Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

I've never been much for New Year's Resolutions, but I thought I'd try a few this year.  Goal setting being a key to success and all that.

In addition to the usual things like lose all the weight I've put on in the last year, get more sleep and exercise, lower my caffiene intake, laugh more, save more, spend less, here are some dealing with this blog and related matters.

1.  Post here at least twice a week.

2.  Finish at least one short story per month and send it to an editor who might buy it.  Repeat until it sells.

3.  Finish at least two novels this year and send them to editors until they sell.

4.  Promote historical adventure, fantasy, and science fiction as opportunities to do so arise.

Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sins of the Pioneers

Sins of the Pioneers
James Pylant
Jacobus Books
Trade paperback, 234 p., $15.95

Since my father-in-law is in both the San Angelo Community Band and a member of the Twin Mountain Tonesmen, the local barbershop group, and since both were performing in the Community Christmas Tree lighting a few weeks ago, it was only natural that I and the Adventures Fantastic Support Staff (Spousal Unit and Offspring) would be in attendance.  We arrived early in order to get seats at the front, and since the Cactus Bookshop was in the middle of the next block, I wandered down to kill some time and see what I could find.

The Cactus Bookshop specializes in Texas and western writing and carries just about everything ever written by Elmer Kelton.  That's not too surprising since Kelton lives in San Angelo.  It's well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area, even if the owner doesn't have any Robert E. Howard in stock.  (I need to discuss that problem with him next time I'm in.)

What I found was Sins of the Pioneers, a history of crime and scandal in Stephenville, Texas.  In addition to being home to one of the Texas A&M University System schools as well as science fiction writer Taylor Anderson, Stephenville seems to have been home to a number of murderers, thieves, scoundrels, grifters, bigamists, and at least one ghost.  Not the sort of folks you would necessarily want to have over for dinner, but probably more interesting after-dinner-conversation companions than the ones who would probably be your dinner guests.  I haven't had much time to do more than peruse the book, but since many of the events are short, it's great reading for those times when you only have a few minutes.

Over at the REH:  Two Gun Raconteur site, Damon C. Sasser has been doing a series of posts about Robert E. Howard's Texas, in which he describes in some detail the events Howard was interested in or places that had an impact on Howard's life and work.  They're great reading.  While I don't want to try to duplicate that here, only one county, Eastland County, separates Cross Plains (in Callahan County) from Stephenville (in Erath County).  I can't help but wonder if Howard was aware of some of the incidents in the book.  Stephenville was, and is, one of the larger population centers in that part of the state.  Given the interest he developed in the history of the area, I find it hard to believe he wasn't aware of at least some of the things in the book.  I'm slowly working my way through Howard's collected correspondence, and if I come across anything in the correspondence relating to Sins of the Pioneers that Damon hasn't already written about, I'll let you know.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom
Bernard Cornwell
Harper, 333 p., $14.99

I loved this book.  It had it all.  Shield walls, battles, invasions, treachery, betrayal, individual combat, naval battles, storms at sea.  This is the first of the Saxon Novels, and the first book by Cornwell I've read.  It won't be the last. 

The story revolves around a boy named Uhtred, who is the son of an earl on the northern coast of England in the ninth century.  Shortly after his tenth birthday, the Danes decided to settle in England.  All of England.  And they are not invited, nor are they welcome.  After his older brother is killed on a scouting mission, Uhtred becomes the heir, and his father begins to take an interest in him, which means taking him along on military campaigns as part of his education in his noble responsibilities.  After his father is killed in a battle, Uhtred is captured by one of the Danish chieftains, Ragnar.  Ragnar adopts Uhtred as a son.  Meanwhile his uncle, who was left watching the castle, has decided to become the earl and tries to have Uhtred killed. 

Over half the book is devoted to Uhtred's growing up, and in comparison to the latter part of the book, when Uhtred is a grown warrior, this part is slow.  That's not to say it isn't interesting, but a lot of what's happening here is character development and setting up a blood feud that will carry over into the next book and maybe the ones following.  As one character says, and I'm paraphrasing here, feuds go on forever. It's definitely worth investing time in. We get an education along with Uhtred in both English ways and Danish culture.  This makes the book richer and more complex.

There were times when I was reminded of Robert Low's The Whale Road, although the books are quite different in focus and tone.  Both concern a boy growing to manhood in a warrior culture that is at odds with Christianity, who by the end of the book is a respected leader.  But that's about where the similarities end.  The Whale Road read more like a fantasy quest novel than, well, much of the fantasy I've read.  The gods, dragons, Valkyries and  such were all real to the characters in both books, and Low does a masterful job of making that worldview seem real to the reader.  Cornwell on the other hand, while not ignoring the religious differences between the cultures and even stressing them at times, fails to make the gods as real as they are in The Whale Road.  Instead, reading The Last Kingdom made me feel like I was reading history by a witness, which was the intent.

