Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Johns Hopkins University Press
72 p., Hardcover $50, paperback $25

This is a fascinating little volume that may be of interest to some of you, especially if you like astronomy or have an interest in ancient science or poetry.  According to the cover copy, the Phaenomena was the most read poem in the ancient world after The Iliad and The Odyssey.  The purpose of the poem is instructive, giving information about the constellations and how to predict the weather.  In a more agrarian society, this type of information could at times be a matter of life and death.  Aratus lived during the period following the breakup of Alexander the Great's empire.

This is a thin volume.  The actual poem itself only takes up 38 pages, a little over half the book.  Extensive annotations form the bulk of the rest of the text in an appendix and are fascinating in and of themselves. 

Fans of epic fantasy or historical adventure are well aware of the importance many ancient cultures placed on poetry, especially in societies in which writing and literacy were rare.  Here's a sample:

The nearest guide
To the north Fish is on the left-hand side
Of Andromeda, on her shoulder.  Forever over
The shoulders of staunch Perseus, her lover
Her two feet circle.  As he marches forth,
Taller than the figures in the north,
His gallant right hand gestures to the seat
Of his love's mother. Staring at his feet,
He walks his father Zeus' property.  (p.10)

Some passages give detailed descriptions of certain constellations, especially those containing bright or prominent stars, and discuss the times those stars and constellations rise and set at different times of the year.

The price on this one is a little high, but that's to be expected from an academic press.  I got my copy last year when the publisher was sending out free copies to faculty as part of a promotion.  I've enjoyed the poetry and learned a bit from the appendix.  While I haven't read it cover to cover, it's been nice to dip into here and there.  It's one I'll return to on a regular basis.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dianna Wynne Jones (1934-2011)

Diana Wynne Jones, British fantasy author, has died of lung cancer.  John O'Neill was written a eulogy on the Black Gate website.  Since I can't improve on it, I suggest you read it here.  Jones wrote a variety of books, from YA to adult, but my favorite is still The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a tour guide of a generic land one might encounter in a fantasy novel.  It's one of the best books on how (not) to write fantasy that I've ever read, and hilariously funny as well.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Whatever Happened to Sense of Wonder?

Thursday, Daniel Abraham posted a brief essay on his blog entitled "In Defense of Exoticism" in which he examines the role exoticism plays in SFF.  He defines exoticism as "the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar."  He goes, in a wandering sort of way, to discuss some other aspects of this thought, specifically the concept of Other.  And when I say in a wandering way, I in no way intend anything derogatory.  Abraham himself says he's still thinking this topic through and his post would be a little rough around the edges, and I respect that.

But this essay got me thinking.  What's wrong with the charm of the unfamiliar?  And where are we to find it, if not in other cultures, epochs, music, etc.  Now I realize that the key verb in Abraham's sentence is "commodification" and that is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.  That's not a debate I want to get into at this point.  Instead, my thoughts went down a different avenue.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Dark Griffin

The Dark Griffin
K. J. Taylor
Ace, 369 pages, $7.99

I came across this book in Wal-Mart of all places.  That's not a store known for its book selection, never mind its fantasy and science fiction selection, but the one close to my house (there are 4 where I live) has a dedicated section of stuff worth reading.  The cover caught my eye, with the Griffin in flight and the Eyrie in the background.  The guy riding the Griffin is Arren, who is described in the book as tall, thin, and pale complected with dark hair.  The guy on the cover doesn't really fit that description.  Instead he looks like he escaped from a romance cover.  On second thought, considering what tends to be happening on romance covers, maybe he's trying to get to one.  Yeah.  I bet that's it.

Anyway, the cover art caught my eye, and the synopsis on the back cover sounded intriguing,.  In leafing through the book, I noticed on the about-the-author page that Ms. Taylor wrote that she takes her inspiration from George R. R. Martin and Finnish metal.  Now I've never been much into metal, Finnish or otherwise, but I'm familiar enough with it and with Martin's works that I bought the book on the basis of that sentence. 

I really wanted to like this book.  And I do.  Just not as much as I had hoped. Part of that was the fault of my expectations of the book and part the fault of the author.  As far as my expectations, I was expecting something darker and more violent; I thought the book fell somewhat short of Martin in these areas.  From what I've been able to determine, this is Taylor's second book, and some of what I would consider to be her fault is simply she's still learning her craft. 

Arren is a northerner.  In the land of Cymria, the northerners are considered barbarians, and captured northerners were once kept as slaved.  Arren is the son of freed slaves, and the only northerner to become a griffiner.  Sent on a fool's mission intended to disgrace him, Arren captures a wild griffin, the titular dark griffin, but doing so costs the life of his griffin.  The dark griffin is taken to the arena to fight (read kill) convicted criminals, while Arren is stripped of his post in disgrace.  Of course Arren will end up in the arena himself fighting the griffin he captured.  I don't think I'm giving too much away by telling that, since it's a logical event in the plot.  There are other surprises that I wasn't expecting.

