Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dweomera Lagomorpha Asks About Heroes

   Prompted by an article in Salon, Lagomorph Rex continues the examination he and others have been conducting on the lack of heroism, or at least the preponderance of nihilism, anti-heroism and the like in too much modern fantasy.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Issue #93 Beneath Ceaseless Skies - Review

   So the new issue of BCS arrived today.  It's two stories are "The Ivy-Smothered Palisade" by Mike Allen and "Pridecraft" by Christian K. Martinez.  The former is described by its author as dark fantasy and it surely is.  The second is an interesting sci-fi tale and as such I'll leave its review to worthier parties.  This issue's podcast is of last issue's "Bearslayer and the Black Knight" by Tom Crosshill.
   "The Ivy-Smothered Palisade" takes the shape of a desperate letter written by Daeliya to her companion, Eyan.  In explaining to Eyan about the reason for her disappearance, she's written a letter telling of her childhood, condemnation to an orphanage upon her parents' execution and her escape.  From the high-fenced yard of the orphanage she had seen a walled manor covered in ivy and seemingly abandoned.  On her escape she heads for the estate but climbing its the palisade of the title is severely injured.
   Daeliya awakes to find herself under the care of Leonid, a strangely pale boy given to the study of old tales of horror and mystery.  Over time she comes to learn many things, culminating in the nature of the manor and its inhabitants.
   I loved this story.  It brought to mind, in the best possible way, Brian McNaughton's "Throne of Bones" or a less hashish suffused Clark Ashton Smith story.  The roots of "The Ivy-Smothered Palisade", like so much great S&S lie deeply in horror.  I'm glad to encounter them in such a well told tale.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Black Company to Ride Again

  This just caught my eye - there are indeed new Black Company novels in the works.  A reader mentioned this news some time back in my negative review of "Tides Elba", Cook's short story in the "Swords and Dark Magic" collection.  The notice linked to above says Cook has already written two short stories to be expanded into a novel called "Port of Shadows" that takes place between the events of  "The Black Company" and "Shadows Linger".  I'm assuming "Tides Elba" is one of the stories.  As part of a book I'd probably give the story at lot more slack.
   There's also a second book, called "A Pitiless Rain" set after the conclusion of the last Black Company novel, "Soldiers Live".  The Black Company books are easily among my favorite fantasy books and I don't want to wait for either one.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Issue 12 - review

   Nothing but good stuff in this season's issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.  Of three stories, two qualify as straight S&S.  The third, while very good and original doesn't fit into the genre.  All three poems can be read from a S&S perspective though that doesn't really matter.  The cover art is by Mariusz Gandzel.
In "Crown of Sorrows" by Seamus Bayne, the mercenary Ordwin is forced to serve as a pawn in King Theisius' great game with King Archese.  For decades the two rulers have struggled for control of seven magical items, possession of each garnering its holder a point.  If at any time one player has twice as many points as the other he becomes the winner.  Theisius has contrived a plan of exquisite sadism and to achieve it needs a warrior the like of Ordwin.  Unable to resist the power of Theisius, Ordwin sets off for the lair of the beast king in order to retrieve a magical golden crown.  It's a well done quest tale with an ending that could well serve as the jumping off point for a much longer story.
   "Rhindor's Remission" by Russell Miller is of that rare breed; a genuinely funny story.  Rhindor is an aged wizard burdened with an incompetent apprentice and a harridan of a housekeeper.  His body's falling to bits and the intact parts aren't working right anymore.  When a old foe, Mortigar, confronts him exclaiming he now possesses the Staff of Dar'Tith and is unbeatable, Rhindor informs him a shovel would've sufficed.  I like this one very much and it served as a nice respite from all the blood and thunder I've been reading over the past week.
   As I said, the last tale, Spencer Ellsworth's "Blade and Branch and Stone" isn't S&S.  What it is though is a very good story set in a blackpowder and magic world.  It's set in the days following the end of a war between men and the Fei, a race of treelike beings.  By far the most ambitious story in the issue and the most original, Ellsworth's created a strange and intriguing world.
   The three poems are all enjoyable.  "Burying the Ploughshare" by Bethany Powell is about why a boy needs to pick up his father's sword.  "Sidhe-Song" by Phil Emery, redolent of Celtic gloom, tells of Connor and an elven-woman.   Finally, "Legend" by Colleen Anderson is memorializes the fading days of a mighty creature.
   HFQ #12's an solid success.  It's free to read so there's no reason you're not doing so right now.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Issue #92 Beneath Ceaseless Skies - Review

