Strolling through Córdoba, Spain

Thursday, December 20th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The Calahorra tower, on the far side of the Guadalquivir River
from Córdoba, protects access to the Roman bridge. It was
originally built in the Islamic period and rebuilt in 1369

Last week I wrote about the magnificent mosque/cathedral of Córdoba. While that’s the city’s main draw, there’s plenty else to see in this historic place. In fact, the entire city center, where most of the old buildings are, is one big UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The area, next to the Guadalquivir River, has always been inhabited. Evidence of Neanderthals has been found, as well as all the major phases of prehistory. A small prehistoric settlement became a city under the Carthaginians, who called it Kartuba. When the Romans conquered it in 206 BC, the name morphed into Corduba. Under the Romans, the city thrived, becoming the cultural and administrative center of Hispania Baetica. Seneca the Elder, Seneca the Younger, and Lucan all came from Córdoba. It was briefly under Byzantine rule from 552-572 AD before falling to the Visigoths.

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Steve Carper on the Solo SF Art of Leo Dillon

Sunday, December 16th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

Leo Dillon Galaxy art 2-small Leo Dillon Galaxy art-small

Art for Stephen Barr’s “The Back of Our Heads” by Leo Dillon (Galaxy, July 1958)

Leo Dillon, who passed away in 2012, was one half of the famous husband-and-wife art team of Leo and Diane Dillon, who won back-to-back Caldecott Awards in 1976 and 1977, and the 1971 Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist for their work on Terry Carr’s Ace Special covers. They created some of the most iconic SF and Fantasy cover art of the 20th Century, including Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories and Strange Wine, John Brunner’s The Traveller in Black, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. But before he began to work with Diane, Leo had a career doing interior art for Galaxy magazine from 1957-60. BG blogger Steve Carper unravels some of their fascination history at his blog Flying Cars and Food Pills.

Even though they had been working full-time as illustrators in the publishing industry, they were neither wealthy nor famous nor much recognized in the science fiction community in 1968… They knew Harlan Ellison, though, having done covers for his books as early as 1961, and he naturally recruited them for the cover of his monumental 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions. There weren’t supposed to be any interior illustrations but Harlan, being Harlan, suddenly decided he wanted them. On the Friday before the book was to go to press on Monday. He hied over to the Dillon’s brownstone in Brooklyn and they stayed up the entire weekend taking inspiration from Harlan’s synopses of all 33 stories. For some reason Harlan brought Terry Carr with him…. Diane [recalled]: “After that, Terry began giving us assignments for book jackets, the Ace Specials.”

Read the article here, complete with generous samples of Leo Dillon’s interior art, and a lengthy listing of his art for stories by Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Clifford D. Simak, Fritz Leiber, H. Beam Piper, Frederik Pohl, Zenna Henderson, William Tenn, Robert Sheckley, and many others.

A Massive History of D&D Culture: Art and Arcana by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer

Thursday, December 13th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Art and Arcana-small

Art and Arcana is a massive book that satisfies a strong sense of nostalgia for those who played Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s and 80s, as well furnishing a history of the game and, to a lesser extent, the people and companies behind it. Focused primarily on the artwork that has helped define the game from its earliest days, authors Michael and Sam Witwer, Kyle Newman, and Jon Peterson have provided a beautiful look at the game’s first forty-five years, with an emphasis on the first few editions.

Even the endpages of this 440 page book indicate what is sandwiched between them. The opening pages show a map of the Village of Hommlet from the classic T-1 dungeon, while the closing pages are a reproduction of a classic piece of Erol Otis’s artwork from Deities and Demigods. A foreword by Joe Manganiello points out that “in [the 1980s], Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t cool.” As someone who began playing the game in 1980 (in Glenview, where the Witwers were from, although I didn’t know them), Manganiello’s comment is an understatement. At the time, the concept that stars like Manganiello and Sam Witwer would be involved with a book about Dungeons and Dragons would have been mind-boggling, as would the idea that the host of a late night talk show like Stephen Colbert would admit to playing it, or that people could make a living as a Dungeon Master and charge people to watch their games.

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The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The mosque interior, showing the famous series of double arches.
The column on the left has a Corinthian capital reused from a
Roman building. The one of the right has a Moorish capital.

I am fortunate to live in a country that has preserved remains from a wide variety of civilizations. From Roman cities to medieval castles, Spain’s got it all. One culture that has left an enduring legacy on Spanish architecture, cuisine, and language is that of the Moors. For much of the Middle Ages, large portions of the Iberian Peninsula were ruled by Muslims from North Africa and the Levant, who built one of the country’s most beautiful buildings.

Invading Muslims took Córdoba, then a rather minor Visigothic city in southern Spain, in 711 AD. They destroyed most of it but spared the church, which was then divided and used as a house of worship for both faiths. The city languished until the arrival of Abd al-Rahman I in 756, who took power in Muslim Spain and made Córdoba his capital. In 784 AD he ordered a great mosque to be built on the site of the church. Later Muslim rulers expanded it until 1236, when Córdoba was recaptured by the Christians and the building was converted into La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption).

The result is an amazing hybrid of various periods of Moorish and Christian architecture.

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Ancient Galicia: Exploring Spain’s Celtic North

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The Stele of Castrelo de Val, showing a shield and chariot.
This Bronze Age stele is similar to those found in Ireland,
Denmark, Sweden, and the Mediterranean.

