Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My recent haul o' books

July has been a very good month for book finds and acquisitions. Between a July 4 fairground and some leftover Barnes and Noble and Borders gift cards, I managed to score the following for probaby $10 in out of pocket expenses:

On Stories and Other Essays On Literature, C.S. Lewis. Man, am I looking forward to this one. With chapter titles like "A tribute to E.R. Eddison," "The Mythopoeic Gift of Rider Haggard," and "Sometimes Fairy Stories may say best what's to be said," I've found a kindred spirit in Lewis.

Roots and Branches, Tom Shippey. Twenty-three essays by the preminent Tolkien scholar on the planet, including an analysis of the Jackson films and a scholarly review of Tolkien's source material. Can't wait.

Defending Middle-earth, Tolkien: Myth and Modernity, Patrick Curry. I've heard mixed reviews on this, but analysis from a pagan/environmental perspective is a welcome change.

Tarzan and the Lost Empire, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Back cover blurb: "It is the story of an ancient Roman city, long forgotten by civilization and buried amid the deepest jungles of the Dark Continent. It is the story of Tarzan's discovery of this last surviving pocket of lost warriors and the fate that awaited him at the hands of an empire dead for fifteen hundred years." 'Nuff said.

The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett. Cosmic peril in a lost world! Yes! Sign me up!

A Fish Dinner in Memison, E.R. Eddison. Many of you may be thinking, WTF? But this is the final volume in a loosely linked trilogy of romances that starts with the incomparable The Worm Ouroboros, so despite its bizarre title and trippy 1968 Ballantine Books cover this has serious potential for awesome. Or it may suck.

Paingod, Harlan Ellison. A collection of seven short stories/novellas by the incomparable Ellison, including his classic, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."

Legend, David Gemmell. This is a portentous, make-or-break book for me. After hearing praise for Gemmell from some trusted quarters over the years I gave him an honest effort, but was sorely disappointed with White Wolf and Hero in the Shadows. I've heard Legend is his best book, so I'm giving the chap one last chance.

The Rebel, Albert Camus. Camus is, quite simply, a hardcore thinker who is not afraid to stare long and hard into the chaos and seeming meaninglessness of human existence, searching for answers. From the foreward, "Camus believes that revolt is one of the "essential dimensions" of mankind. It is useless to deny its historical reality--rather we must seek in it a principle of existence. But the nature of revolt has changed radically in our times. It is no longer the revolt of the poor against the rich; it is a metaphysical revolt, the revolt of man against the conditions of life, against creation itself. At the same time, it is an aspiration toward clarity and unity of thought--even, paradoxically, toward order."

The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. It's about time I owned a comprehensive, authoritative edition of his works.

Alas, life is short and full of obligations and there are only so many hours in the day for reading.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wolfe’s lost road: Discovering an author’s personal essay on J.R.R. Tolkien

Freedom, love of neighbour, and personal responsibility are steep slopes; he could not climb them for us—we must do that ourselves. But he has shown us the road and the reward.

--Gene Wolfe, “The Best Introduction to the Mountains”

J.R.R. Tolkien has so many readers, and his works have become so pervasive in the broader culture, that coming to his defense hardly seems necessary anymore. Haven’t we established Tolkien’s credentials by now? Magazines like Time have selected The Lord of the Rings as one of the top 100 novels ever, according to Wikipedia it’s one of the top 10 best-selling books of all time with 150 million copies sold, and the movies upon which it’s based won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Tolkien has made it onto several college syllabi and there are academic journals and numerous critical studies devoted to his works, including Tom Shippey’s par excellence works Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-Earth.

But someone always comes along to attack Tolkien on the basis of his conservatism or religion, his perceived racism, and/or the perceived shallowness/non-literary nature of The Lord of the Rings, and I’m reminded of why we need to vigilant. For example, David Brin of Salon.com, Science fiction/fantasy author Richard Morgan (author of The Steel Remains), and Phillip Pulman (author of the His Dark Materials trilogy) have all taken shots at The Lord of the Rings and/or Tolkien himself in recent years, calling him outdated and dangerously conservative (Brin), a refuge for 12-year-olds and adults who have never grown up (Morgan), and shrunken and diminished by his Catholicism (Pulman).

