Dave Duncan’s The Great Game

Friday, January 30th, 2015 | Posted by Violette Malan

duncan past Connor Gormley wrote a post not long ago in which he discussed the seeming sameness of the current state of Fantasy. That the genre which should be most imaginative showed a singular lack of imagination, or flexibility might be a better word, in its choice of settings and characters. The comments give you a pretty good idea of how people agreed or disagreed with his thesis, and the whole post is well worth looking at. I think what it did for a lot of people, however, is remind them of books they’ve read that aren’t cloyed down with the sameness of things.

In my case, I was reminded specifically of Dave Duncan’s work. I’ve mentioned his Alchemist Novels in discussing fantasy mysteries, and one day I’d like discuss the brilliant West of January in more detail, but at the moment I want to introduce you to the trilogy The Great Game, made up of Past Imperative, Present Tense, and Future Indefinite.

At first glance it seems we’re being dealt a typical stranger-in-a-strange land trope, but as is so often the case with Duncan, the first glance is all you get for free. I think it’s safe to say that whatever you think Duncan’s up to, it’s very seldom what’s going on.

Part Imperative begin with two apparently unconnected storylines, or rather, we assume they are connected – not being entirely new to this game ourselves – but we aren’t shown how until much farther into the narrative than we’d expect. An epigraph does give us a broad hint, but honestly, it’s very easy to overlook. I have a theory that fewer than half of all readers actually read epigraphs, even the ones at the beginning of chapters, but that’s neither here nor there – which, come to think of it, pretty much describes the position of Duncan’s characters.

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Last Chance to Win a Copy of Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth, edited by Stephen Jones

Monday, January 26th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth-small2Last week, we told you that you had a chance to win one of two copies of the new paperback edition of Stephen Jones’s major horror anthology, Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth, on sale this month from Titan Books.

How do you enter? Just send an e-mail to john@blackgate.com with the subject “Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth” and a one-sentence suggestion for the writer you’d most like to write a Lovecraftian horror story today. That’s it; that’s all that stands between you and a copy of one of the most exciting anthologies of the year. Two winners will be drawn at random from all qualifying entries and we’ll announce the winners here on the Black Gate blog. What could possibly be easier? But time is running out — the contest closes February 2.

Here’s the book blurb:

Final Shadows Gather

The final volume in the trilogy that began with the World Fantasy Award-nominated Shadows Over Innsmouth (1994) and Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth (2005), containing stories by Ramsey Campbell, Adrian Cole, John Glasby, Brian Hodge, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Brian Lumley, Kim Newman, Reggie Oliver, Angela Slatter, Michael Marshall Smith, Simon Kurt Unsworth and Conrad Williams, along with an Innsmouth poem by H.P. Lovecraft and a “posthumous collaboration” between the author and August Derleth.

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ConFusion Convention Report

Sunday, January 25th, 2015 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

GalaxyGameI attended my first science fiction convention in 2000 or so. EerieCon in Niagra Falls, New York. A decade-and-a-half later, I’ve become a regular at some conventions, such as GenCon, but others I don’t regularly attend. The big, more corporately-driven conventions like GenCon, Comic-Con, and DragonCon, are very popular, but it’s the smaller literary conventions where the real die hard fans like to gather. As much as I love many of the media representations of science fiction and fantasy, I fell in love with the genre through books.

Last weekend, I made the drive from my central Indiana home up to Dearborn, Michigan, for ConFusion. I lived in Detroit for 4 years and attended ConFusion several times during that period, but moved away over a decade ago and have only been there a couple of times since. Twice I was fully prepared to go, but mid-January weather caused last minutes changes in my plans.

This year, the weather cooperated. The drive took about 4 hours, and I wasn’t alone. This time it was a family trip, with my wife and two sons (9 and 5 years old) along for the adventure. We typically devote a day as a family to GenCon, but I’ve avoided bringing my kids to the more literary conventions. ConFusion has historically had a pretty solid kid’s track, KidFusion, including a Saturday night pizza/pajama party. It’s definitely one of the more kid-friendly conventions, so we decided to give it a try as a family this year.

