The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Conan of Venarium

Monday, April 20th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Turtledove_Venarium2I’ve got a couple Holmes-related posts in the works, but am not done researching any of them (no, I don’t just make up my posts as I go: I actually put some thought into them; even if  it may not always appear so). Fortunately, I’ve got no shortage of other areas of interest that I can use to fill the gap (I still haven’t figured out how to get a baseball-related post here. Although, if I still had my copy of that Daryl Brock book.  Maybe something on W P Kinsella.).

The esteemed Ryan Harvey used to review Conan pastiches here at Black Gate. I am absolutely a Robert E. Howard and Conan fan. Perhaps you read this recent post? So, looking to indulge my non-mystery interest (I really want to write something on Tolkien’s Nauglamir, but it’s not even outlined yet), I turned to Conan.

Harry Turtledove is best known for his alternate history novels. I’ve read little Turtledove, so I can’t expound on them. However, one that I did read and enjoyed very much was The Guns of the South, which involves time-travelers bringing Robert E. Lee AK-47s, changing the outcome of the American Civil War (it’s better than it sounds). I definitely enjoyed it more than his other alt-Civil War book, How Few Remain.

Back in 2003, Turtledove joined the list of authors putting out Conan pastiches for Tor Books. Fans of Conan know that this line was quite hit and miss. Conan of Venarium was the 49th and last of the Tor originals, coming six years after the previous entry.

You can read Ryan’s review of that one, here. I’ll include a quote that I think sums up his thoughts on Venarium’s predecessor:  ”I am glad to report that Conan and the Death Lord of Thanza is superior to Conan and the Mists of Doom. Unfortunately, that still ranks it as the second worst Conan novel I’ve read.”

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Pretty Deadly: The Song of Death-Faced Ginny

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady

Pretty Deadly 1-smallI still remember the first time I read Sandman. I didn’t read comics back then: I thought of them as longer versions of the strips in the Sunday paper and didn’t give them much other thought. Then one day, I was sitting in the metal working classroom in High School, and Morley, a red-haired skinny punk rocker I still wish I had gotten to know better, handed me a comic book and said, “You should read this. It’s awesome.”

I knew from the cover, a strange collage that was both enticing and off-putting, it wouldn’t be what I expected. But I had no idea what I was in for. I didn’t like the art, and some of the references confused me, but otherwise, I was completely blown away. It was one of those life altering experiences: not only did I discover Neil Gaiman, I discovered comic books. That first volume completely changed the way I thought of storytelling and visual design, the way that myth and story could dance together, and the way the mythic and mundane could crash together.

Twenty years later, I had that experience again. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’ Pretty Deadly is a lush, gorgeous and lyrical graphic novel, a mythopoeic western that plays with the conventional gunslinger tropes while bringing in elements of horror and folklore. And what ties it all together is the song of Death-faced Ginny.

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Choice of the Petal Throne

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015 | Posted by James Maliszewski

petalthrone_fullIn my opinion, the hobby of roleplaying has only ever produced two fantasy settings to rival Middle-earth in terms of depth and creativity: Greg Stafford’s Glorantha and M.A.R. Barker‘s Tékumel. Of the two, I suspect Glorantha is the better known, at least in the roleplaying world, if only because the RPG with which it was long associated, RuneQuest, was very successful, particularly in Europe (where it was, at various times, more popular than even Dungeons & Dragons if you can believe it).

Tékumel, on the other hand, has languished in semi-obscurity, despite the fact that the RPG in which it first appeared, Empire of the Petal Throne, was published only a year after D&D, making it one of the most venerable of its kind. Part of the reason why that is the case is that, unlike most fantasy settings, Tékumel owes little to the histories or legends of the West’s Classical and Middle Ages. Instead, its primary inspirations are ancient Egypt, pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and Mughal India – all seen through the lens of sword-and-planet writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack Vance. Consequently, the setting’s peoples, flora, fauna, mythologies, and elaborate social systems are quite unlike those to which most roleplayers (especially in North America) are accustomed. Add to that the unfamiliarity of Tékumel’s constructed languages – Barker was a professor of linguistics – and you have a recipe for supposed inaccessibility.

