Thursday, February 28, 2013

It'll Make Your Nape-Hairs Standup - "Young Thongor" by Lin Carter (with Robert M. Price tagging along)

   After my harsh review of "Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria", I never thought I'd go back to Lin Carter's character. Then I saw something positive about "Young Thongor", edited by Adrian Cole.  I never knew there where stories about Thongor's early days and here they were collected in one volume.  As an added bonus there were three new stories written by Robert M. Price (of Crypt of Cthulhu fame).  I've enjoyed all Price's Mythos stories in the absolutely indispensable Chaosium Mythos anthologies, so I figured that would be a nice bonus.  So I took a chance and bought it.  Okay, so at $3.43 it really wasn't much of a chance, but if you've read "Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria" you might think otherwise.
   The Thongor novels are mash-ups of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  You get your standard issue, square-cut, black haired barbarian together with super-science which should be the right concoction to get any S&S fan's blood pumping.  The problem is, while I haven't read the entire series, I can safely say the ones I have stink.  His syntax is awful, the monsters are dull and Thongor's got no more life than the ink on the page.
   In "Young Thongor" it turns out Lin Carter could actually write exciting and engaging, if still derivative, stories.  The stories ditch most of the Barsoomian trappings found in the novels, sticking to mostly pure REH and are the better for it.  Maybe he took a little more time on the stories, maybe he had learned his craft a little more.  Whatever, the short stories, though not on a level with his seventies compatriots like Wagner or Saunders, are solid, S&S fun that I can imagine rereading someday.
   The first story is the weakest in the book and it's still stronger than "Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria".  In "Black Hawk of Valkarth", we meet the teenage Thongor, sole survivor of the Black Hawk people. Only chance saved him from death during the massacre of his tribe by the Snow Bear tribe.  Armed only with Sarkozan, the sword of the ancient hero and tribal founder, Valkh the Black Hawk, and taken from the hand of his dead chieftain, Thongor sets off across the snowy countryside seeking bloody revenge.  Thongor's plan is pretty nifty but the story suffers from a little too much been-there-done-that as far as origin stories go.
   Following his successful revenge against the Snow Bear tribe, Thongor begins a long trek towards the warm, jungled lands and mighty kingdoms of southern Lemuria.  The next three stories, "The City in the Jewel", "Demon of the Snows" and Price's "The Creature in the Crypt" cover the barbarian's southward journey and Carter starts showing a little flair and the sort of over the top craziness I prize in S&S.
   With "The City in the Jewel", we get exactly that; Zazamanc, a sorcerer, has sought immortality by creating an entire world for himself and hiding it away from Death's sight in a great gem. For his own amusement he tricks and traps men and women into his realm. Once captured, the mighty thewed Thongor is forced to fight in an arena for the sorcerer's pleasure. Thongor, of course, soon becomes involved in plans to kill the unkillable Zazamanc and free himself from bondage.
   The story's highlight is Zazamanc.  Through all the stories, Thongor suffers from being a little too bland and cookie cutter of a barbarian. It's as if Carter had a checklist; square cut, black hair, might arms, big sword, more honorable than civilized men.  He's rarely the highlight, even in the best of the stories.
   Convinced by divination Thongor will cause his death, Zazamanc is still reluctant to kill him when a demon he summons warns that "if you slay him, or order him slain, or set him in such danger that his death ensues, your own death will follow swiftly".  Carter offers some insight into a seemingly all powerful wizard and the things that actually cause him fear.  Almost bored with his deathless existence he is still terrified at its coming to an end.
   "The Demon of the Snows" introduces Thongor to women and the ways of love.  He also gets to explore a possibly haunted keep and tangle with a horrifying worm-monster.  The first two thirds of the story are action-free but tense.  Carter did a great job depicting what Thongor finds in the castle and his effort to solve the mystery of what happened to its inhabitants.

"They went on searching for some signs of life.  Behind them, dangling limply in the iron chains, the dead man hung, turning idly this way and that as a gust of wind moved down the draughty halls.  The skull-like face of the old man still bore the rictus of silent laughter.  Thongor wished he knew what had made the old man smile."

