Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Don't Avoid the Voidal - The Long Reach of Night by Adrian Cole

My review of the second volume of Adrian Cole's Voidal trilogy went live at Black Gate last week. It's a wonderfully psychedelic trip across the Omniverse by the Voidal and his batrachian sidekick, Elfloq.  I can't believe how snide I was about these stories when I first dipped into them only a few years ago.

When I started writing about swords & sorcery, I wasn't as ready to just appreciate stories just for fun. I was reading some of the new, "serious" fantasy. I read R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy. I heard tell of George RRRR Martin's Game of Thrones and how it was revolutionizing fantasy by making it more realistic. They and other writers were getting away from simplistic ideas of black and white morality. They saw the world in shades of gray. Grim, bloody gray, but still gray. Together, fantasy was being made more realistic and more relevant.

Now, none of those things are bad. Fantasy, as it has become a more widely read and accepted genre, has changed. Lots of genre writing, whichever one it is, stinks, and it always has. Fantasy had gotten pretty stale in the eighties. If Terry Brooks' Shannara books were knock offs of JRRT, then there were lots of books that weren't more than xeroxes of Brooks.

Writing for a genre tends to follow certain rules. A mystery has to have a mystery. Fantasy has to be, well, fantastic. It's the nature of things. What it's meant over the years is that a lot of stories just tick off boxes to qualify for inclusion in a certain genre.

Also, when there's evidence that something sells, people are going to replicate it. Hence, the endless series of series with secret heirs, dark lords, orc stand ins, and all manner of same old same old.

So efforts by certain authors to revive fantasy came as good news to me. Why shouldn't the genre be more realistic or relevant?

So I dove into some of this new fantasy and found lots of it good. I also found that lots of it took itself way too seriously. In their effort to be better, a lot of these books were less than fun.

There's a lot I like about the Prince of Nothing series; the worldbuilding, the history, the even some of the characters. But what it isn't is fun. It's a bleak slog at times, filled with torture, cynicism of the darkest sort. If there's any lightness of tone let alone any humor in it I sure as heck don't recall it.

When I first started reading books like Bakker's, I was pretty excited. This was surely the future of fantasy. It was what needed to be done to make the genre "better." A sad side effect was that I became a little too dismissive of any fantasy that I deemed too frivolous or pulpy.

That's where my early review of the first couple of Adrian Cole's Voidal stories came from. It just wasn't serious enough. Fortunately, I got out of that phase quickly.

I came to the conclusion that I read fantasy for fun. REH may have wanted to make some sort of point about barbarism and civilization, but what makes his stories work are the killer action, the heroes, and worlds filled with demon-haunted jungles, and cyclopean ruins.

Michael Moorcock might have been taking the piss out of S&S in his Elric books but the reason they're great is because of Stormbringer and crazy-ass monsters. Giant, golden, pyramidal battle barges are much cooler and more memorable than any sort of Freudian mumbo-jumbo supposedly underlying the stories.

And it's the same thing with the Voidal stories. There's a magnificently crazy degree of inventiveness in all dozen or so stories I've read. I've included a lot of excerpts in my two reviews over at Black Gate to give you a taste of what you're in for if you open the covers of these books.

And you should open them. Once I dropped my internal barriers (composed of 100% self-important-bullshitium, I should note), I was able to let Cole's mad creation wash over me. It's a rewarding trip any S&S fan should treat himself or herself to. Trust me, your reward will be great.

Don't get me wrong. There's a place for deeper element in heroic fantasy. But Imaro isn't great just because it brings up issues of race, but because Charles Saunders can write one helluva an adventure and knows how to craft horrifying villains and monsters.

I remember reading about some panel discussion in the UK decades ago about why the participants read HPL. Karl Edward Wagner gave a long, artistic reason. Then an artist, three sheets to the wind, roused himself, and said he loved HPL "for the effing monsters." Now I haven't been able to find where I read that, and if forced to testify I'll admit I might have all the facts wrong. Still, it's how I feel about S&S. I read it for fun, and that tends to involve swordplay, rousing adventure, scary monsters, and exciting characters.

NOTE: I haven't abandoned the Chaosium Project, just delayed it. A few folks have mentioned how difficult it is to read the small print in the books. Well, they're right and my cataracts have only made it worse.

I'm getting my first eye operated on tomorrow and that should make finishing Mysteries of the Worm much easier. With luck I'll polish it off next week.

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