Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sword & Soul Amazon - Dossouye by Charles R. Saunders

 To date, I may have written more about Charles Saunder than any other writer on this blog.  Part of the reason is that he's  one of only a handful of authors from the swords & sorcery renaissance in the seventies still working the field AND he kicks massive backside.  The other is that I only discovered him late in the game. It's only thanks to the late and lamented Heroes of Dark Fantasy site created by Dale Rippke that I learned of Saunders and his hero Imaro.  
   To come across such an exciting S&S writer and character that I'd never even heard of seemed impossible.  Clearly, since I hadn't, it wasn't.  Within six months I'd tracked down the original Imaro books and was hooked.  Over time I got my hands on some of his stories published in various anthologies.  Not only was he writing S&S worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Conan, Fafhrd and Kane, Saunders was showing how to expand the field's horizons.
   Later I learned about the problems Saunders had suffered getting Imaro into print and keeping him there.  Just reading about his experiences is frustrating.  I was disappointed to learn he'd more or less left the genre and turned to journalism.  
   When Night Shade Books (let's all bow our heads in silence for a moment while keeping our fingers crossed) announced they were not only planning to reprint the original Imaro trilogy but brand new volumes as well I sent them my money as soon as they'd take it.  When the NSB stuff fell apart before the third book, "The Trail of Bohu", was reprinted due to low sales I was pissed off greatly.  I wanted to read new stories from Saunders and now it looked like there was to be nothing.  Personally, I would have just given up at that point.
   Fortunately, Charles Saunders was made of sterner stuff than I am.  He'd also returned to S&S just as the whole publishing business was changing.  Over the next few years he put "The Trail of Bohu" back in print and published its sequel, "The Naama War".  Since then there have been new shorts stories and a two-fisted pulp novel, "D'amballa" from a writer who'd been away for far too long.
   Saunders also resurrected and continued the adventures of a second original character, the ahosi Dossouye, a woman soldier in a royal army.  Back in 1979, he had created a sword & soul heroine to walk alongside Imaro (metaphorically, at least).  Dossouye's first story, "Agbewe's Sword", appeared in Jessica Amanda Salmonson's landscape altering "Amazons!".  She reappeared on the pages of several volumes of Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Sword and Sorceress".  Until a reprint of "Gimmile's Song" in the first "Dark Matter" anthology and a new story in the second, she'd been away from public view for nearly twenty years.

