Monday, August 31, 2009

I never said I had the gift of gab: Podcasting on

Didn't get enough of my review of The Steel Remains? Now you can hear more of my thoughts on Richard K. Morgan's new novel over at Site administrators Jesse Willis and Scott Danielson (cool guys both) recently had me, Gregg Margarite ( narrator and book coordinator), and Luke Burrage (host of the Science Fiction Book Review Podcast) on to discuss the book and the J.R.R. Tolkien controversy stirred up by Morgan's essay.

Gregg and Luke (damn his awesome British accent) sound a lot better than I do, and I'm certainly more comfortable behind the keyboard than on an open microphone, but I don't think I entirely embarrassed myself and I certainly had a lot of fun with the podcast. How many times do you get the chance to sit down for an hour-plus and actually talk about books? In my case, that would be ... never.

Here's the link if you're interested: Enjoy!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Steel Remains: A review

Men were like blades, they would all break sooner or later, you included. But you looked around at the men you led, and in their eyes you saw what kind of steel you had to hand, how it had been forged and tempered, what blows, if any, it would take.

—Richard Morgan,
The Steel Remains

With his new book The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan sets out to (as main character Ringil Eskiath might say) “prick the bloated arse” of J.R.R. Tolkien and post-Tolkien fantasy. Elsewhere on the web Morgan has expressed a deep dissatisfaction with traditional high fantasy, which often pits stainless forces of good against hordes of irredeemable evil in bloodless, antiseptic sword play. He’s accused Tolkien of the same shortcomings (a flawed analysis with which I vehemently disagree). Against this backdrop, Morgan set out to write The Steel Remains as a deliberately gray, grimy, alternative viewpoint. His book succeeds in sliding cold steel into the lie of childlike fantasy, with which my favorite genre of fiction is admittedly littered.

But when the screaming of gutted men and the skirling of steel dies down, and the full extent of the destruction is laid bare for us to see, The Steel Remains does not have much to offer. The old cliché that it’s easier to tear down and destroy than to build anew applies here. In its falling over itself desire to slice and dice fantasy’s traditional conservatism, The Steel Remains indulges in plenty of its own predictable clichés: Every priest is a religious fanatic and a sex fiend, every leader a morally and ethically corrupt, egotistic blowhard, for example. The book lacks a moral compass; Morgan the author’s world view must be a bleak one, indeed.

The action of The Steel Remains focuses on the converging storylines of three uneven characters—one very well done (Ringil, a sarcastic, war-weary, homosexual master swordsman), one middling (Egar, a brawling, boisterous, randy barbarian from the steppes), and one rather forgettable (Archeth, a black, female half-breed of human and Kiriath, deadly with throwing knives and hooked on drugs). All three are veterans of a recent war against an invading race of “scaly folk,” in which humanity staved off utter destruction at a very high price. Ringil, a war hero but now combat- and world-weary, has retreated from his mercenary lifestyle and is living a slothful, under-the-radar existence, until he’s summoned by an urgent message from his mother: Ringil’s cousin, Sherin, has been sold into slavery to repay a debt, and Ringil’s mother wants her back. Ringil reluctantly agrees.

Soon Ringil finds out that the slavery web in which Sherin has been caught is very dark, wide, and sinister. At its centre are a race of alien beings called the dwenda—tall, attractive, human-like, magic-using creatures that are a combination of Michael Moorcock’s Melniboneans with their cruel and alien immorality, and Poul Anderson’s Nordic-inspired, haughty, and warlike elves (Morgan lists Anderson and Moorcock as two of his sources of inspiration; the third is, unsurprisingly, Karl Edward Wagner). The dwenda are planning to incite a second war on earth and then destroy the victor, taking back their ancestral lands (the dwenda dwelled on earth many years ago). The dwenda require the sacrifice of barren human females to fuel the dark powers that are the source of their sorcery. Sherin is one of these unfortunates.

There’s much to like in The Steel Remains. Morgan’s prose is sharp and highly readable, and he shows a fine eye for detail and realism in his culture and city-building. Trelayne—a nasty, sprawling, brawling city in which whoring, slavery, and public executions are practiced openly—feels real. Egar’s Majak culture is based on pre-colonized North American Indians, and is well-done with its shamans and superstitions, trade in vast herds of buffalo, and armor and weapons suited to a nomadic lifestyle on the plains.

In addition, if you like your battles bloody and realistic, Morgan is your man. His fight scenes are well-done and you get a great sense of Ringil’s skill with his deadly broadsword of Kiriath steel, and Egar’s brutal butcher’s work with his two-bladed Majak lance. Disembowelings, beheadings, and other ghastly wounds are rife.

