Monday, May 28, 2012

Into the Darkest Places - Nifft the Lean

   So nearly thirty years ago when Michael Shea's "Nifft the Lean" was first published by DAW, my friend Carl O. tossed it my way to read.  And I didn't.  Since then I've read a decent chunk of his horror writing and enjoyed it a lot (particularly the oft anthologized "The Autopsy").  Still, I never read "Nifft the Lean".  Even after reading that he'd written an authorized sequel to Jack Vance's "Eyes of the Overworld" called "A Quest for Simibilis" and an interesting original novel called "In Yana, the Touch of Undying" I didn't read "Nifft the Lean".  Now that I've read it I feel kinda dumb for missing out on Nifft for all these years.  Or at least somewhat deprived.

   The book, a collection of four novellas (or are they novelettes?) are cleverly presented as tales told to others and wrapped around by a eulogy for Nifft presented by his friend the scholar Shag Margold, mines material similar in baroque darkness to Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique.  He also works with a verbal palette similar to Smith's and Jack Vance's.  Nonetheless, Shea's despairing world, roguish character, disturbing visions and voice are wholly his own.

   The wraparound eulogy is studded with ludicrous and elaborate historical details and provides the readers with a complicated geography.  That history provides much of the humor in the book.  It's a black humor, such as when the narrator asks which is worse for a nation, to be ruled by a vampire queen or warmongers.  There are funny and outrageous bits in the actual tales of Nifft, but that is usually quickly smothered by the black events being chronicled and nature of the horrific things encountered therein.

   In the first story, "Come Then Mortal, We Will Seek Her Soul", Nifft and his fellow thief, Barnar, traveling across a swamp take refuge one night up in the branched of a great tree.  In the course of the night Nifft tells his companion a tale of how he and an earlier companion, Halder, traveled to the land of the dead and Halder came to remain there.

   Speaking incautiously, but sincerely, Halder, hoping to perform one truly great, artistic theft, summons up a spirit of a dead woman, Dalissem.  She offers them a great treasure if they will bring her still living lover, Defalk, to her in the land of the dead.  They had sworn a mutual suicide pact but he failed to keep his end of the arrangement.  Smitten by her beauty and deathly majesty, Halder immediately accepts her offer.

   The first portion of the tale is about Nifft and Halder's approach to the task at hand.  They have limited compunctions about what they're willing to do to carry out their bargain with the dead woman.  They kidnap Defalk and in order to enter the land of the dead speed a dying man to his end with poison.  They are as roguish as Vance's Cugel, but much more intelligent and clearly worthy of their acclaim as great theives.

   It's following their piggybacking into the land of the dead where Shea kicks things into overdrive.  David Pringle's "Modern Fantasty - The Hundred Best Novels" describes the story's land of the dead as Boschean.  It's not an inadequate description.

   There are sewers filled with the squalling and flopping spirits of the damned that lead to great monster filled seas.  On the land their are demon occupied homes thatched with bones and caulked with blackened blood.  In other places the damned are bled and harvested.  It is as dark and relentless a place as can be imagined.
   What I enjoyed most about the story is Nifft's gradually changing attitude toward Defalk.  Pudgy and concerned with status and wealth, Nifft has no initial sympathy for him, especially in light of his oath breaking.  During the tale's unfolding Defalk accumulates a certain amount of dignity and Nifft finds himself almost pitying whatever fate Dalissem has in store for her unfaithful lover.
  The second story, "The Pearls of the Vampire Queen" is a little more mundane.  Nifft and Barnar, hoping to poach a cache of black pearls from the forbidden-to-outsiders swamps of the Vampire Queen Vulvula.  Along the way they discover the nearness in time of an event that can set the stage for acquiring even greater wealth than anticipated.

   Each year the Queen takes a new king and at a year's end must drain him of all blood or she will age.  Of course this leads to Nifft and Barnar devising a plan to gain a quantity of the king's blood and hold it for ransom.  It involves spying and sneaking and the use of a monstrous puppet.  