   In 2008 the fix-up "Dossouye" appeared.  It collected the original Dossouye stories and added a brand new one, "Obenga's Drum".  Its cover art by Mshindo I. Kuumba was a ferocious image of Saunder's heroine in mid attack.  Produced by the machinery of self-publishing house Lulu and Sword and Soul Media and filled with exciting stories, "Dossouye" was everything a sword & sorcery book should be.
   Dossouye is an ahosi, a female soldier in the army of Abomey.  The concept is taken from the ahosi warriors of the historical West African kingdom of Dahomey.
   At the book's outset, Abomey is preparing for an invasion by the warriors of Abanti and that kingdom's bukur, a terrible practitioner of evil magic.  Only possession of the legendary sword of Agebwe can prevent Abomey's fall.  Chosen in a dream, Dossouye is sent out of the kingdom to find and recover the sword.
   "Agbewe's Sword" is a mini-epic complete with a quest, betrayals, powerful magics and stunning fights and giant battles.  Dossouye appears as an almost meek servant of her king and emerges a powerful figure ready, even if reluctantly, to find a new path in an unknown world.
   In the end, jealousy brings disaster on Dossouye.  Tradition and fear of the prestige she wins in the war against Abanti force her to leave Abomey.  The exiled ahosi is drawn by circumstance into the great forest that covers much of interior of the great continent of Illodwe.
   The stories that follow are as small in scale as "Agbewe's Sword" is vast.  Instead of focusing on Dossouye's quest to recover a magic sword and defend her homeland, they're about her efforts to find her place in world where the traditions her identity was built on have been destroyed.
   In "Gimmile's Songs" and "Marwe's Forest" Dossouye finds and loses love.  In "Shimenge's Mask" and "Yahimba's Choice" the ahosi is forced to make decisions with possibly terrible results.  In the new and final story, "Obenga's Drum", she learns of and is tormented by the consequences of one those decisions.
   In "Marwe's Forest" and "Obenga's Drum" there are beautiful images of the great forest and its deepest, most hidden regions and inhabitants.  In "Obenga's Drum" the trees are "so tall that their foliage appeared only as a jade cloud".  It's a place teeming with life.  Troops of monkeys swing through the lower branches and high above, the great apes.  In the heart of the forest, man is noticeable only by his absence.
   In the first story, Dossouye meets an ancient, supernatural being and for a short time finds peace and love.  In the second tale, while traveling through the gigantic mtuni god-trees in the rain forest's heart she rescues and, in turn, is rescued by the diminutive Emibiti people.  Here too she finds a measure of peace, given it in return for her actions.
   Now, don't think what I'm describing are just hearts and sunshine tales.  These are still stories with plenty of action and excitement.  There are several types of demons, brutal bandits, shapechangers and dinosaurs.  Oh, and Dossouye rides a great war-bull named Gbo.
   Charles Saunders' isn't writing poetry, but stuff that's bold and vivid.  Whether he's presenting the clash of armies:
"Even as sheets of arrows flew overhead, the cavalry of both armies were the first forces to engage, crashing against each other like opposing ocean waves."
or a single warrior's engagement:
   "Dropping the war-bull's reins, she gripped the hilt of her sword in both hands.  Then, with all the strength coiled in her back and shoulders, she swung at the neck of the mokele-mbembe as though she were chopping a tree." 
he's sure to grab and hold you with his words.

   In several of the tales Saunder's creates some of Dossouye's adventures from real-world elements.  In "Yahimba's Choice", Dossouye confronts the practice of female genital mutilation.  She helps a young woman uncover the reasons behind its continued practice  and lay the groundwork for ending it.  "Obenga's Drum" the sorrowful and evil story of Ota Benga is used for that of the spirit-man, Obenga.
   "Dossouye" is not just a collection of adventure stories.  Saunder's is using Dossouye to explore how someone reacts when their fundamental beliefs are shown to have little reality.  When the fedi tree that Dossouye believes houses two of her three souls is felled, she believes she has lost the connection to her ancestors and deities and will become a zhumbi.  When that doesn't happen, she begins the journey that will take her into the great forest and lead her to search out a new version of herself.
   Time and again Dossouye meets others in places similar to her own.  Several of her encounters are with people bound by traditions that bind too tightly or are built on untruths.  Guided by her own sense of right and wrong and armed with bravery and a sharp sword, she steps forward to help them.  For nearly every adventurous event in these stories there's one about moral or emotional choices.
   Now as even cursory visitors to this blog must know, I'm a champion of the straight ahead S&S story.  Gimme a strong armed hero, a well hefted axe and a monster or two and I'm a pretty happy camper.  However, when done right, and Charles Saunders does that, there's a place for more ruminative stories.  He proves a genre's only as limiting as an author is limited.
   The most basic I like and recommend these stories is they're well told tales of adventure.  The fights are exciting, the world is colorful and well depicted and there's a nice dash of horror thrown in as well.  Charles Saunders knows how to hook you into the story and snap you back and forth like a great amusement park ride.
   The second, is that Dossouye's not just another sword-swinger.  Saunders has created an increasingly complex character who isn't just searching for the lost golden macguffin but for how to rebuild her soul.
   Finally, I love that he's continuing to create venues for his stories different from the more usual European or generic fantasy ones.  It's done without a whiff of exoticism.  I have to admit, part of me doesn't even care about the inclusiveness or boundary expanding components of Saunder's writing and all the other swords & soul authors.  I'm a little bit selfish and I just want stories that don't contain the same old overworked elements one more time.  That said, the other stuff is pretty cool too.
   Four years later a full length Dossouye novel appeared.  Titled "The Dancers of Mulukau", it looks to be a continuation, if not completion, of the exiled ahosi's search for herself.  I hope to get to it soon and report back when done.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Issue 16 - Review

   It's spring and the new issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly's arrived on the interwebs.  As usual it's chock-full of stories and poems.  Of special note is it's HFQ's fourth anniversary.  In these days that's practically ancient and stands as a testimony to HFQ's ability to attract good authors that readers want to read.