  The finale with the demon is sufficiently fun but it's the horror story mood that precedes it that makes the story a success.
   "The Creature in the Crypt" is notable mostly for having served as the genesis of "The Thing in the Crypt", a Conan story Carter wrote for "Conan".  According to Adrian Cole's excellent foreword, Carter had planned to develop the plot into a Thongor story but never got around to it before his death.  Price took it upon himself to make the effort. It's okay, what with a revivified blue skinned, three-eyed ancient king in a mysterious cave, but that's about all it is. Like it's Conan version it's only a trifle of a tale.
   In "Mind Lords of Lemuria", also by Price, Thongor, after establishing himself in the civilized south lands, has entered the service of an ambitious lord, the Sark Arzang Pome of the city of Shembis.  Thongor is part of an expedition into the Lemurian jungles in search of silver for the greedy Sark.  Along the way they encounter the major plot element of "The Shadow Out of Time".  I'll just let you know "Mind Lords" features mind-swapping aliens and chapters entitled "Thongor against Thongor!" and "Thongor Berserk!".
   "Mind Lords" just doesn't feel right.  Carter's stories work because, unoriginal as they are, clearly spring from deep inside his great, beating, fan-boy heart.  They overflow with the intense enjoyment Carter seems to have gotten from trying to recreate stories in the styles of his literary heroes.  This story is too labored.  It feels like a parody of something that's already, even if unintentionally, a little parodic.  Everything's a little too much, too over the top.  I also think Carter would've used the actual Great Race of Yith and made the HPL-crossover explicit.
   With "Silver Shadows", Price succeeds at creating a more Carterish feeling story.  Tired of working for others, Thongor has turned his hand to banditry.  Still, though an outlaw, he finds himself again in the service of Arzang Pome in search of silver.  This time it's a cursed hoard of the metal hidden in the tunnels under Shembis.  There's a kindly wizard, a delectable courtesan and a reptilian ape-monster.  Not a bad story at all.
   "Keeper of the Emerald Flame" is my favorite tale in the collection.  Thongor now leads a band of outlaws in the regions around Shembis and the Sark has sent out troops to run him to ground.  Evading the Sark's forces, Thongor and his band find themselves in unknown lands.  They meet a jungle girl and find a pre-human city out of dark legends. Those legends also include stories of great quantities of gems just waiting to be found.

"The colossal stone wreck was one of incredibly detailed and curiously unfamiliar architecture. The eye became lost in a maze of balconies, towers, colonnades and buttresses. The mind was baffled and confused among the mad profusion of wall and arch and wing and extension. It was not so much one building as a cluster of buildings, all built together in a man-made mountain of stonework....Like a titanic idol, hewn from a solid mountain of dead black squatted, brooding, amid dreary waste of desolation."

   It's not the most poetic of descriptions but it works well conveying the alien nature and scale of the ruins.  From the girl, Thongor learns that the place is haunted by Shan Chan Thuu, a wizard who came out of distant Omn centuries ago to learn the secrets of the dead city.  Still hiding from the Sark's men and hoping to find the gems, Thongor and his crew risk a night in the ruins. Soon enough his men start dying in horrible, bloody ways.
   Again, like in "The Demon of the Snows", Carter's aim appears to be tension and atmosphere, not action. S&S's roots are as deeply planted in horror as adventure tales.  Chelim, his lieutenant, says to Thongor, "I get the feeling this place is somehow alive - watching me - waiting for me to take a false step, before it pounces; or does something worse."  As his men start to die, fear grows and Thongor sets out to confront whatever horror is stalking them.  
   The foreword to "Black Moonlight" tells us Thongor was eventually captured by Arzang Pome and set to work as a galley slave.  Freeing himself in a bloody uprising, Thongor makes it to the pirate city, Tarakus, and becomes famous as the captain of the "Black Hawk".  This story brings Thongor and his shipmates to the haunted island of Zosk in search of legendary treasure.  The usual lunacy transpires - savage beast-men attack, the moon runs red and a stone monster lurches into action.  Short, sharp and bloody.
   "Young Thongor" comes to its conclusion with "Thieves of Zangabal".  Thongor has run afoul of the pirates' king and finds himself forced into robbing a sorcerer for a Lemurian nobleman.  The story's a little long and the fights are a little dull, but the complicated demon that serves as Thongor's primary antagonist is a clever creation.
   Where "Young Thongor" fails too often is with the character of Thongor.  He's too perfect a hero.  A teenage barbarian never exposed to civilization, he's too knowledgeable about too many things too quickly.  He also seems too young to be leading bands of experience bandits and pirates.  He never quite seems as young as he supposed to be and too mature.  Mostly, though, he's a bit too dull. He's brave, noble and rarely unsuccessful. It's a little hard to suspend all my disbelief every time.
   Fortunately, the book succeeds at creating a fun, ruin and demon haunted world at the dawn of time.  Almost overstuffed with background, Carter's Lemuria teems with vivid life and adventure.  It doesn't aspire to the same depth as REH's Conan or Wagner's Kane stories or break ground like Moorcock's Elric or Saunder's Imaro series.  What it does is provide great, straight up S&S that'll give readers looking for a few hours of thrills a good time.  I'm really grateful to Adrian Cole for overseeing this collection and getting out there.