Now I’m not saying Tolkien is above criticism, but critics like Brin and Morgan have essentially gutted The Lord of the Rings, attacking it on an existential basis and more or less claiming it should be placed in the dustbin of history. When people take aim at classics like Ulysses or Moby Dick you rarely see criticism elevated to the level of calling into question the very existence of these works. Yet Tolkien criticism for whatever reason frequently ascends to shrill peaks of outrage.

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

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Heroes of the Fallen: A review

With the bittersweet music of battle over, I found him at dusk, buried amid the mass of his ten thousand. He and I, the last of his legion. Taking my general back up the great hill, halfway up we surveyed the apocalyptic scene. Twenty-three legions in all, completely decimated in a matter of days. He wept. I cannot, there is nothing inside anymore but a burning sadness.

--Heroes of the Fallen, David J. West

I will admit that when I started reading Heroes of the Fallen (WiDo publishing, 2010), I was worried that I was about to wade into a religious tract. I’m not a particularly religious person and its author, David West, is a devout Mormon who drew inspiration for Heroes of the Fallen from the events described in the Book of Mormon.

Ultimately however my fears proved unfounded. West is a man of deep faith, but while religious sentiment informs the work, it does not overwhelm it. Instead, a rousing adventure story is exactly how I’d describe the story.

Heroes of the Fallen is about the build up to a coming war between the Lamanites and the Nephites. After centuries of uneasy peace, the Lamanites, long-time rivals of the Nephites, are fueled into open war by a secret brotherhood called the Gadiantons and a depraved sect of worshippers of the dark god Shagreel. The Lamanites and their allies the Ishmaelites begin a series of political and military machinations, including a series of assassinations and border skirmishes, designed to weaken the Nephites and place blame for the conflict upon them.

The strength of Heroes of the Fallen is its skillful ratcheting up of tension to this coming clash. It’s populated with colorful heroes and villains: Akish-Antum is a memorable villain, a cunning warlord and seer who is also a fearsome warrior who slays with a taloned gauntlet; Bethia, a princess who leaves home and encounters the hard realities of the road, evokes the reader’s sympathy; Mormon, a great bear of a man and an earnest father trying to bring up his son in the midst of the carnage and conflict, is another likeable character. While there are clear heroes and villains, there are also people in the middle like the young prince Aaron, who is swayed to the Gadiantons’ side by his own weaknesses and ambitions, and the Lamanite bodyguard Zelph, whose conscience and faith causes him to defect to the Nephites’ cause.

Heroes of the Fallen is quite violent but not overly gory. There are plenty of battles and they are conveyed with a sense of danger but without over-the-top eviscerations and graphic battlefield carnage. I also enjoyed the sense of history West conveys. The prologue is set some 60 years after the ensuing events in the book and paints a vivid battlefield picture of the terrible trials to come.

Heroes of the Fallen is also a genre-buster. I’d be hard-pressed to give it a label—it inhabits some war-torn battlefield between historic fiction, swords and sorcery, and epic fantasy. At times it feels like sword and sorcery, particularly in the way West writes his characters. These are painted with pulp overtones and bright splashes of color. Amaron has shades of Robert E. Howard’s favorite Cimmerian about him (or perhaps more accurately Solomon Kane, as Amaron is a man of deep faith). You can clearly see West’s sensibilities and literary inspirations in the way the book is written and its dialogue. For example, REH comes leaping off the page in an early duel between the Amaron and Helam and a group of assassins:

Amaron slashed two more of the dagger men as they attempted to flank him, roaring at them, “Jackals of Set! You have never before fought a man with his blade ready for you!” Another man went down, clutching his stump.

But despite its S&S inspiration, the long storyline, multiple characters, and interweaving plot threads of Heroes of the Fallen are all hallmarks of epic fantasy, as is the fact that the story is broken up into at least two (and perhaps multiple) volumes. Which may be why Heroes of the Fallen was not my ideal cup of tea. I found that it featured a few too many characters, and none of them in any great depth. It’s written not unlike George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, told by multiple characters with continually switching point of views.

In addition, I find myself drawn partial to shorter, self-contained works these days, and after 300 pages too much of the story of Heroes of the Fallen remained unresolved. I’ve been burned by A Song of Ice and Fire, and my sufferings with Martin’s overdue for completion epic series may have unfairly biased me against Heroes of the Fallen.

