Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Closing out 2011 with a glimpse of Heroic Visions

So I had given Jessica Amanda Salmonson some hard ink a while back for her less than stellar appraisal of Robert E. Howard in the introduction to her 1983 anthology Heroic Visions. I stand by my previous statements that a breezy thumbnail sketch of the heroic fantasy/swords and sorcery genre is not the best spot for criticizing the modern founder of the genre. That said, and having now read the whole thing, I will add that Salmonson put together a fairly enjoyable anthology. Not great, but a fun year-end read.

A couple of these tales really push the boundaries of heroic fantasy but that was Salmonson’s expressed purpose: to prove that heroic fantasy/swords and sorcery is about more than just muscled warriors wielding swords. Heroic Visions is heavy on women writers and depicts several strong female protagonists and powerful visions of femininity. Says Salmonson:

Without denying Howard’s genius or even qualifying it, it must be recognized that glorifying his rudimentary sword and sorcery as “ideal” heroic fantasy is akin to assuming Doc Smith’s old-fashioned space opera is “ideal” science fiction. No area of fantasy should be so stagnant and devoid of stylistic and conceptual growth or variety.

Placed in the context of the times I have some sympathy for Salmonson’s introduction. Heroic Visions was produced at the tail end of a flood of bad S&S that would ultimately hurt the genre, similar to what happened with the collapse of the horror fiction market in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Robert Jordan was writing Conan pastiches in the early 1980s. The 1970s was a time of carbon-copy barbarians named Brak and Kothar and Thongor. Michael Moorcock was pumping out his most hackneyed creations around this time, too. To be frank, the quality of such stories was all over the map. Heroic Visions was Salmonson’s attempt to stem the tide of crap and steer the genre back to respectability.

Heroic Visions leads off with a Fritz Leiber Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story that had never before seen print. “The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars” is not at the same level as Leiber’s earlier material and takes a while to get going, but is fun enough with a satisfying ending. Its strength is in its style and panache.

“Sister Light, Sister Dark” by Jane Yolen is in my opinion the best story in the collection. My only previous exposure to Yolen was reading her illustrated children’s book Owl Moon to my daughters. I won’t be reading them the bloody, violent, and lusty tale “Sister Light, Sister Dark” but I enjoyed the heck out of it, and it demonstrates Yolen’s versatility as a writer.

After those two we start to get to the genre benders. “Dancers in the Time-Flux” by Robert Silverberg is a borderline heroic fantasy story that I thought belonged here; Michael Bishop’s “The Monkey’s Bride,” though a decent enough story, does not. In the former a Dutch ship commander from the late 16th century is whisked away to an impossibly alien-appearing earth untold millennia in the future. He quickly falls in with a metallic, bug-like, multi-legged/armed human life form called Bhengarn the Traveler. Though they seemingly share nothing in common the two are both travelers in a spiritual and physical sense, and forge a friendship in a trial of endurance and strength by climbing a mighty ice wall. “The Monkey’s Bride” is a similarly odd tale about a young woman whose father against her will promises her hand in marriage to the monkey-man Don Ignacio. Fighting bitterly against her unfair fate, in the end she comes to love Ignacio for his great heart and patience. Though it’s a decent enough story and certainly of a fantasy bent, I would argue that it’s very much out of place in an anthology of heroic fantasy (the conflict is largely internal to the protganist and is resolved mainly through slow acceptance of her circumstances, not heroic action)

Heroic Visions contains a couple other stories worth mentioning. Phyllis Ann Karr’s “Tales Told to a Toymaker” features an outsider’s look at the heroic life by someone who could have been a hero, but opted to spend his days working in a toymaker’s shop. “Each of us climbs his own mountain,” the adventurer tells the toymaker. I also very much enjoyed Gordon Derevanchuk’s “Vovko,” which draws upon little-tapped Slavic lore and includes hodgepodge appearances by a vodyanyk, or a sea-demon, a warrior who wears the pelt and can assume the form of a vovkulaka, or werewolf, the witch Baba-Yaga, and a venture into the shadowed realm of the dark, accursed Slavic deity Chernobog.


And with Heroic Visions I was able to complete my modest goal of 52 books in 52 weeks in 2011. Other recent reads included Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. I’m hoping to better this total in 2012 and am already deep into two books to kick off the new year: Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Updated Blood and Thunder Portends Good Start to 2012 for Robert E. Howard Fans

2011 hasn’t been the kindest year for fans of Robert E. Howard. January saw the end of the fine Del Rey series of Howard originals with the publication of the 11th and final volume Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures (sigh). In August we got a crummy new film purporting to be REH’s Conan that resembles no story the Texan ever wrote, and is currently sporting a woeful 22% “rotten” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes (still think you can tell a better story than REH, Marcus Nispel?)

But the waning days of 2011 have brought a bit of good cheer to brighten the day of Howard fans everywhere: News of the publication of a new and improved second edition of the REH biography Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard by Mark Finn.

Monkeybrain books published the first edition of the Blood and Thunder in 2006 in paperback; the second edition is being published in a limited run of 150 hardcover copies by the Robert E. Howard Foundation at a cost of $50 ($45 for members of the foundation). You can pre-order it now and it’s expected to ship by the end of January 2012. Here’s a description from the REH Foundation webpage:

Alongside the success of “Conan the Barbarian” was a neatly packaged, sound byte biography of a tortured young man, full of volcanic rages, playing at war inside his head, while the citizens in the small town of Cross Plains laughed at him behind his back—a man so undone by his circumstances and so strangely devoted to his mother that, on her deathbed, he pre-empted seeing her die by committing suicide.

In Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, author Mark Finn dispels many of those old, outdated myths that have grown up around Howard and his fictional creations. Armed with twenty-five years of research and a wealth of historical documents, Finn paints a very different picture from the one that millions of fans of Conan have been sold throughout the years.
To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Hobbit trailer

Joining the chorus weighing in on the new The Hobbit trailer…

Despite the lukewarm reception it’s getting by James at Grognardia and Al over on The Blog that Time Forgot, I’m rather encouraged. Is it too nerdy to admit to daydreaming of a day spent watching all five movies consecutively (extended versions, of course)? How many hours would it require? How much food and other supplies would I need to complete such an adventure? Would I return the same?

First, what I like. Thorin is bad ass—as he should be. I’ve heard some claim that The Hobbit should be a whimsical children’s fantasy complete with bumbling dwarves. There is some of that in the book, particularly early on (and we see that in the trailer with dwarves tossing crockery in Bag End—I hope we also get a rousing rendition of “Chip the glasses, crack the plates!”). But remember that this too is the Thorin of Tolkien’s novel:

Thorin wielded his axe with mighty strokes, and nothing seemed to harm him. “To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!” he cried, and his voice shook like a horn in the valley.

Everything I’ve seen of Martin Freeman makes me happy. Based on the trailer and the previously released “making of” clips, he seems perfectly suited to the part. The casting of Bilbo and his performance is by far and away the most important ingredient in the success of this film, in my opinion, and so far, so good on that front.

Of course, I love the singing. I’m a little bit disappointed in the criticism coming from Pat from Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist who asks, “Why must they sing???” Really? Have you read the books, Pat? You do know that the scene of the dwarves singing at Bag-End is probably the most iconic scene in the entire book, or at least on par with “Riddles in the Dark”, and that there would have been open revolt without it? That the song establishes the mood and the atmosphere and the stage for the “why” behind the entire quest?

Sure, I’ve got a few reservations. I’m not quite sure what’s going on with Galadriel brushing away Gandalf’s hair from his face. I’m more concerned to see so much heavy foreshadowing of the portentous events of The Lord of the Rings. Thorin’s “Nor will I be responsible for his fate” comment in reference to Bilbo implies that he knows that the latter will play a critical part in much larger events to come. I hope the emphasis is on telling a fine story that stands on its own and not in developing a LOTR prequel. We’ll see around this time next year. But overall, I’m pleased.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey, a review

Warning: Spoilers

Our species has come a long way in what amounts to a relative eyeblink of history. From apes quarreling in the dirt over scraps of food we’ve progressed to feudal monarchies to our present democracies. From bone tools we invented firearms and the printing press, and now enjoy incredible computing power and life-saving drugs and surgical equipment.