   The third, and longest, of the stories is "The Fishing of the Demon-Sea".  Nifft and Barnar are framed for thievery by Kamin, the Rod-Master of Kine Gather, one of that city's wealthy councilmen.  To avoid an elaborate and painful execution they are forced to seek out his son, Winmfort, in the primary underworld (there are at least two deeper and darker ones under the primary).  The son foolishly experimented with dark magic and contrary to his teacher's admonitions, rarely studied all he should or acted with due and proper caution.  The result was his imprisonment by an aquatic demon and trip straight to the underworld.
   This time a second party's death isn't required for Nifft's translation to another world.  Kine Gather and the surrounding lands of Kairnheim are riddled with rifts to the demonic subworld.  They were caused by the constant use of poorly thought out and employed magic by Kairnheim's two warring peoples, the Prior Kairns and the Latter-Kairns.  The endless fighting by poorly cast spells has weakened the junctures between the mortal and demonic worlds.  Nifft and Barnar enter the underworld through a portal at the bottom of a mine shaft dug to deeply by workmen in past days.  
   The first goal of the adventurers' journey is to find the human adventurer, Gildmirth the Privateer.  In ages past his actions trapped him in the underworld.  Nifft and Barnar hope to find him and get his aid in tracking down and freeing Wimfort.  They hope that Gildmirth's long knowledge of the underworld will let them rescue the boy and bring him back into the light of the world above.
   More than the landscape of "Come Mortal, We Shall Find Her Soul", that of "The Fishing of the Demon-Sea" is truly Boschean.  The demon citizens of the underworld feast on the devastation and pain they wreak on the souls of the humans they hold in thrall.  This is done with transformation and torture of the most unbelievable manners.  While sailing the sea of the title, Nifft and his companions come across a demon's slave broken free of her captivity: "It was a woman. The great fan she was splayed against was unbroken, and we could see how it originated from her flesh. Her extended spine was its center-rib. From her sides the grey of nerves and red-and-blue map of veins entered the fan’s weave. So did her long black hair, spreading out on it like a vine on a wall. Nerve-threads from her nipples, and the abundant dark fern-curls of her loins, complicated her bondage above and below. The fan spun slowly, trailing a torn-out root stalk."  And there are worse things waiting once they begin their return trip.
   The finale of the book's quartet of tales is "The Goddess in Glass".  Nifft is more of a sideplayer in this tale of the ironmongering city of Anvil Pastures, ore excreting beasts and an alien goddess.  It's a little too long and suffers from Nifft's secondary status.  His lively narration is much of what makes the first three stories enjoyable.  Still, Shea provides several striking images that rectify some of the lack of Nifft.
  "Nifft the Lean" is a dark book.  The land of the dead and the underworld of the demons is unrelentingly painful and horrible.  But they're also places of terrible majesty and worth a visit.  
   There are two later full length novels continuing Nifft's escapades, "The Mines of Behemoth" and "The A'rak".  I've yet to read them though I do plan to at some point.  The former is available with "Nifft the Lean" in the compilation "The Incompleat Nifft".  All the Nifft books are available at decent prices on Amazon.  I can't say anything about the later books, but I wholeheartedly recommend getting your hands on a copy of "Nifft the Lean" and savoring Shea's dark vintage.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Seven Princes - John R Fultz

   Finally finished John R. Fultz's "Seven Princes",the first volume of his Books of the Shaper series.  I'm in agreement with most of the reviewers of it I've read; it's a blast.  From the opening pages there's an operatic quality to the events and characters Fultz creates.  Our heroes and villains are princes, a princess, forgotten pre-human powers and giants.  The prologue gives us an evil sorcerer, rampaging zombies and  an usurped prince.  The book never stops moving at a heart pounding pace from there.
   The world of the "Seven Princes" is one of giants and deep-dwelling, monstrous serpents.  Dark shadows strike in the night, rending flesh and drinking blood.  In distant jungles an ancient evil rises and plots and in another realm a king abdicates, driven to despair by dark visions and fear of madness.  Soon the whole world is on the verge of war.
   The book doesn't break any new ground, but dang, does it do what it does with panache.  Fultz has remembered what I think a lot of the grimdark authors forget - he's writing fantasy not realism.  If it's fantasy, why not make it as fantastical and extreme as possible sometimes?  
   Readers don't want to be reminded all the time of the dirt and grime they can see on the streets around them.  Sometimes they just want over-the-top action and heroics.  "Seven Princes" delivers that by the bushelful.   Plus the above mentioned, there are godlike entities towering into the clouds battling each other and ship crushing monsters.  Unexpected deaths and setbacks help maintain the suspense and cliffhanger pacing.
   I do have a few issues with the book.  At times the writing's a little hackneyed and the resolution's a little swift for all the magnificent build up.  Still, neither comes close to hurting Fultz's epic.  I really can't wait until next January when "Seven Kings" debuts.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Issue #4 of Swords and Sorcery Magazine On Line

