Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay—a review

A common criticism leveled at fantasy is that it’s all about monsters and magic and plot and fails to address the human condition, and therefore fails as “serious” literature. I think that’s a lot of rot and that fantasy is no worse or better than mainstream fiction (some of it's great, some is awful, and most indifferent). But if there is any merit to this argument—and there is some—one can point the blame at the J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard clones, writers who churn out multi-volume paint-by-numbers epic quests or rote stories of bad-ass, brawling heroes in formulaic stories bereft of thought or complexity.

About the highest praise I can give for Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana (1990) is that, with more novels like it, fantasy would garner a lot more respect as a genre worthy of serious study and discussion. This observation doesn’t imply that Tigana is now among my favorite fantasy novels (it’s not, though it is quite good), only that it makes use of the conventions of what most academics consider serious literature.

Kay is an author with whom I have little acquaintance. I’ve read his Fionavar Tapestry, which I thought was okay but nothing too unique or exceptional. But over the years I’ve heard that Tigana, a 1991 nominee for the World Fantasy Award, was a must-read. Now that I read it my summation is that it's very good, but not great, checking at a solid four stars in my scientific five-star rating system.

Tigana takes place on a peninsula called the Palm, whose nine small provinces have fallen under the rule of two invading armies from Ygrath and Barbadior, each led by a powerful sorcerer-king. Although conquered, the nine provinces are more or less left intact, paying tax and tribute to their respective new rulers (who maintain an uneasy truce, though behind the scenes they seek to oust the other and take the Palm for themselves). The exception is the province of Tigana. A fierce battle waged by Tigana’s defenders resulted in the death of Stevan, son of the tyrant king Brandin of Ygrath. Grief-stricken and blinded by vengeance, Brandin ordered Tigana—a place of art and culture and beautiful spires—to be razed to the ground. Using powerful magic, Brandin also expunged its very memory from the residents of the Palm. As the novel opens only a few remember its existence; most know of it only as Lower Corte. The remainder of the novel follows a small band of freedom fighters determined to cast off Brandin’s yoke and restore Tigana to memory and its former glory.

Tigana is high fantasy, so you get the standard trappings that come with the territory (a map, detailed geography and history of the Palm, epic, world-altering events, etc.). Kay does a nice job casually inserting magic and myth and religion into the novel, which makes these elements feel real. There’s no long dissertations on how they operate, which is typically the case in high fantasy (incidentally this is one of the reasons why I largely avoid high fantasy—I get bored with long explanations and backstory). I wish more authors took a cue from GKK.

Being high fantasy there’s not much “blood and thunder” in the pages of Tigana, but Kay does a good job of keeping the reader on edge with political maneuvering and backstabbing and harsh torture and punishments meted out by tyrannical rulers. Think George R.R. Martin lite.

Where Tigana shines is in its presentation of complex characters conflicted with self-doubt and warring emotions. In particular Tigana contains some wonderful depictions of women. They’re all beautiful, of course, but as a male reader that works for me. There’s the red-haired Catarina, who bears a heavy burden of disgrace inherited from her father, who fled Tigana with her and her mother instead of taking up his sword in its defense. Dianora is perhaps the book’s most convincing character. A woman of Tigana whose father was slain in its defense, Dianora works her way into Brandin’s harem and eventually into his heart in a lengthy, complex plot to assassinate him.

Tigana also shines in its clever inversions of the standard devices associated with high fantasy. Brandin is portrayed as no mere monster, and despite her thirst for vengeance Dianora realizes she’s fallen in love with him. Some of the rebels of Tigana meanwhile adhere to the belief that ends justify the means, making them little better than their barbarian invaders.

But I did have some problems that Tigana that knock the book down a few notches (and if you’ve read Tigana, your mileage may vary, of course).

I felt that Kay was guilty a few times of telling instead of showing, a writing no-no. There are a few instances in which he tries to evoke sympathy for the despotic sorcerer-king Brandin by telling us that freedom fighters Devin and Alessan now saw him as a man, and not a monster. But that’s not effective. We should instinctively come to realize this in the text through observing his actions, and I never did. Kay wants the reader to feel some degree of sympathy for Brandin and I couldn’t muster any. What he did to Tigana and its ruler, Prince Valentin, was too despicable. I wanted him dead at every turn.

I also thought Tigana had some extraneous page-padding side plots that could have been effectively excised. Also, the ending felt rushed. Right around page 610 or so (Tigana checks in at a hefty 672 pages) I was actively worrying whether Kay could adequately wrap things up, or whether he was setting me up for a cleverly hidden sequel. Tigana does have a conclusive ending, but it didn’t occur to my satisfaction and felt rather abrupt.

Tigana also contained a few too many characters for my liking and despite Kay’s best efforts, some of its personages are rather one dimensional. For example, the sorcerer-king Alberico never breaks the mold of a transparent bad guy, something that the rest of the novel seeks to avoid (and generally does).

But in the end Tigana succeeds not as a character-driven novel, nor as a compelling plot-driven page-turner, but rather as an exploration of themes like memory and identity, and love and vengeance, and their opposition. Memory is integral to self-identification, but Tigana also teaches us that an inability to break with the past is a dangerous thing. Without revealing any spoilers, there’s a horrific twist at the end of Tigana, that, revealed in full, could have resulted in a further continuation of a bitter, destructive war. But the one man who knows the truth keeps it in his heart in order to spare the future.

Likewise love, often portrayed simplistically as something we all need and the great healer, has its limitations. Dianora's love for Brandin for instance can be seen as corruptive and a cause of betrayal to the larger good:

She knew Brandin better than anyone alive; it had been necessary, in order to survive, especially in the beginning, in order to say and do the right things in a mortally dangerous place. Then as the years slipped by necessity had somehow been alchemized into something else. Into love, actually, bitterly hard as that had been to acknowledge. She had come here to kill, with the twin snakes of memory and hatred in her heart. Instead, she had ended up understanding him better than anyone in the world because there was no one else who mattered half so much.

Says Kay in an afterward:

These are ambitious elements for what was always meant to be a romantic adventure. They intimidated me as they began to emerge, even recording them now I find myself shaking my head. But beneath them all lies the idea of using the fantasy genre in just this way: letting the universality of fantasy - of once upon a time - allow escapist fiction to be more than just that, to also bring us home.

Some of these ambitious elements work and some fail, but I credit GKK for attempting them. They make Tigana an important touchstone in fantasy literature, a novel that’s dares to stretch its boundaries. Overall Tigana was a nice change of pace for me; I wouldn’t want to read a steady stream of similar works, but it is nice to see an example of what a skilled writer can accomplish in a too-frequently dismissed genre.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My top five reads of 2010

For my final post of 2010 I thought I would revisit something from my days as a writer for the now-defunct Cimmerian blog: My top 5 reads of the year. Not super-original, I know, but the New Year always seems to bring out the list-maker in me.

Some of these books were new to me and some were old favorites that I revisited, but all are highly recommended.

The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien

As 2010 began I returned to J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium after a span of several years. While reading I wrote a series of blog posts about it over on The Cimmerian (they start here if you’re interested). I was excited at the prospect of revisiting Middle-Earth’s back stories and foundational myths and hoped that The Silmarillion would reward a return voyage.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website .

Monday, December 20, 2010

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond—a review

Guns, Germs, and Steel is one of those books I’ve heard so much about—mostly in the positive—that it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading it. Published in 1997, it won a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve frequently seen it cited around the internet as a must-read book on the origins of the human species. Today I was able to finish it up.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is certainly well-worth reading. One of my petty complaints is that it more accurately should have been called Latitude, Longitude, and the Development of Human Society (I guess Guns, Germs, and Steel was catchier). That’s because Diamond postulates that all our development, including current inequities among continents like South America and Africa vs. North America or the countries of western Europe, can be traced to geography. “Much of human history has consisted of unequal conflicts between the haves and the have-nots: between peoples with farmer power and those without it, or between those who acquired it at different times,” Diamond writes. He then sets out in Guns, Germs, and Steel to explain how this unequal distribution of wealth and power occurred.

In short, Diamond argues that the topography and east-west alignment of Eurasia set the stage for its success. It was more conducive to farming, was populated with native, domesticable livestock and plant life that facilitated mass food production, and allowed for trading between various peoples and dispersal of scientific invention. This in turn led to sedentary populations able to devote time and brainpower to the invention of writing and the development of technology. Australia, North America, and Africa, with their north-south axes and corresponding extremes of climate, were late to the starting line of development. Their slower diffusion of cultivatable crops caused them to become history’s “have-nots,” leading to their subjugation or outright extermination and repopulation by foreign invaders, or their place as a third-world nation.

“The peoples of areas with a head start on food production thereby gained a head start on the path leading toward guns, germs, and steel,” Diamond writes. “The result was a long series of collisions between the haves and the have-nots of history.”