But some things haven’t changed a lot. Humanity continues to remain stagnant physically. Our houses of flesh still chain us to the earth. Although our life spans have increased and we’ve eradicated many diseases, bright minds old and young are snuffed out every day by untimely heart attacks and strokes. We’re also limited by many of our old prejudices and warlike tendencies. While the threat of the cold war and mutual nuclear annihilation has passed, national security is still a grave concern, as the threat of international terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and dirty bombs into the hands of volatile countries are existential threats to our survival.

Dystopias like Blade Runner and 1984 argue that things may get much worse, not better, for humanity. But not according to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s film expresses the hope that one day we will evolve beyond our physical and societal handicaps, and will either come face to face with God or achieve a form of technological singularity (depending on your beliefs).

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Enjoying the Unique Character of Karl Edward Wagner’s Dark Crusade

Why has swords and sorcery languished while epic fantasy enjoys a wide readership? In an age of diminished attention spans and the proliferation of Twitter and video games, it’s hard to explain why ponderous five and seven and 12 book series dominate fantasy fiction while lean and mean sword-and-sorcery short stories and novels struggle to find markets (Black Gate and a few other outlets excepted).

During a recent reading of the late Karl Edward Wagner’s Dark Crusade (1976) a potential answer coalesced: Many readers want and expect deep characterization in their fiction, and it’s simply not a particularly strong suit of the sword-and-sorcery genre (or at least of classic sword-and-sorcery, circa 1930 through the early 1980s). Wagner is one of a handful of classic sword-and-sorcery authors to whom history has not been particularly kind*. His dark, God-accursed hero-villain Kane deserves a place alongside Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in the roll of great genre heroes, but is sadly left off many “best of” sword-and-sorcery lists. Relegated to the status of cult figure, Kane is the darling of heroic fantasy connoisseurs but unread of by many casual genre fans, and unheard of by most of the larger fantasy fan base.

Kane and many of his sword-and-sorcery ilk are not what most modern readers would consider fully realized characters. You just don’t get anything close to the same level of introspection and cradle to the grave development of Kane in Dark Crusade as you do of, say, Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind.

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

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What I've read so far this year

As I stated before I set out to read a book a week in 2011. It's a pretty modest goal, but I'm not the fastest reader ever and have many competing interests for my time. But I'm happy to say that I'm on pace to meet that goal, with 49 titles read through 48 weeks. Here's the list (including my ratings):

1. Roots and Branches, Tom Shippey, 4 stars

2. Legend, David Gemmell, 4 stars

3. The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett, 3.5 stars

4. Grails: Quests of the Dawn, Richard Gilliam, Mercedes Lackey, Andre Norton editors, 3 stars

5. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens, 3.5 stars

6. The Burning Land, Bernard Cornwell 3.5 stars

7. No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy, 4.5 stars

8. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, J.R.R. Tolkien, 3.5 stars

9. Resolute Determination: Napoleon and the French Empire (The Modern Scholar), 3.5 stars

10. The Company They Keep, Diana Glyer, 4 stars

11. The Desert of Souls, Howard Andrew Jones, 3.5 stars

12. The Brothers Bulger, Howie Carr, 3 stars

13. Phantastes, George MacDonald, 3.5 stars

14. Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, Jane Chance editor, 3.5 stars

15. One Who Walked Alone, Novalyne Price Ellis, 4 stars

16. Damnation Alley, Roger Zelazny, 3 stars

17. Walden, Henry David Thoreau, 4 stars

18. Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott, 4 stars

19. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, John Joseph Adams editor, 3.5 stars

20. Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson, 3.5 stars

21. The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson, 4.5 stars

22. The Dirt, Motley Crue, 3 stars

23. Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs, 4 stars

24. Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings, Lin Carter, 3.5 stars

25. The Dark Tide, Dennis McKiernan, 3 stars

26. Watership Down, Richard Adams, 5 stars

27. Shadows of Doom, Dennis McKiernan, 2.5 stars

28. The Darkest Day, Dennis McKiernan, 3 stars

29. The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis, 4 stars

30. Imaro, Charles Saunders, 3.5 stars

31. Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, Robert E. Howard, 4 stars

32. The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman, 4 stars

33. The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman, 3.5 stars

34. The Fantastic Swordsmen, L. Sprague de Camp ed., 4 stars

35. Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis, 3.5 stars

36. Warriors, George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois eds., 4 stars

37. The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch, 3.5 stars

38. The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman, 3.5 stars

39. The Case for God, Karen Armstrong, 4 stars

40. The Golden Apples of the Sun, Ray Bradbury, 4 stars

41. Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison ed., 4 stars

42. The Rising, Brian Keene, 3.5 stars

43. The Undiscovered Self, C.G. Jung, 4.5 stars

44. Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead, John Skipp editor, 4 stars

45. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny, 4 stars

46. The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien, 5 stars

47. The Demon of Scattery, Poul Anderson and Mildred Downey Broxon, 3.5 stars

48. Bringing Down the House, Ben Mezrich, 3 stars

49. Dark Crusade, Karl Edward Wagner, 4 stars

My eclectic tastes are on full display here. There's a lot of swords and sorcery (Dark Crusade, Imaro, The Fantastic Swordsmen, Legend) mixed with epic fantasy (FOTR, His Dark Materials trilogy, Iron Tower trilogy). I've been picking off some of the SF/fantasy classics (Lord of Light, Phantastes, Golden Apples of the Sun) while showing my weakness for zombie stories (The Rising, Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead). I've got a fair bit of non-fiction mixed in too: Everything from both sides of the God debate (Hitchens vs. Armstrong), to an MIT card-counting ring (Bringing Down the House), to autobiographical material (Howard, C.S. Lewis) to Jung. If I'm interested in it, I'll read it.

This exercise has again underscored the need to increase my reading speed. I frankly have no idea how anyone can read 300 or 400 books in a year, but I've seen people claiming those totals. I am giving some serious thought to setting aside a future slot to a speed-reading title.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Demon of Scattery, a review

I’ve had the Poul Anderson/Mildred Downey Broxon collaboration The Demon of Scattery (1979) sitting on my bookshelf for ages, and this past weekend I was finally able to take it down, dust it off, and breeze through its lushly illustrated 207 pages in a few hours. It wasn’t really what I was expecting, both in a good and a not so good way.

I think I hesitated reading it all these years because of its cover. It features a sorceress summoning up a snake-demon, though not the kind of sorceress I prefer—there’s far too much Marion Zimmer Bradley and not enough Weird Tales in her attire (yeah, I’m kind of shallow like that. And I have been known to judge a book by its cover).

I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge the book, of course, as the tale does not contain the scene depicted at right. Instead, what you get is a historical fiction-infused fantasy tale set on Scattery Island, a real place off the coast of Ireland. Uninhabited today, it once was home to a monastery that was subject to a few Viking raids in the ninth and 10th century. According to historical notes at the back of the book, the Vikings raided the monastery in 816 and 835 AD but then did not return to it for more than 100 years, despite the fact that Scattery Island was a strategic location for launching raids on the mainland. Scattery was also said to be home to a monster named Cata that once prowled its coastline, which may have been the reason the Vikings later gave it a wide berth. In short, the historical record contains plenty of raw elements for the makings of a fine tale.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Walking Dead Season 2: Stop and Smell the Dessicated Roses

Warning: Some spoilers follow

Season 2 of AMC’s The Walking Dead is nearing its midseason point, and apparently it sucks, at least according to a vocal minority of viewers. Why? Too much talking and not enough action. With a name like The Walking Dead, each episode should be wall-to-wall flesh munching zombies and humans gunning down undead with head shots on the wing. Or so the detractors say.

Me? I’ve been enjoying the heck out of the series, and think it’s pretty darned perfect as far as serialized television goes. The Walking Dead isn’t just about zombies. It’s also a human drama, and I’m hooked.