All griffins have one magic power, and the book implies the power is related to the griffin's color.  The dark griffin's power it turns out is unique and sends the plot in an unexpected direction, creating all kinds of complications for Arren.  The griffins are also at least as vain, arrogant, greedy, foolish, and scheming as the humans, which made me wonder who is really in charge.  It may not be who the humans think.

I had a couple of problems with the story.  First, it drug in places.  Some of that was due to the passage of time in which not much happened other than Arren going about his daily routine.  I've always found those types of narrative to be tedious, almost without exception.  In part the slow pacing was, I think, the due to the author's attempt to develop character.  And to be fair, with only a couple of exceptions, Ms. Taylor does a good job of developing most of her characters, better than most new writers do.  Unfortunately it seemed to me that Arren had a terminal case of the stupids.  He's whiny, self-pitying, and wishy-washy.  He's also prone to some really bad lapses in judgment.  In short, he's not very heroic for the majority of the book, and I wanted to knock some sense into him several times.  Even when he finally takes action against those who betrayed him, he came across to me as hesitant when he should have been aggressive. Again, in fairness, when the book ended, he was in a position where he was almost certainly going to have to be more assertive.

There were also some other things that bugged me.  A great deal is made throughout the book of the prejudices against northerners, but until Arren returns from capturing the dark griffin, this really isn't shown.  In fact, until he leaves, he's shown as being completely accepted and surrounded by friends from all levels of society.  The leader of the council is a woman, and her brother, Lord Rannagon, is the principle villain.  She disappears halfway through the book with no real explanation as to why, although it's implied that she would soon be stepping down from age.  It's her plans, and how Arren fits into those plans, that set off the events leading to his disgrace.  Lord Rannagon isn't very consistent in how he's portrayed, at times acting supportive of Arren and other times hostile.  He doesn't seem to have a problem with Arren's romance with his daughter, either, something I found hard to buy considering some of his other actions against Arren.  Also, Rannagon's bastard son briefly appears in two scenes.  In the first, he's unbelievably arrogant; in the second, a concerned and caring brother.  It was almost as though he were two different people.  He'll be back in the next book, so I'm sure he'll be fleshed out more.

And if you think that last sentence implies I'm going to read the next book, you're right.  I intend to.  In spite of the complaints I have about the book, the characters really are well developed.  Arren does go through some major changes, as do some of the other characters, most notably the dark griffin.  We only see a small piece of this world, and the northerners are a culture I want to learn more about.  Arren's fate takes an unexpected turn, and I'm curious to see how Ms. Taylor gets him out of the predicament he's in.  Or if she even does.  Taylor is a new writer, and I'm prepared to cut her some slack on the issues I have with the pacing.  I predict she will eventually be a major name.

The feeling I got when I finished the book was that this would have been a good first third to half of a much longer novel.  That may be the case.  The second (The Griffin's Flight) and third (The Griffin's War) volumes of the trilogy hit the shelves within weeks of The Dark Griffin.  I don't recall the last time a trilogy was published without at least a year's wait between books. 

The Dark Griffin might be a little slow and lacking in sufficient combat for some readers of this blog, but if you like griffins, give at least this volume a try. 

RIP, April Derleth

April Derleth, daughter of Arkham House founder August Derleth and current president and CEO of the publishing house, has died at the age of 56.  No cause of death has been announced.  Arkham House was founded by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to promote the works of H. P. Lovecraft and other Weird Tales authors, as well as author who wrote in a similar vein for other publications, including volumes by Ray Bradbury, Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson, and Robert E. Howard.  Upon August Derleth's death, Wandrei and then James Turner ran the publishing company.  When April Derleth became CEO, she tried to return to the company's roots by publishing more weird fiction.  During her tenure, she published volumes by Nelson S. Bond, Hugh B. Cave's autobiography Cave of a Thousand Tales,and  the anthology Arkham's Masters of Horror, among other volumes.  Arkham House has temporarily suspended all sales and unfilled orders. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Brambling On

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a pair of novellas from Subterranean Press.  Written by Tobias S. Buckell and Paolo Bacigalupi, these tales revolve around a world in which the use of magic results in the growth of a plant called bramble.  Bramble, for those of you who haven't read my review or the novellas, is something like evil kudzu.  I'm sorry; that was redundant.  Anyone who's ever had to deal with kudzu knows it's evil.  Bramble is like kudzu on steroids.  With thorns.  It takes over everything (just like kudzu), and the thorns can send a person into a permanent sleep.

When I wrote the review I expressed a desire to see more of this world.  My wish has been granted.  If I can figure out how I caused that to happen....well, never mind.

Now, Buckell has written a sequel which went up on the spring 2011 issue of Subterranean Magazine a day or so before I started my traveling.  I tried to read it before I left, but I didn't quite get to it.  Last night, I finally managed to read it.  It was worth the wait.

This particular installment concerns one young man by the name of Mynza, who happens to be a thief.  The story opens with him climbing the wall of the keep of the Mayor of Alacan.  He brushes against a spot of bramble growing in a crack in the wall and just manages to make it to a balcony before losing consciousness.  Turns out this is the balcony of the Mayor's daughter, who in a twist on classic fairy tales motifs, awakens him with a kiss.  While there, Mynza takes several things, some freely given (the girl's virtue) and some not so freely given (jewels and a signet ring).  Because his burglary wasn't sanctioned by the head of the family that adopted him as a young orphan, they end up parting ways. 