  Graced with a beautiful cover work called "Remember" by artist Zsófia Tuska, Issue #92 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is now online.  It's got two new stories and a podcast of "A Place to Stand" by Grace Seybold from Issue #89 of February 23 of this year.
  The first story,  "Bearslayer and the Black Knight" by Tom Crosshill, is described by the author as "a tale of heroes, war and love and very loosely inspired by the Latvian national epic "Bearslayer".  Every other section is written as epic poetry bolstering the mythic quality the story's striving for as it tells of the struggle between Bearslayer, Champion of the Latts and the Black Knight of the Greni.  The non-poetic sections tell us what truly transpired between the two heroes and the poetic provide us the myth created when the battle is done.  The myth does not reflect reality, instead, only what two warring tribes desire.  In the midst of war two champions, both created by monstrous means, sense a shared pain and come to love each other through mutual empathy.  It's all a little too vague and limp for me.
   "Sinking Among Lilies" by Cory Skerry is another matter.  This brutal examination of exploitation and the obligation to become involved in the muck of life and cherish the scars that that can cause is one of the better stories I've come across lately.  Imuri Bane is an ex-member of the Order of the Divine Lady.  In his travels he appears to make a living fighting off various anathema, the generic name for supernatural creatures.  We meet Imuri as he enters the coastal town of Keyward and from the non-human skulls at its entrance to the protective iron bars, a substance inimical to anathema, across all windows, he can see that it's a town where he can earn some money.
   Of course things are rarely what they seem to be in stories and they aren't in "Sinking Among the Lilies".  I like the world Skerry limns and the evocative magical terms he employs, like "Sinking Among the Lilies" and "Watching-as-the-Owl".  I also appreciate that alienness of the anathema encountered and their appropriate inhumanity.
  There you have.  Check it out.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Issue #3 of Swords and Sorcery Magazine On Line

The third issue of the new "Swords and Sorcery Magazine" posted the other day.  Like the previous issues it contains two new stories.  There's no reason not to spend the thirty minutes or so reading them both.
   The first, is "Love and Scorpions" by Steve Goble.  A repairer of saddles has acquired an elixir that allows him to create a dream world and a dream woman.  Over succeeding nights he visits that world hoping to win her hand.  Needless to say there are complications.  It's a interesting story of dreams and longing fired by the dreariness of humdrum life.
   "In the Hills of Yost" by Jeffrey Scott Sims reads like something from Weird Tales.  Following a victorious battle against the evil Rhexellites, Morca of the Dyrezan army leads an expedition to hunt down any survivors hiding in the hills.  They soon encounter an abandoned city and the repulsive idol of the god Blug.  There's nothing new going on here but it's well enough done.
   Sims' characters speak in a not always successful archaic style that leads to lines like " I detect in this loathsome pile no majesty, no inspiration of awe, nor even reverential terror".  It almost works and as much as the plot lends to the story's Clark Ashton Smith feel.
   It's also too short.  The story reads more like a little bit of exposition letting the reader know where Morca was when he was off screen in a much longer tale than a stand alone short story.  It's brevity prevents the characters and events from developing enough.
   So neither is groundbreaking but they're not bad.  I think "Love and Scorpions" is better written and more successful but the little bits of background created in "In the Hills of Yost" made me want to see a little more of where Sims is taking things.  I'm happy to see the fine people of "Swords and Sorcery Magazine" doing their part to publish and promote the genre.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jack Palance vs. the Great Old Ones - The Scroll of Thoth