NOTE: I am surprised how hard I've been on the late Mr. Carter. I tend to keep my claws sheathed even when writing about authors/stories I despise. I suspect it's only because he's dead that I'm so harsh and dismissive about his books. I struggle not to be mean spirited or flippant about writing I don't like because I think it's cheap and serves no good purpose. Criticism should be about promoting the good and seeking to explain why failures fail in hopes of encouraging better writing in the future. Ripping people and their works does none of that.
   With Lin Carter, though, it's unfortunately too much a part of the general S&S community. Sure, he could be a sloppy writer. Too often his stories seem more like fan-fiction than original writing. Still, the general attitude toward him seems a little too much. A lot of it comes from his association with Sprague de Camp and his control over Conan for so many decades. From all accounts, Carter was a decent guy undeserving of the sort of dismissal he often gets. He also did more than so many others to promote fantasy and specifically S&S. In the future I'm going to try to show a little more respect for someone incapable of fighting back and who did so much for a genre I love.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Issue #13 of Swords and Sorcery Magazine On Line

   Yep, Curtis Ellet's Swords and Sorcery Magazine is on a roll.  For several months in a row the quality of the stories he's published has been solid.  This month, two more authors unknown to me, to more good stories.
   The first, "Odin's Mirror" by Andrew Knighton, is a good piece of alternate history with vikings and, well, read it and find out.  Not much action but lots of stuff that's just very cool.  As with a lot of alternate history, there's a single twist that doesn't bear a lot of scrutiny, but once you accept it the rest flows in its wake perfectly.
   Even better is Rick Silva's "Soup".  Donna, a mercenary comes upon a town being robbed by a band of out-of-work mercenaries.  Almost at once, she's challenging the bandit's leader, Hoth, for leadership and quickly loses.  Before he and his men leave town, Hoth lets her know he expects her to be better prepared for another encounter in a week.  Instead of just fleeing, knowing he'll chase her down, Donna sticks around to work a little "magic" and ready herself for the gang's return.  It's a fun twist on "stone soup" and Seven Samurai.
   I'm really happy to see Swords and Sorcery Magazine maintain its new level of quality.  It'll be interesting to see how the magazine evolves.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Andre Norton - 1912-2005

"I am Elys. If my brother said aught of me, you also know that I shared his upbringing in part. Sword and shield-work I learned even as he did in his childhood. Though when we were grown we went separate ways. However, there was a bond between us, and when I was warned that he was in peril, I came, even as he would have come had he heard I walked into danger."
"But -- but how did you know he was gone -- lost in the hills? No messenger has ridden from here. We have kept it secret lest worse happen if it were known."
Brunissende watched me now with the same side-look I had seen in other women.

from "Dragon Scale Silver"

Friday, February 15, 2013

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #114 - Review

   Another month, another issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  Well, it's another good one.  Again, two stories by two authors I'm unfamiliar with.  The attractive cover features the "The Frost Valley" by Jorge Jacinto.
   Clearly, the best thing about going through the magazines each month is discovering scads of new (to me authors).  I know I've written that before, but when I find someone who writes a story as well as "Beheaded by Peasants" by James L. Sutter it bears repeating.  Not giving a single thing away, it's set in a post-Apocalyptic Pennsylvania somewhere to left of "Redbeard" and "Coming of the Horseclans".  In the wake of unexpected tragedy, the Princess Alana of Appalachia is forced to reexamine what she thought were strongly held beliefs.  There's no action in story and only a single scene of magic.  Any mystery behind the title is cleared up about half way through the story, and still remains an intriguing story. An excellent story about sacrifice in the service of greater things, I'm looking forward to tracking down and reading some other stories by Sutter.
   Living in the highest stories of the city of L'Echelle, a place of giant balconies and terraces, the noblewoman Ivette du Brielle, dares all as the daring adventuress, the Crimson Kestrel.  In L'Echelle the nobles and wealthy live high above the shadowed streets and tenements of the lower classes.  "The Crimson Kestrel"  by Leslianne Wilder is an exciting tale of derring-do.  Set in a lush, ancien regime style world, "The Crimson Kestrel" has spies, thieves, over-the-hill noblewomen and royal treasures (AND spider robots).  Fun is the best word to describe this lush bit of swashbuckling.
  So there you go.  Once again BCS has sent a good pair of good stories their readers' way.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"Ki Khanga" by Davis and Ojetade