At least for a few days.  Bramble has encroached to the point that the town has to be abandoned.  Instead of aiding the citizens in their escape, the Mayor and the merchants charge a toll to be taken out.  Most of the population can't pay the price, and bramble has spread to the point that even the only road out, controlled by the Mayor, is closing.  Mynza has spent most of his coin from the jewels he fenced.  It's at this point that responsibility finds him, and although he's fully grown physically, he finds himself forced to grow up.

I'll not say more about the details of the plot or the other characters.  This in many ways was the best of the three stories, although all of them are essentially stories of hope, despite their dark settings and events.  My reasons for saying that have to do with the changes Mynza undergoes, as well as those of one of the other characters.  To say more would be to spoil the story for you. 

I'm beginning to see a theme in the tales of this world.  A theme of how we, as people, as individuals, need each other.  Of how strong love is, propelling us to greatness and bringing forgiveness and hope where none appears to be.  I find these themes refreshing.  If this series takes off, and I hope it will, I'm sure either Buckell or Bacigalupi or both (either separately or collaboratively - that's a hint guys) will end up writing novels set in this world.  While I will certainly rejoice over them and read them, I hope the authors never leave the novella form behind when writing in this world.  It's the personal stories of the ordinary people, people trying to make a difference, however small, in a world that's getting darker that gives these tales their power.  In this day of fat fantasy and never ending series, it's nice to step back from the epic and focus on the personal.

There's been a lot of blogging in the last month or so about whether fantasy is too dark.  If you feel that way, then you need to read these works.  They're a breath of fresh air.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hiatus Over

My trip was longer and more tiring than I expected.  It was work, not pleasure, and by work I mean manual labor.  Anyway, I worked on some posts in the evenings while gone, but don't have them ready to go yet.  One of them is a rather lengthy interview I'm still transcribing.  That one will probably run in at least 2 parts when I get it ready, maybe three.  I didn't get a lot of reading done, but what I did accomplish, I'll write about over the next few days.  Until then, consider this notice that new material will be going up soon.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Just a note to say that I'll be away from a computer for the next week or so.  As a result, I probably won't be able to get any new posts up, although I will work on some.  Look for them next week.  Sooner if I can manage it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Blogging Kull: Delcardes' Cat/The Cat and the Skull

Spoiler Alert:  This is not one of Howard's best stories.  The plot is fairly straightforward, if unbelievable.   Kull goes with Tu, his chancellor, to see the talking cat of Delcardes.  The cat is reputed to be thousands of years old.  During the conversation, Delcardes asks Kull for permission to marry a nobleman from a neighboring kingdom.  This sends Tu into paroxysms of fury because Delcardes is of the nobility, and it is against custom for nobility to marry foreigners.  Howard seems to have developed a fondness for this plot device since he used it in the unfinished draft that precedes this tale in the Del Rey edition.

The cat, whose name is Saremes, tells Kull where he left a left (in his scabbard) and that a courtier is coming to tell Kull that a surplus has been found in the royal  treasury.  Tu insists that this is trickery.  Kull is a little more gullible, and in the end Saremes accompanies Kull back to his palace.  Attending Saremes at all times is the slave Kuthulos, who wears a veil covering his face and neck at all times.  Saremes and Kull often sit up all night talking philosophy, but Saremes refuses to tell Kull much about the future.  Personally I found her reasoning a little thin and had trouble believing someone like Kull could  have been taken in by them.  Howard even says that Kull has his doubts, yet he goes along with everything the cat says.  Except the continued proddings of Saremes to try to convince Kull to let Delcardes' marry a foreigner.

Then one day, Saremes tells Kull that his Pictish friend Brule has been captured by a monster while swimming in the Forbidden Lake.  Kull immediately takes off to rescue Brule.  After battling several monsters, in what are better than average action scenes, Kull is captured by a giant snake and taken deep under the lake into a cave in which the surviving members of the lake men are living.  They don't exactly buy Kull's explanation for why he's there.  The situation is about to degenerate into a bloodbath when Kull learns that Brule was never in the lake at all.  After pledging to leave the lake men in peace, Kull returns to the surface.

When he gets back to the palace, he finds the place in an uproar.  Seems the king has wandered off somewhere without telling anyone where he was going.  In the ensuing chaos, Kull hears a beating sound and discovers that Kuthulos has been tied up in a secret passage.  The man masquerading as Kuthulos is none other than the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom who swears to destroy Kull before he escapes.  It seems Thulsa Doom is a servant of the serpent people.  Yeah, those serpent people. Anyway, it turns out that Saremes can't speak at all, but Kuthulos can literally throw his voice.  He was the one telling Kull to allow Delcardes to marry her foreign lover and all the signs given in the opening scene were tricks.  Only after Thulsa Doom took Kuthulos' place was Kull told to go to the Forbidden Lake.  Kull graciously pardons Delcardes for her scheming and allows her to marry whomever she wishes.

