Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jerusalem Delivered and Epic Roots

Jerusalem Delivered Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Over the last decade or so, fantasy fiction has emerged from a geeky underground genre to become a real cultural force in it;s own right. Go into any bookstore (or just check the Amazon sales rankings...) and you'll see and endless line of titles featuring wizards, warlocks, damsels in distress (or causing distress) and the whole sword swinging, shining knight and evil wizard deal providing fuel to the imagination. Any day of the week you can turn on a tv or head into a movie theatee and see CGI orcs, trolls and dragons battling it out across a wide variety of imaginary landscapes.

Yet the roots of fantasy go back far and deep into the bones of our culture. Tolkien is often called the father of fantasy (or one of the fathers at least) but even he had his influences, as did all the others who preceded him. To my mind, the chivalric romances are the original seed of what today we could tall fantastickal fiction. IN the courts of medieval and Renaissance Europe, poets and troubadours spun stories of brave knights and powerful wizards, princesses locked in towers and perilous quests, creating many of the tropes that we still use to this day.

To my mind, Torquato Tasso's epic poem JERUSALEM DELIVERED can be considered one of the first true epic fantasies. Ostensibly a retelling of the First Crusade, it mingles the bloody history of holy war with sorceresses, demons and magical happenings drawn from a wide variety of sources. Under the leadership of the noble lord Godfredo (the historical Godfrey of Boullion) and the mystic Peter the Hermit, a Crusader army drawn from all the Kingdoms of Christendom, and featuring many heroes familiar from numerous other medieval epics, gathers to capture Jerusalem from the armies of the Pagans (as he calls the Muslims) led by the Soldan of the Turks. Among the champions in the Christian army is the warrior Tancredi (the historical Tancred, Prince of Galillee), who faces off against the warrior-maiden Clorinda. Though fighting on the opposite side, they fall in love, which ends in tragedy when she mistakenly dies at the hands of her beloved. And there is the knight Rinaldo, who in the story is made out to be descended from one of Charlemagne's paladins (as well as being the ancestor of the House of Este, the poet's real-life patrons.) The greatest of all the Crusader knights, he falls under the spell of the sorceress Armida in a manner similar to Odysseus and Circe, before being rescued by his comrades and returned to fight in the final victory.

By today's standards this story would be reckoned grossly un-PC, the culture nowadays viewing the Crusades in a very different light then 16th Century Italian poets. And those who grew up reading modern prose might find the old-fashioned style (particularly the allusions to classical mythology mingled with Christian piety) frustrating. But there is a sense of wonder in this story, of unashamed glory, that still resonates even four centuries later. If you enjoyed reading the Lord of the Rings, this will give an idea of where Tolkien got his ideas.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

The way it was...and never will be again....

I miss that old style sword and sorcery.

I grew up in the Nineties, right on the cusp of fantasy's initial breakthrough into the mainstream. I remember when it was still very much and underground things, when there was still hysteria about Dunegon's & Dragons being a gateway drug into Satanism and suicide (though given some of the DM's I've known over the years, one or the other seemed quite attractive at various points during badly run campaigns...) Fantasy was for losers back then, geeks, dorks, dweebs, and that was just in high school. Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons made flesh.

The thing about being beneath the cultural radar though is that no one cares what you do. Which means you can do what you want. You can say what you want, write what you want, lose yourself in a world that doesn't exist except on paper, and no one cares. There is an entire universe inside your head and by God and all His Saints it's ten thousand times better than the dead end existence that constitutes The Real World.

For me the drug of choice was sword and sorcery. Conan, Elric, Dragonlance Chronicles...ordinary men swinging swords against the orcish hordes, wizards standing on mountaintops calling down the fire on the world. Witch Queens wearing jewels and not much else, dwarves with beards that dragged on the ground, elves and barbarians facing off against the dark denizens of the Seventeenth Abyss. I'd read them in Robert E. Howard, imagine myself as John Carter striding across the wastelands of Barsoom, try and recreate it around the gaming table to the rattle of d20's and accompanied by the smell of cold pizza, truly the food of the gods to the hungry gamer. There was no ambiguity, no second guessing, none of that bloody angst and irony which permeated the 90's like cheap cologne, for which my fellow Gen X'ers will have to spend the rest of their lives atoning for. The heroes were heroes, the villains were villains. The damsels were in distress, the fiends of the Pit were there to be cut down, and if your heroes had a Dark Side driving them onward, it only them made all the more bad ass. It was simple, straightforward. High octane fuel for the imagination.

I miss it.

