Friday, July 27, 2012

Issue #100 Beneath Ceaseless Skies - Review

   The always interesting, often excellent Beneath Ceaseless Skies has just hit its one-hundredth issue.  To mark this anniversary the fine editors have released this issue with four outstanding stories. 

   The first is "In the Palace of the Jade Lion", a ghostly tale by Richard Parks.  A young, newly minted Imperial censor,  Xu Jian, falls in among ghosts while journeying along a poorly chosen road to his first posting.  It's a splendid bit of chinoiserie with adventures both romantic and dangerous.
   "Ratcatcher" by Garth Upshaw is apocalyptic steam-punk.  I'm not overly fond of the modern iterations of the sub-genre (I don't mean to sound snobbish but Moorcock/Jeter/Blaylock/Powers have pretty much mined out the field for me) but it's a taut, grim adventure that seems to reference the future sequences of the Terminator movies.
   In Christie Yant's "The Three Feats of Agani" a young girl is told three stories about a ancient god called Agani.  Normally the stories are told at maturity, marriage and finally when a loved one dies.  The story opens with an unnamed nine-year old girl facing the funeral bier of her father accompanied by an older woman of no relation.  The woman has decided the time to tell the girl all three stories is at hand and the reader hears them in her voice.  Each concerns the brutal interactions of Agani with the world of man.  
   The final story in the issue is the intriguing "Virtue's Ghosts", the first published story by Amanda M. Olson.  She's created a world where on passing from childhood each citizen is given a pendant containing a virtue that counters its wearer's greatest weakness and greatly defines them for the rest of their life.
   Narrated by a landlady's daughter, we learn more about her world and her society.  With them live her aunts, Lily who cannot lie and Victoria.  Victoria has been "gifted" with silence.  She is a woman who once dreamed of being a singer and is now mute.  Her rage and general strangeness leave her niece wondering if she's actually a ghost.  The reader learns much more about the pendants and Olson's world when a boarder named Brandon comes to the house.  He is revealed as a thief only to be hired on as a male "governess".  This is easily the most original story of the issue and ends on a note of hope and new beginnings that could easily lead to a deeper exploration of its world.
   Congratulations to the talented editors at Beneath Ceaseless Skies for reaching a remarkable milestone and for assembling such an issue.  It's a great time to be a fantasy reader when you can read consistently fun stories online for free.  Of course you can pay a couple of bucks and get it for your kindle which I should do if I actually want to support this sort of stuff.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Amazons! - ed. Jessica Amanda Salmonson

"they came astride gray horses dappled with sun
and their hair flew behind them"
  from "Amazons" by Melanie Kaye

   In 1979, during the heady days of second-wave feminism, Jessica Amanda Salmonson created "Amazons!", a collection of original (with one important exception) heroic fantasy stories staring women warriors.  It's clearly one of the first works like it in the genre and over thirty years on it holds up very well.  It's a mix of well established authors, up and coming ones and ones who never wrote again, some were young and some were much older.  That variety helped create a book with very distinct voices with each author having clear things they wanted to say in response to Salmonson's story call.
   Salmonson opens the book with a lengthy foreword reviewing the real and mythological history of the amazon.  She describes numerous historical fighting women, from ancient legends to Vietnam's Trung sisters to disguised women in Napoleon's and American Civil War armies to WW II Soviet pilot Maj. Tamara Aleksandrovna.  While recognizing the danger of interpreting myth as fact, she does believe the wealth of such stories and the vast diversity of societies and cultures over the ages implies at least  the possibility of more matriarchal ones having existed.
   All that being said, she makes it clear the primary purpose of "Amazons!" is entertainment.  However, she writes, "...if we are the product of our myths, the ways we change our myths today will change the kinds of people we become tomorrow".   I don't know how much I believe that to be true but I don't disagree with the sentiment.  S&S, she believed, to date had suffered from offensive to non-existent portrayals of women.  By "taking up sword and shield" in male ruled worlds the heroes of "Amazons!" can been seen as revolutionary.  It's a bold statement for an editor to make for her own collection but as it's a strong and successful anthology I won't argue too much.