   The latest blast of swords & soul to end up on my kindles is "Ki Khanga: The Anthology" by Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade.  Last year, Davis announced that he and Ojedate were working on an African-derived RPG.  At some point, he wrote, an anthology exploring each of the regions of the world of Ki Khanga would be released early this year.  It would serve as an introduction to the game as well as a source of financing.  When Ojedate announced on January 19th it was available, I downloaded it immediately.
   Ojedate has written at length about role-playing, including the racism he encountered back when he first played D&D.  Later, as a ref, he took on the boredom caused by endless pseudo-European campaigns by introducing pseudo-African characters and settings and, lo and behold, it helped eliminate the torpor that had settled over his gaming.  Players were excited at the prospect of something new and different.
   Both these men are entrepreneurs and swords & soul promoters as well as writers. Now they're hoping to build on what they and other writers have done and continue expanding the audience for the genre and the horizons of those reading it.  The world of Ki Khanga will be one more step forward.
   So how's the book?  Well, it's excellent at times, but it's a bit of a mixed bag.  I suspect that's due to it's serving as an RPG supplement as well as a collection.  It opens (following a nice forward by Charles Saunders)  with a history of Ki Khanga.  Of special importance, we learn of the Cleave, a great inlet in the continent of Ki Khanga, supposedly caused by the Creator's axe at his dismay of the nature of the world's inhabitants.  Now, unpleasant, seemingly evil things emerge from the Cleave to pursue unknown goals.

   The first stories, "Nubia's Revenge" and "How Adjoa Became King", are little more than character introductions, providing peeks at the greater world and events.  We meet a warrior who learns revenge isn't all she needs to be capable of and a royal daughter who becomes king.  A later story, "The Signal", again is a little thin, but it does introduce the almost majestic terror of another enemy of Ki Khanga, the mysterious joka watu.  If you read them as background material for the RPG they're more successful than as stories.

   With each new story, a little more is revealed about the world of Ki Khanga and the forces at work across the land.  In Davis' "Old Hunter", things get ratcheted up a notch and the enormity of the magical forces in the Cleave is revealed.  "The Hand of Sa-Seti" by Ojedate introduces intelligent, gun-toting elephants and giant beetle monsters from the Cleave.   "Old Hunter" has a potent, mythic feel while there's a nice steampunk bit of business going on in "Sa-Seti". This is great, action packed S&S.
  It's with Davis' "Timneet" that the book hits it stride.  Two men are sent by their Temple by their master, the Teacher, to kill his enemy in the town of Sala.  In the end it reads like the opening to a much longer tale, but that's not a failing.  Most of the story is composed of conversation between and contemplation by the two would-be killers.  Even though the surprises are very surprising, Davis' character had me caught up in their story from the very start.  I need to know what happens next.
   There are several other solid stories.  "A Name Long Forgotten" is about a a witch and her promised revenge.  "Fearless" is about a brave prince unable to see the source of his foretold doom and reads like a fairy-tale.  Both are by Ojedate.
   "Ki Khanga"'s best moments are the last three stories; "The Bene's Daughter" and "Simple Math" by Davis and "The Deal" by Ojedate.  Longer than most of the earlier stories, each provides enough room for the authors' to stretch out and deliver more complex characters and more excitement.  "The Bene's Daughter" is about the hidden and unknowing daughter of a potent magical family from a race dedicated to defending Ki Khanga from the Cleave's inhabitants.  In "The Deal", there's a wizard who travels underground inside a dead, giant worm, a warrior covered with animate and deadly tattoos, and we learn a little more about the division between magic and the divine first glimpsed in "How Adjoa Became King".  While both only introduce us to their heroes, they work as solid, standalone stories much better than "Nubia" and "Adjoa".
   The book's finale, "Simple Math" introduces the best character in the collection, Omari Ket.  Omari's a member of the Mikijen, a force of professional mercenaries.  It's a long, episodic story, but doesn't feel like a series of adventures simply strung together.  Each section leading logically to the next with enjoyable escalating scale of adventure and danger at each step.  There's a naive young mercenary from the back country, an upstart merchant backed by renegade mercenaries and the Ndoko, ape-men warriors.  Just the sorts of bits and pieces that make good S&S.
   Omari is a skilled warrior, loved or lusted after by almost every woman he meets, and almost gleeful cynical.  His attempts to tutor the naive Zewani are great.  Unbeknownst to him, he's been marked by the goddess Odu for a greater purpose than roaming through life whoring and fighting.  Throughout the story he finds himself pushed more and more in ways he doesn't appreciate but finds irresistible.  I'm definitely waiting for what he does and where he goes next.
   "Ki Khanga: The Anthology" is a lot of fun.  I've read Milton Davis' stories before and I'm a fan.  I'd only read Balogun Ojedate's excellent blog prior to this , but I wasn't surprised to like his storytelling.  By the time the book's done you really have a feel for the world of Ki Khanga and some of its heroes and heroines.  If you want more detail about the world, its realms and people, check out Davis' site and the Ki Khanga entries.
   So should you buy it?  Of course you should, the e-book's only $3.99 and you're helping back the RPG.  You should really buy it because the last three stories alone are worth the price.  One of the points of the whole swords & soul movement is to widen the palette for creating swords and sorcery.  Books like "Ki Khanga" are doing just that.  It's not a perfect book (those early stories that leave the reader hanging and more typos than I'm used to are weaknesses), but there's so much great yarn spinning going on you shouldn't give it a pass.