Now it's different (though isn't it always?) Fantasy has entered the mainstream. And given that we live in a repressed post-modernist post-feminist post-whathaveyou age where Certain Things Are Not To Be Said, so too is the genre hobbled. Every story must have a point, every plot line an allegory for something related t owhat's happening in the world, and if the old tropes are dusted off and brought in, it's only so they can be deconstructed for the greater purpose of showing how everything is Inherently Oppressive. There are no more heroes and the villains are merely misunderstood. Evil is just another version of Good, and Good doesn't really exist as such, since it's all subjective and nothing is absolute. Everything is a metaphor - the barbarian invasion from the North is meant to be an allegory for the War on Terror, the Dark Plague sweeping the land a stand-in for Obamacare. No more simply telling a story, no more Art for Art's sake. Art is political and the political is personal...even if the personal is pure crap.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing to indulge, and I know there's plenty of stuff coming out today that exceeds by a length too great to measure the works of the past remembered in such a golden haze (and let's be honest, a lot of that stuff was second-rate hackwork, only highly prized because there was nothing else available.) But am I the only one who feels that something unique has been lost? That the genre gained the world and lost its soul, or at least its sense of humor?

Thus endeth the rant.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Fantasy Art Inspiration

Just as clothes make the man, so does art make the story. There is a long and happy history of collaboration between the visual arts and fantasy fiction, all the way back to the beginning. I know that when the well of inspiration starts to run dry, perusing some of the more fantastickal creations of the Western artistic heritage is a good way to get the juices flowing. 

The Pre-Raphaelites are a good place to start - part of the Romantic reaction against the industrialization of society, they looked to myth and the mediival past for their inspiration. 

Edward Burne-Jones, who began as a Pre-Raphaalite, then went on to become a leading light the Aesthetic movement. Look on the following works from the latter period and tell me they don't have some kind of effect.

Of course, nowadays we can skip right past the art museum and consider fantasy art as its own genre. Often derided as little more than kitschy covert art (a charge that is all to often true in many cases) nonetheless there are many fine artists working in this field whose works can act as dynamite against an attack of writers block.

Frank Frazetta (may he rest in peace) who virtually defined the modern image of Conan.

Michael Whelan (one of the true greats.) Everyone has at least ONE book featuring a cover of his, even if they don't know it.

Boris Vallejo, for that old-timey lost-in-the-70' pulp feel (try getting away with this nowadays...)

And one of my personal favorites, Ruth Thompson. I met her at the New York Renaissance Faire, and been following her every since. Most excellent talent.

Of course, this just my humble opinion, and I make no claims as to actual good taste....

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Thirty Thousand Words

Just topped thirty thousand words for the second book of the Nine Suns. Don't have a title yet, but so far things seem to be going swimmingly...

Druss the Legend

Legend (Drenai Saga, #1)Legend by David Gemmell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Way back in the that mythical age known as the 90's, I was wandering around a Barnes and Noble in New Hampshire, where I found a paperback copy of this novel. Upon opening it, I discovered a different approach to fantasy, an older way that was increasingly rare in those days, and seems to be almost non-existent today. And the genre is much poorer for it.

David Gemmell is by my lights the only truly worthy heir of Robert E. Howard to come up in the last thirty years, as a writer of a brute-force, unashamedly masculine style of heroic fantasy that embraces its pulp origins and takes them to a whole new level. Indeed, the story of Gemmell's life is almost as fantastickal as any tale he penned of Druss or Waylander. Growing up poor in a rough urban neighborhood, he learned through boxing how to stand up for himself. Expelled from school at sixteen for running a gambling syndicate (compare that to the kid at my school who thought he was a bad ass for smoking tea leaves in a corncob pipe...) he worked as a laborer and a bouncer before becoming a journalist, ultimately a writer. This philosophy, of always standing ones ground and never backing down in the face of overwhelming odds, is one of the overarching themes of his work. When he died in 2006, the fantasy genre lost a true giant.

The story is a fairly simple one. Druss is a legendary warrior, now in his twilight years yet still as dangerous as he was in his prime. Word comes to him of a barbarian horde attacking the fortress of Dros Drelnoch and Druss is called to fight He picked up his ax, knowing this is a battle he will not survive, that he and the fort's defenders face overwhelming odds. Yet this, to him, is all the more reason to go, to stand ones ground, spitting in Death's eye and daring him to do his worst. Along with his fellow defenders – common soldiers ordered to hold the ground at all costs, as well as an order of monks sworn to die in righteous combat – they will face their fears and hold their ground, and show that a good death can be the capstone of a life well-lived. Or at least that was my take on it at the time, when I read the book in the space of a single night.