But I guess characterization and engagement with philosophical and moral questions aren’t what the zombie diehards want. Here’s a real sampling of some of the comments I’ve found:

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, a review

My reading selection is mainly the product of my personal (and admittedly diverse, and quirky) preferences. Which is why you see a mixture of epic fantasy, swords and sorcery, horror, military and/or historical non-fiction, and a smattering of science fiction reviewed on this website. I also branch out into books that are acknowledged classics of their genre, titles which I wouldn’t normally read were it not for their place on “top 100 polls” and the like. Some might argue that life is too short to read uninteresting books, or to conform to public opinion, but I’ve come to realize that consensus on some issues does matter, especially after finding that several of my forays into the classics have been well worth the trip. Watership Down is among the top 20 books I’ve ever read, for example. Ditto Slaughterhouse Five and 1984. Other titles have been duds and left me wondering “what’s the hype all about?”, but at least I can say I made the effort.

This helps explain my recent foray into Roger Zelazny’s 1967 Hugo Award winning novel Lord of Light. If you take a look at any of the top 100 SF lists, you’ll see this book frequently mentioned. That’s why I picked it up. Now that I’ve read it, I’d put Lord of Light into the category of a Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which I found to be a mixed bag.  It’s a very good book, and I get why it’s accorded its classic status. But just like Matheson’s tale, I would describe Lord of Light as a book of great ideas, marred a bit by its execution.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Black Sabbath reuniting—blech

My love for heavy metal is well documented here. So is my love for Black Sabbath, a band which I consider among the best heavy metal bands of all time (this is hardly a controversial statement, though perhaps some would quarrel with my placing them behind Judas Priest and Iron Maiden). Their first few albums—Black Sabbath, Sabotage, Paranoid, and Master of Reality—are among the greatest the genre has produced. In my mind they are the first heavy metal band (sorry Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple), and so are responsible for launching my favorite genre of music. For that reason alone, Black Sabbath will have my eternal gratitude.

Given those facts, you would think that I’d be doing proverbial backflips over the news that the original Ozzy-fronted Black Sabbath has reunited yet again.

But then, you’d be wrong. I am decidedly less than enthusiastic. The reason is that Ozzy is completely and utterly shot.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Latest The Hobbit Production Video: A Deep Delve Into 3D

I still haven’t quite come to grips with The Hobbit in 3D. I’ve got a few 3D films under my belt—Avatar, Captain America, Green Lantern, and Jaws 3—and to be honest, the added dimension hasn’t done much for me. Avatar made the most of it with its rich images of Pandora; the other films felt like they were trying to capitalize on a fad (hey, look, there’s a shield coming at me!) in order to take in a few extra bucks at the gate.

In short, I still prefer good old fashioned 2D, even after watching the latest The Hobbit production video on Peter Jackson’s Facebook page. Judging by the mixed feelings in the comments, others prefer 2D, too. “Love your work Peter, the technology is fascinating, and I can’t wait for 2012. But this 3d stuff is an absolutely horrid and wretched fad which adds zero value to any movie which incorporates it,” writes one commenter. But there were many more positives than negatives amongst the comments, and having viewed the video I’m a bit more optimistic with the thought of donning a pair of uncomfortable plastic glasses and settling in to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D next December.

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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I’m an Elvis man when it comes to zombies

It’s often been said—I believe the saying originated with the film Pulp Fiction—that you’re either an Elvis man or a Beatles man. You can’t be equal parts fan of the larger than life King of Rock and Roll and his bombastic, hip-shaking style, and love the cerebral, trippy sounds of the Fab Four with equal fervor (though apparently the Beatles were themselves big Elvis fans—go figure).

Whether or not you buy into the theory I think it can be profitably applied to the dual nature of zombie fiction.

Zombies are certainly malleable monsters and can represent concepts like out of control consumerism, or the dangers of conformity, as well as mortality, cancer, and other real-life issues. Zombie literature can be "literary," in short. But in the end when I pick up a zombie anthology I want mostly stories about flesh-eating undead overrunning the world, and humans stubbornly fighting back. World War Z by Max Brooks is still the high water mark for this type of zombie fiction. If you’re going to publish an anthology about zombies, the stories ought to have a lot of red meat and apocalypse to them. Deep literary and/or philosophical subtlety? Yeah, zombie fiction can do that too, but I prefer a little less conversation and a little more action in my zombie stories. Literary is okay in smaller doses.

Fortunately Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead (edited by John Skipp) contains enough Elvis to scratch my rock-and-roll itch. It doesn’t warp the term “zombie” beyond all recognition, as does the John Joseph Adams anthology The Living Dead, which features a few stories with no zombies at all and lots of ham-handed political commentary. There’s a little of that here (Lisa Morton’s cartoonish “Sparks Fly Upwards”) but not enough to be a deal-breaker. Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead contains 32 short stories by such luminaries as Stephen King, Robert Bloch, and Ray Bradbury, as well an introduction by Skipp and two concluding essays on the history of the zombie genre and the reasons for its enduring popularity. Checking in at 700 pages, the book is so thick it “can also be used for staving in heads,” proclaims a back cover blurb. I believe it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Conqueror Worm

Lo! t’is a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Woe!

That motley drama—oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

--Edgar Allan Poe

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Swords from the East, Swords from the Sea by Harold Lamb, a review

Swords from the Sea
Harold Lamb
Howard Andrew Jones, ed.
Bison Books (552 pp, $24.95, 2010)

Swords from the East
Harold Lamb
Howard Andrew Jones, ed.
Bison Books (476 pp, $24.95, 2010)

It must have been something, the pre-television age when pulp magazines were a widely consumed form of entertainment. I can only imagine the anticipation of opening up one’s mailbox, finding inside the latest copy of Adventure magazine, and settling in to an evening of rousing tales by the likes of Talbot Mundy, H. Rider Haggard, and Harold Lamb. It was a time of pulse-pounding action and tales of distant historic epochs on the printed page.

Those days are now gone, and for many years the contents of those now-yellowed pulps were largely inaccessible, save through the efforts of patient and often deep-pocketed enthusiasts. But fortunately some of these works are now being collected in anthologies. Editor Howard Andrew Jones has done the Herculean task of assembling Lamb’s stories in the eight volume “Harold Lamb Library” series by Bison Books. These include Swords from the Desert and Swords from the West, and recently concluded with Swords from the Sea and Swords from the East.

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

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Rising by Brian Keene, a review

If there’s one comforting aspect to zombies, it’s the fact that they’re brainless, depicted in most mediums as well below the level of primates. While some of the undead maintain vestigial memories of the person they once were, and might be able to work a door handle or remember the location of a concealed room, they don’t organize or coordinate their attacks. A man with a gun and a lot of ammunition situated on high ground can hold out against them for a long while. Spread out a group of zombies thin enough and a desperate survivor can run right through them, if he’s lucky enough to avoid being snagged by a grasping hand. At worst they might use a tree limb to batter down a door or break a window. They’re deadly in big clusters, but one-on-one they’re manageable. They don’t set ambushes. They can’t operate heavy machinery. They don’t use weapons.

But in author Brian Keene’s universe of The Rising (2004), slow, stupid, Romero-style zombies have undergone a paradigm shift. You thought you were safe behind boarded-up windows, confident they would hold up against the pounding fists of the living dead? Now add a high-speed zombie-driven van into the equation. The man shooting zombies from a roof in The Rising will find the creatures shooting back, or coming around from behind while creatures in front draw his fire. Keene’s zombies can plan, and calculate, and employ tactics. We’re all screwed in this type of scenario, more or less meat for the hungry dead. And that’s before you add in the fact that dead animals are reanimating as well; some of the most dangerous creatures in The Rising are swarms of undead rats and birds, largely resistant to gunfire as they make such small targets.

This all makes The Rising a bleak novel, indeed. But there's a bit more to it than meets the eye.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Zombies on the brain

I've got zombies on the brain. Watched The Walking Dead season two premiere last night (good stuff) and I'm about to start reading Brian Keene's The Rising. With two weeks to Halloween I'm going full-bore horror.

Did anyone else catch The Walking Dead last night? If so, I'd like to know your thoughts on it and/or the series thus far. Discussion/spoilers follow after the break (now that Blogger has added the "insert jump break" button, I might as well start using it).

