Friday, March 30, 2012

Metal Friday: "Valkyries" by Blind Guardian

In an effort to get more heavy metal on this blog--because why would anyone possibly want less metal--I'm hereby starting a "Metal Friday" feature. This will consist of Youtube clips of some of my favorite songs, sometimes with commentary when the Muse strikes me.

Today, "Valkyries" by Blind Guardian, from the album At the Edge of Time. It's a magnificent lyrical/aural evocation of  those mythical choosers of the slain, bearing the bravest with them on their ride to Valhalla. Turn it up loud:


Red blood keeps pouring down
Come Valkyries, join me on that final ride

Here I lie bleeding
Odin, I await thee

The battle rages on

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Seven Princes by John R. Fultz, a Review

What do you want out of your fantasy? Mythmaking in the mold of JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion? Freebooting adventure, decaying civilizations, and heroic swordplay a-la Robert E. Howard? Weird, extraplanar demonic horrors like those encountered in the fiction of HP Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith? You get all of this stuff in John Fultz’ gonzo debut novel Seven Princes, both to our benefit and occasionally our detriment.

Seven Princes is bold, brash, and big. This is a novel written with bright strokes of character and setting, bursting with world-shaking adventure, intrigue, and conflict. It reads big, and feels big, and it’s unrepentantly so. In a “Meet the Author” Q&A at the back of the book Fultz describes the influences and raw materials that underlie Seven Princes. These are legion—Lord Dunsany, Howard, Lovecraft, Smith, Tolkien, Tanith Lee, Darrell Schweitzer, and others—so it’s no surprise Seven Princes contains multitudes. But underneath it all is a strong epic fantasy undercurrent, shot through with swords and sorcery. Says Fultz:
A writer’s sensibility is, I think, determined largely by his or her influences… what you’ve read most and where your passions lie. You write what you love. That said, writers like to stretch themselves too. For me, the whole epic/heroic fantasy realm is where I’ve been heading since I began reading fantasy as a kid in the late 1970s. Some have also called my work “sword and sorcery” but nobody can give a solid definition of what that actually is. For me, the bottom line is that I just Do My Thing and let my passion for storytelling lead me where I need to go.
To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A dalliance in murder ... Donald Westlake's The Hook

I recently agreed to review the audio book of Donald Westlake's The Hook for It's a mystery/suspense novel, I believe the first I've ever read. The Hook was fun and Westlake is a good writer, though my opinion of it was not enough to prompt a rash of mystery titles reviewed here. But it's good to read outside your preferred genre and see how the other half lives from time to time.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Some thoughts upon reading John Gardner’s Grendel

I’m troubled, deeply troubled, by the extremes of existentialist, postmodern thought. The kind that gets put under the microscope in John Gardner’s fine little 1971 novel Grendel.

If the Dragon is right, Grendel cannot be morally condemned, and his actions are no better or worse than Beowulf’s, or anyone else’s. They are, like everything else, absolutely meaningless. The Dragon is the real horror of Grendel—a beast that adheres to hard, cold materialism. “It’s all the same in the end, matter and motion, simple or complex. No difference, finally. Death, transfiguration. Ashes to ashes and slime to slime, amen,” says the Dragon to Grendel. Nothingness awaits us at the end. The dragon’s speech is like Morgoth’s to Hurin; negating meaning, negating the possibility of a benevolent God, negating even an uncaring but eternal creative force in the universe. Certainly negating an afterlife or any possibility of escape.

Compare the conversation of Hurin/Morgoth in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Hurin:

“Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you.”

“Beyond the Circles of the World I will not pursue them,” said Morgoth. “For beyond the Circles of the World there is Nothing. But within them they shall not escape me, until they enter into Nothing.”

…to Grendel/the Dragon:

“Nevertheless, something will come of all this,” I said.

“Nothing,” he said. “A brief pulsation in the black hole of eternity.”

We are just a cog in the wheel, part of the mindless machine. The Dragon recommends coping with this state by hoarding wealth and sitting upon it.

Postmodern thought of this sort has no clothes; we need a moral compass.

Monday, March 19, 2012

25 years of Evil Dead 2? Groovy.

Wow, has it really been 25 years since Evil Dead 2 came out? Guess it's time to break out the VCR (yes, I still own one. And lots of VCR tapes. Get offa my lawn) and do a rewatch.

If you're a fan of the film I recommend reading the linked article above. Evil Dead 2 is much better than the original, and I think it's better than Army of Darkness. The latter is a great film, too, and perhaps a bigger cult favorite with its higher memorable quote quotient, but this bit from the article sums up why I prefer Dead by Dawn over AoD (by a hair):

Army of Darkness has more than its share of fanatics, given that it provided many with their access point to the Evil Dead universe, but for me it’s never quite measured up to its predecessors. By taking the action out of the cabin and into a much larger-scale, higher-production value setting, it lacks that DIY charm, and the oddball humour sits awkwardly with the concessions made to a fairly standard studio blockbuster format; it doesn’t help that the horror elements are significantly pared back. Worse still is how Ash’s characterisation changes between the films. Far from the witless but well-meaning would-be tough guy of Evil Dead 2, in Army of Darkness he’s a mean-spirited, arrogant bastard with whom it’s very hard to empathise. Sure, Army of Darkness provides Ash with many of his most celebrated one-liners – the immortal “Gimme some sugar, baby,” and “This is my boom-stick!” amongst others – but none of them quite measure up to that single, immortal word that is evoked for the first time in Evil Dead 2… “Groovy.” 
For further reading, my own take on how I discovered the greatness of Evil Dead 2. Just like the writer of the article above I was hooked after the possessed hand sequence. My favorite part: When Ash slams a bucket over his sawed off appendage, then weights it down with a copy of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Just indescribably awesome.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie, a review

“Who cares who’s buried where?” muttered Craw, thinking about all the men he’d seen buried. “Once a man’s in the ground he’s just mud. Mud and stories. And the stories and the men don’t often have much in common.”

—Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes

Although it’s classified as fantasy, don’t be fooled: Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes is every inch a war story, knee deep in mud and blood, with the term “heroes” used in a rather ironic fashion. You won’t find any heroes here, just a bunch of men trying to live through another day on the battlefield.

It’s also bloody good. While it’s not at the level of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels, and perhaps doesn’t quite stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the same shieldwall as Steven Pressfield’s brilliant Gates of Fire, The Heroes is certainly one of the best books of its kind. Chock full of vivid combat and the incredible stress and strain of war, with a cast of memorable if not particularly deep characters and enough twists to keep you guessing to the end, it’s a terrific read for those who enjoy the sights and sounds of combat on the printed page.

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Getting a good chuckle—while feeling annoyed/confused—about The Walking Dead nerdrage

Returning to a bit of familiar turf for me...(ranting ahead)

You gotta laugh—or maybe weep—at hardcore nerds in frothing nerdrage with an over-inflated sense of their own creative abilities. The types who swear with a solemn face that Tolkien should have dropped books 2 and 4 of The Lord of the Rings, tightened up all those boring travel-y bits in book 6, leavened it with a liberal dose of combat carnage, and viola! The Lord of the Rings is 10x better than that crappy book sitting on your shelf.

The latest example comes courtesy of message board discussions of The Walking Dead. I’m not naming the board(s) in question to protect the guilty parties (e-mail me if you want the hard evidence), but really, when you’ve got (according to their avatar pictures) middle-aged men stating in non-ironic fashion that they could out-write the writers of The Walking Dead, no problem and for sure, then you follow their blog link back and find grade-school caliber fiction so bad it makes your eyes water … yeah. Hard to take these critics seriously. But it doesn’t stop them from wanting the rest of us to hear the truth about why this show sucks so bad.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Strange Wine by Harlan Ellison, a review

More than 30 years ago in the introduction to Strange Wine (1978) Harlan Ellison railed against television, declaring it the death knell of books and reading. In his usual blunt style:
I now believe that television itself, the medium of sitting in front of a magic box that pulses images at us endlessly, the act of watching TV, per se, is mind crushing. It is soul deadening, dehumanizing, soporific in a poisonous way, ultimately brutalizing. It is, simply put so you cannot mistake my meaning, a bad thing.
It’s hard to say whether Ellison’s fears were misplaced or have come to fruition. I’ve seen reports from the National Endowment for the Arts declaring that reading is in crisis and Americans are reading both less, and less well; opposing reports state that books like Harry Potter have revived reading in old and young alike, and that e-readers have made reading cool again, opening up an old pastime with new technology.

Perhaps Ellison’s essay is showing a little age. Television sets—the glass teat, as he once famously described them—are now competing with computer screens for our national attention, and computers of course allow us to both passively consume entertainment like TV while granting us more access to information and an enormous variety of reading material, albeit of variable quality. Worth noting too is the fact that Ellison was writing in an age of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Bewitched; perhaps TV has gotten better since then (then I think of The Bachelor and Fear Factor and wonder if gladiatorial combats aren’t coming next). But I think there’s a kernel of truth to Ellison’s rant about television: I wonder if there isn’t something being lost with the decline of paper books, which promote the act of sustained reading without ready access to an internet browser.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Well of the Unicorn by Fletcher Pratt, a review

I’ve had pretty good results in my ongoing quest to track down and read those acknowledged fantasy classics that I’ve considered holes in my repertoire. George MacDonald’s Phantastes was worth the effort, a curious but powerful and interesting tale. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny I found to be a book of great ideas, if lacking slightly in execution. The Worm Ouroboros proved to be one of my all-time favorites. And so on.

Alas, that streak came to a halt with Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn. I was turned on to this 1948 novel by L. Sprague de Camp, who devoted a chapter to Pratt in his heroic fantasy assessment Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers. I got through The Well, but I found it to be a very hard slog. Pratt’s writing style is, to be honest, awkward and artless. I often found myself reading a page with my eyes glazed over and realized that nothing had sunk in. Sometimes I would go back and re-read but other times I couldn’t be bothered and plowed on, hoping to pick up the lost thread of the story.

What are some of the problems? Bizarre shifts in tenses. Dialogue introduced with either traditional quotation marks, or en-dashes. Run-on sentences. Multiple dialects that require effort to parse through what is being said. In general, dense, heavy writing. Paragraphs like this are very typical:

“To the central square!” said Rogai, and “Where do you think I go?” Airar. There stands the statue of King Argimenes with the old sword lifted from under the plough. At this place lights and people began to flow in, half unbelieving that Dalecarle revolters were in the town, curious that this might be some trick of the red triangle. A fire was lighted; when men saw by the banners that trick there was none, they began to come out in earnest, some with hidden, forbidden weapons, to caper around the blaze, handshaking with strangers, singing warsongs almost forgot:

Note the bizarre attribution (I believe Airar was the one who said “Where do you think I go,” but I’m still not sure). Add to that dozens upon dozens of minor characters that fail to distinguish themselves and a lack of a dramatis personae reference to aid the reader, and the Well of the Unicorn is just a really, really hard read.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

My Black Gate post this week...

... is more about Iron Maiden, mostly just an expansion of what I wrote below, with a few more anecdotes and some recycled material thrown in. You can read it here in its entirety if you're so interested.