Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Western Lights series by Jeffrey E. Barlough

I haven't read/reviewed much S&S lately. After I read Captain Alatriste, I found myself gravitating toward other things, hence Jeffrey E. Barlough's Dark Sleeper today, and James Blaylock's The Stone Giant next time. There's no straight line from Pérez-Reverte's swashbuckler to those books, but with it's eccentric characters, it's a less crooked one than one might think. 

Jeffrey E. Barlough has been writing his Western Lights books for nearly twenty years. He's written nine books, the last six self published (something I suspected, but didn't know for sure until today). I've only read three of them, but I own 'em all and dead set on fixing that soon. 

It's hard to describe exactly what Barlough's doing. In an interview at Black Gate with, he said, among his many inspirations was wondering what it would be like if
"H.P. Lovecraft had written the Perry Mason mysteries, or if M.R. James had created Sherlock Holmes." Ideas like that coupled with a mastery of pitch-perfect discursive, sardonic Dickensian prose, make Dark Sleeper a blast. That there are Ice Age megafauna, real and invented, only makes things even better.

One of the things that impresses me most about the self-published Western Lights books is their quality and presentation. The first three books in the series, Dark Sleeper, The House in the High Wood, and Strange Cargo were all published by Ace. The first one's cover with a mastodon-drawn coach is very good. The second, with a bear and a house on high is boring, and the third is just too-science-fictiony and, again, boring.
The later books all have paintings not created for them on their covers. All are wonderful and wholly appropriate 19th century paintings. I don't know for sure, but I assume Barlough does his own art direction and, man, are his covers of a better quality than most of what I see out there. If you can't paint your own terrific covers like Raphael Ordoñez, this is definitely the way to go.

Original Ace covers

Dark Sleeper has inspired me to go back to one of its primary sources: Charles Dickens. I read Great Expectations and Hard Times in school, but have little memory of them. As an adult I read, and loved A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and the monumental Bleak House

The latter is a madhouse of intertwined mysteries revolving around a probate case that has dragged on for decades. Its evocation of Victorian London is powerful, as it contrasts the splendor and squalor, the powerful and the folks barely eking out a living. At times it's a strange phantasmagorical tale, others a bitter critique of the "system," and others a goofy comedy. Bleak House's pages are filled with virtuous heroes, dastardly villains, and utterly useless flit-abouts. Despite the mountains of exaggeration and ridiculously oddball characters, Dickens manages to make it an affecting tale. 
I'm not sure which book I'll dig out. I've always been curious about Barnaby Rudge, a novel of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780, so maybe that'll be my choice.

So here's my first work playlist. It's fairly short and utterly inappropriate for Dark Sleeper, but what the hey. Most of the songs are linked by having roots in the same proto-punk/proto-metal/glam scene of NYC in the mid-70s. The last song's just there 'cause I love it. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Macmillan Wars of the United States series

Without even realizing it, I had several books from this series. From my dad's shelves, I have Bauer's The Mexican War. Looking for a good book on the Indian Wars, I picked up a used copy of Utley's Frontier Regulars. At some point, I can't even quite remember when, I bought Trask's The War with Spain (sadly, without the series' cover).

Since The Mexican War and Frontier Regulars sit apart on the bookshelf, I never noticed or thought about their similar covers (d'oh!). It was only when I was tooling around looking for a something or other last year that I found a Goodreads page listing out the series. Examining the Bauer book, I learned that MacMillan had advertised a much longer series, with books about the other military services, the War of 1812, the Banana Wars, and a host of other things. While the series-fan in me would have loved to have seen what those looked like, there are plenty of great titles on all those things, so no great loss.

I doubt I'll get all the books, and any I do buy will be in whatever version's cheapest. I've long past needing to get first edition hardcovers of all my books (just Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and Glen Cook!). My goal is to get a book to read. I've just ordered Sword of the Republic by Francis Paul Prucha. Prucha was a Jesuit who wrote several acclaimed books about the US and our interaction with the Indian nations. He seems to have made a special focus on the Old Northwest. I'll probably buy the (way overpriced) e-book version of Utley's Frontiersmen in Blue. I've read a little Utley before and he's less self-flagellating than many American historians writing about the US and the conquest of the Indian nations. I'm not defending American actions, but they are merely part of the sad history of humanity exploiting, brutalizing, and killing itself, regardless of time, place, and color. I've yet to read about any two polities coming into contact with each other where the stronger doesn't seek to find out just how far it can go seeking an advantage over the weaker, to the point of conquest or even extermination.

