Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Top 10 reasons why I don’t care about Amazon’s The Rings of Power

The Rings of... Meh.
Perhaps you might be wondering, hey, when is that guy from The Silver Key going to weigh in on The Rings of Power? He loves Tolkien.

Consider this that post, but it’s probably not the droids you’re looking for.

I haven’t watched ROP, and at this moment have no plans to. I explain why in this handy top 10 listicle.

A caveat: If you like ROP that’s great! The point of this post is not to (overly) criticize the show, because I haven't seen it. That wouldn’t be honest, or fair. It's to explain my lack of interest. 

That said, apathy for a richly budgeted, dramatic interpretation of a beloved property must have some basis in negativity or critique. In my case, I saw each of The Lord of the Rings films in the theater on opening night, buying advance tickets and braving big crowds and sticky theater floors to watch Tolkien on the big screen. In contrast, I have Amazon Prime, could watch ROP at the click of a button from the safety of my living room… and have yet to expend even that amount of non-effort on the show. Why? My answers follow.

If you like or love the show and think I should give it a chance, please explain why. Who knows, you might win me over. But it will be an uphill battle.

1. The rights weren’t enough. No Silmarillion? No coherent storyline to hang an adaptation upon? Big problem. I knew the writers of ROP were facing monumental issues after learning that they only had rights to the Appendices of LOTR, not the 12-volume History of Middle-Earth nor The Silmarillion. There is no cohesive story to hang a dramatic series on, which means much artistic interpretation is required. That’s a recipe for failure. J.R.R. Tolkien was a genius, and trying to recreate what made him great from appendices and notes is a near-impossible task. The Jackson films were at their best when they hewed to Tolkien’s story and dialogue. In short, the limited deal struck by Amazon was like planting seeds into a thin, arid field, and expecting a rich crop. 

2. The Hobbit wrecked me. If I were to critique the loudest critics of this show it’s with this point: Your Peter Jackson veneration has a large blind spot. Remember these awful films? Like LOTR I also saw them in the theater. Not only did they suck, but I blame The Hobbit for creating the template that film adaptations of Tolkien must be LOUD AND EPIC AND IMPORTANT. The Hobbit (book) is rather small and cozy, save for The Battle of Five Armies and Laketown. The focus should have been on atmosphere and character, and instead it became a wholly unnecessary nine-hour epic. ROP seems to be a continuation of this fundamental misunderstanding of what makes Tolkien great. It’s not bombast and spectacle, it’s story and heart.

3. Dumping Tom Shippey soured me early. I wish we had a better recounting of what led to this foolish decision, but Shippey is the closest human being on earth we have to Tolkien, now that Tolkien’s son Christopher has passed. To cut the World’s Greatest Tolkien Scholar from the project seems to me a major misstep. He was an advisor on the Jackson LOTR films and played a part in their successful adaptation. Plus, he’s a genuine good dude (I spent more than an hour with him years ago at a convention in Boston, and he was very kind and generous with his time). 

4. The reviews haven’t been good. I read and watch reviews (and have written a fair number myself), and I have learned enough to know this show has some serious problems. Many disregard critics (“those who can’t, teach,” etc., and other such nonsense). I don’t. If it’s a source I trust, or if the reviewer is objective, thoughtful, and fair, these hold weight for me. I’m too old and my time is too limited to mindlessly consume entertainment without some indication that it’s worth my time, which leads me to point 5.

5. I only have so much time. I’m 49 years old and am acutely aware that I have only so much time on this planet. I’d prefer to spend that time providing for my family, spending time with family and friends, writing/creating, and reading. The ROP is apparently set to run five seasons, x 8 shows per season, and one hour per episode. That’s 40 hours minimum time investment. That’s a big commitment on something which apparently is not very good (see #4).

6. I’m not a big TV watcher. Give me a book any day. My current TV consumption is some evening news, and the occasional football game. My daughter got me into Stranger Things and I enjoyed that well enough. Beyond that, I don’t watch TV. My friends are still in shock when I tell them I haven’t seen Breaking Bad or The Wire or Better Call Saul or Ozarks, or whatever the hot property is at the moment. I'd rather do other things with my time than suck on the glass teat.