   Salmonson specifically set out to curate and anthology of women warrior tales and that's pretty much what you get.  Of the thirteen stories, ten are straight up fantasy.  Among them are some fairly important works, introducing several series characters with one winning awards.  Not that it needs repeating (but of course  I'll do it because I'm a blabbermouth), the seventies really were the heyday of the field.  
   Salmonson's foreword is actually preceded by the full poem I've quoted at the beginning.  By poet Melanie Kaye, it describes the call to action and adventure being raised to women open to hear it by one who's heard it.  Most of the "Amazons!" authors must have heard that same call in their lives deep in their hearts because most wrote not just straight fantasy stories but outright S&S. 
   "Amazons!" begins with "The Dreamstone" by C. J. Cherryh.  It's the first story in her Ealdwood series.  I've read tons of Cherryh's distinctive science fiction but this story of a fairy woman's dark confrontation with the iron armed world of man was my first taste of her fantasy work.  There's a strong Celtic flavor to the story.  Like her science fiction it has has sharp edges and doesn't shy away from pain and loss.   Present also is Cherryh's incredible talent at creating distinctly non-human characters.
   "The Wolves of Nakesht" by Janrae Frank.  Her first published story, it introduces the long running character, Chimquar the Lionhawk.  Chimquar is an amazon traveling as a man in land where women warriors are unknown and forbidden.  Self-exiled from her homeland she is traveling with two young youths and seeking her sister and a way home.   Frank's story moves along swiftly and violently and provides a clear picture of Chimquar's and her world's history.  Frank has more stories of Chimquar in collection and I'm tempted to find a copy of it at some point.
  T. J. Morgan's "Woman of the Waste" can be classified as a rape-revenge story.  Shunned by her people before and raped by invaders after the attack on and conquest of her town, Ellide escapes to the snow covered plains.  There she encounters the largely abandoned goddess of her people and is empowered to return to home.  Even reduced to a literary device rape is a potent subject to work a story around.  Here, presented in thin memories it seems robbed of its strength.  As such the story feels weak and not as substantial as it might have been.
   The only not-quite-original story in the book is "The Death of Augusta" is by Emily Bronte and edited together by the late Joanna Russ.  It's an excerpt from the poetic tales of imaginary kingdoms and their rulers created by the Bronte siblings.   "The Death of Augusta" is a story of revenge by a woman exiled in her youth against the cruel Queen who sent her away and whom she once loved.  It suffers from being only fragments of something that was once whole and complete. 
   Next is "Morrien's Bitch" by Janet Fox.   It's a fun story of a hardship toughened thief manipulating an army and its commanders to get the rewards and vengeance she wants.  In some ways the slightest story in the collection but it's thoroughly enjoyable.
   One of the book's highlights is "Agbewe's Sword", Charles R. Saunders' first Dossouye story.  As presented here, Dossouye's adventure takes place in the Nyumbai setting of Imaro, something Saunders would change later when he re-released the story as the first part of the "Dossouye" fix-up.  Dossouye's a member of a the corps of women warriors of the kingdom of Abomey.  Her homeland beset by soldiers and strong magic from the kingdom of Ashanti, Dossouye is sent by her king to retrieve the weapon of the title.
   "Agbewe's Sword" presents an almost innocent character who comes to realize she is caught up in unexpected questions of politics and beliefs.  Forced to confront these Dossouye ends her introductory story on the road to a different life.   
   Of note is Salmonson's introduction to the story.  She writes she never planned "Amazons!" to be a women-only collections by many of the stories by male writers featured amazons killing men and babies and seeming to hold their swords outwards from their crotches.  If not they too often contained comical, ineffectual or bumbling  protagonists.  Saunders alone proved able to do that.
   There are several non-traditional heroic fantasy stories in "Amazons!" and, unfortunately, I found none of them very successful.  Salmonson, in her introduction, makes a good argument for expanding the range of heroic fiction and its need to grow as science fiction outgrew the Doc Smith for exampled.  "Jane Saint's Travails (Part One)" written by Josephine Saxton is about a woman condemned to death by drowning for some sort of treason.  During her execution she is translated to a fantastic world wherein she hopes to find and rescue her daughters.
