Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Present - woo hoo!


 Got this for Christmas from my father-in-law (I did ask for it).  It's got the contents of "The Sowers of the Thunder" and "The Road of Azrael" along with more of Howard's rip snorting historical adventures.  Several stories were bastardized and mutated into Conan tales by Sprague de Camp in order to fill in "gaps" in Conan's timeline.  I'm not even sure those are available anymore.  Here they are in their pristine, Howard-pure versions.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Hobbit - like you haven't seen this already

   So here we go.  The trailer looks so much better than my expectations for the movie allow me to believe it to be.  That's based entirely on Peter Jackson's track record of pretty much botching the LOTR movies.  How so you ask?  By making Gandalf look like a high strung fool, Aragorn like a reluctant king, making Elrond runaway, etc. And there's more but why bother?

   Like the LOTR movies, this will look gorgeous and mostly spot on.  It's a less complex book than the LOTR so maybe he won't be tempted to "improve" on Tolkien's characters.  He clearly felt the need to up the action and fanboy quotient by portraying all sorts of stuff from the Unfinished Tales and LOTR appendices. Whatever.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Black Gate - K E Wagner's "Dark Crusade" Review

  As I work on my own piece about the late Karl Edward Wagner and his character, Kane, what comes along in Black Gate but an article about "Dark Crusade".  It's not simply a review but an examination of the why swords and sorcery has been shunted to the sidelines by the doorstopping series that have come to dominate the fantasy market.
  I think the author, Brian Murphy, keys in on several good reasons for S & S's displacement in the marketplace.  The commenters bring up several good additional points.
   The Kane novels are good and "Dark Crusade" is the best.  However, for the best of Kane get the short stories.  They're all together in "Midnight Sun" from Night Shade Books.  If that's expensive for you you can get the best in "Death Angel's Shadow" and "Night Winds" for a lot less.  And with classic, if not quite accurate, Frazetta covers.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Voidals and Spydrons and Ratlings, oh, my!

   Until recently, I'd never even heard of Adrian Cole.  Then, whilst tooling around the 'net looking for blog material, I came across the man and his bibliography.  I read great things about his Omnaran series (I'm presently in the middle of the first book, "A Place Among the Fallen") and some other things.  And then I saw this:
   Apparently, Cole had a series of short stories and connected novels going back to the late seventies.  They concern an accursed traveler,  the Voidal, bereft of memory and cast into the darkest reaches of the omniverse for unremembered sins against the dark gods.  Well that got me.
   There was also a lot of comparisons to Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock.  That was the final bait.  I ordered my cheap used copy from Amazon and counted the days till its arrival.
   Let me start by saying I'm getting a great kick out of "A Place Among the Fallen".  It's got that real basic ur-fantasy thing going on that puts me in mind of "The Fionavar Tapestry" or ""Red Moon and Black Mountain".  It's not swords and sorcery but straight up high fantasy with heroes, mad emperors and gold and white giant owls.  Good stuff.
   The Voidal, though, hoo boy. Let me start by saying I don't hate it.  It's just that it's, what can I say, overwrought?   The prose tends to the more violent shades of purple.  In the opening paragraph of "Well Met in Hell", a revised version "The Coming of the Voidal", the first story of the series, the dimension of Phaedrabile is described as being "Beyond natural laws, at the far reaches of reason, shunned by all but the perverse in spirit.  It has many dimensions: they twist and fuse, baffling the mind itself with their deranged patterns, their layer upon layer.  A veritable universe, unique to itself, enclosed, locked."  It only gets more colorful and elaborate from there and not in a great way.
   His choice of names isn't much better.  I've only read the first two stories, "Well Met in Hell" and "The Lair of the Spydron" so far but in them we get the wizard Rammazurk, the aforementioned Spydron, Xalganash of the Thousand Teeth, the Arachniderm and Grabulic the Songster.  It's like a cast listing for an episode of "He-Man".  These are just bad sounding names.  I don't even think that's a subjective statement but an objective one.
  I laud Cole for his work at creating a non-standard fantasy world in the stories contained in "Oblivion Hand".  Like Vance and Moorcock and Clark Ashton Smith, the tales he's woven are not from the usual bits and pieces of medieval European flotsam that get cobbled together too often. The laws of nature have been superseded by those of magic and monstrous ratlings and demonic Screamers are the normal fauna.
   This is the sort of stuff I'm dying to see more of.  I can only take so many blond Nordic barbarians and wily Semitic wizards and clever Latin thieves.  This is the sort of psychotic, lysergic acid swilling craziness I love to find between the covers of a book with such an over-the-top cover as "Oblivion Hand".
   And yet.  And yet.  John Clute's "Encyclopedia of Fantasy" dismisses the Voidal sequence as "not serious".  I think that's a harsh and incorrect judgment.  Cole's effort at creating an omniverse that isn't right of the Fantasy 'r' Us shelf is laudable and even a bit exciting.  It's just that the writing is often a barrier to appreciating the stories.  Cole is clearly as in love with words and language as Smith and Vance and seeks to create atmosphere with the use of evocative adjectives.  The problem is he always seems to choose poorly.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Darrell K. Sweet - RIP

 Scanning Black Gate this evening I saw Darrell K. Sweet had died.  Along with the Hildebrandt Bros., Sweet created the image of fantasy for me and doubtless some many other fans from the seventies and early eighties.  His art is beautiful, detailed and evocative of my youth.
   Like I wrote about a few weeks ago, a friend of mine would buy books simply because of his covers.  I never went that far but I have no idea how many books with his covers fill the boxes of books in the attic.

Vettius and His Friends

   Finished off the very fun and sometimes excellent "Vettius and His Friends" the other night.  All the Vettius and Dama stories are good bits of sword swinging monster slaying fun.  I definitely wish Drake had written a full novel with the pair and taken the time to flesh them out and show us them in action for a long haul.
   Other stories included in the collection range from distant troll haunted Scandinavia to the crocodile infested banks of the Nile in ancient Egypt.  There's also the story "Killer" which was later expanded to a full length novel with the help of Karl Edward Wagner.  Unlike the story, the novel is explicitly science fiction.  Both are enjoyable.
   I've never been the biggest fan of Drake's novels but his short stories give me a quick, jarring bolt.  From his horror to his fantasy to his science fiction the man's got it down.