7. I like movies better. Movies have much more appeal than episodic, open-ended series that may or may not end well... if they end at all. Sure, movies can suck too but at least it’s only 2 hours wasted, as opposed to the folks who sat through seven seasons of Game of Thrones only to suffer through a dumpster fire final season. Or folks that invested time in prematurely cancelled shows. I did watch The Walking Dead and was sorely disappointed when that show began to rot from within, ambling along like a mildly hungry animated corpse. Maybe it’s the sword-and-sorcery fan in me, but give me the quick-hitting single film (S&S short story) over the multi-episode, multi-season TV series (phonebook epic fantasy equivalent).

8. I’m old and jaded. Hype bounces off me. I’ve seen enough, and done enough, and experienced enough heartbreak and disappointment, that trailers, regardless of how well-made, aren’t going to move me. I need to find the commitment from within. The irony is this is coming from a guy who works in marketing. 

9. It’s Amazon. I don’t particularly like this company, even though I admire its efficiency in delivering my packages on time. Doesn’t Amazon own enough of the world already? Do we want to live in a world where it also owns all art and product, in addition to the means of distribution?

10. I don’t want to see Tolkien adapted anymore. Yeah, it’s selfish, maybe petty. I don’t know. We’ve got the books, some cool old cartoons, the Jackson films. That’s more than enough. There are wonders beyond compare in The Hobbit, LOTR, The Silmarillion, HOME, The Children of Hurin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, his letters, etc., not to mention the hundreds of academic volumes examining his works. All of this should be enough. If the right director were to do the right adaptation, for example a Robert Eggers directed The Children of Hurin, I’d watch it. But even then, we don’t NEED it. We’ve got the books, and the books will always be better. You can’t out-do Tolkien’s unique brilliance, no matter how big your budget. Sorry Jeff Bezos.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Michael Moorcock and other Stranger Things

I was OOO (and frankly, only semi-coherent) this past Friday-Sunday, after a sorely needed guys weekend getaway. Me and four other dudes rented a house on Whaley Lake in Holmes, NY, consuming booze and retelling old college stories. Included in the trip was a stop at Darryl's House, a bar/restaurant owned by Darryl Hall, where we took in a wonderful Foreigner tribute band. If you ever come across Double Vision, check them out, they're highly recommended.

As a result I failed to mention my most recent blog post for Tales from the Magician's Skull/blog of Goodman Games is now up: Stranger Things in the Stories of Michael Moorcock.

I hope you like it. I enjoyed digging out the old AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide for this, and my treasured copy of S2: White Plume Mountain.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Headless Cross, Black Sabbath

I love discovering old shit that I missed in my indifferent, misguided youth. Yet another example: Headless Cross, Black Sabbath's 14 studio album.

Released at the tail end of the glorious 80s (1989), this was Sabbath's second album with singer Tony Martin... and so I had no interest at the time. I was too wrapped up in Metallica, Maiden, Priest, Anthrax, Megadeth, et. al, a story I relayed a bit during a recent appraisal of Nativity in Black for Metal Friday. I had abandoned Sabbath after the Dio years, and so this album came and sank beneath the waves without my notice or credit.

Credit YouTube's algorithms for recently recommending me this video, during a day when I was getting some housework done and only idly listening. When "Headless Cross" began I quickly snapped out of my torpor and realized, this is pretty damned good. "Devil and Daughter" cemented my opinion. 

This led me to another revelation.

Tony Iommi is Black Sabbath.

Not Ozzy Osbourne.

Not (RIP) Ronnie James Dio.

It's Tony Iommi, hands down, and if you think otherwise, you're wrong. His guitar tone, and songwriting, are what unites all these albums and disparate singers and makes just about every Sabbath album worth listening to.