First, what I liked. Guns, Germs, and Steel is well-written. It has an incredible scope, summarizing human development from our start as a divergent strain of chimpanzee up to the modern age. It’s very thought and opinion provoking as well.

Contrary to its title Guns, Germs, and Steel contains disappointingly little discussion on guns. I was hoping for some good debate on the effectiveness of the blunderbuss vs. the musket, for example. But Diamond does lay out a convincing case that germs, not guns, were the primary reason smaller groups of Europeans were able to dominate far more populous indigenous races. He shows how the introduction of germs derived from domesticated animals, introduced to native populaces with no immunities, resulted in catastrophic epidemics which in some cases resulted in a 99% mortality rate among the infected. It’s all very interesting, and it strikes me as true.

Now some negatives. Some of the arguments Diamond spends considerable time building feel rehashed and/or self-evident. However, this may be because Diamond’s book has been assimilated into mainstream thought. After all it was published 13 years ago.

But my main problem with Guns, Germs, and Steel is in the degree of importance Diamond attaches to geography. In Diamond’s view geography is the overwhelming factor in the “success or failure” of a nation (meaning its ability to produce food and thereby develop a complex culture). Diamond’s book takes no account—and I mean none—of the influence of different political systems, or religion, or even individual initiative. For him, human history is purely scientific, the result of geographic determinism. He argues that even the biggest individuals—the Alexander the Greats and the Adolf Hitlers of the world—are scarcely relevant in the grand sweep of history. In the epilogue Diamond anticipates arguments to the contrary with a half-hearted apology:

“The label [geographic determinism] seems to have unpleasant connotations, such as that human creativity counts for nothing, or that we humans are passive robots hopelessly programmed by climate, flora, and fauna. Of course these fears are misplaced,” Diamond writes.

Yet to me Diamond’s equivocating rings hollow. There’s seemingly little to no place in his intellectual universe for things like free will and personal responsibility. I felt personally diminished reading the book. That’s not a value judgment of Diamond’s book, just my personal reaction upon reading it.

Another area in which Guns, Germs, and Steel can be criticized is some of the petty biases that Diamond allows to creep into the book. His occasional forays into editorializing are simply out of place in a book that purports to exalt science. For instance, he flat-out calls modern native New Guinean hunter gatherers not equal, but smarter than your average educated, sedentary resident of Europe or North America. He relays another story about a noble Native American corrupted by coarse Montana farmers into adopting their hard drinking, wasteful lifestyle. Both of these observations are purely anecdotal, not the result of any scientific inquiry. I detected a slight undercurrent of disdain for modern life and a romanticized (albeit very faint) view of the hunter-gather lifestyle. Their presence diminishes the work.

In the end my opinion of Guns, Germs, and Steel is that it is no more a true version of human history than a book about capitalism/communism or Christianity/Islam as the sole shapers of mankind’s destiny. It’s an important but incomplete piece of the truth.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

AMC’s The Walking Dead: Devouring six million viewers, and me

Confession: I watch almost no TV. Well, that’s not quite true: NFL football, an occasional news program, and the odd episode of The Simpsons aside, I watch no TV. Lost is lost on me. There aren’t enough hours in the day for 24. The Sopranos? Fuggedaboutit. There are too many good books to be read in the world and not enough time for television.

Another reason I avoid TV, particularly serialized programming, is the “that guy” phenomenon. When it comes to shows like Lost, there’s always one person in the office who insists on telling you how much you’re missing, or describing the minutiae of a cast of fictional characters’ lives for whom you know and care absolutely nothing about. It just ends up making me hate the boob tube even more.

So now that I’ve set the stage for why I avoid TV, let me tell you all about AMC’s The Walking Dead! I’m a huge fan of the zombie genre and the temptation to watch a TV program about the undead was too great not to tune in. After an excellent episode one I was hooked. I’m mortified that I have to wait until the fall for episode 2.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lansdale and Keene: Two tastes that taste great together

Over the last couple weeks I’ve managed to plow through two of Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series of novels and Brian Keene’s City of the Dead. I enjoyed the heck out of all of them and thought I’d write a combined review here.

(As an aside, my posting has recently suffered quite a bit, and that’s because the high school team I’ve been covering for the local paper is playing in the Super Bowl today. From Thankgiving through the playoffs, Massachusetts high school football is crazy. I plan to get back to posting on a more regular schedule).

As I’ve said before, Joe Lansdale tells a story as well as any author writing today. Reading one of his books is like listening to a weathered Texan grandfather who saw time in the South Pacific in the Big One spinning raw war stories seasoned with equal parts humor and horror.

The two books I read were The Two-Bear Mambo and Bad Chili. In The Two-Bear Mambo Hap and Leonard set out to find Florida Grange, Leonard’s gorgeous ex-girlfriend. Florida disappeared while investigating the suspicious suicide of a black criminal, found dead in his jail cell in the Ku Klux Klan infested town of Grovetown.

Hap and Leonard are both martial arts experts and The Two-Bear Mambo features a memorable fight in a Grovetown diner that Lansdale describes as an episode of The Andy Griffith Show by way of Deliverance. Lansdale’s fights aren’t the stylized, dramatized stuff of Quentin Tarantino films, but short, fast, ugly, and dirty.

Lansdale always kicks off his books with a gripping action scene that combines drama with comedy. In The Two-Bear Mambo Leonard has just set fire to a crack house across the street, spilling a motley assortment of low-lifes into the East Texas night. Bad Chili features the two men attacked by a rabid squirrel while taking target practice in the woods with a pistol. Yes, I’m serious.

Bad Chili took a while to heat up (pardon the pun) but I very much enjoyed the slow, deliberate pace with which Lansdale sets up its frenetic payoff of a finish. In this one, Leonard’s boyfriend Raul leaves him for a biker and when both turn up dead the police point the finger at Leonard. He and Hap begin an investigation into the death that exposes an underground crime ring of violent gay pornography and larceny.

You have experience to fully appreciate Lansdale’s always-entertaining writing style. Here’s a description of a barber-shop owner from Bad Chili that I found hilarious and also brilliant in its details, immediately sketching a believable, real character:

Finally a man came over to help us. He was short and pale-skinned and had his dark hair combed back tight and plastered with something so shiny you could almost see your reflection in it. He had one of those pencil-thin mustaches like forties movie stars wore, ones make you look like you had a drink of chocolate milk and forgot to wipe your mouth. He had his colorful shirt open almost to his navel, and let me tell you, that was no treat to view. He had a chest like a bird and a little potbelly and a thin straight line of hair that ran from chest to navel and looked as if it had been provided by the nose hairs the blonde had clipped. He was wearing a gold medallion on a chain around his neck. The medallion reminded me of those aluminum-foil coins you unwrap and find chocolate inside. He must have been on the bad side of forty. A face, a body like that, you’re not born with it. It takes some real abuse and neglect to create.

As with all the two other Hap and Leonard novels I’ve read to date (Savage Season and Mucho Mojo), The Two-Bear Mambo and Bad Chili are highly recommended. I’m looking forward to picking up Rumble Tumble next.

City of the Dead is an absolutely gonzo novel. Graphic gore and sex, morbid humor, religious issues, cosmic tragedy, and more are splashed all over its pages in an entertaining package, albeit not one for the easily offended or the faint of heart.

Keene takes the familiar trope of zombie apocalypse but instead of attributing the cause to biochemical spill or ancient curse or interstellar plague Keene’s zombies are possessed by the souls of demons from the void. When they inhabit the bodies of the dead they take on the deceased person’s memories, which them doubly dangerous. In City of the Dead zombies can speak, use guns, drive cars, communicate and coordinate their tactics, etc. Animals, including dogs, birds, alligators, are zombified, too. Humans don’t stand a chance in this scenario.

A small group of humans manages to fight their way into New York to take refuge in Ramsey Tower, a reportedly indestructible skyscraper where a few hundred human survivors have holed up. The tower is a fortress, but the humans have underestimated the zombies’ intelligence and force they ultimately bring to bear to force an entry.

Keene’s book is full of morbidly funny humor: A zombie sings “the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire” after setting fire to a home with human defenders on the second floor. A zombie, ready to throw a grenade, has his hand shot off, and the grenade falls at his feet and explodes, blowing him to bits. “Now that’s what I call a hand grenade!” another zombie quips. Think of Army of Darkness level of humor.

At the same time the book takes seriously the existence of God and the demons that inhabit the bodies of the zombies. Called the Sissquim, they once walked the Earth but were banished to the outer spheres by God millennia ago. As a result they despise God and kill and eat humans out of that spite. They want to see His most beloved creation and the planet itself utterly destroyed.

City of the Dead is marred by a few lapses in logic. The zombies at times are portrayed as attacking in mindless waves, like Romero-style zombies; at other times they operate with a sense of self-preservation and shy away from shotgun blasts and so forth. The humans defending Ramsey Tower—some of which are hard-bitten military veterans with combat experience—woefully overestimate the building’s defenses, holes that are obvious to any half-attentive reader (the damn building has windows—even though they’re reinforced glass, how can they stand up to a zombie-driven truck at full speed, let alone explosives?)