Monday, November 28, 2011

In the Mail

   Went to sunny Bermuda to visit old friends for the Thanksgiving week and came home to the following in the mail:

   I'm still waiting for this:

   I love Amazon.  Only ten years ago finding these books might have taken a summer of driving up and down the region and rooting through often badly organized stacks in often unpleasant used book stores.  Today, with the pushing of a few buttons they're at my home in splendid condition at reasonable prices within a a few days.  I'm just not sad about the passing of so many of the book traders and junk stores that my reading habit necessitated me frequenting.  And what with gas being what it is and the Staten Island to New Jersey bridge tolls being pushed up to $12 Amazon looks all the better.  Woo hoo!

Any comments, pro or con?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Romanorum Formidonis

  I went through a period of reading David Drake a lot.  That was more than twenty years ago and I think he's written a bazillion books since then.  None, based solely on a reading of the the back covers, have grabbed my attention.  There's only so much reading a man can get done and without personal recommendations from buddies it's one of the few ways to pick and choose what to spend time on.  (True story: A friend of mine used to buy anything with a D K Sweet cover but then he used to read about a book a day while commuting and in the eighties it sure seemed like D K Sweet painted the covers of almost every other science-fiction or fantasy book).
   But David Drake has recently come back into my line of vision and in a great way.  In pouring through articles, old anthologies and comments on Amazon I came across Drake's early fantasy stories set in the later Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantius.  I've got two under my belt and so far they're aces.

  The first story I read is "Dragon's Teeth" which saw light of day in a magazine called "Midnight Sun" that survived for four whole issues back in the seventies.  Edited by Gary Hoppenstand, it was the first publisher of several Karl Edward Wagner "Kane" stories, including the searing "Lynortis Reprise".  Scrolling through the contents for the four issues makes me think it was a pretty cool publication.
  "Dragon's Teeth" introduces us to the Roman legate Vettius as he is preparing to unleash an ambush against a column of Sarmatians.  Things go off well with death being meted out to the barbarian enemies of Rome until a giant makes an appearance.  Seeing it, Vettius realizes that "the horsehair crest wobbling in the waning sunlight increased the figure's titanic height, but even bare-headed the giant would have been half again as tall as the six-foot soldier."  And it's covered in bronze armor and helmet.  Armed with a giant mace.  Suddenly things don't look as optimal for the Romans.
   It's similar to one of those James Bond openings (in the good Connery movies) that throw you into the middle of things and get your blood roiling and serving as an appetizer to the rest of the story.  It pretty awesome that Drake springs a monster on us so quickly (remember, such awesomeness is one of the primary reasons that we read this stuff).
   In this short introductory bit of sword swinging, arrow flinging violence (five pages) there's a tremendous amount of quick historical detail.  Before the killing starts we're provided with a vivid description of the nomadic Sarmatians.  We also get a picture of Roman arms and armor versus that of their more barbaric opponents.

   The rest of the story concerns Vettius and his friend, Cappadocian merchant Dama, as they go of to find and deal with the progenitor of the giant and the nine others that successfully wiped out an equal number of Roman detachments.  Their quarry is Hydaspes, a sorcerer who has set himself up amongst the nomads.  By the end we get fierce barbarian nobles, creepy monkeys, dark wizards and man-on-giant hand to hand combat.  There's not too much more plot to "Dragon's Teeth" than that (though that little bit more is extra awesome).  It's the excitement and quick pacing with which Drake relays that plot that makes the story cook.

   The other Roman era story I read today was "The Mantichore" which features Dama in the pay of a a necromancer.  Chronologically it falls before "Dragon's Teeth" and it was first published in the inestimable "Swords Against Darkness" from 1977 and edited by the genre important (as editor and promoter more than writer) Andrew J. Offutt.
  Dama has been hired by the sorcerer Theophanes to bring him and his bodyguard cum manservant, the seven foot tall Hlodovech to a place of safety in the wake of a crackdown on pagans in Antioch by the emperor.  Dama finds and brings his customer to an abandoned inn at an oasis almost three weeks out into the desert out from Antioch.  There are found a mummified body and cryptic scrawls about the mantichore, the man-eating lion-bodied, man-headed and scorpion-tailed monster from Persian folklore.
   What happens next involves Theophanes' nercromancy, Hlodovech's origins, Dama's quick wits and the wisdom of following mysterious warnings.  Especially when they're found in places filled with magical power.  The story's short, quick and too the very ugly point.

  I like these stories a whole lot.  So much that I've already ordered the collection "Vettius and His Friends" from Amazon.  With luck it'll be with today's mail when I get home tonight.  Ahh, to hope.
  Part of the reason I enjoyed these stories was Drake's decision to avoid faux-archaic dialogue.  His characters speak in a reasonably modern vernacular.  When Vettius springs his ambush in "Dragon's Teeth" he yells, "Let's get 'em!".  Even Hydaspes avoids old-timey talk when he gives the obligatory madman monologue.
   And at the same time as his characters talk in a contemporary way Drake manages to convey the alien nature of life in the fourth century Roman Empire.  Vettius and his men have no compunction at slaughtering the women and children of the Sarmatians they attack in the ambush.  Pagans are hunted down by imperial inquisitors and there are barren empty spaces on the map between empires. For all the civilization of Rome and Byzantium it's one that's brutal and in a state of decline, under attack from barbarians without and moral and bureaucratic decay from within.
   So these are good stories and I'm looking forward to reading the rest.  On his own site, David Drake describes the stories as not his best but dear to his heart.  He also says one, "The Barrow Troll" comes close to being one of his best.  Can't wait.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Spell of Witch World - An Unknown Land

Andre Norton's Witch World books are another series I've avoided for way too long. There were two things that kept me away from them over the years. The first, when I was younger, was their name: Witch World. It seemed a little too twee. When I was older there were just too many other things I wanted to read that it just never crossed my mind to investigate Andre Norton's catalogue. If she ever occurred to me at all it was as the author of Starman's Son and several other books shelved in the children's section at my local library.  Later I found a few scattered Norton volumes in the boxes of paperbacks my dad kept in the attic but, again, nothing prompted me to read them. At the time the cover of "Witch World" turned me off (today I love the goofy looking thing).

   Not until I started contemplating this blog did I actually read anything by Andre Norton. There were several anthologies I had never managed to buy copies of until the last two years, one being "Flashing Swords #2", edited by Lin Carter.  I had read some of its stories before but not "The Toads of Grimmerdale" set in Norton's Witch World.
   I was surprised by the darkness of the story.  Like I said, I had assumed the Witch World stuff was light and airy and my first encounter with it was a story of revenge for rape set in a country savaged by years of war.  Well, I was hooked.

