Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Waters of Eternity - Howard Andrew Jones

   If anyone cares about my absence the past week, I went to beautiful Berks County in Pennsylvania.  It's increasingly good to get away from the Rock (Staten Island) and breathe less car pollution.  I was able to catch up on some planned reading for future reviews so I got that going for me too.  On the way home we took a detour and visited the Brandywine Battlefield.  Good times.
   I'm definitely coming to the party late in regards to the swords and sorcery writing of Black Gate's managing editor, Howard Andrew Jones.  Last summer, when I started making this blog a real and regular thing  Jones' first novel about the scholar Dabir and swordsman Asim, "The Desert of Souls", was getting very favorable notices across the fantasy ghettos of the blogosphere and equally good reviews in the wider world.  It had favorable blurbs from some of my favorite writers like Glen Cook.  So what took me till now to actually read any of his work?  I mean  S&S adventure set during the Abbasid Caliphate and in spectacular, ancient Mosul sounds pretty dang exciting, doesn't it?
   Well, a big reason is, I'm cheap (the other reasons are that I have a lot of stuff on the to-be-read pile and I'm lazy).  It's a large component of why I buy used (and non-collectible) copies of of books and e-books.  When I buy e-books, I can't help but want them to be cheaper than what I'd pay for a hard copy.  When a publisher sets a price above Amazon's ceiling of $9.99 I need to know what I'm getting is going to be worth my money.  "Desert of Souls" was selling for $12.99 (with the sequel, "The Bones of the Old Ones", available for pre-order, they've dropped it to $9.99)  I imagine you're saying out loud right now, "C''mon, it's only a couple of bucks, ya' tightwad!"  You're right, I know that.  I also want authors like Jones to make as much money as they can so they can keep going creating tales of adventure so people like me can keep reading them.  But I'm cheap and I don't make the sorts of impulse book buys as I did even five years ago.  Since I hadn't read anything by him I just couldn't bring myself to press that 1-click purchase button.
  Well, in this modern age the publishers have tools at their disposal to lure the likes penny-pinching readers like me into their ink-stained clutches.  They offer us deals too good to refuse by making shorter works or collections available for low prices to let you see if you have a taste for someone's writing.  In Jones' case it's "The Waters of Eternity" for all of $2.99.  It collects most of the short stories about Dabir and Asim along with the first chapter of "The Desert of Souls".  One was left out because it forms part of "The Desert of Souls", one to be included in a Rogue Blades collection, and the third, the first he wrote, "An Audience with the King" is apparently too goofy (his word) for inclusion.
   So, with all that blathering said, last week I finally took the couple of hours I needed to read "The Waters of Eternity".  It's good, roots S&S with plenty of action, monsters, and colorful settings.  The heroes are Dabir, a scholar of great intellect and reputation as well as confidant and agent of the caliph, Harun al-Rashid, and Asim,  a swordsman of skill and cunning.  Asim also serves as the narrator of the book's six stories.  
   The book opens with Asim looking back to his youth and his friendship with Dabir.  It also establishes the "story-ness" of the book.  These are tales being told to an audience.  Asim describes with pride the way he once held audiences enthralled with his recounting of his and Dabir's adventures.  To ensure that memories of those times don't vanish with his death he has finally taken to writing them down.  They're written as if being told to us while sitting around at his feet.  In the afterword Jones states the stories are presented as Asim might have told them, not in chronological order.  Asim's voice is strong, giving us his thoughts and insights into Dabir's actions.  Jones provides just enough description of places and people to keep us from getting lost in the unknown place the early Islamic but still maintain an exotic aura.
   The stories themselves are the small adventures of the heroes while not out "racing to the world's far corners to save the caliphate".  Some, like the opener "The Thief of Hearts" and "The Slayer's Tread", are monster tales.  The former also introduces the reader to Dabir's detective talents as he follows the clues left at a horrific murder scene back to the crime's origins and perpetrator.  Most of the remaining stories, "Sight of Vengeance", "Servant of Iblis" and "Marked Man" in particular, are also detective tales.  Like Watson, Asim stands in for the reader, walking a step or two behind, following Dabir as he follows the clues to a solution.  Along the way are alchemists, ghouls, wicked Greeks and missing organs.  In other words, good stuff.
   "The Waters of Eternity" is the most surprising and moving story.  To save a governor's dying daughter, Dabir and Asim accompany a troop of soldiers on an arduous search of the waters of the title.  Reputed to be a spring capable of healing and sustaining life Dabir reluctantly agrees.  The trek is, as predicted, terrible and it encompasses conflict and dark discoveries.  I was as startled at how the story unfolded as was Asim.
   This is really good historical fantasy storytelling written in a vibrant, straight ahead manner.  In this age of Tolkien-clones and sad, grimdark worlds, Jones gives us his own take on a classic type of adventure duo in a glittering world of caliphs, viziers, efrits and ghouls.  His clear love and knowledge of the culture and its people prevents Dabir and Asim from being mere cardboard characters flitting about in a world of the worst cliches of Orientalism.  The stories left me hungry for more, curious about how the companions first met Acteon the Greek or came to serve the caliph.  The stories are swift and surefooted and the mysteries are engrossing.  Dabir and Asim would fit quite well into an anthology edited by Lin Carter or Andrew Offutt.
   Based on these stories I'm a fan.  As I started writing this review I finally clicked that 1-click button and downloaded "The Desert of Souls" and later I'll be buying "The Bones of the Old Ones".  I keep saying, it really is a great time to be a fan of S&S.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Issue #101 Beneath Ceaseless Skies - Review