If City of the Dead sounds a little like a mess, well, it is. I’m not sure how Keene intended the book to be read, as farce or serious fiction. It’s both (probably a little more of the former), but if you’re looking for a book that tells a rip-roaring, entertaining story, City of the Dead succeeds. I listened to the Audio Realms production while driving to work and I can honestly say it made my commute a much more enjoyable experience.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Lion of Cairo by Scott Oden, a review

I think it’s totally cool that the dedication page of Scott Oden’s forthcoming novel The Lion of Cairo (U.S. publication date Dec. 7) pays homage to a sword and sorcery legend:

To Robert E. Howard
whose tales of swordplay and sorcery
gave inspiration to a kid from Alabama
and caused him to take up the pen
in his own time

After the Howard name-drop you pretty much know what you’re in for: Pulse-pounding sword play, leagues of warring assassins, political intrigue, a hint of evil sorcery, and the clash of armies on a grand stage. On all these elements Oden delivers.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A review of Blind Guardian, Nov. 21 at Worcester Palladium

Until last night, Blind Guardian was on a short list of heavy metal bands that I’ve always wanted to see live, but for whom time and circumstance always seemed to run interference. Now I can scratch “best German power metal band of all time—see live” off my list of things to do before I die, though after the excellent show they put on Sunday, November 21st at the Worcester Palladium I’d certainly welcome the chance to see these guys again.

I must say right off the bat that the Palladium was a rather unexpected venue in which to see Blind Guardian. As my friend and I stood in line in the chilly Worcester air waiting to get in, we both noted that seeing a band the caliber of Blind Guardian at a venue this small was both a shame and an amazing opportunity. Overseas Blind Guardian is a band that plays to stadiums and packed arenas; in the states they largely play small clubs in front of hundreds. We were both amazed and perplexed by this phenomenon. I personally don’t understand why Blind Guardian isn’t bigger over here in the states. I suspect that U.S. audiences are more fickle, and that classic-sounding heavy metal has become a bit passe’. Which is a shame, because just like classic literature classic metal never ages. It may also be that Blind Guardian, though they’ve been around for 22 years (their debut album was 1988’s Battalions of Fear) was a “late-comer” on the metal scene and so never developed the hard-core loyal following that bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath still enjoy. I doubt Blind Guardian was doing any serious touring of the U.S. back then, and just a few short years later metal was out, and grunge was in. Europe meanwhile marched to the beat of its own drum of music fashion. Of course, it doesn’t help that Blind Guardian gets absolutely zero radio air-play, either. Even Iron Maiden gets some occasional “Run to the Hills” or “Number of the Beast” lip service. When have you ever heard “Valhalla”?

But onto the good: seeing Blind Guardian at the Palladium allowed us to view the show probably 50-60 feet from the stage. We were standing on a riser that gave us a great view over the top of the mosh-pit and crowd-surfers, nearly at eye-level with the band. I must say I was a little surprised by the moshing—not so much during Holy Grail, whose heavier music leant itself to moshing, but I was surprised when it continued for Blind Guardian, who has their heavy songs but are more melodic. Still, I was safely on the sidelines and so didn’t mind the frenzy of thrashing, flailing bodies. Everyone was into it in their own way: Most of the crowd just sang and clapped along and pumped their fists in the air, self included.

We got to the show early and so were able to catch both opening acts. Holy Grail, who took the stage second, featured a good singer and accomplished what a good opening act should—get the crowd riled up, and me interested in their music. My two second evaluation: They’re pretty good. Seven Kingdoms was average at best. They featured a female lead singer who was decent but in general lacked the sound and stage presence of Holy Grail. Holy Grail did have a classic Spinal Tap moment pre-concert when they brought out a tapestry no larger than those I used to hang on my bedroom wall. Two guys spent a good 5-6 minutes fiddling around with the stand to try and get the banner taut and the logo readable, and immediately after walking off stage the whole thing did a slow tilt right and collapsed to the delight of the crowd.

On to Blind Guardian. As pleasantly surprised as I was with Holy Grail, it was shocking to see the difference between the opening acts and Blind Guardian. Without denigrating Holy Grail or Seven Kingdoms, Blind Guardian played with a whole new level of sound and presence. The best way I can describe it is professionalism. You can just tell Blind Guardian has been doing this very well for a long time and are on top of their game. And of course Kursch is almost without parallel as a singer and showman.

Overall I was very pleased with the setlist which you can view here in full at Blind Guardian’s official website if you're concerned with spoilers. Some personal highlights included:

Sacred Worlds. I like it as the intro to their new album, but it worked even better live. A great way to kick off the concert.

Nightfall. One of my favorite Blind Guardian songs and I was stunned by how well this worked live. I love songs with big, powerful choruses and this was a high note. My heart skipped a beat when lead singer Hansi Kursch gave his typical Tolkienian intro: “Let’s see what happens to the Noldorian race after… Nightfall.”

Time Stands Still at the Iron Hill. Yet more Tolkien. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s great to see material like The Silmarillion get such serious, epic treatment. Blind Guardian was born to sing songs like this.

The Bard’s Song. A crowd favorite, and again a reminder that Kursch can really sing wonderfully (as well as scream). This might be my favorite ballad by any band, ever.

Born in a Mourning Hall. Just like “Nightfall,” this one has a big chorus and when you’re in a packed hall, singing it out loud, it’s chill-evoking.

Bright Eyes. This is a great song and was thrilled to hear it live.

The Lord of the Rings. Singing “Mordor, dark land under Sauron’s spell” along with Hansi Kursch at the top of my lungs=worth the price of admission.

Mirror, Mirror. A fine song and always an excellent closer.

I had a couple minor disappointments, foremost not hearing “Mordred’s Song,” which is one of my top 5 BG songs ever. Also, I still think “Valkyries” is the best song on the new album and I would have preferred that or “Curse My Name” over “Wheel of Time.” But overall I can’t complain with the setlist. It was really a great mix of old and new.

There were a few rather humorous moments worth mentioning: The crowd chanting for “Majesty,” Hansi pausing dramatically, then saying “no,” was one (they wound up playing "Majesty" anyway). The other was the band playing through an almost entirely dark stage during “Sacred Worlds.” My first thought was that something was off, but then I thought perhaps the effect was intended (you could see the band, albeit as silhouettes). But as it turned out the stage lights had malfunctioned. The band got a good laugh out of it before the second song.

A couple final notes:

I was pleasantly surprised by the relative youth of the crowd. A few recent shows I’ve attended were dominated by late 30 and 40 somethings; BG seems to have attracted a younger crowd along with older dudes like me, which gives me some hope for the future of metal.

A $30 ticket price (including all fees) was a steal. I think I paid $30 back in 1992 when I saw Iron Maiden on their No Prayer on the Road tour.

As is the case with all metal concerts I had fun crowd watching. Some oddities included a guy with a sleeveless jacket that I think was denim, but was in effect a near seamless quilt of patches of bands ranging from Burzum to Megadeth. Some other dude had a Bob Seger concert tee (hey, I like Seger too, but it seemed a little out of place here).

It was good to see my friend, whom I see maybe once or twice a year at most. We both commented on the changes that had occurred in our lives since our last show at the Palladium circa 2001. He was living in a different place and we both had different jobs. I was kidless. Oh yeah, and we were waiting in line to see Ronnie James Dio, who of course is no longer with us.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Blind Guardian tonight

Going to see Blind Guardian at the Worcester Palladium tonight. It's my first time and I'm pretty pumped.

It looks like BG is changing up its setlist from night to night, so I'm not entirely sure what they'll be playing, but a few setlists I've seen include "Born in a Mourning Hall," "Nightfall," "Time Stands Still (at the Iron Hill)", "Lord of the Rings," "Imaginations From the Other Side," "The Bard's Song - In the Forest," and "Valhalla." I'd be psyched to hear those. I'm not so sure about the two opening acts Holy Grail and Seven Kingdoms. Nothing too impressive from what I've heard on Youtube, but cool names though.

I'll post a report later on. If you happen to be there, I'll be the guy with the chain mail hauberk and viking helmet.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I've … seen things you people wouldn't believe part 2: Deckard as replicant “ruins” Blade Runner?

I came across this post today on and felt compelled to comment, as it concerns one of my top 10 films of all time: Blade Runner.

I’m not arguing with the author’s larger point that the plot of a story can be “squeezed” too much, and that too many “twists” can spoil the soup of a novel, if you will. I’m sure this is quite possible. But I happen to think her example to prove this point is a rather poor one: I don’t agree at all that Rick Deckard as replicant ruins Blade Runner.