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Are we becoming "The Happy Breed"?

Still working my way through the Harlan Ellison edited anthology Dangerous Visions (highly recommended reading, by the way), and I’ve come across a story that stopped me cold in my tracks, because it concerns a subject about which I’ve given a lot of thought and worry. Namely, the problem of pain.

“The Happy Breed” by John Sladek tells of a theoretical future (amusingly, 1989—Dangerous Visions was written in 1967, and many of its entries err on the side of overestimating the proliferation of technology) in which machines will take away all our pain. It’s a world in which machines constantly analyze our bodies and minds and offer tranquilizers to still our troubling thoughts, and painless surgical intervention for every physical ailment. So what’s left for humanity in this future?

Sladek posits that with every machine we come to depend on, we surrender a bit of our freedom. What would happen to us if we no longer had any of life’s ailments to worry about? What would it do to our psyche, our creativity? What if we were theoretically able to conquer death itself? Would we be recognizably human any longer? Would we need God in this future?
Says Sladek:

…without evil or pain, preference and choice are meaningless; personality blurs; figures merge with their backgrounds, and thinking becomes superfluous and disappears. I believe these are the inevitable results of achieving Utopia, if we make the mistake of assuming the Utopia equals perfect happiness. There is, after all, a pleasure center in everyone’s head. Plant an electrode there, and presumably we could be constantly, perfectly happy on a dime’s worth of electricity a day.

Are we destined to become “The Happy Breed?” What do you think?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Barbarism meets academia at College of St. Joseph in Vermont

Cross posted with the permission of Rob Roehm of the Robert E. Howard Foundation website, I thought the following too interesting not to share with readers of Black Gate and The Silver Key:

Enduring Barbarism: Heroic Fantasy from the Bronze Age to the Internet

College of St. Joseph Popular Culture Conference
Contact email:
Dr. Jonas Prida

The inaugural popular culture conference will be held at the College of St. Joseph, located in Rutland, Vermont, April 13th-14th, 2012.

Proposal deadline: Dec 15th, 2011.

We are looking for a wide range of topics, figures, panels and cultural studies methodologies to explore the enduring figure of the barbarian in Western popular culture. Graduate students, established faculty, and independent scholars are encouraged to submit ideas. Possible paper topics:

The multi-faceted use of the barbarian in popular culture

Rise and fall of heroic fantasy in the 1970s

Comic book barbarism

Heroic fantasy as a heavy metal trope

The gendered barbarian

Explorations of lesser-known sword and sorcery texts

Italian sword and sandal movies

The barbarian’s future

We are actively interested in innovative panel ideas as well.

Please send 250 word paper proposals, 400-500 word panel ideas, or general questions to Dr. Jonas Prida at

If it only had Eric Adams as the keynote, this would be pitch-perfect.

But seriously, it does my heart good to see serious treatment of swords and sorcery. Now there’s a conference I’d love to attend. Get those proposals in!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

There has never been a craps table described quite like this

I'm at the halfway mark of a book I've long had on my "to be read" list--the Harlan Ellison-edited anthology Dangerous Visions (1967). I'm enjoying it immensely so far. Even when I don't quite understand everything I'm reading the sheer artistry of the stories makes up for the opaqueness. You can lose yourself in these tales.

I just finished Fritz Leiber's Hugo and Nebula Award-winning short story "Gonna Roll the Bones," about a beaten-down lowlife miner named Joe Slattermill who likes to blow off steam by gambling, getting drunk, and picking up cheap hookers. On this particular evening's excursion he enters a ghostly casino named The Boneyard and finds himself seated across the pool table from either death, or perhaps the devil.

It's freaking awesome. The way Leiber describes Slattermill's opponent--a skeletal, hollow-eyed, black-hatted figure known as The Big Gambler--reminded me of Iron Maiden mascot Eddie from my favorite Somewhere in Time tapestry, only with more menace.

I've never read anything quite like this story. It's a marvel of style. Here's how Leiber describes the crap table, for instance:

Joe lowered his gaze to the crap table. It was almost as wide as a man is tall, at least twice as long, unusually deep, and lined with black, not green, felt, so that it looked like a giant's coffin. There was something familiar about its shape which he couldn't place. Its bottom, though not its sides or ends, had a twinkling iridescence, as if it had been lightly sprinkled with very tiny diamonds. As Joe lowered his gaze all the way and looked directly down, his eyes barely over the table, he got the crazy notion that it went down all the way through the world, so that the diamonds were the stars on the other side, visible despite the sunlight there, just as Joe was always able to see the stars by day up the shaft of the mine he worked in, and so that if a cleaned-out gambler, dizzy with defeat, toppled forward into it, he'd fall forever, toward the innermost bottom, be it Hell or some black galaxy. Joe's thoughts swirled and he felt the cold, hard-fingered clutch of fear at his crotch. Someone was crooning beside him, "Come on, Big Dick."
I don't always agree with Hugo selections and other award winners, but "Gonna Roll the Bones" deserves whatever accolodates were thrown at it for that paragraph alone. The menace and alien nature of the table and its association with death, the reference to Slattermill's job and the accompanying insight into his character, the depiction of the soul of the inveterate gambler, the fear mixed with sex... wow.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Golden Apples of the Sun

Just finished this one, a collection of 22 stories ranging from science fiction to fantasy to mainstream and everything in between. Like all Bradbury it's hard to categorize, with fun little shockers in the tradition of EC Comics alongside stories like deep pools that leave you gasping at their magnificence when you rise back to the surface.

"Well," said the captain, sitting, eyes shut, sighing. "Well, where do we go now, eh, we are we all going?" He felt his men sitting or standing all about him, the terror dead in them, their breathing quiet. "When you've gone a long, long way down to the sun and touched it and lingered and jumped around and streaked away from it, where are you going then? When you go away from the heat and the noonday light and the laziness, where do you go?"

His men waited for him to say it out. They waited for him to gather all of the coolness and the whiteness and the welcome and refreshing climate of the word in his mind, and they saw him settle the word, like a bit of ice cream, in his mouth, rolling it gently.

"There's only one direction in space from here on out," he said at last.

They waited. They waited as the ship moved swiftly into cold darkness away from the light.

"North," murmured the captain. "North."

And they all smiled, as if a wind had come up suddenly in the middle of a hot afternoon.

Where are we all going? Hard to say for sure, but in Bradbury's capable hands, always to good places.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Is The Lord of the Rings literature?

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Part 1 of this article set the stage for the question, Is The Lord of the Rings literature? Part II examines six criteria commonly used to define works of high literary quality and applies them to The Lord of the Rings.

1. Popular appeal

The argument against: The Lord of the Rings might be popular, but that doesn’t make it literature.

The counterargument: There’s popular, and then there’s an omnipresent, mammoth, overshadowing level of popularity.

How popular is The Lord of the Rings? At last count, it has been translated into 57 languages and is the second best-selling novel ever written, with over 150 million copies sold. Its also a repeat winner of multiple international contests for favorite novel (note the broad term novel, not just fantasy novel). For example:

In 1997 it topped a Waterstone’s poll for Top 100 Books of the Century.

In 2003 a survey (The Big Read) was conducted in the United Kingdom to determine the nation’s best-loved novel of all time. More than three quarters of a million votes were received, and the winner was The Lord of the Rings.

A 1999 Amazon poll administered to its customers yielded the same result.

In short, readers of all stripes, from all around the world, adore this book more than just about any other.

All that said, I will fully admit that this is the least convincing argument, because mass appeal is not necessarily a good indicator of quality. See Justin Bieber. So let’s look at some other criteria.

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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

His Dark Materials: Good, but don’t expect any miracles

As you may recall I wrote about Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, book one of the His Dark Materials trilogy, back in August. Recently I read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass to complete the series.

The results were decidedly mixed. Some of His Dark Materials is excellent, bordering on brilliant, other aspects not so much.

There are a million and one summaries of these books floating around the internet so I won’t waste time writing another. That said, I have several thoughts on the series I’d like to share here. So in lieu of a traditional spoiler-free review, I’m weighing in with specific details on what I liked and did not like about the series.

