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Author: Greg Mele

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: “When the Levee Breaks (and the Goddess Wakes), I’ll Have a Place to Stay…”

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: “When the Levee Breaks (and the Goddess Wakes), I’ll Have a Place to Stay…”

When the Goddess Wakes (St. Martin’s Press, August 2021). Cover by Lauren Saint-Onge

Know, O prince, that between the years when Stag-flation and the Iran Hostage Crisis drank the Carter Administration, and the years of the rise of the stepson of Roger Clinton Sr, there was an Age Undreamed of, when sword & sorcery, high fantasy epics, slender trilogies and stand-alone novels lay spread across bookshelves like paper jewels beneath fluorescent stars.

This tongue-in-cheek riff on Robert E. Howard’s famous quote from the Nemedian Chronicles is a perfect way to begin a review of Howard Andrew Jones’s concluding volume of the Ring Sworn Trilogy, because it is both a very modern fantasy, and yet, in so many ways the product of growing up as a fantasy-reading GenXer – which both Jones and I are.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Of Aztecs and Iron Chandeliers – Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Return of the Sorceress

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Of Aztecs and Iron Chandeliers – Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Return of the Sorceress

The Return of the Sorceress (Subterranean, June 2021). Cover by Fang Xinyu

One of the best things about Moreno-Garcia is that she writes whatever the hell she wants, and it is up to others to categorize it. In an era where authors are often told to “stay in their lane” (be that about what ethnicities or cultures they write about, or what genres the can write in without resorting to pen names), SMG has, in a short span of years, written Gothic horror,  vampires, in a pseudo-cyberpunk dystopian near future, edited a feminist anthology of Cthulhoid terror, a dark fairytale of Mayan gods set in 1920s Mexico, romance, and a thriller set in 1979. Much like Quentin Tarantino, Moreno-Garcia takes the themes and tropes of pulp fiction — noir, crime, romance, horror, fantasy, and infuses it with something new; in her case, often via the landscape of 20th century Mexico.

Now, with her novella, The Return of the Sorceress, the prolific author adds sword and sorcery to the mix. It’s a slender volume, the long novelette or novella being sword & sorcery’s preferred and most effective form, and the tale is a fairly straightforward story of revenge vs. redemption. Yalxi rose from insignificance to leadership of the Guild of Sorcerers; a position she only achieved by murdering her master, Teotah, the Guild’s previous Supreme Master. Unfortunately, at the heart of her power, was a diamond “heart,” set in a pectoral collar, rested from Teotah, and not stolen by Yalxi’s lover and confidant, Xellah.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Goblins, Giants and Blacktongued Rogues Abide! The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Goblins, Giants and Blacktongued Rogues Abide! The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman
(Tor Books, May 2021). Cover by Marie Bergeron

“Christophe the Insulter” was for years the single funniest performer at the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Wisconsin, with one of the best cons… er…. shows: Pay me to insult your friends in front of an audience. The more you pay, the more I roast them. It was dark, it was brutal, it was wickedly funny and everyone went away feeling good — even the victims.

Interestingly, that sums up the writing of Christophe’s real identity as horror (and now fantasy) writer Christopher Buehlman; a man whose growing canon of work is filled with some of the most disturbing and dark portrayals of classic horrors — vampires, werewolves, demons (and angels, who are pretty scary, too), and necromancers — but also moments of just brilliant, wicked humor and you always close the back cover deeply satisfied. Consequently, I was deeply excited to read his first foray into mainstream fantasy — The Blacktongue Thief.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Brilliance Gleams Beneath a Black Sun

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Brilliance Gleams Beneath a Black Sun

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Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press, October 2020). Cover by John Picacio.

In the 14 months I have had this column, I’ve looked at “historicity and fantasy” from a variety of angles, one of which has been looking at current — and lauded — works by known authors, and assessing how well they weave the two together. Thus far, I haven’t been very kind. While I loved G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King as a kind of modern fable, it creates its view of dying Al-Andalus by promoting a series of stereotypes about Christian Spain and the Inquisition that would be excoriated where the same treatment applied to the tale’s Muslim world. Conversely, Guy Gavriel Kay is the master of historical fiction masquerading at fantasy, essentially reinventing the earliest form of “Romantic fiction” with his post-Tigana work. Sadly, in Children of Earth and Sky rather than “jumping the shark,” Kay never gets up to speed, creating a tale that is so faithful to the history it is a thinly-veiled variant of, that nothing much ever happens.

