Sunday, June 19, 2011

Short Review of Clockmaker's Requiem—Barth Anderson

When you hear this short story's title, don't think steam punk. This tale is pure fantasy in every sense of the word; here's a short sample:
Krina, with the care of a gardener removing aphids from a favorite rose bush, brushed a fine file of the ubiquitous red dust from a nautilus curve in the clock’s scrollwork. The clock lifted one paw to her gratefully, and she smiled down into its face, which, oddly, was merely a round disc with hashmarks and numbers as if to represent actual features that would be added later. “What kind of clock are you?” she said, lifting it. The clock’s feet kicked and tail lashed as she turned it upside down.
Anderson takes us into a world none of us has ever visited before and lets us experience our own world (and in this case, especially time) with fresh eyes. Highly recommended, though be forewarned—this is the sort of story that rewards multiple readings. Thanks to the folks over at Clarkesworld; you can read this piece online for free.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Short Review of Attar of Roses—Sharon Mock

Clarkesworld shares this haunting story of a sorceress who longs for a beloved whom she has never seen or touched. Sharon Mock displays her considerable prose talent in this short story. It begins thus:
The shadow of my father's citadel falls over me and still I tremble. Still I look perpetually over my shoulder as though you follow me, you who are banished from this land forever. In my fever I think that it is you who dries the leaves on the trees, blows away the petals of the rose. But no, it is only autumn, nothing more.
Read the whole of the tale for free here. Highly recommended for readers who like stories involving magic that is unsystematic, mysterious, powerful.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Short Review of A Light in Troy—Sarah Monette

She went down to the beach in the early mornings, to walk among the cruel black rocks and stare out at the waves. Every morning she teased herself with wondering if this would be the day she left her grief behind her on the rocky beach and walked out into the sea to rejoin her husband, her sisters, her child. And every morning she turned away and climbed the steep and narrow stairs back to the fortress. She did not know if she was hero or coward, but she did not walk out into the cold gray waves to die.
Ran across this little gem of a story over at Clarkesworld, who is generous enough to post a number of their excellent short stories to read online for free. This one, by contributor Sarah Monette, is a very short piece that displays a mastery of subtle emotional power. Recommended for readers of Patricia McKillip and Peter S. Beagle.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Short Review of Goats of Glory–Steven Erikson

Military and Epic Fantasy meet in the prolific pen of Steven Erikson. Here we see an example of his short fiction skills, found in the motley collection Swords and Dark Magic, edited by anthologist Lou Anders:

The riders rode battered, beaten-down horses.  The beasts’ heads drooped with exhaustion, theirs chests speckled and streaked with dried lather.  The two men and three women did not look any better.  Armor in tatters, blood-splashed, and all roughly bandaged here and there to mark a battle somewhere behind them.  Each wore a silver brooch clasping their charcoal-gray cloaks over their hearts, a ram’s head in profile.

Erikson is known and loved for his complex plots and rich world-building, neither of which can be effectively displayed in the short story medium.  The story is one of foreboding doom hanging over the heads of tired mercenaries who stumble on a creepy hamlet far off the beaten track.

This seems the sort of story a writer would create to fill in storyline gaps between major events covered in greater detail in their novel milieu.  There is a sense that we should know more about these characters, though their gray distance adds atmosphere to this story when read by someone unfamiliar with them.

The tale is entertaining enough to recommend to gamers and lovers of military fantasy.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Grist for your creative mill:
a treasure trove of fantasy art

Don't tell me that isn't a provocative picture. Don't tell me that doesn't instantly tell a story you want to follow all the way until the end. Can't you hear that guy's thoughts? Don't you wonder why the others behind him don't see the storm brewing above their heads?

I love well-done fantasy art. I used to think that it was hard to come by, but there are a huge number of people pumping out art by the truckload (okay, USB-drive full) and some of this stuff is really good.

Ran across this site, a huge and rabidly updated (yes I meant 'rabid' not 'rapid') collection of fantasy artists who post their work, sketches, sculptures, and comps.

Fair warning:  once in a while, something naked comes up, and other times something really psycho (and I mean disturbingly so).