I think that’s a shame – and not just because I’m personally very fond of Tékumel.

The truth is that Tékumel’s “inaccessibility” is (mostly) on the surface. The names (like Mu’ugalávya and Tsatsayágga, to cite two examples) and scripts are intimidating at first, I’ll admit, but, with time and effort, they become much less so. The same is true of Tékumel’s lengthy imaginary history and its complex religions and societies. Once those initial barriers are overcome, what you’ll find is a fantastic setting filled with amazing opportunities for adventure, from treasure-hunting expeditions into subterranean labyrinths to cutthroat imperial politics to visitations to other planes of existence.

Even so, overcoming Tékumel’s initial alienness isn’t easy, as there is no straightforward way to learn about the setting, which is why I am so very pleased to see the release of Choice of the Petal Throne.

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Return to the Witch World: The Crystal Gryphon by Andre Norton

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_14001ZDaNwY6NI started slowly working my way through Andre Norton’s splendid Witch World series three years ago. I’ve written several reviews for my site and Black Gate that you can read at the links.

In The Year of the Unicorn (reviewed here) we saw the end of the great war between High Hallack and Alizon. We go back in time to the war’s vicious start in The Crystal Gryphon (1972), the seventh published novel in the series.

The Crystal Gryphon is the first volume of a trilogy about Joisan and Kerovan, a young noblewoman and her husband, a prince tainted at birth by strange magics. Married in absentia when they were only six and eight respectively, the book is told in chapters narrated by one then the other. They hail from two distant parts of High Hallack, and are not to meet for ten years, when Kerovan comes of age. As the years pass, each must struggle to forge his and her way in a conservative land wracked by local power politics and a brutal invasion.

Kerovan of Ulmsdale was born in the ruins of a building erected by the Old Ones, the magically powerful race that lived in and vanished from High Hallack long before the arrival of men. The forces that still lingered in the place changed him, giving him slanted eyebrows over yellow eyes and cloven hooves instead of feet. His mother refuses to see him ever and his father, while declaring Kerovan his heir, gives him over to a crippled soldier to raise and train.

The orphaned Joisan lives with her childless uncle, Cyart, lord of Ithkrypt, and his widowed sister, Dame Math. Together, her aunt and uncle teach her to run an estate. When war with the raiders from the land of Alizon becomes imminent, basic sword and archery skills are added to her education.

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The Three Phases of Marvel’s Adam Warlock, Part Two: The Magus Saga

Saturday, April 11th, 2015 | Posted by Derek Kunsken

Warlock Madness MonsterRead The Three Phases of Marvel’s Adam Warlock, Part One here.

My 10-year old son saw my Warlock comics (the ones showing the clowns and the Madness Monster I’ll discuss in this post) this morning and asked who Warlock was and why his villains were so weird. Then, of course, being ten, he asked if I could get him some Warlock comics. And I explained to him that he might not like them.

Warlock is a very sad hero, I explained. He tries to be good, and tries to make good choices, but all that ever happens is that people around him get hurt or he fails. I think that’s a good way to start this post.

I should also note that this post is constructed entirely of spoilers. 100%, wall-to-wall spoilers of a thirty-year old story. Embrace the spoilers.

In my last segment, I looked at the hero Adam Warlock, from his synthetic birth as “Him” in the 1960s to his rechristening as a messiah figure in 1972 and 1973 and eventual cancellation. This first period was an important start to what I said to my son. Adam Warlock tried to save Counter-Earth and ultimately, he could not expunge the evil in men and he left for the stars.

The second phase of the saga is the Jim Starlin as writer/artist era, which I measure from 1975 until the hero’s death in 1977. Jim Starlin produced two classic stories in this phase, the Magus arc and the Thanos arc. These are big and original for the comics of the time, so I’m going to cover the Starlin period in two posts. Today is the Magus saga.