A strong warning: Many spoilers follow after the book cover, as well as religious discussion.

    First of all, do these books truly endorse atheism? Perhaps, but not what I would consider classic atheism, which argues against the existence of deities and the supernatural and posits that the universe is entirely explainable by science. While there apparently is no God in the universe of His Dark Materials, intelligent species like humans are inhabited by a substance called Dust, which apparently functions the same way as original sin in the Christian religion (it bestows knowledge of good and evil, etc). His Dark Materials includes elements beyond any physical explanation, such as angels, an compass-like item called an alethiometer that performs functions that can only be explained by magic, flying witches, incorporeal specters, and other monsters. Committed atheists believe that everything is physical and there is nothing beyond the grave; in The Amber Spyglass Lyra and Will travel to the underworld to visit spirits of the dead, and there are hints of some atomized afterlife of the spirit. In short, it’s is not a work of scientific rationalism. I’ve heard it described as gnosticism, which seems a far more apt comparison.

    What Pullman’s books are is a rather damning indictment of organized religion, particularly the Catholic church. Now, I’m not a Catholic so I have no skin in the fire, but I found Pullman’s treatment rather unfair. He portrays the church as a caricature of evil, a uniformly monstrous, insidious, intolerant organization that mercilessly persecutes non-believers. So we get dialogue like this by one of the characters: “That's what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”

    Given that His Dark Materials is ostensibly set in a world with a timeline roughly equivalent to our own (not a time of 14-century witch-hunts and the like when some of this behavior was sadly practiced), it’s all faintly ridiculous. To describe the church as an evil comparable to Sauron is, well, childish in the extreme.

    Pullman posits that there is no God as believers traditionally understand him, but only powerful angels. God is actually a decrepit old angelic figure called the Authority. Pullman inverts the story of Adam and Eve, making the Authority the bad guy and Satan the good. Original sin is all backwards; our bodies are wonderful and natural and the fruit of knowledge to be fully enjoyed. The heroine and hero of the story, Lyra and Will, become ciphers for the new Adam and Eve, ushering in a world free of the Christian God in exchange for a world of solid reality.

    So what does the world of His Dark Materials offer for consolation? Perhaps that there are other worlds, parallel to our own, that science or the mind of mankind can open. Pullman’s constructed world is not amoral or about living only for life’s sake. It also includes a strong component of responsibility. When the armored bear Iorek tells Lyra not to put herself in harm’s way (“While you are alive, your business is with life”) she lectures him otherwise: “No, Iorek,” she said gently, “our business is to keep promises, no matter how difficult they are.” This is a fine lesson.

    There are some great scenes in the books that alone make it worth reading for fantasy fans. Perhaps most memorable was Will and Lyra’s journey into the land of the dead, complete with an implacable boatman and foul harpies right out of Greek mythology. It’s terrifying and wonderful at once.

    Will and Lyra’s journey into the land of the dead demonstrates what happens to the “souls” of the dead in a godless world. Freed from a purgatory-like underworld, they are atomized, entirely gone. Death itself (and all our fears and superstitions built up around it) dies too. In Pullman’s world, at death a person becomes a part of everything. “You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.” Life is fine and good, and death is simply the End. Pullman portrays death as tranquil, for example when the explorer Lee Scoresby dies. Unfortunately this explanation provides no solace for those left behind, as there is seemingly no possibility of reuniting in an afterlife. Heaven is a lie. Explains an ex-nun: “That’s what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us and we never knew.”

    The Amber Spyglass packs an emotional and satisfying ending that I found quite moving and well-done. Some of the best writing in the series can be found here.

    All that said…

    There are problems with the series, both plot-wise and in its execution, and some are major. Not the least of which is the series’ tendency to tell rather than show as it progresses, and delivering its underlying messages with an iron-booted didacticism. The best book of the series is without question The Golden Compass, which is refreshingly agenda-free and so tells a pretty good imaginative story. I’ve read a lot of complaints over the years about C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, detractors of which point out (not unreasonably) that it’s too dogmatic, or black and white in its conclusions. The same can certainly be said for His Dark Materials, and then some.

    There are other problems with the series, too. Some of these include:

    • Characters that float in and out without adequate ends, or explanation. For example Ama, a serving girl that Pullman spends considerable time introducing at the outset of The Amber Spyglass, simply drops out of the story without explanation. I never figured out the purpose of the scientist Mary and her encounters on another planet with a sentient race of elephant-like creatures called the mulefa. This entire sub-plot could have been safely excised, in my opinion, and any point that Pullman was attempting to convey here (perhaps showing the mulefa as an ideal natural race, without the interference of organized religion) woven into the main story.

    • Lyra’s mother and father fight a angel enforcer named Metatron, whose name sounds suspiciously like a transformer and acts like the worst of the Decepticons. Lame.

    • The great and powerful Church, with centuries of experience of scheming and corruption and power wielded behind the scenes, decides to send one man with a rifle to kill Lyra and end the biggest threat it has ever known. Really?

    • Dust is mumbo-jumbo and a wholly unsatisfying explanation for what invests us with our humanity. Pullman’s explanation for homo sapiens’ divergence from our ape ancestors some 30,000 years ago is an invisible, floating, sentient, substance from the cosmos. Got that? I don’t either. Pullman tries to invest Dust (in our fleeting, occasional glimpses of it) with a holiness or mystery, but I found it all rather uninspired.
    Again, if intended as atheism, His Dark Materials fails because it offers an easy out. Who wouldn’t accept a world(s) with angels and witches and alethiometers as a consolation prize for godlessness? And its treatment of organized religion is grossly unfair, utterly without thought or complexity. If I were a member of the Catholic church I’d be pretty pissed, too.

    In short, His Dark Materials is certainly worth reading, though you (literally and figuratively) shouldn’t expect a miracle. It doesn’t live up to the hype.

    Monday, September 19, 2011

    Urge to scream... rising

    What is it with the annoying Tolkien posts this week? Here's the latest, an interview with actress Evangeline Lilly on her role in The Hobbit, courtesy of SFX :

    Tauriel is a new character in the mythology so as a book purist yourself that must be frightening to ponder how fans will react to your part?

    “Yeah! I am very concerned to this day that people will watch the film and I’ll be the black mark on the film. I know how adamant the purists are and I’m one of them! That said, upon reading The Hobbit again, as an adult, I can see why additional characters were needed to round out the story as an adaptation – especially female characters! The Hobbit didn’t include female characters at all and was a very linear story, a book for children, really. What Peter, Fran (Walsh) and Philippa (Boyens) have done is all in perfect keeping with Tolkien’s world, while adding a third dimension to an otherwise very two-dimensional story.”

    I'm glad to know that after 75 years of near universal acclaim, adding a female character has dramatically improved The Hobbit (which is after all just a flawed, silly book for children ).

    Middle-Earth has always felt so flat and two dimensional in The Hobbit, but I guess I never realized it ... until now. I frankly don't know how I've been enjoying it all these years. Thanks for setting the record straight, Lilly!

    Sunday, September 18, 2011

    Why Tolkien needs defending: A classic Camp 3-er at work

    Is The Lord of the Rings any good? I just came across this provocatively-titled article by Martin Turner, and felt compelled to comment, as it dovetails with the two-part article I’m currently writing about whether The Lord of the Rings qualifies as literature.

    Harkening back to Part I of my article, it’s apparent that Turner falls squarely into Camp 3, with a dash of Camp 1. He seems to like Tolkien quite a bit and his article begins with some compelling reasons why The Lord of the Rings deserves a place among the very great works of this or any age. But as it progresses Turner hedges his bets, and seems to conclude that LOTR, while a terrific read, isn’t literature, or at best is a deeply flawed example.

    Turner starts out strong. He pleads the case that critics should treat imaginative literature just like realistic novels. He takes some stuffing out of the literary elite and the notion that literature must meet certain, pre-defined criteria:

    Like Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, which appears to account for a large number of the visits to this website, this critical perspective grows from the supremely arrogant position that there is just one true purpose of literature, and this, despite the evidence of preceding centuries, has been discovered by the critic and his cadre.