But all told, there is a huge amount of high quality art being pumped out by these folks, on a scale I hardly imagined possible.  I get a hundred short story ideas a day falling out of my head from just glancing at some of the character studies and landscapes.

It makes me want to spend a week locked up in a room with no internet access, this piece of software, and one of these.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Review of Mainspring -- Jay Lake

The fields of fantastic fiction continue to fragment as publishers, authors, and readers refine and assert their talents and tastes. Currently in vogue is the subgenre of steampunk, a strange mix of Victorian-era trappings with postmodern dystopian sensibility. The term is young and as a result, it is less than precise, having recently been applied to writings as diverse as China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and Christopher Priest's The Prestige. Here we have a new and popular offering in the steampunk genre: Jay Lake's Mainspring.

Hethor, an orphaned horologist's (clockmaker's) apprentice is visited by a clockwork angel named Gabriel and given a mission from God: to find the Key Perilous and wind the mainspring of the world:
The angel gleamed in the light of Hethor’s reading candle bright as any brasswork automaton. The young man clutched his threadbare coverlet in the irrational hope that the quilted cotton scraps could shield him from whatever power had invaded his attic room. Trembling, he closed his eyes.

His master, the clockmaker Franklin Bodean, had taught Hethor to listen to the mechanisms of their work. But he’d found that he could listen to life, too. Hethor heard first and always his own breathing, even now heavy and slow despite his burgeoning sense of fear.

The old house on New Haven’s King George III Street creaked as it always did. A horse clopped past outside, buggy wheels rattling along with the echo of hooves on cobbles. Great steam-driven foghorns echoed over Long Island Sound. The new electrick lamps lighting the street outside hissed and popped. Underneath the noises of the city lay the ticking of Master Bodean’s clocks, and under that, if he listened very hard, the rattle of the world’s turning.

But there was no one in the room with him. No one else drew breath; no floorboard creaked. No strange smells either. Merely his own familiar sweat, the hot-tallow scent of his candle, the oils of the house—wood and machine—and a ribbon of salt air from the nearby sea.

Was this a dream?

“I am alone.” He said it as something between a prayer and the kind of spell he used to try to cast in the summer woods when he was a boy—calling on Indian lore and God’s word and dark magic from the Southern Earth and the timeless power of stone walls and spreading oaks.

Finally Hethor opened his eyes.

The angel was still there.

It no longer seemed made of brasswork. Rather, it looked almost human, save for the height, tall as his ceiling at the attic’s peak, close to seven feet. The great wings crowded the angel’s back to sweep close across its body like a cloak, feathers white as a swan. Its skin was pale as Hethor’s own, but the face was narrow, shaped like the nib of a fountain pen, with a pointed chin and gleaming black eyes. The lines and planes of the angel’s visage were sheer masterwork, finer than the statues of saints in the great churches of New Haven.

Hethor held his breath, afraid to even share the air with such perfection. No dream, this, but perhaps yet a nightmare.

The angel smiled. For the first time it appeared to be more than a statue. “Greetings, Hethor Jacques.”

With voice came breath, though the angel’s scent was still that of a statue—cold marble and damp stone. Or perhaps old metal, like a well-made clock.

Hethor dropped his grip on the blanket to grab the chain around his neck and traced the wheel-and-gear of Christ’s horofixion. “G-g-greetings . . . ,” he stammered. “And welcome.” Though that last was a lie, he felt he must say it.

“I am Gabriel,” said the angel, “come to charge you with a duty.”

“Duty.” Hethor sucked air between his teeth and lips, finally filling aching lungs with breath he had not even realized he had been holding in the strangeness of the moment. “My life is filled with duty, sir.” Duty to Master Bodean, to his studies at New Haven Latin Grammar School, to his late parents and the church and the crown.

The angel appeared to ignore Hethor’s statement. “The Key Perilous is lost.”

Key Perilous? Hethor had never heard of it. “I . . .”

“The Mainspring of the world winds down,” the angel continued. “Only a man, created in the image of the Tetragrammaton, can set it right. Only you, Hethor.”
His quest undertaken in faith, Hethor immediately sets off to meet his destiny. The narrative begins in an appropriately Dickensian fashion: the orphan child, disdained by all those around him and trod upon by those in power, stumbles about in his quest, snubbed at every turn. But it is clear from early on that Greater Powers are at work, and slowly, miraculously, events lead young Hethor by turns toward the completion of his quest.

