Thursday, November 19, 2015

EPIC: The Summer Tree Preview

I wrote John O'Neill the other day that Guy Gavriel Kay's The Summer Tree was like Andre Norton's Quag's Keep run through The Silmarillion. Sure, it's a bunch of Canadian grad students not American gamers who get sent to a magical world, but it's a good enough analogy for my tastes.

For those not in the know, Kay hasn't always written fantasy set in slightly fictionalized mildly fantastic versions of the real world. His first books were the three volume series called The Fionvar Tapestry. Five Canadians are transported to the ur-world, Fionavar. A great war between the forces of light and those of darkness is brewing as the big bad dark lord is about to break free from a thousand years of captivity. 

What separates it from so many of the other dark lord epics is the depth of Kay's knowledge and use of the corpus of Western myths on which to build his story. Fionavar, its gods, its heroes have their roots explicitly in the stories of Scandinavia and the Celtic world. He doesn't just strip the exteriors and slap them on his own creations. He gets down into the blood and sinews of Odin, Yggdrasil, the Wild Hunt, and so many other things we've read a thousand times before but manages to find new life in them. Like Henry Treece and Alan Garner before him, he found the darker currents flowing through those myths. He then mixes them into a pretty standard high fantasy setting to create something that was much tougher and blacker than was common in the mid-eighties.

Back in the late nineties, after not having read much fantasy for a decade, I deliberately threw myself back into the genre. Since most of my friends didn't read it and the state of the web was a far cry from what it is today, I picked up John Chute's massive Encyclopedia of Fantasy (a great investment at the time. Even today I wander through its pages regularly. Though nearly two decades out of date, it's still an important part of my library). I wanted something to hip me to some of the better, or at least more interesting, epic fantasy I'd missed. Kay's Fionavar books looked pretty alright. That he had served as Christopher Tolkien's right hand during the creation of The Silmarillion made it even more appealing. 

So I read them and liked them. As familiar as the myths and legends he was playing with were, I liked how he used them. Rereading The Summer Tree this week I'm happy to write, so far I'm still liking them. I'm hoping the other two books, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road, hold up as well. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

EPIC: Red Moon and Black Mountain Preview

Not all epics require great length. Great scale and scope can be imparted without having to resort to thousands of pages. Proof of that is Joy Chant's Tolkienesque Red Moon and Black Mountain. Great heroes contend against the forces of evil for the fate of an entire world in this fairly short book. James Stoddard, author of The High House (a book I need to read and just came out as an e-book), calls it the best fantasy novel no one reads. 

According to Lin Carter's foreword, Chant's first novel was discovered by Allen & Unwin, the "discoverers" of Tolkien and his UK publishers. They passed the manuscript on to Tolkien's US publisher, Ballantine, and owner Betty Ballantine gave it to Carter telling him it was terrific. Hesitant about anything being billed as Tolkien-like, he found he loved it, dubbing it a "classic" and worthy of release with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy unicorn colophon.

I first read it about fifteen years ago and remember really liking it. So far it's holding up very well. It's sort of LotR mixed with Narnia and run through Alan Garner's early fantasy novels. It's interesting to read a book influenced by Tolkien before the entire genre seemed to be subsumed by it in the wake of Terry Brooks' success.

Chant only wrote two more novels, both set at different eras in the same world as Red Moon and Black Moon. Aside from a pair of short stories and a non-fiction book called The High Kings, she doesn't appear to have written anything else. Sadly, all her works are out of print.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

EPIC: Lord Foul's Bane preview

I just finished Lord Foul's Bane, the first volume in Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant Chronicles. It was the second of two manuscripts pulled from the submissions pile by Lester and Judy del Rey back in the mid-seventies when they were looking for the next Tolkien. The first was Terry Brook's The Sword of Shannara and I totally get picking that one. This one not one bit whatsover.

Sure, it's got a dark lord, a quest, magical horses, and a magic ring. After that's all bets are off. Donaldson's fictional world, simply (or, unimaginatively) called the Land, is one with no semblance to the faux medieval or the standard swords & sorcery settings of most previous fantasy.

Instead, he created a world that seems like it was mined from some previously unknown mythology. Every character, every prop, every place has some deeper significance behind its simple appearance. It's a little off putting at times. Intended to be portentous, much verges on the pretentious. Character names risk seeming silly (see Lord Foul). Mostly, though, it works.

There's a real daring to be so deliberately intense, even over the top. You need a story that can bear the weight and Donaldson has one in Lord Foul's Bane. I'm really looking forward to finishing off the first trilogy over the next few months.