Weather allowing, ConFusion is a great convention for those in the Midwest to attend, both for those who love to read and those who love to write. It draws a lot of fantastic authors, including a regular stream of top names in the field, authors that regularly appear on award nomination (and winner) lists.

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Elemental Evil Attacks Dungeons & Dragons

Saturday, January 24th, 2015 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

D&D Elemental EvilDungeons & Dragons has transformed itself lately, and that trend continues with the upcoming Elemental Evil storyline set to hit the Forgotten Realms in pen-and-paper, board, and digital formats starting in March and continuing through the summer. In the words of the press release:

Heroes are needed in the Forgotten Realms to discover and defeat secret cults that threaten to annihilate the Sword Coast by harnessing the powers of the elements of fire, water, air, and earth.

Certainly sounds impressive, but before diving into Elemental Evil, let’s quickly review the status of the world’s most iconic fantasy gaming line.

The Road to Now

Back in 2012, Dungeons & Dragons hosted the keynote event at GenCon.  Everyone knew that Dungeons & Dragons was in the process of releasing D&D Next (they were avoiding “5th edition” at that time). Among a lot of experienced gamers, their 4th edition was viewed as a step in the wrong direction. This 2012 keynote was the event where they were going to lay out their strategy for the gaming public. And, I am proud to say, I was there. Since then, I’ve been closely watching the evolution of this process and have been incredibly impressed with what I’ve seen coming out from Wizards of the Coast.

In addition to the fact that they were releasing a new core rule set (which we all knew already), they also announced at this time that Dungeons & Dragons was focusing their entire attention on the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, rather than splitting their attention among a myriad array of different worlds. As the start of this, they released a series of 6 novels from August 2013 through June 2014, each by a different author and depicting how the world-shaking event “The Sundering” (also the name of the book series) was impacting the Forgotten Realms world. The 2013 GenCon keynote coincided with Drizzt Do’Urden’s 25th birthday, and also with the release of the first The Sundering book.

Throughout fall of 2014, after the final Sundering book, Dungeons & Dragons finally began releasing their new set of 5th edition core books. These have been covered fairly extensively at Black Gate. Here are some of the highlights for those interested:

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A Most-Enjoyable Crisis

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

dc_comics_crisis_3d_600x600_0If you’ve read DC comics for any length of time since the mid-1960′s, the term “crisis” probably triggers memories of monumental, universe-shattering storylines. It began as the name for several of the major DC cross-over events, ultimately culminating in the classic 1986 Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline, which was one of the most effective efforts to fix continuity errors in comics with a comprehensive universal reboot. (It has since been followed up by DC universal reboots of varying degrees in their crossovers Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, and Flashpoint.)

So the title of this game-changing expansion to the DC Deck-Building Game (Amazon) should be no surprise. The Crisis expansion (Amazon) introduces significant new elements of gameplay. I’ve played a number of games and expansions, but it’s been a while since I saw an expansion which gave an existing game such a phenomenal revamp as this one.

I first reviewed the DC Deck-Building Game a year ago, in a face-off against the Marvel: Legendary deck-building game. At the time, my 9-year-old son considered the DC game as his favorite, though I came down in favor of the Marvel game, mostly for the following reasons:

  • Marvel: Legendary felt more like narratively being inside a comic book, in comparison to the DC game. Marvel is built around a Scheme Card implemented by specific Mastermind supervillains, meaning that each game has a unique storyline and game objectives. The DC game, on the other hand, involves beating up a pile of villain cards to win.
  • Marvel: Legendary was at least partially cooperative, while the DC game was entirely competitive. Since I mostly play with my son, I prefer cooperative games. Also, from a storytelling standpoint, I felt like a game where I’m supposed to be Batgirl and my son is supposed to be Nightwing should be more cooperative.