   Saxton appears to be making some wider statement about the suppression of women and their ways - "(the Bible) a book biased to half the world must be about half rubbish".  It's just never clear enough or presented in such a way that I didn't think I might not have been better off reading a non-fiction essay on the subject.  In the end she's returned to the waking-world, stripped of disabling romantic notions and "understanding a great deal less than...before, but with great futures stirring within".  I suspect there's something to calling the character Jane Saint and her having the same initials as her creator but I think I must have missed some greater meaning intended by Saxton.
   Margaret St. Clair's  legend of desire and regret, "The Sorrow of Witches" is the first story to present a woman's sexual desire in the anthology.  For all the Brundage covers and comments about wenching, mature sexuality and love has taken a backseat to manly action for much of the genre's history even when appropriate.  Couched in a removed style as if recounting a well known legend of the necromancer queen Morganor and her lust for a soldier named Llwdres.  His indifference to Morganor, a powerful woman always accustomed to being given what she desires, leads her to commit horrible acts.  Those acts in turn cause her to use her dark magics to bring about a reunion with Llwdres finally bringing about his reciprocated desire and even love until politics intrude.  In the end Morganor is forced to make terrible decisions.
   The story is gloomy and there is something spiritually disfiguring about the actions Morganor takes.  St. Clair started publishing in the forties and though written many years later, and perhaps because of that, this story  captures the darkness I attach to much of the S&S from the first bloom of the genre.
   "Falcon Blood" by Andre Norton is a part of the vast tapestry of stories and novels making up Witch World.  Tanree, a member of the sexually equal, ship-sailing Sulcarfolk is forced into an alliance with an unnamed Falconer following the wreck of the Kast-Boar.  I have only dipped a toe (a very happy toe) into the vast waters of Witch World.  The Falconers are a strange, off-putting patriarchal legion of mercenaries bonded to great falcons.  They live apart from their women, only coming out of their mountain keeps to their purdah-villages once a year for procreation.  They are one of several, iconic residents of Norton's world.   In "Falcon Blood" the ancient cultural barriers imposed on themselves by the Falconers are explained and thinned.  It might have been the second or third Witch World story I read and I loved it then and still do.   
   "The Rape Patrol" by Michele Belling is another of the "experimental" stories seeking to expand the boundaries of the genre.  Unfortunately it is so outside them it fails in that respect.  Another failure, and this is not intrinsic to the story but to our changed times, is its subject, rape, and how it is approached.
  Salmonson writes that the story was recommended to her by Joanna Russ but she warned her it was "too unsettling to the the status quo to find an easy market".  As it concerns a squadron of modern-day hunters of rapists and their decidedly violent choices I guess that might be possible but it seems hard to imagine.  I admit that might be a limitation of my own age and perceptions.  Maybe it was outrageous three decades ago.  That aside, I didn't dislike the story, in fact there's something viscerally attractive about the characters and their deeds.  However, even with one explicitly fantastic element, it feels incredibly out of place in the context of a book with a cover caption reading "High adventure in heroic fiction".
   "Bones for Dulath" is Megan Lindholm's first published fantasy story and the first Ki and Vandien story.  I've been meaning to read the Ki and Vandien novels for some time (okay, I've been meaning to read LOTS of books for sometimes) and this story has reinvigorated that desire.  It's not an especially exciting story but Ki's voice and the easy camaraderie between the two feels real and comfortable.  Ki and Vandien find themselves face to face with a strange, dangerous mountain creature and a town of people who've come to see it as a god.  I've read a few of Lindholm's novels under the Robin Hobb name and enjoyed them but they're more mainline fantasy than this good slice of S&S.
   Second to last is the inestimable Tanith Lee's "Northern Chess".  It's a short bit of adventure about how the woman warrior Jasiel came upon an army besieging a dead alchemist's last remaining stronghold.  By dint of some unknown and baleful magic the fortress has remained inviolate and has killed most of the knights and soldiers who have tried to overwhelm it.  Jasiel, following confrontations, generated by chauvinism, with the commanders of the army, is forced by her own feelings of personal honor to try her hand at defeating the castle and its defenses.  At the end "Northern Chess" is a funny, very feminist joke that sticks a splendid little barb in the edifice housing too much S&S.  