   Due to all sorts of stuff I never got around to reading and reviewing the winter issue of HFQ.  I promised myself not to let the spring one pass me by and suddenly I realized it was May.  So here we go at at last.
   Graced with a great, violent painting titled "Final Battle" by Mariusz Gandel, HFQ #16 opens with "Lord of the Tattered Banner" by Kristopher Reisz.  By the end of the first few paragraphs I became apprehensive about this story.  At that point the reader realizes the story's protagonist is an orc.  I'm fundamentally opposed to the use of orcs in fiction not written by Tolkien himself.  They're a specific thing, integrally part of JRRT's creation with unique traits and narrative purposes.  Stripped from Middle-Earth they're simply too much a piece of D&D for my tastes; endless ranks of nameless 1-hit die monsters for players to slaughter.  "Lord of the Tattered Banner" is a well deserved smack in the face to my prejudice.  I'm still not totally sold on using orcs in stories (at least give them different names) but Reisz's story is a well done rejoinder to my complaints.  
   With only a few thousand words Reisz creates a dark-hued world of hidden blood drinking pagan gods, a royal pretender, rebellious vassals, and an enslaved race of orcs serving as the brutal vanguard of the crown prince's army.  From the opening scene as orcs scavenge the dead on a battlefield, we see they are deemed lesser and subservient to man.  Fengr Tall-As-A-Mounted-Man, commander of the Brazen Tusk Orcs, is hit with a rod when a nobleman thinks the orc is being uppity and goes as far to describe him as the crown prince's "favorite pet".
   The army Fengr serves has just defeated the forces of Duke Orsten, a supporter of the pretender Princess Eadwynn, and seized his keep.  The conquering force quickly learns that Orsten has appeared to have abandoned worship of the God-Who-Sacrificed-Himself-To-Himself and returned to practicing the rituals of the strigidæ, dark gods only still followed by certain orcs.  Fengr ordered to discover which orcs taught the old rites to Duke Orsten.
   Fengr conducts a swift investigation, which involves partially sawing off a child's ear, the commander finds himself being told things he has no interest in hearing.  While one orc willingly gives himself up as Orsten's tutor, Fengr realizes the real culprit is an old orc dam.  Later she slips into Fengr's tent and tells him he is the prophesied liberator and future king of the orcs.  He will lead them out of bondage to the soft, pink-skinned humans and to victory.
   Fengr is not pleased, worried that the only thing that will come from the prophesy is his death.  No matter how straightforward some may sound few prophecies ever work out simply.  Fengr is forced to confront the dam's mystical pronouncement in a brutal and bloody world.

   Matthew Quinn's "Nicor" is about thirteen-year old Geiri Jorgenson's first viking raid.  There's a monster and a vicious fight with an opening reminiscent of Beowulf waiting for Grendel in Heorot.  Beyond that is Geiri's creeping understanding of the nature and origins of monsters.  "Nicor" also does well what I like best in a short story; it stands alone.  It doesn't serve as the setup for a novel or read like an excerpt from one.  Too many fantasy shorts these days simply feel like pieces cut out of a yet unfinished epic doorstopper.
   HFQ #16's best story is "The Lion and the Thorn Tree" by J.S. Bangs. I'm a supporter of any story that moves away from the common European fantasy tropes.  Bangs' story is seemingly set in Africa and at first seems purely fantastic.  Later elements make these assumption more complicated.  An evil sorcerer has conquered his neighbors and, in fear of a prophecy about his downfall, has taken to killing all the Nande male children.  Following the murder of her husband, Sinka sets off for a place of safety in order to secure the life of her unborn son and ultimate justice against the sorcerer.  I won't reveal anything else from this phantasmagorical story.  Personally, I plan to check out more of Bangs' writing shortly.
   Normally, I'm leery of reviewing poetry.  I just don't know enough about it and how to judge it for form as well as content.  I freely admit that outside of a classroom I'm too lazy to examine closely meter and rhyme.  Still, the poems in this quarter's magazine range from good to really good.
   "Diana's Justice" by Adele Gardner is the first of three poems this issue. A warrior, though maiden no more, dedicated to the Diana the Huntress awaits her erstwhile lover in a forest glade.  It's a sad story of misplaced trust, anger and bittersweet revenge.