   I quickly read "Spider Silk" in Flashing Swords #3 and "Falcon Blood" in Amazons!, edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. I finally rooted through boxes in my sister's attic and dug out my dad's ancient copy of the first novel, Witch World, and devoured it. Its inventiveness, fast pacing and the sheer fun of it made me an instant fan.

  Finding a new author amid the endless shelves of crap is a one of the great joys in my life. That Andre Norton had left a fairly large supply of Witch World books for the newcomer was exciting. That it might fit in with the ideas I was playing with for what would become "Swords & Sorcery" was an added bonus. Very cool.
   Spell of the Witch World is the seventh book published in the Witch World series. It contains three stories set in High Hallack, a region on the western continent of a world where magic sits beside super science and mind powers.  One of the major events in High Hallack is a brutal war with a nation from across the sea that drags on for years and results in dislocation of peoples and an upsetting of the pre-war order.  The first story, "Dragon Scale Silver" takes place just before and during the early stages of the the war.  The second, "Dream Smith" occurs long before it and the final tale, "Amber Out of Quayth" takes place after its conclusion.
   "Dragon Scale Silver" is the story of Elys and her birth as a refugee from the east and her training as both spell caster and swordswoman.  Born to castaways fleeing war across the sea on the eastern continent, Elys and her twin brother Elyn, are raised and trained in the fishing village of Wark.  Both children are trained to war by their father but Elys, taking after her mother, is also trained in the ways of understanding and using magic.
   When war begins, Elyn longs to go off and fight.  Not until after the presumed death of his father does he.  Elys remains with the villagers and later shepherds them to safety in distant valleys.  Despite the protection and help she provides them with they never view her as one of their own.  She is an alien and a wielder of unnatural powers.
   Despite her separation from Elyn, Elys maintains a magical tie to him through deep magic conjured up and created by her mother in the form of a dragon scale silver chalice.  When it darkens she knows he is in some sort of grave danger she sets off to rescue him.
   Elys is accompanied on her mission by Jervon, a High Hallack warrior who wandered into her people's settlement wounded from battle.  After his recovery he is clearly smitten by Elyn, and unlike the villagers, he is not particularly discomforted by her talents and abilities.  He is willing to put himself at risk in order to provide her aid and support.
   Reaching her brother's keep, Elys finds he has married and her sister-in-law is no more at ease around her than the villagers were.  He is also missing having fallen subject to a curse of the Old One laying on the castle.  With sword, spells and a ferocious will, Elys wades into the danger.
  "Dream Smith" reads much like a fairy tale.  Collard, one of a smith's sons, is crippled and disfigured to a hideous degree by an explosion caused by a strange ore.  Only later is it learned that it probably comes from a some lost cache of the Old Ones.  He is so malformed that he must wear a mask to even walk about in his village.  
  The explosion also leaves Collard with strange and powerful dreams.  When he wakes from them he is able to craft the creatures from his dreams and cast them in the remaining pieces of the metal that damaged him.
   Collard soon becomes acquainted with and enthralled by the young and sickly noblewoman, Jacinda.  She is sent to the village because her father's new wife claims she can not conceive a "straight son" if she even sees "such a twisted, crooked body."
   Fascinated by someone he senses might be a kindred spirit he sends her gifts of some of his dream creations.  Overcoming his fear and self loathing he eventually meets her and their fates become entwined.
   The last tale, "Amber Out of Quayth" is pretty much a traditional Gothic tale.  To more or less quote the late Donald Westlake, "A gothic is a story about a girl who gets a house".  
   Ysmay, the daughter of the late lord of Uppsdale loses her place as chatelaine of the house when her brother comes home from war with a wife.  Uppsdale is a poor place and with little hope of being able to provide a dowry Ysmay believes she's condemned to a hopeless life of loneliness and no authority over how she lives it.  All this changes when a fair brings Ysmay's household into contact with Hylle, a lord and craftsman from an unknown land in the far north.  
   Uppsdale's wealth had been built on a rich supply of amber but an unmovable rockslide destroyed access to it.  Hylle, who works strange and beautiful crafts from amber, claims to have a way to free the vein of wealth.  In exchange for asks for half the supply and the hand of Ysmay in marriage.
   While Hylle is strange the prospect of escape proves strong to Ysmay.  She willing accepts the offer much to the joy of her brother and sister-in-law.  Soon they are wed and headed north to places beyond Ysmay's knowledge.
   Hylle's home, Ysmay, learns, is an ancient castle.  She quickly learns that she will be left to her own devices.  Hylle promptly tells her he will be gone on many journeys related to his alchemical studies and he will only be her husband in name, not in any other way.  He also tells her there is one tower she must never enter.  Which of course she does.
   I loved these stories.  By themselves they are well wrought but as part of the tapestry of Witch World they are amazing.
   In the single short novel and ten stories I've read I've encountered a detailed and textured world with more color and character than any number of doorstopper fantasy novels I've wasted time on.  Taking place in different eras the stories create a true history containing numerous presents.
   Witch World is a at once familiar, with medieval keeps and  development, yet filled with wondrous strangeness.  We hear of ancient races and suffer the effects imprinted on the world by their long ago presence.  War washes over the land and displaces people who don't even know why the war is happening.  There is folk magic and high magic and both operate differently and serve different purposes.
  Witch World is also one of much sadness.  It is not unbearable sadness but instead the steady debilitating kind that comes from onslaught of custom and daily hardships.  Women are constrained by the need to marry well and poor ones face spinsterhood and purposelessness.  Common people are driven out time and time again by war and suffer from their own countrymen turned brigand.
  And still there is happiness.  Strength of soul is rewarded and goodness prospers.  It often comes after anguish and suffering but it never seems unwarranted.
   You might argue about my inclusion of Andre Norton among the ranks of swords & sorcery writers.  Well, tough.  "Dragon Scale Silver" has swords AND sorcery and Norton was a member of Lin Carter's SAGA (Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America) back in the genre's first great revival forty years ago.  
   Honestly, Witch World is a legitimate part of the genre.  There is swordplay and thrown spells aplenty alongside transdimensional portals and submarines.  As concerned as they are with the interiors of their protagonists and the thoughts behind the decisions they make their is derring-do, harsh violence and powerful sorcery.
   Check it out.  They're all available fairly cheap on Amazon so spend the lucre and give them a shot.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Dilvish, the Damned - a first reading - pt. 1

   "Dilvish, the Damned" holds a place in a list of books and stories long avoided because of the people who recommended them. With this book let's call the particular person the Big D.

