Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Heretic Kings

The Heretic Kings
in the Hawkwood and the Kings
Paul Kearney
Solaris, 702 p., $9.99

This volume takes up pretty much where Hawkwood's Voyage left off.  Things go from bad to worse.  Hawkwood and what members of his crew have survived the voyage across the Great Western Ocean have found that there is indeed a continent out there, and it's inhabited.  And the inhabitants aren't friendly.

The Council of Kings splits, with three of the kings declaring support for the true Pontiff.  Declared heretics by the Church, they face assassination and civil war.  Abelelyn must make his way home through hostile seas, while the Church and grasping nobles try to seize the kingdom. 

Corfe has managed to get the true Pontiff safely to Torrunn.  Despised and viewed with scorn by the military fops who inhabit the capital, he catches the attention of the Queen Dowager, who sets him up with his own commmand.  Her son, King Lofantyr, resents her interference in what he sees as his decisions and sends Corfe out on a suicide mission with a group of barbarian galley slaves.

In the holy city of Charibon, two monks make a discovery that will literally tear their world apart.  If they can live long enough to reveal it.

And then there are those pesky werewolves...

This being the second volume of a pentology, things tend to drag a bit in places as Kearney sets up some broader story arcs.  Or that could be my perceptions.  I read most of the first volume, Hawkwood's Voyage, while traveling.  This book I started the same week classes started.  This didn't leave me much time for reading on top of the other things I had to deal with, like helping my wife with her job search.  Plus I got distracted by what will probably be the topic of the next post.  So it took me nearly two weeks to finish the bloody thing, something that isn't typical for me.  So some the dragging was due to the stop and go nature of my reading it.

The characterization is as strong in this book as it was in the first, although most of the new characters introduced aren't as fully fleshed out.  Part of this is because we've grown to know the continuing characters  so well, the new ones don't have the same depth.  There are exceptions, of course.  The Queen Dowager, for all that she isn't on stage very much, is especially complex, showing both ruthless and tender sides.

The structure is a little different as well.  It's divided into three parts, with the first and third parts taking place in the Ramussian kingdoms, and the middle part concerning itself solely with what is happening to Hawkwood at the same time.  I rather preferred the format of the first book, where the settings rotated between chapters, with the ones focusing on Hawkwood intermixed with the others.  But that's just my personal preference.

I also am a little puzzled with where Kearney is going to go with the next three books.  Some major plotlines are introduced and then resolved by the end of the book.  It would seem more logical to me to continue them out through at least one or two more volumes.  But there are enough new plot threads here that I'm sure there are plenty of surprises ahead in the three books to come.  Fortunately they're sitting on the shelf in the other room.  I'm going to focus on some short fiction, and since I'm hopefully going to be attending ConDFW in a few weeks, reading Jack McDevitt's latest novel since he's one of the guests.  I intend to get back to the series within a month at the latest.  I still think this is some of the best fantasy I've read in quite a while.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy Belated Birthday C. L. Moore

The last couple of days have been hectic, so I'm a little late in posting this, but yesterday marked the centennial of the birth of one of the greatest science fiction and fantasy authors of all time, Catherine L. Moore.

Although her writing was primarily collaborative after she eventually married fellow author Henry Kuttner, with whose works readers of this blog should be familiar, Ms. Moore was a major author in her own right.  In fact many critics and historians of the field consider her to have been the better writer of the pair.  Indeed, her work is more poetic and shows more emotional depth than Kuttner's solo work. 

After Kuttner's death, Moore wrote no more fantastic fiction.  I'm not sure why, although I've heard it was because her second husband didn't approve of science fiction and fantasy.  Whether this is true or not, I can't say.  I have difficulty believing the woman who gave us Jirel would ever go along with that kind of restriction.  Whatever the reason, as much as her "retirement" was a loss to the field, her influence is still being felt.

Her first published story, "Shambleau", introduced Northwest Smith, a (superior) forerunner to Han Solo in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales.  This was the first of a number of tales featuring the space adventurer, although to call them science fiction is a bit of a stretch at times due to the fantasy elements they often contain.