   The highlight of the poetry's from HFQ editor Adrian Simmons.  "The Teeth of St. Aedh" is rightly subtitled "An Epic of the Ancient Irish".  Aedh Mac Cartin is a physically as well as spiritually powerful companion of St. Patrick.  Shortly after the great saint's death, Aedh is sought by a tribe seeking help against another.  Their old gods offer no protection and the tribe is looking for a representative of another to help them.  Aedh goes and his battle against the forces of King Ferchu and his druid are told in loud blasts of poetry and prose that practically command to be read aloud.
  This is great, big stuff that recalls the roots of sword & sorcery that stretch down into the tales told round campfires in the distant past and sung by bards, skalds and griots.  The army of Ferchu and his champions are described with bold, powerful words;

Swarming and fierce, haughty with strong arms
Legion overwhelming enraged
Flaming shields, brave spears
Shouting challenges, eyes mad
Charge of a horse
Fury of boars
Taller than oaks
Sprung from giants
A great ivory tooth to
Fill a fist hung about the
White necks of Ferchu and 
The thirteen greatest warriors
The very teeth of Sliabh Scoilt
The giant that sired their race.
The Fourteen gathered at the bank
Armies stretched at the bank

   The final poem is Wade German's "Barbarian".  It's a grim paean to a battlefield victory.  It's a dark warrior's celebration of spilled blood and torn and broken bodies and severed heads.  Good stuff.

   Of the magazines I read, HFQ is currently the king of the hill.  Perhaps limiting themselves to only a dozen or so stories a year they forces themselves to be pickier.  I wish them another four years and then a dozen more after that.  If you need a respite from the doorstoppers that drone on an on about plots long diluted by series bloat and the travails of tertiary characters be reassured there's plenty of excellent short fantasy fiction being published and some of the best is free at HFQ.  

Saturday, May 4, 2013

He's a little bit 日本人 and a little bit nordisk: Gonji: Red Blade from the East: The Deathwind Trilogy, Book One by T.C. Rypel

   Because I can't focus these days and as a result I read more slowly than molasses dripping on a winter day, it's taken me a month to read Gonji: Red Blade from the East, the first volume in T.C. Rypel's Deathwind Trilogy.  That's my first disappointment concerning this book.  I mean, there I was back in January plowing through books to write about and then I downloaded this and BANG, I hit some sort of wall constructed of anti-reading matter.        
   Rypel's book stars a half Japanese half Scandinavian warrior, exiled from his home and searching Europe for somebody called the Deathwind.  There're skillfully described battles, monstrous monsters, strange, unearthly enemies with unknown agendas and political machinations.  There's no reason I shouldn't have blown through this book.  But nope, whatever held me back kept me at this book for a month.  Just thinking about that bums me out.  But I guess that's not Rypel's fault.

   My first "disappointment" with this book is that it alludes to scads of things about its antagonist Sabatake Gonji without answering them. I posted a question on Good Reads S&S group (worth checking out) and got a lengthy answer from the author himself.  Basically, T. C. Rypel developed a long back story for Gonji and decided to start the books where he becomes directly involved in a sorcerous war "involving an age-old tyranny ruling over mutltiple, concentric worlds",  Set against this background, Gonji is driven by the last words of his mentor, a Shinto priest, to search out the Deathwind in the distant west.  So, thanks for "making" us need to read the rest of the series just to know what's going on. ;)

   My second "disappointment" with Gonji is that it's a cliffhanger.  In the last pages Gonji's wangled his way into a meeting with the King Klann, seemingly the book's main villain.  Klann's remained off stage for the whole book, and the reader is as desirous of meeting him as Gonji.  Then, literally on the last page, it's revealed everyone has to wait for Book Two, "The Soul Within the Steel" (which still isn't available as an e-book).  Curse, you, Mr. Rypel, for grabbing and holding our attention enough to make us want, no, need, to buy the next book.