So I thought it was time I praised something in this column — because I generally do like far more than I hate. And wow, what a gem I have to talk about with you today.

Over the winter holidays I read Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut entry into the world of epic fantasy: Black Sun. Billed as Volume 1 of Between Earth and Sky, this is clearly the start of an epic, yet just about works as a standalone tale in its own right.

Published last year, this is a departure for Roanhorse, whose work has mostly been contemporary fantasy, though again drawing on native themes. So what’s it about? Well, our official blurb actually does a pretty good job of teasing the plot. Here it is.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Of Tudor Scum and Georgian-Gallants; an Interview with Peter McLean

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Of Tudor Scum and Georgian-Gallants; an Interview with Peter McLean

My guest this month is Peter McLean, a successful short story writer and contemporary fantasy novelist who has cast his authorially eye on more traditional fantasy, with his War for the Rose Throne, series, the first two volumes of which (Priest of Bones and Priest of Lies) are now available, and currently in development for television by Heyday Productions. For those who may not have read them (and if that’s you, go do that now, we’ll wait) here is the bird’s view summary:

Tomas Piety was once a successful crime boss in the rough and tumble city of Ellinburg. Then came the War, which left its scars and also, ironically, his ordinance as a priest of Our Lady – not for any great change of faith, but because the unit needed a new cleric and Tomas could read. War-weary, the cynical priest heads home with Bloody Anne, his sergeant and confidant, to reclaim his streets. But rival gangs have carved up what was his and Ellinburg is collapsing from within. Tomas decides to reclaim what was his, with his new gang: the Pious Men. Unfortunately, there is more than just a few legs to be broken, as Tomas finds himself dragged into political and magical intrigue that extends well beyond the city.

The story is narrated by Tomas himself, and the limited viewpoint is used to great effect. We only see what Tomas sees, and while he is a mostly faithful narrator, there’s no doubt that he isn’t always entirely honest with himself, and there are times the reader is left sighing or shaking his head on Piety’s behalf.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: When History Gets in the Way of a Good Story

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: When History Gets in the Way of a Good Story

It’s been a little while since we visited. If you don’t recall, last time, I took to task G. Willow Wilson for writing a lovely tale in The Bird King, that at the same time it has been hailed for providing strong feminist and Muslim characters, did so by perpetuating centuries old stereotypes about the Spanish Inquisition and creating antagonists that literally could never have existed. In short, to tell the tale she wanted, Wilson mangles Iberian history, and doesn’t provide so much as a footnote to acknowledge it.

I ended that column with:

Wilson is one of a number of authors doing a beautiful job of mainstreaming and normalizing Muslim characters and settings in fiction. But it is problematic doing so while promulgating false historical narratives. Please, give us a more realistic presentation, a detailed Author’s Note at the end, or just make it a secondary world that is so obviously based on our own, but the names have been changed to protect the guilty. Guy Gavriel Kay has made an entire career at just this, and is probably blurring the line between Historical Fantasy and Low Fantasy. He’s absolutely one of my favorite writers.

Now, I get to have my Marc Antony moment: Friends, Readers, Countrymen, I come to critique Guy Gavriel Kay, not to praise him….

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In Defense of Corum, Elric’s Brother-from-a-Vadhagh-Mother

In Defense of Corum, Elric’s Brother-from-a-Vadhagh-Mother

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The Swords Trilogy by Michael Moorcock (Berkley, 1971). Covers by David McCall Johnston.

Wow, I don’t think I could agree less with a column.

Michael Moorcock is one of the tower giants of sword & sorcery and New Wave SciFi; a member of early Conan fandom who by 16 was a published author and editor, and has spent 64 years writing a vast body of work. Most of this work chronicles snapshots of his Multiverse, and the struggles of the Eternal Champion, the tortured, ever-reincarnating hero of the Cosmic Balance in the struggle between Law and Chaos. And, of course, no aspect of that hero is more famous than Elric, Doomed Prince of Melnibone, wielder of the demonic, soul-stealing rune-sword, Stormbringer. No character has perhaps come to symbolize Sword & Sorcery more, other than Conan himself (*maybe* Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser) than Elric.

