Monday, December 17, 2018

Age of Chaos

The world of the Ancients fell in fire and blood, and the world was torn apart. Seas flooded the land, continents were broken, and death rained from the sky for a generation. It has been so long that a new world has risen on the bones of the old, only dimly remembering what came before. In this savage world, a new empire arose to dominate the eastern lands. The lords of Numarea became kings, and then emperors, until their power grew greater than any in living memory

But power is never absolute, and a stain of darkness has woven itself into the imperium. A new ruler sits upon the Ember Throne, and he is a follower of a strange religion and possesses great powers of the mind. He has imposed his will upon the empire, and the people have begun to fear him.

As in any empire, there are many who seek power, and many paths by which it may be grasped. The board is set, and the pieces begin to move in this struggle for empire.

Kurux – The Dark Emperor. Son of a lesser branch of the imperial family, he took the throne when the old emperor died and his son vanished. He follows an unspeakable god risen from the depths of the sea, a legacy of the ancient world. It has given him powers over the minds of others through forbidden science, and he will use his power to enslave the world, if he can.

Ashari – The old emperor’s favorite, she is of the race of the Sheda – a race that was once powerful, but who are now almost a myth. She is horned and walks on hooves, but she has dwelled all her life among humans, and enjoys the soft life of a court lady. That will come to an end.

Tathar – The commander of the Imperial Skylords, the knights mounted upon great birds of prey who enforce the emperor’s will. He has served loyally all his life, but now he questions the emperor, and chafes at the evil he sees daily within the palace walls. Soon will come the moment when he will have to choose.

Shath – Chieftain of a barbarian army from beyond the empire. His people were crushed by Kurux’ dark power, and he was made a prisoner. The emperor means to make an example of him, but he will escape into the wilderness. Through a land filled with ancient ruins, deadly beasts, and savage mutants, he will seek for a legendary power that will allow him to measure his strength against an empire.

This is just a teaser for the story that will start next year.  I wanted to do something that was kind of post-apocalyptic without being all Mad Max, so this is one of those where the apocalypse is waaaay in the past.  It will be a more unified story, and I am excited about it.

That's it for the year, kids.  Next Monday is Xmas Eve, and the one after that is New Years', so I will be taking a break and working on improving the site and the Patreon, hopefully.  New story begins on January 7th, so I hope to see you there!  Thanks again to all my Patrons!

Monday, December 10, 2018

And I Will Dream of Endless War

When she grew old, Queen Ruana dreamed of the north. Around her she had caused a great hall to be raised up over the scorched bones of the old. The beams were hewn from the black oaks of the forest and the roof overhead was raised high, so that when the fires blazed the smoke lay in the air like storm clouds high above the heads of the feasters. Around the hall she had forged a kingdom with the strokes of her great spear. Giants guarded her throne, and her word was the law as far as a man could sail for a week in any direction. From the jagged coastlines of the southland to the deep forest in the eastern hills to the stormy seas in the west, Ruana was Queen, and she reigned for fifty years and some believed she would reign forever.

She knew she would not. Her hair had changed to an iron gray, and when she wore it in coiled braids it looked like pattern-forged steel. She still wore her heavy wolfskin cloak over the bright mail and the polished brazen bosses, but the mail was new. Her old armor, many times rent and torn, hung above her throne beside her splintered shield. She had earned those marks in battle against gods, and she bore them on her body as well.

Always close by her right hand was the spear that made her more than mortal. The straight haft darkened by time, the bronze blade transformed gold by power and by myth. Some whispered it must be a false spear, for nothing of bronze could shine so, and nothing gold could cut or pierce and yet take no mark. It was her sword and her scepter, and she had worn a place in the floor beside her throne where she was accustomed to set the spike as she held it and passed her judgments.

The war, that dark war that had almost sundered the lands of men apart, was now so far in the past that few lived who had seen it, save as children. Those who still bore the marks were gray and long-bearded, and they told the tales of that time with a darkness in their faces. War was still war, and men still shed one another’s blood, but that war had been unlike any other. That had been a war driven by dark powers, and now those powers were gone.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Sword Woman

Red Sonja is the best-known Howard creation that Howard didn’t actually create. The character “Red” Sonya of Rogatino appears in the historical adventure story “Shadow of the Vulture”, but she is a far cry from the chainmail-bikini-clad pop culture figure who stole her name. Sonya’s not the only example of a warrior woman from Howard’s work, though. We also have the pirate woman Valeria from “Red Nails”, and the better-known Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast”. Both of these women served as romantic interests for Conan himself. But there’s another red-headed hell-raiser in the Howard canon who doesn’t get as much play as she should: Dark Agnes of Chastillon.

Created during a period when Howard was working hard to break out of just writing for Weird Tales and into the so-called Adventure Pulps, which meant a wider market and better pay, Agnes is unusual among his heroes. For one, he wrote her in first person, which he did not do that often, and for another, she is probably the most fully-realized female character he ever created. Inhabiting her POV forced him to consider her much more completely than he usually did for his work, and it shows what he could have become if he’d had more time.

The two completed Dark Agnes tales are a ride. Definitely meant to be in the tradition of The Three Musketeers and other, similar works of swashbuckling high adventure, Howard managed instead a kind of hybrid style. He was not able to keep his trademark bloody violence damped down to Dumas levels, and so rather than classic French Romantic swordplay with clashing blades and bon mots, he produced savage, head-cleaving, limb-lopping action that is probably a much more realistic depiction of the violence of the day.

The historiocity is a bit of a mess. This is meant to be set in the 16th century sometime, but Agnes is depicted as wearing mail armor – a style that had then been out of use for centuries – and her swordplay seems much more medieval in style, with no mention of schools of dueling, parrying daggers, or other things common in the era. Also, pistols are used quite often, but with no mention of the fussy, match-burning mechanics of the contemporary weapons. It’s best to just look on these as a kind of historical fantasy.

But he got the feel just right. Not of the period, but of the stories set in the period. There is enough intrigue, treachery, backstabbing, mistaken identity, overheard conversations, ambushes, and chases to fuel an entire novel in just these two tales. Howard was an addict of fast, tightly-plotted action, and nobody else has ever done it quite as well.

Tellingly, Agnes is not a princess or a nobleman’s daughter or a lost heiress, but the peasant daughter of a drunk, abusive ex-soldier. Her tale begins with her father announcing she is to be married off, and when she objects he knocks her out and when she wakes up she’s all dressed and about to be hitched to some standard fat, ugly dude. Her older sister gives her a dagger and tells her to kill herself rather than be forced into marriage, but Agnes isn’t having any of that shit. When they drag her to the altar she pulls out the blade, shanks the groom in the heart, and then simply runs off into the forest. There she meets affable rogue/possible love interest Etienne Villiers and her adventures get rolling.

Sadly, they never had as much of a chance as they could have. Howard only completed two Agnes stories, leaving a third, “Mistress of Death” unfinished. The third tale began to include some fantasy elements, so it is possible that he was writing it more for the Weird Tales market. Neither of the completed stories saw print until 1975, almost 40 years after Howard’s death. Originally published in The Nemedian Chronicles fanzine, they were all collected in the Sword Woman anthology by Zebra in 1977, later reprinted by Berkley and Ace. The book has been out of print for a long time, but used copies can be found.

