Friday, July 07, 2017

The Age of the Orc

. . . is often coming, but never quite seems to get here. Scott Oden's new historical fantasy novel A Gathering of Ravens, however, brings it as close as it's ever been.

While this is not the first time that Oden has tackled writing from the orcish point of view - the short story "Amarante" in Skelos II is another example - it's certainly the most ambitious. The story follows Grimnir, who is definitely an orc even if the word is never used (the neologism kaunr is used for Grimnir to describe himself, while other cultures use skraelingr, orcneas, or fomoraig) - murderous, crude, and bloodthirsty. After kidnapping an incredulous Christian traveler as a guide, he sets off from his lair in 10th-Century Denmark in search of the Dane that killed his brother, Grendel.

Well, almost. The brother's name is actually Hrungnir and his killer's Bjarki (a name that, like Beowulf, means bear), but the parallels are undeniable - Hrungnir's arm being displayed along with his head is just one of the more obvious. I was delighted to note there were even shout-outs to more modern versions of the story - at one a Dane begins reciting the famous poem from the film The Thirteenth Warrior ("Lo, there do I see my father . . . "), and certain spoilery facts of Bjarki Half-Dane's backstory are somewhat reminiscent of the 2007 Beowulf film.

Another appearance of the White Tree.
But Beowulf isn't the only piece of meat in this literary stew. There's some Tolkien, of course - a tale about an orc could hardly avoid him - but it's surprisingly superficial. There's a scene with some dwarves (taller than Grimnir!), one of whom is named Nori; and there's a section with a willow-spirit who, in addition to acting like close kin of Old Man Willow, uses heraldry described similar to Gondor's.

In terms of overall style and theme, though, A Gathering of Ravens owes much more to Robert E. Howard than to J. R. R. Tolkien - not just little things like the dog named Conan and the Viking that swears by Crom, but the way the cosmic conflict between paganism and Christianity (not for nothing, I think, is the Battle of Clontarf the climax of the book) forms the background of a personal revenge story, in which the actors shake out in some surprising directions. Not to mention the action and combat scenes, which richly evokes the hard-scrabble life-or-death struggles such events would have been.

Overall, as someone with both an interest in fantasy fiction and medieval history this book was a joy to read - it's obvious the author is well-read on both the historical and mythical background of Viking-age Europe. I have heard that Scott Oden intends to pen more adventures of Grimnir the Last Orc, and can only say the sooner the better.

Favorite line: "This was no game of thrones where generals sacrificed and maneuvered on the backs of their soldiers; this was the most primal sort of conflict - Odin's weather, the red chaos of slaughter - where men stood breast-to-breast and shield-to-shield, and dealt the same blows they took in kind."

I see what you did there!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

This is Gonna Be a Good One, I Can Tell . . .

Somehow I missed the initial announcement since he's already up to Chapter 2, but after what I can only assume was a rousing success with his pulpy gonzo space-opera web serial, science fiction grandmaster John C. Wright has announced his latest effort, Lost on the Last Continent:

Probably not the author.
And he wastes no time in getting to the stuff adventure literature is made of: UFO/space-plane chases, dogfights with dinosaurs, gunfights* with dinosaurs, treacherous landscapes, pithy inner dialogue - "He had two hands, after all. But only one Holland & Holland", - the works. And given that this is John C. Wright, I have no doubt that beneath all the spectacle will be a spiritual foundation both solid and thought-provoking.

Read Lost on the Last Continent here.

Subscribe to John C. Wright's Patreon account here.

*Because Colonel Preston Lost is exactly the sort of person to take a big-game rifle and an antique sidearm to test an experimental rocket-plane.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Is S.M.Stirling's Emberverse Inspired By John Norman's Gor Series?

A few months back I talked about a podcast called Geek Gab, mentioning that I wasn't a regular listener, but was interested because they were interviewing Jeffro Johnson about his "Appendix N" book. Since then, however, I've been tuning in more often than not, even as they've grown from a single weekly show to a veritable online network.

In one recent episode of the spinoff show Geek Gab Game Night, the guest, game designer Jim Desborough, was talking about his adaption to tabletop gaming of the Gor novels by John Norman. Now, I'm only familiar with this series through it's rather dubious reputation, but the podcast covered most of the non-dubious basics - Gor is a planet in Earth's orbit (only on the opposite side of the sun so it can't be detected from Earth), which has been seeded by inscrutable aliens with small populations of various Earth cultures spirited away and kept from progressing to far down certain areas of technological development, notably firearms.