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The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series: Dragons, Elves, and Heroes edited by Lin Carter

Thursday, April 9th, 2015 | Posted by westkeith

Dragons Elves and HeroesDragons, Elves, and Heroes
Edited by Lin Carter
Ballantine Books (277 pages, October 1969, $0.95)
Cover art by Sheryl Slavitt

It’s been a while since my last post, and no, I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth, run away to join the circus, or been abducted by aliens. Although there have been times I’ve considered that circus thing. Or maybe gypsies.

No, I’m just overloaded this semester (my day job is in academia), which hasn’t left a lot of opportunity to read at a time when I’m not likely to fall asleep after a few pages.

And I wanted to take my time and do this one right. Dragons, Elves, and Heroes is the first of a two volume set in which Carter collects heroic fantasy imaginary world stories, beginning with a selection from Beowulf. This volume ends in the 1800s, although the most recent selection isn’t the last. The companion volume, The Young Magicians, will pick up where this one left off.

Anyway, this book looked like it would take some concentration, so I tried to read it when I would have time to devote to it. But enough about what happens to the well laid plans of mice and men.

I found the selections on the whole to be thoroughly enjoyable, with a few exceptions. I used the word “selections” intentionally, because other than a handful of poems, most of the stories Carter selected were excerpts. The one notable exception was the entire text of The Princess of Babylon by Voltaire was included. I wish Carter had stuck to his practice of using excerpts, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Into the Pits: Ody-C Issues 3 and 4

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady

ODY-C issue 3-smallOdysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops is (and has consistently been for several thousand years) one of the best known episodes from the Odyssey. It’s exciting, it’s graphic, and it displays Odysseus’ most notable quality: his cunning. So I was eager to see what Ody-C would do with this episode when it reached that point. It did so fairly quickly, and issues 3 and 4 span the telling of this encounter for Odyssia and her crew.

The results were mixed. There are things I loved, and a few I really didn’t. But first, to touch on what Homer did first. Not because it’s the meter by which we should judge Ody-C but because I like some of the ways Matt Fraction is playing with the prototype here.

For those who don’t remember, Odysseus and his crew wash up on the shores of the island of the Cyclopes. They find a large, empty cave, and help themselves to cheese and milk while waiting for the inhabitant to return. When he does, he isn’t a human but the massive Cyclops Polyphemus. Polyphemus proceeds to eat many of the sailors, until Odysseus gets him drunk and gouges out the Cyclops’ eye with a massive pole. The men then tie themselves beneath Polyphemus’ sheep in order to escape the cave when the flocks are let out to graze.

In Ody-C, the fundamentals are all here but the differences are significant. Odyssia and her women arrive on the planet Kylos. They find a massive fortress, and rather than looking for sustenance, Odyssia orders a break of the citadel in the hopes of finding treasure.

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Return of the Master Cheeser: The Disappearing Dwarf by James P. Blaylock

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

The Disappearing Dwarf-smallPublished in 1983, The Disappearing Dwarf is James P. Blaylock’s second novel, the sequel to his first, The Elfin Ship. Along with The Stone Giant (1989) they form the Balumnia Trilogy. If you have any love for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, or mouth watering descriptions of all sorts of food and drink, then these books are for you.

The Elfin Ship (reviewed here last year) is filled with constant comical digressions and expends pages on delightful, superfluous details. It’s filled with oddball characters and deliriously silly escapades. The plot is wonderfully complicated. The Disappearing Dwarf has all of those things — save the plot. It’s not that it doesn’t have a plot, it’s just not much of one.

Bored with his new life as man of leisure (allowed by the success of his travels in the previous volume), Jonathan Bing, master cheesemaker, agrees to take a trip down the Oriel River with Professor Wurzle to explore the abandoned castle of their foe, Selznak the dwarf. The castle, they quickly learn, is not empty — and definitely not safe.