Not only did I feel like I was reading history, I wanted to go and read history before I was done.  In my mind, this is one of the characteristics of a successful historical novel.  This is a time period I don't know much about.  There were no films for my high school history football coach teacher to show, so we didn't really cover it.

The last kingdom of the title is the kingdom of Alfred the Great, who is the sole English king left long before he appears on stage.  Well, the sole English king who isn't a lackey for the Danes at any rate.  Uhtred ends up in his service after having to leave Danish lands under really bad circumstances.  And I mean really, really bad circumstances.  As in an escalation of that blood feud I mentioned.  The latter part of the book concerns Uhtred becoming a trusted leader in Alfred's army.  You can probably guess that the Danes are still hanging around causing trouble at the end of the book.  Cornwell is taking his time and not rushing through the events that helped shape English history.

I may not know as much as I'd like about this time period, but I'm going to address that before I read the next book.  Which will be soon.

Blogging Kull: Exile of Atlantis

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Illustrated by Justin Sweet
Del Rey
Trade Paperback, 319 p., $15.95

It's been a while since I read any of the Kull stories.  I think the last time I read one was when I was an undergraduate, but I may have been in graduate school.  (We've talked about that memory and age thing before.  At least I think we have.  I seem to recall we did.)  Why it's taken me so long to get back to these stories, I'm not entirely sure.  Other demands on my reading time, mostly, including other Robert E. Howard works I hadn't read.

Anyhoo, in the intervening years since I last read Kull, I've grown and (hopefully) matured.  So I thought I'd take a fresh look at these tales.  In some circles, Kull is often thought of as a prototype Conan, an opinion that's only reinforced by the fact that the first Conan story was a rewrite of an unsold Kull tale.  But is that really so?  Howard, in spite of his critics, was quite adept at characterization.  I'm not sure I buy that idea, even though I have to admit that when I was much younger, I did pick up on the similarities between the two characters more than their differences.  It's time to take a fresh look.  Over the next half year or so, I'll be examining them in some detail.  I'm using the Del Rey edition with the story fragments and synopses, even though I own a copy of the Subterranean slipcased edition.  That edition is out of print and probably beyond the budget of many people.  The stories are the same in both volumes.

Oh, and these posts about Kull will contain spoilers.  So if you haven't read the story (or stories) under discussion, you might want to keep that in mind.  You have been notified.

Howard began thirteen Kull stories between 1926 and 1930, and he completed ten of them before moving on to other characters.  Of those ten, only three saw publication in his lifetime, and one of those is a Bran Mak Morn story in which Kull is brought forward in time to play a major role.  The first story in the book is an untitled story that was published under the title "Exile of Atlantis" in 1967 in the Lancer paperback King Kull.  Not counting the full page illustration facing the first page of text, it's only seven pages long, and that includes the illustrations on six pages.

The storyline is simple.  Kull, Gor-na, and his son Am-ra are talking over dinner at their wilderness camp.  What they're doing in the wilderness, we're never told.  The whole discussion centers around Kull's disdain for some of the tribal traditions.  It seems he's been adopted into Gor-na's tribe, which is the Sea Mountain tribe.  Kull doesn't know who his tribe is.  Rather he "was a hairless ape roaming in the woods" who "could not speak the language of men."  If that sounds a little like Mowgli from Kipling's Jungle Books, it shouldn't surprise you that Kipling was one of the writers who influenced Howard.  We aren't given any details of how Kull came to live with the Sea Mountain tribe or how he learned to speak.

The talk then turns to the troubles Atlantis has had with Valusia and the Seven Empires.  Kull isn't as impressed with them as Gor-na is.  He even expresses a desire to one day see Valusia.  Gor-na tells him if he does, it will be as a slave.  There is also mention made of Lemurian pirates causing trouble.  After some further discussion, the men get some sleep.  During the night, Kull has a dream in which he is hailed as a king by a large crowd.

The next morning the men return to the tribe's caves to discover a young woman is to be burned at the stake for the crime of marrying a Lemurian pirate.  The only person who seems to show some sympathy is Am-ra, whose "strange blue eyes were sad and compassionate."  Even the  girl's mother screams for her death.  Kull thinks this punishment is a bit much, but he isn't in a position to rescue her.  The best he can do is offer her a quick death rather than a slow painful one.  He catches her eye and touches the hilt of his flint dagger.  She gives him a small nod, and he throws the dagger, piercing her heart.

The enraged mob, cheated of their vengeance, turns on Kull, who has already begun to climb the cliff next to the village and escape.  He is saved from being hit by an arrow when Am-ra bumps the archer's arm.

