Dragon’s Rook (The Lost Sword, Book 1) by Keanan Brand

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_26031584LVummnLet me start by stating that I am an inconsistent person with inconsistent tastes and opinions. I tend to get overly emphatic and dramatic when discussing things I like or dislike. In the light of what I’m about to write about Keanan Brand’s epic fantasy novel, Dragon’s Rook, I need to look back and see how many times I disparaged thick books and those set in European-styled worlds. Because that’s exactly what Brand’s book is and I really enjoyed it.

I actually like novels set in pseudo-European worlds. Tolkien, King Arthur, and much of the earliest fantasy reading I did was set in such places. The best included Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and Poul Anderson’s various excursions in fantasy.

Brave farm boys, daring princesses, wise old women, and wicked kings (plus dragons!) are endemic to the fairy tales read to me by my dad. Mysterious huts in dark forests, dire castles towering over the countrysides, and dank, fetid caves were common locales for those characters’ exploits. This is good stuff that speaks deeply to me for nostalgic and cultural reasons (about 99% of my ethnic heritage originates north of the Rhine River) and it all makes its way into Brand’s novel.

It’s just that often I feel like it has been done to death. Prior to the late 1970s, fantasy was a pretty diverse field. While Tolkien loomed above the genre, he spawned few direct imitators. In the first part of the decade, fantasy writing was all over the place. Sure, there was plenty of swords & sorcery, but there was also Roger Zelazany’s wild romp, The Chronicles of Amber, Ursula K. LeGuin’s very non-European Earthsea trilogy, and Tanith Lee’s phatasmagorical Tales from the Flat Earth (books I need to reread and review).

And then came Terry Brook’s The Sword of Shannara. For the unitiated, many of Shannara‘s events parallel those of the Lord of the Rings closely, and it was a monster success. That was enough to convince publishers and authors that the key to sales lay in the same sort of mimicry. In the years that followed, dozens of quest stories set in very familiar Euro-style worlds appeared. The worst were slavish imitations of Tolkien’s masterpiece, while the best took advantage of the familiarity of quest and fantasy tropes and used them to explore original ideas. Either way, though, Dark Ages and Medieval Europe came to be the default setting for fantasy fiction.

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Adventures In Gaming: The Temple Of the Sea Gods

Monday, May 25th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

DSC05298I first created this adventure back in 1986, as a discrete part of a longer cycle in which the characters involved were questing for several potent artifacts intended to aid them in defeating their world’s largest dragon. One of those items was hidden here, in this temple.

For purposes of exhuming this module, I’ve made a number of things generic (both for the sake of easy translation to your gaming world, and to avoid any possible AD&D copyright issues). Even the particular “sea gods” to whom this temple system is consecrated can be adapted to fit your specific mythos. In fact, you can adapt pretty much any part of this; it’s for you, after all. For you to enjoy and hopefully put to use.

Character Motivation

If the player characters aren’t in pursuit of some massive relic (see above), then one fine reason to explore these halls is the usual mix of adventure seeking and treasure hunting. The bear went over the mountain, after all, and that OCD chicken keeps right on crossing the road. As a backup incentive structure, there’s always altruism. As you’ll see from the setting, the locals are beset by dangerous winged beasties, and it could be up to your particular band of heroes to free them from this (truly lethal) scourge.


A windy, treacherous tidal river. Dark, choppy water. Deep. Cold. Steep bordering cliffs, with multiple ravines and gorges forking off the main channel. What steadings there are bar their doors at night and keep a watch around the clock. Out of one of those ravines, often at dusk but not always, predatory bat-like creatures fly, and while you can fend off one or two, if they catch you in your boat or on the road, alone, and they come in a flock…

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: TCM’s Summer of Darkness

Monday, May 25th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

TCM_LogoHard boiled and noir are often discussed together. And while a film or story could fit in both categories, they are two distinct genres. Hard boiled is typified by the stories of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and others from Black Mask and Dime Detective magazines.

Noir is usually (but not always) thought of in terms of film: black and white, shadowy movies with dark characters. Much hard boiled is noir, and vice versa. Far more expert folks have discussed the definitions of the two terms for decades.

One example, to me, are the works of Cornell Woolrich, whose “It Had to Be Murder” became the masterful suspense flick, Rear Window. Woolrich’s stories are noir, but not hard boiled.

Many of Humphrey Bogart’s films were hard boiled, including The Maltese Falcon (also noir), The Roaring Twenties and Bullets or Ballots. One of his later films, In a Lonely Place (based on the novel by Dorothy Hughes) is a noir classic but isn’t hard boiled.

So, just know that many films (usually crime related) from the thirties through the fifties and into the sixties, were hard boiled, noir, or both.