Until Tuesday and my Black Gate review, here's some of the various covers over the decades.

original hc by S.C. Wyeth

sfbc by Janice C. Tate

pb by Darrell K. Sweet

by ?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Lovecraft for Halloween: Apotheosis: Stories of Human Survival After The Rise of The Elder Gods, edited by Jason Andrew

A few weeks back, I was asked if I'd be interested in reviewing a new Cthlulhu Mythos anthology. My own failed attempt to plow thru a shelf full of Mythos stories last winter inclined me to say no, but then I learned it was a themed collection: all the stories were set after the victory of the monsters. So I said yes.

It's called Apotheosis: Stories of Human Survival After The Rise of The Elder Gods and is edited by Jason Andrew. The book is from Simian Publishing and is available in paperback and e-book forms.

In all my years of (which is exactly 38 years, 3 months, and 17 days - The first HPL story I read was "The Festival" on the night of the NYC Blackout of 1977), I've come across only a few that dared to look at a world under the thumb of the Old Ones and their minions. In fact, the only one that leaps to mind is Basil Cooper's "Shaft Number 247" and it's over thirty years old.

Too often, Mythos stories fall into familiar patterns involving all too familiar props. We all know them: things no man should know, Byakhees, inbred families, evil tomes, etc. There's only so many variations on those things even the best writers can do, so Apotheosis intrigued me even before I cracked the cover.

Between the two covers of this collection of grimmer than the grimmest Warhammer Space Marine, are eighteen tales by authors I am mostly unfamiliar with. On finishing it, I found a few writers I'll keep a weather eye open for in the future and one or two I'll probably pass on.

Apotheosis kicks off with one of the best Mythos stories I have read in a very long time: "The Smiling People" by Andrew Peregrine. In a city surrounded by a high wall built of rubble and bodies, the narrator and his fellow humans live under the constant attention of the titular Smiling People.

They always stand perfectly still, and move quickly when you aren't paying any attention. The most unnerving thing about them though is their faces. They are all the same, blank white ovals, broken only by a huge smiling mouth of sharpened teeth

In "The Pestilence of Pandora Peaslee" by Peter Rawlik, pro-human partisans attempt to overthrow the Yithians. Even though they've turned the Earth into a paradise of clean energy and halted global warming. Its lengthy historical exposition is a little too lengthy, but it doesn't hamper the story too much.

"Daily Grind" posits the place of a psychiatrist under the Old Ones' dominion. The madness of the protagonist's patients loops in and out of her own as she struggles to stay on the right side of her masters. Perhaps one of the blackest tales in the book as instead of tired old monsters it looks at how a person's soul is twisted in a time when the stars are right and all the angles wrong.

L. K. Whyte's "What Songs We Sing" holds out the slenderest reed of hope against the Old Ones, as a woman manages to escape to the countryside.

Adrian Simmons, editor extraordinaire of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (and a friend), brings on the mayhem with "Dilution Solution." The surviving remnants of humanity live in deep underground warrens. Soldiers augmented with cybernetic enhancements lead raids into the world above. In this tale, one of them sidelined by a failed psych eval is itching to get back into the fray. Unlike the previous tale, this one holds out no hope, only madness.

"Earth Worms" by Cody Goodfellow, editor of last year's Deepest, Darkest Eden, a collection of Clark Ashton Smith-inspired stories, posits the real purpose of humanity: preparing planets for the cockroaches.

A mutated girl, tries to escape the control of Empress Tsan-Chan, in Joshua Reynold's "Eliza." I won't claim to understand exactly what happened in this, but I like the mad mix of cloned Whateleys, magic, and the appearance of the Hounds of Tindalos.

June Violette introduces a Dunsanian tone in "Footprints in the Snow." A young girl promises a new land free of terror to the children of a small town.

"To the Letter" by Jeffrey Fowler is about what a man and his family do when he's drafted by the Fungi from Yuggoth for immortality. Short with a double dosed nasty ending.

Madness, mad gods, and drugs make set the stage for Steve Berman's Namimbian-set "The Balm of Sperrgebiet is the Krokodil." A little vague and hazy for my tastes, but reflective of the narrator's mental predicament.

"Of the Fittest" by Evan Dicken (whom I've reviewed at Black Gate) is another military themed story. In this one, a veteran of Hastur's armies returns from his enlistment to find his friends and neighbors ready to draft him into the resistance. This is another existentially bleak story. Only those able to balance the coldest of equations stand a chance to survive in a world of endless insanity and misery.

"Overcome" by Jason Vanhee makes clear there's as little hope for Christians as anybody else in an Old One run world.

Escape is illusory in "Paradise 2.0" by Glynn Owen Barrass. Again, there is no hope whatever you might think you see or believe.

Madness provides a sort of shield against the advent of the Old Ones to a patient at the Arizona State Mental Hospital in Jeff C. Carter's "The Divine Proportion." Just not enough to survive.

In "The Resistance and the Damned" by Gustavo Bondoni (whom I've also reviewed at Black Gate), the Old Ones taunt a man who has tried to thwart them with murder and insanity.