Legend, like all of Gemmell's work, is suffused with a grim stand-your-ground power, filled with the conviction that the more overwhelming odds, the more necessary it is for the hero to stand against them and die fighting. There's no irony here, none of that post-modernist we're-not-really-serious-about-this nonsense winking. The story wears its cliches honestly and without apology. Rated M for Manly, it may very well put hair on your chest...or at least inspire you to pick up the metaphorical battle ax and start swinging.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Sacrifice (The Fey #1)

The Sacrifice (The Fey #1)The Sacrifice by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good read...hidden classic from the 90's.

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Review: Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was
Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was by Barry Hughart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Barry Hughart is one of the great hidden treasures of the fantasy genre. Many authors have been called ahead of their time, but in this case it;s an appellation that actually sticks, which explains why his Master Li stories were criminally under-appreciated when they first came out. Bridge of Birds is the first of three highly entertaining books.

The setting is China at the start of the T'ang dynasty, though the story plays fast and loos with historical details and is better described as a “China that never was.” Number Ten Ox is is a peasant whose village is suddenly afflicted by a curse that renders the children comatose. Seeking help, he travels to Peking, where he meets with Li Kao, an octogenarian criminal mastermind turned Imperial mandarin turned private detective and unrepentant alcoholic. Together they embark on a madcap adventure that takes them across this fantastical version of the Middle Kingdom, facing a pungent mix of ancient villages and memorable lowlifes.

The draws deeply upon Chinese folklore, mingled with a healthy dose of hard boiled detective fiction and generous helpings of broad comedy. At the time it was published, back in the dark ages of the 1980's, fantasy was still very much in its Dungeons and Dragons phase and no knew what to make of it, or the subsequent two novels that followed (The Story of the Stone, Eight Skilled Gentlemen.) There was nothing like it at the time and indeed there still isn't to this day – Asian-themed fantasy/detective novels are distinctly rare on the ground. The authors frustration with the publishing industry meant an to the series after the third book, which is a crying shame by any measure. If you looking for a rollicking fantasy read that is different from anything else out there, this is a good place to start.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Fashion Police

From the New Criterion...

Saw last night and didn’t much enjoy The Hunger Games, but the worst thing about it was the thought of how many little girls ten years from now — and how many grown women twenty years from now — we are going to have to address as "Katniss," the made-up name of the heroine, played by Jennifer Lawrence. It reminds me of that episode of "The Simpsons" in which Lisa’s teacher calls out the roll and every other girl’s name is "Ashley" or "Dakota." And then there are the 26 children of Cletus, the slack-jawed yokel, and his charming wife Brandeen — one for each letter of the alphabet. They are Tiffany, Heather, Cody, Dylan, Dermott, Jordan, Taylor, Brittany, Wesley, Rumer, Scout, Cassidy, Zoe [pronounced Zoh], Chloe [pronounced Kloh], Max, Hunter, Kendall, Caitlin, Noah, Sasha, Morgan, Kyra [pronounced Keerah], Ian, Lauren, Hubert, and Phil. . .
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this is a test

yet another test post

The Sword and the Sorcerer...memories....

Here's a blast from the past...

Ahh...the '80's. When men were men, women had big hair, and the cheesiness was unapologetic...


Ah caffeine...the sleepless mans best friend...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Game of Thrones!

If the first episode of Season 2 is any indication, fantasy TV just got kicked up to a whole new level. Should wsh away the taste of Legend of the Seeker....

Review: Dragon Prince

Dragon Prince
Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gather round children, and cast your minds back to the ye old days of the late 80's/early 90's, when fantasy was still very much an underground thing, most stories were tedious Tolkien retreads or Dungeons and Dragons sessions put down on paper, and writers of the feminine persuasion were notably light on the ground. Which makes this book and the various series it spawn so interesting....

Nowadays, female fantasy authors are a pretty common sight, so it's a bit shocking to consider just how ahead of its time Dragon Prince was in terms of what could be done in a traditional fantasy novel. When I first picked it up, it was amazed just how different this was from the other fare to be found in bookstores (yes, books were sold in actual stores. Ask your Dad....)What Melanie Rawn did with this story was take all the elements of an awesome epic fantasy and mix it with the conventions of a romance novel, seasoned with some of the most detailed and compelling examples of world building to be found anywhere. The result was something groundbreaking. While there are battles galore and fantastical deed by the score, the core of this tale is the relationship between Rohan and Sioned, the passion that draws them together, the dangers and obstacles that block them. No final voyages to Valhalla here...more along the lines of a traditional romance, Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo and Juliet, or any number of bodice rippers sold by the dozen made magnificent by the inclusion of dragons.

Today it's a common enough formula, which makes this book something of a groundbreaker. It showed (to angsty Gen-X teenagers at least) that fantasy could be more than just the slay the dragon while standing on a mountain of skulls. That there was room for real emotion and passion.

In short, a good read. Not to mention the cover art by Michael Whelan, reason enough to buy the printed version.
Posted by Zackery Arbela

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