I really like these covers. The decision to go with headgear's a nice touch. Looking back on the brouhaha about the Army's adoption of the black beret a few years back, it's interesting to see the only overlap on all these covers is the campaign hat for the Spanish-American War and Pershing's incursion into Mexico. I wonder if hats and headgear in the services have ever stayed as static as they did over the past few decades. 

The unfortunate choice of the American Revolution cover, however, means if I was collecting the series I'd be pretty bummed out. I mean, seriously, MacMillan, what were you thinking? So it's hat/helmet/hat/hat/helmet/hat/DRUMS? Dang, people. Oh, well, it's forty years ago and it doesn't matter anymore.

In addition to The Sword of the Republic, and Frontiersmen in Blue, I see myself getting my own copies of a few more of these in the future. I would really like my own copy of Blood on the Border, and definitely one of Arms for Empire. Leach has also written about King Phillip's War, the first significant fight between colonists and Indians, so tangentially, I'll take a look at those as well.  The other volumes I'll probably never get. I'm not interested enough in the history of the services to get any of those volumes, and while The American Way of War might be a solid history of what we've done in the past, its 1977 publication date means the past forty years of American military theory and practice goes unstudied as well as all sorts of scholarship done on the period it does cover. 

So there you go. A host of new books to check out. If you've read any, let me know. I'm curious how well they hold up.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Blogging about Blogging

When I started this site it was to prompt myself to read more, particularly new, swords & sorcery. I read old books, new books, scads, and scads of short stories. The more I read and wrote, the more I found my voice as a critic and promoter. It worked really well, so well, I ended up with a steady perch at Black Gate (thanx, John!). For nearly three years now, I've been reviewing three books a month and a stack of short stories each month. 

For a while after I started writing for Black Gate, I posted an additional piece here. I would expand on the article, write about the music I listened to when I wrote the review, or just rambled about tangential matters sparked by reading the book. I haven't done much of that for a long time.

Last year, I tried to mix things up. First, I wrote about HPL Mythos stories, until Lin Carter killed my interest in that. Then there was the Long 19th Century Project (greatly inspired by Jim Cornelius and his Frontiers Partisans site) which was killed by laziness. Reading a book a week for Black Gate takes up more reading time than I allow myself, so getting another book done for a weekly or bi-weekly post didn't work. Sure, I could have just decided to post reviews when I was ready, but that makes too much sense. Last, I went in for Epic Fantasy. That one just sort of faded away, disappearing into the general mix of fantasy I review.

Since the beginning of this year I've posted about a bunch of things, mostly cover art. That's sparked some fun conversations and comments, so I'll probably keep doing that in the future. After that, I just don't know. I want to get back to my add-on posts for my reviews. Between Jeffrey E. Barlough's Dark Sleeper, and James Blaylock's The Stone Giant, I should have more to say than I can reasonably write over at Black Gate. Neither's S&S, but they're both a lot of fun. 

And I'll get back to the music. In fact, I've been planning on putting together playlists and making them available as mp3s. My musical taste is pretty eclectic, so there'll probably be something there you'll enjoy.

I've also made some changes to my schedule (and, most importantly, deleted Civilization V. I have wasted dozens and dozens of hours on that game over the last year and a half) to get some more reading time in, so, with luck and fortitude, I should be able to get a few Long 19th Century posts up. Right now, in fact, I'm finishing off Geoffrey Wawro's The Austro-Prussian War. Together with Harold Carmichael Wylly's, The Campaign of Magenta and Solferino, it depicts Austria's fall to second-rate power, and her displacement as the leader of the German states by the dynamic Prussian Empire. 