   The closing story of "Amazons!" is " The Woman Who Loved the Moon" by Elizabeth A. Lynn which tied for the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1980.  It is presented as a legend long told and being retold again to the reader.  Three powerful warrior sisters are confronted by an even more powerful woman warrior.  For claims about the sisters' beauty in comparison to the Moon she brings death and anguish to them over two consecutive years.  The third of the sisters finally undertakes an arduous journey of vengeance and encounters love instead.  Only the second story to make romantic or sexual feelings a part of its plot, it is also the only one with a gay character.  Like the rest of the book it doesn't feel particularly groundbreaking today, but it must have been like a loud kick at the door of a genre that does have a history of at least a noticeable reactionary component.  The gay aspect (I can't think of a nimbler way to put that) 
isn't a gratuitous bit of soap box preaching but an important and integral story/character element.  I don't love the story, but more than "The Rape Patrol" or "Jane Saint's Travails (Part One)", this is a boundary shoving story that still remains true to the precepts of S&S.
   It really is hard for me to say how important this book was at the time and to the ongoing development of S&S.  By which I mean I just don't know.  I would suspect in field that was, and still is clearly, dominated by male writers it was an exciting development for women who loved S&S but rarely saw themselves on its pages. For writers clearly bursting with ideas and characters it offered a market and a book published by the stalwart DAW Books, which meant it would be widely distributed.  
   For any fan of S&S I suspect they would have been at least curious.  Were they expecting female versions of the worst tropes of male genre characters?  Were they worried about it being nothing but a bunch of lesbian castrators?  If so I hope they were happily surprised by the absence of anyone like that and instead an array of amazons from protectors to mercenaries to revenge seekers but none who were just men with breasts.  I would love to hear from women writing today about whether they're familiar with the book and if they drew anything from it, particularly if they read it when it first came out.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Issue #6 of Swords and Sorcery Magazine On Line
   So I've been digging the issues of Swords & Sorcery Magazine Online I've read to date.  This one, #6, not so much.  Its two stories just aren't that special or good, though for different reasons.  Still, it's free so why aren't you reading it?
   The first story is "Corbane's Wish" by Charlene Brusso and it tells of the arrogant and successful bard Corbane and his desire to become the greatest lute player in the world.  This brings him to a wizard which leads to all the sorts of problems when you forget about the tendency of wishes to bring on unintended consequences.
   I didn't dislike the story, I just don't think it's got much going on.  There really are no surprises or twists that will surprise you or make you feel twisted.  It just sort of sits there unspooling something you've seen from the first few paragraphs.
   "A Little Peril in Brisbett" by Jeffery Scott Sims fills the second slot in the issue and I almost don't want to write about it.  I don't actually enjoy writing negative reviews and despite some qualms about his mock-archaic writing style, I liked his "In the Hills of Yost" in the magazine's third issue back in April.  This one, despite an engaging little plot is overwhelmed by the archaisms taken to awful new heights.
   Those unpleasant heights bring sentences like this one: "Trooped the band from Dyrezan across the pitiful foot bridge that spanned the brook, accosted they those who dwelt in mud and stone shacks beneath enticing oddity."  Or: "That be  plain," said Lord Harmon, with a dismissive flick of hand.  "Subaros willed us here, to this far realm, as he did that poor native of Brisbett, sent that repulsive beast to slay.  Did you attend, Nantrech?"  I When I read the first sentence above I actually hoped it was an editing error.  A few more lines on I lost that hope.
   Last time I wrote I assumed Sims was striving to recreate a style like Clark Ashton Smith's or Dunsany's.   Now I'm not so sure.  I'm starting to suspect there's a little less going on than that which is a shame.  I like the old fashioned "Weird Tales" world he's created and peopled with various parties from Dyrezan exploring new and dangerous places.  But the style's just not working for me. 
   The next issue will be along in two weeks or so and I'm looking forward to it.  This one may have been a let down (sure, like letting me down really matters), but overall I've been pleased enough with the magazine to look forward to each time a new issue posts.