   The Big D is the man who introduced me to the original D&D rules back in 1977 or '78. For the next six years he was part of my core gaming group until we started to lie to him and tell him we weren't playing anymore.

   That was because he is the worst powergamer I've ever encountered. The Big D made gaming very, very unfun. Characterization and atmosphere were extraneous. Subtley, who cares? Gaming became miserable and above all else, boring.

   Outside of that he's a great and fascinating guy. He was, and remains, the most voracious reader I've ever know (though he rarely reads outside of sci fi and fantasy). He would always tell me about what he had read the night before or was reading while he walked the mile and half to my house.

   When he'd describe a book to me, though, it was always about how cool the most powerful characters were. Big cowls and fancy wizardly skullcaps were symbols of greatness. The more absurdly godlike the protagonists were the better.

   Only recently, because we still remain friends, he told me he was disappointed that the Twilight books didn't end in an epic all out vampire vs. werewolves war. That Stephanie Meyer wouldn't do that really didn't make sense to him.

   At some point in the past I took for granted that any book the Big D suggested was going to annoy me as much as it excited him. I've only overcome that block slowly. It's taken me nearly thirty years to read the tales of Dilvish, the Damned, by Roger Zelazny.

   Dilvish is heir to both a Human house and an Elvish house and a heroic warrior of great martial prowess. Two centuries prior to first meeting him we are told (and later shown in a priestess' vision) how he came up against the powerful, evil sorcerer, Jelerak. Jelerak, far stronger than Dilvish knew, turned Dilvish to stone and imprisoned his soul in Hell.

   It is only when Portaroy, a town once saved by Dilvish, comes under a new attack is he freed to return to the mortal world. He does so with a steel horse named Black and a desire to avenge himself on Jelerak as well as to defend Portaoy again.

   "Dilvish, the Damned" is a 1982 fixup of all eleven Dilvish short stories. The first was published previously in Fantastic in 1965 and the last two first saw light of day in the collection. I'm half way through the book and my reactions to it are mixed.

   Dilvish is part of the rebirth of swords & sorcery in the mid-sixties, alongside Elric and the Lancer Conan. Several of Zelazny's stories were reprinted in S&S antholgies from the seventies. Some of the stories I've read so far are at least equal to some of Moorcock's and Leiber's and way better than those of Lin Carter and John Jakes.

   "Passage to Dilfar" opens the book and Dilvish is met escaping from a lost battle. He and his iron horse, Black, are the only survivors of the onslaught of Lylish, Colonel of the West's armies. Along the road to the city of Dilfar he is beset by increasingly powerful foes seeking to stop him. There are crossbowmen, stars of death and men with impenetrable armor.

   The other stories I've read, "Thelinde's Song", "The Bells of Shoredan", "A Knight for Merytha", "The Places of Aache" and "A City Divided" are about Dilvish's journey to raise a cursed army to fight the Colonel of the West. Along the way to and from Rahoringhast, from where he can summon the army, various evils and strange events are encountered.

   There are good things about these stories. Filled with evil priests, haunted castles and shrines, there's a strong Clark Ashton Smith vibe to them. The episodic nature of the book also gives its it a very dreamlike quality - things sort of just happen, are dealt with and then other things happen. The randomness of occurrences makes guessing what will happen next impossible. The reader can assume the Colonel of the West will be faced head-on and a showdown with Jelerak is forthcoming but what Dilvish will have to fight along the way is anybody's guess.

   Dilvish's adventures are set in what I've always thought of as ur-fantasy land. It's the type of world created by writers like E.R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany before Tolkien and Howard created the templates that are still used (excessively) today. The names of people and places don't echo historical ones (think Gorice and Thek) and the roots of the stories lie closer to the hazy nature of fairy tales and dreams than the carefully constructed and overly elaborate plots of modern fantasy tomes. The universe of Dilvish is a far vaguer, less concrete place than Middle-Earth let alone ours. Anything can happen and as long as the author has another idea it does.

   Unfortunately, not just looking to the character and storytelling attitudes of the past, Zelazny also looked to the prose styles. The Dilvish stories are all written in a pseudo-archaic style. While not as clotted as William Hope Hodgson's in "The Nightland", or William Morris' in anything, it's clearly intent onremind the reader of them (the sequel to this book, "The Changing Land" mentions Hodgson on the dedication page).

   Zelazny seems to have been striving to make the stories read like legendary tales not realistic fiction. Unfortunately it creates an emotional barrier between the reader and the stories. Unless a writer has the skill of Smith or Jack Vance the distancing effect is difficult to overcome and Zelazny doesn't quite make it.

   Typical of too much of the writing is this from "Passage to Dilfar": "This was Dilvish, called the Damned, riding alone in the hills above Dilfar, bearing his message to that city. And though he rode the horse of steel, called Black, still did he not fear an encounter with Lance of the Invincible Armor before he delivered his message." There are some striking images such as silver eyes containing "the hellspecks of starstuff" but there's too much writing like the former passage.

   The reader also doesn't get much insight into the mind of Dilvish or his opponents. He's a goodhearted hero fighting strange foes and weird magics but it doesn't go much further than that.

   I want to love Dilvish and his adventures and right now I don't. But I do like them and I'll finish them. The stories definitely have been getting better as they progress. The banter between Dilvish and Black in "A Knight for Meryth" and Dilvish and Rogish in "The Places of Aache" are mordantly funny enough to belong alongside Smith and Vance.

   A copy can be picked up for a penny on Amazon so you might as well get it. Despite my issues with Zelazny's style these stories have more color and clever ideas than most of the doorstoppers that weighing down the fantasy shelves contain in all their endless pages.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Morlock Rising - Traveller's Rest - James Enge

