Monday, August 13, 2018

The Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge

Thanks to the always in-the-know Keith West of Adventure Fantastic, I was hipped to The Barbarian Book Club's Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge. Always on the lookout for something to write about here (plus I think it's a great idea for folks to read pre-Tolkien fantasy), I'm all in. Here's the challenge:

Pre-Tolkien Short Story Challenge 
  • Identify 3 Fantasy stories written before Lord of the Rings was published. 
  • Review all three on your blog, focusing on pre-Tolkien differences of similarities, and making sure you let us know where we can find them for ourselves. 
  • Share the challenge.
What'll I read? I don't know yet, but it'll definitely be stories I haven't read before. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Crusader on the Bayou: James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series

Writing my Charlie Parker post the other day, I remembered I'm no longer up to date on James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series. It's been nearly a decade since I read one - 2008's Swan Peak - and after so many years I think it's finally time to catch up. Since then there've been four more books with another coming next year: The Glass Rainbow (2010), Creole Belle (2012), Light of the World (2013), Robicheaux: You Know My Name (2018), Ball and Chain (2019).

The series starts off with The Neon Rain (1987). In this book Dave Robicheaux is introduced as an alcoholic and a Vietnam vet and serving as a New Orleans police detective. He has a far too intimate relationship with violence. As the series progressed he was brutalized by fate and the corrupt and evil figures who haunted an increasingly phatasmagorical Louisiana.

Only one book, the stunning In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, could reasonably be called a supernatural story (but then, it could all just be alcoholic hallucinations). Nonetheless, Burke's Louisiana is haunted by the ghosts of murder victims crying out for justice, or at least to not be forgotten. The evil done by the gangsters, venal businessmen, and corrupt politicians that plague the state, stains and warps everything. Some villains even seem to reek of hellfire and sulfur. The Robicheaux books aren't paranormal thrillers or magical realism, but they have a fantastic (and fantastical) sense of place. Burke writes not just like he knows every back alley in New Orleans and dirt road of Iberia Parish, but the region's secret and forgotten history as well.
   Not many people believe this, but in the early months of 1942 Nazi submarines used to lie in wait at the mouth of the Mississippi for the tankers that sailed without naval escort from the oil refineries at Baton Rouge into the Gulf of Mexico.
   It was a shooting gallery. Because of wartime censorship the newspapers and radio carried no accounts of the American ships sunk off the Louisiana coast, but just after sunset people could see the oil fires burning on the southern horizon, like a quickening orange smudge low in the winter sky.
   As a little boy in New Iberia, I heard shrimpers talk about the burned, oil-coated bodies of four merchant sailors who had been found floating like lumps of coal in an island of kelp, their sightless eyes and poached faces strung with jellyfish.
   I had nightmares for many years about Nazis, who I imagined as pinch-faced, slit-eyed creatures who lived beneath the waves, not far from my home, and who would eventually impose a diabolical design upon the earth.
from Dixie City Jam 

I've read seventeen entries in the series which is about 6,000 pages of story, so it shouldn't surprise you to read I fail to remember most of the details. I do, however, remember the general flow of Robicheaux's career and the brutalities inflicted on him by all manners of low characters and the tragedies he suffers. Always a good, if haunted, man, Robicheaux gradually becomes like something out of myth, a crusader armed with a pistol and a badge.

There have been plenty of similar characters - hard men who mete out justice in a hard world when no one else will - in crime fiction. It's not an original archetype. What separates the Dave Robicheaux books from so many others is Burke's exquisitely evocative writing about place. Whether the majestically corrupt city of New Orleans or the lush, green parishes of rural Louisiana, it pulses and seethes with life. Like Chandler's Los Angeles, Burke's fictionalized version of a real place seems somehow truer and more real than a non-fiction depiction.


I just finished The Neon Rain (1987). I liked it well enough, but if it had been the first book I read in the series, and not In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, I probably wouldn't have read any more.

