The Doom of “Oden”: Twilight of the Gods (Grimnir #2)

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020 | Posted by SELindberg

Twilight-of-the-Gods-Scott-Oden

With Grimnir #2 Twilight of the Gods (TotG), Scott Oden presents a novel take on Ragnarök, the apocalypse in Norse mythology. He masterfully integrates his historical fiction expertise (i.e., from Memnon, Men of Bronze) with gritty battles reminiscent of Robert E. Howard (i.e., the creator of Conan the Barbarian; Oden recently published a serialized, pastiche novella across the Savage Sword of Conan Marvel Comic series). Few can merge the intensity of low-fantasy Sword & Sorcery with high-fantasy Epics, but Oden does here.

TotG is second in this series; Fletcher Vredenburgh reviewed Griminr #1 A Gathering of Ravens (AGoR) in 2017, and reported: “Oden tells a story that feels lifted straight from the sagas and Eddas.” This February, John O’Neill posted a Future Treasures to reveal the Jimmy Iacobelli cover art to Twilight of the Gods.

This article is a review of the story, the style, and the lore. Read on to learn about the series’ namesake, the apocalypse in this second volume, and get teasers for the third book, The Doom of Odin.

“Mark this, little bird: you can judge how high you stand in your enemy’s esteem by the weapon he draws against you.” – Grimnir

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Lovecraft in China: The Flock of Ba-Hui by Oobmab

Saturday, April 4th, 2020 | Posted by David Neil Lee

The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories-small The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories-back-small

Cover by Roger Betka

The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories
Oobmab (translated by Arthur Meursault and Akira)
Camphor Press (254 pages, $24.99 hardcover/$14.99 paperback/$6.99 digital, February 2020)

Beyond the protective barrier of Europe’s vast libraries, Latinate languages, aristocratic bloodlines, and imperial armies, there lurks a malign chaos of ancient knowledge and alien science. To our Western eyes, this chaos is a universe of black magic and monsters but there is, alas, much more to it than that, when one considers the full span of inhuman evil that extends from ancient creatures long outcast, brooding and breeding sinister vengeance in the Earth’s depths, to the latest incursions by loathsome entities whose blasphemous technologies have carried them to this green and innocent planet from the mist-shrouded globes circling the farthest stars.

This is essentially Lovecraft country: a universe that has become known as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Ever-fearful of dark forces from the outside, in daily life the American author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an enthusiastic exponent of modernity – the expansion of northern European cultures throughout the world to the disadvantage, even appropriation, even erasure, of indigenous and non-European cultures. As America itself blossomed into an imperial power, Lovecraft’s United Empire loyalism (which to be fair, was greatly mitigated in his later years) envisioned a USA that “must ever remain an integral and important part [as he wrote at age 24] of the great universal empire of British thought and literature.”

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft treasured his native New England not only for its green fields, stone churches, and stately mansions, but for the ways these things embodied the culture of an even-more-native England, a just and civilized seat of a white, English-speaking empire, an island across the sea that he felt linked to in spirit, although he never saw it in person.

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Stories That Work: Short Story Collections

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020 | Posted by James Van Pelt

The Martian Chronicles-small Men-Martians-and-Machines-small The Green Hills of Earth-small

Normally I look at a couple short stories that have caught my eye since my last article, and then dive into them for a closer look. But in these stay-at-home times I realized how important short stories are in my reading life, and how short story collections are often my favorite pastime.

Like many of you, I became a recreational reader early on. My school desk always had science fiction tucked inside that I would sneak peeks at every chance I could. Some teachers just let me read. They must have decided that a book kept me still and quiet. It’s illuminating to consider my introductions to Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Madeleine L’Engle happened during math or social studies lessons at East Elementary.

As much as I loved books, though, the idea of writing stories didn’t come to me until I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. There was no way I could write a book! A two-page essay on Abraham Lincoln took an entire weekend (and I didn’t choose the topic), but those short stories that Bradbury wrote, the ones that made me cry and laugh and tied my heart with emotions I didn’t even knew existed, might just be possible to finish. Heck, “Rocket Summer” was only 228 words long. I could write a story that short.

More than that, Bradbury turned me onto enjoying short stories. From The Martian Chronicles, I went to The Illustrated Man, R is for Rocket, S is for Space,  and I Sing the Body Electric. I’m glad I didn’t discover The Small Assassin at that time. The trajectory of my writing career might have careened differently.

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The Ground Rules Have Been Put in Place: Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery, by Brian Murphy

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020 | Posted by David C. Smith

Flame and Crimson-small Flame and Crimson-back-small

Cover by Tom Barber

Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery
By Brian Murphy
Pulp Hero Press (282 pages, $19.95 in trade paperback/$7.99 digital, January 16, 2020)

At long last, we have a history of the sword-and-sorcery genre, and a very welcome and erudite study it is. Brian Murphy is to be commended for his honest appreciation of our frequently dismissed and often mocked genre. He intelligently surveys the expanse of the sword-and-sorcery field warts and all, low points and high, putting the genre into its proper literary perspective.

