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.