His adventures take him across a Victorian Europe, into the high staterooms of power, and into the lowest, darkest dungeons reserved for the blackest of outcasts. In true steampunk fashion, he soon finds himself aboard an airship, Her Imperial Majesty's Ship of the Air Bassett, bound for war to protect the Crown's colonial interests. The airship brings him to still more new and strange lands and into the company of friends and foes of startling variety. Eventually, with the help of many others, our intrepid Hethor reaches the mainspring of the world and finds his destiny.

Clockwork Wonder

The lavish detail with which Lake renders his tale is easily the best quality of the book. From the earliest chapters, we have a sense that we are there with Hethor, breathing the air and hearing the clockwork whir of a world "off track." From the mire-smirched streets of a London-that-never-was to the deck of an airship, we see sights that are familiar in a nostalgic, historical sense but wholly new in exciting ways.

Once Hethor is conscripted into the crew of the Basset, things really get interesting. The further we travel from the lands of Europe into the haunted seas of the south, the more wondrous the sights become. The heart of the novel is played out against a geographic feature not found in our world: the massive equatorial wall that forms the gear track which meshes with the orbital track around the sun. The descriptions of the miles-high construct are simply breathtaking. Upon the wall are countless microcosms of which we catch only glimpses--vertical cities, hollows of vegetation and strange inhabitants, even battlefields upon which Her Majesty's forces charge clockwork monstrosities the size of houses.

Hints of Something Deeper

The beginnings of the story are thoroughly grounded in theological themes and touch on matters of philosophical importance. Biblical references abound, and not only for period-authenticity. Hethor continually finds himself confronted with questions about the nature of God, the workings of our natural world and its relationship to God, and about man's proper place before God. The central conceit of the novel, that in this world, the clockwork universe is just that: a clockwork universe, and the "evidence" for a Creator is everywhere. There are philosophical materialists who explain it away using logic both appropriate to the period and consistent with the storyworld. Everywhere are hints that something deeper is being explored than merely Hethor's desire to fulfill his divine quest.

But here lies the greatest weakness of the novel. [spoiler alert] While fascinating questions abound in the first half of the novel, we find virtually no interest in exploring these questions in its second half. Ominous angel-like villains appear, further hinting that something interesting is going to be revealed about the antagonist and his purposes, or that Hethor is in for a worldview-shaking revelation, but no such event occurs in the book. All such questions are left behind once Hethor crosses the equatorial wall and encounters "The Correct People" in the dense jungles of the far side. He journeys with them to the pole where access to the mainspring can be found, and discovers that the Key Perilous is the love he has in his heart for his lover. Hethor is briefly granted divine power with which he rewinds the mainspring of the world and also resurrects his love. The climax of the book involves violence, suffering, and action, none of which seems to connect significantly to the larger questions raised by Hethor during his journey.

Jungle Love in a Clockwork Adventure?

In the second half of the book, Hethor transitions from one world to another, entering the jungles of the southern world. Here, he encounters the Correct People, with whom he journeys to the end of the world. The Correct People are a kind of sentient Lemur-people who dwell in lush jungle, untouched (mostly) by the western and European influences that dominate the northern part of the world. It is clearly Lake's intention to show us the unspoiled quality of the southern world in all its savage nobility. The Correct People have no leaders, no institutions, and virtually no taboos. They maintain a kind of faith in God and in his messenger, but no sense of traditions or religious behaviors of any kind. As a plot device, this could have been used as a contrast to the logical thinking of the northern world. But again, Lake seems more interested in the episodic progression of the plot rather than in engaging with the questions he raises.

In a bizarre turn of events, Hethor falls in love with a female of the Correct People in all her Lemur-beauty and savage charm. Here we find ourselves with very strange and graphic sexual description. Again, in a more complex book, might have been used to some effect to explore contrasts between worlds and societies. But with its unnecessarily graphic depiction and with the lack of meaningful connection to plot or theme, it comes across as merely perverse and voyeuristic.

