A fresh, fascinating story hides in this book. The gods are dead — their bodies litter the earth — but their powers leak into the lives of mortal men and women. And sometimes, tragically, children. Deific power is messy. One sprouts extra limbs, trails plagues in one’s wake, or combusts and takes out whole buildings. It’s a curse, isn’t it, to bear such power?
Ayae, a young apprentice cartographer, took refuge in a city built on a dead god’s bones when her homeland fell. Now an army of fanatics marches on her new home and those fanatics seem to want to wake the dead gods. What will Ayae do now that she’s cursed with the local god’s power over fire? She could be a doomsday weapon or a loose cannon that destroys the people she cares about. Her best hope for help in mastering her powers is a man so old he remembers the world as it was before the gods died, fifteen-thousand years ago. He’s been wise. He’s been mad. He has done terrible things with the power that curses him. Ayae wants to trust Zaifyr, but he doesn’t always trust himself. The dead — human and divine — talk to him, and the dead have their own agenda.
Alas, the story is hiding, not in the sense of requiring a brisk readerly workout to piece the clues together, but rather in the sense of having been copyedited so poorly that it’s hard at times to figure out what the author is trying to make many of the sentences say.
I’ve written reviews before of books with lots of promise that could have used one last pass of polishing. This is not that.
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The Spawn of Cthulhu
H. P. Lovecraft and Others
Lin Carter, ed.
Ballantine Books (274 pages, October 1971, $0.95)
Cover by Gervasio Gallardo
Lin Carter edited more than one anthology for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Up until now, I’ve not discussed any of them. One reason is that where I am sequentially, there have only been two. The other reason is it’s easier to discuss a single novel than the contents of an anthology.
I’m going to break with that practice for this particular entry in the series. Carter has built a thematic Mythos anthology with The Spawn of Cthulhu. Taking references to the work of other writers referenced in Lovecraft’s short novel “The Whisperer in Darkness,” Carter then proceeds to include either the story referenced or other stories written about the Old Ones mentioned.
I’m going to include some mild spoilers in this post. If that is of concern to you, then let this paragraph serve as your warning. The discussion will start after on the other side of the Read More link just below.
Let’s start with “The Whisperer in Darkness,” shall we? It’s 85 pages long, by far the lengthiest story in the book. The story concerns a folklorist at Arkham University named Wilmarth who is writing a series of newspaper articles debunking sightings of strange bodies seen in swollen rivers and creeks after a particularly bad storm in Vermont. The articles generate some lively discussion in the paper, and are eventually reprinted in Vermont papers.
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The Doom that Came to Sarnath
H. P. Lovecraft
Ballantine Books (280 pages, February 1971, $0.95)
Cover art by Gervasio Gallardo
The Doom That Came to Sarnath was the second volume of H. P. Lovecraft stories published under the BAF imprint. It served as a bridge between the Dunsanian fantasies of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and the Cthulhu Mythos related titles that followed.
Many of the stories in this volume weren’t published until years after they were written or were published in amateur press publications of the day. These days, we’d call them fanzines. The contents include the aforementioned Dunsanian fantasies, some traditional horror stories, and some early Mythos tales. Also included are a few prose poems and one selection of Lovecraft’s verse.
Rather than give a brief description of each of the 20 items in the book, I’ll highlight some of the ones I liked best, then offer some general thoughts. Carter broke the selection up into groups loosely based on either chronology or theme. I’m not that organized. I’m also not a Lovecraft scholar, so I’m not going to comment much on the specific chronology of the stories or try to get into the nitty gritty of Lovecraft’s authorial evolution.
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What does YA urban fantasy need to breathe fresh life into its tropes? Prohibition! Not your first guess, either, was it? Yet it works beautifully.
Libba Bray set The Diviners and the series it opens in 1926, in a New York where all the superstitions have just become true, and all the forms of charlatanry have just started working. Most people don’t know it yet and the ones who find that they have powers they never believed in are still isolated and afraid.