Moore's next series character was Jirel of Joiry, the first warrior woman of sword and sorcery.  Jirel could give the men a run for their money in the fighting department, and usually did.  Both the Northwest Smith and the Jirel stories are in print, as are collections of her solo fiction and her collaborative work with Kuttner.  Given the versatility of her work, you should probably check out more than one volume just to get a good feel for Moore's talent and range as a writer.

I plan to look more in depth at the Jirel and Northwest Smith stories here, but those posts are some time in the future.  Until then, check out these tributes by Ryan Harvey and C. S. E. Cooney.  Better yet, read some of C. L. Moore's work as well. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

First eSsassins Cover Posted

The first eSsassins cover is up over at the Rogue Blades website.  Check it out.  Very cool.  I can't wait for the series to start being released.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Happy Birthday, Bob

Today marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of  Robert E. Howard, father of sword and sorcery.  Howard is most famous, of course, for creating the character of Conan, most often called the Barbarian.  If you only know Conan through movies, comics, and pastiches, well, pardner, you don't know Conan.  And if Conan is the only way you know Robert E. Howard, well, you don't know Howard very well, either. 

There are a number of tributes on the web today, and if you're in the vicinity of Cross Plains (I wish), there's a party.  If you happen to be among the Howard impaired, and only know him by reputation or through Conan, let me recommend you check out the posts by Howard Andrew Jones and Barbara Barrett over on the Black Gate website.  Jones's is a more general tribute discussing the breadth of Howard's fiction, while Barbara examines the poetry.  Both are good gateway drugs introductions to Howard's work.  It's an addiction worth having.

Friday, January 21, 2011

New Rogue Blades Entertainment E-Anthologies Announced

After the week I've had, I was looking for something short and sweet to blog about tonight, wanting to wait until I was rested a little before tackling a longer post.  Fortunately, Rogue Blades Entertainment has come to my rescue.  (Thanks, Jason.)

To promote the forthcoming Clash of Steel anthology Assassins, Rogue Blades is publishing four e-anthologies consisting of four stories each.  These stories are different than those included in the print anthology, the cover of which is shown on the right.  Each e-anthology will sell for $3 and will contain between 15,000 and 18,000 words of sword and sorcery fiction.  Since the going price for a single short story in electronic format is 99 cents, that makes these collections a steal.  Or would that be steel?  Anyway, there will be one released a month for four months, starting in February.

You can get all the details here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Employment Issues Resolved

Well my wife has found new employment.  It looks like I will have time to do more blogging rather than helping her with her job search and looking for more ways to increase my income to make up for the shortfall.  I intend to try to post at least two new posts per week.  The next one will be within the next 48 if everything goes according to plan.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Monarcharies of God: Hawkwood's Voyage

Hawkwood's Voyage
in the Hawkwood and the Kings
Paul Kearney
Solaris, 702 p., $9.99

Over the last few days, I've been at a conference.  You can always tell when you're at a conference of physicists.  There's just something about them.  The long hair.  The no hair.  The facial hair.  The leg hair (on the women).  We just sort of know how to recognize each other.  While it wasn't the best conference I've attended, it was far from the worst.  And the best part of it, at least in the short term, was the plane ride. 

No, not 'cause I got frisked by a good looking TSA agent.  Security was a breeze, surprisingly enough.  The best part was I read Hawkwood's Voyage and made a dent in The Heretic Kings, the second book in The Monarchies of God pentology by Paul Kearney.  I must admit I'd never heard of the man until recently, when I came across a copy of one of his other books. 

Side note.  I managed to find a couple more of his books while I was at the conference in a nearby used book store.  If they're as good as this one, I'll be reading everything he wrote.

Hawkwood and the Kings collects the first two novels in the series.  There are a number of plot threads, and I'll try to summarize the main ones here.  There was once a large empire which stretched over most of the continent, a continent that bears some resemblance to Europe on the map provided.  Then the empire fell apart as the different provinces rebelled.  The heart of the old empire is still an independent country (so to speak), but at the time of the book's opening, it doesn't really interact much with the rest of the continent.

