Vintage Treasures: The White Bird of Kinship Trilogy by Richard Cowper

Sunday, December 14th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

The Road to Corlay-small A Dream of Kinship-small A Tapestry of Time-small

A lot of people were talking about Richard Cowper’s The Road to Corlay just as I was discovering fantasy in the late 70s. It appeared in the UK in 1978, and was published in paperback in the US by Pocket Books in 1979, with a striking cover by Don Maitz (above left). It was nominated for the British Fantasy Award in 1979, and both the Nebula and Balrog awards in the US a year later. It also placed 7th on Locus’s annual lists for Best SF novel.

I wasn’t even aware it was a series until many years later, as I gradually stumbled on the sequels. Volume two, A Dream of Kinship, was published in 1981, and A Tapestry of Time followed in 1982. The cover artist of the second volume is unknown, but Don Maitz returned for the third book (above right). Click on any of the images for bigger versions.

Richard Cowper was a pen name for John Middleton Murry, Jr, a UK author who died in 2002 — of a broken heart, according to his friend Christopher Priest, following the death of his wife Ruth four weeks earlier. He wrote several other SF and fantasy novels, the most famous of which was probably The Twilight of Briareus (1974); his other titles included Clone (1972), Time Out of Mind (1973), Worlds Apart (1974), and Profundis (1979). I found the complete trilogy in the estate of my sister-in-law Mary, who passed away in May, and brought it home with me to read for the first time. We shared an interest in SF and fantasy, and these books remind me of her.

Thongor of Lemuria – Part One by Lin Carter

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

BerkleyX1777If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Lin Carter’s Thongor of Lemuria novels were a deliberate exercise in camp. The first two novels in the seven book series, Thongor And The Wizard of Lemuria (1965) and Thongor And The Dragon City (1966), are so frenetic and exaggerated there are times it’s difficult to believe they were intended to be taken seriously. I struggle to believe that Carter hadn’t meant for me to laugh when I read that Thongor distrusted magic because of his “clean healthy, Northlander blood.”

But I do know better. Much has been written (some of it by me) about Lin Carter’s love for heroic fantasy and his efforts to emulate his favorite writers in his own books. The Thongor stories read like he took Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, smooshed them together with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels, then cranked everything up to eleven. But, and this is true of his Lovecraft Mythos fiction too, he mimics the style of his literary heroes without ever conveying the substance that gives power to their work to this day.

To give Lin Carter his due, Wizard of Lemuria is his first published novel and Dragon City his third in only two years. In those ancient times, there was little new swords & sorcery of the mighty barbarian type being written. Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber were tweaking (and tweaking the nose of) the genre and Karl Edward Wagner and Charles Saunders were still kids. The big boom was right around the corner, but it hadn’t happened yet. He took the chance and stepped up to create the sort of stories he wanted to see and that’s something I will always respect.

One of the earliest reviews at my site, Swords & Sorcery: A Blog, was of Thongor And The Wizard of Lemuria (so, yes, for those of you who’ve read it, I have indeed read it a second time). It was harsh and a little intemperate. I’ve since decided that reviews of that sort don’t serve any real purpose. I also don’t want to pick on someone who can’t fight back. I want my reviews to promote the good books and understand why the weak ones fail and encourage better writing.

Like August Derleth and Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter’s too readily bad-mouthed these days (except when the stupendously important Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series is mentioned). I don’t think his fiction is read that much anymore and I feel I owe him at least the courtesy of that. So I’m going to plow through the series and report back to you, Black Gate‘s faithful readers.

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Some Things Need to Be Broken: Seeker’s Mask by P.C. Hodgell

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh


Cover by P.C. Hodgell

A friend once told me of his desire to see a movie with even more action than Die Hard. He envisioned a film with action from first frame to last. I bring this up because the third book of P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath series, Seeker’s Mask (1995) is one of the most fast moving, packed-to-the-gills-with-thrills books I have ever read. It may not be the all-action nirvana my friend hoped for, but it’s about as close as I’ve ever found.