For the Steampunk Spectator

Lake's Mainspring work remains a brilliantly imagined exploration of a clockwork world, a winsome creation of a clockwork mind. The vistas seen from the deck of the Airship Basset are worth the read. However, one cannot help but be disappointed in Lake's handling of his weightier themes. There are two possibilities in play here: the first is that Lake raised themes natural to his story, but did not have the craft to satisfactorily bring these questions to a narrative resolution within his own storyworld. The second possibility is that he deliberately raised the questions and intentionally left them unanswered as a philosophical statement. This last is unlikely, since the shape and structure of his narrative does not support this sort of playful or querying ambiguity. Let us hope that the first is true, and that Lake will grow as a writer such that his ability to play with such themes rises to the heights of his vivid imagination.

Clockwork lovers, pick up a copy at the library and follow Hethor to the equator, savoring the sights there. But the discerning reader will want to put the book down shortly after Hethor crosses the equatorial wall, and trust to their own imaginations as to where Hethor went and what he experienced along the way.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Short Review of the Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth -- Lord Dunsany

Adventure fantasy has a long history which can be traced back to the heroic epics of our deepest written past. The brave warrior who undertakes a quest to face superhuman foes in service to his people--this is the stuff of great legend, and by the looks of the fantasy shelves at most modern bookstores, our culture's taste for it has yet to slacken.

One of the earliest modern incarnations of adventure fantasy can be found from the pen of Lord Dunsany, a prolific and talented author of fairy tales, adventure fantasy, and other tales more difficult to classify. Dunsany is one of the great stylists of fantasy literature, his prose very near to poetry. He is enjoyable in both his long and short works, which can be found in a variety of good collections. Two of his longer novels include The King of Elfland's Daughter and The Charwoman's Shadow.

The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth is one of Dunsany's most beloved short tales (along with the Sword of Welleran) and stands as a flawless example of adventure fantasy. Here, Leothric seeks to free his people from the enslaving dreams of the otherworldly sorcerer Gaznak:
And still the dreams came flitting through the forest, and led men's souls into the plains of Hell. Then the magician knew that the dreams were from Gaznak. Therefore he gathered the people of the village, and told them that he had uttered his mightiest spell--a spell having power over all that were human or of the tribes of the beasts; and that since it had not availed the dreams must come from Gaznak, the greatest magician among the spaces of the stars. And he read to the people out of the Book of Magicians, which tells the comings of the comet and foretells his coming again. And he told them how Gaznak rides upon the comet, and how he visits Earth once in every two hundred and thirty years, and makes for himself a vast, invincible fortress and sends out dreams to feed on the minds of men, and may never be vanquished but by the sword Sacnoth.

And a cold fear fell on the hearts of the villagers when they found that their magician had failed them.

Then spake Leothric, son of the Lord Lorendiac, and twenty years old was he: "Good Master, what of the sword Sacnoth?"

And the village magician answered: "Fair Lord, no such sword as yet is wrought, for it lies as yet in the hide of Tharagavverug, protecting his spine."

Then said Leothric: "Who is Tharagavverug, and where may he be encountered?"

And the magician of Allathurion answered: "He is the dragon-crocodile who haunts the Northern marshes and ravages the homesteads by their marge. And the hide of his back is of steel, and his under parts are of iron; but along the midst of his back, over his spine, there lies a narrow strip of unearthly steel. This strip of steel is Sacnoth, and it may be neither cleft nor molten, and there is nothing in the world that may avail to break it, nor even leave a scratch upon its surface. It is of the length of a good sword, and of the breadth thereof. Shouldst thou prevail against Tharagavverug, his hide may be melted away from Sacnoth in a furnace; but there is only one thing that may sharpen Sacnoth's edge, and this is one of Tharagavverug's own steel eyes; and the other eye thou must fasten to Sacnoth's hilt, and it will watch for thee. But it is a hard task to vanquish Tharagavverug, for no sword can pierce his hide; his back cannot be broken, and he can neither burn nor drown. In one way only can Tharagavverug die, and that is by starving."
Leothric undertakes the dangerous task of seizing Sacnoth; then, with the might afforded him by the sword Sacnoth, he faces Gaznak and his fell minions in the Fortress Unvanquishable. For fans of fairy tale, adventure fantasy, or anyone seeking some of the most beautiful prose in the fantasy genre, this is one that must not be missed. (Full text of short story can be found here).