When published in the Lancer edition, this story was entitled "Delcardes' Cat", which is the name of the draft.  There aren't many differences between the draft and the finished story.  The chancellor Tu is called Ku for the first page or so in the draft, then his name changes.  The only other significant change is the late addition of Thulsa Doom.  Howard added him as an afterthought in the first draft. 

Several things struck me about this story.  First, that the physical description of Thulsa Doom was a whole lot like that given for Skull-Face in the story of the same name. In fact even the name of the slave is similar.  Skull-Face was called Kathulos.  Patrice Louinet reports in "Atlatnean Genesis" (Kull, Del Rey, p. 298, 2006) that this was the original name in the first draft and was later modified for the final story.  It is useful to keep in mind that this story was written at about the same time that Howard was working on "Skull-Face".

Another thing that struck me was that this is the second story in which a woman has deceived Kull and he's blown it off and pardoned her.  The first was "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune."  That's not something Conan would have stood for.  Not even once.  While he might not have killed the girl, you can be sure Conan wouldn't have been so forgiving. 

In spite of its flaws, this story definitely shows Howard at his most poetic.  Consider the following quotes (page nubmers are from the Del Rey edition):

"Twilight was stealing down from the mountains of Zalgara when Kull halted his horse on the shores of the lake that lay amid a great lonely forest.  There was nothing forbidding in its appearance, for its waters spread blue and placid from beach to wide white beach and the tiny islands rising above its bosom seemed like gems of emerald and jade.  A faint shimmering mist rose from it, enhancing the air of lazy unreality which lay about the regions of the lake."  p. 97

"At first the king thought it to be a huge octopus for the body was that of an octopus, with long waving tentacles, but as it charged upon him he saw it had legs like a man and a hideous semi-human face leered at him from among the writhing snaky arms of the monster."  p. 98

"" 'You come like the herald of all your race,' said this lake-man suddenly, 'bloody and bearing a red sword.' " p. 104

While not a major work, and certainly not the best plotting Howard ever did, this one is still worth reading, if only for the passages like those quoted above.  "The Cat and the Skull"  shows Howard beginning to master his form and hints at greater writing to come.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In Defense of Traditional Gender Roles in Fantasy

OK, a title like that is bound to generate some controversy.  Piss people off, in fact.  And that's without all the discussion, some civil and some rancorous, that's gone on in the blogosphere in the last couple of weeks about morals, nihilism, "feminization", sexuality, differences in content due to author gender, and what exactly constitutes epic fantasy all stirring people's emotions up.

I'm not going to get into all of that here.  At least not in this post.  But I came across something I did want to respond to in a couple of these threads.  While it's not my intention to yank anyone's chain, that's probably certainly going to be one of the results.  So be it.  I've sat on this post for a week and a half, tinkering with it, to try to make it say exactly what I want to say and as much as possible eliminate any possibility of miscommunication on my part.  I'm not sure I've succeeded, but if I'm going to post this, I need to do so and move on.

Here's what I want to take issue with.  Foz Meadows, a writer with whom I'm not familiar, wrote a lengthy and eloquent post on her blog in which she discusses some potential reasons why women are more willing to read fantasy written from the "male gaze", as she and others call it, while male readers as a whole seem less willing to read fantasy written from the "female gaze."  No hard data was offered to support this idea, but I'm willing to accept it both for the sake of discussion and because I think she's probably right.  Now I'm not quite certain what this "gaze" is that some bloggers are referring to, unless it's simply a more trendy or politically correct term for viewpoint.  If it is, I don't see the reason for new terminology, and if it isn't just another word for viewpoint, I wish someone would please define it and explain how it differs from viewpoint.

But I digress.  The statement I take issue with is this:  "...the struggle, not just for female equality in traditional male fields, but for male equality in traditional female fields."  That in and of itself I can ignore.  But...someone on Kate Elliott's blog (quite a ways down the comments) said, "One of the things that took a long time to sink in with me is the realization that while all the various woman's lib movements over the past century and more have allowed women to attempt traditionally men's roles without lesser and lesser danger of shame as the years go do NOT have the same freedom to adopt female roles."  The tone of the comments that followed seemed to suggest that men should try to assume female roles.  It was evident from several discussions that these opinions are shared by more than just these two women.

I respect the right the authors of these posts have to their opinions, as well as the right to post those opinions.  That doesn't mean I agree with said opinions.  No disrespect or personal attack intended, ladies, but what the hell makes you think we would want to assume female roles? 

I posit that not only have men had the freedom to adopt female roles and characteristics if they so wished (and some have) for a long time, probably at least as long as women have had the freedom to adopt male roles, but that in the last few decades men have often had female traits thrust on them whether they've wanted them or not.  In the interest of being more sensitive and less aggressive of course.  And the traditional male role model, both in fantasy and in the broader culture, has come under fire.  It may be that some men don't want to read fantasy written from a female perspective because they want traditional male values affirmed, and they are not finding them affirmed in the broader culture.