Only, as Lin Carter wrote in Flashing Swords! #2:

In 1965 followed an Elric novel called Stormbringer, wherein Moorcock made the tactical error of killing off his hero and terminating the series by the simple method of blowing up the universe. Since then Mike has created many another fantasy hero, but he has recently confessed to me that he is tired of making up carbon copies of Elric: hence this story, and the good news that he is back at work, fitting new Elric tales in among the ones written almost a decade earlier…

And so, Moorcock began writing about other incarnations of the Eternal Champion (and retconning some of his earlier characters to become such). It’s quite a pantheon, but some characters are far better known than others. After our Albino Prince, the most famous must be Dorian HawkmoonJerry/Jhary/jeremiah Cornelius, and Erekosëwho alone of the various incarnations, recalls his past lives, and his dark fate. It’s a mixed pantheon to be sure, with a wildly varying quality of work — I find The Jewel in the Skull, first of the Hawkmoon novels, to be one of the best novels Moorcock wrote, but still can’t get through the Jerry Cornelius tales.

But for me, none of the other incarnations quite work the way Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the Prince in the Scarlet Robe does.

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Charles Saunders, Father of Sword & Soul, July 1946 – May 2020

Charles Saunders, Father of Sword & Soul, July 1946 – May 2020

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“I started reading more about the history and culture of Africa. And I began to realise that in the SF and fantasy genre, blacks were, with only few exceptions, either left out or depicted in racist and stereotypic ways. I had a choice: I could either stop reading SF and fantasy, or try to do something about my dissatisfaction with it by writing my own stories and trying to get them published. I chose the latter course.”
–Charles R. Saunders

Sword & Sorcery is one of Fantasy’s (or perhaps, to call it by its other term, Weird Fiction) oldest sub-genres, reaching back to the first decades of the 20th Century, as a “weird” outgrowth of the fantasy historical adventure fiction that had flourished in the 1880s – 1920s.

A great deal has been written about the the antecedents of Sword & Sorcery (especially by the tireless Deuce Richardson) and the first generation of writers (giants like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, CL Moore, and Henry Kuttner), and those who carried the flickering torch forward during the dark days of the mid-century — writers like Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson and the loved-hated Lin Carter — and brought that legacy to the second great wave of S&S that flourished in the 60s and 70s, where we met the likes of John Jakes, David C. Smith, Richard Tierney, and Keith Taylor.

Today I want to talk about a man from that second flourishing of the Third Generation who, in my opinion, stands apart, because he was also the father of an entire genre only now beginning to see its potential — Sword and Soul.

Charles  R. Saunders was born at the start of the Baby Boom in Elizabeth, PA, a small town near Pittsburgh, moved to the Philadelphia suburbs, and was educated at Lincoln University, a historically  black institution in Pennsylvania from which he graduated in 1968 with a degree in Psychology.  The next year he moved to Canada, where his life as a writer began, primarily, as fate would have it, as a journalist — both as an editor, but also as an editorialist and columnist.

With a somewhat restless intellect, he didn’t just fall into journalism and stick — his life was a wandering, as writers often do, from lowly cut-and-paste editor, to scholarly writer, to teacher, and then at last to columnist. He slowly worked his way east through Canada, settling at last in Nova Scotia in 1985.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: No One Suspects the Spanish Inquisition (Wasn’t That Bad)

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: No One Suspects the Spanish Inquisition (Wasn’t That Bad)

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G. Willow-Wilson author photo by Amber French for SyFy.com

Since this column began this year, we’ve looked at the visual continuity of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (and why, ironically, it does a better job of wordlessly telling the sweep of Middle Earth’s history than Tolkien’s millennia-long, cultural stasis does), authenticity (and lack thereof) in The Witcher, and talked about the commonalities and differences of historical fiction and fantasy with several, excellent authors who work in both arenas. Along the way, I’ve coined a few loose terms (or rather, put existing ones into a hierarchy):

