Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #117 - Review

   Another Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #117 to be specific, another cool cover and two more good stories, blah, blah, blah.  I've been reading the mag for around a year now and even when I don't like a story I never hate a story.  Sort makes me want to hate them a little bit or wish they printed a uniformly crappy issue for a change.    But nope, bless their diligence, the powers that be over at BCS just keep plugging along, two stories every two weeks (plus audio versions of some of them).
   This month's gorgeous (as usual) cover, by Maciej Wojtala, is called "Marching Off".  I loved the glaring, brightness of the street set between the troops and the fortress rising in front of them.  Click here to see the painting in its full-sized glory.
   The issue-opener, "Armistice Day" by Marissa Lingen, is an examination of the effects of relying on magical forces to settle a war.  To prevent their opponents' victory over them, a nation's sorcerers conjured an army of creatures described as "little squashed mustardy yellow people" out of nothing.  Created as warriors, the nation is faced with the question of what to do with them when there's no longer a use for their martial or magical skills.
  "Armistice Day" is narrated by the sergeant of a unit of conjured soldiers relegated to working in the kitchens of a university of wizardry.  The supposition is that their skills with knives can easily be converted from carving men to carving vegetables.
   I'm a sucker for stories that take an old stock fantasy image and then try to examine it in a novel fashion.  When it succeeds, especially as well as it does here, I'm even happier.
   Issue #117's second story is "Blood Remembers" by Alec Austin.  Unlike the low key nature of "Armistice Day", this story's a great, big expansive one set amidst religious schism, a heretical crusade and betrayal.
   There's a whole lot going on in Austin's story and he just throws the reader into things with not a lot of explanation.  I don't want to give much away too much as there are some striking images that deserve to be experienced without my interference.
   Broadly, Anton Carcania is leading an army against the book burning forces of the anti-pope Immaculate.  In the course of the story we learn Anton was once on the wrong end of a crusade and memories of that horror still move him.
   Following betrayal by his major ally (I'm not really giving anything away), Anton initiates a plan of monstrous magnitude.  While the events of "Blood Remembers" were inspired by the Albigensian Crusade, and Austin's world has strong similarities to Medieval Europe, there's so much more to it than any simple parallels.
   So that's that.  Go look at Mr. Wojtala's pretty picture and read a couple of good stories.  I really hope BCS is meeting the expectations of its staff.  Something this consistently good deserves to be noticed and read.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mail Bag

Getting my hopes up about the late Lin Carter, I put a order in for all three books in the Chronicle of Kylix cycle.  The third comes recommended by Charles R. Rutledge of Singular Points.  Fingers crossed, people.

   With everybody talking up the Gonji books I had to see what's the deal.  Ordered the first one and started it the other night.  So far, so good.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Issue #14 of Swords and Sorcery Magazine On Line

   Another issue of Curtis Ellett's "Swords and Sorcery Magazine" went up the other week and I finally got around to reading it (yeah, I've been slack in keeping up with the magazines of late).  Not as good as the last few but still better than the first several I read.
   The opener, "Calling Fire" by Jarod K. Anderson, is really more an introduction to a character than a full blow story.  An unnamed narrator introduces the reader to a world where fire callers exist, peddling their skills at summoning heat and flame like any other tradesman.
   The narrator is setting out for an annual journey to the plains in order to let loose a year of self-control.  After limiting his talents to heating kettles or lighting candles he needs more.  More means setting the plains alight.
   Unfortunately, there are those who consider fire callers demonic and the narrator meets a trio of such people.  Up until the confrontation with the trio, I found the idea of a fire caller wandering about selling heating services a little pointless.  Several bits of information regarding the caller's trade are made clear at this stage that changed my mind.
   Anderson's writing works well at conveying the joy of the fire caller's use of his talents.  Still, it's not much of a story and, as is often the case with shorts, feels like it's been shorn from a larger piece of fabric.
   "God of the Mountaintop" by John Grover I like only a little.  Dorrin, a swordsman, and his companion Vess, a siren (like from the Odyssey) are traipsing about the countryside when they enter a village that's clearly been through the ringer.  Cattle lay dead (with bites taken out of them) in the fields and the town center's a shambles.  A brief interaction with a young boy named Sebastian reveals that only recently has new god appeared atop a nearby mountain.  Said god is always demanding offerings of food but the villagers' tithes are never enough.  Now they're contemplating a virgin as the next gift.  Sensing a scam at hand, Dorrin and Vess declare to the villagers they will right the wrongs and set them free from the false deity's bondage.
   There are some nice bits to "God of the Mountaintop", such as Dorrin remembering how he met Vess and later telling her why he's such a good guy.  The psychological problems of the villains is a nice bit of cleverness as well.  Still, everything felt a little too familiar and by the end I was a bit bored.
   So, click your bookmark, and read this month's stories.  I need to get back on track because it's only a week and half away until the next issue.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Crapsack Universe - "The White Isle" by Darrell Schweitzer