And that's all there is to this story.  It might not look like a lot, but it seems to me the point here is to establish a little bit of Kull's backstory and define his character.  In this Howard is successful.  Kull is a man who is not afraid, either of battle or of asking unpopular questions.  He does the right thing as he sees it, even when he's the only one willing to take a stand.  In this story, doing so costs him his home.  We know from the foreshadowing in the dream that Kull will one day see Valusia, not as a traveler but as its king.

While the action in the story is not at the level of what many readers expect from Howard, the noble barbarian is there.  Remember, this was years before a certain Cimmerian made his way through the kingdoms of the Hyborian Age.  Howard was beginning to develop the themes he would return to again and which would occupy a great deal of his thoughts.  To return to certain themes over a period of time, developing and perfecting them, is not an uncommon thing for an author to do.

I don't know when this story was written.  I seem to recall someone (I want to say Rusty Burke) had put together a timeline of the known composition dates and best estimates of the rest of Howard's work, but I can't find it online.  Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me.  In his afterward "Atlantean Genesis", Patrice Louinet states it was either between July 1925 and January 1926 or between August and September 1926.  Whether the story was ever submitted for publication is unknown. This would make it one of the earliest stories Howard wrote in his career.

What I did find interesting is that Kull seems to have grown out of an abortive series of stories and poems about Am-ra of the Ta-an.  These consist of two poems (one only five lines long) plus three fragments.  All are included in this book.  In a letter now lost, but quoted by Alvin Earl Perry in A Biographical Sketch of Robert E. Howard (1935), Howard talks about a story in which a minor character takes over.  "Exile of Atlantis" is the only story we know of that fits this description.

None of these things should be surprising.  It has been well documented that Howard would sometimes reuse names from earlier stories, sometimes altering them slightly, sometimes not.  Even a certain Cimmerian was known as Amra for a while in his wanderings.  An interesting side note to this point, Amra of Akbitana appears in "The Frost King's Daughter", which was published in the March 1934 issue of The Fantasy Fan under the title "Gods of the North" and later rewritten as the Conan story "The Frost-Giant's Daughter", the second in the Conan series. 

Or to put it this way, what we are seeing with "Exile of Atlantis" is Howard stretching himself as a writer.  The events of the story may be dismissed as minor by the casual reader, but to do so would be a mistake.  I maintain that this is an important tale, especially if it was the first Kull story written, which it seems to be.  "Exile of Atlantis"  is an example of Howard beginning to stretch himself and warm up, to use an track analogy, before beginning to sprint and hit his stride with his later works.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Electronic Markets 2

 The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 5
Jonathan Strahan, ed.
Night Shade Books
Trade Paperback, 500 p., $19.99
Publication scheduled for March 2011

A few weeks ago, I looked at the table of contents in Rich Horton's forthcoming Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2011.  At the time, I commented on the proportion of selections published in electronic venues as opposed to print venues and speculated as to what the percentage would be in the other annual "Bests".  Since Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year is due out in March, I particularly wondered about that one.  Night Shade Books had posted a page for the anthology but had not (and still hasn't) listed the contents. Oldcharliebrown posted a comment (thank you) informing me Strahan had listed his ToC on his website.  Why I didn't think to look there, I don't know.  Anyway, Strahan, unlike Horton, didn't list the publications for his selections.  Rather than reproduce the list myself, you can find it here.  I spent a little time last night looking them up, and here's what I found.

Strahan selected 29 stories, with 6 duplicating Rich Horton's selections.  Those stories are the ones by Broderick, Hand, Landis, Parker, Swirsky, and Watts.  This isn't surprising, since each year there are a handful of stories that make all, or nearly all, the annual "Best" lists.  The good thing is that there are so few duplicates.  I think that shows a healthy variety in the science fiction and fantasy fields.  What is a little surprising is that four of those were published electronically, with three coming from Subterranean

Anyway, of these 29, 13 were published in electronic format, or 44.5 %.  That's slightly lower than Horton's53.5%, but still a respectable portion from electronic media.  Of those 13, Subterranean was the big winner, with five selections.  Strange Horizons was next with three, and Apex followed with two.  Strahan selected one each from Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and  The electronic venues not represented that were most surprising were Fantasy magazine and Horton chose four stories from Fantasy and one from Tor.  Clearly the editors have different tastes.

Where Strahan's selections really get interesting to me is the print sources for his selections.  He picked one story each from eight different anthologies, plus two from Stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.  One story was published as a chap book, and the remaining five came from magazines, with four from Asimov's and one from F&SF.  As in the Horton anthology, no stories were selected from Analog, nor were any from Interzone, Weird Tales, Realms of Fantasy, or Postscripts, although Postscripts is now an anthology rather than a print magazine.  I don't remember if they made the change this past year or the previous one; probably the previous.  Time slips away when you start getting older.  And given the problems RoF had this past year, it's not surprising to see that publication's absence.