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The Barbarism of Bullfighting and Archaic Diction in L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Rug and the Bull”

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

1974 Paperback edition. Cover art by Frank Frazetta.

1974 Paperback edition. Cover art by Frank Frazetta.

One of the many freedoms of Sword and Sorcery, it seems to me, is that it enables the adoption of a world that allows the writer to comment on just about anything on which one would want. One of Robert E. Howard’s purposes in the construction of his own Hyboria was to create a conglomerate of cultures, no matter how anachronistic their juxtapositions, so that his hero Conan might have any kind of adventure that Howard might think up. Whereas for previous tales, Howard perhaps had to construct different heroes for different historical epochs (Bran Mak Morn for the Celtic Picts, Solomon Kane for the sixteenth century, Kull for Atlantis), in the Hyborian Age Conan might be a thief, a soldier, a pirate, and ultimately a king, his adventures all the while providing Howard with powerful commentary on “civilization.”

So, too, writers after Howard have utilized this purpose. Dave Sim, through his creation of Cerebus the Aardvark, begins by commenting on the Sword and Sorcery genre itself (as well as the mainstream comic books of Sim’s time) and then goes on to explore High Society, Church & State, marriage – and this last, in Jaka’s Story, is as far as my reading has taken me, but I understand that Sim is so far reaching in his exploration of topics that in a much later volume he even explores the life and works of Ernest Hemingway through Cerebus taking on the position of Hemingway’s personal secretary!

Terry Pratchett uses the Sword and Sorcery milieu to ingenious satirical effect, cribbing directly (I believe) from Fritz Leiber in order to forecast to his readers, in the very first pages of the very first Discworld novel, just what tone and material his readers may expect. Pratchett’s initial perspective characters, soon abandoned, are Bravd and the Weasel (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, obviously). I quote the following description in order to give an example of Pratchett’s satirical treatment of Sword and Sorcery and to underscore, specifically, Pratchett’s debt to Leiber. For more humor, one might want to pick up this book and enjoy the way that these characters talk to each other – it’s impressively Leiberesque.

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Fantasy Literature: 6:15 pm PST, March 17, 1998 — TEOTWAWKI & Dies the Fire

Friday, January 9th, 2015 | Posted by Edward Carmien

S. M. Stirling Dies The Fire-smallIn Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy (see Fantasy Literature: 9:15 pm EST, March 17, 1998 — Farewell Nantucket), the officers and crew of the Coast Guard tall ship Eagle and the people of Nantucket are transported to 1250 BC. During their epic struggles to survive and put down one of their own who goes rebel, they often wonder what the people of their time think about the appearance, they presume, of 1250 BC era Nantucket. Are the millionaires with missing houses wandering the woods, cursing their ill luck?

Dies the Fire is Stirling’s 2004 answer to the question “So what happened when contemporary Nantucket vanished, replaced by one full of trees?” In this grimmer, darker work (things changed a bit post 9/11, but that’s another topic) the imagined millionaires looking for their vanished summer homes are no more than stacked bones by a cannibal’s cookfire.

The “Change” occurs at 6:15 pm on the west coast of the United States. Minutes after news reports of some weird electrical disturbance around Nantucket off the east coast of the US, everyone experiences a flash of pain. The lights go out. Cars stop working.

If this sounds like the premise of the show Revolution, don’t forget that Stirling’s work came first. But where the creators of Revolution were apparently unwilling to take the wonders of firearms out of the equation, Stirling goes further. High-energy technologies no longer work. Gunpowder burns — but lazily. Bullets plop out the ends of gun muzzles. Even steam engines fail to produce useful work.

Yes, fans of the SCA and muscle-powered weapons, Dies the Fire thrusts humanity back to medieval technology. Stirling, savvy at the “keeping it real” part of writing speculative fiction, acknowledges and describes the mega-death that must, invariably, follow. Nine-tenths of humans perish, some proportion of the remainder are no more than mindless, bestial cannibals, and civilization is now in the hands of those who rise to the occasion and lead groups of people into the new reality.

