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.