Friday, December 7, 2007

Wondrous Felicity of Language:
Samples of Prose Artistry from Smith's Short Fiction

I am coming to understand more of why I enjoy certain works of fantasy more than others, and in particular, why I find very little satisfaction in works written after, say, 1980. Much of this seems to stem from a certain habit of language (or perhaps deliberate antiquarianism in the pens of authors who wrote in the 50's, 60's, and 70's.) The sweet spot for fantastic language seems to have been 1890-1930, when the main influences on modern works of fantasy were in their heyday. These were the years of George Macdonald, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, H. P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard--and just before the advent of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Jack Vance. I am learning that my interest in fantasy is equally concerned with the beauty of the prose and language itself as it is with the communication and artistry of the story in its larger structures. Interesting ideas and wonderful philosophy of character are not enough to sustain my attentions; a work must also have beauty in its smallest parts.

In metaphorical fashion, I got out my magnifying glass and went over a sample of text from one of these masters of language, and I found myself quickly astonished at the range of vocabulary and prose artistry employed by such an author. Consider these excerpts from culled from a single story of Clark Ashton Smith, A Tale of Satampra Zeiros:

...a habit of mind both agile and adroit.

...and the breaking of the adamantine box of Acromi, in which were all the medallions of an early dynasty of Hyperborean kings...

...we sold them at a dire sacrifice to the captain of a barbarian vessel from remote Lemuria...

We made use of a rare and mordant acid...

...but I must not linger too long and too garrulously by the way

...amid heroic memories and the high glamor of valiant or sleightful deeds.

In our occupation, as in all others, the vicissitudes of fortune are oftentimes to be reckoned with...

...the goddess Chance is not always prodigal of her favors.

...had found ourselves in a condition of pecuniary depletion

People had become accursedly chary of their jewels and other valuables...

...guards had grown more vigilant or less somnolent...

...all this that I may not seem in any wise vainglorious.

...will lend a new and more expeditious force to our spent limbs, and our toilworn fingers."

..."will ennoble our thoughts, will inspire and illuminate our minds, and perchance will reveal to us...

The darkness and dubiety of our future ways became illumined as by the light of rosy cressets...

Anon, there came to me an inspiration.

A day's journey from this tiresome town, a pleasant sojourn in the country, an afternoon or forenoon of archaeological research...

...all mortal beings who should dare to tarry within its environs.

...there lies entire and undespoiled as of yore the rich treasure of olden monarchs...

...that the fanes have still their golden altar-vessels and furnishings...

...the sun had ascended far upon the azure acclivity of the heavens when we left the gates...

At a single step, we passed from all human ken...

...they were interwoven by the endless labyrinthine volumes...

The flowers were unwholesomely large, their petals bore a lethal pallor or a sanguinary scarlet; and their perfumes were overpoweringly sweet or fetid.

A few sips of the ardent liquor had already served to lighten more than once the tedium of our journey; and now it was to stand us in good stead. Each of us drank a liberal draught, and presently the jungle became less awesome...

...between the boughs and boles the wan pillars of shadowy porticoes...

...for it was builded of a dark basaltic stone heavily encrusted with lichens that seemed of a coeval antiquity.

...have sometimes been seen to make obeisance and have been heard to howl or whine their inarticulate prayers.

The temple, like the other buildings, was in a state of well-nigh perfect preservation: the only signs of decay were in the carven lintel of the door, which had crumbled and splintered away in several places. The door itself, wrought of a swarthy bronze all overgreened by time, stood slightly a-jar.

Surmising that strength might be required to force open the verdigris-covered door... particular we noticed the unfamiliar fetor I have spoken of previously...

