If You’re Fond of Sea Fights and Demon Lairs: A Review of Waters of Darkness by David C. Smith and Joe Bonadonna

Waters-of-Darkness-largeLike many older science fiction and fantasy readers, I was introduced to my favorite genres by pulp fiction. I missed the pulp magazine era, which died in the late 1950s; but I was around during the rise of modern mass-market paperback publishers like Ace and DAW, who reprinted old and published new pulp SF/F for new generations of readers. Sadly, this second age also came to an end. By the close of the 1980s, professionally published pulp SF/F had been ground down to a nub by numerous competing forces. These included, but were not confined to, a shift in heroic-fantasy consumption from original fiction to role-playing games and media tie-in novels; a glut of bad heroic-fantasy movies; the explosion of Lord of the Rings knockoffs; the Star Wars-sparked eruption of big-budget SF/F movies with ever-better special effects; and the increasing focus of many big-name SF/F publishers on more high-falutin’ forms of SF/F.

I have nothing against literary SF/F. I love the work of Octavia E. Butler and Theodore Sturgeon and  Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany and scores of other literary SF/F writers. But when I started reading prose SF/F in the 1970s, I wasn’t introduced to the stuff by Dhalgren or The Dispossessed. I was introduced by Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars and Jirel of Joiry and Conan the Barbarian and Imaro of the Ilyassai and Elric of Melniboné and dozens of other pulp heroes. So, when non-media-related pulp SF/F became rare in the waning decades of the twentieth century, I knew it wasn’t just a problem for established fans of pulp SF/F prose. I knew it was a barrier to attracting the new readers necessary to sustain original SF/F prose of any flavor.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the future: the rebirth of pulp fiction. Newfangled technologies like the World Wide Web, scanners, print-on-demand book production, and electronic publishing emerged at the same time that older pulp works and trademarks were lapsing into the public domain. Old fans uploaded scans of classic pulp art and prose to the Internet; produced digitized editions of public-domain titles for volunteer efforts like Project Gutenberg; or founded publishing companies so they could reissue long-out-of-print pulp fiction. These books, magazines, websites, electronic texts, and interweb uploads reached new readers and created new fans. New fans and old wrote retro-style new fiction about old pulp characters and new creations, and either released these works as affordable eBooks and print-on-demand hardcopies, or found homes with new publishers hungry for new titles to feed the New Millennium’s growing pulp audience. And readers who once wondered why anyone would read a book on a computer screen found themselves reading eBooks on an increasing array of increasingly sophisticated handheld devices. You can call it a virtuous circle, a perfect storm, the New Pulp Movement, or merely proof that everything that rises must converge. But, however you describe the phenomenon, pulp fiction is enjoying its second Renaissance.

New Pulp, like old, has produced fiction which is quite bad, and fiction which is quite good. One of the better New Pulp titles is, interestingly, a novel whose authors represent both the mid-Twentieth-Century and the New-Millennial pulp eras. This novel, Waters of Darkness, is a collaboration between David C. Smith, one of the best authors to emerge during the 1970s pulp-paperback explosion, and Joe Bonadonna, one of the best writers to emerge in the New Pulp era. Bonadonna has previously released a science fiction adventure novel, Three Against the Stars (2012), and a noir-edged heroic-fantasy collection, Mad Shadows (2011), which centers around his best-known character, a magic-wielding private investigator called Dorgo the Dowser. As for Smith, his heroic fantasy of the 1970s and 1980s was influenced by Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery; by Homer’s ancient epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey; by the ancient Greek tragedies; and by Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. It’s an unusual mix, possibly unique and certainly well executed, and Smith’s antiheroes–the patricidal barbarian Oron and the accursed wanderer Akram–rank among the finest sword and sorcery characters of any era.

In Smith and Bonadonna’s first collaboration, the novel Waters of Darkness, New Pulp finds a larger-than-life new hero: Bloody Red Buchanan. A big, hard-drinking, hard-fighting Scottish pirate, he captains the Raven, ravages other ships, and counsels his men that “when it comes to life and death–it’s tooth and nail, fists and feet”–actions and behaviors which are distinctly antiheroic. Yet, like a Rafael Sabatini hero, or old-school pulp characters like John Carter and Philip Marlowe, Buchanan holds to a code of honor. So do two key allies. One is his closest friend and first mate, a runaway slave and tremendous fighter known as Mose Cooper. The other is Buchanan’s rival in piracy and partner in love, Crimson Kate O’Toole, the sharp-witted and quick-shooting captain of the Witch of the Indies.

Waters of Darkness proceeds smartly as the trio and their crews, eager for treasure, land on an ill-omened island known as La Isla de Sombra. The Isle of Shadow drips with water and ooze, as if it has just risen from the depths of the ocean, and its black sands bear a distinct resemblance to burnt-bone fragments. Ignoring these warning signs, Buchanan and Cooper lead fourteen crewmen into the Isle of Shadow’s long-lost temple of Dagon, whose wall bears a cephalopodal image that will evoke a shiver of recognition in anyone familiar with a certain eldritch creation of Old Pulp superstar H.P. Lovecraft.

The pirates’ treasure hunt ends in an accursed trove and the stirring of powers better left undisturbed. These powers prove particularly monstrous, persistent, and ruthless, even by the demanding standards of experienced pulp fans. Though the pirates sail partway across the world, they succeed only in dragging their trouble to new shores, where it proceeds to slaughter numerous crew members, as well as old allies who had nothing to do with Buchanan and Mose’s treasure hunt. As the horror grows ever grimmer and more triumphant, the plot takes several surprising twists and turns. But even their final, unexpected journey through a remote jungle (by internal evidence, the Knysna-Amatole montane forests of South Africa) may not save the few surviving pirates.

Waters of Darkness is not perfect. Its prose could have been a bit tighter. Too, the copyediting could have been sharper (one villain is referred to as both an Arab and a Persian). Some readers will not be pleased that the villains tend to be Mideastern, or that the plot is disproportionately hard on the disproportionately few female characters. However, the prose is good; the pace is fast; the plot is imaginative and gripping; the fantasy elements are convincing and scary; and the collaborators avoid the all-white’n’male-heroes syndrome of much pulp fiction of earlier eras. If you’re looking for superior swashbuckling pirate adventure in the mode of Captain Blood, Black Terence Vulmea, and “Queen of the Black Coast,” you’ll find Smith and Bonadonna’s Waters of Darkness to be just the red meat and heady rum you’re craving.

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Science Fiction To Look For: December 2021

The weather outside may be frightful, but we’ve got some books for you to cozy up to as the nights get longer. Especially noteworthy is Cyber Mage, by Saad Z. Hossain who wrote the brilliant science fiction/fantasy mashup novella The Gurkha and The Lord of Tuesday. There’s also a race of mute aliens in Spidertouch, the finish of Kristyn Merbeth’s Nova Viata system trilogy, and the best of the robots in Allan Kaster’s latest anthology.

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