The novel opens with two party tricks gone wrong. In Manhattan, a debutante desperate to liven up her birthday bash breaks out a Ouija board and releases something nasty. In Ohio, a girl with a world-class attitude shows off her talent for psychometry and the touch of the town golden boy’s class ring reveals his secrets to her.
She flaunts what she knows. The boy’s family is rich and powerful. Pretty soon, Evie O’Neill’s parents have to send her out of town to the farthest available relative on the soonest available train. A train to New York City, perhaps the only place on Earth big enough for Evie’s personality.
These two unquiet spirits, one living and one dead, circle around one another, both growing in power and community, through six hundred pages of suspense punctuated with bursts of laughter.
One of the things that impressed me most about The Diviners is that it’s a book about the Roaring Twenties written for a generation of readers who have, for the most part, never seen a black-and-white movie.
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Land of Unreason
Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp
Ballantine Books (240 pages, January 1970, $0.95)
Cover art by Donna Violetti
Lin Carter ended the inaugural year of the BAF series with a reprint of a novel from the pulp Unknown, Hannes Bok’s The Sorcerer’s Ship. His first selection for the series’ first full calendar year was another tale from Unknown (the October 1941 issue), a collaboration between Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp.
Land of Unreason followed the first two Harold Shea stories among their collaborations. In this story, they introduce a new character, a young diplomat named Fred Barber, who is taking a medical rest in the Irish country-side.
One night, he notices his hostess leaving some milk out for the fairies, so that her infant son won’t be taken and a changeling left in his place. Fred is contemplating his bottle of single malt to help him get to sleep and decides he’s rather have the milk since that has been his proven cure for insomnia all his life. Also, milk is strictly rationed, and he doesn’t want to see it wasted. He drinks most of it, leaving just a little, into which he pours a generous amount of his whiskey.
Fred then goes to bed and quickly drops off to sleep. The fairy who finds the whiskey drinks it and gets plastered. Since he didn’t get any milk, he goes into the house to take the baby and leave a changeling. Only in his inebriated state, he takes Fred rather than the infant sleeping in the next room.
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In late 2013, a strange event occurred: Steeleye Span, a British band that has outlived just about all other contenders except the Rolling Stones, released a CD entitled Wintersmith.
Coincidence? After all, there’s a Discworld spin-off by that name, too, a Terry Pratchett novel aimed at the young adult market and starring the infinitely resourceful tween witch, Tiffany Aching. Could there be a connection?
Indeed. It turns out that Pratchett has been a fan of Steeleye since the early seventies (“Boys Of Bedlam” was a particular favorite), and Steeleye’s lead vocalist, the incomparable Maddy Prior, has been, in turn, an unabashed fan of Pratchett’s. They got to talking, and next thing you know, the world was gifted with a terrific fantasy-driven album of folk, rock, and traditional Morris dances, all tied together by the Great A’Tuin and a nasty case of winter.
Pratchett’s Wintersmith is the third installment in the irregular Tiffany Aching series, a sort of sideline to the “official” Discworld novels (The Color Magic, et al). The story centers on Tiffany’s impulsive decision to “dance the Dark Morris,” a rite that shifts summer to winter – except that when Tiffany includes herself, both summer and winter, elemental godlings, take note of her and seek, in their own ways, to possess her. Tiffany now faces the possibility of endless winter, in the demi-human form of a smitten teenage boy.
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Quintessence is a story of the Age of Exploration, as it might have unfolded on a literally flat Earth where some of the wilder alchemists’ ideas were right. Here there be dragons. If you list all the cool stuff in this book, it looks like a sure bet for most fantasy readers: voyages at sea (doomed and desperate), houses of solid diamond, heresy, plucky young people changing the world, and monsters. Lots and lots of monsters.
In attitude, character, and pacing, however, the book feels more like science fiction in the tradition of John W. Campbell. I grew up reading that stuff — odds are that you did, too — so I found a great deal to enjoy in Quintessence. Just not quite the things I came to the book hoping to enjoy.