Much of the book passed under my eyes as well-oiled but heartless machinery producing graphic combat carnage and highly explicit sex (I’ll pause here to state that the blood and semen-soaked pages of The Steel Remains would make George R.R. Martin blanch, and Eric Van Lustbader—author of The Ninja—green with envy). I found the characters rather unlikeable and unengaging, and the plot fair at best. Very little actually clicked with me until the concluding act, in which Ringil, Egar, and Archeth reunite to fight a desperate last stand against the duenda. This was one of the few moving scenes in the book in which I actually felt some measure of concern and identification with our heroes. Ringil’s rousing speech is of the stuff with which great heroic fantasy is made. I wish there was more like this.

In summary, we know that life can be dirty and horrible. War is hell, yes, and men are weak and piggish. But Morgan drives the same points home, again and again, over 400 dark, cynical, iconoclastic pages of The Steel Remains, which by the end is too one-note and sacrifices story at the expense of the author’s agenda.

My final verdict: 3 ½ out of 5 stars (recommended, with flaws).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: More thoughts on escape in Howard's Conan stories

I’ve been on an escape kick lately. I wrote about it over at The Cimmerian recently, and in the latest issue of The Dark Man I have a published opinion piece about its presence in the works of Robert E. Howard.

In short, while some critics consider escape a dirty word, I think it’s one of fantasy’s strengths, and a quality of the genre to be embraced, not shunned. I also think that readers who deny fantasy’s escapist element are deluding themselves; we love sword fights, and alien landscapes, and dragons. If we didn’t, wouldn’t we all be reading non-fiction or John Steinbeck novels instead?

As a followup on my recent post extolling the values of escapism, here’s some more of my thoughts on how this quality relates to Howard’s Conan stories.

For readers not afraid to embrace its delicious rewards, Howard’s stories offer a rewarding escape destination, “An age undreamed of when shining Kingdoms lay spread across the world, like blue mantles beneath the stars.” Like a long vacation after many months of thankless work, an escape to the Hyborian Age illuminates new possibilities for the reader.

Here are a few choice offerings.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Axis and Allies--the relaunch

One of the highlights of my vacation was getting a game of Axis and Allies together with a couple of guys from my regular D&D group. I used to play A&A quite a bit as a youth and into my teenage years, back when it seemed like everyone had a copy of the game. But after loaning out my copy to a friend and never getting it back, and losing interest over the years, A&A had become a distant, pleasant memory of games past, sort of like Runequest or Top Secret.

A couple years ago I started getting the itch to try A&A again. It came about naturally, as a result of my lifelong interest in World War II and the urge to recreate the great battles of the European and Pacific theaters of war. I did some web-browsing and was pleased to discover that not only was A&A still a viable game, but that it had undergone a fairly substantial revision in 2004 and was reportedly "new and improved." On a whim I added it to my Christmas list, and in addition to the usual sweaters and underwear recieved a copy from my wife. There it sat for two more years, until last Sunday, when I finally had the opportunity to once again wage war on a world-wide scale circa 1942.

The new version of A&A includes two new pieces (destroyers and artillery) and several new twists on old units (tanks defend at a 1-3 on a D6, battleships can take 2 hits, fighters are cheaper, transports can carry more, etc.). Perhaps the biggest change of all, however, is that the new game boasts a newly redrawn map. Sure, WWII still takes place in Europe, Asia, Africa, etc, but the new edition divides the land and sea up into more spaces. Crossing the Atlantic is more difficult, Germany and Russia battle along more fronts, and, in general, movement and positioning are more important and require more decision making than before. In short, it's a lot more difficult for Russia to place mass infantry along its border and play fortress Moscow--the Krauts can affect a breakthrough a lot easier by attacking along a bigger front. In turn, the Russkies can counterattack more effectively and the Eastern front becomes more vulnerable for the Nazis as well. There's also more neutral territories and natural obstacles that block movement (the Sahara desert is now a considerable nuisance, for example).

A&A third edition also includes National Advantages, cool new optional rules that allow for events like the Russian Winter, Kamikaze and Kaiten attacks, U-Boat wolf packs, radar, superfortresses, and more. Since this was our first game with the revised rules we reigned in our enthusiasm and picked only one National Advantage each (Niall was ready to go full-bore with all six for each combatant).

On the surface, the new rules seemed to make for a more robust, realistic, and enjoyable play experience, but we were soon to find out.