   The best thing I've gotten from starting this blog is that I've started discovering the wonders that are the new swords & sorcery revival we're in the midst.  With such magnificent anchors like Black Gate and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and several small presses we've, as fans, got a whole bunch of new stories to enjoy.
  It also means there are all sorts of new writers hammering away out their in the field that I'm only now becoming acquainted with.  Some are the ones I'm reading in "Return of the Sword" and "Swords and Dark Magic".
   One such writer I've was tempted to sample is James Enge and his tales of Morlock.  Morlock is a crooked shouldered maker (a sorcerer) with a cursed sword.  He's also the boogeyman of many peoples' betime stories.   Enge's currently luring in new readers with a free e-version of the short story "Travellers' Rest".
   A free story is a brilliant way to attract new readers, and I was definitely hooked by it.  Enge chose a great way to introduce new readers to his character and his world.  As soon as I finished the story I plunked down my $1.99 for an e-book of the first Morlock novel, "Blood of Ambrose".  I'm working my way through that and expect to read its two followers later this year.
  In researching Enge and his writing (reading some reviews and interviews) the name that comes up the most is that of Jack Vance.  After finishing "Travellers' Rest" I see the reasons for the comparison but Enge seems to stand squarely on his own literary feet.  Like many of Vance's fantasy worlds, Enge's world, or I should say Morlock's, has few of the standard medieval tropes plaguing too much fantasy.  There's a nifty oddness present, much like Vance's Dying Earth tales, but with a characters that generate a little more sympathy than Cugel ever could.  Vance's stories also overflow with the scent of decay and decadence.  Morlock's world is vibrant and pulsing with life (and giant bugs) and not wasting away under the glare of a red sun.
   "Travellers' Rest" opens with Morlock and his dwarf apprentice, Wyrth, coming upon a herd of large, bovine insects calmly chewing their cud outside of a worn down, dilapidated town.  Despite Wyrth's misgivings, Morlock stops at the inn called Travellers' Rest.
   The innkeeper and his family greet and serve Morlock and Wyrth, their first guests in months.  Our travelers are promptly met with a bit of mystery, buttermilk and a multi-armed swordsman.  In the ensuing battles of swords and wits, Morlock emerges as a man of  quiet competence and courage.  When sets out to discover the nature of his fellow maker, Kyrkylio, and the pall of fear he casts over the region he is a man of steadfast determination.
  I won't say more about the plot.  Just go download it and read it for yourself.  The ongoing banter between Wyrth and the laconic Morlock help make this one of the deliberately funnier stories I've read in some time.  Enge's snapshot presentation of Morlock's world is tantalizing and the writing is sharp and witty.  And the escapade I'm not going to write about is exciting, creepy and covered with the right amount of nuttiness.

Note: Because I'm fundamentally lazy this review has taken way longer to complete than I intended.  Since started I've read several other stories and all of "Blood of Ambrose" and they were all great.  Enge's writing and the characters he's created are tremendous additions to the field and you should just go buy them all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


from two weeks in Hawaii.  Never been (though my wife went to second grade on Oahu) and was constantly floored by the absolute beauty of the place, stunning beaches, steep forest covered valleys, inactive and active volcanoes.  And all the while a hankering to reread the original Earthsea books.  Go figure.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ryre: Ramsey Campbell's S&S foray

   Ramsey Campbell, along with Clive Barker and Brian Lumley, is one of England's most successful horror writers.  Rising from writing teenage Lovecraft pastiches to his own psychologically realistic horror tales, along the way Campbell found the time to write four very good stories about the exploits of Ryre, a mercenary swordsman wandering a haunted and corrupt world.

   The first, "The Sustenance of Hoak", like all the rest, appeared in Andrew Offutt's interesting and often very fun Swords Against Darkness anthologies from the late seventies (there are five of them and they're all worth tracking down).  As befits Campbell's day job as a writer of horror tales there's more than a touch of terror to this story.
   We are introduced to Ryre and his companion Glode just after they figured out what to do following the end of the war they fought in recently.  Their pay was small and there was no more on the horizon.  Finally, despite a bit of ridicule from their fellow mercenaries, they decided to head off for the fabled and as yet unrecovered treasure of Hoak.
   Hoak is located on a continent an ocean away and in the depths of a great forest.  Near their destination Ryre and Glode are set upon by bandits.  While able to escape them, Glode is severely wounded and only Ryre is fit to confront the barricaded gates of Hoak and face down those within.  
  Once within the walls he discovers a town that wouldn't be out of place in Campbell's Lovecraftian Severn Valley tales.  Everyone and everything is drab and limp.  Along the main street he sees what at first he takes for a man and then realizes is large, almost limbless tree stump with a mouthless face at its summit that he assumes to be the local god.  Most people seem to subsist solely on a strangely enticing liquor.  By morning disturbing events have begun and Ryre allows himself to be pulled toward a monstrous confrontation.
  Ryre is a fairly generic barbarian mercenary, towering in height and utterly loyal to his companion.  The world and adventure Campbell sets him to, however, is exquisitely creepy and original.  The unnaturalness of the town of Hoak and its mysteries are an affront to Ryre's straightforward warrior mind.  Campbell describes in great detail a town where the children's faces are "pinched and old" and there "parched streets" and "senile houses".
  I had never encountered Ryre until last year and I'm quite happy I did.  All four Ryre stories are well plotted and together create a world that seems to be rotting away.  Towns and people fade away, their personalities are stolen and people are eaten by monsters.  It's a perfect world for a warrior to wage war against.
   All the Ryre stories and four other heroic fantasy tales by Campbell are collected in "Far Away & Never" from Necronomicon Press.  It's something I'd like to get my hands on someday but not today at $40 and up.  Get cheap used copies of the Offutt's collections instead. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Swords & Sorcery Reading List - Chapter One Conan

  So, you may ask yourself, what does this presumptuous blogger think any new fan of this swords & sorcery stuff should read to get a taste for the best it has to offer?  What does he think form the foundations of today's heroic fantasy books and shorts stories?  Those are fair questions and I'll endeavor to answer them in as helpful a manner as I can.

   Robert E. Howard - he's really the fountain of this crazy genre.  His tales of Conan and Kull took the world building and fantastic elements of writers like William Morris, Lord Dunsany and E R Eddison, mixed them with the violent, brooding heroism of the old Norse and Celtic myths and legends as well as the color and exoticism of historical adventure fiction of writers like Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb and  the wildness and roughness of his own Texas, and took this concoction to new and different places from where its elements had come.
   With the creation of King Kull and Conan Howard pretty much created this whole swords and sorcery thing.  I think some of his stories with these two still stand as the apotheosis of the genre.  His stuff is good.  Maybe he never wrote a six ton epic fantasy doorstopper series, but I have reread his stories many times and I will reread them many times in the future.  There's a short, 
   There are only twenty Robert E. Howard Conan stories, one novel and four fragments.  Everything else is either pastiche, varying in quality from abysmal to not too bad, or finished by other hands and there's nothing really good to be sad about that.  There are some that started as historical tales and were converted by other hands for Conan's supposed benefit but not, alas, for we readers.  

   Sadly there's even less original Kull material.  Howard only published three stories while alive and left nine and poem behind after his death.  For whatever reason (and I suspect the Shield Wall folks over at the Robert E. Howard United Press Association can give you that info) he escaped the worst depredations of overeager posthumous collaborators and publishers. 