It starts in the rules-smothered confines of the Women’s Halls, and then whips Hodgell’s heroine Jame up and down the world before ending in the middle of a barbarian tribe’s fiery ceremony. Invisible assassins, gods, malign magics, and trips into people’s minds smash up against one another for the reader’s attention. If all I did was list the events in Seeker’s Mask, this article would be twice as long as I want it to be.

Jame is a Highborn of the Kencyrath, one of three species molded into one race by their god to fight against Perimal Darkling. The Highborn are the rulers and priests and the fewest in number. The most numerous species, the Kendar, are the soldiers and craftsmen. Finally there are the leonine Arrin-Ken, who served as the race’s judges until frustration led them to leave Kencyrath society in order to decide what needed to be done next in the war against Perimal.

Thousands of years ago, the High Lord Gerridon betrayed his people to Perimal Darkling in exchange for immortality. Two-thirds of the Kencyrath were killed and the survivors fled to the world of Rathilien.

In the previous book, Dark of the Moon (1985), Jame had reunited, after a decade of separation, with her twin brother, Torisen, Lord of the House of Knorth, and High Lord of all the Kencyrath. He and the Kencyrath armies had just emerged victorious from a great battle against the Waster Horde (read the review here). As the only other known member of the House of Knorth, Jame’s sudden appearance throws political calculations out of whack.

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Notes On Writing Spec Fic, Late 2014

Monday, November 24th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

A Book CoverIt’s such a predictable trap. In or near an elevator, I tell some newly met, well-intentioned stranger that I’m a writer, and they immediately ask, as if they’ve waited all their lives for this very opportunity to arise, “What sort of books do you write?”

And that’s the end, you see, or at least the end of any potential new friendship, because if I answer “I write fantasy,” which is true, they start sniggering and feel superior, or if I answer, “I write horror,” they run off, laughing hysterically at my bad taste –– and of course then they feel even more superior.

Worst answer of all: “I write literary fiction.” Then they assume I’m a genius and their eyes glaze over, because they feel they absolutely must pay attention to every single word I say, in hopes of gleaning a pearl. I become the social equivalent of bubonic CliffsNotes.

Thus Renner & Quist, and Check-Out Time, because I want to craft stories that employ elements of multiple genres and literary currents. The danger, I suppose, is that I wind up with tossed salad, but I don’t believe that’s been the result. What reviews there’ve been suggest that I’m correct to think I’ve avoided the splatter-punk of, say, Jackson Pollock.

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Epic Fantasy from the Father of Sword & Soul: Abengoni: First Calling by Charles R. Saunders

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_105284GMwxHNOHAfter DAW killed the fourth Imaro novel, for nearly twenty years Charles R. Saunders’s published swords & sorcery output was limited to only a few short stories. Since 2006, starting with the reprinting of Imaro, new books from him have been appearing at a furious rate. In addition to new novels starring his established S&S characters, Imaro and Dossouye, he introduced a new pulp hero, Damballa.

Abengoni: First Calling (A:FC) is the first book in Charles R. Saunders’s foray into epic fantasy. From one of the masters of the 1970s golden age of swords & sorcery comes a project in the works for the past decade. And thanks to Milton Davis’s MVmedia, it’s seeing the light of day.

Full disclosure here: Milton Davis asked me to preview this book earlier this year and give him a blurb if I felt like it. Well, I jumped at the chance to read a new Charles Saunders book. That’s like asking if I want to hear some unreleased Led Zeppelin tracks before they hit the general public. There was no way I was going to say no. And before I go any further, I love the book and gave Milton this blurb I totally stand by:

“In Abengoni: First Calling, Charles Saunders writes the sort of epic fantasy I want to read. He tells the tale, with its large cast of sharply drawn characters and complex history, in a wonderfully spare and fast-paced style that doesn’t waste time getting to where it’s going. I can’t wait for the next book.”

When Saunders first created Imaro, his literary inspiration was Robert E. Howard. In this book, the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien is at work. He has specifically cited the two authors as his main influences. But in both cases, what he wrote was inspired by larger issues as well.