Why does it weaken the story if Deckard is a machine, just like the machines he’s hunting? It shouldn’t, and doesn’t. Blade Runner is not just a story “about a man who has lost his humanity.” If you think that Deckard is a member of mankind and that Blade Runner offers no other interpretation, then yes, that’s what the film is about: A man who wakes up to his own life after seeing the "life" pulsing in the artificial heart of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). But if you add in the Deckard as replicant subtext, it becomes something more. This fascinating scenario deepens the film’s questions about what it means to be a human. Deckard-as replicant allows us to ponder scientific/metaphysical questions like:

  • Are humans mere machines of flesh and blood that also happen to empathize based on an accumulation of memories? Or are they something more?

  • If you could theoretically implant memories in a machine that allow it to empathize, and to comprehend the wonders in the universe and wish for more life due to the accumulation of experience, when would it cease being a machine and become a “human”?

  • Is Sean Young the hottest robot ever? (Yes)
I agree with the writer that the machines are ironically more “alive” than most of the humans in the film. But I don’t think that Deckard also being a replicant robs the film of its power. It merely illuminates the fact that we really don’t know what makes humans special, even today with all our accumulated knowledge as a species. Do we have a divine spark, or are we merely a more complex form of organic life? A future where machines are theoretically indistinguishable from humans is a scary thought, forcing us to rethink what—if anything—makes us special snowflakes in a sprawling, near infinite universe.

To be fair, if Deckard is just a human, the film still allows us to examine these questions through the example of the other replicants. But by not revealing any clues that Deckard is a replicant, Blade Runner sets up our expectations is that he is just a world-weary cop. This allows us to emphathize strongly with Deckard until the final reveal—and the revelation that he just might be a replicant, too. With that comes the realization that we’ve perhaps been empathizing all along with a machine. And that’s pretty amazing in itself.

Speaking of the final reveal, who isn’t blown away when Gaff places the origami unicorn on the landing, and Harrison Ford grimly nods his head, realizing that his dreams and “memories” are likely not his? That’s awesome storytelling in my book. Not a plot stretched too far.

In short, the possibility of Deckard as replicant defies our expectations and makes for a better movie--and a better story too.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

“Worms of the Earth”: Bending the rules of swords and sorcery

“Worms of the earth, back into your holes and burrows! Ye foul the air and leave on the clean earth the slime of the serpents ye have become! Gonar was right—there are shapes too foul to use even against Rome!”

–Robert E. Howard, “Worms of the Earth”

Robert E. Howard has received his fair share of criticism over the years, including the accusation that he wrote shallow, muscle-bound characters that cut their way out of every situation. Violence by strong, self-sufficient swordsmen is the end game for solving all problems in REH’s stories, his detractors argue, not wits or guile or diplomacy. For example, in his audio book survey of fantasy literature Rings, Swords, and Monsters, author Michael Drout declares Conan an uninteresting character who simply “smashes everything in his path.” L. Sprague De Camp, who penned the introductions to the famous (infamous?) Lancer Conan reprints of the 1960s and 70s, wrote that Howard’s heroes are “men of mighty thews, hot passions, and indomitable will, who easily dominate the stories through which they stride.” Howard wrote escape fiction, De Camp continued, wherein “all men are strong…” and “all problems simple.”

These generalizations lead casual readers to conclude that Howard considered violence to be the answer to all of life’s problems. They reduce Howard’s stories to brutish pulp escapism and denude them of subtlety or complexity. Sword and sorcery and its fans are painted with the same broad, clumsy brush by association. “Sword and sorcery novels and stories are tales of power for the powerless,” wrote Stephen King in his overview of horror and fantasy Danse Macabre (1981). “The fellow who is afraid of being rousted by those young punks who hang around his bus stop can go home at night and imagine himself wielding a sword, his pot belly miraculously gone.”

These criticisms aren’t entirely groundless. It’s rather easy to find examples of Howardian heroes hacking their way through a problem. Kull of Valusia butchering a horde of Serpent Men in an orgiastic, cathartic red fury in “The Shadow Kingdom” springs immediately to mind, for instance. Howard was in many ways bound by the conventions of the pulps in which he made his living as a writer. But there are an equal number of examples of Conan using his wits to extricate himself from situations when brute force won’t suffice, his reaver’s instinct restrained by sovereign responsibility. And of course, Howard penned many more characters than his famous Cimmerian.

Howard’s 1932 story “Worms of the Earth” features the Pictish king Bran Mak Morn on an ill-advised mission to enlist supernatural aid to defeat an invading force of Romans. In it Howard substitutes complexity and compromise for crashing swordplay and victory in arms. While “Worms” is a tale of vengeance, it’s of a rather hollow, unfulfilling sort.

To read the rest of this post, visit the Black Gate website .

Monday, November 1, 2010

Iron Maiden's The Final Frontier: Mediocre metal

Regular visitors to The Silver Key know the high esteem in which I hold Iron Maiden. They are, as I’ve said before and never hesitate to repeat, the greatest heavy metal band of all time. Yeah, even better than Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, man. If you don’t think so, I will fight you.

Which is why it pains me to have to admit to this next bit: Maiden’s latest album, The Final Frontier, isn’t that great. If I had to give it a letter grade it’d be a B-, maybe even a C+. That makes it, in my book, Maiden’s worst album since Fear of the Dark (I don’t count the two Blaze Bayley albums, which, a few good songs mixed in, seem to me written by another band entirely).

You can’t imagine how hard it was for me to write the above paragraph. Criticizing Iron Maiden is not fun. The closest analogy I can make is if J.R.R. Tolkien, were he still alive today, decided to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings in which Frodo came back from Valinor to go on some other, semi-bland quest to destroy a lesser artifact, in which the fate of Middle-Earth did not hang in the balance.

The Final Frontier is of course technically proficient (this is Maiden, after all). It’s not actively bad. It doesn’t contain any outright stinkers like “Weekend Warrior.” There’s just not much there to recommend it.

Before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not one of those guys with a mullet and denim jacket still living in 1985 who thinks that Iron Maiden’s last good album was Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (or perhaps 1984’s Powerslave--there are some internet whackjobs who do hold this opinion, clutching onto it possessively like their vinyl, shrinkwrapped collector copies of Live After Death). I was a fan back in the 80’s and I’m just as big a fan now. Maiden in my opinion did some of their best work during the last decade. Brave New World (2000) was a remarkable return to form for Dickinson and the boys after seven years of separation (Dickinson left the band to pursue a solo career in 1993). Dance of Death (2003) was in my opinion even better. “Paschendale” is brilliant, and “Montségur” and the title track are incredible, too.

Maiden followed up those two releases with 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death, which many fans call their best record since Seventh Son. I got to see them play the whole album live a couple years back and was blown away by war-themed songs like “These Colours Don’t Run,” “For the Greater Good of God,” and “The Longest Day.” All amazing stuff.

But so far I’ve been rather unimpressed with The Final Frontier. It’s not actively bad, and listening to it in my car hasn’t been painful. It’s just—there, like some good background music. It’s lacking any strong, memorable hooks. There’s no killer riffs, no edge.

Maiden has always kicked off its albums with a throat-grabbing, fast-driving hit. Even 1990’s rather poor No Prayer for the Dying led off with the kick-ass “Tailgunner.” “Satellite 15…The Final Frontier” is four and half minutes of bland instrumentation and sound effects, followed by the four minute “The Final Frontier,” which is … merely workmanlike. If “El Dorado” is supposed to be the big single from the album, and I suspect it is, it’s only okay, too. “El Dorado” also isn’t helped by the fact that Bruce’s voice sounds a little strained.

I do like a few songs on The Final Frontier. “Isle of Avalon” is a nice long song, moody, with some great lyrics, and it holds a high standard throughout. But it just doesn’t deliver the shattering chorus I was hoping for. “The Man Who Would Be King” has an epic two minute buildup to … more mediocrity. I feel the same about “When the Wild Wind Blows.” With its apocalyptic lyrics and a terrific bass line by Steve Harris, it has the potential for serious epic—but falls just short. These are great songs to listen to as background music but not to bang my head or weep over, as I have done for “Paschendale” and “These Colours Don’t Run.” Something just seems missing.

The thoughtful, personal lyrics of “Coming Home” make it a decent enough song (it seems like it would make a nice fit on one of Dickinson’s underrated solo albums). “The Alchemist” is a fine, hard-driving little song. But a couple of other tracks are rather painful. I find the chorus of “Mother of Mercy” so repetitive as to be unbearable. “Starblind” and “The Talisman” are just there, and encapsulate a lot of the problems I have with this album. Some good material stretched out too far.

I do want to conclude with a whimpering, suck-up statement and say that I haven’t given up on The Final Frontier yet. I’m still holding out hope that it will be a deep and slow grower, an album that takes multiple listens to get into (I’ve been tied up with some audio books and Blind Guardian’s At the Edge of Time and haven’t given The Final Frontier as many listens as it deserves). But so far, I haven’t been blown away, and I’m sad to report that Maiden seems to be merely mortal on this one. But that’s okay—no one, not even the great Iron Maiden, can bat 1.000.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The end of Realms of Fantasy begs the question: Too much fantasy on the market?