The church is dominated by the Inceptine order, an order that bears a strong resemblance in many ways to the Jesuits.  There are other orders, but they're kept in their place by the Inceptines.  One particular Inceptine, the Prelate of the kingdom of Hebrion, has started purges of any foreigner or Dweomer in the kingdom.  The Dweomer are those who have some innate magical ability.  Captain Richard Hawkwood, himself a foreigner, has agreed to take two ships loaded with Dweomer across the great Western Ocean in search of a mythical continent in which to found a colony.  The king of Hebrion, Abeleyn, is trying to curb the growing control of the Church of the Saint in his kingdom.  In the east, the Holy City of Aekir, home to the Pontiff of the Church, has fallen to the Merduks, invaders from the east who bear more than a pasing resemblance to Mongols.  The sole surviving soldier of the siege of Aekir, Ensign Corfe mourns the loss of his wife and everything else he loved at the hands of the Merduks.  The Pontiff is missing and presumed dead.  And the Prelate of Hebrion seeks the position of Pontiff for himself...

There's a lot more than that or course.  I realized as I was reading why the suspense was so strong at times.  It was because the characters seemed like real people to me, and as a result I cared what happened to them.  There's plenty of action and intrigue here to satisfy any fan of epic or heroic fantasy.  Kearney doesn't shy away from the gritty details of combat or court life.  The battle scenes throb with passion, bloodlust, and fear.  I've not read much nautical fiction, something I intend to rectify, but the chapters that take place on Hawkwood's vessel brought life on board a ship alive for me.  And showed how terrifying it can be to be at sea when something on board begins to hunt and there's no place to go.

Hawkwood's Voyage was first published in 1995, and if it had an edition here in the states, I missed it.  I won't miss any of Kearney's other fiction.  This one held my attention all the way through.  Usually when I finish a book, even one I've enjoyed immensely, I'm ready to move on and read something else, and by that I mean something different.  In this case I went straight into The Heretic Kings.  If you haven't read Kearney, give him a try.  You'll be glad you did. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Year's Resolution, Redux

I've been busy preparing for a presentation I'm giving at a conference next week, so the previous post on Kull took me longer to get up than I had anticipated.  It was less than a week ago I posted a list of New Year's resolutions relating to this blog, One was to post here at least twice a week.  I have a couple of things to write about, and thought I could get at least one of them posted before I leave for the conference on Sunday.  Then my wife experienced a little unexpected employment ... hiccup this afternoon.  Depending on how long it takes to find her other employment, I may have to spend less time on this blog and devote myself to finding other sources of income.  I'm not going away.  Adventures Fantastic is here for the long haul, but it's possible that for a (hopefully) brief season, I may only post once a week or so, and shorter posts more often than longer posts.

Blogging Kull: The Shadow Kingdom

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

Just so you know, this post will contain  spoilers.

"The Shadow Kingdom" was the first of the Kull stories to see print, and it appeared in the August 1929 issue of Weird Tales.  In this story Kull has, with the help of some dissatisfied nobles, seized the throne of Valusia from the tyrant who's sat on it for a while. Apparently he's been on the throne long enough for the luster to have faded, for Kull makes it very clear he prefers the straightforward manner of his barbarian kinsmen.  You know, the ones who've exiled him.

After a parade in his honor, Kull is holding court when an emissary from the Pictish ambassador requests a private council with him.  Kull grants it and takes advantage of the opportunity to bait the man, the Picts being ancient enemies of the Atlanteans.  The emissary, a warrior, requests that Kull come alone that night to a banquet with the Pictish ambassador, Ka'nu.

Kull's suspicious, but goes.  Ka'nu informs Kull that only Kull can usher in an era of "peace and goowill", of "man loving his fellow man", to Valusia and the Seven Kingdoms.  This is somewhat ironic seeing as how Kull is a warrior king who carries deep hatreds.  It's also not what you would normally expect in a Robert E. Howard story.  In order to do this, Kull has to live.  The next in line to the throne is a figurehead controlled by a race of serpent men, if not actually a serpent man himself.  Ka-nu will send proof of this through Brule the Spearslayer.  Kull will recognize Brule by the armlet he'll be wearing.  To show he can be trusted, Ka-nu reveals to Kull that he has a jewel stolen from the Temple of the Serpent.  If the priests of the Serpent knew its location, Ka-nu would have a very short life expectancy.

The next night, Brule appears.  He's the Pictish warrior who brought the message from Kan-nu in the first place.  He reveals to Kull a secret society of serpent people who have the bodies of men but the heads of snakes.  Through some type of sorcery they are able to assume the faces of any person they wish. When they die (read are killed by Kull or Brule), their heads revert to their natural forms.

