Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Crime Fiction

   So I lied. Instead of Megan Lindholm's Harpy's Flight, I read and reviewed Steven Brust's Jhereg, first in his long and ongoing Vlad Taltos series (it came in the mail and Lindholm's book didn't). If you haven't read it you should - it's a blast. On the surface it's a nice bit of hardboiled fantasy, complete with snazzy banter and witty rejoinders and set in the criminal demimonde. In reality it's more a Golden Age mystery, more concerned with the puzzle than any sort of existential dread or moody, tough-guy antics.

  The only genre fiction I read with any sort of regularity besides fantasy is crime. I grew up in a house surrounded by mystery books but I didn't start reading anything in the field until I picked up James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia because I was a little too interested in the actual murder. I liked it and figured since I'd always watched mystery tv-shows and movies I'd probably like other crime writing as well. I did and began a quick review most of the classic authors in the field - Christie, Sayers, Hammet, Chandler, etc. - before moving on to newer authors. This happened at a time when I was becoming bored with sci-fi and not encountering much fantasy that caught my eye so I was ready for something new.
   All of that's a long winded way of saying I really like mysteries and crime fiction and Steven Brust did  a great job creating a fantasy version of that. It's not as hardboiled as Glen Cook's Garrett series. In fact I was a little surprised when I started writing my review (way too late in the day and way too quickly - the crap my wife/editor is subjected to by my writing when I work like that is ridiculous) that I was thinking of the book as light and breezy. Maybe it's because when I think of heavy duty hardboiled crime stories it's from the likes of James Ellroy (and by the by, if that sort of stuff interests you AND you have a strong stomach, check out his Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy or the psychotically brilliant L.A. Quartet - Extra warning - Just because you liked the movie L.A. Confidential does not mean you'll like the book - all the really disturbing stuff was left out) or Ross MacDonald. There's something magnitudes beyond bleak in their books that Jhereg doesn't have. It's not a bad or good thing, just a thing, but Brust's book is definitely written with a lighter touch.
   By those standards, Jhereg's much more like the American Golden Age style crime fiction of Rex Stout and a thousand movies and tv shows. Like the UK's Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham, it's really about the sharp, tightly plotted events but everybody gets to make wisecracks, not just the working-class characters. 
   The problem with Golden Age mysteries is that their star characters usually exist in a state of stasis, never really changing and always exhibiting the same set of traits and tics. From what I've read about the later books they do become tougher and more character driven so I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. In an interview with Brust, I read he realized that if Vlad didn't grow and change there was really no point to continue the books. So between the Vlad Taltos and a half dozen or so related books, that's a nice stack of new things to read in the future.
   Prog and heavy music seemed inappropriate to the mostly urban swashbuckling of Jhereg. I decided on a mix of power pop (early Cheap Trick and the first Knack album - the latter's practically perfect despite its lurid smuttiness), and oddball post-punk rock (Camper van Beethoven and Cracker). It was a nice mix of stuff I haven't tuned into for awhile.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Historical Adventure

   From its beginnings , swords & sorcery has been closely tied to historical adventure stories. Robert E. Howard showed it was really only a short step from Harold Lamb's stories to his own Hyborian tales. Broadly speaking, both genres are action and adventure oriented and usually set in some exotic or war torn land.
   Two of my most recent Black Gate posts were about historical novels (ok, Battle in the Dawn's caveman stories are pushing it a little). I've really enjoyed them and have been hoping to read more of them for some time now. That's got me thinking I'll probably read one every month or so. It'll mix things up and give me an excuse to catch up on a lot of books I really should have read already.

   In a recent e-mail conversation this very subject came up as did number of titles that I would like to read over the next year or so. Last summer, M Harold Page had a great post about the books of Ronald Welch. Paul R. McNamee recommended Tim Willock's Tannhauser books and I know lots of people love Bernard Cornwell's various series.  And of course it doesn't only have to be Crusaders and Vikings. There's plenty of reputedly great swashbuckling novels I haven't read either as well as some old Howard Pyle I've got sitting around.

So here's my prospective list for the next twelve months.

Frans G. Bengtsson - The Long Ships
H. Rider Haggard - Eric Brighteyes 
Harold Lamb - Swords from the West
Robert Low - The Whale Road
Talbot Mundy - Tros of Samothrace
Henry Treece - The Invaders, The Dark Island and Red Queen, White Queen
Arturo Perez-Reverte - Captain Alatriste
Tom Willocks - The Religion
Rafael Sabatini - Captain Blood

   Looking at the list, it's a lot of Vikings (and I'm planning to reread Hrolf Kraki's Saga pretty soon, so that's even more Norsemen in my future), so I think I need to mix it up a bit. Let me hear any titles you recommend or comments on any of the above.

 This week I'm reading Harpy's Flight by Megan Lindholm, aka Robin Hobb. I really liked the story "Bones for Dulath" featuring the novel's heroes, Ki and Vandien, and I thoroughly enjoyed her Soldier's Son trilogy, so I've got my hopes up.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


   While I have no musical ability of own, music is incredibly important to me. In the car or at home, particularly when writing, there's music. My tastes are incredibly wide, from orchestral and jazz to stoner metal and hardcore.
   Lately, a lot of what I've been listening to can, very broadly, be considered progressive rock. Some is very genre traditional, like Yes or 70s Jethro Tull. Some is contemporary prog metal, like Dream Theater or later Blind Guardian. 
   Some has lots of time changes and complex rhythms. Some of it's got roots in folk music. The lyrics range from Jon Anderson's inscrutable musings to Blind Guardian's version of the Silmarillion. All of it, while still maintaining a foot in the rock music camp, tends to be more deliberately "artistic" and "complex" that standard pop music. While this can lead to a lot of self important and self indulgent crap, it can lead down some amazing paths as well.
   I only recently started wondering why I've always been drawn to prog rock. Part of it's because of mindblowing cover art like this,

but mostly it's because of the music. I suspect much of my susceptibility to long, complex music come from my youth.