Headless Cross is more evidence.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Before They Are Hanged, some thoughts on Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy

Some hanging... much stabbing.
I'm now two-thirds of the way through Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, having just finished the second volume Before They Are Hanged, and damn, I’m enjoying this (long) journey. 

These books are all over 500 pages, far longer than the lean and mean S&S I typically prefer. I’m not the biggest fan of this type of thing: Epic fantasy/Grimdark, multi-volume series of phonebook sized tomes. With a few exceptions. I’ll gladly read long series from the likes of Bernard Cornwell, for example. 

Joe Abercrombie is another exception. I’ll read what the dude puts out. He’s an excellent writer and the First Law are easily among the best books I’ve read this year. His strengths as I see them are: 

Ear for dialogue. His characters speak with unique voices, with each other (not at each other, not in declarative speech, but dialogue), and through the dialogue the plot moves apace. He also adds a simultaneous internal dialogue that reveals the characters’ thoughts simultaneously—which is sometimes at odds with the carefully concealed lies they speak aloud.

Characterization. A series of this size requires a cast of characters and I would say at least 3-4 are something approaching fully realized. There are characters you remember, including Ninefingers, Ferro, Jezal, Glokta, and to a lesser degree West and Dogman, to whom you can’t wait to return.

Depictions of violence. If you like battles (who doesn’t?) these are taut, wildly dangerous, unpredictable. Abercrombie is up there with the likes of Bernard Cornwell and GRRM for desperate melees and violence that you can picture as you read it. There is an amazing sequence in which a main character who thinks he’s victorious is suddenly struck in the face with a mace, and after a detour into unconsciousness returns to the horror of pain and disfigurement. Grimdark, but very well done.

A few specific observations and a few critiques.

Abercrombie is at this best when he’s focused on the conflict of human beings and gritty reality, but seems slightly out of his element when portraying fantastic elements. I find his use of monsters/magic not entirely convincing, and not as compelling to read. Which is why his The Heroes resonated strongly with me—there’s nary of whiff of magic in it. I have a hard time picturing what the Shanka look like; they are called “flatheads” but are essentially orcs (I think?)—hordes of cannon fodder with less menace than any of the human protagonists. Likewise Bayaz, a great wizard of the first order, can move things with his mind with a psionic-like power, but it fails to awe or inspire. Bayaz in general reminds me of a much less likeable, highly irritable Gandalf. 

I could see Abercrombie morphing into an author of historical fiction. There is a lost Empire of Gurkhul that evokes the ancient Roman empire, of past glories of architecture and construction that can no longer be achieved by the peoples of the current (fallen) age, only glimpsed through ruins. I think he could do a wonderful series set in 6th or 7th century Britain, something like Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy.

Despite the story moving apace, and the general high quality of the prose, the series does not entirely avoid the bloat endemic to almost all high fantasy. Some of the sequences, even when well done, feel like semi-indulgent detours into world-building. I think the overall page count could be safely reduced. Probably more of a preference-thing; some people love world-building. Not really my thing.

A final note: I was tickled at mid-book to read what is essentially a voyage into Moria complete with the bridge of Khazad-dum, a bridge “soaring across a dizzy space in one simple arch, impossibly delicate.” It is a work of some master maker, “undiminished. They shine the brighter, if anything, for they shine in a darkened world.” At one point the group’s guide, Longfoot, launches into an entirely un-Abercrombie-like soliloquy complete with archaic, high language that sounds as if it issued from Boromir or Aragorn, completely different than the rough, coarse, modern dialogue typical of the rest of the book:

“And this is why I love to travel,” breathed Longfoot. “At one stroke, in one moment, this whole journey has been made worthwhile. Has there ever been such another sight? How many men living can have gazed upon it? The three of us stand at a window upon history, at a gate into the long-forgotten past? No longer will I dream of fair Talins, glittering on the sea in the red morning, or Ul-Nahb, glowing beneath the azure bow of the heavens in the bright midday, or Ospira, proud upon her mountain slopes, lights shining like the stars in the soft evening. From this day forth, my heart will forever belong to Aulcus.”