Like so much of Howard’s work, the Dark Agnes stories are frustrating because they are so good, and they moan with the lost potential of what he left unfinished. Here he showed that yes, he could write a well-rounded female character, and do it better than his imitators so many decades later. The stories have the sense of a much larger tale left unfinished, and maybe this is part of the reason why Howard’s work has been so ripe for pastiche and posthumous collaboration – seeing the shadow of the story that never existed, you want to help tell it, you want to finish it, because he never got the chance.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Fire Scars the Sky in Vain

Iron waves pounded the shore as the fleet of the Spear Queen came to land once again. The hulls ground upon the stony beach as each warship carved a furrow with its ram and rested from the long sea journey. The ships were shield-lined and dragon-prowed and scarred by fire and battle, but they had come across the wide waters though death and the wrath of dark gods to bring battle at last upon Hror, the Usurper.

Ruana was first to spring down from the rail and splash into the cold surf. She felt the waves lash around her legs and she waded to land, setting foot upon the country of Hadrad as an invader, and a conqueror. She had been driven from her home, endured terror and privation and battle and now she came at last to mete justice upon the one who began it. It had been almost four years since Hror came ashore and began the war which had consumed the kingdoms; now at last she would put an end to it.

The warships flung out lines and drove in their iron anchors, braced up their hulls with oaken beams, and her army disembarked and gathered there on the long shore. Giants there were, the old race come down from the northlands to follow the spear, but most of her warriors were the people of Vathran. Men and women, graybeards and young men, mothers and maids. They had been driven into the edges of the world to survive hard winters, hunted by evil men and the powers that drove them, and now they were come in their strength, steel-clad and armed with sword and shield and spear.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Tower of Death

Cormac Mac Art was one of Howard’s less-known series characters. A figure of historical fiction, Cormac dwelled in Dark Ages Europe, probably sometime in the 5th - 6th Century, though the exact time is kept vague. There are mentions of him being a contemporary of King Arthur, but none of the “name” characters from that mythos ever make an appearance. Cormac is an Irish Celt, of a type that Howard himself identified with strongly, and he roved the seas in company with his trusty Danish Viking sidekick Wulfhere the Skull-Splitter.

No Cormac stories were published during Howard’s lifetime. He completed “Swords of the Northern Sea” and “The Night of the Wolf”, probably in an attempt to break into the adventure pulps, which paid better than Weird Tales did. These stories are notable for not having any supernatural elements, and are works of historical adventure. Several more stories, such as the oft-reprinted “Tigers of the Sea” and “The Temple of Abomination” were completed from partial drafts after Howard’s death by author Richard L. Tierney, and rank as partial pastiches.

In the late 70s, when the S&S boom was in full swing, Andrew J. Offutt was given permission (or asked – I can’t find out) to take Cormac and run with him, which resulted in a series of novels entirely about the Irish brigand, meaning Offutt wrote more about him than Howard ever did. There were six of these books, two of them with co-author credit to Aussie writer Keith Taylor.

Despite his stature among Howard pastiche writers, tightly-plotted adventure was never Offutt’s forte, and he apparently knew this, as it was his habit to solicit other writers to put together plot outlines for him to fill out. Taylor – a great aficionado of the Dark Ages and the Arthurian period, was an ideal resource for this. One of the plots he commissioned from David Drake took so long and grew so big that he ended up not using it, and Drake changed the names and wrote it as The Dragon Lord.

The Tower of Death is the 5th Cormac novel, and despite his announced plans for many more, there was only one more after this, and then the saga fell silent. I have to say, it might have been for the best, as this is not a terribly good book. Even with help, Offutt’s plotting is baggy and his action is weak. The most tense sequence is toward the beginning, when Cormac and his crew are nearly caught in a trap by warships and have to slip away by sailing out of sight of land across the Bay of Biscay – something that was not actually much done in those days when ships tended to follow the coast.

They arrive in Spain, or what would become Spain, and encounter a tower that seems to breed a mysterious doom next door to a tiny kingdom which promises intrigue but really has almost none to offer. The mystery of the tower is found to be the result of a killer seaweed monster that manages a bit of excitement, and the final showdown between sea-raiders and Lovecraftian fish-people is pretty fucking badass.

But everything in between just seems vague and unexciting. There are whispers of a romance with the local princess which go nowhere, some plotting by the queen who turns out to be evil, but it’s not very good plotting. Things happen that you expect would come to some sort of point, but they don’t, and when the climax arrives it doesn’t feel like you’ve been building up to it and it’s paying off any kind of tension, it’s just a thing that happens.

It’s frustrating, because all the pieces are here, with some cool ideas and good setup, and the action scenes are in place and could have been really good, but a lot of Offutt’s action is just kind of inert, and you get bored waiting for something to really happen – a dramatic moment, a reveal, some emotion to elevate the simple “and then, and then, and then” plot structure. With over 70,000 words there is room for a lot more than this, and a lot of this book just seems to be wasting time. I think of the kind of action that Howard crammed into The Hour of the Dragon – which is about the same length – and I feel sad for how much better this could have been.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Red Swords of War

The ships rode high waves on a sea that hungered for blood. The warships of the giants crested the iron tide and their rams split the waters apart as they came toward the shadow of land. Men and Azora both pulled their oars, chanting as they fought the seas that strove to hold them back, and then cries of warning came from the watchful at the dragon prows.

The waters ahead grew dark with a shadow, and then that shadow became a fleet of ships. Wind bellied their black sails, and the waves drove them onward. A dark power in the sea lashed them to battle, and the sky above them was dark like the cutting edge of a storm. Violet lightning cut down from the blackening sky and scourged the waters, and men who looked to the deeps thought they saw something vast stir in the black waves. A power gathered, and it rushed upon them, intent on crushing the fire from their veins.

The giants held to the oars, for only their strength could battle against the heavy seas, while the warriors of Vathran surged to the rails of the longships. They were men and women both, each hardened by years of war, by privation and despair and cruelty. Now they came to grips with their enemy, and they armed themselves with steel. They clad themselves in mail and tall helms, girded on swords and axes, and they took the spears bundled beneath the ship rails and lifted them high. Stormfire glinted green on the spearpoints as they took the shields from the rails and beat them against one another in the clangor of war.

Ruana stood at the prow of her ship, and she held up her own spear – the spear that had become more than simply wood and bronze, empowered by the blood of gods. She drove the spike into the oaken deck and gripped the haft upright, and the wide brazen blade flamed like gold in the stormlight. Thunder echoed and cracked in the sky, and a power emanated from the golden sign of the spear, driving back the hard winds and the savage waves.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Flight to Opar

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009) was a well-regarded genre author during his lifetime, and even if his star has dimmed somewhat over time, in the 60s and 70s he was considered a pioneering writer and is still mentioned in the same breath as names like Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. He won three Hugo awards in his life, and is still spoken of with respect today, which makes it all the more mysterious that this book is so bad.