...filled with a sort of viscous and semi-liquescent substance, quite opaque and of a sooty color. It was from this that the odor came—an odor which, though unsurpassably foul, was nevertheless not an odor of putrefaction, but resembled rather the smell of some vile and unclean creature of the marshes. The odor was almost beyond endurance, and we were about to turn away when we perceived a slight ebullition of the surface, as if the sooty liquid were being agitated from within by some submerged animal or other entity. This ebullition increased rapidly, the center swelled as if with the action of some powerful yeast, and we watched in utter horror, while an uncouth amorphous head with dull and bulging eyes arose gradually on an ever-lengthening neck, and stared us in the face with primordial malignity. Then two arms—if one could call them arms—likewise arose inch by inch, and we saw that the thing was not, as we had thought, a creature immersed in the liquid, but that the liquid itself had put forth this hideous neck and head, and was now forming these damnable arms, that groped toward us with tentacle-like appendages in lieu of claws or hands!

...taking as it reached the floor an undulant ophidian form which immediately developed more than a dozen short legs.

What unimaginable horror of protoplastic life, what loathly spawn of the primordial slime had come forth to confront us, we did not pause to consider or conjecture. The monstrosity was too awful to permit of even a brief contemplation; also, its intentions were too plainly hostile, and it gave evidence of anthropophagic inclinations; for it slithered toward us with an unbelievable speed and celerity of motion, opening as it came a toothless mouth of amazing capacity. a torrent that descends a long declivity, our flagging limbs were miraculously re-animated, and we plunged from the betraying light of the by-road into the pathless jungle, hoping to evade our pursuer in the labyrinth of boles and vines and gigantic leaves. We stumbled over roots and fallen trees, we tore our raiment and lacerated our skins on the savage brambles, we collided in the gloom with huge trunks and limber saplings that bent before us, we heard the hissing of tree-snakes that spat their venom at us from the boughs above, and the grunting or howling of unseen animals when we trod upon them in our precipitate flight. But we no longer dared to stop or look behind.

We must have continued our headlong peregrinations for hours.

But its final rays, when it sank, were all that saved us from a noisome marsh with mounds and hassocks of bog-concealing grass, amid whose perilous environs and along whose mephitic rim we were compelled to run without pause or hesitation or time to choose our footing, with our damnable pursuer dogging every step.

Far-off and wan, a glimmering twilight grew among the trees—a foreomening of the hidden morn.

...he returned my valediction and climbed into the great bronze basin, which alone could now afford a moment's concealment in the bareness of the fane.

...unlike anything I have ever touched, it was indescribably viscid and slimy and cold...

Not only am I unable to employ such words at will into a story of my own creation, but I am not entirely sure of what some of them mean. But how they add to the atmosphere and beauty of the thing--such a command of words! For a man with only five years of formal education, Clark Ashton Smith had a vocabulary which defies belief. At this point, I am loathe to mention that he also had a similar mastery of French and other languages, such that he was able to effectively translate fantastic poetry into his native tongue.

Lofty marks for an aspiring writer. Good thing for me that reading Smith, Lovecraft, Dunsany, Macdonald, and the other masters is nothing save sheer pleasure...

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Short Review of the Tale of Satampra Zeiros -- Clark Ashton Smith

Published in Weird Tales in 1931, The Tale of Satampra Zeiros is a masterpiece of short fantasy fiction. Unusually subtle and playful for an otherwise Poe-like author, Zeiros is an adventurous romp through the fetid jungles of Hyperborea with two would-be thieves:
"Tirouv Ompallios," I said, "is there any reason why you and I, who are brave men and nowise subject to the fears and superstitions of the multitude, should not avail ourselves of the kingly treasures of Commoriom? A day's journey from this tiresome town, a pleasant sojourn in the country, an afternoon or forenoon of archaeological research—and who knows what we should find?"