It seems to me that the print magazines haven't done too well this year in terms of getting tapped for Year's Best anthologies.  While Asimov's appears to be something of an exception, on the whole they seem to be taking a pounding from the electronic and anthology markets.  At least Analog certainly is.  Being a hard science kind of guy, that disturbs me a little, but that's a topic too large for this post.  I'm not sure that's an entirely bad thing from the standpoint of good markets and good fiction being published, whatever the format.  Of course, the Hartwell/Cramer and Dozois volumes are still to come, and I'm sure there will be one or two others that will pop up.  It will be interesting to see where these volumes draw their choices.

This is the first year I've looked closely at the publication sources for any of the Year's Best collections, at least from a pseudo-statistical standpoint.  I have both the Horton and Strahan titles going back to their inceptions, so I could take a closer look (if I can find the time).  It would be fun to look at just when the electronic venues began to make such inroads on the print media.

And for those you haven't seen it but might be interested, Lois Tilton summarized the short fiction markets at Locus Online recently.  I'll not comment on what she says because she reads far more widely than I have time to, and I don't see the point in potentially starting an argument that I'm not well enough informed on.  I'll just say she brings up some good points about the same venues producing the best quality.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Little Something for the Season: "Roads" by Seabury Quinn

Seabury Quinn
Battered Silicon Dispatch Box
hardcover $25 Cn
paperback $15 Cn

So I was wanting to post something in the spirit of the season.  I thought about The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum.  Way too long.  Then I read a couple of passages.  Waaayyyy too much saccharine.

Instead, I chose "Roads".  Back in the 1930s, when Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith were writing many of the tales that would one day make them famous, there was only one person who gave them any competition in popularity in Weird Tales.  That person was Seabury Quinn.  Today he's mostly forgotten except by fans of The Unique Magazine and historians of fantasy and the weird tale.  If he's remembered at all, it's usually for his occult detective, Jules de Grandin.

But Quinn was also a versatile writer who could pen a good tale that wasn't part of a series.  "Roads" made its appearance in the January 1938 issue of Weird Tales.  It tells the story of a gladiator in the arena of Herod the Great.  Known as Claudius by the Romans, Klaus (you can see right away where this is going) has finished his contract and is wanting to go home to the northern climes he calls home. 

The story is divided into three sections, "The Road to Bethlem", "The Road to Calvary", and "The Long, Long Road".  The story opens with Klaus being attacked by bandits.  In the next scene, he comes to the rescue of a family on the road.  It turns out the family (father, mother, and infant) are heading to Egypt after the father had been warned in a dream to go there.  The men attacking them are soldiers, who are seeking to kill the child.  Herod, having met the Magi, is trying to eliminate what he sees as a threat to his power by killing all male children under two years of age.

The action is well described and the fights detailed to the point that I wondered if I was really reading a Christmas story.  As a reward for his actions, Klaus hears a voice in his head telling him that his name will one day be blessed by children everywhere.  Klaus asks that instead he may die in battle, and is told that is not to be his fate.  So what we have here is a sword swinging, axe weilding Santa Claus.  My kinda Santa.

In the next section, Klaus is back in Jerusalem a number of years later, not as a gladiator, but as a centurion.  He happens to be stationed in the service of Pontius Pilate when a certain religious teacher is brought before Pilate by the Jewish religious leaders.  This section I had a little problem with.  Quinn seems to have done his historical research, yet he shortens the trial considerably.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus' trial tell that He was sent back and forth between Pilate and Herod (different Herod than the one who slaughtered the infants) and that Pilate's wife told him she had had a dream telling her that Pilate should have nothing to do with Jesus.  All of this was left out, and I have to assume it was in the interest of moving the story more quickly since it is about Klaus more than Jesus.  Klaus ends up at the Crucifixion, and in the earthquake that follows, he rescues a young girl who will become his wife Unna.

The third section describes the wanderings of Klaus and Unna, who are immortal due to their service to Christ.  Eventually Klaus becomes Santa Klaus.  Along the way, Quinn makes a number of pointed comments about how Christ's followers, especially the religious leaders, fail to live up to His teachings.  The most powerful of these is when Unna is condemned as a heretic by priests during one of the Crusades after she describes the path Jesus where carried his cross to a group of pilgrims.  Seems her account differed from the "official" account of the priests.

This is a good story, and one that will appeal to readers of heroic fantasy.  It's certainly more appealing than anything on the Hallmark Channel.  The action is well described.  Klaus makes observations about religion and service to God and how they differ that are hard to argue with. 