Farmer had a deep fascination with classic pulp characters, and famously wrote literary mashups where he posited the “Wold Newton family”, creating elaborate family trees that connected characters like Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Dorothy Gale as part of a single bloodline created by aliens. It was undertaken with enormous affection for the pulp era, but it amounts to little more than an epic work of fanwank at this point.

The unfinished Hadon series falls into this category, as the setting for the two books is a fictionalized Africa circa 10,000 BC, where inland seas set the stage for massive prehistoric empires centered on the city of Opar. Opar was a fictional city created by Edgar Rice Burroughs for his Tarzan novels, set deep in the (then) unexplored interior of Africa. He depicted it as a lost colony of Atlantis filled with fabulous wealth, probably influenced by the tales of the land of Ophir, mentioned in the Bible as a wealthy land that paid tribute to King Solomon.

So the Hadon stories – starting with Hadon of Ancient Opar and continued in Flight to Opar – were essentially a fan writing backstory for a setting from Burroughs’ Tarzan continuity. As such, it is not really meant to take place in the real world, and Farmer is free to be as creative as he likes. The essential idea seems solid. Howard did much the same kind of historical-fantastical imagining to create the Hyborean Age, and as a place to set stories of adventure, it has real promise.

I have the first book around here somewhere, but this was the one I could find. It features a remarkably poor Ken Kelly illustration on the cover, making it look like a supremely generic barbarian fantasy novel, and it would probably be more entertaining if it was something more on the level of The Alien. Inside are a bunch of pretty piss-poor Roy Krenkel pen and ink illustrations, which might look better if they were printed at a higher quality, but maybe not.

The prose in this book is just terrible, with rote, declarative sentences and a very mechanical, dry style of narrating action. Some of the violence in this book is quite bloody, but it is never exciting, because Farmer uses a tedious “then this, and then this happened, and then this happened” method of describing it. At its best the writing is workmanlike and passionless, at worst it is criminally dull and almost unintentionally funny in the way it belabors unimportant details and elides past anything that might be actually exciting.

The pacing and structure are even more egregious, as we open up with a closely-detailed yet extremely uninteresting sequence where Hadon has to find a way to head off pursuers who chased him out of the previous book. He’s got a narrow pass to defend, a girlfriend with a sprained ankle, and like forty guys coming after him. You would think this could be an awesome opening action sequence, and yet it is so dull you will be flipping ahead to see where it ends. There’s more chasing, traipsing around in the woods, this and that, and yet nothing gathers any kind of momentum or excitement.

Then the heroes reach the city they were headed to (not Opar) and the plot, such as it is, screeches to even more of a halt. Now we pull back and instead of scenes and drama we get narration and stultifying amounts of infodump, followed by tension-deadening time skips and then more arbitrary plot points to move things along to the actual flight to the titular Opar. Again we get action that is described so badly it is boring and static, a lot of summarizing and time skipping, and a drawing back from the narrative to treat it like part of a synopsis.

The violence and the setting are very S&S, despite that there is no actual, real magic onscreen, as it were, just stories and superstitions. The theme of one man fighting to protect what he loves is the right kind of angle, and Hadon is certainly no paladin. He tries to do the right thing, but he often lets people die when it’s the expedient thing to do, and he doesn’t try to save everyone.

What this book doesn’t have is any spark or fire to it. Any blood and thunder. The action is at a remove, and none of the characters seem to have very strong feelings. Even Burroughs’ more Victorian sensibilities allowed for more emotion and character than this. I don’t know. Farmer made plans for more books, but he never got very far, and the third book was never published in a complete form, being pieced together by author Christopher Paul Carey and put with the first two in an omnibus edition much later. Maybe Farmer was sick of the story, and just didn’t care about it. It certainly reads like he didn’t.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Dread Night Hunter

Arethu, the weirwoman, knew the forest lay under an accursed power, and when she touched the soil she felt the tremble beneath, like a beast hunted to earth awaiting the knife. She smelled blood in the haze of the summer heat, and she heard the wolves howl in the night, cries from the deep places at the edge of the world.

She hunted birds, as she always had, and she dwelled in her small hovel made from logs and roofed over with roots and moss, as she always had. But the woods were not the same. A thing had come with the winter, and now it remained and marked the ways of the forest with the track of printless foot and the sear of hunger. Something walked among the trees, and hunted, and hated, and fed.

So she sought wisdom in the moonlight. She poured clean water into the hollowed stone bowl where she ground berries and herbs, and she held it under the light of the moon so that the bone-white crescent shimmered there in reflection. She rattled bones and burned dried leaves and breathed in the smoke, and she sought the knowledge that had always come to her. Men called her a witch, and perhaps she was.

She saw the moon made into a skull, and the trees draped with bones. She saw wolf eyes glowing in the dark, and she saw the beasts of glade and glen slaughtered and hung to rot. She saw a shape like a man, but towering over any tree or hall, and his head was crowned with antlers sharp as knives. He bore a great spear and he limped on a crippled foot. Things like wolves haunted his trail, went forth to harry his prey, and Arethu knew that her home had been taken beneath the shadow of the Huntsman. The shadow out of old times come again.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Elric of Melnibone

Micheal Moorcock released his novella “The Dreaming City” in 1962, though as he says he created Elric when he was 20, that means he was working on it as far back as 1959. What followed was a series of novellas through the next three years to fill out the story of his hero’s tragic life and death. However, perhaps with the realization that he had killed the proverbial golden goose, he later went back and expanded on those tales, filling them out into full-length novels or else incorporating them in with new material to make longer-form works.

In 1972 DAW published Elric of Melnibone as the first volume of the saga, though it contained all-new material. It was a kind of prequel to the then-existing Elric continuity, showing Elric before he gained his legendary runesword and embarked on his self-imposed exile from his homeland. It shows us the beginnings of things that were already part of the character when he first appeared ten years before – the rivalry with his cousin Yrkoon, his dissatisfaction with the life he had been born into, the connection with the Chaos Lord Arioch, and most importantly the obtaining of Stormbringer – the enchanted sword that defined the rest of his life.

It’s always a bit of a stretch going back and filling in backstory, because some things don’t need to be shown, and just become tedious when they are. However, Moorcock’s world is so vivid and strange that there is plenty left to show, and he really digs in on the setting and makes it more defined and detailed. It is cool to see the decadent Melnibonean society, and I wish he had really gone deeper into that and made it more of a court drama as well as an adventure story. The book is only 60,000 words or so, and so there is a lot more space he could have used.

The book does a good job of showing us Elric’s character. His boredom and ennui, as well as the blindness to others’ desires and the egotism that will prove his fatal flaws throughout his story. Elric always underestimates what other people will do for their own goals, and he tends to ascribe his own broody overthinking to others, and thus is surprised when they act decisively. Elric only acts unilaterally when he is emotional, and thus he invariably makes terrible decisions on the spur of the moment. It shows that Moorcock really understood his hero, and more importantly understood what made him flawed. Elric is courageous, cruel, self-centered, and alternately either impulsive or hesitant.

