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.