I also found a library copy of Clarence Clendenen's Blood on the Border: The United States Army and the Mexican Irregulars. I'd like to get through that and then actually finish off the first volume of Alan Knight's The Mexican Revolution, subtitled, Porfirians, Liberals, and Peasants. I've gotten halfway through it in the past, and I like to get it done with and finally move on to the second volume, Counter-revolution and Reconstruction.

So why am I writing all this? Specifically, at the moment, I'm sitting at work, bored, and half watching the last episode of Stranger Things (it's alright). More importantly, I'm working out what I'd like to do here at the site. I need a platform to blather on about what I'm reading/watching/listening to, I just need to give it a little bit of consistency. I mean, I seem to do more writing about what I plan to do than actually any "doing" these days, and I'd like to correct that. As I say every time I make some sort of pronouncement about what I plan to do, we'll see.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Great on the Inside, Mostly Horrible on the Outside

While I'm only partially done with To Ride a Rathorn, fourth book in P.C. Hodgell's Kencyrath Cycle, with three more to books to go, I'm pretty sure this is my favorite fantasy series. Simultaneously funny, exciting, and full of believably outrageous characters and worldbuilding, these books hit all sorts of right buttons for me. More than Conan, or Kane, or Croaker, Jame is my favorite fantasy hero. Equally befuddled and brave, dense and inquisitive, she is a bright light in the fantasy firmament.  

Hodgell is writing one of the most involved and original series I've ever read, and it never feels like a retread of someone else's work. The world of Rathilien, the series' setting, has gotten crazier and increasingly complex as more and more blank spots are filled in. As the series morphed from Leiberesque (deliberate) urban fantasy in the first book, to epic fantasy in the second, and then into something closer to country manor mysteries in the next two, I've followed along with gleeful anticipation of what she'll do next. I really can't recommend these enough.

You can read my reviews of the first three, God Stalk, Dark of the Moon, and Seeker's Mask, over at Black Gate. To Ride a Rathorn gets reviewed next Tuesday.

So what brings me here today, are the godawful, terrible covers of many of the Kencyrath books. While the early ones are not too bad, once Hodgell got picked up by Baen things went all to Hell. Letting Clyde Caldwell loose on them was an artistic disaster of monstrous proportions. These covers look like they're painted for twelve-year old boys. I mean, would any of the Caldwell covers make you pick up the book and give it a go?

It took several books before Hodgell was able to convince Baen to let someone else do the cover art. Finally, with the most recent volume, The Sea of Time (2014), Eric Williams painted something that didn't totally toss the explicit description of Jame, as a flat-chested young woman often mistaken for a boy.

While based on a scene from the book, the left cover suffers from being done poorly. The right cover is one of my all time favorites. Jame tugging at her gloves, the citizens of the Cloud Kingdom fishing for trinkets, and images of some of Tai-tastigon's innumerable gods, it's almost too perfect.

I don't hate the left cover. I like the moody colors, definitely appropriate to the book's overall feel. Still, neither's very good. The right one is stiff and dead, and the I'm pretty sure rathorns don't have wings.

Both these omnibuses of the previous two books are bad. The first is simply a bad illustration. The second is an abomination. Aside from the gratuitous boobosity, what helps me hate it so much, is that from the appearance of the buildings, it's not unreasonable to think Caldwell read God Stalk and knew what Jame was supposed to look like. And then he crapped all over that description.

The left cover is graced with one of Hodgell's own illustrations. I really like the stylized image of a rathorn, but overall it's a dull cover. The right cover looks like an excerpt from a Gothic romance, and that's the best I can say for it. Jame in dishabille, breasts thrust outward, doesn't work for me.

Meh. The rathorn's suitably scary, but now Jame looks like the heroine from a teen mystery novel. And not very scared or worried about the rearing monster.

Baen's omnibus of Seeker's Mask and To Ride a Rathorn. What's Jame cocking her head at? Why's the rathorn rearing? Jorin the ounce is very lynx-like, maybe a little too lynx-like. And again with the boobosity. At least Baen got the books in mass market release.

The final two Caldwell covers for Baen. Yeah, boobs, and bad monsters. And on Honor's Paradox, Jame looks less like a wily 21-year old and more like a tired, middle-aged sexy-lady-pirate. Crap.