When one thinks of Spain, one generally thinks of sun-soaked coastlines and arid stretches of plain, but Spain’s northern coast is a green, hilly region with a strong Celtic tradition. The westernmost region, just north of Portugal, is called Galicia. Here you’ll find cider instead of wine, bagpipes instead of castanets, and a rich archaeological heritage.

GALAICOS. Un pueblo entre dos mundos at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid explores the ancient history of this region from the Bronze Age to the arrival of Christianity. It reveals a well-populated archaeological region that was connected to the Phoenician and Greek trade routes along the Atlantic coast to the tin mines in Britain. The exhibition shows some interesting examples of artifacts making their way along the trade route to Galicia from Italy, Greece, and North Africa.

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Romance and Ancient Magic: The Earthsinger Chronicles by L. Penelope

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

Song of Blood & Stone-small Whispers of Shadow & Flame Song of Blood & Stone-paperback-small

One of the nasty little secrets of American fantasy is that for years virtually no major publisher would put non-white characters on a cover. The situation was so dire that even Ursula K. Le Guin, whose classic A Wizard of Earthsea featured a non-white cast, had to put up with having her hero Ged depicted as white on countless covers for decades. And as recently as this year, Nnedi Okorafor saw the skin tone of her heroine dramatically lightened for the US release of Akata Warrior (compare it to the UK version here.)

Fortunately the situation has been steadily — if slowly — improving, and it’s no longer quite so remarkable to see black characters on mainstream covers. Recent examples we’ve featured include Claire O’Dell’s A Study in Honor, and The High Ground by Melinda Snodgrass. But I can’t recall seeing a mainstream fantasy cover as black and as beautiful as Song of Blood & Stone by L. Penelope, which I think is one of the most gorgeous covers of the year. Publishers! More like this, please.

Song of Blood & Stone, Penelope’s debut novel, was self-published in 2015 through her Heartspell Media company (which designed the cover); it won the 2016 Self-Publishing eBook Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was soon picked up by St. Martin’s Press, which republished it in hardcover in May of this year (with the same cover). The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog listed it as part of the Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of May.

According to Penelope’s website St. Martin’s will be republishing the entire Earthsinger Chronicles, including Whispers of Shadow and Flame (released by Heartspell in 2015 and now out of print), and the forthcoming Breath of Dust & Dawn (due Winter 2019). Song of Blood and Stone will also be reprinted in an expanded trade paperback next July with a brand new cover (above right).

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The Death of the Classical World: Reading The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The destroyers came out from the desert. Palmyra must have been expecting them: for years, marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots, armed with little more than stones, iron bars and an iron sense of righteousness had been terrorizing the east of the Roman Empire.

Thus starts the controversial new history of the pagan/Christian transition by Classics scholar Catherine Nixey. Making a deliberate parallel between the early Christians and ISIS is a bold move, intended to shock and turn our historical and cultural presumptions upside down.

It’s only the first of many. For 250 pages, Nixey makes a full-on assault against the dominant narrative that Christians were brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire, before peacefully taking over by winning the debate against an exhausted and decadent paganism.

In Palmyra c. AD 385, a horde of black-robed monks swarmed out of their desert caves and crude shelters to break into the city’s temple of Athena. There they came upon a graceful, larger-than-life statue of the goddess. They hacked the head from its shoulders, then battered at the head where it lay on the ground. When they left, their rage satiated, the head lay where they had left it for centuries until uncovered by modern archaeologists.

All across the Late Roman Empire, this scene was played out again and again with increasing frequency as Christians grew in number and confidence.

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Traces of Byzantium in Florence

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The dome of the Baptistry of St. John, Florence

When we think of Italian art, we tend to think of Ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance, and forget the periods in between. Considering the achievements of those two high points of human civilization, that’s hardly surprising, but the Middle Ages contained the inspiration of Renaissance art, and much of that inspiration came from further east–from the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantium owned parts of Italy until 1071, and left a legacy of beautifully decorated churches and public buildings. These influences endured, and can be found in some of the most famous buildings and art collections of the Renaissance. This interesting article from Oxford University goes into greater depth about specific important influences.

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The Gorgeous and the Grotesque: The Ceilings of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


As I mentioned in my last post, I got to explore Florence for a few days, absorbing as much of the Italian Renaissance (and modern pizza) as I could.

So of course I went to the Uffizi Gallery, one of Italy’s most renowned museums. While I knew I would be seeing a treasure trove of Da Vincis and Caravaggios, I didn’t realize that portions of the building itself are a work of art.

Specifically, the ceilings of the upper Eastern Corridor. These are decorated with bright, lively frescoes painted by Alessandro Allori in 1580 and 1581. Each section is a different theme or subject such as military affairs or exploration, and taken together they act as a window into the thoughts and imagination of Florence in the late Renaissance.

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Pickpockets and Stendhal Syndrome: First Impressions of Florence

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The fortified palace of the Medici

I love being married to a scientist.

My wife was giving a seminar at Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory in Florence last week and instead of staying home and writing like I probably should have, I decided to tag along. It was my fourth time in Italy and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Four days in Florence didn’t change that.

The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance is a visual overload of beauty, so much so that when I gave a talk yesterday on using setting in writing, I gave Florence as an example of a place that’s impossible to describe without having an intimate knowledge of it. The entire trip I suffered from Stendhal Syndrome, a condition named after the 19th century French author who fell into a swoon from all the beauty he was exposed to in Florence. It was impossible to take it all in.

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