Murder on Usher’s Planet (Avon, April 1987). Cover by Jill Bauman
I’m going to be reviewing a few novels, of ‘70s/’80s vintage, that were foisted on me generously given to me by Black Gate’s panjandrum, John O’Neill. For his sins, he gets to publish these reviews here in Black Gate!
I exaggerate – I bought some of these novels of my own volition (though often because John alerted me to their existence with a Black Gate Vintage Treasures article!) and I am sincerely grateful to John for those he did give to me, and those he made me aware of, either by pointing them out at a convention, or by writing about them. The novels I’m looking at now do cluster in the ‘70s and ‘80s – a period James Davis Nicoll likes to call the “Disco Era.” And I think it’s worthwhile to consider books from that period – when I was a teenager or a newly hatched adult – especially the more obscure books. But this does mean a good many of these reviews might not be, er, entirely positive!
The first review to fit this paradigm might be my look at Mick Farren’s The Song of Phaid the Gambler (1981). And now we come to Murder on Usher’s Planet, by Atanielle Annyn Noël, published by Avon in 1987 (just as the Phaid the Gambler books appeared in the US.) This actually was a gift from John – we were wandering through the dealers’ room at the Chicago Pulp and Paper convention a few months ago, and I noticed this book, largely I think because of the author’s unusual name; and John grabbed it (along with a few others for himself, as I recall), and having bought it, pressed it on me – suggesting that if I read it I should review it for Black Gate. And here we are!
They say there is no water in the City of Lies. They say there are no heroes in the City of Lies. They say there are no friends beyond the City of Lies. But would you believe what they say in the City of Lies?
In the City of Lies, they cut out your tongue when you turn thirteen, to appease the terrifying Ajungo Empire and make sure it continues sending water. Tutu will be thirteen in three days, but his parched mother won’t last that long. So Tutu goes to his oba and makes a pact — she provides water for his mother, and in exchange he will travel out into the desert and bring back water for the city. Thus begins Tutu’s quest for the salvation of his mother, his city, and himself.
Tor.com’s greatest service to the SFF world has been the return of the novella. (OK, it’s greatest service has been Murderbot, but since all but one of Murderbot’s adventures have been novellas, I’m going to call them one and the same.) Arguably the true format of SFF since the 1920s, the novella does what the short story cannot, in terms of world-building and plot, while never losing focus — as so many doorstop fantasies do today.
The clever folks at Tor.com saw that and seized on it; and have also been good at bringing interesting new voices to market. With Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi, they’ve done both.
West of the Sun (Dell, July 1980). Cover by Richard Corben
Edgar Pangborn is remembered now as a writer for his postapocalyptic series Tales of a Darkening World, which began in 1962 with “The Golden Horn,” later turned into the first part of Davy, one of the nominees for the 1965 Hugo Award for Best Novel. But he began writing science fiction a decade earlier, with his novelette “Angel’s Egg,” and two years later, his first science fiction novel, West of the Sun, which I’ve just reread.
Even this early, Pangborn was already doing the kind of writing that came to be called humanistic science fiction. There is advanced technology in West of the Sun: It takes place on a planet of Alpha Centauri, arrived at after a decade of space travel, which implies speeds nearly half the speed of light; and the starship Argo carries various useful small devices. But all of them are lost, or stop working, during the events of the novel. The Argo is — in the literary sense — a vehicle: It exists to get the characters into the story, which is about something else entirely.
“Thomas, my idea of those knights was a sort of candle, like these ones here. I have carried it for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle now — you won’t let it out?”
“It will burn.”
King Arthur to Tom of Warwick, p. 647 The Once and Future King
The first two volumes, The Sword in the Stone (1938) and The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King focus on the rise of Arthur Pendragon and the foundation of his kingdom, where right, not might, is the rule. The following two volumes, The Ill-Made Knight (1940) and The Candle in the Wind (1958), tell the story of Lancelot and Guenever’s affair and subsequent rot and collapse of the Round Table and Arthur’s kingdom. At the end of The Queen of Air and Darkness, White reminds the reader that in the tales of King Arthur, sin comes home to roost and that sometimes, even innocence isn’t enough to prevent ruination. In these two books, however, no one is innocent.
