Monday, December 31, 2012

Dowsing for Pulp - "Mad Shadows" by Joe Bonadonna

   I'm chagrined to admit I only discovered the existence of Joe Bonadonna this past summer when he wrote a great piece at Black Gate called "How I Met Your Cimmerian (and other Barbarian Swordsmen)".  If you're here and haven't read it, go do so before continuing on.  It's the detailed evolution of a S&S fan, his discovery of the genre's classics and how they hooked him for life.
   He's a man who started writing S&S back in the field's heyday in the seventies but with limited success.  That led him to abandon it for several decades until the renewed activity of his friend David C. Smith (and renowned S&S author) prompted him to try his hand again.  
   One of Bonadonna's previous creations was the magical dowser, Dorgo Mikawber.  According to the afterword in "Mad Shadows", he gave the character and his stories a "change of clothes, a different style and a whole new attitude".  Whatever Dorgo had been before, in his new, revived existence he had become the hero of a series S&S pulp detective stories.  2010 saw the release of "Mad Shadows - The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser".
   "Mad Shadows" has six chronological stories starring Dorgo the Dowser.  Armed with a saber and hefty, three-limbed dowsing rod, Dorgo provides able assistance to the city guard of the city of Valdar (a fairly typical hive of scum and villainy) and clients alike.  Unlike much S&S, Bonadonna's stories are filled with all sorts of non-human characters and species.  Death-dealing satyrs, magic throwing trolls and all other manner of beings populate Dorgo's world.  There's some similarity to Glen Cook's excellent Garrett novels (which are well worth your time).  Still, Bonadonna's world of Tanyime is his purely own and he builds it with lots of small details and bits of casually inserted character background.
   The first three stories, "Mad Shadows", "The Secret's of Andaro's Daughter" and "The Moonstones of Sor Lunarum" are the most straightforward detective tales.  Mostly confined to the urban environs of Valdar, Dorgo walks down its mean streets beset by brutal killers, is tricked by canny femme fatales and has the local authorities looking over his shoulder.  Save for the presence of the occasional gold-eating demons or magical gems these tales are of the same genus as Hammett's Continental Ops or Chandler's Marlowe stories.
   With the last three stories, "The Man Who Loved Puppets", "In the Vale of the Black Diamond" and "Blood on the Moon", Dorgo leaves the somewhat polluted neighborhoods of Valdar and ventures out into the wider world.  Again, Bonadonna skillfully uses old pulp elements.  There are demonic puppets, secret valleys and hidden treasures and moon-cursed werewolves.  
    There's a flatness to some of Bonadonna's writing as he's shooting for a sort of crisp, Hammettesque tone and it took until the middle of "Andaro's Daughter" till everything worked.  Maybe it was the accretion of  world-building detail or I just got used to Dorgo's voice but that's when it all came together for me.  It's also when Bonadonna brings on the full technicolor craziness with a scene full of man-eating demons.  This only gets amped up in each following story.  By the end of the book, events take on a terrific blood and adrenaline soaked hue that's left me hungry for more Dorgo.   
   The highlight of "Mad Shadows" is easily "In the Vale of the Black Diamond".  We're introduced to Yozinda Andovo.  When Dorgo ran away from an orphanage as a boy, he met and became friends with a girl named Yozinda.  Later at her prompting they ran away together and joined a mercenary company.  Now, years later, she's come to Dorgo for help in securing the legendary Black Diamond.  Purported to have healing properties, Yozi's searching for it to help her ailing brother.  Unfortunately, it lies at the bottom of the Severnus Tujeer - the Hidden Canyon deep in the heart of the Desert of White Dust.
   What Dorgo, Yozi and their companions find is monsters of varied and grotesque shapes, an ancient necropolis and alien beings.  As soon as they reach the canyon floor, the part encounter things an earlier adventure named "spiderworms".  Dorgo describes them as " pink worms roughly the size of goats.  Shaggy manes of coarse, black hair covered the backs of their vermicular bodies.  There was something of the arachnid about them, as well, for they had the legs, maw, and mandible of a tarantula.  With long eyestalks that twitched crazily back and forth, they drew close and closer".  The creatures get bigger, more ferocious and more baroquely designed from there.  After all the beasts and danger the ending is satisfying and more than a little mournful.
   While it's the least like a detective story I liked it the most.  I liked it on two levels.  First, in describing his relationship with Yozi, Dorgo fills in more of his personal history.  As the story unfolds, he emerges as more than just a tarnished urban knight in the Phil Marlowe.  As deeply important to him as his loyalty to his friends is, it emerges he possesses a deeper and less selfish morality.  In his afterword, Bonadonna stresses his goal was creating solid characters and that without them it all amounts to nothing.  On the second level, it's a fun and exciting story in the honorable tradition of hidden ruins in danger filled jungles.
   "Mad Shadows" is good stuff.  It's got no pretensions to be anything other than a worthy addition to the canons of S&S and there it's wildly successful.  In his afterword, Bonadonna lists many of the stories and movies that inspire his writing and I noticed a lot of my own favorites.  In addition to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber are obviously Hammett and Chandler.  What really caught my eyes were his inclusion of several Westerns, especially Randolph Scott's terrific collaborations with Budd Boetticher.  What I really loved was the source of the title for the collections - not a line from Baudelaire, but the title of Mott the Hoople's second album.  Anybody who references Mott can do little wrong in my book.
   "Mad Shadows" is a great set of stories.  I'm glad Black Gate made me aware of them and I'm even happier Joe Bonadonna's decided to re-enter the genre.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Books