Many of these traits are ones common to Sword & Sorcery heroes, and so it is interesting that Moorcock grasps that these are actually very dangerous characteristics. In many ways the Elric tales are an experiment depicting what would happen if the typical fantasy hero was not always right, and made decisions that went badly again and again. Often superhuman pulp characters like Sherlock Holmes, Batman, or Dirty Harry get away with things only because they are never wrong: they never accuse the wrong person, follow the wrong clue, or kill a bystander because they misjudged something. The world makes them always right in the end.

But Elric is not, in fact he is wrong more often than not. He makes decisions that seem right, or at least necessary in the moment, but then they turn out to have consequences he did not expect, or could not have foreseen. Here we see him summon and bind himself to Arioch, one of the Dukes of Hell and an essentially Satan-like figure, because he feels he has no other way to save his cousin and lover, Cymoril. He does not even pay for that in this book, but if you have read the rest of his saga the meeting is fraught, because we know how much that allegiance costs him later.

So the book is a really good prequel, and if it is your first experience with Elric, then you will get a good grounding that will lead you through the rest of the stories, some of which were written long before this was published. Moorcock is one of the rare authors who took a series of novellas, chopped it up and stitched in new material, and made it work as a whole. I don’t think the Elric saga necessarily needed to go on this long to accomplish what it set out to do, but if it had to get longer, then at least it was still good.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The White Maiden

On midsummer’s eve Queen Ruana came again in sight of the hall where she had once ruled. Irongaard stood alone and abandoned against the sea, the walls dark with age and no fire blazing within. She looked on it and it seemed a dead thing, something slain and left to decay, the heart torn from it. It did not please her to think on what she might find there, but she could not turn away. Years before she had fled this place, with only a stolen sword and the head of a murdered king. Now she returned with an army from legend at her back, and she bore a spear of light that burned away the dark.

They rode up the long slope to the place where the walls lay crumbling, and she looked down and saw the ground was strewn with the bones of the dead. Both men and beasts had been butchered and left to rot, and she felt revulsion at this sign of the careless power o the Undergods. They built nothing, made nothing; they only destroyed and savaged and slaughtered, and men it seemed were only too eager to follow.

No one called to them or hailed them, or sought to bar their way. They crossed the yard where new summer flowers grew through the trampled earth and the discarded bones, and they came to the doors of the hall, hanging open and unguarded.

Ruana swung down from her steed and stood for a long moment, looking into the dark as into a skull. Umun, her councilor, came with her and held high a burning torch, and by that light they entered the black hall of the usurper. They trod on the ancient floorboards, the wood black with smoke. The hearth lay cold and untended, and the beams of the walls and roof stood like the ribs of a dead sea-beast.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Rebel of Valkyr

Alfred Coppel (1921-2004) was a prolific author with an extremely varied output. He produced respected works of Science Fiction (the Goldenwing Cycle, Dark December), bestselling political thrillers (Thirty-Four East), and works of historical fiction (The Burning Mountain). He was also a highly prolific pulp author through the 50s and 60s, and appeared in most of the big name pulps and later the slicks under a variety of pseudonyms.

One of the more interesting permutations of his career started with a story in the pulp Planet Stories in 1950 called “The Rebel of Valkyr”, which was later anthologized in Brian Aldiss’ Galactic Empires collection, which is where I read this story and became fascinated by the possibilities of it.

“The Rebel of Valkyr” is a real, honest attempt at depicting a Dark Age in space. It shows us a world far in the future, after a galactic-scale empire has risen, and then fallen into ruin. The past has been garbled or forgotten, technology is looked on as witchcraft, and society has devolved in a feudal order of lords and their armies. The difference is that interstellar travel is still accomplished by the use of the remaining starships, so automated that they can be operated by men who do not understand their full workings. The “navigators” who control star travel have become a quasi-religious sect that sees to the function of machines they cannot really comprehend.

No other technology has really survived, so the story presents you with the rather delightful image of starship holds full of horses and armored warriors, lit by oil lamps because nobody knows how to turn on the lights. When the people of this age go to war, they don’t fight ship to ship, but invade from space by landing the vast starcraft and then unloading legions of cavalry.

The fiefs of the feudal lords have become whole worlds, and the empire is a fractious agglomeration of proud star-kings held in thrall to the supposed emperor. In the story, the emperor is an inexperienced boy left in the wake of his more warlike father, and the tale unfolds a litany of treachery, revenge, revolt, and war that bursts at the seams of the mere 15,000 words of the story.

The idea of the starships enduring without proper maintenance over centuries seems more than a bit preposterous, but the ensuing action is so much fun you largely don’t care about that. Coppel is an old hand at pulp action and it shows, as he fills this story with enough warriors, kings, minstrels, traitors, duels, and battles to fill a tale by Dumas. It’s very much in the tradition of Nordic sagas, tales of Charlemagne and his Paladins, or the Musketeers, and while the action is not Howard levels of violent, it has a lot of grit.

Coppel later expanded the idea into a series of books under the pen name Robert Cham Gilman, and I have to say I think he mishandled it. He renamed the planet of his main hero from “Valkyr” to the less cool-sounding “Rhada”, and he also wrote the books for what was then called the “juvenile” market, which means the plot was simplified, the action was softened, and the whole thing has a much lighter tone. I suppose they must have done all right, as he got to write four of them, but the essential fire and hard edge of the original story was lost. I mean the novel version of the same plotline, The Rebel of Rhada, is 35,000 words longer, but does not add much to the original story, so the formerly tight plotting becomes loose and slow-paced.

The original story has not even been anthologized for thirty years, and so is not nearly as widely-read as the later books, which would tend to put off an adult reader. The original tale is dynamite, and crackles with intensity. Its story of fighting to save a tottering empire is more old-school adventure fiction than truly Sword & Sorcery, but I find the idea itself audacious and exciting, and I wish Coppel had gone in another direction with it. If you made the story darker, more violent, and added some inhuman space gods, then you would have a Sword & Sorcery setting to conjure with.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Dread Kings

Summer was the grave of light, and even though the days were warm, the sky lay heavy with iron clouds that walled away the sun. At night there remained a chill that bit and gnawed at flesh, and men hid themselves away from the dark and the things that walked there. It was the third year of the war, and the scars of armies and raiders lay across the land. Burned-out farm houses lay silent amid fallow fields and dead cattle, and even the birds in the trees sang softly, or not at all.

Balra walked the night outside his hall, pacing paths he could not see, only feel. It seemed his sight was dimmed save in the dark, and he leaned on his spear and limped with the pain of his old wound, the grievous cut given him by the man called Hror, his uncle who had become the scourge of two kingdoms.

The old king Arnan hung rotting from the roof-beams of the hall, and now Balra called himself the Wolf King and men bowed down to him. The Huntsman walked beyond the trees, and Balra felt the Undergod’s gaze on him, and he heard the howling of the pack beneath the hidden moon. By summer sun men should be tending the open fields and herding their flocks, but this year there was nothing. No man dared leave the sight of home to till the soil, and the wolves that came by night could not be stopped. This year would be a year of hunger, and of blood.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Alien

Emblematic of the late 70s era when major publishers like Fawcett were looking for a piece of that Sword & Sorcery action comes The Alien by Victor Besaw – a writer unknown then and still largely unknown now. Besaw does not appear to have been a pseudonym and there’s not much information about him to be found. The Alien, in 1979, was his second published book, after his debut novel The Sword of Shandar the year before, and as near as I can tell it was his last. I always see this one in used book stores, so Fawcett must have printed a bunch of them, maybe they just didn’t sell.