To present a linear history of the sword-and-sorcery genre is in fact to dissect an Yggdrasil of many branches, which is precisely what Murphy has done here. His challenge in undertaking Flame and Crimson was great—confronting a century of work and reducing discussion of it to the reasonable length of about 250 pages. He has risen to the challenge.

(Full disclosure: I am mentioned a few times in Flame and Crimson and am cited in a pull-quote in the header to chapter 1. I am also published by Pulp Hero Press, the imprint that has brought out Flame and Crimson.)

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Stories the Dogs Tell: Clifford D. Simak’s City

Thursday, March 19th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

SimakCityGnome

City by Clifford D. Simak. First Edition: Gnome Books, 1952.
Cover by Frank Kelly Freas (click to enlarge)

City
by Clifford D. Simak
Gnome Press (224 pages, $2.75 in hardcover, May 1952)

Clifford D. Simak was a Midwestern US newspaperman who wrote science fiction on the side, and published stories beginning in the 1930s in magazines like Wonder Stories until finding a home in John W. Campbell’s Astounding in the 1940s (and later Galaxy in the 1950s). City was his earliest significant work, published in 1952 but composed of stories published mostly in Astounding from 1944 onward. An enduring work, it won one of the very earliest awards for SF or fantasy, the International Fantasy Award, in 1953 (two years after Stewart’s Earth Abides, which I reviewed here in January, won the same award). It’s Simak’s most popular book along with his Way Station, published a decade later.

Gist

The book tells the future of humanity as it abandons cities for country estates and then moves off Earth to settle other planets, and in parallel the rise of an artificially created Dog civilization. By the end, humans have largely propagated outward to other planets, and Earth is left to the intelligent dog civilization, to whom these stories are myths.

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“Authenticity” in Sword & Sorcery Fiction

Thursday, March 12th, 2020 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Gabe S&S-small

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

These days, in intersection with my Conan gaming (I enjoy both Monolith’s board game and Modiphius’s roleplaying game), I have been reading a lot of two things: weird fiction from the turn of last century into, maybe, the 1940s; and sword & sorcery — anything that, on its cover, features a muscled male wielding medieval weaponry — predominantly from the ‘70s or ‘80s. (This latter does the double duty of encouraging me to work out.)

As is to be expected, these works offer various levels of quality. Early-last-century weird fiction is in a class of its own, and, though writers of that era freely borrowed tropes, themes and elements from each other (they very much appear to have been in conversation, literally or otherwise), the form of the weird tale is not as calcified as that of sword & sorcery appears to be by the ‘80s. Even within this latter’s straitjacket, however, I have encountered some standouts, including John Dalmas’s The Orc Wars (beginning with The Yngling, 1971), Gordon Dickson’s and Roland Green’s Jamie the Red (an unofficial Thieves’ World novel, 1984), and John Maddox Robert’s The King of the Wood (1983). Why I like these is for the reasons that one would like any work of fiction, of course, but with one addition: they present a sense of verisimilitude. I should add here, for anyone who might not be privy to how sword & sorcery is supposed to be subdivided from its parent genre of fantasy, that sword & sorcery is supposed to be more “realistic.” The world presented in such tales is premodern. Life is hard. The cultures do not have our present technology (nor magic — magic, in this subgenre, if not “low,” is rare and mysterious and terrifying and usually very, very “wrong”) with which to ease the drudgery of existence. In other words, the characters in such stories live in the way that folks in the Middle Ages lived, possibly in the way that many of our grandparents or great-grandparents lived, if they were homesteading somewhere.

This is why I no longer write sword & sorcery. I am a city boy. I am modern. I have no idea what “real life” is like. And yet I somehow have enough of one to know — intuitively or otherwise — when a writer knows even less than I do. To catalog the many errors of some of our most famous current fantasy writers is outside of the scope of these observations, but I’ll point to the occasion that spurred me finally to write on this topic here.

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Magic and Mayhem in 1905 New York City: The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer

Friday, March 6th, 2020 | Posted by Elizabeth Galewski

The Glass Magician CoverBound to a chair, twenty-year-old stage magician Thalia Cutler must escape before the sword hanging above her head plunges down and kills her. She only has a short time – a candle burns through the rope keeping the sword aloft.

The sword is real. The flame is real. The manacles are real.

The trick is called the Siege Perilous. Luckily, the audience can’t see what she’s doing behind the curtain. Thalia pulls out the manacles’ key, which was hidden in her voluminous medieval-style sleeves. It’s a simple matter to unlock the cuffs. Or at least, it should be. The key jams in the left manacle. It won’t release.

She yanks her arm against the restraints, but it no use. She’s caught on this chair, unable to escape. She’s going to die. She knows it. Her body goes numb; her limbs prick with pins and needles.