That's not to say "Roads" is without its flaws.  The writing is a bit formal and overdone for modern tastses, especially the dialogue, which has a lot of "thee" and "thou" in it.  I suspect this might be an affectation on Quinn's part, although I haven't read any of his work in years, so I can't say for sure.  It wasn't bad enough that it interferred with my enjoyment.

The thing that I found most appealing was that even though "Roads" is about Santa, the religious aspect of Christmas wasn't dropped but was central to the story.  Christmas is ultimately a religious holiday, but these days the Nazis of Political Correctness have taken so much of the religious aspect out of the public observance and replaced it with an emphasis on making the annual sales quota that Chirstmas has in many ways become my least favority holiday.  I'm so sick of Frosty and Rudolph and Jingle Bells, I could scream.  "Roads" combined the secular and the sacred in a respectful way, reminding me of why I loved the holiday as a child while also reminding me of what it means to me as an adult.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Adventures Fantastic Looks at Rogue Blades Entertainment

Earlier this year I'm looking around on the Black Gate website when I find this posting.  Seems some outfit called Rogue Blades Entertainment is running a special promotion in conjunction with Black Gate.  If you buy a subscription to Black Gate, new or renewal, you get your choice of one of three anthologies for only ten bucks (plus tax and shipping).  The ad (reproduced here) showed a gorgeous young thing reading a copy of one of the anthologies.  I'd say this is my kind of woman, but my wife might read this so I'll refrain.

I was needing to renew my subscription anyway, so I took advantage of the offer.  The three anthologies offered were Return of the Sword, Rage of the Behemoth, and Roar of the Crowd.  We'll look at the first two in this post.  Roar of the Crowd is forthcoming.  Since I had picked up a signed copy of Return of the Sword from one of the contributors at a Conestoga a few years ago, I went with Rage of the Behemoth.  I then had a decision to make.  RotB comes with five different covers.  I chose the one with the Gryphon.

Rage of the Behemoth
Jason M. Waltz, ed.
Rogue Blades Entertainment
343 p., $17 paper, $8 PDF

The cover at the left is a composite of all five.  The book is divided into five different geographical regions, each with its own cover illustration. You pick which cover you want when you order the book.  The geographies are Frozen Wastes, Scalding Sands, Depthless Seas, Mysterious Jungles, and Ageless Mountains.

So the book arrives, and I peruse the table of contents.  There are 21 stories.  Most of the authors' names at the time were unfamiliar to me.  Now several of the names are of people whose work I am going to be actively seeking out.  More on them in a minute.  At the time, though, I only saw a few familiar bylines:  Mary Rosenblum, Brian Ruckley, Richard K. Lyon and Andrew J. Offut, Lois Tilton, Bill Ward.  So I figure that the stories by the more well known writers will probably be pretty good and so will some of the others, but that there will be a few dogs thrown into what would probably be a mediocre mix.

I'm glad to say I was wrong.  Boy, was I wrong.  There were no dogs.  Every single story in the book is well told, professionally executed, and worth reading.  Sure, there were some I didn't like as much as others, but with 21 tales, what do you expect?  And no, I'm not going to say which ones I liked least.  Your list will undoubtedly be different from mine.  The point is, I liked them all, something that usually doesn't happen in a volume containing so many selections.  With this many stories, there will be something for everyone. 

The stories range across a variety of landscapes and tones.  Some are serious, some grim, others fun larks.  All are entertaining and feature characters we can care about.  There are few cardboard people here.  The vast majority live and breathe.  The diversity of monsters is amazing.  There are manticores, giant snakes, gryphons, dragons, sea monsters, and unclassifiables.  This was one of the best and most fun anthologies of fantasy adventure I've read in a long time. It set a very high standard for the rest of the publisher's line.

Return of the Sword
Jason M. Watlz, ed.
Rogue Blades Entertainment
329 p., $17 paper, $8 PDF

This was the first anthology Rogue Blades published, before it was even Rogue Blades.  My copy says "Flashing Swords Presents" rather than the 2nd printing's "Rogue Blades Presents".  Again, 21 stories, including a reprint by Harold Lamb.  That alone is reason to buy the book.  Fortunately, that's not the only reason.  There are 20 more.  While I thought RotB was a slightly stronger anthology, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this one at all.  Again, professionally executed stories, characters we care about, exciting adventure.

The focus of this volume is heroes, who they are, what sets them apart, how they come to be heroes, how they stay heroes.  The editorial introductions help set the tone and provide at times some surprisingly thought provoking commentary on the stories while never spoiling any of the details.  If you're looking for action and adventure, especially with some depth, this is the book for you.  Or for someone you know who really likes to sink their teeth (or fangs) into a really good action yarn.  Some of the contributors are in RotB as well, but there are some others that only show up here, such as E. E. Knight and Angeline Hawkes.  James Enge provides an adventure of Morlock the Maker, his only appearance in an RBE volume so far..