   Okay issue of Swords and Sorcery Magazine online this month.  The first story, clearly S&S, is "Royal Steel" by Leigh Kimmel.  The second, clearly not, is "There Might Be Giants" by David Turnbull.
   "Royal Steel" is set in a city that once served as the summer capital of the late King Suslan.  Years ago he was slain by the evil sorcerer (as they too often are, called here a diabolist) Vorgun.  In the wake of the kingdom's conquest, Suslan's sword, Steelheart, vanished.  The royal line also appears to have died out with Suslan.  Unfortunately only someone of royal blood can safely kill a diabolist without loosing a plague of demons upon his death.
   Which is where the protagonist, Ashken, comes in.  Selling meat from a cart in the street with her grandfather, she runs afoul of Vorgun's soldiers.  Fleeing from them she encounters strange forces and becomes a player in events beyond her normal worries.
   The story's short and predictable.  However, I like the Ukrainian/Caucasus touches Kimmel used in sketching her tale's world.  While they don't elevate "Royal Steel" to anywhere special, they do help the story feel a little more realized than most generic S&S does. 
   David Turnbull's story, "There Might Be Giants", is an odd concoction that mixes politics, fable and dysfunctional family dynamics.  While depicting the aftermath of a people's rebellion by Tell Eulenspiegel in fantastic-Germanic setting, it's no S&S.  What it is is a well done tale of seduction (non-sexual) between a jailer's son and a man named Jack imprisoned for misleading the "people" into believing there where giants threatening the land and they needed killing.  Which, of course, only Jack could do and only for a price.
   Swords and Sorcery Magazine is a new publication offering low prices for stories so the quality's still evolving.  Still, it's another venue for new stories and hopefully Curtis Ellett, the editor, will be able to keep it going and keep bringing it up to better and better levels.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

In the Mail

   Waiting on "Imaro: The Naama War" from (it's what prompted me to write the previous post).  They e-mailed that it printed and shipped and that's got me as about excited about the prospect of a new book in the mail can get me.  I still can't believe I'm only ordering it now instead of when it first came out.
   I also just downloaded "Griots", ed. by Charles Saunders and Milton Davis, and Tim Power's "Hide Me Among the Graves" just arrived via USPS.  Good  reading ahead.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The City of Madness - Enter Charles R. Saunders