    Richard L. Tierney is a poet, writer and editor.  With David C. Smith he wrote a series of novels based on the Marvel Comic's Red Sonja character. He's also written several Lovecraftian novels.  My only exposure to him are his Simon of Gitta stories.
   It's taken more effort than I anticipated to finish "The Scroll of Thoth". I never expected to have to work so much to make myself keep picking up the book and work my way through it.  It's a collection of all of the Simon of Gitta tales written solely by Tierney, first for Andrew Offutt's "Swords Against Darkness" anthologies and then mostly for small press publications like Weirdbook and Crypt of Cthulhu. The stories use the Biblical figure of Simon Magus and place him historically detailed, Lovecraftian drenched sword and sandal adventures across the Roman Empire of the first century A.D. Several only appeared in their final forms in this beautifully presented collection published in 1997 as part of Chaosium's often excellent series of Call of Cthulhu fiction.
   In addition to several stories written with co-authors, there a Simon novel called "The Drums of Chaos".  I don't plan to inject my political or religious (you're already getting enough of my opinions anyways) views with any sort of regularity into this blog but I've got to admit that it's portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth as a Wilbur Whateley clone means I'm not going to being checking it out anytime soon.  Once in a while though, they're bound to slip out, and not mentioning "The Drums of Chaos"  and its controversial central point seems dishonest.
   Simon Magus, aka Simon of Gitta, appears in the Book of Acts as a sorcerer who converts to Christianity.  A short time later on seeing St. Peter bringing the Holy Ghost to people by the laying on of hands he offers money for the same abilities and is rebuked for such a sinful offer. 
   Simon later appears in works by early church fathers as a central figure in Gnosticism.  There are references to Simon of Gitta, who  is described as the religious leader of all the Samaritans.  He also makes appearances in several apocryphal documents including the Acts of Peter where he duels the Apostle with sorcery.
   Fictionally, Simon serves as the villain in Thomas B. Costain's novel "The Silver Chalice". In the film of the novel he's played by Jack Palance.  Robert Price informs us in the book's lengthy introduction Tierney's Simon of Gitta is indeed meant to resemble the late, high cheeked actor. Several times his unusually chiseled cheeks are mentioned. One of Tierney's interesting techniques is his use of both film and literary genre references.  Sometimes it helps put a story into a seemingly greater context of already known expectations and tropes and other times is seems gratuitous.

   Presented chronologically, not in publication order, Simon of Gitta appears first in "The Sword of Spartacus" condemned to the arena for killing a tax collector. He is chosen by the Samaritan sorcerer Dositheus for a special fight in the arena. The sorcerer's master, Tages the Etrurian, is a magically preserved survivor of Spartacus' uprising a century earlier.  With the eponymous sword of the title he plans for Simon to initiate the end of Rome.
   Following the events of "The Sword of Spartacus" Simon becomes a student of Dositheus and a part of a great conspiracy to destroy the Roman Empire. Aided by Romans looking to reestablish the Republic the conspiracy comes to a head in "The Fire of Mazda". Here he also meets his literal soul mate, Helen.  Several of the stories involve the things keeping them separate as well as the willingness of Simon to risk his life and soul to overcome those barriers.
   Throughout the remaining ten stories and novellas Simon faces off against great evils with his quick sword, magical knowledge and powerful soul. The later reflects the Gnostic universe the stories inhabit.  Simon is a "true spirit", his soul possessing a shard of the true divine spirit of the universe. This sets him in direct opposition to the forces that would destroy mankind and remake the Earth for their malign purposes; specifically the Lovecraftian Old Ones.
   The premise is interesting, the history is fascinating and the fannish aspects often intriguing.  Still, I found it a tremendous slog to make it to the book's end.  On reflection I think it's because many of the stories are just kind of boring.  There's not a lot of life to them.
   The early ones are definitely the worst offenders.  Simon is forced by others to confront something he doesn't understand.  Then by means he doesn't understand he overcomes or escapes.  Coupled with that they're long.  "The Fire of Mazda" and "The Seed of the Star-God" are both around forty pages of a confounded Simon, long, dry exposition, followed by a dull plodding, determined Simon.