Jason M. Waltz, ed.

Rogue Blades Entertainment
224 p., $13 paper, $6 PDF

This is the most recent anthology by Rogue Blades.  It's a little different from the others.  First of all, some of the stories were originally published in Clash of Steel:  Demons by Carnifax Press.  Rogue Blades, as editor Jason Waltz explains in his introduction, continued the Clash of Steel series and expanded the volume when Carnifax folded.  The layout is a little different than the other books.  Except for the first page of each story, the text is double columned, and the font on the story titles reminds me of the titles of 1950s  horror movies.  Not that I'm complaining; I rather enjoyed that, especially the font used in the titles.  It's just different enough from the other books that it stood out.  If I had any gripe about the layout, it would be the print is a little smaller and my eyes aren't getting any younger.  But that's a minor point.

I found this volume to be a somewhat weaker than the other two we've talked about.  I'm not sure why that is.  Part of the reason my be that I was trying to read the book during finals week, and as a result I didn't read through it as fast I otherwise would have.  I find not making progress on a book to be one of the most frustrating things I can experience.  Maybe because this was a project started by another publisher, the tone was different or something.  Thematically, this book was less appealing to me than RotB or RotS.  Demons aren't a subject I actively seek to read about, in part because of my religious background, in part because there's only so much that can be done with them before you realize you've read this story before.  Same with vampires.  Or zombies.  Or any other monster/creature/trope that's well defined. 

Anyway, for whatever reason, I didn't find quite the variety I found in the other books.  Several of the stories seemed to be similar in theme or content.  That's not to say I didn't enjoy them.  I did.  Just not as much as I did the other books.  Considering how much I was impressed by RotB or RotS, though, that's not as damning (pardon the pun) as it sounds.  This was still a solid anthology with a lot of good fantasy in it.  Or to put it another way, this book is better than most of the theme anthologies that come out each year, including those of a certain major publisher.  You know the one.

Anyway, to sum up.  Rogue Blades Entertainment is an excellent publisher with a line of consistently high quality product.  One thing exceptionally good is that Jason Waltz is open to new writers.  At the moment, he's not reading for any anthology I'm aware of.  Assassins just closed its reading period.  Discovery and Roar of the Crowd are the next two anthologies to be published and should be coming out soon.  They're the next two volumes in my subscription, so I'll let you know when my copies arrive.

What's that?  I didn't mention the subscriptions?  Oh, I'm terribly sorry.  Let me rectify that error.  Rogue Blades has a subscription program.  There are a couple of different options, a three book and a five book plan.  You can start your subscription with any book, so long as at least one of the books hasn't been published when you order.  Plus there are some good deals that don't involve subscriptions. 

Now, as I was saying before I got sidetracked about the subscriptions.  These anthologies are a potential market for new writers.  That doesn't mean that the writing is poor.  Occasionally, it might be in spots, but Waltz has high standards, and professionalism is the norm.  He cares deeply about the genre, and it shows.  The result is anthologies that are as good or better than what New York is publishing.  Furthermore, I predict that if some of these folks keep writing, they will be major players in the future.  For that to happen, they need markets.

Who are some of these people?  I hesitate a little to answer that question for a couple of reasons.  One, I don't want to try to predict the future.  To do so is a sure fire way to get egg on your face.  Second, I don't want to overlook anyone.  That could happen for three reasons.  The first is a story might not have worked for me when I read it for reasons that don't always have to do with the story, such as fatigue, environment while reading, interruptions, etc.  Under other circumstances, I might have loved it.  The second is my brain, like my eyes, isn't getting any younger, and the memory is starting to go.   I don't remember the third reason.

Anyway, a short list of authors I want to read more of.  This list is, for the record, open to change, mainly in the form of additions.  In no particular order:  Bruce Durham, Frederick Tor, Bill Ward, Jeff Stewart, C. L. Werner, Jonathan Moeller, and Michael Ehart.  Ehart has written two novels, one of which is available from RBE.  I plan to pick it up next year after my cash flow has recovered from the holidays.

There are not enough markets for sword and sorcery.  The ones we have need to be supported, especially the ones that publish good work.  I've mentioned before that sword and sorcery appears to be in the beginning of a renaissance similar to what space opera has gone through.   Rogue Blades is at the forefront of that renaissance.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis: Dragon Moon

"Dragon Moon" from Elak of Atlantis
Henry Kuttner
Planet Stories - Paizo Publishing
Trade Paperback, $12.95, 2007

"Dragon Moon" is the last of the Elak stories Henry Kuttner wrote.  It got the cover of the January 1941 issue of Weird Tales.  I was browsing recently on the Dark Worlds site and discovered that all but "Thunder in the Dawn" got the cover.  I shouldn't say "discovered" so much as I was reminded.  I had seen all three of the covers featuring the Elak stories before and should have remembered them.  Rather than reproduce the rest of them here, I'll let you view them over at Dark Worlds.  G. W. Thomas has put together an interesting website, and you owe it to yourself to check it out if you haven't already. 