   I've already mentioned that my favorite Conan tales are "Beyond the Black River" and  "Red Nails".  I think they stand as the height of Howard's art and storytelling.  They provide vivid illustrations of his views on civilization and barbarism.  The first depicts the meeting of the utterly barbaric with the much more civilized.  The second presents us with civilization gone utterly to seed into deepest decadence.
   They are not just platforms for Howard's ideas about human society, they are exciting stories filled with action, swinging swords and monstrous foes.  The man could tell a tale that keeps the reader on edge the whole time.  There are steady swells that build to an overwhelming wave that threatens to engulf you.
   Both stories give Conan a chance to display his martial power as well as his sharp ability to study and understand his foes and the greater situation at hand.  Still while no monosyllabic brute he's not a man off civilization.  He moves with the implacability of a bear and the intelligence of a wolf but in both cases remains a wild creature.
   They are among the last Conan stories written and there's a sense that Howard might have finished what he had to say about the character.  He did write to Lovecraft that he saw his future writing to be in the field of westerns.  Who knows what he really might have done but ending Conan's tales here would have been satisfying.
   After these two stories, I would read about the earlier exploits of Conan in "The Tower of the Elephant", "Rogues in the House", and "The God in the Bowl".  All feature a lither Conan making his way as he can by stealing or sword wielding through civilization.  All the rest, as well as Howard's sole novel, "The Hour of the Dragon", are worth reading, as if we're to be serious here and you want to visit the roots of the genre you should be reading them all.  But start with the ones I've mentioned and you'll be off to a great start. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Slight Delay

Actually started rereading "The Black Company" after being disappointed by "Tides Elba".  Dang.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Tides Elba" - Glen Cook

  Glen Cook's stories of the Dread Empire and Black Company held the flag of brutal, epic fantasy high in the dawn of the age of endless doorstopper series of fantasy novels.  These books, each modest in link, brought the reader deep into corrupt and darkening worlds where good was absent, horrible things happened to major characters and the battles were big, bloody and described in all their terrible detail.

  The first time I ever saw anything by Glen Cook it was a rubber band bound set of the original three Dread Empire books on a shelf in the late Barrett Book Trader.  I figured anything called, I'll generously describe as archetypal, the Dread Empire had to be pretty bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.  Then I read "Filed Teeth" in Orson Scott Card's anthology, "Dragons of Darkness" and it blew me away.

   I didn't recognize Glen Cook as the author of the Dread Empire books I had so readily dismissed and I didn't realize that "Filed Teeth" was connected to them until several pages in.  By the time I finished the story I knew I had to get to on a bus and get those three books before they vanished.  I was still in high school and I was not flush with cash in those distant days.  If I didn't grab the cheap second hand ones I couldn't be sure of when I could afford them new.

   Fortunately I made it and since that day I've bought and read almost everything by Cook.  He's one of the few authors I'll still buy hardcovers of the week they're released.  

   When "The Black Company" and its immediate sequels came out a friend of mine bought them and they were quickly passed around like the great discovery they were.  From the very first pages of "The Black Company" the reader is thrown into the midst of savage events and complex politics and the plots of wizards and it's realized the protagonists are essentially in the pay of a ring-wraith.

   Croaker and all the other members of the mercenary company that we will come to know and love are presented as grown men with whole lives behind them. The company has a history and so do its members.  The war they hire on to is ongoing and the result of much pre-book history.  Cook also writes in a very contemporary voice without.  It took me a few chapters to become comfortable with it but in the end it makes you feel like your reading dispatches from some distant but current war.

  For those not in the know, the Black Company series is about the actions of a mercenary company with roots going back four centuries that hires on to work for a dark lord, known simply as the Lady, and help in the expansion of her empire.  The books are narrated by Croaker, company surgeon and annalist. His duty is to record and protect the annals of the Black Company, some going back to the group's near forgotten origins long ago and far away in the south of the world.  As such he is privy to much of the secret machinations of the Company's commanders and their employer.  Along the way there are battles, sieges, assassinations, magical battles and plots and schemes of wicked, knife twisting ingenuity.

  The world of the Black Company is colored dark shades of gray and black lit up by frequent splashes of red.  It takes the old standby tropes of dark lords (or ladies), wizards, brave soldiers and noble rebels and plays havoc with them.  The good guys are often only "good" because they stand in opposition to truly evil forces.  

   At the time there wasn't too much around like the Black Company trilogy.  Karl Edward Wagner wasn't writing anything new and Steven Erikson was years off.   Even the darkest Michael Moorcock stories have a sheen of artifice about them that makes them a little distant.  David Drake's fantasy from the time is probably the closest thing that comes to mind right now.  But the remember, the same year "The Black Company" came out was the same year the the first Dragonlance book came out.  That still makes me shudder.

   Eventually the Black Company series expanded beyond the covers of the original trilogy.  By its end in 2000 there were nine relatively short books covering decades of adventure and chaos.  While still good the last few were somewhat less engaging due to changes in the narrative voice.  Still, over almost twenty years, Glen Cook wrote one of then most brutal and gripping set of fantasy novel I've ever read (and re-read several times).

  While I was excited when I learned about Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders' new collection of heroic fantasy, "Swords & Dark Magic", I was extremely excited when I learned that it contained a Black Company short story.  The only previous short story about the Company was an excerpt from one of the novels.  Getting a short, sharp, new dose of the Black Company should be like a blast mainlined speed.

   Called "Tides Elba", it takes place between "The Black Company" and "Shadows Linger", the first and second books in the series.  The Company has been sent into garrison duty in the city of Aloe and things are just dandy.  Cards are played, women chased and nothing much happens - until Limper, one of their employer's sorcerous commanders, and an archenemy of the Company, makes an appearance.  Together they are to hunt down and capture a rebel leader known as Tides Elba (pronounced "Teadace Elba").

  And that's pretty much it.  There's some of the plotting, counterplotting, scheming and scheming within scheming that runs through all of Cook's novels but not much else.  It'd be great to run into characters like Croaker, Silent, One-Eye and Goblin again in a new story if the story was a good one, and this isn't one.

   Sure the idea of watching the Black Company come up with and carry out a new plot is a great setup for a story.  But then nothing happens.  The plotting isn't very complicated, the prize sort of boring and unless you've read at least "The Black Company" the characters and the events they reference won't mean that much to you.  I guess I was hoping for serious bloodletting and fireworks and instead got a scheme that didn't lead anywhere really worth following.  What a bummer and a let down.

