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Open to Chance

Sunday, April 20th, 2014 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Book sale posterLeaving the dark brick stairwells of the Lucien L’Allier métro last Sunday morning at 10, we found the rain was holding off: something not to be expected. Forecasts called for meteorological chaos in Montréal over the following days. Up to 24 degrees celsius, down to 2, thunderstorms, snow. But that was in the future. For the moment Grace and I were looking for books, to hold us through those unsettled days and more.

Not that we were lacking for books to read, truly. But the point of a used-book sale isn’t just to buy a title you could (if you don’t mind cheating) get from Amazon or Abebooks. It’s to find something you didn’t know you want, or something you never thought you’d find, at a price you can’t believe; to get a chance at something that happens to come around just at that moment. To be in the right place at the right time.

It had already been a busy weekend. I’d been to two book sales over the previous two days, with my girlfriend Grace joining me at the last one. I’d found some nice titles (Carter’s Nights at the Circus, the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic, Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, many more), but nothing too surprising. Both those sales were the most recent iteration of annual events, so we knew what to expect of them going in. The one we were approaching now, at the Hotel Espresso on Rue Guy, was more of a mystery. MonSFFA, the Montréal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association, was holding what they promised would be a massive sale of sf and fantasy books. The books came from a fan who had to liquidate his collection, and officially the sale started at 1; but I’d seen an appeal on Facebook for volunteers to come in early to help set up in exchange for first crack at the stock, so Grace and I had decided to lend a hand. We had no idea what kind of collection this was, or what we’d find.

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Ancient Worlds: Heracles and Hylas

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady


So, wait, I can move in with you, and your sisters, not live on a boat, and not carry hairy dude’s bow? SOLD.

As the Argonauts come closer to their destination, Apollonius finds himself with a problem that is familiar to many a DM: he has one character that significantly outclasses the other players. I refer, of course, to Heracles. A good adventure relies on tension and tension requires the possibility of real danger. A character that can Herc-smash every obstacle that stands in the party’s way is frustrating to both the writer and the audience.

In other scenarios, you can kill this guy off. But when your over-powered character is a well-known minor god with a well-established canon, you’re in a bit of a bind. So Apollonious does the next best thing and ushers Heracles off-stage by means of a side-quest. As mentioned before, Heracles is travelling on the Argo with Hylas, a boy who acts as his bow-carrier. At a stop for supplies, Hylas takes a jug and goes to fetch water. At the spring, his beauty attracts the attention of the nymphs, who seize him and pull him into their pool.

When Hylas fails to return, Heracles goes looking for him and, in the process, misses the boat. When the other Argonauts notice his absence, they accuse Jason of ditching Heracles on purpose and demand that they turn around to fetch him. This is when a sea god appears (yes, it is a literal deus ex machina) and informs them that Heracles has a destiny that does not include the quest for the Golden Fleece and that it is against the will of Zeus that they turn around.

Take THAT, character with suspiciously lucky dice.

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The Fantasy of Lucius Shepard: The Dragon Griaule

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

The Dragon Griaule-smallLucius Shepard died last month and, to commemorate his profound contributions to the genre, we are surveying his fantasy books here. Today, we continue with one of his most famous books, The Dragon Griaule.

The point could be made that Shepard made his greatest contributions to fantasy at short length and certainly this volume supports that theory. A collection of six linked stories, including two of his most famous — “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” and “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter” – The Dragon Griaule collects all the tales of the massive corpse-dragon Griaule, including a new story, “The Skull,” which connects the mythical world of the Carbonales Valley to one of Shepard’s most prevalent literary concerns, 21st Century Central America.

More than twenty-five years ago, Lucius Shepard introduced us to a remarkable fictional world, a world separated from our own “by the thinnest margin of possibility.” There, in the mythical Carbonales Valley, Shepard found the setting for “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” the classic account of an artist — Meric Cattanay — and his decades long effort to paint — and kill — a dormant, not quite dead dragon measuring 6,000 feet from end to end. The story was nominated for multiple awards and is now recognized as one of its author’s signature accomplishments.

Over the years, Shepard has revisited this world in a number of brilliant, independent narratives that have illuminated the Dragon’s story from a variety of perspectives. This loosely connected series reached a dramatic crossroads in the astonishing novella, “The Taborin Scale.” The Dragon Griaule now gathers all of these hard to find stories into a single generous volume. The capstone of the book — and a particular treat for Shepard fans — is “The Skull,” a new 40,000 word novel that advances the story in unexpected ways, connecting the ongoing saga of an ancient and fabulous beast with the political realities of Central America in the 21st century. Augmented by a group of engaging, highly informative story notes, The Dragon Griaule is an indispensable volume, the work of a master stylist with a powerful — and always unpredictable — imagination.