Now I realize not all male role models in fantasy are positive, and I’m not saying they all are.  I also realize not all women want to read fiction written from that perspective.  I’m not saying they have to, or even that they should.  I’m simply saying don’t condemn the men who do choose to read that perspective and not a more feminine one. 

Should men be sensitive to others, whether the others be men or women?  Of course.  But the conditions under which a man will show compassion or sensitivity, and the manner in which he shows it, will often be different from the conditions under which, and the ways by which, a woman will show compassion.  A good writer, one without a political or philosophical axe to grind, knows this.  And can show it in fiction.

Am I saying female characters should be maidens in distress, waiting for a hero to rescue them?  No.  Those types of women are boring.  I like strong, multifaceted female characters in my fiction, but not all of them should be able to swing a sword anymore than all of them should be able to sew.  Do I want to read about male characters who are all muscle bound fighters, without emotions, who use women as sex objects?  No, they're pretty boring, too, as far as fictional characters go.  And they're certainly not the type of men I want to hang out with.  I blogged about Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom a couple of months ago.  Read that book to see men who aren't afraid to fight, yet are still family men who exhibit compassion, although not in the manner of 21st century family men. I want to see a variety of both men and women, strong and weak, good and bad, competent and idiots, shallow and honorable.  Just like in real life.

And that means I want to see characters that assume traditional gender roles, because most of the people I know, and I know a wide variety, do for the most part fall into the traditional roles to a greater or lesser degree.  Yes, there's variation in the roles they assume, and no, not everyone fills these roles the same way.  That's fine.  Just as some characters don't fit the traditional pattern at all, like Joan of Arc to name one historical figure, I don't want all the characters in the fiction I read to be completely traditional either. I want to see variety, both within traditional roles and outside them.

The male perspective is valid, just as the female perspective is.  And they are equally valid.  I'm not saying the male perspective is more valid than the female perspective.  There are enough writers working in the field of fantasy today that everyone should be able to find something they like written from a perspective they like.  I'm a male who likes strong, heroic male characters in stories that tend to deal with what are considered to be "male" themes.  I don't want the heroes to be perfect, but I don't want the majority of them to be morally ambiguous or antiheroes, either.  I don't want to read entirely from the male or female point of view, nor do I want to read only male (or female) writers.  I want to read both.  And I do.  It's the differences that make things interesting.  While I want variety, I also tend to prefer certain types of stories and characters over other types.  Just like you do.

What I don't want is people trying to tell me what I should and shouldn't have in my fiction (or life), regardless of whether or not I agree with their philosophy or share their biases.  Many of the comments on feminization and related issues dealt with how male readers reacted to how male characters were seen by female characters, often in sexual terms or situations.  I personally have no interest in reading that viewpoint (or gaze if you prefer).

Does that mean I have a gender bias?  Probably.  I have no problem admitting that I have biases that influence my preference for certain writers.  Neither, to her credit, did Foz Meadows.  She very openly and frankly discussed her own biases.  For that I commend, respect, and applaud her.

There's no reason I should be expected to read works written from viewpoints I'm not comfortable with or don't like, or simply have no interest in for that matter.  Whether or not I expand my mind by reading beyond my comfort zone is my choice and mine alone.  The feminist movement was about giving everyone choices.  That should include the choice to stay with any traditional male/white/heterosexual/capitalist/libertarian/whig/antidisestablishmentarian/spartan/persian/neanderthal/whatever viewpoint I like in fiction, and to do so without people who have an apparent agenda getting their shorts in a knot if I don't and reacting as if my preference is some horrible thing because it isn't their preference.  Or to put it another way, if I, as a male, choose not to assume traditional female roles or choose to read from the female gaze only about certain aspects of life and not others, that is my business and none of yours.  Don't tell me what I have to do or what I should do.  Or to be more diplomatic about it, I'll respect your freedoms and tastes if you'll respect mine; I won't try to change you, if you won't try to change me.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Adventures Fantastic Interview: William Ledbetter of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

William (Bill) Ledbetter is an author, member of the National Space Society, and one of the editors of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.  In his spare time he administers the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest.  He sat down with me at ConDFW to discuss writing in general and sword and sorcery in particular.

AF:  How did you get involved with Heroic Fantasy Quarterly?

BL:  Adrian and David had started it up several months before they approached me to help with some of the editing.  I was really busy and worried that I wouldn't be able to hold up my end of the agreement, so I instead do the editing on one story per issue which includes all the interfacing between author and the team.  That’s pretty much what I do for the magazine, and I really enjoy it.

AF:  What type of stories would you like to see more of, both as an editor of a magazine and as a reader?  So it’s kind of a two part question.

BL:  Considering the kind of fiction we print, we tend to get a lot of stories that are almost D&D adventures somebody wrote down. I think the stories need to be a lot more cohesive and have more of a plot than just going from one adventure to the next hacking and killing.  Even though we like the swordplay and barbarians fighting each other at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly; we still need a full story arc and we like to see how all of this affects the characters.  Some of the ones I’ve liked the most come at it from a different tangent.  We had one called “Living Totem” and one called “The Last Free Bear  Both of these take place in the ice age in very cold, icy environments and are both from the point of view of a lone traveler on a quest.  But neither of these characters are your standard barbarian or sword and sorcery type hero.  They’re very sympathetic characters.  One of them is dealing with a polar bear that’s intelligent, and they end up realizing they’re working towards the same goal, and they end up working together.  I like to see unusual twists or takes on this type of fantasy.  So anything that’s out of the ordinary, things we haven’t seen before, is probably going to get our attention if its well written. 