   Still, Glen Cook's still writing other new stuff and supposedly somewhere down the line there're two new Black Company novels waiting to be born.  Until then I can always just reread the books that are out there already.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The White-Luck Warrior

   I finally finished R. Scott Bakker's "The White Luck Warrior".  It's the second volume of the The Aspect Emperor Trilogy, itself the second trilogy of his Second Apocalypse series.  I can't do justice here to the depth of the world and characters Bakker's created.  It's also the half way point in a planned nine book series and I won't even begin to describe what's going except to say it's big, very, very big.  I can say he's easily the only one of the big book writers right now doing anything I'll actually rush out to Barnes and Noble and buy it brand new in hardcover.

   Bakker's books are partially a homage to the works of Tolkien (particularly to the vastness of their world creation) and similar big epic fantasies of the past as well as platforms to explore the underpinnings of belief, power and obedience.  How do certain people achieve such control over all of us and how and why do we let them do it?

   I don't agree with Bakker about much (or at least what I've seen on his blog) regarding economics or politics, but I'm with him in support of world-building and epic fantasy as he's described in numerous interviews.   All five of Bakker's novels have captivated me and enthralled me with their scope and scale.  

   Oh, yeah, and their really, really cool.  There're battles, both with swords and arrows as well as with earth gouging magic, betrayal, mad barbarians and over it all is ladled serious amounts of crazy-sauce.  There are plots within plots and things man was not meant to know.  I bought the first one after being impressed by the interview linked to above and ended up finishing it in a day or two.  

   Check 'em out.  There are only five books right now, they're not too long, and there should only be four more to come.  As big epic series go I felt this one was worth my investment of time and money and I can't really recommend it enough.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Paging Norvell W. Page

  Until recently, I didn't know that Norvell W. Page, author of over ninety of the 119 Spider novels, as well as stuff for the Phantom and Shadow, wrote some of the earliest swords and sorcery novels.  In 1939 he wrote two books about Prester John; "Flame Winds" and "Sons of the Bear-God".  His character isn't the Crusades-era character of legend but an ex-gladiator from 1st century AD Alexandria gone east.  I just got both in the mail and hope to blow through them in the next week or so.

   Both books are just under 150 pages long so even if they're as poor as a Thongor book it doesn't matter. Woo hoo!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Hellsgarde" - C.L. Moore

   C.L. Moore's final story about Jirel, sword wielding, flame-haired, mistress of Joiry, a domain found somewhere in Dark Ages France, is the penultimate story in Sprague de Camp's "Swords and Sorcery" collection.  Despite containing the Conan story, "Shadows in the Moonlight" ("Iron Shadows in the Moon"), and the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, "While the Sea King's Away", it's my hands down favorite in the book.

   C.L. Moore, born Catherine Lucille in 1911 in Indianapolis, made her first professional sale hiding behind her sexless initials and introduced her first important character, Northwest Smith, in 1933.  That story, "Shambleau", was published in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales.  The next year saw the first story about Jirel of Joiry, "Black God's Kiss".  It was printed in Weird Tales as well.

   Over the following five years she wrote five more Jirel stories, including a crossover one with Northwest Smith called "Quest for the Starstone" (and co-written with her husband, Henry Kuttner).  While clearly influenced by Robert E. Howard's near single-handed creation of swords and sorcery, the Jirel stories are closer in mood to horror tales than the the more muscular sword swinging tales of Conan and the fictional followers he inspired.

   "Hellsgarde" describes Jirel's terrifying journey into and subsequent night spent in the long abandoned castle, Hellsgarde.  Two centuries earlier its violent ruler Andred took possession of an unknown but supposedly priceless treasure.  He was set upon almost at once from all sides by numerous men bent on taking it for themselves.  In the end Andred was tortured to death and torn from limb to limb, his blood spilled out onto the floor of his keep.  The treasure, though, he kept hidden and for himself.
  Jirel's undertaking is forced on her by Guy of Garlot.  He has taken several of her retainers hostage and their lives will only be spared if Jirel enters Hellsgarde and retrieves Andred's treasure.  Hellsgarde may only be found at evening and then, sitting in the middle of a marsh dangerous with quicksand, approached only across a long, narrow causeway.  Driven by the knowledge that Guy of Garlot's own keep is impregnable and his demand for the treasure is the only way to save her men, Jirel makes the sunset journey to Hellsgarde.

   Crossing the causeway she sees several ranks of soldiers seemingly in wait for her at the castle gateway.  Only as she nears them can she see they're dead, propped up on their own spears thrust through their throats or torsos or limbs.

  As she works to overcome her fear of the dead men and wonders how and why they came to be their the gate of Hellsgarde opens.  She is greeted by a man she sees as hunchbacked even though his back is straight. Jirel wonders if perhaps her impression is caused by the crookedness of his soul.

  Jirel quickly learns that the crooked man's master, Alaric, is responsible for the deaths of the propped up soldiers.  He informs her that Alaric comes from a distant branch of Andred's family and has come to claim his inheritance in Hellsgarde.  He also ensures Jirel that Alaric will make her most welcome.

  Daring to risk the night at Hellsgarde in order to determine if Alaric has come for and found Andred's lost treasure Jirel enters the castle.  Within she encounters only more strange and unsettling things.  The men who take her horse are more beast than man to her eyes and nothing they do shakes her from that impression.

   Inside the great hall of Hellsgarde, she finds Alaric sitting before a roaring fire.  He is surrounded by a several girls and women, two boys and two great greyhounds.  Behind him is his jester, a dwarf.

   Jirel quickly sees a similarity between Alaric, the doorman and the dwarf.  Though clearly not physically alike all three seem to be twisted by some great burden.  The women's faces seem hollow and the whites of their eyes too white.  Even the dogs seem wrong.  And yet she stays.

  What follows her meeting Alaric is an escalating series of disturbing events.  Like "The Valor of Cappen Varra", "Hellsgarde" doesn't read like a more typical swords and sorcery story.  It reads like a nightmare from the sufferer's perspective.  Jirel's discomfort, fear and determination are all conveyed perfectly by Moore's clear but its precision doesn't detract from the dark dreamlike atmosphere of the story.

  "Hellsgarde" is not like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  It has little of the ferocious physicality of the former or the humorousness of the latter.  Moore's story has more of the strangeness of the best of Moorcock's swords and sorcery.  Once Jirel crosses the causeway to Hellsgarde you can feel your feet shift under you as you realize the story is bringing you along into the uncertainty that makes up the sleeping world.

Note - All six Jirel stories are available from Paizo in the collection "Black God's Kiss".