P.S. "A Little Peril in Brisbett" is a about a party from Dyrezan coming across the marvelous citadel of an evil wizard and what happens in the wake of his discourteous attitude.  I can't believe I left out any sort of description of the actual plot.  See, I do have weak editing skills!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reviewing and Stuff, etc.

   This past week or so has seen several articles/posts on the whys and wherefores of reviewing.  As somebody trying to teach himself how to craft reviews worth people wasting their time on instead of more important things like walking the dog or shining their shoes, I'm eager to take advice and seek insights into the art of reviewing wherever I can.   I own scads of compilations of reviews by David Thomson, Clive James, Christopher Hitchens and others.  I'll never attain a level of skill or artistry that comes close to the bottom rung of their least work (I'm not being self-effacing.  Their work is superb and important.).  At this point this site is mostly filled with reviews and I do want to be better in the little genre pool I've chose to swim in.
   The first came from author James Enge at his Ambrose & Elsewhere site.  He examines the place of and motives behind negative reviewing.  He also states what he seems to consider the minimum requirement for honest reviewing: if you want to make a claim about a piece of art, back it up with real examples from the work.
   The second was an article from the British site by disgraced Independent writer, Johann Hari.  His piece is about the decline of serious reviewing and its replacement by shorter and inherently less insightful reviews.  He was spurred by the replacement of much of its longer album reviews with Twitter posts by Spin magazine.  He makes claims to the value of criticism I heartily agree with though others about its importance I'm less inclined to.  
   Finally, Michal Wojcik, author, artist and creator of the excellent One Last Sketch blog, had two related posts.  The  first is on the poor quality of much of what passes for reviewing on the 'net, and the second on why he limits what he chooses to review himself as well as pointing to more of the deficiencies he encounters in far too many reviews.  The primary one he describes is the highlighting of a sentence pulled from here or there in a book as examples of the author's supposedly poor writing instead of examining the writing, etc. of the entire work.  
   Wojcik's words had the most immediate effect and got me thinking again about what I'm doing and why I'm bothering with this site at all.  Does anyone really need to read another article about swords & sorcery?  Will I ever have an insight into Howard/Leiber/Moorcock that hasn't been written better by others?  Also, who am I to even be doing this.  Stuff like that started buzzing around in my head.  Slowly some answers did gurgle up.
   I don't know if there's any value to the reviews I've written but I want to make sure they're honest and my stands adequately argued.  When it comes to something I dislike I need to be able to pull it apart and understand what components don't work for me and why as well as where and if its larger elements (plot, allusions, etc.) fail.  I've been doing this for about a year now and I'm only just starting to reach a point where I think I might not miss these goals one day.  There's just a lot of work ahead.
   Looking back all the way to April of this year, I presented my longest and most negative review.  It was for the collected Simon of Gitta stories by Richard L. Tierney.  Returning to it I'm disappointed by the vagueness of much of it.  There was so much about the book I didn't enjoy.  Way too many of the stories were just too long and too boring.  Unfortunately, I never actually explained how Tierney failed to capture or maintain my interest in Simon's escapades.
   Part of my problem is I don't want to reveal too much about plot specifics in my reviews.  I'm writing a lot about short stories.  There's often not that much to say without giving away the whole enterprise.  Even in the cases of stories I dislike I don't want to ruin them for potential readers (I haven't encountered anything yet so exceedingly awful readers need to waved away from like a toxic spill).   If I want to be more substantive I need to give a little more evidence and grounds for my opinions.
   Most of what I'm doing qualifies proudly as consumer advice as described in the Hari article.  I've read something and I want to let you know if it's worth investing your time in.  I love reviews and lists because there's just too much stuff out there to sift through.  Always has been and there's only going to be more.  By doing what I'm doing I'm hoping to help to provide some focus in the specific genre of S&S for current and potential readers.  As such many of my reviews don't need to do much more than hip readers to some new (to them) writing I found worth my time and think others might as well.
   Sometimes, though, there's a little more going on and that's what I need to work on.  Nothing written by any of the three folks above is new or astounding.  However, it's all information I need to digest and remember much better than I think I have to date.  A big reason for this blog's creation was to force myself to write and learn how to discipline myself and work on those self editing skills I possess at far too an undeveloped level.