This post over on the Cyclopeatron blog closely mirrors my own thoughts on why I think Realms of Fantasy and other magazines in the short fiction market are largely a dying or endangered breed.

It’s not necessarily the bad economy (though I don’t doubt this is a contributing factor). And it’s not necessarily the changing face of publishing, which is moving from print periodicals to PDF and/or web delivery (though this likely is a contributing factor, since publishers of all stripes have struggled with monetizing content delivered on the web).

Rather, like Cyclopeatron, I’ve long believed that there’s simply too much fantasy fiction on the market, and that magazines have gotten the squeeze as a result.

At first this may seem like a ridiculous notion. Realms of Fantasy, one of the few remaining print fantasy magazines in the market, goes under, and it’s because there’s too much fantasy for it to complete against? Yes, at least in my opinion. Here’s why.

To read the rest of this post, visit the Black Gate website .

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bruce Dickinson gives Liverpool a lift

Not that we all didn't know this already, but Bruce Dickinson is arguably the coolest, most accomplished dude on earth. Iron Maiden singer. Amazing solo artist. Former world-class fencer. Author. His latest love is flying, and today Dickinson, a licensed airline pilot, agreed to fly the Liverpool soccer team to Napoli for a Europa League match.

Here's the story as reported by ESPN and the British newspaper The Guardian.

Rock on Bruce.

That reminds me, I've got to do a review of Maiden's latest album The Final Frontier.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Robert E. Howard: A New Manifesto

We expect responsibility and accountability on your part. We are not interested in your grand pronouncement on a subject which has yet to be settled by people who have spent decades studying the issue at hand. We expect you to do your homework. There are a number of websites and literally stacks of new books that likely cover or answer most of your questions regarding Robert E. Howard. To not utilize those sources when doing your research smacks of willful ignorance and will not be tolerated by the fans of Robert E. Howard.

--Mark Finn, "Robert E. Howard: A New Manifesto"

Mark Finn, author of Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, has written an essay entitled "Robert E. Howard: A New Manifesto." It's currently making the rounds on the internet. You can read in its entirety at Al Harron's The Blog That Time Forgot

While I'm a little uncomfortable endorsing a manifesto in total and disagree with a few of its details, I am completely in agreement with the spirit of Finn's essay. One of the great things about the internet is that it allows anyone to post anything they want. Conversely, one of the awful things about the internet is that allows anyone to post anything they want. What the Manifesto says is that, if you introduce Robert E. Howard's life into a blog post or essay or argument, please take the added step of actually doing some homework (what a concept!). Read his biographies. Seek out his letters. Examine the many journals and works of criticism dedicated to his life and works. And if you insist on making outrageous, unfounded statements, be prepared to be called on it.

Finn's Manifesto is tough stuff and some may find it abrasive, but frankly wakeup calls are sometimes necessary. After some of the unfounded accusations, wacky theories, and uninformed, inflammatory, contextless arguments I've read around the internet recently, "Robert E. Howard: A New Manifesto" is a welcome wake-up call.

Shields up!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Zombieland: Bringing the fun, and a few rules to live by

Like most horror fans, I love zombie movies because they’re fun, gory, and suspenseful. I find the survivalist angle intriguing, too (I often find myself wondering if and how I could survive an initial outbreak of the walking dead. Equipped with my copy of The Zombie Survival Guide I’d like to think at least I’d have a fighting chance. But probably not).

But in the end the zombie films I like best are those that aspire to more than just empty action. Like all good movies, the best zombie films contain underlying social and/or political messages that give them an added dimension and another level on which they can be enjoyed.

I’m not a horror historian, but as far as I can tell the zombie film as social commentary started with George Romero. Broadly, zombies have always been a metaphor for death, but it wasn’t until 1978’s Dawn of the Dead that the walking dead were used to critique concepts like capitalism and unchecked consumer culture (as a sidenote this is why I didn’t like the new Dawn of the Dead as much as the original—the 2004 version is not only too nihilistic, but it removes all the subtext in favor of high-speed, sprinting zombie carnage).

Since Dawn other zombie films have hopped on the bandwagon of zombie apocalypse as societal/cultural critique. The most recent example is the comedic zombie horror of Zombieland (2009). Zombieland tells the story of a group of survivors trying to find their way in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. These include 20-something “Columbus” (played by Jesse Eisenburg), a nerdy, World of Warcraft playing recluse; “Tallahassee” (Woody Harrelson), a modern cowboy with an apparent death wish, a sardonic sense of humor and a mean streak a mile wide when it comes to zombies; “Wichita” (Emma Stone), a beautiful, guarded, hard-bitten realist, and “Little Rock” (Abigail Breslin), Wichita’s younger sister and resourceful partner in crime.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sipping from a fresh draught of Dandelion Wine

I’ve mentioned before that I find genre categories useful. They help me to frame discussions about books and are a handy tool when I want to make a recommendation. But I also love the fact that there are authors like Ray Bradbury which defy their easy application. Though it may be the subject of a catchy song, to call Bradbury “the greatest sci-fi writer in history” isn’t particularly accurate. Dark fantasy, horror, soft sci-fi—Bradbury has written in them all, and sometimes all at once. He is in many ways genre-defying.

That’s about the only way I can categorize Dandelion Wine, a loosely autobiographical novel about a boy’s coming of age (or rather, his becoming) at age 12 in the summer of 1928. On the first morning of that magical summer Douglas Spaulding realizes that he’s alive. Consequently, he realizes that he will also die one day. The rest of the book is an episodic journey through the summer, with Bradbury switching the focus between Spaulding and a cast of other memorable characters in Green Town, Illinois. Green Town is a pseudonym for Bradbury’s real home of Waukeagan, IL, where one summer as a boy of 12 he made the decision to become a writer.

Bradbury’s books aren’t really about plot as much as they are about places and people and things. I recall an interview with Bradbury in which he described beginning his stories using a process of word-association, thinking of a word or series of words and building a story from that. This technique plays out wonderfully in Dandelion Wine, whose wonderful images become burned into your memory as if you lived them yourself. The old arcade and the coin-operated gypsy fortune teller. The ravine. Mr. Jones’ traveling junk wagon.

Bradbury treats us to several beautiful, stirring vignettes throughout Dandelion Wine. One of my favorites is the story of an unlikely couple: 31-year-old William Forrester and a 95 year old Helen Loomis. It’s not a love story but something just as moving, a genuine melding of two lost souls, which finally find comfort in one another’s company. Mixed with the friendship is the cosmic tragedy that they were born in different ages and so cannot consummate a physical love. Another favorite is the story of Leo Auffman, a man who tries to build a Happiness Machine and is mortified when his wife Lena breaks down in tears after using it:

Sunsets we always liked because they only happen once and go away.

But Lena, that’s sad.

No, if the sunset stayed and we got bored, that would be a real sadness.

Bradbury’s moral? Joy cannot exist without sadness. Without a contrast or a break, joy becomes routine and expected, and therefore paradoxically joyless. Permanent happiness is not our lot in life, but that’s the way things are meant to be.

Douglas’ becoming is not without its hardships, as he experiences death of some friends and relatives and the displacement of his best friend John Huff, who moves away after his father takes a job in Milwaukee. But although Dandelion Wine is tinged with tragedy and even takes us to the edge of despair, Douglas does not take the final leap into the ravine: Bradbury’s message is that life is ultimately worth living, even though we all must leave it and our loved ones someday. Dandelion Wine exalts the simple pleasures we take for granted—good food, wine, and the pleasant rituals of summer, sitting on the porch at night for a smoke and good conversation under the stars (this was before the age of television, of course, reminding us that change does not always equal progress).

But back to genre. One of Dandelion Wine’s central themes is that the world needs magic. When we try to classify and explain and categorize too much, the magic is drained away. Human beings operate in the realms of faith and mystery, not just cold, clinical materialism. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when an unhelpful aunt arrives in the Spaulding household and immediately sets to work “helping” the grandmother, a wondrous cook, by cleaning up her messy kitchen and neatly setting to order all her mysterious, unlabelled spices and ingredients. The result? Lousy food. When the family sends the aunt packing and returns the kitchen to its natural state of disorder and mystique, her cooking is again rendered exquisite.

You can say the same for Dandelion Wine. Experience it, savor its depths and symbolism, but don’t try to vivisect it under a cold, clinical light. Let it sweep you back to one summer of 1928 and enjoy the nostalgia and the journey. It’s a good one.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stupid, fat The Hobbit reporter!

Title of post copyright Gollum.

Courtesy of my friend Falze, this story from Yahoo Movies: "Peter Jackson Running Into Union Trouble on 'The Hobbit'".

I've got no problem with the meat of the article, and I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that it will be a long time (if ever) before we see The Hobbit on screen (though we still have the Rankin and Bass version, which isn't such a bad thing). Still, this seems to be another shovel full of dirt on the project.