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Ancient Worlds: Apollo and Daphne

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady

Waterhouse's Apollo and Daphne

Waterhouse’s Apollo and Daphne

The title for Ovid’s Metamorphoses comes from the fact that every story he tells contains one. A metamorphosis, that is. While Homer begins his epics with Anger (in the Iliad and the Odyssey), Ovid begins In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora… “I’m of a mind to tell you about bodies changed into new forms…” Sometimes those changes are incidental to the story, but at the beginning, Ovid is interested in the big changes. The great, cosmic ones. He begins by telling about the first change, from yawning chaos into the slowly increasing order of Creation. He tells of the first four ages of mankind, the Roman version of the Great Flood myth, and of Apollo’s conquest of the great Python.

That last should be a good story, but he speeds past it: Earth Angry, Giant Dragon-Snake thing, God with bow, boom. Festival commemorating mighty victory. Next!

He then tells the story of Apollo and Daphne. The first thing you need to know is this:

Apollo has no game. None. Zero. He is That Guy. He is always That Guy, and the one time he manages to get a boyfriend, said boyfriend ends up instantly dead because Apollo is The Worst.

We have our theories on why that may be, but that comes later. For now, just know this: if Apollo is interested in someone, girl or boy, it will end badly for her or him. And probably for the world at large.

So when he comes into Olympus fresh from killing a dragon and makes fun of Cupid for being a baby archer… well, let’s just say that disturbance in the force that you feel is two-thousand years’ worth of readers cringing and then smacking their faces with their palms. Cupid, after all, enjoys making gods fall in love with really embarrassing people.

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Beyond Ever After: Into the Woods

Monday, January 5th, 2015 | Posted by Thomas Parker

Into the Woods poster-smallWhenever I walk into my local chain bookstore, I am immediately attracted to a display near the entrance which bears the enticing banner, “Former Bestsellers.”

Here reside the Grishams, the Clancys, and the Kings of last year and the year before, pushed off the pedestal of the New and the Now by the never-ceasing flood that issues from the mouth of modern publishing. It is a great place to grab a good read, cheap.

It is, alas, the fate of even the most successful book to eventually become a “former.” A quick consultation of the New York Times bestseller list reveals that the number one hardcover fiction book of this first week of 2015 is Gray Mountain by John Grisham. It is, I am sure, an efficient and effective novel, but if we could leap forward two or three hundred years and conduct a cyborg-on-the-street interview, what is the likelihood that any of our subjects would be able to name the characters or recount the plot of Gray Mountain?

Of course I’m being unfair to Grisham, a writer who is a straightforward, popular entertainer of the moment with no aspirations to membership in the Pantheon. Might we do better asking our 24th century citizen about A Farewell to Arms, or Lolita, or Portnoy’s Complaint? Yes? Umm… no, I think.

What could we ask about with any chance of success — never mind centuries from now, but even today? (Outside the halls of the English Department, I fear that the great works of Hemingway, Nabokov, and Roth wouldn’t fare any better than Forever Amber — and if you’ve never heard of that one, that’s my point, and if you have… oh, just sit down and be quiet!) Here’s a guess — Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumplestilskin, Hansel and Gretel, stories that were already old when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm first collected them two hundred years ago.

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Vintage Treasures: Bow Down to Nul by Brian W. Aldiss / The Dark Destroyers by Manly Wade Wellman

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Bow Down to Nul-small The Dark Destroyers-small

We’re back to our survey of Ace Doubles, this time with a volume from 1960 containing lesser-known novels from two of science fiction’s brightest stars: Bow Down to Nul by Brian W. Aldiss and The Dark Destroyers by Manly Wade Wellman. Ace Doubles didn’t always have a clear connecting theme, but they did in this case, as both novels feature the struggle against brutal aliens who have conquered Earth.

Bow Down to Nul is a Galactic Empire novel, a fairly common theme in early pulp SF, made popular by writers like Asimov and Van Vogt. The empire in this case is a huge stellar realm controlled by the Nuls, an ancient race of giant three-limbed creatures. Earth is a backwater colony world, ruled by a Nul tyrant. The human resistance is disorganized, but aided by a Nul signatory attempting to bring to light abuses on Earth.

As Aldiss noted in his Note From The Author, the set-up strongly parallels the complex colonial relationships he witnessed first hand while serving in India and Indonesia in the forties.

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