   "The Blade of the Slayer" is the first story I actually enjoyed but I'm not sure if it's the story itself or the gimmick Tierney used in its telling that worked for me.  Hiding out from bandits, Simon comes across the world's first murderer ensnared in a magical trap.     Can you see it coming, S&S fans?  The prisoner turns out to be a certain familiar red haired, blue eyed killer created by the late Karl Edward Wagner.  And it works, but then I'm a sucker for team-ups of major characters, from REH's "Kings of the Night" to Wagner's own "The Gothic Touch".
   The quality of the tales pick up when Egypt becomes the setting for five stories linked by Simon's tutelage under the high priest of Ptah, ancient god of primordial creation. The tales are shorter and move faster.  Several are actually exciting, replete with lost temples, ancient relics and dark magics, particularly "The Worm of Urakhu." This subset of stories also brings Tierney's fanboy stylings to the fore.
   On the good side he expands his Lovecraftian references beyond HPL and August Derleth to include Robert Bloch and Brian Lumley. It's fun watching how Tierney plays with the HPL Mythos and folds it into bits of real history and create a unified "true" history of the world.
   On the bad side is the introduction of elements from Dune and Star Wars.  Actually, the Dune stuff isn't wholly unsuccessful.  Frank Herbert's sandworms and their homeworld of Arrakis fit smoothly into Tierney's Mythos games.  He presents them in a way that makes sense.  The morbidly obese Baron Harkonnen and his nephew Feyd don't. Their Roman avatars turn up in "The Curse of the Crocodile" as Simon's opponents.  The only life the characters have is what a reader of Dune might bring with him.  Unlike the sandworms they don't mesh well with the concoction of genre elements Tierney's created.

   The Star Wars business just sits there to no real purpose.  We get Boba Fett, Darth Vader and several other characters from George Lucas' films for no apparent reason.  Since the characters don't really get used in any exciting or innovative way I'm not quite sure what purpose is served by their introduction.  Robert Price, in his introduction to the story, writes about how Lucas' characters were just versions of the archetypes in Joseph Campbell's writings and that they performed the same function in Simon of Gitta's adventure. Again, like Baron Harkonnen they're distractingly pointless.

   Tierney's intricate worldbuilding is successful precisely because it's so intricate. Robert Price's lengthy foreword and introductions to each of the stories show the immense amount of research Tierney did in his study of ancient history, religion and Gnosticism as well as his deep knowledge of the HPL Mythos. That deep detail is what gives Simon's world a solid reality. Suspension of disbelief requires little effort. Until you get somebody else's characters running around like they stepped in from another soundstage and then it all falls apart. If the stories weren't written with such conviction I wouldn't have been so offended by Yoda showing up. In a lighter tale it might have worked, but not here.
   The concluding stories are passable. We get a front seat to the assassination of Caligula, learn the ultimate fate of Pontius Pilate, and meet Deep Ones in the harbor of Tyre.  Along the way Simon learns more secrets about the evil machinations behind the events of day-to-day world and fights monsters.  Never once does it get that exciting and that's a big component of what I'm looking for in S&S.  It's really sort of the primary element.

   Finally there's the problem of Tierney's actual writing. Most of the time characters' speech is presented in a more or less Standard English with a veneer of more theatrical adornments. The dying emperor Tiberius cries out "From the blackness beneath the pyramids I hear it crawling.  Do you not hear? Do you not see?  Ah-those cursed fiery eyes!"
   In other words, typical for much of S&S and more than appropriate.  But Tierney drops in disconcerting terms that that just don't work and again, like the introduction of the Star Wars and Dune characters knock the reader out of the verisimilitude that's been so painstakingly developed.  One of the worst examples is when Simon thinks someone "runs pretty fast for a little twerp". I'm putting a lot of blame on that little word twerp, but similar incidents occurs throughout the stories and it's annoying. It's one thing if all his characters spoke that way, like in Glen Cook's writing, but they don't and there's no real rhyme or reason to when it happens.
   So there have it, after a month of working my way through "The Scroll of Thoth", my take on it. If you've got any of the Simon of Gitta in their their original publications and haven't read them yet, check them out to at least see the result of the extensive worldbuilding Tierney carried out. It's pretty amazing. Heck, you might even like the stories. They're not bad like a Lin Carter (and he really is my standard of bad S&S) story.  I just found them mostly boring.
   However, I can't recommend getting your own copy of "The Scroll of Thoth". In putting this together I was shocked to learn the cheapest copy on Amazon is  going for $60 bucks.  It's just not worth the investment.