"Dragon Moon" opens very much like "Thunder in the Dawn", with Elak and Lycon becoming involved in a brawl over a tavern wench in the port city of Poseidonis.  Once again the druid Dalan saves Elak and tells him his home kingdom of Cyrena is in danger.  At this point, the two tales diverge in their similarities.  An alien presence, not a demon or a spirit, but an alien presence (Dalan is quite clear on this point) called Karkora the Pallid One has taken over the mind of the ruler of the neighboring kingdom of Kiriath.  Karkora had begun to take over the mind of Elak's brother Orander.  In order to prevent this from happening, Orander has taken his own life.  Elak is now heir to the Dragon Throne and the kingdom of Cyrena.  Kiriath is assembling an army to invade Cyrena.

Elak has no interest in ruling and sends Dalan away.  That night Elak has a strange dream in which he finds himself on a cold mountaintop being assaulted by a presence.  He is only able to escape by calling on the aid of his god.  This is a complete departure from Conan, who is well documented in his practice of not calling on gods and whose deity Crom hates weaklings.  Elak doesn't give it a second thought.

This is the first dream sequence (or dream-like at least) in the story and is fairly short.  Unable to find Dalan, Elak and Lycon hire a skiff to take them to a boat that is just setting sail for Cyrena.  Upon climbing up the side and over the rail, they discovered the ship is captained by a man named Drezzar.  The same Drezzar Elak was fighting in the opening scene of the story.  He and Lycon are immediately taken captive and put to work at the oars as slaves.

This sequence, in which Elak is captured and eventually leads a slave rebellion, is the part of the story that most reminded me of Conan.  It's a straight action-adventure sequence which ends with Elak assuming the captaincy of the vessel.

The next truly weird part of the story occurs after Elak has been instructed by Dalan in a dream to leave the ship at a certain location.  He eventually ends up seeking aid from a sorceress named Mayana.  She is the mother of the current Kiriathan king and a descendant of Poseidon.  In reaching her, Elak has to swim across a lake inhabited by the shades of a drowned city.  This is the closest Kuttner comes to including a bizarre otherworldly sequence of the intensity of the ones seen in the earlier stories.

Mayana is by far the most interesting character.  She fell in love with the former king of Kiriath and bore him a son with the aid of a sorcerer named Erykion.  He's ultimately responsible for the Pallid One possessing the current king of Kiriath, who is Mayana's son.  She holds the key to stopping her son, but is reluctant to aid Elak because it will mean her son's death.  Yet, she also realizes that this is the right thing to do.  She withholds her aid but promises to give it to Elak in his hour of greatest need.  Mayana, in spite of being a child of the sea and not human, has fallen in love with the forests and fields of the land and longs to be able to walk them once again.

There's more, but I won't spoil it for you, except to say this.  It appears that Kuttner was intentionally ending the series with this installment.  Elak ascends the Dragon Throne and agrees to change his wandering ways, to settle down and rule.  While kings can certainly have adventures, (Kull and Conan did, after all) the tone implies Elak the king will have a more quiet reign than his predecessors in Weird Tales.  The ending of the story is the most bittersweet one of the entire series.

Whatever reasons Kuttner had for terminating Elak's adventures, he ends the series on a high note.  The writing is probably the most polished of all the Elak stories.  The action flows smoothly.  I found the characters to be better developed, especially Mayana, who is by far the most complex of any of the characters in the series, especially given the amount of time she is actually in the story.

"Dragon Moon" was published in the January 1941 issue of Weird Tales.  "Beyond the Phoenix" made its appearance in the October 1938 issue.  That's a gap of over two years.  All of the preceding Elak stories were published in 1938.  I'm not sure why there was such a long break.  The two Prince Raynor stories were published in Strange Tales during those two years.  It appears as though Kuttner left the character and came back to him, although that's entirely speculation on my part.  Did Kuttner feel that his writing had matured since the first Elak story (it had) and want to try his hand at a different sword and sorcery setting?  Did Raynor not connect with the readers?  Did Kuttner submit "Dragon Moon"  in late 1938 or early 1939 and Farnsworth Wright delayed in scheduling it so that Kuttner had to create Prince Raynor for another market?  Hard to swallow considering all but one of the Elak stories got covers and Wright published Conan in a number of consecutive issues.  I don't know the answers to these questions, but they're interesting to think about.  If anyone out there knows why "Dragon Moon" was published later, I'd like to hear the answer.