The Dave Robicheaux of this first book is an asshole. There's no beating around the bush about that. He confronts people even when he knows better, dismisses people who can help him, and is basically just an annoying dick. Not all the time, but most of the time. 

The mystery in The Neon Rain isn't very compelling, another detrimental weakness. There's nothing original about it and if it feels a like something you might have seen on Miami Vice you'd be forgiven. It's also not plotted very well. You can see where it's going all of the time, mostly because you've seen it before. 

The villains aren't very compelling either. They are mostly cookie cutter mid-eighties-style Central American drug lords, ex-government spooks, and central casting Mafiosi. Only some sharp dialogue keeps them from being completely forgettable. 

On the other hand, it is interesting to see Burke beginning to chart out how the series will develop. American involvement in Central America is propels the events in The Neon Rain. Robicheaux becomes convinced the dead woman he found while fishing was murdered, not just an overdose. His investigation leads him to a major drug dealer originally from Nicaragua. From there he finds himself threatened by a gang of assorted thugs from Nicaragua, Israel, and the CIA. 

This is something Burke will come back to time and time again in the later books. Someone is murdered, often a person of no consequence in polite society, and behind it are larger forces protected by wealth and power from justice. Confronting the sinister powers that be will become Robicheaux's 
raison d'être as the series progresses. There are also flashes of Robicheaux's Catholicism, a significant factor in propelling his unending drive for justice.

If you're going to read this series - and I heartily recommend you should - you have to start with this book. Robicheaux, obviously, is introduced, but there are also his crazed NOPD partner, Clete Purcell, and the angelic Annie. Despite the failings of the story, the weak villains, it's worth reading just to see where everything starts.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

A Honeycomb World: John Connolly's Charlie Parker series

The Woman in the Woods, the latest Charlie Parker book by John Connolly, just came out. Even with having to read Downbelow Station and the next Black Company book, Shadow Games, I will start  reading the Woman at once. These days, Connolly's books are the pretty much the only ones I let trump whatever else I'm reading.

I'm came to the Charlie Parker books sort of backwards. A few years ago, I saw a solid horror movie with Kevin Costner called The New Daughter. At some point I found out it came from a short story of the same name by a guy named John Connolly. The story was in a collection called Nocturnes. I bought it, read the "The New Daughter" first, then worked my way through the rest of the book. The story is much better and weirder than the movie and the rest of Nocturnes contains some of the best contemporary horror. I recommend it highly.

When I was looking for Nocturnes on Amazon, I saw he'd written a crime series with a detective named Charlie Parker. From the too-cute-by-half name and the fact it was twelve books long I figured it wasn't for me. It had the distinct look of an airport thriller an I wasn't flying anytime soon.

The thing is, apparently, one of Nocturne's big selling point was the inclusion of the Charlie Parker novella "The Reflecting Eye," - airport fiction it is not. It was killer detective fiction with some really cool supernatural creepiness. It was so good, I tracked down the first series book, Every Dead Thing.

EDT blew me away. In the first couple of pages Connolly ran his protagonist through the ringer. Not even James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux has never suffered as deeply as Charlie Parker, and that's saying a lot (sidenote - the Robicheaux novels are some of the most well written and powerful crime books, a description which is completely inadequate, around). That half way through there was a car chase on Todt Hill in Staten Island, my home town, made it just that little bit more enjoyable.

I quickly got my hands on the next six books and read them back to back. A year later I read another four and last year I finished off the last three. Up to date, I had to wait, quite impatiently, for last week to roll around. The day The Woman in the Woods became available I bought it and started reading it. Normally, I'd be done with it already, but the demands of Black Gate superseded my natural inclinations for once and I'm forced to read it more slowly than I'd prefer. Such is the reading life of a volunteer book blogger.

I am not a fan of long series, particularly unfinished ones (I saw some authors on Twitter the other day upbraiding a reader for refusing to buy books in an unfinished series. Screw that noise, is all I have to say to that nonsense.). Nonetheless, I dove headfirst into a massive series with no knowledge it might be ending any time soon. Once I read "The Reflecting Eye" and Every Dead Thing, those things didn't matter in the least. 