   Beneath Ceaseless Skies' #101 hit the inbox the other day bringing two new stories and new banner art.  The cover painting, entitled "Bandits Assault a Stagecoach" is by Ignacio Bazan Lazcano.  It's an exciting steampunk Western picture illustrating exactly what its title says.
   The first story, "The Heart of the Rail" by Mark Teppo is an intriguing story of trains, railroad company men and the sacrifices made in the name of bottom lines and progress.  Like so many of the magazine stories I'm reading these days it feels like a window opening onto a vastly greater fictional world beyond the confines of its opening and closing paragraphs.  It's not that they read like excerpts from a novel in progress, it's that their authors have created such original worlds and I'm really curious what else is going on out there.
   "The Tale of the Aggrieved Astrologer" by Jack Nicholls is his first professional sale.  It's, like a last issue's "In the Palace of the Jade Lion", a work of Chinese-inspired fantasy.  In the little author blurb at the end of the story it says Nicholls is hopeful he won't get typecast as "that Chinese fantasy sex-comedy guy" and there are indeed sexual elements.  They aren't overwhelming if explicit.  Aside from them, it's a funny story of an aging, impotent, running to fat court magician trying to stay one step ahead of a younger, handsomer astrologer who has successfully caught the emperor's eye.  
   Once again "Beyond Ceaseless Skies" has brought an enjoyable pair of stories to the interweb.  Take the half hour or two and enjoy.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Issue #7 of Swords and Sorcery Magazine On Line

   So the latest issue of Swords and Sorcery Magazine hit the 'net the other day and, despite a major editing flub, it's my favorite issue so far.  In fact I think that mistake makes me appreciate the sort of lo-fi handcrafted nature of the magazine just a little bit more than I already did.  
   This month's stories are "The Boon of Gregory of Northlee" by Andrew Moore and the coolly-titled "Ninety Nine Deaths of the Monkey God" by David J. West.  Unfortunately, when you click on the link for Story 1, while you reach Moore's story, the title say it's last month's "Corbane's Wish" by Charlene Brusso.  That's got to hurt a little bit.
   Moore's story is written like something by Lord Dunsany in a slightly more modern style.  A bold knight faces near certain death to face a king so evil he's begun to hide the stars.  It's a very ur-fantasy story, very legendary affair.  It's well done and doesn't hit any sour faux-archaic sounding notes.  There isn't much tension but Moore is inventive and I appreciate the callback to the roots of the S&S.
   West's story is about goateed warrior Kold and his band of slayers trying to cross the Bhustan jungles in search of a temple and its god.  Their aim is to slay the god and bring an end to the war being waged on their homeland by its followers.  It's got priests, pygmies, jungle creatures and monkeys.  I don't think I need to say more.
   In this issue’s introduction, editor Curtis Ellett writes he didn't receive many stories this issue.  I know they don't pay much but I'm a little surprised.  Hopefully, more folks hoping to get their toes wet writing will submit stories.  On the other hand, the month there's a story drought they've produced my favorite issue.