   I hope it's obvious that I liked this book.  While motivated by the charge of destiny to search out the mysterious Deathwind, Gonji is also moved by the simple need to eat.  Gonji's a strange mix of simple survivor and noble hero.  In the book's first section he falls in with a fairly unscrupulous mercenary company serving in King Klann's army.   Before he escapes their service he's constantly examining his options, the state of his honor and how far he's willing to go fighting alongside the mercenaries.  Eventually they cross a moral line Gonji finds impossible to countenance and he flees.  
   From there, several unpleasant encounters direct him toward the city of Vedun.  A dying monk asks him to deliver a message to someone named Simon Sardonis.  Later he is too late to save a young man from death but manage to kill his tormentors.  The body he feels obligated to return to its family turns out be that of the brother of one of Vedun's most important men.  
   Built high up in the Carpathian Mountains, Vedun has existed for some time going its own way.  Protected by geography and a local lord and his army, Vedun has avoided becoming enmeshed in the struggles of the powers that surround it.
   Gonji reaches Vedun just as the forces of King Klann have staged a coup de main and forced the city's surrender.  Gonji enters a city in chaos and sets about insinuating himself into the lives of several important people.  From there things begin coming together and Gonji looks like his long traveled road to the Deathwind might be come to an end.  
   There are great scenes of action in Red Blade from the East but they're not the focus of the book.  Much of the book revolves around Gonji struggling to forge a place for himself in Europe.  Half-caste and moulded by the honor traditions of Japan, he's rarely at ease.  Too often he's succumbed to compromises that would have required his suicide in the past.  He's constantly torn by events, a desire to survive and his search for his destiny alongside the Deathwind.  Gonji desires to be noble and heroic but events and a willingness to compromise have made it an ongoing struggle.  Rypel's created a character of admirable depth and introspection, things often lacking in S&S.
   Putting aside those accolades, the book is plenty exciting.  It commences with a duel with vampires and then moves to a fierce running battle against Imperial soldiers.  There's a rooftop duel against a flying beast and a display of Japanese martial arts.  Several small fights between Gonji and men he's angered punctuate various chapters.  All this is delivered concisely and in clear service of the greater story or to expose more of Gonji's character and never gratuitously.
   Gonji's story was first published in the eighties by Zebra.  Now Borgo's presented new, improved editions with much pulpier (and ones that don't look like sequels to Shogun).  I don't know when e-versions of the next volumes will be available but I hope it's soon.  For what's a relatively short book there's a whole lot going on and I don't want to struggle to remember what it was.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Andrew Offutt, RIP

   So, one of the giants of the seventies' S&S explosion died the other day at the age of 78.  I'm not sure exactly how to describe Andrew J. Offutt as a writer.  I guess what he was was a professional.  Offutt was clearly a workhorse who could crank stuff out.  Wikipedia lists 75 individual novels between 1969 and 1993.  I suspect there're more.  He worked in several genres, from S&S to porn (under at least six noms de bonk according to wikipedia) to sci-fi to historical adventure.  He was also a practiced pasticheur of REH.
   From this page's perspective his most important artistic achievements lay in his editorial skills.  The five Swords Against Darkness books remain unparalleled in presenting new authors and promoting S&S.  He was able to coax new S&S stories out of Manly Wade Wellman and brand new Witchworld tales from Andre Norton.  If you don't have them you need to get them.  These are definitely books that should be available at least as cheap e-books.
   According to the ISFDB, the last thing he wrote and published was a story for Rogue Blades' "Rage of the Behemoth" anthology (of which I still haven't got a copy).  If that's the case, it's fitting that the last published story of a man instrumental in building S&S was in exactly that field.