But West did plant some nice hooks to draw readers into Blood of our Fathers, the next in the series with a planned 2011 release. While the arc of character development was slow, by book’s end I could feel myself drawn to the plight of a few characters, including Mormon and Amaron, and I wanted to know how their stories resolve. There’s an excellent apocalyptic duel between Amaron and the Gadianton warrior/tracker Uzzsheol that very much seems to set up events in the sequel.

So in the end I enjoyed Heroes of the Fallen and give massive props to David. He followed his dream, harnessed his Muse, and wrote a fine first book. I hope his success continues to build with Blood of Our Fathers and the additional writing projects he’s pursuing. Heroic fiction needs more authors like him moving the genre forward.

Monday, July 12, 2010

IT: A review

You don’t have to look back to see those children; part of your mind will see them forever, live with them forever, love with them forever. They are not necessarily the best part of you, but they were once the repository of all you could become.

—Stephen King,

What quality separates an adult from a child? Is it responsibility in the former and unbridled freedom in the latter? Do adults possess a higher order of thinking? Or, to take a cynical view, are adults merely physically larger (perhaps they/we never really do grow up)?

I happen to think there is a difference, though it’s hard to say precisely what. You could describe adulthood as a phase through which we all must pass, else we remain stunted and undeveloped, looking backward instead of forward, unable to transform into the mature beings that the hard world requires. Indefinable and amorphous, you may as well call this period of transition it. Stephen King did, and in 1985 he wrote a massive book by the same name about this very subject.

As is King’s forte, IT is also a horror story, and a terrifying one at that. The villain of IT is a creature that lurks in the sewers of Derry, Maine, one that takes the shape of our worst fears. IT’s favorite shape is a painted clown known as Pennywise, friendly at first glance but whose greasepaint smile reveals a double-row of Gillette razor teeth. Pennywise can also take the form of a werewolf, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, and more. Whatever a particular child finds most terrifying, Pennywise can take its shape.

Pennywise has preyed on the children of Derry for untold generations, emerging from a deep slumber in the sewers every 27 years to feed. After a year of gruesome killings (written up in the press as mysterious child disappearances, or frequently blamed on other sources), the cycles end with a culminating event, typically an awful orgy of destruction, after which the creature resumes its hibernation.

But Pennywise—aka., IT—always comes back. Derry is perennially under its pall and seems to accept the darkness as “just the way things are” and the horrors continue in cyclical fashion. But then comes the summer of 1958. A group of 10 and 11-year-old children called the Loser’s Club, led by a stuttering, charismatic child known as Bill Denbrough, unite to battle Pennywise. All have had close brushes with the monster. Scarred by their experiences but united in purpose (Bill’s six year old brother Georgie is dragged into the sewer and killed in a gruesome scene at the beginning of the novel, and Bill vows revenge), they travel into Derry’s byzantine sewer systems to put an end to the monster. Following an epic confrontation in the creature’s den the children vow to return to Derry should Pennywise/IT ever return.

One of the club, Mike Hanlon, remains behind in the ensuring decades to watch and wait. When Pennywise does re-emerge 27 years later the children of the Loser’s Club are now adults in their late 30s. Some higher power has mercifully allowed them to forget the terrible events of their childhood and move on with their lives. But now they have to fight the terrible evil once more and growing up has diminished them in some way. This time around they find themselves less equipped to fight.

IT is a great story full of memorable events, places, and characters. King imbues Derry with its own personality, and the town feels like a member of the cast. King skillfully weaves in events from Derry’s awful past, including past murder sprees and the culminating bloodbaths that sent IT back into the sewers, including a horrific nightclub fire (The Black Spot) and the explosion of the Kitchener Ironworks.

But in the end, what I like most about IT, and what separates the book from much of the rest of King’s oeuvre, is its thoughtful exploration of that amorphous crossing of the bar from youth to maturity. To get where you want to go in life you have to grow up, King says, but it’s not a simple process. The transition from childhood to adulthood is complex and bittersweet, its benefits equivocal. Adulthood brings with it at least some measure of financial, parental, and geographic freedom. We can leave those hometowns that are so frequently a source of shame and failure and hidden darkness. But in so doing we lose a lot, too—our dreams, our innocence, our closest friends, and sometimes even our faith in a higher power. And the only way to defeat Pennywise—that monstrous, childhood IT—is through faith.