On Sunday Niall and Steve and I went at it in a marathon session which lasted from roughly noon until 8:30 p.m (yes, I have a great wife who lets me do these things from time to time--you cannot have her). Niall and I took the Allies (I was Britain, he the U.S. and Russia) while Steve played the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. Steve, while also a newcomer to the new edition, had played A&A extensively a short while ago and thus had the important advantage of recent experience over Niall and I, hence the decision for us to join forces. To add to the ambience of the game, I brought along my authentic WWII army helmet and Japanese bayonet, as well as a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. In hindsight, I should have read the latter before we began.

Alas, the combined years of expertise and WWII knowledge that Niall and I brought to the table were no match for Steve's aggressive Axis stratagems, particularly his brilliant handling of Japan. While Germany fought Russia to a stalemate and maintained enough sea and air power to prevent any U.K. sorties across the English Channel, the Japanese went on a conquest of Asia, taking all of Eastern Russia, Southeast Asia, China, and even India and its neighboring countries. Steve's land grab built the Japanese from a starting 30 IPCs (Industrial Production Certificates, or money) to over 50, which he used to purchase an intimidating submarine fleet that kept the U.S. from crossing the Pacific.

Simultaneously, the Japanese fighters (land and carrier-based), harried my meagre U.K. forces off the coast of Africa while sweeping away the light resistance Russia could manage in the East (being otherwise occupied with surging German tanks, artillery, and infantry).

In hindsight, in addition to Steve's good play, we (the Allies) made some tactical errors. As I see it, they included:
  • As the U.K. I should have made all efforts to place and hold an industrial complex in India, which would have allowed me to bring my forces to bear in Southeast Asia and stem the Japanese advance. Instead, I opted to put my complex in South Africa. I eventually wound up holding most of Africa with the help of the U.S., but it was far too little, too late.
  • The U.S should have been more aggressive. Niall played a very good Russia, beating back German advances with good use of fighter-supported infantry, but Russia cannot hold both fronts. The U.S. was hindered by some hard early blows to its fleet by the aggressive Japanese, but could have nevertheless made greater efforts to establish a beachhead in Asia.
By the end of the game, we were whipped, and Niall and I conceded with German troops at the doorstep of Moscow and Japan holding enough territory to make Alexander the Great green with envy. Still, our ignorance of the rules made it too easy for Steve. Late in the game Germany secured rockets with an industrial breakthough, allowing the Nazis to use their antiaircraft pieces for long range, IPC-draining attacks on London and Moscow. With his large number of artillery, captured and otherwise, Steve rained 3d6 worth of IPC terror on our cities, draining our cash reserves and reinforcements to nil.

The addition of rockets seemed very powerful at the time--game-unbalancingly-powerful--so afterwards I checked the rules, which clearly state that a industrial complex may only suffer one rocket attack per turn, and cannot lose more IPCs than the territory's income value (of which London and Russia each have 8). Our error allowed Steve to make multiple attacks and wreak more financial loss than the rules dictated.

But in all fairness, the handwriting was on the wall and our defeat was inevitable by that point. Steve had us beaten even before Nazi V-2s started raining havoc from the skies.

Still, I'm very much looking forward to the rematch. I can definitely say that a great day was had by all, and that A&A very much holds up as a great game and a nice change of pace from RPGs.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

On vacation

I'm off on an internet-free vacation for a little over a week, so as my buddy Scott would say, more posts on "elf books" to resume when I'm back.

Please don't have a hall-burning when I'm gone, kids.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The ultimate D&D collector's item: Yours for $7,995.00

Check it out: is now selling an original first edition, first printing, woodgrain D&D box set, signed by both Gygax and Arneson. View the complete description at the Noble Knight Web site. Talk about the holy grail of D&D collectibles.

My question: How the heck would this be shipped? If I had 8G to spare, I'd spring for an armored car to pick that baby up. I don't think I'd want to leave it to the whims of the post office or UPS, no matter how well it was packed.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Alfred Tennyson at 200

I wish more readers appreciated poetry these days. In years past, verse was held as the highest expression of the written word, back in the days when John Milton wrote Paradise Lost and Shakespeare penned his great tragedies. When Homer composed his immortal Iliad, and an unnamed monk set quill to scroll to preserve the oral tradition of Beowulf, it was the unquestioned king.

Now, however, poetry is a shadow of its former self. This is primarily due to the ascendance of the novel, but also an anemic market for aspiring poets, which is why I give new fantasy fiction publication Heroic Fantasy Quarterly a hearty, resounding, “Hail and Kill” for having the fortitude to publish this out of fashion form of the written word.