Update:  the "flub" is fixed and Mr. Moore gets the proper title

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Covers That Awed Me (and still kinda do)

   One of the reasons I picked up a lot of books when I was a kid was because of their covers.  My dad had hundreds of sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks in the attic.  He rarely recommended anything to me (except for LOTR), leaving me to discover authors on my own.  Often it meant going for the coolest, most exciting cover in the box.  Later when I bought my own books from spinner racks in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal or Barnes & Noble, eye catching covers helped in sorting through the vast selections.

   These covers are among the most vivid from my childhood and teenage readings in swords & sorcery.  Clearly the late Frank Frazetta's talents had a lot to do with shaping the visual presentation of S&S in the era.  It's easy to see why.  It's big and brutal with dark, brooding figures committing or at least contemplating great acts of violence.  Not to get too psychological but the appeal of the powerful characters he painted have a strong pull for the typical teenage guy bursting with energy and testosterone who feels like he's indestructible while feeling at deep odds with the world.  Or maybe teenage boys just like big honking barbarians swinging swords, cleaving monsters and getting the girl 'cause it looks cool.

   These covers still overwhelm my senses in the best possible way when I look at them.  They possess none of the photo realism of so many modern covers, a style I really dislike (they look like bodice-rippers).  Instead, with "Conan the Warrior" we get swirling flames and smoke and flailing Picts caught in mid strike.  There's an impressionism in Frazetta's art that does more to conjure Conan and his ilk than any host of photo shopped book cover models.  
   "Flashing Swords! #2's" second cover (this one replaced a weaker Frazetta cover on the first printing) brings us Frazetta's original "Death Dealer" in all his malefic glory.  His eyes burn as brightly as the fire in the background and are as crimson as the blood dripping from his oversized axe.  Above swoop vultures which surely travel in his wake awaiting in anticipation of their next meal. 

   I find a dream quality in paintings as well a feeling of motion conveyed by the blurred shadows and body contours.  There's none of harsh unreal realness of CGI animation.  "Conan the Warrior" may depict one moment of combat but it doesn't feel like a snapshot but a frame from a film unreeling in my head.

   "Death Angel's Shadow" is minimalist next to the Frazetta pictures.  It was done by an artist named Stan Zagorski who looks like he's mostly done album covers.  In this one picture he captures Karl Edward Wagner's "mystic swordsman" like none of the subsequent covers by Frazetta did.  
   The latter picture a bare-chested barbarian with a red beard.  Zagorski's Kane is a man in full armor in an almost relaxed pose despite looking as if he's in the midst of a fight.  Behind him rises what I'm guessing is his cloak formed into skulls.  Where Kane treads, murder and bloodshed trail him.
   Because of e-books covers don't influence my impulse buying as much and limited shelf space means I won't just get a book to get a book anymore.  I rarely buy books in Barnes & Noble so my eyes aren't caught up by the dazzling colors on the new releases' shelf either.  Sadly, I suspect this is true for a lot of readers.

   Does anyone else have covers stuck in their head or that helped shaped how they thought about S&S or fantasy in general (anybody else still in love with the psychedelic LOTR covers by Barbara Remington for Ballantine?)