Thursday, November 6, 2014

Thulsa's Gate

I read a lot of pulp fiction. From the stories of ClarkAshton Smith to the novels of Andre Norton and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read them because of their earnestness – Smith’s “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan,” for example, is a rather straightforward tale of an avaricious money-lender cursed by a beggar whom he cheats; straightforward, that is, until the gems he bought from the beggar for a song take him to his weirding. The last sentence of the story (which I won’t reveal here) lets you know you’re reading Clark Ashton Smith.

That’s what I admire about Robert Shultz’s “Thulsa’s Gate.” The earnestness. Schultz’s story is rooted in a straightforward reality: A modern team the restores vintage aircraft search for a crashed World War II-era bomber in Wyoming’s Teton Range. But then the earnest, pulpy science fiction comes into the story: The plane is the anthropomorphized focus of a swirling storm that acts as a portal to a parallel world, and the straightforward airplane restorers fly right through it.

The premise sets the ensemble up for the classic “can the newcomers survive in a world gone mad” scenario classic to the best pulp fiction. Schultz tells his tale well, bringing in the stock pulp characters – the evil overlord, the comical, yet highly-educated animal species, the damsel in distress who ain’t actually in distress and is actually in charge of the whole mess, and the plucky hero who finds the magical weaponry and who will fight against all odds to see the battles won and the airplane brought back home and restored as it ought to be.

Maybe that description sounds snotty, but it’s not meant to be. Schultz obviously spent a lot of time reading the kinds of books he wants to write, and succeeds mightily in doing so with Thulsa’s Gate. As is sometimes the case with ensemble casts, it’s hard to tell the more minor characters apart, but the main characters are round, whole, and well-developed.

Unlike most pulp novel ladies, however, Shultz’s heroine, Catrina, is no mere beauty to be fought for and won by the men. She’s risen from outsider to ruler in this parallel world and does her fair best to train her hero Brit for the nasty sword battle to come with her ruling rival Ivan. The only time she swoons is when it’s expected – when she feels some connection to the humdrum world she left behind, the world where Brit finds and restores old planes.

Schultz’s strengths lie in his ear for action that’s often combined with a wit that keeps pace with the story. For example:

“Not looking forward to this,” Jocko complained, scampering over several rocks and tree roots.

“Not looking forward to what?” Bryan puffed exhaustedly.

“The swim.”

“Why you can dog paddle, can’t you?”

“What is a dog?” Jocko asked, dodging a couple more arrows. He would see the river now. They were only yards from it.

“Animal from my planet,” Bryan answered, smelling water now. “Four legs, smaller than you, no wings, barks real loud, hates cats.”

“What’s a cat?”

“Animal from my planet,” Bryan said, stumbling through the twist of underbrush and tree roots. “Four legs, smarter than you, no wings, hates dogs, loves mice.”

“What’s a mice?”

“Never mind!” Bryan complained in hushed exasperation. “You’d think Tim would have told you guys about them.”

Good writers tell novices to give their readers moments to breathe as the action unfolds, and Schultz does so often with these funny little asides.

But the story moves. And moves into all the areas you expect good pulp fiction to take you: sword battles, sneaking through army lines, having army lines to sneak through, mystical encounters with spooky rocks and en even spookier plane, bridging the gap between worlds. There's treachery and betrayal. There's a love story. There's enough to keep you hooked to the end.

The book isn’t perfect – Schultz has a love for adverbs and a shyness for simply saying a character “said” something, but overall the writing is several notches up from what you’d expect in a first novel.

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