  1. Historical Fiction — Stories set in our world, but in generations prior to ours, generally just on the edge, or earlier, of living memory.
  2. Historical Fantasy — Stories set in the same milieu as the above, but with fantastical elements, sometimes very subtle (a lot of magical realism falls in here), sometimes not so — urban fantasy set in bygone eras, alternate history with vampires, or magic works, or orcs, etc. The world is clearly our own, so the fantastical elements can’t too dramatically upset that balance.
  3. Low Fantasy — Stories set in a secondary world, that is “realistic” to varying degrees but generally follows the real world in terms of technology, laws of physics, etc. A great deal of old-school Sword & Sorcery, and modern Grimdark fit in here.
  4. High Fantasy — sky is the limit. The secondary world has its own peoples, its own laws, and it is whatever the author wishes it to be. Anything from Tolkien’s Middle Earth to Zelazny’s Amber, the worlds of Brandon Sanderson, Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan all fit here.

In the future, we’ll look at these “big themes” and interviews with authors once more. But it’s time to look at how actual works play with these ideas, to varying degrees of success. And here is the trick: success as a novel, does not necessarily mean success as history. In these next two columns, I’m going to look at two authors whose work I really enjoy — and talk about why a particular work of theirs just didn’t work for me. In one case, because of a failure of historical authenticity; in the other, because of too much slavish devotion to it.

First up, The Bird King, by G. Willow-Wilson.

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Between the Years When the Oceans Drank (Henry Kuttner’s) Atlantis, and the Rise of COVID-19 — Elak Lives Again!

Between the Years When the Oceans Drank (Henry Kuttner’s) Atlantis, and the Rise of COVID-19 — Elak Lives Again!

Elak lives again! Just released by Pulp Hero Press, Adrian Cole continues a saga Kuttner abandoned 80 years ago.
Elak lives again! Just released by Pulp Hero Press, Adrian Cole continues a saga Kuttner abandoned 80 years ago.

Adrian Cole is hardly a stranger to fantasy fiction.

Born in Plymouth, Devonshire in 1949, Adrian first read The Lord of the Rings in the late 1960s while working in a public library in Birmingham, and was inspired by the book to write an epic entitled “The Barbarians,” which was eventually revised into The Dream Lords trilogy, published by Zebra Books in the early 1970s. He has been writing various ghost, horror, and fantasy tales, in both short-story and novel-length, ever since. His career is well-established and diverse, from psychological, alien-horror, to superheroes, fantasy trilogies to young-adult novels.

So it is particularly interesting that Adrian’s newest work is an anthology of stories about the adventurer Elak of Atlantis: Elak, King of Atlantis, which was just released earlier this month by Pulp Hero Press.

Atlantis? A vogue setting in early to mid-20th century fantasy fiction, we don’t really see novels or short stories in Atlantis anymore. Ah, but you see, Elak is himself a piece of history…

After Robert E. Howard’s unfortunate suicide in 1936, a number of authors stepped up to fill the void. Most wrote reasonable, working tales, that were largely forgettable, and they themselves were forgotten. One, however, was the masterful Henry Kuttner, who danced easily between fantasy, horror and science fiction, and had a stellar career, made the more so by his collaborations with his wife, C. L. Moore. Kuttner wrote four Elak of Atlantis stories, which appeared in Weird Tales between 1938 and 1940.  They are an abridged version of REH’s Conan stories, and follow the exploits of Elak as he passes from sword-for-hire to king. But Elak is not a “Clonan”: he’s a civilized man, a noble cast-off, who wields a rapier. Whereas Conan is destined to seize a crown, Elak is trying to avoid his destiny.  Unlike Conan, he is not a loner with “guest star” companions, and is accompanied by the perpetually drunk thief Lycon, and the druid Dalan, who is trying to get Elak to accept his destiny to rule the kingdom of Cyrena.

We first meet Elak returning from an encounter with the wife of Atlantean nobility and that strikes a note in the tales: there is a light-heartedness to them, although the world is a dark one.  If you can imagine an Errol Flynn swashbuckler with wizards and Deep Ones, you have the vibe.

Of course, that doesn’t tell us why, 80 years after Kuttner abandoned the doomed island, Cole is bringing it back up from its watery depths.

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