  A crapsack universe, according to tvtropes.org, is one where all that can go wrong does or survival is difficult and existence a constant misery.  The universe of Darrell Schweitzer's first novel (written in 1976 and published in 1989), "The White Isle", is worse.  According to a 2003 interview Schweitzer did with G.W. Thomas, the story is "a 23-year-old's attempt to write tragedy.  The basic premise is this "what if Fate and the Gods really have screwed us over?  Life's a bitch, and then you die.  The afterlife is worse.  There is no right and wrong.  Everyone goes to Hell."
   Deliberately reminiscent at times of Clark Ashton Smith's dark and cynical fantasy stories, "The White Isle" opens words of dread:

            "Hear me!
            Hear now, O Lords and Ladies, the tale of
            Evnos and Riancinera, and the doom of
            the House of Iankoros.
            Hear me!"

   "The White Isle" is the tale of Prince Evnos of Iankoros and his quest to recover his wife, Riancinera, from the Underearth and free her from bondage to Rannon, god of death.  Casting aside the warnings of his tutor, the wizard Theremderis, and the dismissive words of a demon he summons to learn the way into the Underearth, Evnos sets out alone on his quest.  A powerful sorcerer, the prince is able to make his way into the death god's kingdom and smart enough to navigate around or overcome all the obstacles that stand between him and Riancinera.

  It is at the point of Evnos' entry into the Underearth that  "The White Isle" becomes the story described in the interview referenced above.  Without  giving anything away about the terrifying imagery Schweitzer's conjured up, Evnos discovers the afterlife is unremitting pain and sadism.  There is no hope, all are damned and none are saved.  It's as inventively cruel and painful as Michael Shea's Hell in the Nifft stories but bereft of even black humor.

   Evnos' early life, his education and marriage then his quest to rescue his wife only makes up about the first half of the book.  The second half is best seen as Schweitzer described it in the same G. W. Thomas interview; an epilogue.  It tells of the years following Evnos' raid on Rannon's kingdom and the horrible prices he found he had to pay.  
   The core of "The White Isle", Evnos' journey to the Underearth, is based on a theme at least as old as that of Orpheus and Eurydice (which Schweitzer points to in the Thomas interview).  In its telling the story often sounds equally ancient.  There are moments that would not seem out of place if we were told they came from ancient Mesopotamia.  One of the most myth-like moments occurs when Evnos is surrounded by demon-soldiers of Rannon.  He distracts, then overcomes them with fruit (an element Schweitzer admits to swiping from a Japanese Orpheus-type story).

"Then he remembered the bag of fruit he was carrying and what it was for.  He reached in and threw apples on the ground.
   "Here, brave ones!  The gifts of the earth!
    At once the creatures fell to fighting among themselves over the fruit for they craved it.  Over the centuries, as Glazdiri had explained, the tormented had a way of revenging themselves on their jailers by describing to them in endless, exquisite detail the pleasures of the upper world, which Rannon's creatures of course would never know."

  An atmosphere like ancient legends may suffuse "The White Isle", but its utter and unavoidable hopelessness makes the novel feel modern.  This book extends far beyond nihilism.  Only at the book's very end, when a creation story is presented, is there any hint of some possible escape due to the existence of something outside of and greater than Rannon.  Even that, though, is not assured.  This is one of the bleakest fantasy books I've ever read and I've read R. Scott Bakker.
   Still, this is not a book to be missed.  If  the success of "The White Isle" should only be judged by how well it succeeded at achieving the task its author set himself then it's a near perfect one, but there are several other good reasons to read it.  Schweitzer created a sympathetic character in Evnos and as he grows and matures the reader becomes attached to him.  When he's hurt learning magic or by the death of his wife, we feel it.  We want his quest to succeed nearly as urgently as Evnos does.  His determination is something to behold.  Like him we are horrified at the reality of the world laid bare.  It's also a book of inventive world construction and exciting storytelling.  
   I haven't read much Schweitzer but if this is a reasonable sample of his wares I'm ready to try more.