I have two defenses, and both rest on me not knowing what I was getting into with Every Dead Thing. First, I just assumed it was an essentially endless series like so many modern ones. There'd be some episodic elements and character evolution, but essentially the series would go on until the author was ran out of steam. Secondly, I didn't know how crazy and how the supernatural elements would become. In fact, while the supernatural's present in EDT, it could reasonably be read as Charlie Parker going mad. 
If memory serves me, it's not much different in the second book, Dark Hollow. Again, drawing on my decreasingly reliable memory, the third entry, The Killing Kind, is where Connolly pulls the mask off enough to let the reader know these books are not just really dark hard-boiled stories, but batshit crazy horror writing. 

This is a honeycomb world.
You must be careful where you step.
And you must be ready for what you might find.
                                                  from The Killing Kind 

The Killing Kind is where Connolly introduces the term honeycomb world. Reality isn't just what we humans see around us. It's a place riddled with pockets of evil and weirdness where schemes and plots unravel in places darker than the shadows. Once introduced, it becomes the defining theme of the series. Nothing can be assumed, because there are definitely principalities and powers at work behind the constant barrage of horrors visited on Charlie Parker and his friends. 

The only series I've read more of is Terry Pratchett's Discworld, but that's really several series set in the same world. Connolly's is sixteen novels and a novella all (save one) starring Charlie Parker. There's a great arc to the books that's still taking shape. Whether Connolly's leisureliness is a plus or minus depends on the reader. My own opinion has varied from book to book. 

Sometimes, the story is so powerful it doesn't matter to me a whit that there's not an inch of movement along that arc. A few times, books dedicated wholly to racing up the great arc are less gripping than I hoped they would be. Still, none of them was less than "really good" and most are freaking great. 

Parker is broken multiples times, sometimes by malign forces, sometimes by his own deliberate stupidity. Still, he staggers back up every time to face off against evil. He has gradually emerged as a tool of justice, often for the weak and abused. On a basic level, it's just pulp fiction, but Connolly writes with fire and crafts tales of terrible power and, sometimes, dark beauty. The strength of the very best pulp fiction (see REH) is that in the hands of a master it can be used to tell of essential truths and create heroes drawn from deep, cultural archetypes, that speak to the reader on the deepest levels of myth. If you think I might be out of my mind, grab a copy of Every Dead Thing and decide for yourself. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

CJ Cherrryh's Alliance-Union Series

If you don't know, Adrian Simmons and I are kicking off a book club over at Black Gate. This time (I don't know how often we'll do this), we're reading CJ Cherryh's 1981, Hugo-winning Downbelow Station. It's the story of the last days of a war between the space fleets of the outclassed Earth Company and the seemingly unstoppable forces of the colonial Union. Brutal starship commanders, weak-willed bureaucrats, desperate refugees, and cuddly aliens struggle to make some sort of sense of events as the war arrives on the front stoop of Pell, aka Downbelow, Station. You can read the first discussion HERE.

If you haven't read CJ Cherryh and you love space opera, go track her down. I'd suggest on of the thinner volumes - ex. Merchanter's Luck or Rimrunners - first. She's a demanding writer who expects her readers to follow along the road she's made and pick things up along the way. She almost never spends time on exposition. Sometimes characters explain things to one another, but that's a rare moment to be savored.

In the 24th century, the giant and complacent Earth Company lashes out at the breakaway colony world, Cyteen. The resulting war between the Company and the colonial Union is brutal and unforgiving. Earth never really understood the lives of space-bound stationers and merchants, let alone that of the clone-augmented populations of alien worlds. Unable to defeat the Union, Earth is slowly ground down. That's where things stand as Downbelow Station opens.