Where things get rather funny (and stupid) is the reporter trying to show that he's "down" and "jiggy" with Tolkien, when in fact he's obviously never read word one of the good professor's works:

It's also worth noting that the weakest scenes in the "Lord of the Rings" movies take place in the shire where the hobbits live; basing two whole movies on just hobbit-land would seem far from the financial slam-dunk that the previous three movies were.

Come on dude, two whole movies on "hobbit-land"? Is this the same The Hobbit I read, where exactly ONE chapter ("An Unexpected Party") takes place in the Shire, before the action moves into the wild and a confrontation with trolls (Chapter 2: "Roast Mutton")? We barely get a whiff of "hobbit-land," and the rest of the action is a rousing series of adventures in the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, the caves of the wood-elves, Laketown, the Lonely Mountain, the Battle of Five Armies, and then back home for what amounts to three pages in "hobbit-land."

If done right (or done at all), it's going to be mighty tough to screw up The Hobbit--it's almost pure adventure.

Also, "the weakest scenes in The Lord of the Rings take place in the shire"? You mean the wonderful scenes of friendship between Bilbo and Gandalf, leading to their confrontation over the One Ring, as portrayed by two great, perfectly-casted actors (Ian Holm and Ian McKellen)? Or the deft handling of "The Shadow of the Past" (which the screenplay wisely splits between the prologue and more superb Gandalf/Frodo dialogue at Bag-End)? Those weak scenes?

Leach's editorializing is so bad it's actually rather funny.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Back with some Blind Guardian

Whew, it's been a long week-plus.

I just returned from a business trip to Orlando. Prior to that I was banging out yet another high school football story for a local newspaper (yes, it's fall again). As a result, my blogging has suffered.

Still, there's one bright spot to report: I've since picked up the latest Blind Guardian album, At the Edge of Time, and actually found some time to listen. So far I like what I've heard. Not their best, but there's some good, strong songs on here. Better yet, I'm going to see Blind Guardian live for the first time this November 21!

Anyways, you can pop on over to Black Gate to read the rest. For regular readers I apologize in advance; the post is half recycled material, but my thoughts on At the Edge of Time start about halfway down.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dealing with contextless, inflammatory claims of Howard's racism

So in the end, Robert E. Howard was a racist. When my kids are old enough, I will not recommend his fiction to them. I'll also explain how Howard was so racist he would have thought of my sons as less than human. I'll then suggest they read Howard's fiction and history to discover for themselves how racist the man was.

From "Robert E. Howard was a racist. Deal with it," by Jason Sanford. Read the rest here (at your own risk).

And once you're done reading, hop on over to Al Harron's bit of cyberspace, The Blog that Time Forgot, and read his well thought-out response. Nice work, Al.

Like Harron, I also find Sanford's post highly unfair. Yes, Howard was racist by our modern, 21st century standards. "The Vale of Lost Women" was not his finest hour. Yet not only was Howard's racism no more than average for his place and time (1920s and 30's Texas), but he grew progressively less racist over the course of his writing career. How does one reconcile these words from a Howard poem with someone who is, as Stanford proclaims, an irredeemable racist?

That I lived to a straight and simple creed
The whole of my worldly span,
And white or black or yellow,
I dealt Foursquare with my fellow man.

Lest we forget, Howard was a very young man (18 years old) when his writing career began. The mainstream stories in which Howard's racism is most prevalent and troubling are his early Solomon Kane tales; by the later Kane stories Howard had largely changed his tune. He was maturing not only as a writer, but as a human being. Alas, he was dead by 30. We'll never know what enlightened attitudes toward race he may have held into middle and old age, but it's clear what trajectory his beliefs were taking.

But even more than the broad brush Sanford uses to inaccurately paint Howard, I'm more concerned with his casual references to tossing aside literature that doesn't meet with his 21st century standards of decency:

This cultural "passing on" is where Howard's writings embrace true failure. Despite what Howard's defenders may wish, we do not read his stories as if we were back in the 1930s. We read them through the eyes of our 21st century beliefs. Not only was his racism disturbing to some of his contemporaries, it is equally disturbing to modern readers. Because of this, many people don't believe Howard's stories are worth passing on to others.

I find it hard to believe that a reasonably intelligent reader cannot place works into the context of the times and culture in which they were written. Books should be evaluated on their own terms, regardless of the author's beliefs. Jack London was a racist, as was H.P. Lovecraft, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Joseph Conrad. Are we supposed to toss The Scarlet Letter and The Heart of Darkness by the wayside, then? Are these not worth passing on to later generations?

Extending Sanford's argument to an even greater height of absurdity: Sir Thomas Malory was a scoundrel. One biography declared him a thief, bandit, kidnapper, and rapist, and it's believed that he started Le Morte d'Arthur while he was in prison. Do the sordid details of its author's life render it any less a work of art? (Now that I'm on the subject, Le Morte d'Arthur is also thoroughly medieval and emphasizes the importance of Christianity as a moral code for lawless knights. Since many find religion and the medieval mindset repellant, that's three strikes. Please place all copies into the nearest incinerator).

Sanford does perform some equivocating in his post; he says that not all of Howard's writings should be discarded, and he's rather complementary of most of his Conan material. Unfortunately, this point is lost amidst his screaming bold-emphasized declaration that "the bastard was a racist!"

To sum up:

That Robert E. Howard was racist by our own 21st century standards is a reasonable argument and a basis for measured criticism.

That Howard's racism informs and mars all his works, and to therefore conclude that they be placed in the dustbin of history, is shortsighted and dangerous (or at the least, certainly troubling) thinking.


Not only is Sanford's essay a shoddy piece of work, but now he's apparently deleting critical comments about it left on his blog. I posted two pieces of evidence directly contradicting his thesis that Howard's racism was excessive and abnormal for his place and time, and I took them from the two official biographies of REH (one of which, Blood and Thunder, Sanford supposedly read). They are as follows:

If a racist, Robert Howard was, by the standards of his time and place, a comparatively mild one.

--Dark Valley Destiny, L. Sprague de Camp

It is incredibly naive to throw a twenty-first-century value judgment onto people who were living a hundred years ago. For every instance of racism found in Howard's work, a compelling counterargument can be found elsewhere.

--Blood and Thunder, Mark Finn

The two biographies of Robert E. Howard vs. Jason Sanford--I think we know where the truth lies, here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Finding Deliverance in a dearth of heroic fantasy

I lay with the flashlight still in one hand, and tried to shape the day. The river ran through it, but before we got back into the current other things were possible. What I thought about mainly was that I was in a place where none—or almost none—of my daily ways of living my life would work; there was not habit I could call on. Is this freedom? I wondered.

–James Dickey, Deliverance

So you’ve read yourself out of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, closed the cover on the latest Bernard Cornwell and Joe Abercrombie, and you’re looking for something new in heroic fiction. But you can’t seem to find what you’re looking for. Rather than slumming around in the dregs of the genre or reaching for The Sword of Shannara (with apologies to fans of Terry Brooks), my suggestion is to take a look at modern realistic adventure fiction and non-fiction.

I read heroic fiction for the action, the adventure, the storytelling, and the sense of palpable danger that real life (typically) doesn’t provide. Likewise, I find that works like The Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf by Jack London, Alive by Piers Paul Read, and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer satisfy the same primal needs as the stories of an Edgar Rice Burroughs or David Gemmell. The best modern adventure fiction/non-fiction stories are bedfellows with heroic fiction: While they may not contain magic or monstrous beasts, they allow us to experience savagery and survival in the wild and walk the line of life and death.

My favorite work in this genre is Deliverance by James Dickey, and it’s to this book that I’d like to devote the remainder of this post.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website .

Thursday, September 9, 2010

B-slapping a random Epic Pooh/Moorcock supporter

Typically I stay away from engaging in debate on sites like Youtube, knowing the caliber of response I'm likely to get. But in this case I just couldn't resist (I'm Rutgerhauer 666, still waiting for a response in the comments section that won't be coming any time soon).

Someone asked me once why I've taken up the crusade against Epic Pooh and other anti-Tolkien essays. "Why would you waste your time on something 30 years old?" The reason is simple: People still believe this crap. Epic Pooh has been cited approvingly by the likes of China Mieville and used as a basis of misguided criticism of Tolkien. And it still is today. But because Michael Moorcock wrote it, it must be true, right?

In fact, Epic Pooh is a shallow, surface-level ad hominem attack on a far more subtle and complex work than its detractors realize. It's a political screed and fails to engage the text of The Lord of the Rings or any of Tolkien's works on a meaningful level.

It comes down to this: You can choose to believe the unfounded opinion of essays like Epic Pooh, or you can examine the facts in Tolkien's stories. When I see it held up as evidence of Tolkien's faults on Youtube or or elsewhere--or when I'm feeling the need to blow off some steam in a futile and meaningless crusade for truth--I'm going to set the facts straight.

The Lord of the Rings ignores death and forces a happy ending upon us? Really, Michael?