AF:  Adventures Fantastic is a blog that focuses a lot on heroic fantasy and historical adventure, and in that type of fiction you often have barbarians as central characters.  What qualities do you look for in a barbarian?

BL:  That they have more human qualities than just the urge to kill or get rich or revenge.  One of the stories I was just telling you about, some people have come and stolen the guy’s family, and he was just trying to get them back.  That’s kind of a common trope that’s been used before, but the author did good job making the character believable.  Of course there is still a lot of fast paced action and combat in the story.  That should satisfy just about any fan of the genre, but the protagonist was doing it for his family, not glory or honor..  Any plot driven by human, realistic motivators, gives the character a lot more depth.  I think a barbarian with depth instead of a mindless killing machine is a lot more interesting.

AF:  Do you think that we may be beginning to see a renaissance or resurgence in sword and sorcery, or do you think the market is about saturated?

BL:  (laughs)  I read a lot of sword and sorcery back when I was in college, which has been a long time ago, and even then there were people saying, “Ah, it’s gonna die out”, and it really never has.  It rises and falls.  Most of the fantasy fiction winning awards right now isn’t sword and sorcery, but I think there’s been a solid base all along.  I don’t really know that it’s having a resurgence, but I keep talking to people who say they’d like to see more of it.  That’s one of the reasons why Adrian and David decided to start this magazine.  They couldn’t find the type of fiction they liked to read, and they knew a lot of people who were having the same problem.  So there was a void in the market they wanted to fill.  I think HFQ has done a pretty good job of that. 

AF:  You also write.  What do you have in the pipeline, what’s available right at the moment, and coming out in, say, the next six months from you? 

BL:  I’ve been working on a novel that’s devoured up most of my writing time, but have a few new short stories in the pipeline.  Oddly enough most of those aren’t fantasy.  The novel I’m working on is science fiction and I just finished a story about two guys on Mars.  Probably my last fantasy piece was a fantasy pirate story, and that one sold to the anthology Sails and Sorcery.  That’s still available, and you can buy it online.

AF:  Is that the one with the mermaids on the cover?  I have a copy of that.

BL:  Yeah.  And the floating ship.   There are some great stories in there.  My story “Thief of Hearts” got some pretty good reviews, so I was really happy with that.

AF:  What about science fiction?  Is there science fiction available?  The question wasn’t meant to be limited to sword and sorcery.

BL:  Oh.

AF:  Adventures Fantastic doesn’t just focus on sword and sorcery.   It also does some science fiction.

BL:  Some of my science fiction is still available too.  I have a story called “Medic” that’s at Baen’s Universe.  Baen’s Universe closed down, but the archives are still there.  I think you can buy stories one at a time for .99 cents.  I have a horror story in Something Wicked, a South African magazine.  Those are all still available if you order them online.  You can go to my website,, for a list of all my published works.  Most of those still available have links at each story.

AF:  Last question.

BL:  Okay.

AF:  If you were conducting this interview, what one question would you ask that I have not? 

BL:  Wow.  Let me think here.

AF:  This is your chance to talk about anything you want.

BL:  I guess it would be a question for our readers.  You asked me what we were looking for.  Obviously, the kind of fiction we want to read, the sword and sorcery, the quest type fiction, stuff like that, but we also want to know what the readers want.  What do you want to see more of in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly?  I’d invite our readers to send us some notes or emails.  If there’s something you’d like to see more of, if there’s a particular writer you really like and you want more from them, send us an email and we’ll try to make it happen.  If we just wanted to read this stuff ourselves, we wouldn’t bother making the magazine.

AF:  Thank you.

BL:  Thank you.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Alchemist and the Executioness: A Joint Review

The Alchemist
Paolo Bacigalupi
Subterranean Press
Trade $20; Limited - sold out
96 pages

The Executioness
Tobias S. Buckell
Subterranean Press
Trade $20, Limited $45
104 pages

Here's a pair of novellas that will definitely be worth your while.  The backstory behind them is that Tobias Buckell had an idea for a fantasy world and invited his friend Paolo Bacigalupi to join him in it.  Together they developed the settings, history, and characters.  What resulted from this collaboration was the pair of books you see above.  Hopefully, this is the first of many because they've created a fascinating world with an interesting magic system.

In this world, magic, as the publisher's promotional copy says, has a price.  If magic is used, bramble grows.  Bramble is like kudzu, only with thorns.  It takes over everything.  Little magic, big magic, it doesn't matter.  If you use magic, bramble will grow somewhere nearby.  It's caused the downfall of an entire empire in the recent past and is well on its way to taking over the entire world.  (I told you it was like kudzu.)  To bet stuck by bramble is to risk falling into a deep sleep, one from which you won't likely wake up.  It's never stated when bramble first started, but The Alchemist implies that it wasn't always around.  It can be burned out, but there are enough people who use magic (in small amounts, of course, not enough to really hurt anything you understand) that this is a losing battle.