It would be understandable, because The Alien is not really what anyone would call “good”. It’s a very short novel, clocking in at barely over 50,000 words, and is a quick, breezy, undemanding read. In truth it reads more like the recounting of someone’s D&D adventures than anything that could be said to have themes or subtext – things it does not even aspire to. This is entertainment, and avowedly not literature.

The Alien recounts the first-person life of a character named Godranec. Found wandering as a small child, he is a member of a nonhuman race called the Nyarlethu – essentially a dwarf with small horns. Raised as a pet by a human noble lady, he grows up and she no longer finds him cute, so he is cast out to live with the other “thralls”, or slaves. The human society is depicted as unrelentingly callous and cruel, with virtually everyone being a slave of one kind or another, and with brutal and gruesome punishments for breaking the rules.

Godranec grows up to be short but tremendously strong and fast, and he works in the smithy where he learns to forge steel and covertly makes his own weapons. Throughout the book Godranec is the beneficiary of a lot of helpful coincidences, and the first and biggest one is that he gets ahold of an enchanted spearhead that the smithy is supposed to destroy, and he instead steals it and copies the runes etched on it onto the other weapons he makes, so they are supernaturally sharp and strong.

When he is prepared enough, Godranec escapes and heads north through the “weirwoods” where he knows the humans will fear to pursue him. He is searching for the home of his people, said to be far away to the north, and the book is just the tale of his journey. Along the way he fights beasts and monsters that range from giant wolves to immense trapdoor spiders to subhuman cavemen and a dozen others. Besaw will just detail these battles and then leave them behind, and most of them never lead to anything else, they are just events along the way. Godranec hacks his way through, finds his people, learns he is the long-lost prince, and lives happily ever after.

There’s not much to it. The style is crude and scattered with modern vernacular, thus failing to really evoke a different world. It’s written in first person, so we see the world through the eyes of a protagonist who does not have much education and knows very little about the world he is in. It allows the narrative to fill us in on details as he sees them, and not bother with larger questions of worldbuilding or meaning. It’s also rather limited, and would make this seem almost like a children’s story were it not for the gruesome and brutal violence.

And yet I maintain a certain affection for this book. Godranec is a likeable hero – humble, practical, and clever, and the book breezes along, refusing to bog down in anything time-consuming or tedious. It skips easily from one adventure to the next in an episodic fashion that is all tied together by the simple expedient of the character’s journey to his dimly-remembered home. It remains highly readable, and it’s short enough that the lack of sophistication does not have time to wear on you. The Alien is not a good book, but it moves fast and does not ask much out of you as a reader. If we are discussing S&S as junk food, then this is one of the prime examples. It’s not filling or good for you, but it tastes good enough that you eat it anyway.

Monday, September 17, 2018


Summer bloomed across dead lands, and the greening of the grass hid away burn scars and the places where bones lay fallow on the earth. Untouched fields gave forth wildflowers and flooded with weeds, and the rains came soft and turned the forests to gold. Sun cut through the low clouds and fell on burned halls and broken barns, over the fields where cattle roamed and grazed, untroubled by man.

Valura came to the place where the king’s hall had stood, and she leaned on her long-handled axe and looked at the shattered roof and blackened beams. The tall grass was thicker where the slain had fallen, and she walked among unhallowed graves as she passed down the slope where Haldr had fought his last battle. This was a land with no king, and no lords. Now beasts ran wild over the paths and broken walls, and dark things walked the forests in the night.

She was leaner, now, than she had been. Two years she had lived as a beast herself, sleeping in the snow, hunting and fishing with her hands, living from fire to fire. She had not been here when Hror came to extinguish the king’s hall, and now she came at last, a final moment as a penance of kinds for what she had not done.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Birds of Prey

I wanted to review a David Drake book, and I meant to do The Dragon Lord, but I couldn’t find it, so it will have to wait. Instead I picked up this one, and by the time I found out it was really SF and not fantasy, it was too late to read anything else, so here we go.

Drake has done a good bit of alternate history, and his interest in the late Roman empire has fueled more than one book. This one starts out rather messy, then pops a good premise and some well-drawn characters, meanders around, and has a pretty good climax, so let’s run through it.

The book follows Aulus Perennius, an agent of the Roman government during the reign of Emperor Gallienus, who had the misfortune to rule during the economic catastrophe known as the Crisis of the Third Century. The book does not concern itself much with the larger political situation, but the setting is important as it evokes a sense of collapse and decay running through the Roman culture. Aulus is an agent of the fictional Bureau of Imperial Affairs, which is a kind of Roman-era CIA tasked with addressing threats to the empire in a covert fashion.

The book opens is a lumpy fashion, setting up some action that turns out not to matter and introducing political strife that’s historical, but amounts to background noise to make the book seem more accurate. Drake has obviously done his homework, and he fills the descriptions with carefully-researched period details that add texture, but too often obscure what is going on. Filling traveling music with little flourishes is fine, stopping the action to do it is not.

Aulus gets involved with a mysterious Roman noble Calvus, who enlists his aid to stamp out what is described as a cult, but turns out to be led by aliens. I think Drake missed a step here by making the aliens more strange than menacing. Their electric weaponry is flashy, but as described does not sound super-effective, and he seems to have gone for the exotic effect rather than a more realistically imagined technology. The aliens themselves are more bizarre than anything else, seeming to be awkward and rather weak.

The center of this alien-led cult is in Cilicia (Turkey), which is a long journey from Rome, and the bulk of the book is taken up with the trip. A cast of secondary characters is assembled, most of them with FODDER stamped on their heads, and off they go. The great mistake of the plot is that at least the middle third is taken up by a sea-chase with Gaulish pirates and a battle. The whole thing is well-done and vivid action, but it has nothing to do with the main plot, and by the time chapter after chapter of it is over you are like “oh, right, aliens.” Drake got carried away with the sea battle and forgot he was writing a book about something else.

It’s made more annoying by the fact that after the harrowing sea chase they end up captured by the pirates anyway, so the whole middle third of the book is essentially spinning its wheels. Then we have an unpleasant and unfortunately rather graphic gang-rape scene that derails the tone, and it takes a while to recover from that – in some ways it never really does, since all of it is so unnecessary. Even by the standards of 1984, the rape scene is gratuitous and ugly.

After squandering reader goodwill we finally get to the rather gripping finale, when the group is heading down into an underground cavern pursued by an Allosaurus. One of the more interesting side-plots is that the aliens are from Earth’s future – as is Calvus – fighting to prevent the aliens from essentially destroying the entirety of Mediterranean civilization in a bid to wreck human social and technological development. Calvus is actually an android of some kind, sent back to prevent this. The time-jumping has caused rifts that allow other time slippage to take place. The inference is that the time-travel technology is not well-tested, and has unforeseen side effects. It’s an interesting idea that would warrant a longer book.

But at the end, the aliens are rather handily defeated, and Calvus explodes to destroy all the remnants of their technology. The relationship between Aulus and Calvus is one of mutual respect and is well-drawn, so the end has a bittersweet quality.