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The Series Series: The Godless by Ben Peek

Friday, November 7th, 2014 | Posted by Sarah Avery

The Godless Ben Peek-smallA 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 Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series: The Spawn of Cthulhu edited by Lin Carter

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 | Posted by westkeith

The Spawn of Cthulhu edited by Lin Carter-smallThe 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 End of the Story: Sorceress of the Witch World by Andre Norton

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_324651kfYzNZDkAndre Norton’s Sorceress of the Witch World (1968) completes the trilogy begun with Three Against the Witch World and continued in Warlock of the Witch World. (Follow the links to read my reviews here on Black Gate). The trilogy itself is a continuation of Norton’s Witch World saga begun in Witch World and followed with Web of the Witch World.

The heroes of the first two novels, Simon Tregarth and his wife Jaelithe, mysteriously disappear at the beginning of the trilogy. Their triplets, born between Web of the Witch World and this trilogy, are searching for them. Each volume tells the adventures of one of the siblings, Kyllan, Kemoc, and Kaththea.

In Three, brothers Kyllan and Kemoc rescue their sister Kaththea from her forced induction into the ranks of the Witches and escape into the magically hidden eastern land, Escore. In addition, the warrior Kyllan’s talents are put to the test against a growing horde of vile enemies. In Warlock, the scholarly Kemoc travels across dimensions to rescue his sister from her evil suitor.

You can probably tell from the title that Kaththea herself takes center stage in Sorceress of the Witch World. For reasons related to her situation in the previous book, Kaththea is spiritually damaged. Sadly, for the reader that damage seems to have rendered her a little boring also. She narrates the entire story in a dull voice that distances the reader from the action.

At the end of Warlock, Kaththea lost most of her magical abilities. Now, fearing that stripped of her defenses she is vulnerable to control by the powers of Shadow, she decides she must return to the West and seek guidance from the very same Witches from whom she once fled.

While trying to cross the mountains back into the West Kaththea’s party is caught in an avalanche. She is taken prisoner by a hunter from the Inuit-like nomads, the Vupsall. She manages to escape from the tribe during a bloody attack on their camp by raiders. Armed with magical knowledge gleaned from the possessions of the tribe’s wise woman, she makes for a great ruined city nearby. Hoping to escape the forces of Shadow she still fears, she enters an old dimensional gate. She doesn’t know what lay on the other side, only hoping it will be some sort of sanctuary. What she encounters are tremendous dangers in an utterly alien world.

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On the Road to Khurdisan: Brak the Barbarian by John Jakes

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_2702648M0L78hhBFor people of a certain age (the pushing-fifty crowd) John Jakes is probably best known for The Kent Family Chronicles, his massive series of massive books about American history and the mini-series made from the first one, The Bastard. Hearing that title said out loud on TV was a pretty shocking thing for us kids back in 1978.

It wasn’t until I was a little older that I discovered John Jakes had started his career as a real journeyman pulp writer. While working in advertising, he wrote science fiction, westerns, mystery, and horror stories for all the major genre magazines. His name appears on the contents page of Fantastic Adventures and Amazing Stories, as well as Tales of the Frightened (easily one of my favorite titles for anything ever).

While Robert E. Howard had created the basic template for swords & sorcery back in the 1930s, it wasn’t until several decades later that the genre really exploded. Fritz Leiber and Sprague de Camp labored throughout the 50s, but it’s in the early 60s that S&S really takes off. Suddenly, Lin Carter’s writing his Howard/Edgar Rice Burroughs mashups, Michael Moorcock’s inverting and mocking many of the field’s cliches while still writing exciting tales, and Andre Norton is expanding S&S’s vison beyond the too-common male thud and blunder.

In 1963, with “Devils in the Walls” published in Fantastic, Jakes introduced his own barbarian hero, Brak. In a 1980 preface to a new editon of the first collection of stories, Brak the Barbarian (1968), he wrote:

It was in the role of dedicated Conan fan that I wrote the first Brak tale, Devils in the Walls. In spirit, anyway, the story was a Howard pastiche, and I have acknowledged the fact more than once.

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Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series: The Doom that Came to Sarnath by H. P. Lovecraft

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014 | Posted by westkeith

Lovecraft Sarnath frontThe 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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