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Charles de Lint and The Little Country

Friday, May 22nd, 2015 | Posted by Violette Malan

The Little CountryIn talking about portal fantasies last time, I was moved to reread one of the more unusual examples of the sub-genre, Charles de Lint’s The Little Country (1991).

The book is in a very real sense two books, but it isn’t a simple play-within-a-play, story-within-a-story thing: Each book is being read by the protagonist of the other. The now-overused self-referential concept known as “meta” wasn’t so common when The Little Country was written, but it might have been invented to describe the novel. The book is extremely self-aware, something which even the protagonists are forced to recognize.

The two stories do run parallel to one another, but this isn’t a case of success in one world reflecting or depending on success in the other world, as we see in King and Straub’s The Talisman, for example. The characters don’t overlap, the settings aren’t the same, though you might say that the outcomes are. There is a physical object common to both worlds, a standing stone with an opening through which objects and people can pass. Both worlds have the tradition that passing through the stone nine times at moonrise effects some magical change – entrance into the land of the faerie, a cure for sickness or barrenness, etc.

In the thread which most resembles our world, Janey Little, a twenty-something traditional musician, finds a book in her grandfather’s attic – a one-of-a-kind hitherto unknown work left in her grandfather’s keeping by the author, an old and eccentric friend. The book is called “The Little Country.”

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How To Write a Good Fight Scene

Thursday, May 21st, 2015 | Posted by M Harold Page

Marshall Versus the Assassins-small

…my fight scenes trigger your mirror neurons (apparently).

You can’t. Not a generically good fight scene. Just like a good love scene, “good” for a fight scene depends on the literary purpose and the audience.

Let’s assume, though, that you are writing some kind of action adventure yarn — I’m qualified to advise on this because this is what I write professionally, and my fight scenes trigger your mirror neurons (apparently) – here’s what I’d tell you over a beer.

Have a Model of How the Relevant Martial Art Works

By “model” I mean that you can describe to yourself how this kind of fighting works. E.g. is it all “cut parry cut”, or about crossing blades then working on the blade, or wrestling or what?

It helps if your model is based on reality or at least experimental reconstructions — if you’re using any European weapons, check out Youtube using the search term “HEMA”. You can of course make everything up, however more and more people are becoming HEMA-literate, so there is a good chance your book will date horribly.

The model should account for all the equipment used by your combatants, e.g. What is a shield for? What weapons break the armour? This ties the combat scene into the rest of the world story and brings to life the military culture and technology. For example, if combat requires a shield, then losing a shield can drive part of the plot. Oh, and, whatever you do, don’t treat armour as set dressing or costume. If it doesn’t stop weapons, nobody would wear it.

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Ancient Worlds: Caenis, Caeneus, and the Aftermath of Rape

Thursday, May 21st, 2015 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady

Poseidon_Penteskouphia_Louvre_CA452Sometimes a planned topic and the news intersect in unexpected ways. I had planned for some time to cover this particular episode in Ovid, but this week’s decision by The Mary Sue to discontinue active promotion of Game of Thrones gives it a relevance that we in the Classics don’t usually get to experience. I’ll link to The Mary Sue’s explanation of their decision here, but the short version is that they were no longer interested in promoting a show that made such regular use of rape as a storytelling device. A heated debate has ensued in several quarters, over The Mary Sue’s decision, the show in question, and over the portrayal of sexual assault in fiction.

This is by no means a new debate. Rape has been, sadly, part of human experience for as long as we have had storytelling. Its presence in the earliest works we have in the canon attests this fact. What has varied is how it is portrayed, both in terms of the act itself and its lasting effect on both its victims and society at large. The myth of the Rape of Persephone is used to explain the seasons; the Roman Historian Livy tells us that the expulsion of the kings of Rome was triggered by the devastating aftermath of the rape of Lucretia.

But no artist spent as much time investigating the lingering effects of rape like Ovid. The Metamorphoses is filled with stories of rape and familial sexual abuse, and the author doesn’t shy away from any of it. But that doesn’t mean he lingers over it, either: he depictions of assaults are vivid but never graphic. And unlike many modern depictions he doesn’t spend much time on the assaults themselves. What Ovid chooses to focus on is the long term ramifications of sexual violence, the way it shapes lives, families, destinies, and the landscape itself (remember Apollo and the Laurel tree?).

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Fletcher Vredenburgh’s Simakpalooza!

Thursday, May 21st, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

SimakpaloozaI don’t have time to read many other blogs. I barely have time to read this one, what with all the time I spend reading, and writing, and telling my wife how awesome Mad Max: Fury Road is. Seriously honey, sooo awesome. I wish I got to ride  in the desert, and take a giant chain elevator to work every day. Is there a word for when you envy the baddass folks who live in an apocalyptic dystopia? There should be such a word. And I bet that word would be awesome.