David Walton’s bestiary is worth the price of admission. The man knows how to fill a fanciful ecosystem, and if he had found some comic artist to collaborate with and had published a volume of the characters’ field notes, it would have been its own weird hit.
Perhaps if the creatures had been less gloriously inventive, the characters would have felt more vivid. As the book stands, the characterization falls far enough behind the worldbuilding for the characters to feel at times like types out of Commedia Dell’Arte. That is, if Commedia Dell’Arte had been invented by John W. Campbell.
We have our earnest scientist and our mad one. We have our plucky maiden and her plucky suitor, both brilliant engineers whose talents for tinkering had gone unnoticed back in England. We have a sort of Greek chorus of thinking men whom the earnest scientific hero forms into a discussion society for brainstorming and peer review. For villains, we have a smarmy politician and a religious fanatic, who care nothing for science.
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Last year, John O’Neill wrote a post about the Garrett PI collections by Glen Cook. The talented Cook is best known for his excellent dark fantasy series about a mercenary group, The Black Company.
The Garrett books are light years away in tone and style from those of The Black Company. However, they are identical in regards to quality of writing. Garrett is the pre-eminent fantasy PI (private investigator).
Cook has written a series of books that appeals to fans of the hardboiled PI, notably practiced by Raymond Chandler, fans of the humorous fantasy world best typified by Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and to those who have read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. The fact that Cook has masterfully combined all three of these elements is admirable in the extreme.
Garrett is a former Marine who spent five inglorious years serving in the seemingly endless war between his nation of Karenta and Venagata. They battle over a region called The Cantard, home to most of the world’s silver mines. And silver is the resource that fuels sorcery. And since Karenta is ruled by the magic using Stormwardens, no cost in human capital is too great to rule The Cantard.
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271 p., $0.95
Cover art by Bob Pepper
When Lin Carter started the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line, he began by reprinting works that were obscure and/or considered classic in the field at that time, but as he wrote in the introduction to Deryni Rising, he had hoped from the very beginning to be able to publish high quality new works as well. The first original fiction he published was Deryni Rising, the first novel by Katherine Kurtz.
I think he hit the ball out of the park when he selected this one.
The story takes place in a pseudo-Welsh land called Gwynedd,. The book opens with the murder of King Brion Haldane by the sorceress Charissa. Brion and his closest friend Alaric Morgan defeated and killed her father some years ago. Brion’s murder is part of her plan for revenge.
Brion has, or rather had, the ability to practice Deryni magic. The Deryni are a long-lived race with inherent magical abilities. A few generations ago, humans and Deryni lived together in peace until a group of Deryni rose to power and severely oppressed the humans in Gwynedd. They were overthrown by a Deryni priest named Camber, who discovered a way to impart the Deryni’s magical powers to ordinary humans. At first, Camber was considered a saint, but later the Church declared him a heretic. Now some humans tolerate the Deryni, while others seek to exterminate them. Most Deryni keep a low profile. Morgan is part Deryni and doesn’t hide that fact.
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The fantasy genre loves series (especially trilogies.) As a fantasy reader, I love them, too.
However, my first published novel, Shadow’s Son, was originally written as a stand-alone. I suppose I had an idea that publishers would be more inclined to take a chance on a single book from an unknown writer, so I was shocked when my agent came back with a deal for a three-book series that would become the Shadow Saga. I’m not ashamed to admit I was also a wee bit terrified.
How in the seven hells was I going to write a trilogy? I had never written anything longer than a single book before.
And each of the sequels has a contractually-agreed deadline? AND they want outlines for books two and three right away? Gulp.
Despite my trepidations, the adventure of reaching out into unknown territory was also thrilling, so I dove in head-first. What was the big deal, right? Writing a series is probably just like writing three separate books, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no.
My personal philosophy is that every novel must contain a complete story. That means my books each have their own plot that begins and ends within those pages. However, with a series there is also a series arc in play, another plot (super plot?) that starts in the first book and continues to develop through each subsequent novel to the very end.
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