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Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 4

Friday, April 4th, 2014 | Posted by Elwin Cotman

Phantom F. Harlock

I wander the edge of the stars
People call me
Captain Harlock! Captain Harlock!
Hoist the skull and crossbones flag
In a sea without tomorrow

Leiji Matsumoto does not write war stories. The pain, chaos, senseless destruction, and especially the death are of no interest to him. He has stated that he is interested in life. As such, his characters live. The only one who dies is Tetsuro and even that becomes part of his mythology. The guy dies in every story! Then he is reincarnated, greater than before. The rest of the characters are untouchable, eternally young, more Greek gods than anime characters. You’re not even going to get a secondary character death like they do in the Star Wars novels every few years. You know going into a Matsumoto story that the heroes will survive everything, even in spite of themselves.

Captain Harlock’s crew are not soldiers. At least, not as we traditionally think of them. The first mate Yattaran will work on his model kits in the middle of a battle. The rest of the crew spends their time napping and playing games. There are cantankerous cooks. Cute kittens. Weepy vultures. Harlock’s unstoppable army of freedom fighters is populated by straight up cartoon characters. Yet they are, without a doubt, heroes. It is interesting that, toward the end of the Harlock series, several red shirts die in battle. Their deaths are skimmed over; this is a universe where they don’t dwell on grief.

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Holmes – Creation to Death and Back

Monday, March 31st, 2014 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Ormond1In 1882, Arthur Conan Doyle (not yet “Sir”) opened up his own shop as a doctor in Southsea (England). Business was slow and his most notable triumph was marrying the sister of a patient who died of meningitis.

With some spare time on his hands, Doyle wrote fiction. Somewhere around 1886, he came to the conclusion that he could write detective stories better than the ones he was reading. He would create, “a scientific detective, who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal.”

Putting the pen to the paper, he completed A Study in Scarlet (working title, The Tangled Skein) that year. Originally starring Sherrinford Holmes and Ormond Sacker, the names had settled into the now familiar Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

Doyle’s stories of Holmes owe a debt to Edgar Allen Poe that has been discussed by far better minds than mine. The now mostly forgotten Emile Gaboriau was also acknowledged by Doyle as an influence.

Mystery maven and Doyle biographer John Dickinson Carr stated that Holmes was clearly based on Doyle himself, which seems overly flattering.

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Mary Gentle’s The Black Opera: Another Opinion

Saturday, March 29th, 2014 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Black OperaTwo years ago, veteran author Mary Gentle’s most recent novel The Black Opera was published to mixed reviews. Some liked the book’s mix of alternate-history fantasy and comic-opera theatricality — as the sub-title has it, “a novel of Opera, Volcanoes, and the Mind of God.” Others, ably represented at Black Gate by Sean Stiennon’s review, found the pacing was slack, the fantastic elements underdeveloped — particularly with regard to how they affected the setting — and, perhaps especially, that the drama was undermined by a lack of conflict among the characters. Having just read the book myself, and having greatly enjoyed it, I felt like putting forward a few thoughts in the novel’s defence. Oddly, I don’t so much disagree with many of the criticisms as think that in context they actually work to make a pleasant, effective story.

First, let’s be precise about what we’re looking at. The Black Opera‘s set in the early-to-mid nineteenth century in a world where miracles happen: inconsistent but often startlingly powerful violations of physical laws that seem to be related to powerful musical performances. Ghosts and the walking dead are not uncommon. In Naples, a freethinking opera librettist named Conrad Scalese is saved from the Inquisition by agents of King Ferdinand II, who conscripts Conrad into a secret project: combating a secret society of Satanists who plan to invoke a miracle that will raise Satan and destroy Naples. They will do this by staging a Black Opera — so Conrad, on Ferdinand’s behalf, must create a countering ‘white opera’ to overcome their evil plan. The book follows Conrad’s frantic attempts to create and stage his opera on a tight timetable, introducing and setting up characters and subplots before an extended climax brings everything to a dramatic head.

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Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 3

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014 | Posted by Elwin Cotman


The Japanese have accomplished miraculous economic growth and have an abundance of material things, but as a result there is pollution and high prices, and we’re far from leading happy lives. We are all just helpless cogs in the machine of the industrial world, especially when it comes to the material aspects of our lives. Will we find a way out of this predicament? History will allow us to determine this.
—Leiji Matsumoto

[Read Part 1 of Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood here, and Part II here.]