Just as the rope begins to give way, her arm changes into something else. It’s white; it has feathers… Where her human hand should be, she now has the tip of a wing. It easily slips out of the manacle.

Vaulting out of the chair, she barely makes it through the trapdoor before the sword lands, quivering, on the seat.

Thalia might have just escaped the Siege Perilous, but now she’s in more danger than ever. She had always thought she was nothing more than a Solitaire, a nonmagical human. But her narrow escape from the Siege Perilous reveals she’s really a Trader who can shapeshift into an animal – in her case, some animal with white wings. As a new Trader who can’t control her wild magic, Thalia is a magnet for monsters. Manticores attack, trying to siphon off her power and leave her a soulless shell, soon to perish. Worse yet, by attracting manticores, she endangers everyone around her.

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Having It Both Ways: James Blish’s A Case of Conscience

Thursday, March 5th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

A Case Of Conscience-small A Case Of Conscience-back-small

A Case of Conscience by James Blish. First Edition: Ballantine Books, 1958.
Cover by Richard Powers (click to enlarge)

A Case of Conscience
by James Blish
Ballantine Books (188 pages, $0.35 in paperback, April 1958)

James Blish’s 1958 novel A Case of Conscience, a Hugo Award winner in 1959, is one of the most famous SF novels that deals with religion. (The other major 1950s novel concerning religion is Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I’ve also reread recently).

There aren’t many SF novels dealing with the religion, and it’s easy to understand why; science fiction and religion would seem to be at cross purposes. Religion typically entails belief in supernatural beings, claims about the nature of reality (e.g. the origin of the universe), and deference to ancient authority, while science fiction is about the possibilities of our understanding the universe on the basis of the evidence it presents us, and, like science itself, disregards ancient authority. How to reconcile these aims? Any SF story that presupposed the truth of this or that religion would, in practice, be placed in the religious fiction corner of the bookstore (or in one of the numerous specialty bookstores devoted to one religion or another). While books or stories that imagine that angels, or fairies, or gods are real in the supernatural sense would, within our genres, be classified as fantasy.

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Bringing to Life an Ancient Mystery: Cries From the Lost Island by Kathleen O’Neal Gear

Thursday, February 27th, 2020 | Posted by CAITLIN MCALLISTER

Cries From the Lost Island-smallCries From the Lost Island
by Kathleen O’Neal Gear
DAW (320 pages, $26 in hardcover/$13.99 digital, March 10, 2020)

Sixteen-year-old Hal Stevens is an outcast. His friend group consists of two people: Robert, a witch and Cleo Mallawi, who believes herself to be the reincarnation of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra.

Hal is a budding historian, who just happens to be obsessed with Egypt. He and Cleo spend every moment of their free time discussing ancient Roman Egypt, which Cleo claims to remember intimately. She provides details Hal could never find in a book or online. Listening to her describe the landscape, politics and the great love between Cleopatra and Marc Anthony fills Hal with wonder.

A bit that fills him with fear is the demons that Cleo also describes, specifically Ammut, the Devourer of the Dead, whom she believes is hunting her in present day.

The stories Cleo has told Hal since they were children quickly transition from fantasy to reality when Hal finds Cleo murdered outside her home. Left with her pleas to help her find eternal rest, a mysterious medallion forced into his hands by his dying friend, and questions that may never be answered, Hal finds himself headed to Egypt with famed archeologist (and Cleo’s uncle) James Moriarity. Robert the witch completes the adventurous trio, bringing along his wards of protection and his sense of humor, which truly does entertain.

Cries From the Lost Island weaves fantasy and history together to create a beautiful adventure that the reader won’t be able to put down. O’Neal Gear, a nationally award-winning archeologist, has created an engrossing quest that spans Colorado to Egypt and brings to life an ancient mystery – what actually happened to Cleopatra and Marc Anthony?

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When Six Americans Defeat an Invading Army: Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column

Thursday, February 20th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

SixthColumn1stEd

Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein. First Edition:
Gnome Press, 1949. Cover by Edd Cartier

Sixth Column
by Robert A. Heinlein (Gnome Press, 1949, 256 pages, $2.50 in hardcover; serialized earlier in Astounding Science Fiction, January-March 1941)

Sixth Column was the earliest novel-length work by Robert A. Heinlein, though it was serialized in Astounding magazine (Jan, Feb, and March 1941, under the pseudonym Anson MacDonald) and not published in book form until 1949, by which time three or four other Heinlein novels had been published as books (Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), Beyond This Horizon (1948), Space Cadet (1948), and perhaps Red Planet, also 1949).

First published in hardcover by Gnome Press under the magazine title Sixth Column (adding the subtitle “A Science Fiction Novel of Strange Intrigue”) it was reprinted for many years in paperback by Signet under the blander title The Day After Tomorrow (a 7th printing with a Gene Szafran cover is shown below, along with the 2012 Baen edition I’ve read for this review). The book isn’t long; 174 pages in the Baen edition, 144 with Signet’s tinier print.

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