In the course of the discussion, a brief mention was made of S. M. Stirling's time-traveling Nantucket trilogy that began with Island in the Sea of Time, which got me thinking about the spin-off series that Stirling started with Dies the Fire. That book begins with a catastrophe similar to a worldwide EMP pulse that also depowers gunpowder, somehow. As the books go on, there's a recurring theme - calling it a subplot would be giving it too much credit - of people studying what they call the Change and concluding that, scientifically, it makes absolutely no sense. Eventually it is revealed that, like on Gor, humanity is being artificially kept in its Medieval Stasis by inscrutable aliens*, albeit ones considerably less flashy than the ones on Gor.

Even more intriguingly, the setting has gone through a number of time-skips and is now a couple of generations from the Change. One of the more interesting aspects, as the character's horizons expand, is that they keep meeting different groups of people who've survived psychologically by taking a shared element - say, the RCMP or the Boy Scouts - and making it the foundation of a new culture. This tends to give the map, at least in North America, a sort of anachronistic crazy-quilt feel, much like the descriptions of Gor with its chronologically diverse groups of alien-abducted Earth people.

So was Stirling intentionally riffing on these elements of the Gor setting? I don't know of any concrete evidence one way or another, but I do suspect it to be an unconscious influence. Of course, it could also be a coincidence** that the main villain of the first few books is named Norman, and has a bit of the, shall we say, Gorean philosopher about him . . .

*Actually an inscrutable far-future human gestalt super-mind, or something.

**More certainly a coincidence, and certainly more of a stretch, is the appearance of an ersatz Tarzan in one of the stories in the universe-opening short story collection Stirling edited a few years back. Tarzan, of course, was an invention of Edgar Rice Burroughs along with John Carter, whose Barsoomian adventures the first few Gor books are said to be a New Wave-ish pastiche of.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Magazine Rack Revolutionary

Earlier this week the nominees for the 2017 Hugo Awards were announced, and while for the most part I can't really gin up much of a reaction I was quite gratified to see that Cirsova Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine has won a nomination (which, these days, is almost more prestigious than actually winning) for Best Semiprozine. Now, I've been an eager reader of Cirsova since it premiered on Kickstarter in January 2016, but have inexplicably failed to talk about it here.

Time to fix that.

 Inspired by what he called "older, weirder, and pulpier" fiction and seeking to provide an outlet for the same, editor P. Alexander really hit the ground running with Issue #1. Basically every story, from the alternate-history Spanish-Armada-with magic story by Kat Otis to the pure undiluted sword-and-planet tale by Abraham Strongjohn to the first part of James Hutchings's poetic adaption of Edgar Rice Burrough's "Princess of Mars" has something to recommend it. My personal favorite, I must say, is "A Hill of Stars" by Misha Burnett, which has a great take on the Howardian pre-historic civilization idea, mainly by using the Old Ones from H. P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" as the just-fallen empire which the dinosaur-riding human barbarians are in the process of looting. The main character is a former slave of the Old Ones who uses their knowledge to win life, love, and liberty in a terrific example of what the "Pulp Revolution" literary movement is about.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so - shortly after the issue was published, Misha Burnett opened up the "Eldritch Earth" setting for other writers to use, and the just-released Issue #5 of Cirsova is reported to have several of the resulting stories. Alas, while I have downloaded the issue I haven't yet found time to read it, but I'm definitely looking forward to it.

Certainly the middle three issues have consistently met the expectations set by #1. While there's certainly an emphasis on science-fantasy stories of one sort or another, there's really something for everyone here. Just to give a quick idea, some of the other stories that impressed me the most included -

  • "Hoskins' War" by Brian K. Lowe, from Issue #2, a Weird American Revolution story.
  • "The Lion's Share" by J. D. Brink, from Issue #3, featuring a space pirate operating in the classic piratical mode.
  • "Blood and Bones: Caribbean 1645" by Jim Breyfogle, also from Issue #3, in which a young wizard pulls a fast one on both the colonial government and a pirate crew.
  • "The Lady of the Amorous City" by Edward Ermelac, from Issue #4, in which a not-yet-King Arthur fights a really weird knight.
And that's just a few of the dozens of stories that I found the most memorable - I haven't even mentioned the essays by Jeffro Johnson and others analyzing the older pulp stories, or the fact that Issue #3 was designated the "Pirate Issue", or hardly anything other than the surface of this fine magazine. And to top it all off, all the content from the first two issues is available free at the links above!