"You speak wisely and valiantly, my dear friend," rejoined Tirouv Ompallios. "Indeed, there is no reason why we should not replenish our deflated finances at the expense of a few dead kings or gods."
This story represents some of the very best of a prolific and visionary writer whose lackluster reputation should be a punishable crime. Highly recommended to any who fancy a yarn of sword and sorcery that detours through the maddening landscapes of Lovecraft. The tale itself can be read in its entirety (along with Smith's other short fiction) at The Eldritch Dark.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Short Review of Shadow Kingdom -- Robert E. Howard

Kull of Atlantis is one of four major characters which sprang pantherine from the pen of sword-and-sorcery author Robert E. Howard. In this first of the Kull series of stories, we find a barbarian king come to the throne of Valusia: a task not quite suited to the wild and unpredictable Kull of Atlantis. A once-rival comes to him as a friend to reveal a great web of evil lurking in the shadows of Valusia, and together they seek a way to root out the pervasive reek of inhuman treachery that has seeped from the depths of prehistory too ancient for contemplation:
Kull sat upon his throne and gazed broodily out upon the sea of faces turned toward him. A courtier was speaking in evenly modulated tones, but the king scarcely heard him....The surface of court life was as the unrippled surface of the sea between tide and tide....As he sat upon his throne in the Hall of Society and gazed upon the courtiers, the ladies, the lords, the statesmen, he seemed to see their faces as things of illusion, things unreal, existent only as shadows and mockeries of substance. Always he had seen their faces as masks, but before he had looked on them with contemptuous tolerance, thinking to see beneath the masks shallow, puny souls, avaricious, lustful, deceitful; now there was a grim undertone, a sinister meaning, a vague horror that lurked beneath the smooth masks. While he exchanged courtesies with some nobleman or councilor he seemed to see the smiling face fade like smoke and the frightful jaws of a serpent gaping there. How many of those he looked upon were horrid, inhuman monsters, plotting his death, beneath the smooth mesmeric illusion of a human face?

A compelling story from early in the career of Robert E. Howard. It is easy to see Conan as naturally developing out of the raw stuff in Howard's imagination, though Kull is hardly the proto-Conan, as he is very well developed and unique in his own right. In this story, the brilliantly rendered Brule makes his first appearance also, Kull's stalwart right-hand man of Pictish descent. Brule is the roguish counterpoint to the shadowy dreams of the brooding Kull. A truly classic sword and sorcery tale with much to offer the jaded fan.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Short Review of Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath -- Patricia A. McKillip

Harrowing the Dragon of Hoarsbreath is the lead story in Patricia A. McKillip's 25-year anthology of short fiction. McKillip is a veteran of the fantasy genre, having published a large number of novels and not a few short stories in her career. Her niche is traditional fantasy, touched by a shade of fairy tale, and nearly always possessing a dose of romantic intrigue.

Harrowing the Dragon of Hoarsbreath is a well-known and signature story of hers, containing all her best features. It tells the story of Peka Krao, a miner's daughter in the town of Hoarsbreath, and the coming of Ryd Yarrow, a "Dragon Harrower" (we are told that there are no dragon slayers, since doing so would be much too difficult).

The story begins with a strong sense of place: Hoarsbreath is an island locked in winter for "twelve out of thirteen months" of the year. It is home to a hardy people with their own ways unique to such harsh conditions. The story plays out as a clash between worlds: the miner's daughter loves her insulated, provincial life and represents the best of a reflective but simple love of her village. Ryd, born in the same town, has traveled widely and seen great sights, and has now come to deliver the town from its bondage to winter. It turns out a dragon is responsible for the crushing winter, a dragon which they did not know existed. A battle ensues--one that evinces a distant dreamlike quality rather than the blood and gore one might expect from newer tales. Both characters are left with something both more and less than they expected and the landscape of the future is changed radically for both.

The tale is charming, though McKillip's use of language (especially in dialogue) leaves something to be desired. She demonstrates here her mastery of the fairy tale form, owing much to the structures of Hans Christian Andersen. For those looking for romantic fairy tale fantasy, McKillip delivers a short but complex beauty. Those looking for a battle with a dragon ought to look elsewhere.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Top Ten Best Fantastic Fictions

Now we approach an impossible task: to list the top ten best fantastic fiction stories. Such distinctions are always arbitrary, bound by time, and limited to the artistic sensibilities and personal tastes of the reader. Let this list represent the ten books most widely discussed by critics and the public, most widely named as influential in the field, and generally enjoyed by anyone who goes to the trouble of reading them. These works cover many dimensions, from epic fantasy to fairy tale, from strongly symbolic to vividly semi-historical, from strongly adult-themed to widely appealing for all ages.