   Black Gate's short piece on Jeffrey E. Barlough's new Western Lights novel, "What I Found at Hoole" made me want to catch on the series.  I've read several of the earlier books but in my transition to e-books over the past two years I've tended to not buy hard copies.  When a books, like Barlough's, don't exist in an electronic form I tend to shy away from them.  But, Christmas time being upon us I didn't hesitate to populate my Amazon wish list with them.

   I'm not going to get to all of these too soon but I love knowing they're on the shelf.  Right now I'm staring at "Space Eldritch" and "Prince of Thorns".

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Worlds Fantastic and Strange

  Earlier this week, Black Gate's editor, John O'Neil, posted an article about the Bantam Solomon Kane collection, "Skulls in the Stars".  I haven't looked at my copy in years (or any my old Howard books since the Del Rey's came along), but I was immediately reminded of the amazing maps drawn by Tim Kirk.  I dug them out and was happy to find I still like them.
   I'm a fan of maps, real and fantastic.  One of my most treasured books is an pre-WW I atlas my grandfather rescued from a house he was working on.  In its pages the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns still rule Central Europe and poor Anastasia remains safe in the Winter Palace.  For the time I'm reading I can almost believe a century of time hasn't passed since the book was published.
   Fantasy maps can help bring me into their author's worlds as well as my atlas transports me to pre-war Europe.  Sometimes the maps , sadly are the best part of a book with the names of strange kingdoms and landmarks calling out to me more clearly than their creator's words.
   For me, the best maps are more than just a picture in the front of the book.  They help foster the illusion that the author's world is a real one, one where things unknown lie over the horizon, where mysterious words hint at strange lands and customs.  Maps don't need to be super-detailed with every bit of blank space filled in and city-state named to be successful.  One of the best is below.

  The map from the Ace Conan editions is one of the most important and coolest maps for me.  I stared at the map for some time before I actually read any of the stories (it was my dad's battered, old copy of Conan the Warrior).  While the actual map of Hyboria is fairly lackluster, the superimposed map of the modern world made it mind-blowing for my twelve-year old self.  Suddenly Conan was elevated from a sword swinging warrior to someone who existed in some ancient, "real" time.  It was the first time I'd encountered that conceit in fantasy fiction and it's still one I'm a total sucker for.  Seeing that map I should have been ready for the wondrous mash-up of Cossack, Bantu, medieval and classical cultures that is Howard's Hyboria, but I wasn't.

   Several years later I came across Tim Kirk's rendering of Hyboria sans superimposition.  It's a beautiful map, rendered in thick, emphatic lines with well detailed mountains and I love what I assume is the "Tigress" in the bottom corner.  Without the modern map, though, even with REH's evocative kingdom names it looses some of it wonder.  Still, as I've written, I love Kirk's art.