(Note that Moorcock doesn't actually discuss Epic Pooh in this clip, it just comes up in the comments section).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

In the grip of “The Northern Thing:” My top 10 northern inspired stories

Let us die in the doing of deeds for his sake;
let fright itself run afraid from our shouts;
let weapons measure the warrior’s worth.
Though life is lost, one thing will outlive us:memory sinks not beneath the mould.
Till the Weird of the World stands unforgotten,high under heaven, the hero’s name.

–from Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, Poul Anderson

If I had to choose a favorite sub-genre of fantasy literature it would be those writings showing the clear influence of ancient Northern mythology. Fantasy critic Lin Carter once described a group of writers including the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Poul Anderson, and William Morris as being possessed by “The Northern Thing”; I too am firmly in that Icelandic grip of iron. There’s just something about tales of pagan heroes possessed of grim northern courage, set against a backdrop of bleak fjords and smoldering mountain peaks and gray lowering skies, that make me want to hop on the nearest dragon-headed longship and go a-viking.

Following in no particular order are my top 10 favorite northern stories. These are stories inspired by northern myth (the Prose and Poetic Eddas), legend (the Icelandic Sagas), or history (the Danish invasions of England), and sometimes all three at once.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Cameron wants Avatar to compete with Tolkien and Star Wars? Pfft.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Cameron admires the universes created by George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry and the man who now has the two highest-grossing films of all-time (Cameron's "Titanic" from 1997 still floats there at No. 2 worldwide with $1.8 billion) openly admits that he aspires to compete with his own cosmic aspirations.

"You've got to compete head on with these other epic works of fantasy and fiction, the Tolkiens and the ‘Star Wars' and the ‘Star Treks,'" Cameron said. "People want a persistent alternate reality to invest themselves in and they want the detail that makes it rich and worth their time. They want to live somewhere else. Like Pandora."

I saw Avatar in the theatres in 3D and enjoyed it. It was a nice diversion and a fun couple hours of time spent.

But a half-hour after I left the theatre I never gave Avatar another thought, nor do I feel the need to ever re-watch it. Why? It's all spectacle and no story. Its plot was paper-thin and predictable. Turn it sideways and it disappears.

I give Cameron credit for creating a world on screen that looks real, but let's be honest--Avatar wowed because of the technology used to create it. Middle-earth existed solely in its readers' imaginations for 50 years (longer if you count The Hobbit) before it hit the screens, and shows no signs of slowing down. Star Wars' special effects are now 30 years out of date, but it remains a favorite because of its storyline, memorable characters, and mythic components.

Does anyone really believe Avatar will have the same staying power? The minute someone else develops a better Pandora using more advanced CGI I predict it will be relegated to a cinematic footnote. You don't create "a persistent alternate reality" on looks alone. Ironically, fantasy fans do "want the detail that makes it rich and worth their time." If there was any rich detail other than visual to be had in Avatar I must have missed it.

Finally, Cameron sells works like Star Wars and Star Trek and the world of Middle-earth terribly short by insinuating that their primary appeal is escape from reality. I would argue that Middle-earth is a reflection of our own reality, and while it can be read for escape's sake, it's also a mirror in which attentive readers can reflect upon matters of faith and the creator, life and death, sacrifice, and pity and mercy. What does Avatar have? Environmentalism? Tolkien even did that better than Avatar. It's Dances with Wolves with aliens, folks.

Rant over.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge, a review

As the summer begins to draw to a close and the cooling night air brings with it thoughts of fall and of Halloween, inevitably I’m stricken with the horror itch. So this past weekend I fed my cravings and read Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge, a horror author with whom I had yet to be acquainted.

I picked up Dark Harvest a while back based on some glowing cover blurbs, including the fact that it won a Bram Stoker Award for best long horror fiction of 2006. When I closed the cover after two brief sessions—at 170 pages Dark Harvest is more novella than novel—I was left with mixed sensations. There was some very good stuff in Dark Harvest, but other parts of the work fell flat, at least for me.

Dark Harvest takes place in an unnamed western town and concerns the events of a single Halloween night in 1963. For as long as anyone can remember the town has followed a strange, bloodthirsty ritual—every boy between the ages of sixteen and nineteen gets locked up for five straight days heading up to Halloween. The group is then turned loose on the streets with a cache of wicked weapons, including baseball bats, knives, and steel pipes. Their mission is to hunt down and kill the Halloween Boy, a pumpkin-headed monster from legend. The “winner” who claims the kill gets to leave the town's stifling confines. No one else is permitted to leave the town, ever.

But on this night in 1963, 16-year-old Pete McCormick discovers that all is not what it seems. The game is rigged. He vows to buck the tradition.

So on to what I liked and didn’t like. And warning, this review will contain some spoilers.

The bad
Dark Harvest had the feeling of a good short story padded out to novel length. It’s a great concept that would have been superb in 40 or 50 pages, but doesn’t quite work as a full-fledged novel.

For example, there’s no backstory or reason given why this strange ritual exists. Stephen King’s Children of the Corn did this sort of thing far better, and in fewer pages. And not only are we never given a reason for the existence of nor the ramifications of said bloody ritual, but we’re also never told how such an insulated town could exist. Seriously, no one is ever permitted to leave this town, ever, except for one lucky boy each year? And we’re supposed to believe this could happen, even in an isolated Midwestern town in 1963? I bought the scenario of Children of the Corn (in which every adult in town was slaughtered, and the only ones left were children indoctrinated into the cult of the corn god). I just couldn’t buy the events of Dark Harvest.

I also had a few problems with the narration. Partridge inserts the second person (“you”) voice into the text, but not consistently, and when he does it took me out of the flow of the novel. For example, “You” (the reader) are one of the bodies buried in the cornfield. If by “you” he means that I am one of the boys unable to escape conformity and small town existence and small worries, yes, I suppose, that could be me. But it comes across as “you, the reader, were one of the boys taken out into a cornfield and shot.” Really, I was?

More regrettably, the characters in Dark Harvest do not feel three dimensional. The teenage boy who was the October Boy to me seemed no different than McCormick, for example. Again, another 100 pages of character and plot development would have made Dark Harvest into a superb novel rather than a padded-out short story.

The good
So why do I still recommend Dark Harvest (with the above reservations)? For one thing the writing is sharp, concise, and strong. Partridge works with brevity and skill and a relentless energy that makes reading the novel a pleasure and a breeze.

For all its failings of believability, Dark Harvest works as a coming of age story. It’s a tale about how becoming an adult is more than just the passing of some arbitrary age (say, 21 or 25). Adults at some point must break from teenage groupthink, take a stand, question authority, and do right by their children by setting a good example (sadly, many of them don’t). Dark Harvest is also archetypal and borderline allegorical and this element also worked in its favor. For example, the long black road out of town is life, and leads to a barrier called The Line. The Line is difficult to cross. Most people never try to cross the Line, and the few that do are pursued at every turn by peers and authority figures that want to knock them down a peg.

Although it’s sharply critical of small-town conformity, Dark Harvest is also an elegy to childhood and lost innocence. My favorite scene is when the October Boy returns to his abandoned home and engages in a silent reverie while staring at his kitchen table. The past is gone and there are no second chances to reclaim a lost childhood, or speak words to loved ones that should have been said:

Jim’s misshapen fingers scrape across the rough-hewn table. It’s not a good table. It sits kind of cockeyed, and dinner peas escaping a child’s fork have been known to roll off the side like ships sailing off the edge of a flat earth. That’s why nobody bothered to steal the thing when the house was abandoned, and Jim’s glad of that. Because this is the table where he sat with his mother and father and little brother as the days faded to evenings for years and years and years. And this is the table where he thought many things, and a few of them made the trip from brain to mouth and found the ears of those other people who shared the table, but many of them didn’t. For one reason or another, many of his thoughts never left him at all.

In short, if you turn off your critical thinking and read it as a dark fable, Dark Harvest works. If you don’t dwell on the why or how of the ritual of the Halloween Boy and embrace your love of the mayhem and wildness of the dark side of Halloween you’ll be rewarded. And your appetite for fall will be whetted.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tolkien feature on the BBC, circa 1968

I came across a great video feature on Tolkien circa 1968, courtesy of the BBC. I've never seen most of this footage. Tolkien walking through his old haunts and talking about his books is priceless. Enjoy!

With that, I'll be signing off for a short vacation, returning Wednesday or so.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Toy Story 3: Genre fiction writers take heed

Warning: This essay contains some spoilers.

If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults.
--J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf

I don’t get to the theatre too often these days, and with two young daughters in tow more often than not it’s to see a children’s film. But I’m not lamenting this fact, especially when the movies are of the quality of Toy Story 3.

Hey, I love Robert E. Howard, Bernard Cornwell, and the Viking novels of Poul Anderson as much as the next battle-mad fantasy fan, but I’m man enough to admit liking (most) Pixar films as well. And Toy Story 3 might be the best one I’ve seen. Critical consensus is not necessarily a hallmark of a good film (see Blade Runner, panned on its initial release by most critics, recognized as genius years later), but I think it’s telling that Toy Story 3 currently has a 99% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In this case, the critics are spot-on.