Other Top Ten Lists

Chronicles of Narnia series (C. S. Lewis): A group of young children find portals into a parallel world where they help Aslan the Lion and other fantastic creatures in great quests to save Narnia. Seven books loosely connected in a series, all of them strong stories. Often thought of as children's literature, the Chronicles of Narnia are treasured by adults as well.

Conan stories (Robert E. Howard): A wide assortment of short stories and novels in which a barbarian named Conan cuts a swath of savage adventure through civilized lands. Published in many different forms, most recently in a set of nicely illustrated paperback volumes collecting them in order of original publication, the first of which is The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

Cthulu mythos (H. P. Lovecraft): A series of short stories in which otherwise rational people come into contact with mind-shattering realities of time and space which lurk just beyond the veil of everyday life. Often considered one of the fathers of modern horror and supernatural fiction. There are dozens of anthologies and collections, but the best is the Barnes and Noble complete fictions collection: H. P. Lovecraft:  Complete and Unabridged (Barnes and Noble Classics).

Earthsea cycle (Ursula Le Guin): A linked series of novels in which a young boy becomes the most powerful wizard of Earthsea. Sometimes considered young adult fiction, these are deceptively complex stories. Consists of five novels and a series of short stories, some of whom are directly related, others follow other characters with an overall relationship to the plot. A good place to start is with the Earthsea Quartet.

Belgariad series (David Eddings): follows the coming of age of young Garion, an orphan boy who is destined to defeat the evil God Torak with growing skill in swordsmanship and magic.  The highlight of this series is the colorfully drawn characters that accompany Garion on his quest and the heartfelt relationships that develop between characters.  The series consists of five novels in two omnibus collections, which is continued in the Malloreon and the more loosely-connected Elenium.

Harry Potter series (J. K. Rowling): The tale of an orphan boy and his friends who face an inevitable confrontation with the powerful wizard Voldemort and his legacy in a fictional modern-day England. Written with an eye toward younger audiences, but popular with all ages. The series consists of seven novels in a closely connected chronology.

Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit, and related works (J. R. R. Tolkien): A group of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits set out to destroy a magic ring to bring about the downfall of a world-threatening dark lord (three novels in a single story). Other tales in the series of five novels and collected histories describe other events and periods in the history of Middle-earth, the setting in which this central tale plays out.

Redwall series (Brian Jacques): Talking animals undergo complex, rich quests and adventures in Redwall's fictional Europe. Sometimes considered young adult novels, these may prove difficult because of the complexity of the language. While talking animals may seem a tired fantasy trope, these stories (along with Watership Down) transcend the cliche toward something truly beautiful. So far, eighteen novels published chronicling widely varying time periods and characters in the world; Redwall is a good place to start.

Song of Ice and Fire series (George R. R. Martin): The seven kingdoms of Westeros is falling into civil war as claimants vie for the throne following the death of Robert Baratheon. A vast historical fantasy involving continent-spanning events, frozen threats from the nothern wastes and the predations of an eastern Mongol-like horde across the sea. The first novel begins with a conflict between rival houses for an important throne, but the series broadens considerably with each book. Seven total novels are planned for the series; the place to start is with A Game of Thrones.

Wheel of Time series (Robert Jordan): The Dark One is escaping his prison, and the Wheel of Time has once again caused the Dragon to be reborn, the only man capable of defeating the Dark One, but also the one likely to destroy the world. A massively epic storyline featuring hundreds of characters and sprawling settings. Originally planned to be a series of 12 novels, but this remains a question with the death of the author before the publishing of his final book. The place to start is with The Eye of the World.

Other Top Ten Lists

Having embarked on the impossible road of choosing the top ten best, let's continue the practice. Here are a series of more specific lists, narrowing interest into particular fields of the fantastic.

Top Ten Ancient Works of Fantasy
Top Ten Classical Works of Fantasy
Top Ten Epic Fantasy Works
Top Ten Fairy Tale Stories
Top Ten Best of the New Weird
Top Ten Literary Fantasy Works
Top Ten Anthologies of Short Fantasy Fiction