Anyway, I appreciate those moments when I get to read blogs written by other folks. Especially when they’re folks like Fletcher Vredenburgh, and especially especially when they look at one of my favorite writers, as Fletcher did this week with his Simakpalooza! (Is there a word for when you envy a writer who makes up a word? There should be such a word.) Here’s a sample:

I’m not sure what the first story I read by Clifford Simak was, but the first I remember is “Desertion.” It’s part of the book he’s probably most famous for, City. The novel is a mournful farewell to humanity and Earth and stars robot butlers and talking dogs… There’s a tremendous sense of wonder in the tale as the nature of what’s going on is revealed. I think of it as the story that showed me the true potential of sci-fi…

Sadly, Clifford Simak seems to have slipped into the ranks of the unjustly forgotten sci-fi writers of the past. Growing up, he was just part of the general fabric of sci-fi [for me], and most fellow sci-fi fans I knew had read at least something by him…

It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Simak. John O’Neill’s post about The Goblin Reservation and the comments reminded me how much I loved his work. There’s a warmth and comfortableness to his stories that I love.

Fletcher created an impressive tapestry of images from 17 Simak paperbacks to accompany his article (a tiny snippet is at right). Read the whole thing here.

Psychical Violence and Beckoning Beauties: The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

The Dead of Night The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions-smallWhile I was at the World Fantasy Convention last November, I sat in on a panel called “Ghost Stories Without Ghosts.” Truth to tell, I was only there because of the delightful Patty Templeton, who was a guest on the panel, talking about her popular debut novel There Is No Lovely End.

However, the other panelists — S. T. Joshi, Jonathan Oliver, and Darrell Schweitzer — had interesting things to say as well, and several times the conversation came around to Oliver Onions, who was held up as an exemplar of the form.

All very interesting, but who the heck is Oliver Onions?

When faced with a situation such as this (an embarrassing lack of knowledge about a revered figure in 19th Century Supernatural Fiction — which happens a lot more often than you might think), I invariably turn to the same resource: the always reliable Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural. Or, as we like to call them, TOMAToS.

Sure enough, the Wordsworth Tales line includes a huge Oliver Onions volume: The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions. 627 pages of creepy fiction featuring werewolves, haunted houses, a dream shared down through history, living ghosts, an obsessed sculptor, characters in a romance novel who come to life, a temptress who’s doomed countless men through the centuries until she falls in love for the first time, a haunted meadow, a cheery Christmas ghost who disobeys the Special Committee on Ethereal Traffic and Right of Way to save lives, and many others.

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Into the Wastelands: Enchanted Pilgrimage by Clifford D. Simak

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

Enchanted Pilgrimage-smallClifford Simak is often described as a pastoralist, his sci-fi stories set in rural Wisconsin or some reasonable facsimile thereof. Kindly robots as well as smart and faithful dogs feature in many of his books. Scholars are more likely than soldiers to figure as his heroes. There’s more kindness and sense of wonder than violence in most of his stories.

If you haven’t read him (which wouldn’t be surprising since most of his twenty-six novels and multitude of story collections are out of print in the US), snag a battered old copy of City or Way Station to start. City holds a place in my heart as one of my favorite books. Simak brought a gentle humanity to his writing. Love of an unhurried life and respect for common decency run through many of his stories.

Inspired by John O’Neill’s post about The Goblin Reservation, I dug out the first of Simak’s three fantasy novels, Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975). In it, a disparate party of travelers leave the safety of humanity’s lands to explore the dangerous, magical Wasteland. He would revisit this theme twice more before his death in 1986, in the structurally similar The Fellowship of the Talisman (1978) and Where the Evil Dwells (1982).

I remember liking the book thirty years ago and thirty years later, I still like it. It’s fully fantasy and science fiction, both. While there are goblins, gnomes, witches, and trolls, there are also UFOs, a robot, and a traveler from an alternate Earth.

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Wrapping up Jeremy Brett’s Adventures

Monday, May 18th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Brett3_RucastleClick here for parts one and two of this look at Jeremy Brett’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The second installment of Granada’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes kicked off on August 25, 1985 with The Copper Beeches. Tapped for the role of one of the Canon’s most dastardly villains, Jephro Rucastle, was veteran actor Joss Ackland. Back in 1965 he had starred opposite Douglas Wilmer’s Holmes in The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, playing her former suitor, Philip Green.

Other tangential Holmes-related efforts had included John Cleese’s disastrous parody, The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It and an episode of the BBC series, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, based on the anthologies edited by Hugh Greene.

And in 1989 he would play the King of Sweden in Christopher Lee’s Sherlock Holmes & The Incident at Victoria Falls. Ackland’s Rucastle is one of the most memorable evildoers in the entire Granada series; menacing in a creepy but understated way.

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