So how is this like Sword & Sorcery, and what makes it not? The violence is graphic and bloody, and the main character is definitely morally ambiguous. Aulus has a code and a devotion to the cause of the empire, but he doesn’t much care how he accomplishes his goals. The SF elements are so muffled they might as well be fantasy, but the stakes of the game are far too high for a usual S&S tale. The fate of the world – in fact all of human history – is in the balance, and this kind of world-saving quest is not what S&S is about.

The good aspects are that Drake is a solid prose technician, and his action scenes especially really zip along. That said, he does get hung up on details a lot, and loses track of his pacing when he is caught up in the action. The violence is swift, bloody, and brutal, and the characterizations are good. Interestingly, Drake opts for a very vernacular, modern style of description and dialogue, making this seem like a very modern story despite the avowedly historical setting.

The problems are mostly that the book spends way too much time following plot threads and side characters that go nowhere, and sidelines its own main plot for like 60% of the novel. The lack of a real antagonist is another lack, and the aliens spend so much time offscreen and are so poorly described that they have no personality. There were a lot of interesting elements that never got the depth I would have liked, and there are too many unanswered questions by the end. Drake has his strong points, but this is far from his best work.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Stones Mark the Tread of Giants

The first storm of spring broke across the northlands, and the rain poured down across the hillsides and swelled the streams. The ice broke and sheared away and was washed from brooks and rivers, and lightning raged across the hillsides and scourged the stones that stood in circles, leaving seared marks like runes. The wind lashed the dead grass and the evergreen trees, and it blew across the moors with a voice like howling.

Deep in the dark of his hall, Hror woke from his deathless sleep and clawed to his feet, hand reaching for his cursed sword. The voice of the wind was like speech, like a voice from some hidden mouth, and it was not the dark whisper he had come to know, it was something else. A golden war-cry from beyond the edge of the world. He stood pale in the darkness, feeling the cold inside him that was always there now, at the heart of him. He closed his eyes and he saw a light as from far away, a golden-bladed spear that glowed like fire.

Thunder smashed and echoed against the walls of the hall men named Irongard. It was like a tomb, now, where men lay still through the cold nights, and they kindled no fires and ate nothing but raw flesh. Hror was a cold king, and his hearth lay dark and lifeless. His men like hounds scoured the land for those who still stood to oppose him. They burned spear-halls and slaughtered any who tried to stop them. Once fed upon his blood, they knew nothing but a hunger for killing.

Now the king went among them, and his voice was like breaking ice as he called them from their rest. He struck his sword upon the bare tables and called like a raven. He beat a cadence on wood and stone, and he called those who followed him to wake. An enemy was coming, and he did not need any secret whisper of dark knowledge to tell him. He felt it in his blood, coming nearer. In his mind the hills were alive with fire, and he heard the tread of armies in the dark.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Court of Broken Knives

This is a bit of a departure from my usual book reviews, as most of the works I have done so far have been more like 30 or 40 years old. In this case, Anna Smith Spark contacted me and asked if I would like to review her book, and once I was satisfied it fit generally within the bounds of Sword & Sorcery fiction, I said okay. So this will be a bit longer, and I intend to be a bit more thorough. Also: Spoilers.

The Court of Broken Knives is the first in the Empires of Dust series, of which the second book, The Tower of Living and Dying, has just recently come out. As an author, Spark is just getting started, and Court is her first published book. It’s plain from her work that she is well read in history, and is also a fan of some classic pulp fantasies. There’s a place on her world map called “Hastur”, so I know there’s some Lovecraft on her bookshelf, though the world she has created seems to resonate more strongly with Moorcock and maybe Clark Ashton Smith in its otherworldly unfriendliness, and a lot of the book reminds me of Glen Cook’s Black Company and Dread Empire series – though she herself told me she actually hasn’t read any of his work.

Spark has been called the “queen of grimdark” and her publisher seems to be selling this story on the basis of how gritty and grim it is. Maybe my meter is set differently, but I didn’t find it all that dark, myself. It’s obviously a morally ambiguous world and none of the characters are what you would call sympathetic, but there are plenty of places where the story could have gone much darker than it does, and it does not approach Elric-like levels of existential horror.

The world as presented is almost a long-post apocalypse landscape where a thousand years in the past a guy called Amrath basically became the High Lord of Fucking Shit Up and led a crusade that was less one of conquest and more just killing and burning everything. He was supposed to be the child of demons and dragons and unkillable until he got killed by an actual dragon. He was so terrible that the world celebrates his birthday as a holiday as essentially a way to propitiate his spirit and hope he doesn’t come back. A lot of his legend is cloaked in uncertainty, and while I find the idea of “dragonborn” almost painfully cliché at this point, I get the sense that there is more to it awaiting reveals in the later books.

The action of this book centers on the city of Sorlost, decaying center of the decadent Sekemleth Empire, depicted as a kind of blend of Persian and Egyptian mythologic feel and cultural ideas. The story presents us with two interrelated and yet distinct plotlines. One plot concerns Orhan, a high noble of the empire who is involved in a plot to assassinate the emperor and seize control, and the other plot follows Marith, a young man with a mysterious past who is a part of the mercenary company Orhan has hired to help carry out his plan.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Besieged Within the Bright Hall

In the long deep of winter before the breaking thaw, Enred fought his way through the blinding snow, and dark things pursued him unseen, stalking his footsteps. He waded through drifts as deep as his waist, breathing cold burning breaths from the exertion, but he would not stop. His hands and feet were like pieces of cold wood, and if he had to draw his sword now he knew his fingers would not close on the bronze hilt. Ice frosted his bread and round his mouth, and he trembled with fatigue, but he would not stop.

The night was almost perfectly dark, and so the wink of fire he saw as he crested the hill was bright as a star. He squinted against the wind, trying to see the source of the light, but it was gone. Just the sight of it gave him a lift of hope, that he might find a shelter here in the bitter lowlands. That he might find a place to hide from those who pursued him.

It seemed he felt them, pressing close upon his trail, smelling his blood like beasts. He knew they were men, but also less than men, and he had almost been one of them. The servants of the usurper Hror lived for blood and for death, and he knew they would rend his flesh with their teeth if they brought him down. Spears like black ice were close to him in the night, and he knew he could not outrun them very much longer. The cold sapped his strength, and hunger made his limbs tremble.

He reeled down the slope to the bottom, caught himself against rocks cold as sea ice, and he forced himself up, frightened by how little feeling his had in his hands. Already he felt dazed and sleepy, and he knew that was the cold beginning to kill him, to drag him down into a sleep from which he would never wake. He fought across the low valley floor, stumbling over rocks and hidden hollows, knowing that if he fell, he might never rise.

The sounds of howling drifted on the wind, and he looked back though he knew he should not. The night was mercilessly black, and so he could not even see the hillside he had stumbled down, but he saw glitters of light in the blackness, and they came two by two and he knew them for eyes. Once eyes of men, now eyes of dark powers, things of evil and not mortal flesh.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Naked and Enslaved

So a reader told me, when I mentioned the Gor series in passing, that he was kind of looking forward to me reviewing a Gor book, and since I own a few I dug them out and perused them, considering the idea. After all, while Gor is not really Sword & Sorcery, the series has definitely had an influence on how the genre is perceived. But then, looking deeper, I decided I didn’t really want to review a Gor book, because that would mean reading one again, and they are, without real exception, garbage.

