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.