tale of the real-life woman who married Claudius, the fourth emperor of Rome. She's known to history as a backstabbing schemer with an insatiable lust for sex, so don't go into this novel expecting a G-rated story of ancient Rome. Oleck takes us from her youth to her end, barring no details of her cold-blooded and predator-like ways: for Messalina, sex was a means to power, and boy did she know how to use it.

Within the first 60 pages Messalina has already caused a slave to be facially mutilated, the death of two men, and a Roman senator to be disgraced and publically ruined -- and she's still only 15 years old. Within a few more pages she's pregnant -- still only 15. And they say kids today grow up too fast. This is the type of ride Oleck takes us on, the kicker being that it's all cut straight out of history. Oleck changes a few things here and there, but for the most part he gives us a thorough retelling of this malicious and cunning woman.

Those who know Messalina's story will know what's missing -- namely, the all-night sex competition that, according to Pliny the Elder, Messalina once took part in with a prostitute. It goes unmentioned here, though Oleck does at one point state that various rumors are circulating about Messalina -- the implication being that this competition might be one of those rumors. There's also no acknowledgement of the young Nero, whom the real-life Messalina wanted dead, as she realized that he could one day become emperor rather than her son Germanicus.

A warning: Messalina will perhaps be the most unlikeable protagonist you ever encounter in a novel. She has no redeeming qualities. With cold detachment she plots and counterplots throughout the narrative, ruining lives, ordering deaths, toying with emotions. Even the two children she bears Claudius go unloved. Here Oleck veers from the historical record. For it's often speculated that Messalina's plotting was the result of her fear for her children's lives; anyone who knows Roman history knows that the children of the aristocracy always lived near death.

Messalina's children Octavia and Germanicus would be next on the kill-list if their father Claudius was murdered. In real life it seems that, when Messalina orchestrated various deaths and banishments, it was only of people she believed to pose a threat to her children. In many cases it seems her hunches were correct; Poppaea Sabina the elder was one of those whom Messalina had killed, and Poppaea's same-named daughter actually did cause the death of Messalina's daughter, many years later.

But in this novel, Messalina is self-centered to the fullest extent; all of her plotting and manipulating is for her own gain and no one else's. This makes her into such a hateable and loathsome character that you soon find yourself rooting against her, and when her end comes on the very last page you nearly toss the book aside with a celebratory cheer.

Oleck's writing is mostly fine, though I found a few too many awkward and confusing sentences. And despite the abundance of sex, he's pretty conservative in the graphic department -- no doubt due to when the novel was published. Also, every character speaks like they are in a 1950s historical film, something that has always annoyed me about historical fiction. Oleck's superb however at setting up scenes and peering into the minds of his characters.

If only Oleck had made Messalina a bit more likeable, at least allowed us to sympathize with her. His greatest stroke is creating an archenemy of sorts for Messalina: a Jewish slave named Isaac whose life mirrors Messalina's like a negative reflection; the irony being that Messalina, empress of Rome, the most powerful woman in the world, is obsessed with ruining the life of an anonymous Jew.

And Oleck gets bonus points for never -- not even once -- mentioning Christianity. Finally, an author who realizes that the majority of Romans in the first few centuries CE had never even heard of the religion.

This is an old review, by the way, originally posted on Amazon back in 2008. I've always meant to post it here on the blog, as I have my other old toga porn reviews from Amazon. What made me finally get around to posting it is that I recently read Jack Mertes's psuedo-sequel Empress of Desire, all about Poppaea Sabina the younger and her hatred of Messalina; review coming soon.
Mar 092012
This five-part serial by H. Bedford-Jones ran in ARGOSY from January 4, 1936 to February 1, 1936. It's the sequel to his novel "Bowie Knife" but with the exception of some historical figures does not use any of the same characters. This one starts a short time after the other novel leaves off with the fall of the Alamo and the slaughter of the old mission's defenders by the Mexican army under the command of General Santa Anna. Tennessean Gordon Durant, who has come to Texas to help in the fight for independence, is on his way from Goliad to San Antonio, carrying a message from his commander Colonel James Fannin intended for Colonel William Barrett Travis, in command at the Alamo. Durant has another reason for being in Texas, though: he is searching for his evil half-brother Vincent, who looks so much like Gordon that he was almost able to successfully seduce Gordon's fiancee in New Orleans. This occurred after Vincent stole a great deal of money from his and Gordon's late father in Tennessee. In the great pulp tradition, Vincent Durant is a thoroughly despicable villain.

Before he reaches San Antonio, Gordon Durant encounters a Mexican officer and is forced to kill him in a brief fight. The officer is carrying dispatches intended for Santa Anna. Gordon takes his uniform and the dispatch case, intending to masquerade as the dead officer. While disposing of the dead man's body, he is stumbled upon by a Mexican outlaw, Jacopo, who takes him for someone else-Vincent, obviously-and prattles on about stolen gold and how Vincent is a member of the same outlaw band. Gordon pretends to be his half-brother in order to get away and ride on into San Antonio.

When he gets there, he discovers that the Alamo has fallen and all of its defenders are dead. He successfully carries out his impersonation of the dead officer and is assigned by Santa Anna to a spying mission. Gordon's only real aim is to get out of San Antonio safely so that he can carry the news of its fall to the rest of the Texas army. But he gets saddled with the beautiful Dona Amadora de la Vega, who also thinks he is really Vincent Durant (half the people in Texas seem to have run into Vincent) and who happens to be the niece of the Mexican officer Gordon Durant killed. Amadora has a small casket full of jewels with her . . . or is it full of gold stolen from Santa Anna instead?

For several installments, Gordon Durant runs around southern Texas, catches up to his half-brother only to lose him before he can settle the score between them, is captured by the gang of outlaws that Vincent has joined, escapes, rejoins the Texas army and is sent out to spy by Sam Houston, discovers that his fiancee Faith and her father are also in Texas, is captured at the Battle of Coleto with the rest of Fannin's men and barely escapes when they are executed in the massacre at Goliad, scouts for the Texas army with Deaf Smith, and finally winds up taking part in the Battle of San Jacinto in which the outnumbered Texans handily defeat the Mexican army and capture Santa Anna. This decisive battle also forms the backdrop for Gordon's final showdown with his brother.

This is all as breathless as it sounds, and to be honest, all the fictional intrigue and adventures surrounding Gordon Durant come off as a bit forced and confusing. It reads wonderfully, of course, thanks to Bedford-Jones' skill as a storyteller. If anything, "Texas Shall Be Free!" has even more momentum than its predecessor, which was an excellent novel.

What sets this story apart and lifts it to the status of one of the best historical novels I've ever read about the Texas Revolution are the descriptions of both the landscape and the battles. I don't know if Bedford-Jones ever visited Texas or relied solely on research, but he nailed the area between San Antonio and the Gulf of Mexico. I've been all over this part of the country, and every bit of description rings true. Then there are the passages concerning the Goliad massacre, the Runaway Scrape (when the Texas army as well as the settlers in the area were fleeing from Santa Anna), and the battles at Coleto and San Jacinto. Bedford-Jones' prose is never wordy and never loses its swiftness, but he paints vivid pictures of these scenes that plunge the reader into the experiences he describes. Not to gush, but this is historical fiction at its best.

If I were a small-press publisher, one of the first projects I'd take on would be a reprinting of "Bowie Knife" and "Texas Shall Be Free!" in one volume. Since I'm not, I'll just highly recommend the issues of ARGOSY in which they appear to any fan of top-notch historical novels.

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