Jonathan Woodrow's "Twilight of the Gods" assumes the worst of some people and to what depths they will sink to survive under the Old Ones. People can sell other people to the gods who now rule the world from office suites. While I like the idea that the seller gets more money based on much the loss of the particular person they sell costs them, the basic setup feels very out of place in a Mythos setting. 

The closing story is "Venice Burning" by A. C. Wise. The first line, "When R'lyeh rose, it rose everywhere, everywhen." is a curiosity piquing one that is never satisfied with a story that is diffuse and unclear.

For a Mythos story to be successful, for me, it must find a new way to approach material that's been mined for eighty years now. If it can catch the mood, the atmosphere of Lovecraft's not just juggling the bits of timeworn stagecraft around for the umpteenth time. Enough stories in Apotheosis manage that difficult task that I can recommend it to Mythos readers.

For those not already fans of Lovecraftian stories, be prepared for darkness. There are no happy endings, no room for sentiment, nor relief. Not that it's a genre given to those things, but the despair that fills this particular volume is so dense not the least bit of light can escape its pages.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Art from the Lord of the Rings: Covers From My Youth

If you aren't already aware, let me tell you there's been tons and tons of art created for The Lord of the Rings. Of course there were the Brothers Hildebrandt's calendars I posted about recently, but there's so much more.

I'll start with the covers for the editions I grew up with. The first are wild, psychedelic paintings by Barbara Remington. She hadn't read the books when she created them but had to go on a synopsis from a friend. So the original cover for The Hobbit she did had a lion and fruit that looked like some sort of wild gourds. Later versions removed the cat, but left in the pumpkins.

The second covers I became familiar with were paintings by Prof. Tolkien himself. I love his paintings, all washed out colors and faceted like something hand carved. I'll do a full post of his artwork soon. 

Hobbiton on the Styx
Barrels Out of Bond

Emus? Cassowaries? 

OK, Shelob and Cirith Ungol. Pretty cool.
Fangorn Forest

The Armies of Sauron... on crack!
Barad-dûr and Mount Doom

The Remington covers were so popular they were made available as a poster. Her work was lampooned on the cover of Bored of the Rings as well.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


So I'm taking a break from the long 19th century and swords & sorcery and diving into epic high fantasy for a little while. I can't help myself. Rereading The Sword of Shannara sparked a renewed interest in big, sprawling struggles against evil. Right now I'm plunging into Stephen Donaldson's First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. So far, it's pretty wild.

Remember, big fantasy wasn't alway bad. It only got bad when fans and writers got lazy. The fans where happy with more of the same old dark lords and plucky farm boys crap and the writers were happy enough to provide them. And the publishers discovered that the fans were even happier when the series piled book on top of book. 

But there's good, good stuff out in the fields epic high fantasy. Over the next couple of months I'm hoping to work my way through some classic books, a few newer ones, and maybe even a few written as critiques of the genre.

Northwestern Middle-earth
The Lord of the Rings remains my first, and truest love of epic high fantasy. Prof. Tolkien turned me on to thick appendices, detailed maps of fictional realms, and invented languages and histories.

He also elevated fantasy to an operatic scale with a deep moral underpinning, things that weren't especially important to the tales writers like Howard, Smith, and Moore told. Or at least the moral issues were grayer. They wrote darker ambiguous tales that focused on one or two characters with less clear cut relationships to good and evil.

Instead of mighty thewed warriors or cagey wizards, in LotR Tolkien threw small, average men (well, hobbits) into the struggle against utter darkness. Part of the purpose of that was to depict the need for everyone to confront evil. Another was to illustrate the costs such a conflict imposes on even the victors.

Like the great body of myths that underlay German culture, Tolkien wanted to create something similar for the English. To do this he famously developed entire languages and a history that covers thousands upon thousands of years. In The Silmarillion he wrote stories akin to Beowulf and Sigfried and the wars between the Icelandic eddas. These stories would be the deep history that set the stage for the War of the Ring.

from the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
I have a great love for history and I'm sure the faux history of LotR is a big part of what made it so appealing. Discovering the appendices when I finished The Return of the King was like finding a diamond at the bottom of a gold mine. It contained just enough about great and terrible events to conjure potent images in my head: the War of Dwarves and Orcs fought in the dark tunnels below the Misty Mountains, Ar-Pharazôn's rebellion against the Valar for example. It was easy to, and I did, lose oneself in LotR.

All those things are good and great, but it's the struggle between good and evil that effects me the most. As many people effect a supposedly worldly cynicism and talk about how there's no such thing as clear cut good and evil, most of them don't really believe it. In the 20th century humanity got a good view of what evil of the blackest: witness Stalinism, Hitlerism, Maoism, etc. (Hell, talk about evil dark lords. They really do exist) 

from the Fionavar Tapestry
Sometimes the forces arrayed against villainy aren't pure and noble, but they still fight. I'm all for bringing nuance into fantasy but to posit, as some authors seem to be doing, that the whole world is really only gray, strikes me as simpleminded. There is indeed evil in the world and I enjoy stories about the fight against it. In these malignant times, when women are enslaved, men routinely beheaded, and millions driven from their homes, I think we're well served to be reminded that such forces can be fought and defeated.