King has been accused by his critics of being shallow, all style and no substance (he did himself no favors by once calling himself “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries”). But I’ve found that his best material has more depth than meets than eye. IT is not just about battling monsters. Or rather it is about that, but the monsters are also the real, adult fears of loneliness, guilt, and dependency, of growing up, of confronting the monsters of one’s past and trying to move on. We are all incomplete until we face our past and determine who we are, what we stand for, and how we want to live our lives. This personal struggle, as much as visceral, horrific battles with Pennywise, is what brings me back to IT again and again. This time around I had the benefit of listening to it courtesy of Penguin Audio (my review will also appear on SFFaudio.com).

I will say that IT is not without its problems, including a sequence that remains controversial among King’s readers. Without spoiling the story, it involves a coming of age ritual in the sewers that is a bit off-putting and jarring, even though I do understand its purposes. Some of the characters feel a bit one-trick and allegorical (representative of concepts rather than three-dimensional human beings). Other readers have complained that IT’s denouement—Pennywise’s final reveal—is a bit of a let-down after 1,000 pages of build up. King is unfortunately often guilty of writing unsatisfying endings to otherwise great novels, and IT arguably suffers from the same problem. I don’t necessarily agree, as I find the epilogue incredibly satisfying, but others have made this criticism.

But despite its flaws, IT is one of my favorite books by King. With a memorable monster, a nice cast of characters, and a compelling, decades-spanning storyline with an epic final showdown, IT is a horrific page turner with deeper literary ambitions that it mostly fulfills.

This review also appears on SFFaudio.com.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Back in Black (Gate) and reading Clark Ashton Smith

Well, I made it back more or less intact from vacation. All that's changed is I'm a little bit tanner and my beer gut has grown a little more expansive. Nothing that a little office life and salad consumption won't fix.

Oh yeah, and I'm now going to be contributing bi-weekly posts to Black Gate blog, the online home of Black Gate magazine. It's a fine outfit that publishes fantasy fiction, reviews, role-playing game articles, and more. I welcome the chance to write for Black Gate, which is quite simliar to the now closed The Cimmerian website. It's got a great group of writers and while the main focus of the blog is fantasy literature, it branches out to include movies, horror, RPGs, and more. In other words, right up my alley.

You can read my first post up now. It's about my first experience reading a Clark Ashton Smith anthology, the recently-released The Return of the Sorcerer. Yeah, I'm not too proud of the fact that I've gone this long without reading a dedicated Smith collection, but now that I've delved into its dark waters, you can bet I'll be seeking out Smith again and again. I hope you like it.


Confession: I am a fan of pulp fantasy who has, until recently, read very little Clark Ashton Smith. Yes, the man who comprises one of the equilateral sides of the immortal Weird Tales triangle has largely eluded me, save for a few scattered tales and poems I’ve encountered in sundry anthologies and websites.

This past week that all I changed when I cracked the cover of The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith (2009, Prime Books). As I read the introduction by legendary fantasy author Gene Wolfe I knew I was in for something special: Not only was Wolfe singing Clarke’s praises (“No one imitates Smith: There could be only one writer of Clark Ashton Smith stories, and we have had him”), but he ended with this declaration:

“Earlier I wrote that Smith had come—and gone. That he had been ours only briefly, and now was ours no longer. That is so for me and for many others. If you have yet to read him, it is not so for you. For you solely he is about to live again, whispering of the road between the atoms and the path into far stars.”

The stories that followed did just that. Smith came alive for me, and I find myself a changed man. I have trekked on distant planets, seen alien beings beyond my conception, and peered wide-eyed over the shoulders of reckless sorcerers reading from musty tomes of lore that should not be opened. I have witnessed wonders and horrors beyond the knowledge of mankind. It was a wonderful experience. Though they comprise only a small part of his body of work, the stories of The Return of the Sorcerer reveal Smith as a man of staggering imagination, considerable poetic skill, and surprising literary depth.

To read the rest of this post, visit the Black Gate website: http://www.blackgate.com/2010/07/08/the-return-of-the-sorcerer-falling-under-clark-ashton-smith%e2%80%99s-potent-spell-for-the-first-time/