Two of the series' books, Heavy Time and Hellburner, take place around Earth early on during the war. Cyteen explores the titular planet and its evolving un-Earthlike culture. Merchanter's Luck, Rimrunners, Tripoint, and Finity's End take place after and in the wake of the events in Downbelow Station.

There are several other books that are part of the A-U universe that are standalones. Several of them focus on human-alien interactions. A few, the Faded Sun trilogy and Hunter of Worlds among them, are set many centuries later than Downbelow Station.

Finally, and my personal favorites, are the Chanur books. Set in the alien-populated Compact, they tell of the adventures of Pyanfar Chanur and her crew during first contact with humans from Earth. I reviewed the first book, Chanur's Pride, at Black Gate. It came out in 1982 and lost out on the Hugo in 1983 to Foundation's Edge, a decent enough book, but not one anyone's rushing out to read anymore.

Cherryh's sci-fi, aside from FTL travel, are pretty high on the science hardness scale and the future they depict is deadly. They're tough, sometimes even brutal. Her books may have happy endings, but the price of them is great, and broken characters litter the pages. Some of these books are hard going psychically, but they're absolutely worth it.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Black Company Reread: prelude

A few weeks ago I wrote I was about to start rereading Glen Cook's classic Black Company series. Whelp, week after next, I'm the reviews are going to start. I'll read the original trilogy - The Black Company (1984), Shadows Linger (1984), and The White Rose (1985) - and The Silver Spike (1989), a pendant that ties up several major loose ends. The main reviews will be up at Black Gate, but I'll probably do some extra stuff here. After some breaks for short stories and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, I'll come back and tackle the remaining six books.

Cook's an author whose works have meant a lot to me over the years, and he's someone people feel passionately about as fans and as anti-fans (that's a thing, right?), so I'm curious to see what sorts of reactions and comments I get. It's got the possibility of being a lot of fun.

Scrolling back through posts here and at Black Gate, I've written about him more than I remembered. There are some covers posts, but some actual story/book reviews as well. To get a sense of what I think of Cook, here are all my Cook links for your perusal.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Fading Suns and Boschean Weirdness

I thought I'd lost my copies of the second and third Nifft novels - Mines of Behemoth and The A'rak (which I still haven't read) - by Michael Shea and it sent me into a bit of a frenzy. Eventually, I found them and calmed down. It got me to thinking about them and where they fit into my mental fantasy library.

They do not belong to the subgenre of sf/f called Dying Earth, neither taking place on Earth nor on a dying world. Nonetheless, Shea, one of the more Vance-influence writers there ever was (more on that later), created in the Nifft stories a world that feels as weary and worn out as any of that genre's settings. The same thing applies to other books I'll mention here as well.

The genre roots, I believe, rest in both HG Wells' vision of the last days of the world in The Time Machine and William Hope Hodgson's massive recounting of the quest for the Lesser Redoubt in The Night Land.

Wells provides a taste of the setting, but his book is really about the future dispute between management and labor. Nonetheless, it is an excellent little book and sits first among these works I've linked.

Hodgson's book, which I've actually started to read, is the real fount of so much of the genre. The Earth lives in darkness, ravaged by monsters, and the surviving humans sheltered in a giant metal pyramid. The prose is dense and convoluted, intended to give a sense of great distance from the present. It's sort of rough, though as I digest more and more, it seems more and more natural. 

The next book found on the same shelf, and the most influential, is Clark Ashton Smith's story collection, Zothique. While there are many tales by plenty of authors set in the last days of dear old Terra, Smith's collection of grotesqueries under a fading sun is the real template for the sort I'm considering here. As I wrote, Wells had other things on his mind and Hodgson's work is too personal from which to craft a subgenre. 

Smith's stories, and most of the rest alongside them, are rooted in fin de siècle decadence. Markedly unerotic sexuality, sadism, moral corruption, they're all there. Even though written eighty years ago, Smith's are often still wonderfully unsettling - by today's loose standards. So much of today's supposedly shocking literature feel like it's only for show; as if the author is intent on proving he or she is so much more 

Zothique, for those unfortunately unfamiliar to it, is the last continent on Earth in the far off future. The past - its history and its technology - has been forgotten and magic and demons have appeared. Not only the planet, but humanity and it cultures, its very soul, are tattered and exhausted.