   First, my dad listened to classical music (on the original WQXR here in NYC).  Most of my childhood I heard nothing but classical instrumental music and opera. The only variation was the QXR folk show "Woody's Children" on Saturday night. With those genres, my ears were ready to handle Tull's A Passion Play.
   Thinking back I realized my introduction to a lot of actual prog rock came because of this one man:

   Andrew Maginley was a buddy of mine from childhood to about my freshman year in college. He's a couple of years older than I am and I totally looked up to him when it came to music. As a kid, he took up guitar and was soon playing all sorts of stringed instruments. I don't know how may hours I listened to him play but it was a lot.
   His own tastes at the time were for all things complex, particularly Yes and Queen. Later he was listening to early Dixie Dregs (he also introduced me to Motorhead, but that's another story). I was introduced to all those bands, and many more, in his house. Lots of my friends' musical tastes were built from what their older brothers listened to and Andrew filled that same role for me and effects me to this day.

That being said, here's two very different examples of prog in action

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mail Bag

   Cheap books from Amazon almost make up for lost used book stores my friends and I used to haunt. It took me several years to find a copy of K. W. Jeter's Morlock Night in a real store. Now, one-click and it's mine.
   The downside of not having physical book stores anymore is I don't just chance upon something and buy it because the blurb on the back makes it sound great or the cover calls out tome.
   Books at the now-closed Book Pit in Red Bank, NJ went for under $2. I always walked out with a bag of books at least half by people I had never read before. It was great when there were a dozen different stores I could visit regularly with similar results.
   Even with Amazon Prime, the cheapest a book at Amazon costs me is $4. At that price, if I'm going to buy something by an author I'm not familiar with I need to know a little about a book from reviews or recommendations before I spend my cash.

This I bought because Bill Ward recommended it. I'd been curious about Brust but never bought it. Now I have.

I read "Bones for Dulath", the first Ki and Vandien story in Amazons! and really liked it. This $.01 omnibus (plus $3.99 S/H) gets me the original trilogy.

Read some good things about this someplace I can't remember and that was good enough for me.

Bill Ward reminded me about first volume, The Oblivion Hand, which reminded me I never got these. So I did.

Finally, the Deep Down Genre Hound himself sent me some of his latest collections. I've already read the three Shan and Bao stories and they're a blast. Further proof of the ongoing S&S renaissance. Note the very cool colophon.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus

Just reviewed Henry Treece's The Great Captains over at Black Gate. My dad had Treece's The Crusades lying around, but it was only when I got Moorcock and Cawthorn's Fantasy: 100 Greatest Books that I had any sort of real understanding of who Treece was. 

Great Britain has a vast literature, much of it fantastic, that examines the island's real and mythical history. Sometimes it's about the very land itself and how the actions of the waves of people migrating to or invading Britain have left imprints that still resonate today.  I'm not totally sure why it appeals to me as much as it does. I trace a quarter of my ancestry to England, so maybe there's something going on there, some part of my deepest Jungian-type race memory's being tickled. When I read Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood I felt like I was reading the pre-history of my own English antecedents. I was brought up deeply aware of my English roots. If my Dutch background had been emphasized would these stories hold the same appeal?

   Much of the literature specifically called the Matter of Britain and deals with the mythic (or at least mythic versions of) the kings of Britain. I'm not that familiar with the older stuff like the Historia Brittonum, only the modern. 

I'm a big fan of the Arthur stories. I love T. H White's The Once and Future King as well as its spin-off, Camelot. I also find that magnificent wreck, Excalibur, riveting. The whole struggle to fight against "might makes right" and stave off the impending long night appeals to our hope to see justice done. One claim about all the kingly literature is that it was written to establish a body of patriotic myths for the land. Well, you really can't do better than Arthur Pendragon. The Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle makes the story more poignant, humanizing a potentially demi-god-like character. 

   Other authors who've dug into Britain's past that I can recommend include Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. Garner, more than any other author I'm familiar with, has dug the deepest into the mythic history of Britain. Keith Robert's Pavane and The Chalk Giants are also favorites, exploring some of the same subjects, but in sci-fi settings.

Being a fairly young country with no real
connection between the original myths of this continent, America doesn't have the same sort of body of literature. That we're also immigrants from all corners of the world only makes the a unifying myth harder to create (you could argue about the Founding Fathers holding that place, but I don't think the deist ones would appreciate it). Maybe that's why I'm so enthralled by these stories. While my roots go back to this country's founding, they really go back much further, to another land. Maybe there's something buried deep in the bedrock of my cultural/genetic past that calls to me from back down the years.

   Reading The Great Captains put me in the mood to cue up some Jethro Tull albums. In particular, Thick as a Brick and Songs from the Wood got lots of play. I haven't listened to the latter that much in a long time. Does liking Jethro Tull make me hopelessly uncool?

My next Black Gate post will be a review of October's short stories from the usual suspects. After that I it's either de Camp's The Fallible Fiend or the new Deepest, Darkest Eden from Miskatonic River Press. As to music, I just put on Manowar's Battle Hymns. Overused as it is, the only word is AWESOME!