I'll start with The Alchemist only on the basis of the alphabet.  Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the hottest new writers working today, and after reading this book, it's easy to see why.  Of course, if you've read any of his short stories or his novel The Windup Girl, you already know this about him.  The Aclchemist concerns, well, an alchemist.  One who has spent a literal fortune trying to find a way to successfully battle bramble.  He's not doing this purely from altruistic reasons but because his daughter has a wasting lung disease. The only cure for it is through magic.  He is able to keep the disease at bay, but to do more will cost him is life.  The Mayor of the city of Khaim has declared that practicing magic is a death penalty offense.  The alshemist succeeds in his quest.  And that proves to be his undoing...

The ink on the book was barely dry when Bacigalupi picked up a Nebula Award nomination for it.  (Congratulations, Paolo, and good luck!)  It's understandable when you read it.  The prose is moving and at times poetic.  While I found some of the villainy a little over the top, the story's ending wasn't as dark or nibilistic as I was expecting from the set up.  I definitely want to see more of this character.

The Executioness is the story of a middle aged woman, the mother of two boys, who takes up the axe in order to keep her family from starving when her father, an executioner himself, dies. This is not your typical fantasy heroine.  That's a good thing.  Buckell does a fine job of developing her character, and anyone, male or female, who's ever had children will relate to her motivation.  After her alcoholic husband is killed and her sons stolen by raiders, she takes off in pursuit of her boys.  The raiders are practicing what they call Culling, reducing the magic using population by kidnapping children and taking them away across the sea to be indoctrinated in the raiders' religion.  She quickly catches up with them, only to be defeated and tossed in bramble.  Somehow she awakens, her wounds healed (this is never explained, something I hope is addressed in a later book), in a caravan, where she becomes one of the guards.  The caravan is heading to the city where her sons have been taken, so she has no problem riding along and earning her keep with her axe.  In the course of the story, she becomes something of a legend, as the number of raiders she fought grows with each retelling as well as the outcome of the fight changing.  In the end, she leads an army of some of the fiercest fighters you never want to tangle with:  an army of mothers who have had their children kidnapped. Whether they're successful, well, that would be telling...

Buckell is the author of several well received novels and one short story collection, which can be ordered here.  I picked up a signed copy of Crystal Rain when it was up for a Nebula a few years ago and the awards ceremony was held in Austin.  I confess I haven't read it simply because it is signed, and those books aren't the ones I take with me to read when I travel and so tend to sit on the shelf longer than unsigned books.  It's in the TBR stack, and after reading The Executioness, it will be moving up closer to the top.  Much closer.

These books might seem a bit pricey to some of you, especially in the current economy.  But if you can afford them, you should check them out.  The illustrations by J. K. Drummond are great.  I'm hoping these two glimpses into this shared world will be the first of many. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Strong Heroines in Fantasy

There's been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere lately of the role of women in epic fantasy, both in terms of characters and authors.  I'll have something to say on the subject in a few days.  Until then, here's a little something on the lighter side of that topic.

If you're a fan of Twilight, you probably won't like it. 

Blogging Kull: Untitled Draft

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey, $15.95

After completing "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune", Howard's next attempt at a Kull tale was an abortive effort simply called "Untitled Draft" in the Del Rey edition.  A good title would have been something along the lines of "Who Rides into the Sunrise" since that phrase is repeated in several forms at one part of the story and would have been a central theme if Howard had chosen to finish it.

The story opens with one of the Valusian nobles telling Kull about a scandal in which the Countess of Fanara, Lala-ah (surely one of the silliest names in all of Howard's canon and certainly more fitting for a tavern girl than a countess) has jilted her fiance at the altar to elope with Felgar, an adventurer from the neighboring kingdom of Farsunia.  There's definitely some alliteration here.  Normally, so many proper names so closely associated would be off-putting and confusing to the reader.  A more experienced author would probably not have made this mistake.  Howard was still learning his craft, although by this time he was becoming quite an accomplished wordsmith. Howard perhaps was aware on some level of the potential for confusion, because this is the only time all three names (Fanara, Felgar, and Farsunia) are used in close succession.

Kull is bored by the whole thing, and comments that in Atlantis, the "women mate with whom they will and whom they choose."  Having grown up in small Texas towns, I think I can safely say that this idea was ahead of its time in 1920s Cross Plains.  It's only when a messenger informs Kull that Felgar has said:  "Tell the barbarian swine who defiles an ancient throne that I name him scoundrel.  Tell him that some day I shall return and clothe his cowardly carcase {sic}in the clothing of women, to attend my chariot horses."  Why Felgar would do this is never explained.

Strong words from a man who is also a foreigner, although from one of the civilized kingdoms.  This, of course, sends Kull into a rage.  He summons Brule and the royal cavalry, the Red Slayers.  They take off in pursuit of Lala-ah and Felgar, crossing the border of the neighboring kingdom of Zarfhaana. 