So, to sum up the Elak of Atlantis series.  While the first has some definite flaws, the quality improves over the series.  While comparisons to Conan are inevitable, and most of them will probably be unfavorable comparisons, Elak is his own character.  He seeks help from the gods.  He is an adventurer by choice.  You can argue that Conan is as well, but the backgrounds of the two men are vastly different.  Elak turns his back on a throne before ascending it.  Conan, who has no such prospects due to his birth, makes his own opportunity.  This series, while maybe not a major sword and sorcery series, is certainly one worth reading.  Kuttner was expanding the genre, giving it a more weird and bizzare feel through the scenes where Elak goes to another realm, be it extra dimensional or in a dream.  To my knowledge, at this time only C. L. Moore had done that with her Jirel of Joiry adventures.  So, in conclusion, if you haven't read the Elak stories, check them out, especially the second, third, and final tales.

We'll look at the Prince Raynor stories next and see how they compare to both Conan and Elak.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Status Report

Well, finals are done and the grades are in.  It's all over but the crying (in some cases literally) and the shouting (at me by students enrollees who didn't come to class, do homework, pass tests, or simply make the grade and think they are entitled to an A).  I'm going to get some sleep and try to post tomorrow.  I'll be on the road some for the next few days and then the holiday travel starts.

As for what's up, I'm almost through reading for a post I'm going to do on Rogue Blades Entertainment.  I probably won't get that one up until sometime next week.  I've read the last of the Elak stories by Henry Kuttner and will discuss it, I need to look at Jonathan Strahan's ToC and see if I can determine where all his selections came from, print or electronic sources, and continue that discussion, and I'm going to start reading for a long post about some of the collections of Henry Kuttner that are available.  I've also picked up a fantasy or two by writers who are new to me that I want to read, as well as some historical fiction.  And I want to reread Robert E. Howard's Kull stories.  It's been a while since I last read them, and I want to look at them with (hopefully) wiser eyes.

That should keep me busy for a while.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Electronic Markets

I was browsing the Black Gate website the other day when I came across the post announcing that Matthew David Surridge's "The Word of Azrael" had been selected for inclusion in the forthcoming The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2011 edited by Rich Horton.  Congratulations to Mr. Surridge.

The thing that intrigued me, though, was when I followed the link to the table of contents and perused the titles, and more to the point, the sources of these stories.  There are 28 titles listed, along with the venues in which they saw print.  Or rather were published, with that term being defined to include electronic media.  Of the selections Rich Horton chose as the best of the year (always a subjective list, as a perusal of the contents of the respective volumes in any given year will demonstrate), fifteen of them were published in electronic format in seven different venues:  Apex, Clarke's World, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Subterranean, and Fantasy and Lightspeed each had four stories.  Tor, Apex, and Clarke's World each had one.

Several anthologies were represented with single stories.  Among the big three of the print magazines, F&SF and Asimov's each made the list with 3, while what is the magazine with by far the largest print circulation, Analog, didn't make the list at all.  Neither did Realms of Fantasy, Interzone, Postscripts, or Weird Tales.  I find this interesting, especially given the much publicized death and resurrection of RoF last month and the various comments about why  it died posted several places on the web. 

The ToC of Johnathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year hasn't been released yet, even though it has a March release date, nor have the contents of the Dozois or Hartwell and Cramer volumes, which typically hit shelves in the summer (although this year's fantasy volume is still listed as forthcoming on Kathryn Cramer's blog).  It will be very interesting to see where they chose their selections from, mostly print, mostly online, or about an even mix.  It will also be interesting to see whether the heavy- and middle-weights that didn't make Horton's cut make fare much better in the other volumes. 

There's no doubt we are seeing a major change in the publishing of short fantastic fiction.  Not only are there more electronic periodicals out there than ever before, the print magazines may be seeing their first circulation increases in years thanks to Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers.  I for one am not about to try to predict where the trends are heading, for one reason because things are changing so fast that by the time some trends become evident, they've mutated into something else.  I will keep as much of an eye on things as I can, and you can bet I will write about them here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Blogging the Future

Anyone who has much knowledge of the science fiction field knows the name of Frederik Pohl.  He's been a fan, an agent, an editor, and a writer since before World War II, although not necessarily all at the same time.  This past year he won his seventh Hugo.  Back in the 70s several members of the Futurians, the famous (some would say infamous) fan organization, wrote memoirs.  Fred's was called The Way the Future Was.  Well, that book has been out of print for quite some time.  But in recent years Fred has taken to blogging, with a blog aptly titled The Way the Future Blogs.   He's been more active than usual of late, with some reminiscences of Judith Merrill posted over the last few days.  If you have any interest in the history of science fiction, especially written by someone who not only was there but helped shape much of it, this is one of the blogs you ought to be reading.