Lancelot made his first appearance in The Queen of Air and Darkness when his father lent his aid to Arthur for the Battle of Bedegraine. It was then as a young boy that he had decided he would dedicate himself to Arthur’s vision of a better world.
Ill-Made Knight is the name Lancelot takes for himself. He is no Franco Nero or even a Robert Taylor (both played Lancelot in the movies), but instead a misshapen, ugly man.
The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear (Overlook Press, August 29, 2006). Cover by Walter Moers
My brief Goodreads review of Walter Moers’ The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear follows. I have been on Goodreads since 2008 and this is the highest praise I have ever given to any book on the site… 🙂
Years ago, I felt that a few books of James Branch Cabell (specifically Figures of Earth, The Silver Stallion, Jurgen) would be enough to reconstruct “Fantasy” literature if ever a strange disaster happened and all other works of fantasy were destroyed.
I now think the same thing is true, to an even greater extent, with this one huge volume of Walter Moers’. It is magnificent. It is comprehensive. It is fabulously inventive. If all other fantasy vanished overnight (including the Cabell books) Fantasy would still remain, provided Bluebear still existed. It contains multitudes. It is a cornucopia of fictional marvels.
Lord of a Shattered Land (Baen Books, August 1, 2023). Cover Art by Dave Seeley
From the beginning, Sword and Sorcery has been an existentialist literature of the outsider. The rogue, the mercenary, the outcast, the criminal: from Conan to Elric, Fafhrd to Corwin of Amber, Jirel of Joiry to Grimnir the Corpse-maker, the S&S protagonist finds themselves at odds with their society, confronted with aggressive meaninglessness and called upon to carve out their own meaning in a chaotic, ever-changing, and often hostile world. This allows them to critique their society, test its values, and even challenge its assumptions. It is an intriguing literary tradition that has been a creative sandbox for several ambitious literary artists.
But this is not how most readers vaguely familiar with the term understand the genre. Sword and Sorcery has a reputation for being puerile and violent male wish-fulfillment fantasy. This stereotype derives from several obscure causes. One major cause might be the 1960s and 70s “Clonan” (Conan + clone) type of Sword and Sorcery, an assembly of several barbarian warriors and their formulaic adventures inspired by the commercial success of the Lancer reprints of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian stories (beginning in 1966 and featuring the famous covers by Frank Frazetta). Though not entirely without entertainment value, this group of works features the adventures of Lin Carter’s “Thongor,” John Jakes’ “Brak the Barbarian,” Gardner F. Fox’s “Kyrik,” and many more.
The Wind Began to Howl (Bad Hand Books, May 16, 2023). Cover by Mayra Fersner
Laird Barron has been one of most exciting authors and one of the freshest voices in horror literature for several years now. His amazing short story collections include The Imago Sequence (2007), Occultation and Other Stories (2010), The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories (2013), as well as novels such as The Light Is the Darkness (2012) and the incredibly creepy The Croning (2012). Barron’s output has been prolific and consistently excellent.
However, like many genre writers, I am sure that Barron has sometimes wanted to break out of being “typecast.” And in 2018 that became a possibility when he released his first hardboiled detective novel Blood Standard with major New York publisher Putnam. This was Barron’s first novel about Isaiah Coleridge, an ex-mob enforcer turned private detective.
IN A DISTANT AND SECONDHAND SET OF DIMENSIONS, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.
In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.
Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and star-tanned shoulders the Disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.
Astropsychology has been, as yet, unable to establish what they think about.
So begins The Colour of Magic (1983), the first volume of the eventually forty-one-book-long Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. I was lent this book (along with another Pratchett book, Strata (1981), which I’ve still never read — or returned, possibly) back in 1985 when it first hit US shores. He said it was funny and it was.
I hadn’t laughed much during earlier run-ins with fantasy and sci-fi comedies, save for Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Too often, puns were what passed for wit and the satire was shallow. Returning to Colour for the first time in many years, I’m impressed with how sharp Pratchett’s eye was when it came to picking his genre targets and just how good his prose was. His writing would become more complex, deeper, and much darker over the decades, but already, it’s witty and effervescent. In an age of such po-faced seriousness, we could use more of it.