All obstacles considered, I suspect poetry would have no problem carving out a sturdy foothold among today’s fantasy fiction readers were there more inspired, creative geniuses like Alfred Tennyson practicing the art. Last week (August 6, 1809) marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the former United Kingdom Poet Laureate, and while poetry does not hold anywhere near the public acclaim that it did in Tennyson’s day, heroic verse (and prose swords and sorcery fiction, I would argue) remains forever changed because of his marvelous works.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Of The Hobbit and level titles in D&D

I was listening to The Hobbit while driving to work the other day when this exchange between Thorin and Gandalf impressed itself on my D&D-addled mind:

"But we none of us liked the idea of the Front Gate. The river runs right out of it through the great cliff at the South of the Mountain, and out of it comes the dragon too--far too often, unless he has changed his habits."

"That would be no good," said the wizard, "not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero. I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighborhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found."

Gandalf's lament about the lack of qualified swordsmen in the area immediately got me thinking of level titles in D&D, and why I'm a fan of them. Some people think that level titles are a vestigial organ of an older game and rather silly. Others have remarked that they add color and "fluff," but can be safely dropped. But this exchange proves that level titles are not without a practical function: They allow the relative competency of a PC or NPC to be identified without breaking suspension of disbelief, or resorting to metagame language (e.g., walking into a tavern and inquiring about the services of a 9th level cleric).

To get back to Gandalf's comment, in first edition AD&D a Warrior is a second-level fighter and a Hero is a fourth-level fighter. In AD&D terms, therefore, his comment makes perfect sense, as he implies that an experienced sword-arm (i.e., more than a common, 0-level man-at-arms) is needed if the party has any hopes of entering the front gate of Lonely Mountain. A second-level Warrior would fit the bill. From his comment a reader can also safely deduce a Hero is stronger than a Warrior ("even a Hero," Gandalf says.)

In fact, I would submit that this dialogue may have provided Gary Gygax with the idea of level titles.

Of course, as any D&D player knows, a 2nd level or 4th level fighter is hopelessly overmatched against any dragon, even a younger white dragon, let alone an ancient red such as Smaug (who is presumably of the 11 hit dice, 88 HP variety). But given that Third-Age Middle-Earth is, by D&D standards, low-magic and low-powered, and that an infamous article in the March 1977 issue of The Dragon speculated that Gandalf was only a 5th level magic-user, a 4th level fighter--excuse me, Hero--would be quite a formidable swordsman in Middle-Earth, and a welcome addition to the troupe of dwarves and hobbit.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: A harrowing look into 'The Face of Battle'

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, [conjure] up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favor’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.

–William Shakespeare, Henry V

My copy of The Face of Battle greets its reader with the profiled, mail-coifed skull of a Swedish soldier killed in the Battle of Visby, 27 July 1361. This simple, arresting image serves as a proverbial “worth a thousand words” summary of author John Keegan’s seminal work of military history. It is, in my opinion, a must-read for devotees of historical and/or fictional combat.

When I read fantasy literature I often find myself caught up in the action, thrilling in the swirl of combat without regard for the carnage and misery that actual battle wreaks on its participants. The Face of Battle is the bitter antidote to these vicarious feelings of heroism and joyous slaughter that possess me during my literary excursions, reminding me that a battlefield—medieval, Napoleonic, modern, or Hyborian Age, for that matter—is no place that I’d really want to be. Ultimately, Keegan’s book is a powerful statement against the insanity of armed conflict.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site .

Monday, August 3, 2009

A review of REH: Two Gun Raconteur #13

Damon Sasser, as one Robert E. Howard fan to another: Take a bow. The editor of REH: Two Gun Raconteur (The Definitive Howard Journal) gets my praise for putting out a superb issue no. 13.

Before I delve into a description of the contents of REH: TGR 13, I’ll drop any pretense as a neutral reviewer and offer a mea culpa: I stand in awe of Sasser’s publication and the other journals dedicated to the life and writings of Howard. These include REH: TGR , The Dark Man, and until recently, The Cimmerian. These publications require a great deal of work to write and illustrate, edit, produce, and distribute, and are labors of love for which Howard fans owe their editors a debt of gratitude. They certainly have mine. It is wonderful to see the flame of Howard’s literary and cultural reputation, passed down from the likes of Amra in the 1950s, kept alive and burning strong. I hope that these remaining presses of Howard fandom and literary criticism keep running in the years to come.