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"The Valor of Cappen Varra" - Poul Anderson

   L. Sprague deCamp, engineer, author, editor. All in all a pretty busy guy who kept writing original material into his eighties. For my purposes, what interests me most here his discovery of and fascination with swords and sorcery and his editing skills.

   Ultimately, I don't care that much about his manipulation and mucking about with the Conan catalog and the resultant anger directed towards him by the legions of Robert E. Howard supporters. It was the de Camp edited Conan books and his pastiches with Lin Carter that turned me on to Howard.  They were cheap and ubiquitous and they're what got me going. Now, while not so cheap, the "pure" canonical Conan is easily come by, so it's all good these days.

   De Camp's love for Howard and the genre  (and you can argue abut that all you want but he clearly loved the stuff) in turn led him to edit several excellent collections of stories in the sixties and seventies.  While his Conan pastiches leave, shall we say, a lot to be desired, he did much to publicize and encourage the growth of the genre and those things are more than good enough for me.

   As an editor he sought to anthologize the building blocks of the genre as well as the best newer stories.   "Swords and Sorcery", edited by De Camp, and published in 1963 is accorded the honor (at least on wikipedia) of being the first anthology in the genre. It contains stories by Lord Dunsany, HowardKuttner, Lovecraft, Smith, Moore, Leiber and Anderson. Each story is also illustrated with a stunning Virgil Finlay illustration (he also did the cover art).

   It's a decent mix of foundational and contemporary writers.  They're all reprints and they're all at least good.  It represents about a good a cross section of the genre in 1963 as possible, though Michael Moorcock's Elric would have to wait until the follow-up collections.  But we do get Conan, Jirel and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser as well as Prince Raynor.  That's about as great a place any new fan could start.

   And then there's Poul Anderson's wily minstrel Cappen Varra.  Later he would go on to become one of the first denizens of Robert and Lynn Abbey's Thieves World series.  When first met he's a man stuck in the miserably cold and barbarous north after undertaking a vain effort to enrich himself at northern lord's court.  He had hoped his cultured southern songs would win over his new employer and his followers.  Only the lord isn't bored by Cappen Varra's songs but he's cheap.  When he decides to make a visit across the sea he drags the minstrel along into the icy night.
   There's not all that much plot to the story and it reads more like a fairy tale than the more typical blood and thunder story.  Trapped on his employers' boat in a storm, Cappen Varra's forced to risk facing a troll when he's sent to explore lights on a lonely island and acquire fire and dry kindling.
   Fortunately, Cappen Varra wears a silver amulet he was given by a wizard for past services that he believes will protect him from trolls.  All he has to do to activate it is voice three truths in the face of danger and he will be guarded against danger.  With this in mind he lands on the island with no fear.  Once there he does indeed find a troll and fire and another thing of great value.

   Cappen Varra clearly isn't the sword wielding barbarian but instead he's cast in the trickster mold.  His discomfort as a southern sophisticate stuck with on a ship full of pseudo-Norsemen is amusing.  His fast talking approach to the troll is as satisfying to encounter as Conan's sword technique is toward a Pict.
   I like Poul Anderson's excursions into fantasy.  From the fairytale dream world of "Three Hearts and Three Lions" to the utter darkness of "The Broken Sword" and "Hrolf Kraki's Saga", his fantasy novels are excellent.  If you haven't yet read "The Broken Sword" you need to now.  That's all I'll say about that for the time being.

  "The Valor of Cappen Varra" is a fun story in a fun collection.  The fairytale atmosphere is a great echo of the fireside tales of the skalds and bards (and griots) that are the ultimate roots of heroic fantasy.  The book can be found on Amazon for $3 plus the usual shipping and handling costs.  It's worth it if you don't have the various stories in other collections.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Swords & Sorcery Reborn

I'm going to devote time this summer to actually getting this blog up and running. I think I'll start by focusing on reviews and discussions of what I'm reading. I'll try and zero in on the foundational books and writers I referenced in my initial post. That means Howard, Smith, Leiber, Moorcock and the like.

But I will also continue to sample all the newer stories out there nowadays. There's almost a glut of heroic fantasy out there right now and some of it's pretty amazing. Some of it, well, it's usually better than Lin Carter's stuff.

Initiation: Conan the Warrior

The first Conan stories I read were the three collected in the Lancer Books collection "Conan the Warrior"; "Red Nails", "The Jewels of Gwalhur" and "Beyond the Black River". For my money the first and the last are two of Howard's best stories and still my favorites.

I found the book in one of the numerous boxes of science fiction and fantasy books in my attic when I was thirteen or fourteen. While I'd read the Elric and Hawkmoon stories by Michael Moorcock, most of the fantasy I'd been going through was of the Tolkien and Tolkien derived variety. Terry Brooks' "Sword of Shannara" had come out only a few years earlier when I was eleven and that sort of pastiche was the rage at the time. Most of the fantastic fiction I read was full of elves who spoke poetry, dwarves with long beards and axes and goodhearted small folk.

There had been some other exceptions, of course. My dad had the first couple of Lin Carter's "Flashing Swords" anthologies and Karl Edward Wagner's "Death Angel's Shadow" and I'd read them. But none of them compared to what I found in "Conan the Warrior".

"Red Nail" pits Conan and the female mercenary, Valeria, against dragons and the warring denizens of Xuchotil. Xuchotil is an entirely enclosed city made of jade and other rare minerals. Within, two factions have been fighting each other for generations. With Conan's arrival things come to a bloody head.

I was taken by the grim brutality of the story and the confidence and ferocious efficiency of Conan. The violent action is, suffice it to say, exciting and the setting fascinating. There is color and directness to Howard's writing and it grabbed me by the collar and shook me hard.

The second story is okay. I've never gone out of my way to reread "The Jewels of Gwalhur", but the third story, "Beyond the Black River" is the one the secured my respect for REH. I've read it numerous times and even listened to a pretty serviceable audiobook version.

It is different from the rest of the Conan cycle - Conan is a secondary character. It's told from the point of view of an Aquilonian settler, Balthus. He encounters Conan and together they're caught up in the beginnings of major uprising by the Pictish tribes. There are sorcerers, swamp demons and hordes of very Mohawk-like Pict warriors.

It's simultaneously my favorite Howard and Conan story and I can't recommend it enough. On a simple level the story is fast paced, violent and colored with bloody red strokes. It also presents Howard's ideas about civilization and barbarism forcefully. If you don't like the story you probably won't go for the rest of Howard's stories but if you don't like it then you probably wouldn't be here in the first place.