Monday, January 13, 2020

The Dust of Fallen Ages

The sun cursed the skies over the endless sands of the Zaheh, turning the dunes into waves of gold and azure, the shadows deep as night. The day was failing, but not fast enough. Shedjia rode her camel across the barren landscape of a waste older than any kingdom, and she looked with her hawk’s eyes for a sign.

She was wrapped in black silks and linens, covered against the fierce heat of the day, only her eyes peering forth, heavily rimmed with kohl to cut the glare of the merciless sun. The winds moaned, and she listened uneasily, hoping she did not hear a voice utter her name. This place was forsaken by all men, wandered only by the desperate, and the dead. She was one, and she hoped not to join the other. A spirit caught in this trackless land would wander for an eternity.

Her beast was almost done, and she rode him as easily as she could, trying to keep him going as long as his strength would last. The pace of her journey had exhausted him, and he walked with his head down, and only occasionally did he give forth one of his ugly, groaning cries.

At the top of a dune she looked back, squinting through the heat shimmer, and she saw them there. Riders followed her faint track across the sand. There were perhaps a dozen of them, she could not say for certain. She cursed all gods living and dead, for no one would follow her in this waste for a gentle cause. They were marauders come to sell her into slavery, if they did not cut her throat first. The kinds of bandits who haunted this part of the world would be the lowest, most feral kind. Madmen of the desert.

Perhaps she had been mad as well to ride here, to seek a treasure she risked everything to obtain. Like any gamble, if she won she would seem brilliant and courageous, and if she failed the sands would swallow her bones. She had carried out many thefts – enough to make her half a legend – but nothing compared to this. Now she hunted through the ruins of an empire so old its very name was a legend, and she sought a jewel so fabulous it should not exist.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Last Witch Hunter

This is very much a Sword & Sorcery movie that bucks the standard by setting itself within the modern world, pushing the question of whether an S&S story has to be set in a fantasy world. I will maintain that this movie is set in a fantasy world, it’s just one that superficially resembles our own.

The movie opens in a poorly-defined “dark ages” which we can gather from later context is supposed to be sometime in the 1200s. Humanity is at war with an elder race called “Hexen” - which is a Germanic word for “witch”, though we are given zero indications where this all is supposed to be happening. Vin Diesel stars as Kaulder – which is not a real name, and the cognate “Calder” is a Scottish name. So this is just some vague “Europe in the dark ages”.

Anyway, we see the big showdown between Kaulder, his companions, and the Hexen, or witches they came to fight. The evil tree that serves as the lair of the Witch Queen looks amazing, and the digital painters do a great job with the backgrounds, giving it a really evocative look. The battle is a bit confusing, but in the end it seems like Kaulder is the sole survivor, who stabs the Witch Queen and she curses him with immortality as she dies. We later find that none of this is true, but that’s later.

Then the movie cuts to modern New York, where Kaulder has become a figure that would be very familiar to fans of the pulp heroes of the 30s. Vin always kind of plays the same character in his starring roles, but this time it works. Kaulder is like other pulp luminaries like Doc Savage or the Spider, as he is always the coolest, toughest, smartest guy in the room. He’s rich, lives in a cool apartment, and all the chicks want him.

Kaulder has spent 800 years as the “or else” of a human brotherhood that made a truce with the witches, and now, so long as they behave, he lets them go about their business. But of course there are always witches who say “fuck that” and start trouble, so Kaulder always has lots of opportunities to stab people with his flaming sword.

The look of the movie is pretty good, even if some of the CGI is iffy-looking. The sets they built and the locations used range from good to great, and the cinematography is excellent. The cast is solid, with Micheal Caine, Elijah Wood, and Rose Leslie on hand. Even if Caine is kind of phoning it in, he lends dignity to the proceedings, and Leslie is quite good as the gothy witch girl Chloe, who kind of becomes Kaulder’s sidekick.

The handling of magic in the plot is varied and imaginative, with witches using magic stones, runes, powders, herbs, incantations, and other methods that all look cool and have their own effects. It’s a bit too complex to work completely in a movie, when you don’t have time to really lay out the rules very well, but I appreciate that they did more than just have them throw CGI lights at one another, and the magic has some echoes of real-world witchcraft to give it texture. Magic is also depicted as being an inborn power, a connection to a vast and dangerous force that is inevitably dangerous to humans.

Overall, it’s a really fun ride of pure pulp entertainment. It’s doing what it wants to do, and nothing else, and so if you go in expecting something besides a pulpy adventure, you will probably be disappointed. If you are in the right mindset, however, you will have a good time. It wasn’t that well reviewed, and did rather poorly financially, which is a shame, as this kind of character always works best as a serial.

The Last Witch Hunter certainly fulfills some of the criteria of Sword & Sorcery. Kaulder is definitely in the mold of an S&S hero, and he is not a black and white, moral character. He’s driven by revenge for his slain family, but also has an ambiguous relationship with both his ostensible foes and the people he serves. Magic is shown as dangerous and unknowable – an inhuman power that only witches can use. The theme of man fighting for survival against a prehuman race is very much in the tradition of Howard and Moorcock, and the idea of a secret war carried on against a hidden enemy for centuries has echoes of “The Shadow Kingdom” and similar pulp tales.

The world-spanning stakes and modern setting are the elements least compatible with S&S, and there could definitely be more straight-up violence in the movie, but overall, this is a film that Sword & Sorcery fans should find a lot of good stuff in, and I have hopes it will find a niche as a cult classic down the line.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Friends! Patrons!

I thought I would just take a moment, here at the end of the year, to say thank you to all my patrons who give so generously every month so I can keep doing this.  Some people have hundreds of patrons, some have thousands, but even you few make a big difference to me, believe it.  Some of you I know personally, and some I don't, so here I will thank each of you as individually as I can.

Cassandra – Sandy has been a supporter of mine for a long time, since waaaayyy back in the day, and I appreciate her so much.

David Chamberlain – I don’t know David very well, but he has been a strong backer for many years now and I am so grateful for that.

Eilis – one of my best friends and the first reader for all these stories. Thank her for all the typos you don’t see.

Laura Bowen – Someone who I have known since I was 11 or 12, and who had a big role in introducing me to fantasy literature.

Mel Reams – Another longtime supporter who I don’t know well, but who I appreciate a whole lot.

Mike Baird – My metal brother who is a good friend despite living on the far side of the country.

Becky Davidson – Someone I have known since junior high who has become a good friend years after.

And the few of you I don't know personally, so it's impossible to say anything warmly individual about you, but who I appreciate nonetheless:

Jason Carney
Matt Doyle

This isn't a big Patreon, but  it matters a whole lot to me, as every dollar counts in my budget.  It's fun telling these stories, and I hope it is fun to read them.  Next year should be a lot of fun as well.

I will be taking off next Monday, but I will be back with new content on January 6th.  I will be preparing the ebook for Age of Chaos, and that should be available sometime around the middle of the month, and you will all get copies.

Thanks so much for all you do, and have a good holiday.