But then I remembered the Amazon Warrior series, which purported to be an inversion of the Gor tropes but really is not, and the idea was born to cover both series as a whole at once, so I would be forced to read the actual books as little as possible, and hopefully put them to bed right here, so to speak.

John Norman’s Gor series is by far one of the longest-running series in fantasy fiction, as of now comprising 34 books dating back to the release of the first book, Tarnsman of Gor, in 1966. The most recent book, Plunder of Gor, came out in 2016, and Norman (actually a pen name for John Fredrick Lange Jr.) is still with us at 87 and still writing this shit.

Even the first books were not properly Sword & Sorcery, but rather Sword & Planet, being in conscious imitation of the classic Burroughs adventures, at least in the broad strokes. Hero Tarl Cabot (which always looked to my dyslexic brain like a misspelled “Carl Talbot”) is the typical man’s man who does not fit into the modern age, and then he is mysteriously transported to “Counter-Earth” - a planet much like Earth that orbits on the far side of the sun, so nobody can see it.

Gor is inhabited by people who have been brought to it by the “Priest-Kings”, who are actually an insectoid alien race, who have populated Gor for their own reasons. Norman sticks with the Burroughs template for his early stories, often getting very into the travelogue aspect of detailing the world to a great degree, seen through the eyes of his Earth protagonist. Norman’s writing is done in a rather simplistic, declarative style, and does not have much flair, and his hero is a stolid and quite boring human being, much in the tradition of the square-jawed pulp heroes of the 30s who have no weaknesses and show no emotions.

But the plots, such as they are, are not what readers remember about the Gor books, rather it is Norman’s highly detailed and rather tiresome sexual philosophy which permeates the books and gives them their one unique feature. Because Gor is a world of slavers and slaves, and on Gor, all women are slaves, or wish they were. The core of Norman’s ideas is that men on Earth have forgotten how to be real men, and if women are enslaved by real men they will realize that this is what they always wanted, and will be happily enslaved, after some initial complaining.

So it’s not hard to see what it is that Norman faps to, and in fact, after the first three or four books, the plotlines are largely sidelined for endless repetition of the fetish content. Interestingly, Norman does not seem to be that into sex scenes per se, as they are always rather soft-focused and elided, without thrusting loins or anything pornographic. Instead you get repeated scenes where females (always referred to as “females”, like an alien species) are enslaved, whipped, degraded, and always, always chained or tied up, the bindings elucidated in great detail. Norman is obviously much more into the bindings and the psychology of enslavement than he is in anything done with said slaves.

People think I am exaggerating when I say there are no plots in the later books, only repeated enslavement fetish fantasizing, but I really am not. They become genuinely pretty unreadable, because there are no stories, no characterization, nothing but enslavement, binding, enslavement, on and on. If it’s your thing, then hey, I bet they are fine, but they are not otherwise even remotely interesting. The early books got some sweet Vallejo covers that made them look dramatic and cool, and definitely played on the naked flesh aspect, but there’s really nothing to see here.

On the supposed flipside of the coin we have Sharon Green, who started in 1982 with her Amazon Warrior series that was expressly said to be a “refutation” of the Gor books by “creating three-dimensional female characters and powerful female characters in similar fantasy settings.” Let me note how the books completely fail to do this.

The five Amazon Warrior books were published between 1982 and 1986, and they focus on Jalav, the titular amazon herself. Yes, the books are first-person, and so Jalav has a bit more depth than the usual Gorean plaything, but she is not a terribly interesting character, and her rote, declarative interior monologue is often so uninteresting it is hard to stay awake through.

Oh, and maybe if your intention is to refute the Gor books by creating “powerful female characters” then maybe don’t have your entire plot revolve around them being kidnapped and raped all the time. See, the books wallow in the same tropes of sexy enslavement as the Gor books, only depicted from the female point of view. Jalav spends the entirety of her stultifyingly long and tedious saga being repeatedly captured, enslaved, and raped. Though it’s not depicted as icky, realistic rape, but rather the kind where she is slowly, against her will, driven to heights of ecstasy by the attentions of barbaric meatheads who are always referred to as “males”, as if they were an alien species.

I generally have more affection for the Jalav books as they have some sense of fun, and even though they are written in an awful faux-archaic style, they have a bit of charm. Also, the sex in them is a good bit more salacious than in the Gor books, and so there are quite a few “good parts” to be found throughout. Still, I certainly cannot recommend them as “good”.

Both these series crowded the shelves of fantasy sections in bookstores throughout the 80s, and the lurid covers of oiled-up barbarians and naked slave women caused them to often be equated with the third-generation Conan pastiches also clogging the genre at the time. However, there is nothing of genuine Sword & Sorcery to be found here, only a bunch of thinly-disguised fetish porn with plots and characters as thin as the kleenex the fans kept on their bedside tables.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Wolves of Midwinter Fire

The snows came down heavy in the winter-tide, and they drew fast around the hall of Elweag. The days were dark under low skies, thick with gathering frost, and the nights were silent and deep, unharrowed save for the baying of wolves in the dark hills. Here the armies of King Arnan – such as remained of them – had withdrawn to hide from their enemies, and here an uneasy peace reigned.

The hall belonged to Balra, the young son of Torgged, whose death had begun the war. He had opened his hall to the king, and here the blind king held his exiled court. Many of his thanes had slipped away, escaping to their own lands with their own men. Only those who had been driven out still remained here, and even in the hall itself there were those who gathered in shadow and whispered that Arnan had failed, and that Balra should be king.

The great pillar of Arnan’s remaining strength was his thane Haldr, and since the loss of Arnan’s hall, his prestige had fallen far. It was his own strength that sustained him now. Men knew him for a fierce warrior. He was a big man who bore scars and did not fear battle, and none dared to challenge the king within his sight. Without him, the blind king would be easily put aside, and blood would run on the ancient floor of the Shield Hall.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Raven: Swordmistress of Chaos

If you have looked over a shelf of secondhand fantasy books then I guarantee you have, at some point, spotted a Raven book. There was a series of five of them, and since they were put out by Ace they got a lot of distribution. Also, since they are pretty much crap, they end up in used bookstores a lot. Combine that with some nice cheesecake covers by Luis Royo, and you have books that almost everyone has run across at some point.

I had seen them many, many times, and I own several, but I had never actually read one, so I thought it was probably time to throw myself on that grenade. After all, these books seem to pretty much wallow in the chainmail bikini trope, so they ought to be good for some fun.

First things first, author Richard Kirk does not actually exist. “Richard Kirk” was a pseudonym used by two British authors: Angus Wells and Robert Holdstock. Now, Wells was a kind of do-anything author who churned out low-level fantasy and western novels in the 70s and 80s and wrote under a half-dozen different names. I have never read anything of his that I can remember, but who knows?