The next writer to run with a version of this setting was Jack Vance. He began with his first book, The Dying Earth. Only a little less cynical than Smith's stories, Vance's are funnier - even if it's usually in a very nasty, black-hearted way. 

With Eyes of the Overworld, Vance returned to this milieu and introduced the absolutely self-interested thief, Cugel the Clever. More often than not, his self-assumed appellation doesn't apply, but fortunately, his enemies, who, due to his actions, are legion, are usually a little less clever. It's novel of exquisite weirdness and baroque prose. Of all these writers, I find his style the most purely beautiful. There's an amazing precision to his sentences. Each word is like a gemstone placed in the perfect place by the hands of a jewel-maker of consummate abilities.

Later, Vance wrote another two books in the setting, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous. Both have their good bits, but neither is as sharp or enjoyable as their predecessors. 

The other major works I put next to Smith's volume are Gene Wolfe's Books of the New Sun. Smith's and Vance's works are pure entertainment. They are the tale of Severian, a torturer in a world that seems to Earth in the very distant future. I've only read the first three books, but I'll be getting to all five this year (in between the first and second Black Company series).

Wolfe is roundly considered one of the finest sf/f writers, garnering glowing write ups even in mainstream magazines like the New Yorker. I've only read a handful of his books and stories and am utterly unqualified to way in on that. I can say, the three New Sun books I read are absolutely mindblowing works of seemingly bottomless imagination.

Next we come to the alluded to Michael Shea books: Nifft the Lean, The Mines of Behemoth, and The A'rak. I reviewed the first several years ago. It is a dark and wonderful book. If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and find a copy. Read my review to get a fuller sense of the book and Shea's style.

He also wrote a fully approved sequel to Eyes of the Overworld long before Vance's own effort. Called A Quest for Simbilis, I only just secured a copy and am anticipating reading it rather soon.

Neal Barrett Jr. entered the field with a two book series called Investments. I reviewed the first, The Prophecy Machine at Black Gate. Set, perhaps, in Earth's far-future, its protagonist, Finn, is a master craftsman who has made a sentient lizard and is married to a beautiful, uplifted mouse named Letitia Louise. Not quite as cynical or pessimistic as Smith or Vance, Barrett, here, was a very funny writer.

The second, The Treachery of Kings, remains unread on my real-world shelf. Perhaps, soon, but probably not too soon. 

The rest of the books, all of which I've written about at Black Gate are, again, not really Dying Earth books. All three, though, are set in spent and sere worlds, where the remains of past days litter the landscape and cities are the accumulation of centuries of architectural debris, one century's piled on another.

The first is Throne of Bones by Brian McNaughton. SE Lindberg called it ghoul erotica, and that's not far off base. Rereading four years ago, I actually felt a little unclean when I was done. I wrote "I want to on one hand praise and with the other hold it away from myself with a pair of iron tongs." I stand by that, but it is a seriously disturbing work.

The other two are Raphael Ordoñez’s two novels, Dragonfly and The King of Nightspore's Crown. Rooted in pre-genrefied fantasy, they are good and weird. Like all the works above, they are rich, maybe too rich for many modern readers, and complex. I love them and have gone to as great lengths as I am able to recommend them to others. 

All these books stand out from the great crowd of genre fantasy. They may share some very basic tropes - a decayed land and society - but none of them rely on the usual assortment of Fantasyland® elements and worked and worked and worked over plots. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Black Company Reread

I recently read some comments on that the Black Company books by Glen Cook are terrible. The prose is non-descriptive and the books are just dialogue-driven. I disagree with those complaints vehemently. Almost all the modern military and grimdark books owe an extreme debt of gratitude to Cook's 35 year old series.