Longfoot is then cut off by Ferro, raining on his parade by calling the sight a “load of old buildings,” which rips us back into the dark narrative. Perhaps Abercrombie (a big fan of Martin, his chief inspiration for the First Law) is taking a bit of a piss out of old JRRT. Interesting, nonetheless.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Fantastic essay and other updates

Failed to mention that my post on Fantastic, that digest-size magazine that ran from 1952-1980 and published a fair bit of sword-and-sorcery, is up on the blog of DMR Books. The link is here.

Can you believe Fantastic had Fritz Leiber writing a regular book reviews column? Can you imagine Fritz F-ing Leiber reviewing your stuff? 

I found one column from 1975 where he reviews Poul Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga. This is the sword-and-sorcery equivalent of Mike Tyson breaking down fight film of Muhammad Ali. 

What else am I working on? Bill Ward over at Tales from the Magician's Skull/Goodman Games is keeping me busy. I have a post on Michael Moorcock in his hands, and then will be turning my attention to a couple other pieces he wants me to write in October/November. Won't spoil any of them now.

Speaking of Tales from the Magician's Skull I'm supposed to be getting my hard copy of issue no. 8 in the mail any day now, along with a TftMS beer coaster. Will post pics when they arrive.

Friday, September 16, 2022

"Rockin' Again," Saxon

What? Saxon has yet to make an appearance on Metal Friday?

Consider that corrected. I could have thrown up something from Denim and Leather but instead went with this straightforward rocker off Innocence is No Excuse.

Love the slow atmospheric build on this. The drums are perfect, as is the guitar tone. Everything I love about mid-80s metal.

It's Friday, we'll be rocking again.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Blood Tears, Blind Guardian

Today's Metal Friday is a cut off Nightfall in Middle-Earth by the great Blind Guardian.

"Blood Tears" is typical of the work on this album... fucking awesome. The tempo changes in this At 1:33 the song transforms from an atmospheric and melodic medieval feel, to full-on mosh-pit. Then returns. There and back again.

Tolkien is on my brain a bit more than usual (JRRT never leaves this cranium) due to the recent Rings of Power, which I still haven't watched. Will I? I don't know, I'm feeling very apathetic about it all. I’m not a big TV watcher, but mainly I have no faith Amazon can recreate Tolkien's genius.

But I can say Blind Guardian channeled a bit of it, with Nightfall in Middle-Earth. Enjoy this bit of First Age storytelling. “Captured” and “Blood Tears” are about the capture of Maedhros, Morgoth’s chaining of the Elven hero by his wrist to a sheer cliff in the mountains of Thangorodrim, and his deliverance when Fingon hacks off his hand. Blind Guardian offers a moving look into the mind of Maedhros and the torment and pain he must have experienced:

And blood tears I cry

You've searched and you've found

Cut off your old friends hand


Thursday, September 8, 2022

A shout-out to five S&S voices on the interwebs

We don’t always stop to praise others whose stuff we read, or who are doing general good work in the spaces we enjoy. So here’s a shout-out to a few folks who deserve it for their work as S&S champions/commentators/historians/publishers/etc *:

Dave Ritzlin: DMR Books is the premiere publisher of all things S&S/S&P/heroic fantasy, which makes Dave, well, the premiere publisher of all things S&S/S&P/heroic fantasy. For that alone he deserves our praise. But on top of that he curates a must-read website and is a good S&S writer in his own right. Recently he’s been running a series of interviews with contemporary S&S authors, “Independent Author Spotlight,” to champion their work. So I thought I’d champion his.

Deuce Richardson: Deuce is an interesting dude. I have never met him in person but have corresponded with him a bit over the years and had a couple phone calls. I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone with a memory like his, or quite as well-read (except for the late Steve Tompkins). His stuff at DMR Books is always worth reading. He never fails to recognize important anniversaries. Strong historian and champion of pre-S&S adventure writers. I love his posts unearthing artwork from artists I know well but whose full catalog I have not seen. 