Thirty-some years later, still relevant words. I would love to hear Matsumoto’s thoughts on our current mechanization: our attachment to technology, our GMO foods, the surveillance culture that is growing daily. In the seventies, he was writing about fantastical apocalypses. Smack dab in the middle of our man-made apocalypse, the world needs space pirates more than ever.

For this series, I’ve been doing a bit of a Matsumoto re-watch. Nothing serious, just an episode here and there. I’ve been watching Galaxy Express 999. Make no mistake, this is Matsumoto’s Sistine Chapel. All of his themes are wrapped up in this fairy tale, but one is central: human potential over the dehumanization of industry, as represented by the Machine Empire. It is also the story he most wanted to tell, dreaming up fairy stories while the market demanded war tales.

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The Gargoyles of St. Wulfram’s

Monday, March 17th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

DSC00165_2Of all the freakish critters in the original hardback Monster Manual, the one that always made the most intuitive sense to me was the gargoyle. Having seen perhaps more than my share of gargoyles by the time I entered the role-playing realms, I already knew them to be fierce, frightening, toothy, amply clawed, and sometimes winged. It stood to reason that they’d be crafty, pernicious opponents.

What made no sense was why the D&D variety weren’t made of stone, as nearly all true (read: real) gargoyles surely are. To this day, I still have no explanation for that decision on the part of the Monster Manual’s creators, Mssrs. Gygax, et al. They certainly had no intrinsic objection to stone beasties: consider the stone golem or that durable tri-form oddity, the xorn.

In order to better address this incongruity, I have abandoned my regular offices deep in Black Gate’s vast Indiana Compound and taken up residence at Harlaxton Manor, an out-of-the-way 1830s edifice set in the rolling hills of England’s Lincolnshire. Is it haunted? Probably. Not only did one of its previous owners conduct regular séances in the cozier of the two libraries, but the manor has been used in several eccentric movies, including The Ruling Class (1972) and the truly execrable remake of The Haunting (1999).

Are there gargoyles? Yes. But only two.

Luckily, just down the road, in the struggling industrial town of Grantham, an astonishment of gargoyles awaits on the walls of St. Wulfram’s, a mid-sized Anglican church that dates back to the 1200s at least.

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Lord of Misrule

Monday, March 17th, 2014 | Posted by Bob Byrne

LeeQuestion – What do Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, James Bond, Fu Manchu, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, John Belushi and Sherlock Holmes all have in common?

Answer – Lee. Christopher Lee (one of his autobiographies was titled Lord of Misrule)

In May, talented British actor Christopher Lee turns 92 years old. Thanks to his performance as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he is as popular today as he ever has been. And proving he knows how to get in on a winning franchise, he was Count Dooku in the second Star Wars trilogy. Which chronologically was the… oh, never mind.

But Lee first made his name in the horror flicks produced by Hammer Films in Great Britain in the late fifties and sixties. Lee played the monster (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy), while friend Peter Cushing was the protagonist.

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Caught Between Rebels and the Empire’s Blackest Magic: Beyond the Veil: The Revised and Expanded Author’s Cut by Janet Morris

Sunday, March 16th, 2014 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

Beyond the Veil Janet Morris-smallI continue with my review of the 5-star, Author’s Cut editions of Janet Morris’s classic of Homeric Heroic Fantasy, the Beyond Sanctuary Trilogy, of which Beyond the Veil is the second book. Once again, she does not disappoint in this stirring novel of political and religious intrigue, dark magic, gods and men, witches and mages, and the price of love and war.

This is a pivotal book in the trilogy, where foreshadowing and story threads begin to weave in and out to form a tapestry, telling a tale of friends who become foes, enemies who become allies, and what fate lies in store for certain demigods and mortals.

Now, after the battle to win Wizardwall that took place in book one, Beyond Sanctuary, Tempus, Niko, and the Sacred Band are caught between the local rebels and the empire of Mygdonia’s blackest magic. Once again, “War is coming, sending ahead its customary harbingers: fear and falsity and fools.”

It begins with the murder of a courier on his way to meet with Tempus, and the arrival of a young woman named Kama, of the 3rd Commandoes, (a unit of special rangers originally formed by Tempus) who seeks audience with Tempus, who is also known as Riddler. Her mission is to take 11-year old Shamshi, the young wizard-boy, back home to Mygdonia.

Shamshi, once a pawn in the game played by the late sorcerer Datan in the previous novel, is still under the spell of Roxane the witch, but is now being held as a guest-hostage by Tempus and the Sacred Band. Though he may be a child in the eyes of men, Shamshi is already plotting against Tempus and Niko.

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