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.