    This is a great point, and quite correct. Literature has many functions and purposes. But from here on out, the article quickly goes downhill in its evaluation of Tolkien.

    First, Martin (half-heartedly) criticizes Tolkien for not meeting with his own particular definition of literature:

    I promised to deal with the first group of criticisms second. These are to do with the technical literary merits of the books. At this point we must recognise that, as a novel, the Lord of the Rings has substantial flaws … Essentially a novel is not so much an adventure story as a story about how character grows and changes as it responds to events and the world around it. Robinson Crusoe is not a foundational novel because of the desert island, but because of the exploration of Crusoe’s character and how it changes. War and Peace is not a great novel because of its sweep of history, which is merely the backdrop, but because of its profound analysis of the character of Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Bolkonsky. We need to recognise that there is no real character development in the Lord of the Rings.

    So immediately after telling us that it’s “supremely arrogant” to posit that there is just one true purpose of literature, Turner says that all the great novels are great because of their character development. And with its lack of character development, The Lord of the Rings is therefore substantially flawed.

    I won’t argue that LOTR has a deep, sweeping character arc to any of its characters; it does not (though Gollum/Smeagol arguably does, and Frodo is certainly substantially changed from his journey). But I’d also argue that its entire cast and crew of characters adds up to the sum of the human condition. Aragorn is nobility of the spirit, Sam is loyalty, Frodo dogged determination, Gollum lust, Denethor despair, Boromir pride, etc. Taken together as a whole, this panoply of characters depicts us, and offers a profound picture of what it means to be human.

    And deep characterization is not the only function of literature. It’s a function, no more or less. Martin doesn’t seem convinced by his argument, either:

    This, of course, is only a flaw if we assume that the Lord of the Rings is supposed to be a novel. It almost certainly is not, at least, not in the sense of the evolution of the novel as but forward by Leavis and others. Tolkien described it as a ‘tale’. In medieval terms we would describe it as a Romance.

    So is The Lord of the Rings’ lack of characterization a flaw, or not? It's quite unclear. Either way, the argument is full of holes and equivocation and is entirely unconvincing.

    Next he goes on to criticize the structure of LOTR:

    The structure unravels rapidly in The Two Towers, though. The first part, the adventures of the majority of the company in Rohan, is compelling and magical adventure fiction. In its own terms, it is as good as or better than anything in the Fellowship of the Ring. However, as we read, we are aware that this is merely a side-show. The main story, the overriding need to destroy the ring, is taking place at the same time but elsewhere. This is the subject of the second part of the Two Towers. However, this part is unremittingly bitter, grim and unpleasant. It has none of the bright adventure of books I-III, and even its moral dilemma is painful and uncomfortable. It could be argued that this is essential to the overall conception of the cycle, but the choice to write book IV at the same length as book III simply does not work as fiction. Under close questioning, most re-readers admit that they tend to ‘hurry through’ (ie, skip-read) book IV, in order to get on to the Return of the King as quickly as possible.…Nonetheless, in terms of the conscious structural strait-jacket thrust on it, the Lord of the Rings must be regarded as flawed.

    This is … just wrong. The structure of LOTR works just fine. When the gates slam shut on Sam with a clang at the end of book IV, we don’t know what happened to Frodo (it’s hard to imagine what readers must have felt back in 1954 when The Two Towers was first published). Though much maligned by Martin, this obviously creates tension in the reader. On top of which, Martin uses anecdotal evidence to support his claim. His statement that Most re-readers admit that they tend to ‘hurry through’ (ie, skip-read) book IV, in order to get on to the Return of the King as quickly as possible is obviously flimsy, to say the least. I don’t ‘hurry through’ book IV, and have never heard anyone admit to doing the same, so I guess my unsubstantiated counter-argument is just as valid.

    Also, and at the risk of nit-picking, the action in Rohan is most definitely not a “side-show.” The Lord of the Rings is about war and quest. The actions of the small hobbits are critical, but so are the ramifications of the larger conflict. If Rohan didn’t come to the aid of Minas Tirith, and if Minas Tirith failed to hold, than the destruction of the One Ring is a moot point. What would it accomplish, if all the peoples of the free worlds were already annihilated by Sauron’s hordes? Secondly, one of the book’s central tenets is that different cultures and peoples must set aside their differences and work together to confront evil. This is demonstrated in Book III with Rohan and Gondor, two former allies grown cold with suspicion and grievances large and small. Finally, as a plot-point it’s critical that Sauron’s forces are defeated at the Pelennor Fields so that a later sally may be made to the Black Gate, a feint that allows Sam and Frodo to pass through the otherwise orc infested plains of Gorgoroth to Mount Doom. Sauron’s attention must be drawn elsewhere and his forces vacated from the interior. This couldn’t happen without Helm’s Deep and the critical events begun in Book III. So Turner is wrong on several levels, thematic and plot-wise.

    As far as the length of book IV being an issue, or its “unremittingly bitter, grim and unpleasant” nature; again, there’s nothing to substantiate his argument. It’s supposed to get more bitter, and grim, as our heroes press into the heart of Mordor.

    Finally, Turner offers an entirely unconvincing argument that the plot of The Lord of the Rings is flawed. In so doing he completely misreads the Scouring of the Shire, which is one of the most important (some would say the central lesson—I don’t know if I’d go that far) of the novel. Martin complains that the Scouring of the Shire is not as “adventurous” compared to what came before and so seems anticlimactic. That’s the point, of course. The long arm of war reaches all the way back into our own farms and fields homes. The enemy is us, if we let our guard down and engage in closed-minded parochialism. This point would have been lost with Balrogs and wizards running around the Shire, as Turner seems to want.

    Turner doesn’t like the last line of the book and calls it “trite and unsatisfying”; others like Tom Shippey and Peter Beagle in Meditations on Middle-earth argue with far more conviction that “Well, I’m back” is brilliant, laden with multiple levels of meaning. Turner says there’s no end to The Lord of the Rings, to which I counter, Huh? When Frodo sails into the west on full ship and magic leaves the world, ushering in an entirely new age, that’s not end enough? When the Hobbits finally grow up and become men, and are able to save the Shire without the help of the Maiar Gandalf, this isn’t a satisfying end for him? He implies that there should be some big death at the end to wrap it all up, like all the real sagas:

    There is a reason why most sagas end with the death of the hero, or, as in Brennu Njallssaga, with the consequences of his death: it is a logical and satisfying place to stop.

    This criticism is an utter head-scratcher: Frodo is dying, he has for all intents and purposes gone off to die. Sam has gone back and now must cope with the consequences of losing his best friend and master. Did Turner somehow miss this? And for that matter, in what way is Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past,” in which Tolkien deftly sums up the history of the One Ring and what is at stake with its destruction—laying out both the inherent danger of the Ring and the broad strokes of the quest—not a “real beginning?” This is incredibly silly.

    He concludes with a final patronizing jab:

    Tolkien fans may consider this to be heresy, but it seems to me there is little point in defending the Lord of the Rings by denying the self-evident flaws.

    Self-evident to whom? To Turner, yes. To readers with more familiarity with the novel—not so much.

    I will say that the article ends with a far more interesting observation:

    On the other hand, the Lord of the Rings is not a novel, in the technical sense, at all. It is a tale, a romance, a cycle, a work of major creation, perhaps something unique. It is the inspiration for a generation of video games, a cultural phenomenon, the beginning, and perhaps the end, of a literary genre.

    I completely agree: The Lord of the Rings is not a traditional novel. It’s very difficult to classify, perhaps because it is (despite its many imitations) a one of a kind work. But that is a completely different argument than whether succeeds or fails as literature.

    Thursday, September 15, 2011

    Is The Lord of the Rings literature?

    Part 1 of a 2-part series

    And whether or not Tolkien’s works will stand the test of time is not within our lot to know, so that the Tolkien enthusiast’s need to defend Tolkien’s title of “author of the century,” as a result of the recent Waterstone’s poll of 25,000 readers in Great Britain in 1997, may be unnecessary and even gratuitous. A work like The Hobbit that has already been translated into thirty languages or one like The Lord of the Rings, into more than twenty, has already demonstrated the virtues of both accessibility and elasticity, if not endurance. An author who has sold fifty million copies of his works requires no justification of literary merit.

