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.