From there they meet Miles (pronounce Meelays), the Magician who is hunting Selznak. He tells them that their old nemesis has reappeared, and is certainly up to no good. The magician suspects the dwarf is looking to steal a great magical orb from their friend, Squire Myrkle. Upon reaching the squire’s estate, they discover that he has vanished through a magical door that appeared in his library. The next thing we know, Jonathan, the Professor, and Miles (along with Ahab the dog), are back on board the elfin airship and headed for a doorway to the parallel world, Balumnia.

Narrative drive is nearly absent in The Disappearing Dwarf. Jonathan’s goals switch from one thing to another several times throughout the book. The adventurers spend much of the book traveling from one place to another without ever really knowing what they’re trying to achieve, other than their rather vague plan to find the squire before he falls into Selznak’s clutches. Balumnia has its own villain, a mysterious figure called Sikorsky, but as with the rest of the characters, we never get a clear sight of him or what he’s actually up to. Several characters fade away. One vanishes only to suddenly reappear with little explanation. The book moves haphazardly from one incident to another. Fortunately, most of those incidents are terrific fun.

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Self-published Book Reviews: The Severed Oath by Andrew J. Luther

Sunday, April 5th, 2015 | Posted by Donald Crankshaw

If you have a book you’d like me to review, please see the submission guidelines here

Severed-Oath-coverThe Severed Oath is the second book of The Undying Empire series by Andrew J. Luther, of which three novels are now available. However, the three work as standalone novels, so I’m only reviewing The Severed Oath here.

Leyndra is a Guild-trained Warden, a bodyguard given mystical abilities in order to protect her ward. She works for the nobleman Osho, a successful businessman for whom she has a high regard. Despite Osho’s wife’s, Tyina’s, suspicions, there is nothing romantic about their relationship—Leyndra is a professional, and her affection for Osho is, at most, sisterly.

Leyndra’s situation is contentious, but safe, until someone sends shadows to attack Osho in his sleep. Despite Leyndra’s skill and powers, she is tricked into seeing shadows where Osho stands, and it is her sword that ends his life. She is immediately branded as an Oathbreaker as the magic of the Guild marks her face, and hauled off to prison, first by the Watch, and then by the Imperial Guard. Planted evidence confirms her guilt, though she tells the true story even under torture. Even if the Emperor believed her innocent, the only ones in the city of Ythis capable of such magic are the sorcerous Five or the church of the mad god, and the Emperor does not dare confront either of them directly. So Leyndra is sentenced to be executed.

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Fantasy Literature: The Given Sacrifice & The Golden Princess

Friday, April 3rd, 2015 | Posted by Edward Carmien

The Given Sacrifice-smallThis blog, ten books in to S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse series, and seven books into the tale of High King Artos and his war against the Church Universal and Triumphant — or, more particularly, the eldritch forces that drive them, discusses the two most recent books set in Stirling’s post-Change world. Spoilers exist.

As previously discussed, the accumulated wear & tear of series fiction weighs down this novel. Reminders eerily like the reminders one read in the previous novel which are fundamentally the same reminders one read in the one before that (and so on, and so forth) allow that rare creature, the reader new to the series, to make his or her way through the text without too much confusion. A slow, laborious way, for now the reminders consist of genuinely Old News. One nearly believes they pad the novel for length rather than provide necessary backstory.

In any event, the United States of Boise is returned to fully human rule through stealth; it seems Fred Thurston knows of a secret way into the walled city. Between the efforts of skullduggery, the Sword of the Lady, and some Boise troops under a false flag, the mighty bastion is taken without an expensive and lengthy seige.

Stirling amuses his readers by describing in greater detail the people of Yellowstone; when the Change knocked all aircraft out of the sky a 747 carrying girl and boy scouts landed in the wilderness. The scurvy but skilled hired tracker who lost at the game of swords with Ritva Havel is one of this band, who accrue badges and spout Scoutisms. High King Artos makes them an ally, and brings the fight to the CUT proper.

Slave farms, breeding programs, children thrown into battle — the CUT are bad guys, and no mistake. But the once reviled, now esteemed Major Graber, leading a guerilla effort against his former masters, joins the fight, and he will play a role in post CUT Montana & Wyoming.

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