   Even this post is too diffuse (but I'm going to post it anyway).  For those of you who read my blather and keep coming back, thank you very much.  That's a big incentive to take the time and make the effort to become better at doing this blogging business.  It's rewarding to put something out there and have people read it.  Readers' time is the payment made for my posts and I don't want to put shoddy goods on the shelf.
   With some luck and more work than I'm too often willing to undertake, I hope to write reviews that provide a reasonable amount of insight into what makes a particular story work for me.  When I find an author who knocks my socks off (like James Enge) I hope to be able to impart a bit of the excitement I got when I first encountered his/her work.  When it isn't successful I want to be able to be able to dissect it and point out where it went wrong.  Here's hoping I get there someday.   

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Issue 13 - Review

  I'm a lazy man far too often.  I set myself tasks and due dates and then I find Fallout or napping is more appealing.  Now I doubt anyone's waiting with baited breath for some new post of mine but it depresses me when I don't meet my own deadlines.  Like reading and reviewing several online magazines like I've been doing for a few months now.  What this means is that I haven't even finished reading the last two issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  I've let my other site (Ape Shall Not Kill Ape - dedicated to North Shore Staten Island History and Stuff) go close to dormant for most of the spring.  It hasn't been good.
   So when I saw the new issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly was out I forced myself to read it almost at once.  It really didn't take much force and I'm glad I made myself do it.  Now if I can only continue to build some sort of discipline in regards to all my other duties and obligations in life.
   Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Issue 13 is graced with a gloomy bit of art by Jonas Jakobsson called "Watched by Owls".  Inside are three stories and two poems.  HFQ's standards are high and the result is consistently excellent collections of stories.
   "A Game of Chess" by David Pilling is a well told Arthurian tale, something I'm always game for.  It's narrated by King Arthur's foster-brother, Sir Kay, and tells how Sir Gawaine's impetuosity in dealing with a Black Knight and a fairy woman forces Kay into a chess match with Oberon, King of the Fairies.  Kay soon realizes he's playing for more than his comrade's freedom but the instead the fate of all England.  
  The middle story is Alex Marshall's "Renegade", a post-apocalyptic piece with shades of Games Workshop (the protagonist's got a "smeltagun"), a blind seeress, raiders, and ferocious plant men.  Dyer, a weary soldier, comes to the Sanctuary of Tsippi seeking the home of the Hundered-Handed God.  Marshall's brutal world, torn by endless wars and raids is vividly presented.  Dyer is tough and broods with the best of them, but it reads like a truncated piece of a much longer story.  
   We get a see the horrific violence in Dyer and what malign past deeds drive him and he gets a quest to carry out in hopes of psychic rest and it ends there.  Its conclusion just felt too inconclusive.  Marshall has several other stories set in his world of Pangaia (a post meteorstrike devastated Pangaea Ultima) and I hope to read them at some point (see first paragraph).
   In my review of HFQ Issue 12 I noted that Seamus Bayne's "Crown of Sorrows" could serve as jumping off point for a much longer story.  Kudos to me for noting the obvious.  Bayne returns in Issue 13 with the continuation of mercenary Ordwin's struggles against his malefactor, the sorcerer-king Thiesius.  Undeterred by the baleful transmogrification worked on him in the previous story, Ordwin has marched on Thiesius' royal city and laid siege to it.  
   Bayne's characters are solid.  In "Crown of Sorrows", both Thiesius and his guard captain, Kadir, were vivid and more than one-dimensional. Ordwin, as narrator, was more so.  In "Dance Upon Sand", Ordwin provides much more of his history giving the reader deeper understanding of what made him the man he has become.
   At the end of "Crown of Sorrows" there was sense of triumph in Ordwin's acceptance of his fate and his fire for revenge.  "Dance Upon Sand" takes much of that away yet it still manages to find a transcendent victory for Ordwin that makes it an almost surprisingly potent story.
   Thee two poems are "Advice on the Slaying of Wurms" by Michelle Muenzler and "Advent of an Apocalypse" by Bethany Powell.  I preferred the former and its advice on the less apparent dangers met when facing a wurm to the latter's description of a valkyries in action.
   Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is good stuff.  So there you go, check it out (remember, it's free!).