So, here we go. A pretty dull, anti-dynamic cover, but no boobosity. I hope the next book, which sounds like it might be the last, Hodgell gets whomever she wants to paint whatever she asks for. It won't happen, but it would be nice.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Awesome Swords & Sorcery Covers II: Eternal Champions

I probably read more Moorcock when I was a teenager than any other writer. I really have no idea how many times I read the various Eternal Champion series. In addition, I read the Dancers at the End of Time series, and various stand alone novels. I particularly liked the Nomads of the Time Stream and their proto-steampunk setting, even if I didn't get all the political, literary, and cultural references. I'm not sure how many books by Moorcock I've read, but I suspect it's around thirty.

I must write, with some sadness, that recent visits to Moorcock's literary landscapes have been a little disappointing. While there's a wild originality to his stories, there's also a sense of playacting that undercuts much of the drama. When Conan growls and swears a mighty oath I buy it. When Elric does the same thing, I don't, and it's because I don't think Moorcock does, let alone can. For all his love of Edgar Rice Burroughs, he's too much of a modern aesthete to really submerge himself in the bloody sinew and gristle of heroic fantasy and let himself go.

While in better hands it wouldn't be a problem, Moorcock seems to have been unwilling to just tell a story. His stories always seem written to make some larger point; humans are destructive and untrustworthy (Corum and The Eternal Champion), the UK's demented and evil (Hawkmoon), and that good and evil are simplistic notions (nearly everything). These are neither deep nor original thoughts, nor does he dig too deeply into them (it's hard to deep thoughts into a slim book when it's already packed with tons of plot). That's not immediately apparent at fifteen, but it is at fifty. There is a thick strand of pedantry that rings too loudly of the waking world, and detracts from the dream world of the story.

Be that as it may, Michael Moorcock's stories still manage to hold a dear place in my heroic fantasy mental landscape. There are few characters more vivid than Elric, Corum, and Dorian Hawkmoon. I still want Jhary-a-Conel's cat, Whiskers, and a friend as loyal as Moonglum. To not read the those three series is to deprive oneself of some of the most original and important writing in heroic fantasy. All those flaws I've found might only be the result of diving into these stories too many times, and becoming too familiar with them, gaining too much insight into the mechanics and the stagecraft. There's so much good stuff in his books that will linger in my mind and outlast any disappointing rereading for a very long time.

Here is a selection of the covers of his books that thrilled me most. Looking at them today, they conjure up not only the stories, but the time when I first read them, discussing them with my friends, and then starting all over and reading them a second and third time.

These six covers by American artist David McCall Johnston are my favorite covers of my favorite books by Michael Moorcock. I just plowed through a lengthy and highly disapproving review of the two series over at Ferretbrain. Many of the critic's points mirror my own, but he clearly had much less tolerance for the books' problems. 

I like the contrast of an essentially realistic Corum against stylized backgrounds. It's as if the flesh and blood Prince in the Scarlet Robe is entering a dreamscape, where nothing is quite tangible, be it a field of leaves, waves, flame, or dust. As he spends much of the first trilogy in the ever changing realms of Chaos and the second in magical locales,this seems a reasonable interpretation. 

I'm struck by the color choices. On each cover, red is what draws the eye, whether it's Corum's crimson robe or Xiombarg's Medusa-like hair. The colors are bold but not bright. As much as they draw your eyes in, they aren't harsh or jarring. Again, they have the soft muzziness of a dream, not the razor-clean edges of a photograph. Definitely not covers you see on today's shelves.

Painted by Richard Clifton-Dey, these covers for the First Chronicles of the Runestaff are weird and bad. They are incredibly realistic, but also incredibly stiff and lifeless. The lizard heads on the last two covers appear drawn from real life, but with the tacked on wings and tentacles, they seem as believable as the poor lizards with glued on fins in Irwin Allen's dinosaur movies. Nonetheless, I dug these books, and still have a fondness for them. Sure, he cranked them out like he was on crank, and wrote them for the money, but they are chock full of madness and gonzo images: war flamingos, imperialists all wearing bejewelled animal mask, a withered emperor kept alive in a crystal womb by super science. Pretty awesome stuff. These are editions I first read and the ones that stuck most deeply (and still do) in my brain.