As a newcomer to the universe of Howard journals, this was the first issue of REH:TGR that I’ve ever seen. Although they say you cannot judge a book by its cover I was sold after viewing its wonderful full-color cover illustration of Kull and Brule battling a horde of serpent-men. This is perhaps the most memorable scene from Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” commonly regarded as the first swords-and-sorcery tale ever written. The journal is a cleanly laid out, 8.5x11 black and white format with glossy paper, illustrated lavishly throughout and nice to look at and hold.

I was doubly pleased to find a Howard story leading off the issue, “The Black Moon.” This is a rare detective story by Howard and one I had never read before. Steve Harrison is a hard-bitten, tough, and muscular investigator that you don’t want to tangle with in a dark alley. The story starts with the murder of Harrison’s friend Wang Yun, an old Chinese shopkeeper who suffers a fatal bite from a cobra deviously planted in his shop. With his dying breath Yun tells Harrison that someone is after the Black Moon, described by Howard as “the biggest, most perfect black pearl in the world,” worn by the Empress Wu-hou in 684 A.D. and the prize of the crown jewels of China. The pearl is hidden in Yun's shop. Harrison spends the rest of the story finding the Black Moon, uncovering the identity of the murderer, and setting the trap to catch Yun’s killer.

“The Black Moon” isn’t Howard’s strongest work and some of the dialogue is downright clunky, but as with almost all of Howard’s tales it’s carried by a compelling, fast-paced plot. There’s also some surprising humor in here (or at least surprising to those who only know Howard through Conan and the grim Solomon Kane): For example, there’s one scene in which a suspect refuses to take the Black Moon, telling Harrison with a perfectly straight face that, “Pearls like that cause more murder than women do.”

As much as I enjoyed “The Black Moon,” the centerpiece of the issue is Bob Roehm’s “The Long and Winding Road: A Poetic History,” which tells in detail the fascinating publication history of The Complete Poetry of Robert E. Howard, as well as previously published books of Howard poetry, including Always Comes Evening (1957) and Singers in the Shadows (1970). Roehm’s piece left me feeling very sad for Howard’s father, Dr. Isaac Howard, who suffered so much following his wife’s passing and his son’s suicide. Dr. Howard dearly wanted to see his son’s poetry published in his lifetime, but unfortunately he passed away in 1944, 13 years before Always Comes Evening and with his son’s poems in limbo, sitting in the hands of the faltering Druid Press. Roehm’s article also gave me another reason to admire the great work of Glenn Lord, whose tireless work tracking down Howard’s poetry led to the publication of Always Comes Evening.

“Kingdoms of Cloud and Moonmist: Casual Observations on the Harold Lamb influence in the Crusader tales of Robert E. Howard” by Brian Leno explores the influence of Lamb on Howard’s writings. Lamb was a noted writer of historic pulp fiction and Howard delved into the genre in the early 1930s with a few stories of his own set during the Crusades. I’ll admit to having read very little of Howard’s work in this genre, an oversight I plan to correct some day.

“The Hyperboreans Re-Imagined” by Morgan Holmes pieces together details on a little known race from the Hyborian Age, the Hyperboreans, offering a different vision of Hyberborea than the one presented in pastiches and role-playing games. This warlike nation lost a showdown with Aquilonia near the end of the Hyborian Age, and, crippled by the destruction of their army, fell to barbarian invasions. Pulling together evidence of various mercenaries and other surviving Hyberboreans from Howard’s tales, Holmes offers informed speculation on what the race and its empire may have been like.

“The Skald and the King” by Chris Green draws comparisons between Marvel Comics great Jack Kirby and Howard, two creative visionaries who burned with a fire to tell stories of larger-than-life heroes.

REH:TGR 13 concludes with “The Mighty Revelator Passes: Tributes and Farewells to Steve Tompkins.” These 10 mini-essays pay tribute to Tompkins, whose untimely death earlier this year extinguished the light of one of the brightest and most passionate minds in Howard studies. As I mentioned in a past post , I never met Steve, but e-mailed with him occasionally and read all of his essays I could find. His passing was and is a painful shock. I think Steve would have been humbled by the esteem in which he was held by guys like Rusty Burke, Mark Finn, Leo Grin, Al Harron, Scotty Henderson, Don Herron, Morgan Holmes, Deuce Richardson, Gary Romeo, Charles Saunders, and Sasser. For those who knew Steve, even peripherally, it’s difficult to get through this section with a dry eye. Access to these heartfelt tributes and farewells was worth the cover price alone.