Toy Story 3 is a near-perfect children’s film. Like all children’s films, it possesses straightforward story lines, engaging visuals, and brisk action in order to keep young attention spans focused. (If these qualities sound like less than appealing, well, genre films can’t be all things to all people). So why sing its praises on Black Gate? Toy Story 3 serves as an instructive example of how to tell a great story within the confines of a given genre. Just like you can’t get too bogged down in dialogue or non-linear narrative techniques in a movie for kids, that story you submit to Heroic Fantasy Quarterly better contain some elements of sword play and sweeping action if you want to stand a chance of getting it published. If you disregard your audience you’re destined to fail.

To read the rest of this post, visit the Black Gate website.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Princess of Mars, a review

A Princess of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs

In 1917 World War I was in the midst of its savage throes, and suspended over its torn battlefields like a bloody pendant hung Mars. Fertile ground enough for Edgar Rice Burroughs to pen A Princess of Mars, his first novel of earthman John Carter’s violent adventures on the red planet.

Thanks to the wonders of I was recently able to enjoy A Princess of Mars while driving to work (Librivox is to audio books what Project Gutenberg is to the printed word, providing public domain works, read by volunteer narrators, freely to the general public).

A Princess of Mars begins on earth in the decade following the Civil War. Carter, an ageless/seemingly immortal (for reasons puzzlingly left unexplained in A Princess of Mars) veteran of the Confederate army, is prospecting for gold in Arizona. A group of Apaches kill his friend and pursue Carter to a cave high in the mountains. Exhausted, Carter lies down and is mysteriously transported via astral projection to Mars.

Named after the ancient Roman god of war, Mars (called Barsoom by its native inhabitants) lives up to its violent appellation. It’s populated by monstrous beasts and alien races in a state of continual conflict. These include the green skinned, four armed Tharks, whose male members tower some dozen feet in height, and the more civilized Martians, human-like in appearance save for their red skin. Resources are scarce on Mars. Its waterless canals are cracked and dry and its air is kept breathable only through a massive atmosphere generator.

Carter’s first run-in on the planet is with the Tharks. Though he’s a stranger in a strange land and only half their size, Carter has several advantages that make him a formidable warrior. With a body used to earths’ stronger gravitational pull, Carter is able to make 50 foot leaps in the thin Mars atmosphere and is also equal in strength to the mightiest of the Tharks. Everyone on Mars has telepathy and can read one another’s thoughts, as can Carter, but he is immune to mind-probing and so is at a distinct advantage, able to anticipate their attacks in the duels to which he is frequently challenged.

Mars is a cruel planet and the Tharks exhibit no mercy. They are a race born into conflict, whose imperfect young are ruthlessly weeded out and murdered to create a physically strong, loveless race (“Tears are a strange sight upon Barsoom,” says a female Thark named Sola). But with his physical skills and easily assimiliation of the Tharks’ language and customs, Carter quickly rises in their ranks and reaches the status of minor chieftain. But he eventually finds himself at odds with the green men after the latter capture the beautiful red skinned Dejah Thoris, daughter of Mors Kajak, jed of Lesser Helium and granddaughter of Tardos Mors, jeddak of the capital Martian city of Helium (one of Burroughs’ strengths as a writer is his creation of evocative, otherwordly names).

Carter is not what I would consider a fleshed-out, three dimensional character, but Burroughs provides a few tantalizing details in A Princess of Mars that elevate him into something more than a mindless action hero. In addition to his agelessness, Carter is a lonely soul who despite his long years on earth has never experienced true love. When he falls for Dejah, the sensation strikes him like a thunderbolt. He realizes that he does not want to return to earth, for on Mars he knows the fullness of love. His life now has a purpose.

The remainder of the book revolves around Carter’s attempt to rescue Dejah from the clutches of the Tharks. If you like non-stop action in your reading then A Princess of Mars is for you—it’s literally one epic battle or chase scene after another. It’s also a moving love story as Carter pursues Dejah Thoris to the ends of Mars, risking life and limb to win her affections.

What I find most interesting about the book are its contrasts with another pulp fiction writer and contemporary of Burroughs, one Robert E. Howard. In many ways Burroughs’ world-view was diametrically opposed to Howard’s own: Throughout A Princess of Mars civilization triumphs over barbarism, such as when Carter trains his thoat (an eight-legged creature that serves as a mount for the Tharks) using love and patience instead of brutality. Carter’s methods prove so superior to the Tharks’ brutal techniques that they have no choice but to emulate his methods. Also, the Martian races are portrayed as corrupted, fallen from their formerly peaceful ways. Mars had once been home to a highly cultivated and literary race, but wars with the green men and the changing climate resulted in the loss of all their archives, records, and literature (note that Howard did not acknowledge barbarism as superior to civilization in all respects, simply an inevitable state of mankind).

That said, Burroughs in my opinion is a notch below Howard as a writer. While he’s a great storyteller, Burroughs lacks Howard’s poetry and brilliant peaks of action, and his dialogue resembles stiff speeches rather than actual conversation. I was also left with unanswered questions about Burroughs’ pseudo-science and its ramifications (note that I’m not someone who picks at these kind of things, but a few of Burroughs’ oversights seemed rather egregious). For example, the telepathy issue was not well thought-out. It’s hard to grasp the ramifications of knowing everyone’s true thoughts and Burroughs doesn’t bother to try to explain it, only bringing up the issue when he needs to advance the plot. Carter should have been able to use this ability to his advantage at every turn (and why for that matter was Carter shocked when Dejah admitted she loved him—shouldn’t he have already known?)

Those criticisms aside, Burroughs is a wonderful storyteller and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the savage beauty of Mars. Burroughs even slips in some good lawyer humor (“In one respect at least the Martians are a happy people; they have no lawyers”) and a good deal of titillation: Everyone in the book is nude. I’m not sure how the forthcoming film plans to handle this; My guess is with some well-placed silks and loincloths.

A Princess of Mars was followed by ten more novels set on the red planet, most starring Carter. So if you enjoyed the book you're assured of many more Barsoomian adventures to come.

Because it’s in the public domain A Princess of Mars is quite easy to obtain. You can download the Librivox audio files (three Barsoomian cheers!) here: Or you can read the entire text of the story here:

Saturday, August 7, 2010

20 years of KISS—and counting

What in me is dark

Illumine, what is low raise and support,

That to the height of this great argument

I may assert eternal Providence,

And justify the ways of KISS to men.

—Unnamed KISS fan

Twenty years ago I attended my first KISS concert at the Great Woods Performing Arts Studio in Mansfield, MA. It was the Hot in the Shade tour. KISS’ big hit at the time was “Rise to It” (though “Hide Your Heart” and the power ballad “Forever” were making the airwaves, too).

I was so pumped for that show and KISS did not disappoint. I still remember Paul Stanley’s command, “If life is a radio, turn it up to 10!” I listened to Paul and obeyed.

That night I rose to the greatness that is KISS and I’ve never come down. Over the years I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen them—a dozen or more probably. I’ve worn KISS makeup to concerts. One of my favorite memories is going through the drive-through at Burger King with three other guys, all wearing KISS makeup. Before we drove out the cashier had called over every employee in the restaurant to gawk at us through the narrow window.

Twenty years later—tonight, in fact—I’m returning to the same Mansfield stomping grounds to see them again. No makeup this time, but I’m still feeling the same old excitement.

KISS was the first band that I fell in love with and claimed as my own. I was 14 or so when I bought my first KISS cassette tape, Crazy Nights. Here was a band that instilled me with a sense of rebellion while also paradoxically inviting me to be part of something big and cool, the KISS Army. From “Crazy Nights”: “They try to tell us, that we don’t belong, but that’s all right, we’re millions strong!”

Although those years are long gone I still love KISS. I’ll never make the claim that they’re the best musicians. Far from it. KISS has had a couple okay guitarists over the years (Ace Frehley pre-booze, Bruce Kulick, Vinnie Vincent) and Eric Carr was a decent drummer, but that’s it. Nor have they written any deep or meaningful lyrics. I mean, have you ever tried listening to the mess that is The Elder?

But I consider this latter "shortcoming" a strength. I still have a chip on my shoulder about grunge bands, mainly because so many of them took themselves way too seriously. I loathe whiny, “my life sucks” lyrics, and personally I see no appeal in attending a concert to listen to that crap.

KISS is all about fun. Their lyrics are an absolute joy, at times approaching a Spinal Tap level of ridiculousness. For example, again from Hot in the Shade, here’s “Read My Body”:

Read my body
Are the letters big enough?
Read my body
Do you like the book of my love?
Read my body
Turn the page, get to the good stuff

KISS also always puts on a great stage show. Yeah, Gene Simmons is an absolute merciless capitalist, but so what? At least he’s open and honest about it. And KISS always delivers.

A review could be coming; we’ll see how I feel.