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.