When I read the first book, The Black Company, back in 1984, it was like nothing I had read before. Cook told a story of an epic struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of even greater darkness. He told it in alien-sounding contemporary dialogue and from a ground-level view. The narrator, Croaker, is smart, but he isn't one of the important strategists or commanders of the titular mercenary commanders. 

The second book, Shadows Linger, is one of the most hard-boiled fantasy books I've ever read. The initial protagonist is pure noir protagonist. For money and lust, he gets ensnared in the vilest of plots. When he tries to extricate himself, he falls into the hands of the Black Company. It might be my single favorite book in the whole, long series.  

The last of the initial three book run, The White Rose, is epic and weird. It's got flying whales, talking menhirs, and the resurrection of the series' Sauron figure, the Dominator. Again, Cook shows us events from a grunt-eye view (or at least a surgeon-eye view), and it's a mean, brutal vantage point.

Except for the last two installments, Water Sleeps (1999) and Soldiers Live (2002), I've read these books three or four times at least. I might have read the first three another two or three on top of that. Everything above is from memory. Next to PC Hodgell's Kencyrath books, Cook's series is my favorite. What separates it from its grimdark descendants is it never succumbs to their penchant for misery porn and cheap cynicism. So many current authors seem to think Cook's work succeeds because of the darkness, so that's what they go for. I also think a lot of them can't do the plotting and character creation of Cook, so they settle for gore and sadism. 

In case you doubt my opinion about the quality of Cook's prose, here are the opening paragraphs of the entire series. 
   There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye's handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight.
   Lightning from a clear sky smote the Necropolitan Hill. One bolt struck the bronze plaque sealing the tomb of the forvalaka, obliterating half the spell of confinement. It rained stones. Statues bled. Priests at several temples reported sacrificial victims without hearts or livers. One victim escaped after its bowels were opened and was not recaptured. At the Fork Barracks, where the Urban Cohorts were billeted, the image of Teux turned completely around. For nine evenings running, ten black vultures circled the Bastion. Then one evicted the eagle which lived atop the Paper Tower.
   Astrologers refused readings, fearing for their lives. A mad soothsayer wandered the streets proclaiming the imminent end of the world. At the Bastion, the eagle not only departed, the ivy on the outer ramparts withered and gave way to a creeper which appeared black in all but the most intense sunlight.
   But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect.
   We should have been better prepared. We did have four modestly accomplished wizards to stand sentinel against predatory tomorrows - though never by any means as sophisticated as divining through sheeps' entrails.
   Still, the best augurs are those who divine from portents of the past. They compile phenomenal records.
   Beryl totters perpetually, ready to stumble over a precipice into chaos. The Queen of the Jewel Cities was old and decadent and mad, filled with the stench of degeneracy and moral dryrot. Only a fool would be surprised by anything found creeping its streets at night.
That is how you open a series. You know you're in for crazy and wild, you're in for a world painted shadows and blood. There's also a clear current of cynicism that was almost bracing back then. You know you're in for something that will stand in stark contrast to the Terry Brooks-style fantasy that was getting churned out. 

Yeah, Cook's prose is sparse. It's not devoid of color and life, however. It's sharp and economical. You don't get pages wasted on extraneous sideplots. I get the love for Erikson's Malazan books (I read five of them before I quit), but I found them nowhere near as tight or exciting. The more I write, the more I'm looking forward to starting these in a couple of weeks. Woo hoo!

I don't love the morions the Company members are wearing, but more than any of the other covers (most of which, admittedly, stink). They're for the French editions and they're by Didier Graffet.

The Black Company
Shadows Linger (The Black Castle)

The White Rose 

The Books of the North

The Silver Spike

Shadow Games

Dreams of Steel

Bleak Seasons

She Is the Darkness I
She Is the Darkness II

Water Sleeps I

Water Sleeps II

Soldiers Live I

Soldiers Live II

The Books of the South

The Books of the Glittering Stone I

The Books of Glittering Stone II