    Jane Chance, Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England

    Is The Lord of the Rings literature? The answer depends on who you ask. As I see it, four camps exist, each with a different take on the question.

    Camp 1, Devoted Tolkien fans. Ask one of these folks and you’re likely to hear, “A Elbereth Gilthoniel! Of course. Need this question even be asked?” For members of Camp 1 the evidence is plain, the case long made for Tolkien’s literary greatness—even if they don’t always offer clear and/or compelling supporting evidence.

    Camp 2, Ardent Tolkien haters. An answer by a member of Camp 2 is typically something along the lines of [Sarcasm mode on] “Tolkien’s books had literary merit?” [/Sarcasm mode off] No awful children’s story about Elves and Hobbits and Dark Lords could possibly qualify as literature. At least The Sword of Shannara wasn’t boring.

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

    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    Stretching the boundaries of genre: A review of the Martin-Dozois anthology Warriors

    “People have been telling stories about warriors for as long as they have been telling stories. Since Homer first sang the wrath of Achilles and the ancient Sumerians set down their tales of Gilgamesh, warriors, soldiers, and fighters have fascinated us; they are a part of every culture, every literary tradition, every genre.”

    --George R.R. Martin,

    There are two ways to approach the George R.R. Martin-Gardner Dozois edited anthology Warriors, one which is guaranteed to induce disappointment. If you expect a collection of swords and sorcery stories or medieval-based historical fiction, the clatter of steel on shield and heroic feats of arms, you will be disappointed. But if you keep an open mind and read it for what it is—a group of disparate genre stories all loosely connected by a warrior theme—you’ll enjoy it, and maybe more.

    To be fair, the packaging on the label (a sword blade and an old gothic style script) is slightly misleading, and I admit that I was initially disappointed by the collection, my expectations placed elsewhere. But that feeling faded quickly, and by the end I was very pleased with Warriors.

    In Warriors you’ll find horror, a western, and a mystery, as well as historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, from all ages of history including ancient Rome, the Viking Age, the medieval era, the world wars, the present, and the future. It’s hard to call this entirely a collection of genre fiction: How does one classify “The Girls from Avenger” by Carrie Vaughn, a moving story about a pilot from an all-female unit in WWII who investigates a mysterious death of a friend during a training accident? Historical fiction? Mainstream (is that a genre)? The same classification problem could be said of many other stories in here, like Peter Beagle’s “Dirae,” which follows the soul of a hospitalized woman that transcends its mortal coil by leaving her body and materializing as a kick-ass vigilante, allowing her to fight battles for the disadvantaged and the bullied.

    But that’s really the entire point of Warriors. In the introduction, Martin states he was inspired to commission the anthology based on his experiences combing through the old drugstore wire spinner racks of his youth, in which you could science fiction sandwiched alongside westerns, or a bodice-ripping romance next to an Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter sword-and-planet novel.

    There is nothing in Warriors that’s badly written, and in fact everything is well-done. It’s an antidote to those who think genre writing is shallow and formulaic; this collection is anything but. It’s also worth noting that every story in here is new, commissioned for the volume, so there’s no danger in reading something you’ve encountered before.

    All that said, I have yet to encounter the anthology in which I liked every story. Unfortunately one of the weaker entries kicks off the volume. Even as a fan of Vikings, “The King of Norway” by Cecelia Holland did nothing for me. It features a bloody ship-to-ship engagement with no real investment in the characters involved, and the flow of battle is hard to follow, to boot. Warriors contains a couple other stories that I didn’t much care for: “The Custom of the Army” by Diana Gabaldon was too involved and seemed a thinly-veiled attempt to get readers interested in her Lord John novels. I don’t like when authors do this. “Defenders of the Frontier” was ambitious and well-done but lacked a decisive punch. War is often described as endless stretches of tedium followed by brief moments of terror. “Defenders’ explores this aspect of war, but unfortunately my overwhelming feeling upon finishing it was the same, sans terror.

    Other stories are partial successes. “Out of the Dark” was shaping up as one of the most engaging and well-executed stories in the collection, but the ending (which was telegraphed enough so that it didn’t take me wholly by surprise) is too jarring, and renders the hard-fought sacrifices void. But even so I’d recommend it. I’m not so sure I could say the same for “Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik, which was well-done but a little to close to Avatar for me to completely enjoy.

    The rest of Warriors was almost uniformly good, and some of the stories are absolute gems.

    “The Pit” by James Rollins is written from the point of view of a domesticated dog stolen by a ruthless trainer of pit fighters, and it works. It’s a great little story that tugs at the heartstrings.

    “The Eagle and the Rabbit” by Steven Saylor is another fine tale. The characterization carries the story as everyone from the sympathetic protagonist to the chief bad guy—a cruel Roman slave-driver—is memorably portrayed.

    The best stories in my opinion were Joe Lansdale’s “Soldierin,” “My Name is Legion” by David Morrell, “The Scroll” by David Ball, and “The Mystery Knight” by George R.R. Martin. The only writer of this foursome with whom I had no previous acquaintance was Ball, and after reading “The Scroll” I’d certainly be interested in picking up more of his stuff. It’s about a French military engineer taken captive by the sultan of Morocco and forced to oversee the construction of a mighty city. The sultan is an absolute bastard who cruelly toys with the fates of his captives (the lucky are killed outright). At the outset of the story the sultan writes down the engineer’s fortune on a scroll, and every twist and turn in the tale seems fated by what has already been written. The execution is superb.

    Morrell and Lansdale are similar writers: Both are highly competent, professional storytellers with the ability to spin compelling yarns with a very high batting average. They don’t disappoint here. “My Name is Legion” features a soldier who seeks to repent for his troubled past by entering the crucible known as the French Foreign Legion. It’s a great little story about discipline and honor and the strange fortunes of war. Lansdale is one of the best tale spinners of this or any era, as far as I’m concerned. His stuff is always gripping and visceral but suffused with humor, which certainly describes “Soldierin,” a story about an all-black unit of buffalo soldiers and a savage encounter with Apaches in the old west.

    Warriors saves the best for last with “The Mystery Knight.” Martin’s story is set in his A Song of Ice and Fire world of Westeros, which is ostensibly fantasy but is deeply medieval. Heraldry, jousting, dark ages cuisine, and the knight-squire relationship are examined here in detail. The story includes a few too many characters to keep them all straight, particularly in an audio format (this is my one criticism of audio—I find it tedious to bookmark and/or flip back and forth, which is a requirement when reading a typical byzantine Martin story). But the quality of the writing is superb and stands out even in this collection of heavyweights.

    Current or former Martin readerswho are turned off by A) The sheer length of A Song of Ice and Fire, or B) Its unrelenting brutality (I’ve had issues with both, though I do plan to finish the series) should nevertheless enjoy “The Mystery Knight.” My first thought upon finishing it was that I wish that A Song of Ice and Fire was more like this: A little more light-hearted, with a sharper, tighter focus on the characters I care about. The hedge knight Dunk and his squire Egg are a memorable pair, and “The Mystery Knight” whet my appetite for the two previously published Dunk and Egg stories.

    One final note on the audio version: Listening to Warriors was a freaking epic experience. It’s 26 discs and checks in at 31 hours, 13 minutes. It almost wore me down a few times. Warriors does feature two narrators—Patrick Lawlor, who narrates the stories with male protagonists, and Christina Traister, who reads those featuring women. This does help to break things up. It took a while for Lawlor to grow on me, as I found his voice much more suited to the lightheartedness of “The Mystery Knight” than some of the other, harder-edged stories. Traister was very good, particularly in her reading of “The Girls from Avenger” and the hard-edged horror/thriller “Clean Slate.”

    Note: This review also appears on

    Thursday, September 1, 2011

    Sword-and-Sorcery at its Pinnacle: A Look Back at The Fantastic Swordsmen

    For those who put entertainment first, heroic fantasy offers it in its purest form.