You can probably figure out that there will be a lot of people who turn out to be other than who they appeared.  It turns out the serpent men are an ancient, mongrel race who have a long history in Valusia, although it's a history that most of Valusia's citizens are ignorant of. 

Naturally, Kull triumphs, but not easily.  Brule and Ka-nu are afraid he dies from his wounds, although he only loses consciousness.  The intriguing part of the story, for me at least, is the depth at which Howard shows us Kull's thoughts.  Kull wonders which is the real Kull, the monarch "who sat on the throne or was it the real Kull who had scaled the hills of Atlantis, harried the far isles of the sunset, and laughed upon the green roaring tides of the Atlentean sea."  This brooding is provoked of course by Kull's discovery of the Serpent Men and the masks they don to deceive people for evil means, something he had already encountered in his courtiers, albeit in a less literal sense. 

 Evidence indicates "The Shadow Kingdom" was written, or at least begun, in 1926, the year Howard turned 20.  It's a common occurrence to many men and women around that time in life to discover that people aren't always what they seem, but don masks to further their own ends.  I think it's safe to speculate that perhaps some of that discovery of the realities of life was making it's way into Howard's fiction.  Many a child and teenager is dismayed to discover that becoming an adult isn't all the fun and privilege it seems when you're young.  I know my eight year old certainly has the illusion that being an adult is more fun than being a child because it means getting to stay up late and eat and drink close to bedtime.  Would that it were that simple.

Another thing common to young adults and teens is the fear that they can't cut it as an adult.  This is a fear that can return later in life when a person experiences a major upset, often but not always the loss of a job or business.  Affirmation that a person can function as an accepted member of adult society is one of the purposes of a rite of passage.  Entire books have been written on this topic.  I have to wonder if Howard was feeling some of that uncertainty about this time in his life.  I know he made a deal with his father to give writing a try for one year and if at the end of that year he wasn't making a living, he would find a regular job.  Kull has thoughts along these lines more than once in the story.

The first incident occurs during the brooding quoted in the paragraph above when Kull thinks of himself as "the futile king who sat upon the throne - himself a shadow."  The second occurs at the climax of the story when Kull and Brule have escaped a trap in which the serpent men have disguised themselves as his council in order to assassinate him.  Hurrying back to the council chamber, they find the real council in session with a serpent man disguised as Kull himself.  For a moment Kull wonders "Do I stand here or is that Kull yonder in very truth and am I but a shadow, a figment of thought?"  Maybe I'm reading too much into the text, but it sounds to me as though Kull is experiencing a little insecurity.  Not something you would expect from a Howard hero.

After all the serpent men in the palace have been dispatched, Kull swears an oath to destroy all the remaining ones.  He swears this oath on his own identity as Kull, king of Valusia.  While I may be stretching things a bit to interpret this ending as a metaphor for Howard striving to make his way in the world as a writer, I don't think I'm too far off the mark.

"The Shadow Kingdom" has been called the first true sword and sorcery story, a statement that is not without some controversy.  I'm willing to go along with that premise, at least for the sake of this post, because it points out something that I think can't be understated.  Sword and sorcery has been dismissed by its critics as shallow and cliched, without depth, power fantasies of social misfits and closet homosexuals, and mind candy or softcore porn for adolescent boys.  What "The Shadow Kingdom" is, at least as I read the story, is a reflection on identity.  While this is certainly an issue of adolescence, it's also an issue that concerns everyone at most stages of life, to a lesser or greater degree. Furthermore, I see it as a meditation on the meaning of life, especially the role one will play in that life.  Until he sets out to eradicate the serpent men, Kull is lost, searching for meaning after achieving his goal of becoming king and finding it unfulfilling. I'm fairly sure Howard didn't consciously set out to create a new form of literature when he wrote "The Shadow Kingdom", but on some level was dealing with the issues in his life in the best way he knew how: by fictionalizing them.  Creating sword and sorcery was to some degree incidental.  That's a pretty impressive legacy, to create a new genre with those themes at its core.  Not bad for "escapism", huh?  So the next time you hear someone dissing sword and sorcery as not being real literature or worthy of serious consideration, give them a copy of "The Shadow Kingdom."