All of that goes into my definition of high fantasy, a term coined by Lloyd Alexander in an essay titled "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance." It is set in an imaginary world and there is at its heart a struggle against the forces of evil that are set to overwhelm it. Right now, investigating some of the genre's works I have read as well as some I haven't yet is what interests me right now.

It's a genre that's taken hits over the past decade. It's been criticized for reducing the world to a simply Manichean struggle, racism when it creates "evil" races liked orcs, endlessly reusing now-tattered props like the simple hero, wise sorcerer, and dark lord. There's some truth to all these claims. Often, though, the failures came from the pens of authors who picked up the trappings of LotR but neglected to look at its deeper themes and construction. 

from the Earthsea Cycle
Even today, when the genre has supposedly passed by such stories of good vs. evil told on a massive scale, its impact is still evident. In a 2009 essay, Richard K. Morgan disparaged Tolkien claiming his heroes were "Irritatingly Radiant Good" and his villains "Towering Archetypal Evil." So when I read his novel, The Steel Remains, I was more than surprised at the essential heroism and willingness to fight evil of his trio of heroes and the blithely evil villains. No doubt he thought by making his characters cynical and brooding he was somehow bettering Tolkien but there's still no doubting they're the good guys. 

George R. R. Martin has made clear he is a fan of Tolkien and wanted to combine big fantasy with what he sees as more realism. R. Scott Bakker's bleak (by which I mean like the blackest night when the stars, moon, and sun have all been snuffed out) Second Apocalypse series is heavily influenced by LotR, including its own versions of orcs, dragons, and trolls (sranc, wracu, and bashrags if you care to know), and has a map that looks like it might have come from the pen of JRRT himself. 

In case those of you who remember how I've long railed about all those thick books and endless series of fantasy novels, let me say I don't hate them all. I hate the ones that can't justify their length by the strength of their prose or storytelling. And that's most of them.  

Epic is a question of scale, not length. Worlds at stake and struggles against the forces of evil are what matter. In five short books, Lloyd Alexander's wonderful Chronicles of Prydain put the whole known world at risk. Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain does the same thing in a single volume. Glen Cook's original Black Company trilogy is monstrously epic and under a thousand pages. More recently John Fultz did epic in his three Books of the Shaper.

So that's what I'm working on these days. And I am still reading the long 19th century stuff, but this is going to take up lots of my reading and writing time so I figured why not give the site a new look to herald that? Enjoy!

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Brothers Hildebrandt's Tolkien Calendar 1978

Here's the final Brothers Hildebrandt's 1970s Tolkien calendars. It's as good as the second one and suffers from the same flaws.

This could have been done by N.C. Wyeth if Scribners had published The Two Towers. I'm not sure I like that weird thing Gimli's wrist is doing as he points.

Like a photo of a set on a stage. I don't especially like this picture, but as usual, the Brothers' command of light and shading is impeccable.

I love this bit of hobbit domesticity and friendliness. But what's that dog looking at? 

Part of me wants to like this but I just can't. Even Merry and Pippin aren't dumb enough to sit under that tree.

At least I like the grass, trees, and cliffs. The people not so much. Galadriel's gown looks like a nightgown.


Too cartoonish, as I've written before. But creepy, so that's alright.

Channeling Wyeth again, I love the light and the scenery. Again, the peopl not so much. I'm really hating Aragorn's hat and seventies mustache.

EVIL! A little over the top. Perhaps it's supposed to be during the siege of Isengard and he's gone around the bend a wee bit.

Meduseld against the White Mountains. You can feel the massive weight of the stones though I'm hardpressed to see that roof as made of hay.

That's our Beorn! Yep, that's how I picture him, not Peter Jackson's terrible vision.

How out of it would you have to be to listen to THAT man? Still, I like Theoden, his infirmity implied by the cane and the slight hunch to his shoulders.

Should Shelob be bigger? Don't know and don't care.

I like this a lot though I wish it shared fewer architectural similarities with the depictions of Minas Morgul and Cirith Ungol. Unless, maybe, Sauron used lots of Numenorean builders in constructing his home. I really like the line of fell beasts descending from the clouds, like a string of airplanes lining up and waiting to land at Newark airport.

So there's your blast from the past, when Tolkien ruled the fantasy roost and the Brothers Hildebrandt were supreme. I've seen some of their later Tolkien painting and they are disappointing. Their figures became even less natural looking and overall the painting slicker and less attractive.