      "Changa's Safari", by Milton Davis, is set in the lands straddling the Indian Ocean during the 15th century AD.  What I love about this map is that it refocused how I look at a certain part of the world.  In most maps the region's down and off center but here it's the focus of everything.
   One of Davis' goals with swords & soul is to throw off the usual northern European tropes in fantasy and create African ones.  The map pivots a part of the globe I've always sort of seen as secondary and makes it primary.  It left me just waiting to see what Davis would do next to reach his goal.

   And sometimes the map's as poor as the story.  From one of Lin Carter's "Thongor" books, this might have been drawn by a child (an untalented and fumble-fingered one).  It's as bereft of character as poor Thongor and Lemuria.  Carter was so caught up in trying to remind readers of John Carter and Conan that he never came up with anything that was uniquely Thongor.  The map's as sketchy and as lifeless as Carter's creation.
   Another great possession of mine is J. B. Post's "An Atlas of Fantasy".  It's one of those great seventies books like "Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials" or "The Atlas of Middle-Earth".  Post's book collects maps from myth as well as fantasy and science fiction.  Places like things like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Al Capp's Lower Slobbovia are also depicted.  It's a beautiful book collecting maps of many of my favorite books and stories alongside others completely unfamiliar to me.  If you like maps it's worth finding.
   All this being said, books don't need maps.  Being forced to couple the author's words with my own imagination to conjure up an image of the geographical layout can be far more satisfying than just looking at a picture.  A poor map can undercut whatever success the author's had working his/her magic in my brain.  The map in "The Sword of Shannara" springs to mind (and we can argue the merits of Terry Brooks some other day, but I readily admit to having a fairly unwarranted soft spot for at least the first batch of his books).  It's flatter and less interesting than any of his prose.
   I know there's a map of Jack Vance's "Undying Earth" out there but I don't need or want it.  It presents definite, concrete borders for a world that should only exist in Vance's fever-dream writing.
   So what do you think?  Do you like them or find them a hindrance to your own imaginations?  What are your favorite and most hated?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Issue #10 of Swords and Sorcery Magazine On Line

   Perhaps due to the low remuneration and its recent arrival on the scene, the story quality of "Swords and Sorcery Magazine" has never been quite as high as "Beneath Ceaseless Skies" or "Heroic Fantasy Quarterly".  I think there's only a single issue I totally disliked, but still, more often than not, the stories it's carried have been closer to adequate than excellent.  In the latest issue I felt a real positive improvement vibe going on.  I'd love it if it's a harbinger of things to come. 
   Issue #10's first story is "The Open Pouch" by Rebecca L. Brown, an alumnus of Issue #8.  It's a coming-of-age story and in no way a swords & sorcery story.  What it is is well told story of a young man maturing in Crosshawks Valley trying to find his own footing in his world.  It's one where all young men are given their "manhood" by a woman named Jennika whose societal function is to do just that.  She also serves as the town prostitute which only increases the dislike of the town's women for her.  There's no adventure or swordplay.  What there is is a well told tale in an intriguing world.
   In "Moon Over the Mountains" by Belle DiMonté the peaceful retirement of Kael the Silent is disturbed by the appearance of a great wolf that is clearly no plain, simple beast.  To be honest, very little happens in "Moon Over the Mountains" and it reads like a first chapter not a contained story.  Still, it works.  Enough is revealed about Kael, intimations of his past achievements, hints of his power and his importance as a historical figure, to leave the reader curious.  The wolf's entrance and subsequent events only increased my desire to know more about Kael and DiMonté's world.  
   So good going, "Swords and Sorcery".  It's never been a chore to read the mag but this month was a positive joy.  

PS - Belle DiMonté is the editor of "Into the Willows".  It's submissions pages says it's looking for stories of no more than 2,000 words, poems, reviews and music.  I haven't read anything in it yet but my cursory look made me add it to the magazine links.  Maybe it's another zine I need to start reviewing.