Even if, like me, you're a fan of science fiction or fantasy but don't consider yourself a short fiction reader, if anything would change your mind, Cirsova would. I really don't know of anything else (except maybe Skelos) like it.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

SF&F History Month - From Amber to Avalon

Well, we've had some schedule slippage, which I apologize for, but I have a semi - decent excuse in that some personal life changes meant I was without ready Internet access for some of the last month. On the plus side, I was able to finish both Nine Princes in Amber and its first sequel, The Guns of Avalon. Before I get to my thoughts on them, however, I wanted to highlight a bit of (less than hot-off-the-presses) relevant news - The Chronicles of Amber appears to be in production as a television series.

As neat as it would be to see, the most interesting thing about the press release is the many comparisons to Game of Thrones, especially the ones that claim the Amber was an inspiration for Westros. Now, I have yet to read any of the books and have only seen a little of the show, but I can definitely understand where such comparisons come from, given all that happens in Amber in these relatively short books.

(Spoilers Ahead:)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Gabbing Geeks on Appendix N

Alright, so the last 2016 Science Fiction and Fantasy History Month post is . . . quite late, and I apologize for that (I'll make my excuses when I'm finally done with it). In the meanwhile, yesterday the podcast Geek Gab released their 84th episode, "Super Secrets of Appendix N"*. Now, I'm not a regular listener to Geek Gab, but I was especially interested because the guest this week was none other than Jeffro Johnson, who, as I've mentioned, inspired last month's blogging topic (he even gave it a nice shoutout at the Castalia House blog).

So I was interested to hear what he'd have to say on the topic:

Wow. That turned into quite the manifesto, at the end. If you're at all interested in the history and current state of science fiction and fantasy literature, you should definitely give this a listen.

*Defined most poetically in the episode as "a list of the stuff Gary Gygax ripped off to make Dungeons & Dragons.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

SF&F History Month - Amber Remembered

At the end of my musings on the first few chapters of Nine Princes in Amber last week, I opined that much of the setting, or at least enough to get a handle on, would soon be explained. As we shall see, I was more or less correct.

As I suspected, Corwin's memory was soon to be returned, but not without a good bit of effort. After meeting up with one of his many brothers and discreetly dealing with the pursuers thereof, the two decide to make the journey to Amber. In a situation not unlike the Pevensies hearing the word "Aslan" for the first time, the word "Amber" conjures up in Corwin a host of associations - he doesn't know what it means, only that he belongs there.

The journey itself is an interesting affair, consisting of what seems to be a number of jumps between alternate universes. Random, the brother, is controlling it somehow, and the travelers' effects change somewhat along with the surroundings (at one point Corwin pulls a bunch of paper currency labeled in Latin out of his wallet), although he isn't able to route them around all the obstacles, including a chase scene with another brother - this one a knight with a pack of especially ferocious hunting dogs.

Corwin takes all this in stride despite his lack of memory, which he eventually confesses to Random. Happily, a solution is offered - a powerful labyrinth called the Pattern that, when navigated by a member of their family, gives their various powers and should restore Corwin's memory. Of course his labyrinth is in Amber itself, but luckily there's a duplicate located at the bottom of a nearby ocean.

Of course it works and Corwin remembers not only his activities for the past several centuries, but the true nature of Amber - ". . . the greatest city that had ever existed or ever would exist. Amber had always been and would always be, and every other city everywhere, every other city that existed was but a reflection of a shadow of some phase of Amber." Heady stuff, and an interesting reversal of the usual assumption that our Earth is the "real" one. It's also, come to think of it, again not unlike the situation in Narnia, where the world the bulk of the stories take place in turns out to be a transient copy of somewhere more real.

Unfortunately for Corwin, however, now that he remembers what Amber is he also remembers that yet another brother - this one a particular rival - is poised to take control of it. Whether Corwin succeeds in stopping him, however, will have to wait for another week.