  I've been lax in writing about older stuff lately because I've become a terribly slow reader this year AND obsessed with Fallout: New Vegas.  So to jump start things I went to one of the masters from the swords & sorcery heyday in the seventies, now reborn in the new century; Charles R. Saunders.
   I suspect that by now most folks reading this site are familiar with Saunders and his genre expanding character, Imaro the Ilyassi warrior (and as I've said before about certain other writers; if you haven't read Saunders at least get a cheap copy of the first book, "Imaro").  Set in Nyumbani (which is derived from the Swahili word for 'home'), an alternate magical version of Africa, Imaro fights against a raft of villains that eventually lead to his participation in the great war against the Lovecraftian Mashataan.  Inspired by his love of heroic fiction, a lack of black protagonists, the racism or at least stereotyped portrayal of black characters, and a love of African culture, history and mythology, Saunders created his hero.  To quote the author himself,  "(Imaro was) specifically created as the brother who could kick Tarzan's ass".  I'll leave that to all you Tarzan fans out there to debate amongst yourselves, but I'll just say, Imaro is one tough, monster-fighting, evil wizard-killing machine.
  His first story, and Imaro's debut, was "M'ji Ya Wazimu " published in Gene Day's "Dark Fantasy #5" in 1974.  Lin Carter got his hands on it and republished under the title "The City of Madness" in "The Year's Best Fantasy Stories" from DAW in 1975.  Not owning the first, I don't know if there's any difference between the two but I expect if so it's nothing major.  The major changes came when the tale was integrated into the large, growing saga of Imaro.  It next showed up as the final portion of  Saunder's first novel, "Imaro" from DAW in 1981, which was a fix-up of the first several Imaro tales.  Finally, in the revised "Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush" from Night Shade in 2007, it became the first chapter.
   Briefly, following events preceding the actual story, Imaro is in search of a man named Bomunu who betrayed him and his bandit army and then stole his woman, Tanisha.  Imaro is a mighty warrior and bandit chief, exiled by the people of his birth.  Tracking his enemy through the forest, Imaro encounters a pygmy being tortured by a strange trio of white-skinned warriors.  He saves the pygmy whom he learns is named Pomphis.  Soon they tell each other the life stories and how they've ended up together in the forest.  Pomphis tells Imaro he saw a man and woman captured by other whites.  Pomphis, believes the whites are a group of Atlantean survivors, servants of the Mashataan who once enslaved much of Nyumbani, and have taken the prisoners to their hidden city.  Imaro, of course, with Pomphis in tow, sets off to save Tanisha and vanquish the Atlanteans.  Brutal fighting, evil sorcery, bloodshed and other mighty shenanigans ensue.
   The revisions make the story better in the ways it fits into Imaro's growing story and as written.  In the first version, the clunky archaism of "Strange and weird were the ornaments around their waists" becomes "Even more unusual than their complexion and hair were the ornaments at their waists".  It's a minor thing, but throughout, the prose is polished and brought up a notch or two.  Exposition that originally came in the form of a memory of Imaro's instead is changed to an opportunity for Pomphis to display his deep knowledge of Nyumbani's history.  In fact, the scholarly Pomphis is now presented as knowing more while Imaro, unexposed to the great civilizations of Nyumbani, knows less.  There is more about Imaro's past childhood and past life alluded to in the fix-up story; Imaro is moved to action in saving Pomphis in rewritten story by memories of a similar incident in his youth.  The whole tale moves more easily and gracefully than as originally written but without losing its demon fighting wallop.
  "The City of Madness" is fairly routine stuff strictly plot wise, though way better than much of the dreck that crowded the field back then.  It's all the other stuff it brings to the game of S&S that makes it especially interesting, even noteworthy.  The creation of Imaro and the Nyumbani setting was an attempt to rectify the absence of black images and perspectives in heroic fiction.  Imaro also came into being at the height of the blaxploitation era where, issues of the genre's attitudes about criminality aside, there where tough, black heroes doing tough, heroic things.
   As a white guy from a white neighborhood, who grew up in the seventies, when things like "Wee Pals" and Sesame Street made it seem like issues of race were only getting better and progressing toward a shiny and bright tomorrow, it's tough to imagine what the impact of reading Imaro might have been like for a black reader at the time.  I'd like to think it would have been at least invigorating.  If it works so well for me, how would I have responded to it from a non-white position?  Imaro's tough and smart, Pomphis is funny and quick witted and Tanisha's sexy but no pushover.  The villains are creepy, decaying white men skulking in their ruined city, using the Nyumbani they kill for horrific purposes.  There's also the implication that Imaro is part of a larger, epic story that is just getting underway and there are only bigger and more powerful things to come for him.  It's an appealing introduction to the character.
   It should have been a hit but it wasn't.  I'm fascinated by what DAW did when it came time to publish Imaro in book form.  The first (and almost immediately pulped) cover for the first book read "The Epic Novel of Black Tarzan".  The image of Imaro on the cover is also a pretty much "Tarzan with a suntan".  Considering Saunder's explicit goal in creating Imaro, it's a little jarring.  Digging out my copies of the original books from the eighties, I was a little startled to see that "The Quest for Cush" had a blurb from Analog  that reads "A whole new flavor of heroic fantasy".  It might be me, but there's something almost demeaning about referring to what Saunders was undertaking as simply a "new flavor".  When the third book, "The Trail of Bohu", failed to meet DAW's expectations, Saunders was dropped from their roster.  He disappeared from the genre pretty much for the next twenty-five years.  The regular (and I'm only assuming it was mostly white) fantasy buying audience wasn't buying.  Maybe DAW could have marketed it differently or targeted it better in order to build up a readership.  I sure don't know.  All I do know is that until I came across Dale Rippke's "Heroes of Dark Fantasy" a decade ago I had never heard of Imaro or Charles R. Saunders.
   In 2006 Night Shade announced it was republishing the original three Imaro novels to be followed by two new ones.  Again, for all sorts of reasons, the project failed.  After publishing the first two books, claiming poor sales, they dropped Imaro.  This time, though, Saunders didn't walk away.  He hooked up with several small publishers and the interweb wonder that is lulu and has become a novel writing machine.  There's a fourth Imaro book, "Imaro: The Naama War", two featuring his warrior-woman character, Dossouye, and a pulp novel.  He's also been part of a gestating sword and soul movement gearing to encouraging the creation of and getting in print more black themed heroic fantasy.  With fellow author Milton Davis, he edited "Griots", a collection of sword & soul short stories.  Pretty cool.

      To stick a toe into the discussion on Black Gate this weekend started by Theo Beale and prompted by an article by Daniel Abraham, I'm going to say sometimes you got go for the authenticity, sometimes for the mythical.  I tend to prefer the latter myself and it's a big part of what I'm seeking in heroic fantasy.  REH's Hyboria doesn't work because it's a tightly interlocking, realistic world.  It works because it's a land of adventure where Conan's epic undertakings are called for by the land itself.  It's no more true to the real northern Europe of the Volsung saga or the real Britain of the various King Arthurs.  But all are true to readers and the stories being told.  They aim for our hearts and souls.
   Nyumbani serves the same valuable purpose.  It's a mythic place created to birth new legends and offer up a perspective different from the more usual Northern European or Mediterranean ones.  I've become stupidly excited about the work being done by Charles Saunders and friends to push at and expand heroic fantasy beyond its long played in boundaries.  It's an interesting time for swords & sorcery and I love being here on the sidelines watching and commenting as it morphs and grows.