I haven't included the Michael Whelan Elric covers because I already highlighted them a little bit in past posts. I also discovered I was a lot kinder to Moorcock's books than I am today. It's just one those things, I guess. Tastes and attitudes change and there's not much you can do about it, even in as short a time as two years. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Awesome Swords & Sorcery Covers I: Frank Frazetta's Conan

I just meant to put up a batch of my favorite S&S book covers for a quick post, and instead found myself hunting down Frank Frazetta's Conan covers. It's not that there aren't other covers I like and affected me growing up, but I suddenly realized how deeply these helped build my visual interpretation of the genre and decided to focus on them.

Part of me, the overly-intellectual part that channels dime store (really, shouldn't that be dollar store now?) Freudianism, assumes my adolescent self was jazzed by the pictures' blatant power fantasy imagery. There's Conan with a nubile woman curled up, subserviently, at his feet. There he is, teeth exposed in a primal grimace with his arm around Thak's neck and a giant dagger raised up high. With sword and shield held high, he rides through his enemies, trampling them under hoof.

The main part of me, though, says "pshaw!" to all that. I like these covers because they're cool. Yeah, there's a bit of a power trip inherent in Frazetta's artwork. Conan's the biggest, baddest guy around and nothing can stand in his way for long. What's not to like?

And they're darkly gorgeous. You can smell the smoke, gore, and sweat seeping off these covers. These are some of the most viscerally exciting S&S artworks ever done, and I am forever grateful to Frazetta for creating them.

Thak and Conan, Conan and Thak. The young Conan rampaging on rampaging monkey-man. I've always felt bad for Thak. Some priest's dank dungeon shouldn't be his home, he should be running free in the wild, plucking bananas and wooing some monkey-woman. 

Cool as this is, it always struck me it's too cold for Conan to go around pantsless. I don't demand verisimilitudinous perfection in S&S, far from in fact, but, dang, Conan's never struck me as too stupid to wear dress for the weather.

I think this is the most iconic Conan picture ever created. I can almost see his chest and shoulders heaving after just having killed all those creatures he's standing on. The swirling mists and skulls hovering behind over the flames are the forces still arrayed against him, but we know Conan will prevail.

I'm as indifferent to this picture as Conan is to the man he's throttling. That look on his face makes me thinks he's thinking back on his youth, or maybe remembering he's got to pick up milk after work.

Not the best, but the first one I saw. I first dug this out of one of my dad's legendary book boxes in the attic. I knew the name Conan, but nothing about him. Then I read "Red Nails," and was hooked for life. I assume this for "Beyond the Black River." 

UPDATE: I love this one. We don't see Conan's face, because he's too busy facing off against the world, despite being manacled in place. But seriously, what's with the peanut gallery on the steps? Are they waiting to see who wins, for scraps? What? And that snake. Seriously, it took the time to slither through the Cimmerian's legs instead of just eating him? Seems a little unbelievable, if you ask me. 

Looking at this picture with a critical eye it kinda stinks. What the heck is that Conan's wearing, a barbarian girdle? And why isn't his chest protected? Whatever. The horse, bucking and screaming as it smashes Conan's opponents is intense. I do really like the band of pink sunlight piercing the blue and black of the shadows.

Great cover for a poor book. The picture distills S&S to some of its essential salts: muscled barbarian, evil wizard, slimy, slithering monsters, and nubile damsel in distress. While I love the feeling of movement implied by the swinging censer, and bits of Conan's man-necklace, I also love it's the snapshot effect. Conan's in mid leap, one unseen foot balanced on the altar, his hands prepared to throttle the sorceror. The latter, arm outstretched is ready to swing downward, ripping open his helpless victims. Looking at all these together, this might be my new favorite.

There you go, some of the best and most influential S&S covers. I love that they are so unabashedly violent and masculine. There's no doubt what sorts of stories you're going to find behind those covers. Thank you, Messrs Howard and Frazetta (and De Camp, Carter, and what the heck, Nyberg, too).

The rest of the Ace Conan covers were done by Boris Vallejo. You can look them up on your own, because I don't like them and am not putting them up.