    —L. Sprague de Camp, The Fantastic Swordsmen

    Although many of its foundational writers had already sailed into the west, swords and sorcery reached a Weird peak in the 1960s. In 1961 Fritz Leiber coined the term “swords and sorcery” in the journal Ancalagon. The Swordsmen and Sorcerer’s Guild of America (can I get a membership, please?) began the first of its secretive meetings. And the Lancer published, L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter-edited Conan series with its splendid Frank Frazetta covers was everywhere. These were heady times for the genre. Although the mass-produced works of the era can still be readily found and enjoyed today, I can only imagine when books like The Swords of Lankhmar could be found in drugstore wire spinner racks and the like.

    In that strange time of tie-dye and Tolkien, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the pages of paperback books, Pyramid Books published four swords and sorcery anthologies. Edited by fantasy/science fiction author L. Sprague de Camp, the series began with Swords and Sorcery (1963) and concluded with 1970’s Warlocks and Warriors.

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

    Sunday, August 28, 2011

    Current reading: A cultural clash in fantasy

    So I just finished reading The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman, the middle book of the His Dark Materials trilogy. I'm waiting until I read the concluding volume, The Amber Spyglass, before I write a review of the series, so more to come on that later.

    I finished The Subtle Knife on Friday and my local library is unfortunately closed on the weekends until September ("summer hours"--when most people have more free time and opportunity to read--go figure), so I pulled the L. Sprague de Camp edited The Fantastic Swordsmen off my shelf and read it in the interim.

    Holy cow, what a contrast.

    I know some people have no use for genre labels, let alone puzzling out the various sub-genres of fantasy, but if you can't tell the difference between these books beyond the fact that one is a collection of short stories, and the other the middle novel of a trilogy, you must have a tin ear. There's a gulf of difference. Reading these books back-to-back emphasized the stark contrast of epic/high fantasy vs. swords-and-sorcery at its most extreme. Children with mysterious origins and complex destinies involved in a world-spanning conflict against God himself, vs. muscular, wolfish heroes battling Cthulhu-eseque horrors and mad sorcerers... yeah. Describing both with nothing more definitive than "fantasy" is like using the term "sports" to delineate football and golf.

    I enjoyed both, though in general The Subtle Knife was a bit of a letdown after the high bar set by The Golden Compass. The Fantastic Swordsmen was almost uniformly excellent, marred by one rather grating flaw. More to come on that book in a review which will appear Thursday on Black Gate.

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    The Golden Compass, a review

    I began reading The Golden Compass (1995), Book One of the His Dark Materials trilogy, with a fair bit of reserve—and, to be honest, a slight bit of ill-will. Anyone who trashes Tolkien as Philip Pullman has done automatically starts with one strike against him, in my book.

    Then there’s the religious angle. But more on that in a bit.

    Despite my inherent biases I greatly enjoyed The Golden Compass, both as a well-written story and as a marvelous work of imagination. Armored polar bears with their own culture? Awesome. Zeppelins armed with machine guns? Very cool. I found 11-year-old protagonist Lyra quite likeable, precocious and resourceful but not amped up with unbelievable girl power or smarts belying her age. The story takes place in a world both like and unlike our own, a parallel universe earth with some familiar geography, flora and fauna, but a different technology level coupled with science-defying magic. Perhaps the most alien feature of this world is that each person is born with a daemon, shape-shifting creatures that seem to be a physical manifestation of the soul. The trouble starts when a shady organization begins to steal children, whisking them away to a laboratory in the north where they are forcibly separated from their daemons, a dreadful process called “intercision.”

    If for nothing else, the great bear Iorek Byrnison makes The Golden Compass worth reading. Iorek has a regal past but has fallen on very hard times after violating a taboo. His path back to redemption was one of the most rewarding parts of the novel. Polar bears in Pullman’s universe aren’t just men in bear form but have minds utterly alien to ours. Pullman manages to convey this difference with conviction. Here’s a description of Lyra’s first encounter with Iorek, which also provides a glimpse of Pullman’s style:

    A pitted alley beside it led to a sheet-metal gate into a rear yard, where a lean-to shed stood crazily over a floor of frozen mud. Dim yellow light through the rear window of the bar showed a vast pale form crouching upright and gnawing at a haunch of meat which it held in both hands. Lyra had an impression of bloodstained muzzle and face, small malevolent black eyes, and an immensity of dirty matted yellowish fur. As it gnawed, hideous growling, crunching, sucking noises came from it.

    Farder Coram stood by the gate and called:

    “Iorek Byrnison!”

    The bear stopped eating. As far as they could tell, he was looking at them directly, but it was impossible to read any expression on his face.

    “Iorek Byrnison,” said Farder Coram again. “May I speak to you?”

    Lyra’s heart was thumping hard, because something in the bear’s presence made her feel close to coldness, danger, brutal power, but a power controlled by intelligence; and not a human intelligence, nothing like a human, because of course bears had no daemons. This strange hulking presence gnawing its meat was like nothing she had ever imagined, and she felt a profound admiration and pity for the lonely creature.

    I will add that The Golden Compass isn’t perfect. It contains a few too many Deus ex machina escapes. The main baddy Mrs. Coulter at this point is hardly the stuff of nightmares. She reminds me of (no pun intended) a pale imitation of the White Witch, far less diabolic and far less interesting than C.S. Lewis' creation. But overall this is well-written, inspired fantasy.

    So the big question is: what about the anti-religious bias? At least in The Golden Compass, I didn’t think it was laid on very thick. At least, not yet. Pullman seems to be setting up the Church (again, not our Church, but the organized religion of this “other” universe) as an arch-conservative, unnatural influence. I’ve read that the first book is the least anti-Christian, but that this element is gradually amped up in the second book, The Subtle Knife, while the third volume is the most overtly atheistic and anti-Christian of them all.

    As others have I’ve struggled mightily with the God question. As such, I see no harm in examining both sides of the issue. It’s healthy to do so, in fact. Yet as much as my own faith has waxed and waned over the years, to say that “religion poisons everything” as Christopher Hitchens did is intellectually dishonest, and it remains to be seen if Pullman espouses the same viewpoint. The Catholic Church has stated in no uncertain terms that Pullman’s real agenda is using a fantasy to sell atheism to kids. I’m not sure how I feel about that, to be honest. I certainly can’t comment on whether I agree with this statement until I read the whole trilogy.

    I will say this: I don’t think it’s hypocritical to give Lewis a pass for selling children on Christianity while condemning Pullman for selling them on atheism. Why? If Pullman were only showing a view of the world without God, that would be one thing; attacking an existing institution is quite another. Lewis emphasized the positive, Pullman has shown some signs of emphasizing the negative, which I’m not sure is entirely appropriate for a book ostensibly aimed at children. I’m not sure if I’m on firm ground here, but that’s my initial reaction. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts as I get deeper into the series.

    I guess it comes down to how much of “the real world” you want in your fantasy fiction. C.S. Lewis has a legion of fans who love his work (me included) and an equal body of critics who actively despise Narnia for its allegorical treatment of Christianity. His Dark Materials is no less polarizing. That to me makes it worth reading, if not necessarily for children then certainly for adults.

    Part of me does wonder if this tempest isn’t in the end a moot point. To be honest, I can’t imagine my kids reading these books, and not because of any complaints I might have for the religious angle, but for the simple fact that they’re too bloody complicated. Young teens, perhaps, are the right age to grasp the story and keep track of the plotting factions and the real-world parallels. Not kids. This is far more difficult reading than Harry Potter, for example. Will kids be “corrupted” by His Dark Materials? I suppose it's possible, though I find it unlikely.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Some thoughts on the eve of Conan the Barbarian

    I’ve refrained from talking about Conan the Barbarian (2011) until now, despite my love for Robert E. Howard’s works. But now that we’re poised on the eve of its U.S. release, I thought I’d weigh in with my personal hopes—and fears—regarding the film.

    The bottom line for me is this: I’m going to do what the studio execs want, which is opening my wallet and seeing the movie. And I might even consider it money well spent. That said, the updates I’ve followed up to this point (your ultimate source is Al Harron’s Conan the Movie Blog) don’t leave me with great expectations.

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