Howard seemed to be setting up some conflict besides that between Kull and Felgar.  There are two other men in the party besides Kull and Brule who are named.  Ka-yana, who led the original pursuit and is overtaken by Kull and the Red Slayers, is the first.  There is definite dislilke between him and Brule.

The second man is named Kelkor.  He is second in command of the Red Slayer.  Instead of being Valusian, he's Lemurian.  He worked his way up through the ranks, attaining the highest rank he could as a foreigner.  This prevents him from becoming the lord commander of the entire army.  Kull silently laments this fact. The passage (p. 71) implies, to me at least, that this will become a plot point later. Kelkor is a warrior's warrior.  In fact Kull has something of a man-crush on Kelkor.  I don't recall any other passage in Howard's writings in which the central hero wonders if he can ever have the self control and martial prowess another man has.  There may be such a passage, but if there is, I'm not aware of it. 

This is the least brooding of the Kull stories Howard had written up until this time.  The emphasis here is more on pursuit.  The party, all 300 strong, track the lovers to a city on the eastern border of Zarfhaana, but the pair manage to elude Kull, although just barely.  It's while Kull and Brule are secretly searching for them in the city that the comments of riding into the sunrise begin.

The pursuit continues, across the border into Grondar, a kingdom of fierce horsemen who often raid Zarfhaana and other kingdoms along their border.  Kull has enough men that the Grondarians don't molest them but do follow along behind them, watching.  Felgar and Lala-ah manage to stay about a day's ride ahead.  I don't know much about horses, but I found it a little hard to swallow that the horses Kull's party as well as the lovers are riding don't start dropping dead from the relentless pursuit.  I realize that Howard says Felgar and Lala-ah have spare horses, but still, give me a break.

Eventually, they come to a river, the Stagus.  On the western side is grassland; on the eastern, desert.  At the river they meet a man, Karon the Ferryman, as he calls himself.  It's been established that many of the names Howard was using in his fiction during this period were taken from Bullfinch.  Here's a  perfect example of his doing so, and I think it's brilliant.  Howard makes Karon seem a natural fit to the story, not forced.  Howard even states that Karon will eventually be known as boatman to Hades.  While the land on the eastern side of the Stagus isn't called Hades, it is called World's End and is a hot and hellish place inhabited by monsters.  No one who has crossed the Stagus has ever returned.

Karon informs the group that he is a member of the Elder Race.  He also knows Kull's name, even though Kull does not give it.  I'm not sure if this was an oversight on Howard's part or not.  I suspect not.  It certainly works to make Karon more mysterious and a little threatening even though nothing he does or says is overtly hostile.

Felgar and Lala-ah took the ferry across the Stagus at dawn the previous day.  Kull says he intends to follow to avenge the insult Felgar has given him but that the men are free to return without it being held against them.  They all follow Kull.  So impressed by this is Kull that he gives them the highest compliment he can:  "Ye are men."  Karon ferries them across, and the party prepares to continue it's pursuit.

And that's where the story ends.  Just as it was starting to get interesting. 

It's unfortunate that Howard chose not to finish this tale.  It was probably shaping up to be the lengthiest Kull story Howard had written up to this time.  Yes, the impetus to get Kull to take to the road is weak.  Pursuing lovers that he would ordinarily sympathize with in order to avenge an insult is a bit thin for motivation to leave the kingdom in the hands of the nobles, who we know from "The Shadow Kingdom" are not to be trusted.  Especially if you take most of your personal guard with you.  It's easier for me to see Conan in his pre-Aquilonia days doing something like this than it is for me to see Kull acting this way.  But once Kull and his men are on the road, who cares why he left.  This installment shows us some of the geography of Kull's world, something we don't get to see much of in the other stories.  Once Kull and Brule are in the city looking for their quarry, Howard drops hints that they're heading into trouble.  This is confirmed when Karon tells Kull no one who has crossed the Stagus has ever returned. 

Personally, I can't wait to see what's on the other side of that river.  I want to know what monsters are lurking there.  More critters from Bullfinch?  It would be fascinating to see what Howard does with them.  Maybe no one has ever returned because a gorgon is hiding over there.  It would certainly fit with the Greek mythology motif Howard establishes with Karon.  And what about the animosity between Brule and Ka-yana?  Where was Howard going to take that?  Yes, I know it would almost certainly have ended in Ka-yana's blood being spilled, but half the fun is getting to that point.   Let's not forget Kelkor.  Will Kull eventually go against custom and promote Kelkor to command of all the army and not just the Red Slayers?

Sadly, unless the highly unlikely happens and the rest of the story turns up somewhere, the world will never know.  Even with it's flaws and unfinished state, this draft showcases Howard's growth and improvement as a writer.  He has more characters than in any of the previous Kull tales, and their motivations appear to be more complex than any to this point.  Their interactions certainly are.  This could have been a major novella, especially if Howard had tweaked the story a bit to make the motivation for pursuit a little more believable.  It's our loss that he didn't.