Robert Holdstock, on the other hand, gave me pause. Holdstock was a rather big name in his lifetime, and became quite a critical darling in the 80s for his Ryhope Wood series of mythic fantasy novels. He apparently collaborated with Wells on this first book, then wrote books 2 and 4 on his own, while Wells wrote numbers 3 and 5. Given his later reputation, it’s not really surprising that Holdstock’s bibliography tends to gloss over these.

I suppose the pedigree of the authors explains why Raven: Swordmistress of Chaos remains as readable as it is. I mean, it is crap, but it is at least decently written, without the awkward sentence constructions or muddled action of so many authors who try to imitate Howard or Moorcock’s more elevated prose. You can kind of tell where Holdstock is writing, because things becomes much more poetic and he generates some genuinely gripping scenes. Wells’ style is more lurid and yet has less flair.

The story concerns a girl who escapes from slavery and then is found by a patented “mysterious mentor” character named Spellbinder, who then sees to her training as a warrior and guides her along towards a “destiny” that never really gets any explanation. The problem with the story is that it has no real shape, and reads like a series of episodes awkwardly crammed together. Things just kind of happen, and there never seems to be any single motivating goal or the sense that the characters are pursuing it.

First they are trying to get to some mystic island, which is prevented by a magical storm which is one of the more vivid sequences in the whole book. Then they are captured by pirates and become friends with them, head off to find a magical skull, fight beast men, then take said skull to another city for no stated real reason, where they are captured, have a big battle, then destroy the skull and ride off. If it all sounds pretty disconnected, it is.

The problem is that the authors use the trope of the main character having a “destiny” that her mysterious mentor will not quite explain as a way to move the characters around the world and have them do things without there being any real reason for them to do them. They can just handwave and say “it’s meant to be” but that remains an unsatisfying dodge. There is a shred of personal motivation with Raven wanting revenge on the guy who killed her parents, but he’s not really given a personality besides being a dick, and the final showdown is rather bland. The book has things that happen, but no rising tension, and certainly nothing you would call a climax. The characters just go here, go there, do stuff, the end.

The main character does not even provide much of the plot impetus, and is kind of along for the ride, but there’s not any other protagonist, so for most of the book it seems like no one is really leading the action. Raven does not have much personality except to be sexy and fight things. At the beginning, when she escapes slavery she is said to be “of age” though we are given to understand she is very young, and the rest of the book takes place after she has spent a year training in warfare, but I think she is at most supposed to be sixteen, which makes her later sex scenes rather questionable. This first book came out in 1978, when standards were different, and compared to some other books of the period *coughGORcough* it comes across as almost progressive.

These books are essentially a written version of those 80s big-hair barbarian movies like Amazon Queen or Beastmaster, and if that is what you are down for, then go for it. There’s some fairly explicit sex and violence, and they are better-written than you would think. But for all that, they are aiming for cliché, and they hit it square on, so don’t expect anything that would not turn up in a direct-to-video movie from 1987 or a third-rate D&D game.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Worm King

In the hall named Irongard, Hror, the one-eyed king, brooded on his charred throne, and he gripped his sword and waited for the call to go forth once more, and draw blood. The summer age was drawing down into a long autumn that breathed deep with cold winds from the gray sea. The days were shorter and the nights were black, and there was restlessness in the hills, where fires burned as the lean-faced farmers reaped in their harvests.

Now the crops were in, and the game grew scarcer in the dying summer, the hills around the fortress blazed with unrest. Effigies of men were raised on the rocky bluffs and hung in circles of stone, and they blazed when the sun set, beacons against the dark. Hror saw the sign of the spear hacked into trees and etched in lime powder on grassy hillsides, and he knew the day was coming closer.

He had usurped the throne, and driven the outcast queen away into the dark. He had sailed over the sea and burned the throne-hall of King Arnan and had driven his armies into the hinterlands to skulk and starve. Half his vengeance was sated, but not all. He had slaked his ambition with blood, and yet it was not enough.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Eternal Champion

This is a central, and yet not widely-read work in the Moorcock canon. Released in 1970, it was the work which began to explicitly tie the different heroes of his mythos together and to assemble the genuine cosmology of the titular champion. Despite this, the book itself received a muted reception, and this is in part because of the ways that its themes depart from what readers expected.

By the time he wrote this, Moorcock was already known for his hero-cycles about Elric and Dorian Hawkmoon, and here he added the central character of Erekosë – a character who, unusually, is presented with a framing device. We get the information that the hero is John Daker – a denizen of 20th century London – who has dreams in which he remembers other lives as various heroes, many of which will be recognized by fans of Moorcock’s other works. Interestingly, some of the heroes had not yet appeared in print at the time The Eternal Champion was published, establishing that Moorcock was planning his cosmology out ahead of time with considerable care.

Daker is summoned to another world by a king calling for the long-dead hero Erekosë to rise and save them from evil. While he is not sure if he is really Erekosë – a question that interestingly haunts him through the novel – he feels kinship with the king and his beautiful daughter, and agrees to take up their battle against the inhuman Eldren.

The Eternal Champion is far more thematically and philosophically complex than most other Sword & Sorcery books of the time – or any time, for that matter. It deals with questions of identity and purpose, as well as existential questions about the nature of man. Erekosë doesn’t know for certain who he is, or even if he is on Earth. He wonders if he is in the past or the future, or on some alternate world. He wonders if he is dreaming or insane, and struggles with the morality of the war he finds himself in.

Because while the reader might expect a straightforward narrative about a great hero defending humanity from insensate evil, we soon see it is not that simple. Despite the Eldren being painted as utterly evil by the other humans in the book, we begin to suspect that only blind bigotry drives their crusade, and the behavior of the humans in the war – slaughtering children and raping and murdering women – is meant to turn our stomachs just as it does the hero.

The Eldren themselves are elflike, delicate beings of strange beauty, and Erekosë feels drawn to them, especially after their princess becomes his prisoner and he finds himself questioning what he is doing. We are led along with Erekosë as he becomes disillusioned step by step, as the war progresses. When the Eldren have been driven back to their last stronghold comes the turn which makes this book so unusual, and so hard to like.

Because Erekosë turns. After first simply trying to broker peace between human and Eldren, he then joins them and helps them to fight off the human onslaught. But then the book goes further, and Erekosë decides that there can never be peace while two races exist on the same world. So he organizes a war of extermination against the human race, and wipes them all out, even hunting down survivors who hide in caves to try to escape him.

It is a really bold turn, and I can’t think of another book where the protagonist ends the story by committing genocide, much less genocide against the human race. The reader has followed Erekosë through the story, sympathizing with his doubts and fears, feeling his disillusionment and eventual disgust with the senseless violence of the humans he is in contact with. When he turns on them and helps the Eldren survive, you are totally on board with his decision.

But then the book does not stop, and really drives home the point that while we were willing to allow the genocide of an alien race – however appealing – as sad but regrettable necessity, now we have our faces rubbed in the essential ugliness of it, and the indefensible morality of the decision on either side. Even the Eldren do not agree with his actions, but he will not be stopped, as though he is driven to destroy one race or the other. This remains a fascinating, uncomfortable book, and Erekosë perhaps the most ambiguous incarnation of the Eternal Champion character.