Jason Ray Carney: The hardest working person in this space? I would say, yes, without question. I don’t know how Jason manages to do it, but he’s pulled off a small conference, established awards, edits several amateur magazines (Whetstone, Witch House), started up the Whetstone discord group, writes fiction and non-fiction books and academic essays, edits The Dark Man journal, creates Youtube videos, speaks at conferences, organizes online panel sessions, on and on. Boundless energy and erudition.

Oliver Brackenbury: Oliver has been hard at work bringing new voices to S&S. I’ve enjoyed several episodes of his So I’m Writing a Novel podcast, which has morphed into interviews with a diverse range of writers old and new. He is also the host of Unknown Worlds of the Merril Collection podcast, a moderator on the Whetstone server, and more.

G.W. Thomas: A bit of an unsung hero in this space but deserves greater recognition. Every time I go to Google something S&S related, it turns up something with his name on it. I recently wrote a piece for DMR on S&S in Fantastic magazine and halfway through realized Thomas had already done something similar. He provides encyclopedic coverage of the genre in a fun way for Dark Worlds Quarterly and elsewhere. I’m indebted to his comprehensive, thorough, tireless work.

*There are many others of course but that’s for another post, another day.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Fantastic! And thoughts on pastiches

More witches! Art by Jones.
Recently I picked up seven issues of Fantastic. This former digest-sized magazine ran from 1952-1980 before folding. During that time it published many fine stories and authors, covering a wide, eclectic swath of fantasy, science fiction, and horror—including sword-and-sorcery. A lot of the history I covered in Flame and Crimson appeared in the pages of this now defunct publication.

Anyway, I got to reading these old back issues and that led me where my reading inevitably does—to thinking, and writing. I sent a lengthy article about S&S in Fantastic, including the four L. Sprague de Camp/Lin Carter Conan pastiches that appeared between 1972-75, over to Dave Ritzlin at DMR Books the other day. I expect that to appear on his website next week.

Speaking of pastiches, I recently started reading The Goddess of Ganymede (excellent thus far) and author Michael D. Resnick leads off the volume with this:

To Edgar Rice Burroughs Fans Everywhere

I hope you enjoy reading this Burroughs pastiche as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Finally, I see that we now have a cover of the new Conan novel by S.M. Stirling, Blood of the Serpent. I join a chorus of others in wishing the cover was more classic S&S, a Frazetta-esque painting of the Cimmerian perhaps, but hey, it’s clean, it works, there is a sword on it, and a snake. Two S’s, now that I think of it (too clever by half)? But now this new and latest Conan pastiche feels a lot more tangible.

I tie all of these experiences with pastiches into Deuce Richardson’s recent piece over at DMR Books and it’s got me thinking about this practice as well. 

I have mixed feelings on pastiches, and likewise think we need some better-defined terms. Resnick is here using “pastiche” in its original definition, as Deuce lays out “A literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work.” The Goddess of Ganymede is the story of American soldier of fortune, Adam Thane, on a mission to Jupiter. His spacecraft loses contact with earth and is forced to land on its satellite moon, Ganymede, where Thane is embroiled in swashbuckling adventure. Thane finds he can take huge jumps due to the weaker gravitational pull of the planet, encounters red-skinned inhabitants of the planet, etc. In other words, a transparent Burroughs homage/imitation/pastiche.

De Camp meanwhile used “pastiche” as the continued stories of an established literary character by a new author. That term became synonymous with what he and Carter did with the likes of the Conan story “The Witch of the Mists” (August 1972 Fantastic). This is sort of how we all think of “pastiche” today.

My current stance on (De Campian-style) pastiche is: I enjoy them (when done well) and have no problem with others continuing to write new stories of beloved characters. I do think fidelity to the original character/world/lore should be a very high priority. And I’m also of the belief that pastiches should contain a short introduction to the original series or other clear indicator that these are imitations, not the real McCoy, to prevent any confusion with new readers and point them in the direction of the source material. But if you want to write them (and have the rights), have at it. If it's good, I might read it.