Unbound Worlds on a Century of Sword and Planet

Friday, February 2nd, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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Who doesn’t love Sword & Planet? No, don’t send me a bunch of declarative e-mail; it was a rhetorical question. Anyway, there’s only one kind of person who doesn’t love Sword & Planet: someone with no joy in their life.

But it’s perfectly okay to not know where to start. Despite celebrating its 100th birthday last year, Sword & Planet is not as popular as its sister genres (Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Six-Gun, Sword and Sandal, Sword & Sextant, Sword & Slupree….). And that’s okay, we love it just the same. But what is Sword & Planet? Matt Staggs does a fine job recapping the rich history of this venerable sub-genre at Unbound Worlds.

Mash together fantasy’s sword-swinging heroes, and the far-out alien civilizations of early science-fiction, and you’ve got Sword and Planet fiction. Arguably the brainchild of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sword and Planet tales usually features human protagonists adventuring on a planet teeming with life, intelligent or otherwise. Science takes a backseat to romance and derring-do… Where Sword and Planet can really be seen today is in the influence it has had on popular culture. The lightsabers, blasters, and planet-hopping heroics of Star Wars probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Sword and Planet. Neither would Avatar or Stargate.

Interested? Matt also recommends some classic titles by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Vance, Leigh Brackett, Kenneth Bulmer, Chris Roberson, and others. Here’s a few of his recs.

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Criminals, Invading Armies, and a Dragon Hoard: The Six Kingdoms Novels by Bruce Fergusson

Thursday, February 1st, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

The Shadow of His Wings Bruce Fergusson-small The Mace of Souls-small Pass on the Cup of Dreams-small

Two weeks ago I bought a small collection of 90s paperbacks online. There wasn’t anything particularly valuable in the set, but there were several books that I didn’t recognize, and that’s always makes me curious. One was John Deakins’s 1990 novel Barrow, which I talked about here. And another was The Mace of Souls by Bruce Fergusson.

I didn’t recognize the name Fergusson. But after a little digging I discovered The Mace of Souls is the middle book in a fantasy trilogy. This shouldn’t have been surprising (statistically 90% of all titles published in the 90s were the middle book of a fantasy trilogy), but it was. I had to track down the other two volumes, and it turns out there’s an interesting story behind it all.

Bruce Fergusson’s debut novel was The Shadow of His Wings, published in hardcover by Arbor House in 1987 and reprinted in paperback in March 1988 by Avon. It was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and was a finalist for the Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy Novel. I found this fascinating reference in Orson Scott Card’s essay “The State of Amazing, Astounding, Fantastic Fiction in the Twenty-First Century,” in the 2008 Nebula Awards Showcase.

Trilogies and series dominate, but the exciting thing, for me, is the way that the current crop of fantasy writers steal from every source and make it work… I remember back in 1988, when I read Bruce Fergusson’s seminal In the Shadow of His Wings, thinking this is fantasy as the most serious world-creating sci-fi writers would do it. Fergusson himself didn’t follow up, but the method thrives, as Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Kate Elliot, Brandon Sanderson, and Lynn Flewelling have created masterpieces of thoroughly created worlds that, instead of imitating Tolkien’s choices, imitate his method of creation.

Card was incorrect about Fergusson’s follow-up, however… there are two more novels in the series, and more in the pipeline.

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Vintage Treasures: Barrow by John Deakins

Sunday, January 28th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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One of the reasons I like Roc is they have a long reputation of taking chances on new authors. Some of those gambles pay off handsomely, including folks like Jim Butcher, Anne Bishop, Carol Berg, Rob Thurman, and many others. Sometimes the authors involved produce a trilogy or two, and then retire into obscurity. And sometimes, like John Deakins, they produce a single novel and then vanish.

John Deakins’ Barrow was published by Roc in April 1990. It was the first and last book he published with Roc (or any mainstream publisher). There isn’t a lot of information about Deakins online, although I did find this brief bio by blogger Janika Banks, who appears to have been a neighbor.

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Son of Tall Eagle by John R. Fultz

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

Son of Tall Eagle-small

The tree was a god with a thousand arms.

Crawling on its skin I was less than an ant.

I had come to the khaba forest to hunt the Ghost Serpent. For six days I tracked it across the high realm of branch and leaf. I followed it past the ruined wrecks of Opyd nests and skeletal remnants of its former victims. I watched it stalk and devour a wounded jaguar, swallowing the carcass whole. Eventually I followed the great snake to one particular Tree God among the leafy millions. The one that was its home.

So begins John R. Fultz’s new book, Son of Tall Eagle (2017), sequel to The Testament of Tall Eagle (2015). The tale, a model of .swords & sorcery precision, picks up the story of the People, a tribe of Native Americans, 22 years after they were transported by the alien Myktu to their world in order to avoid their mutual destruction. This new home is a land of crystalline mountains, titanic trees, and other, non-human, races.

Once known for his great prowess as a warrior, Tall Eagle has become a passionate student of the Myktus’ advanced civilization, and endeavors to help lead the People into a new age of peace and growth away from the continuous all-consuming Circle of War. The Circle of War is Tall Eagle’s name for the cycle of raiding that occurred between the People and their enemies in the Old World. Now, the People are farmers and some have even given their children Myktu names. Others have taken Myktu spouses, creating a hybrid people. (Aside: technically, this might really be a sword & planet story, but there’s enough magic for me count it as S&S.)

To a great extent, Tall Eagle’s efforts have been successful. Instead of gaining a reputation for audacity in battle, his son, Kai, is known for his skill as a hunter and one of the rare non-Myktu able to ride their giant birds, the Opyds. The birds allow themselves to be ridden only by those they choose, and Kai is one of those few. He is the embodiment of his father’s aspirations for the People: brave but undesirous of being a warrior; instead, a man of peace with a foot in the Myktu world as well as the People’s.

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The Mountain, the Count, and the Air War: Brendan Detzner’s The Orphan Fleet

Monday, January 22nd, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

The Orphan Fleet-small The Hidden Lands-small City of the Forgotten Brendan Detzner-small

I’m a fan of Brendan Detzner’s Orphan Fleet series, the tale of a community of free children on a wind-swept mountain that comes under attack from a vengeful air admiral. Eighteen months ago I invited him to be a guest blogger at Black Gate, and he spoke about the classic science fiction that helped inspire his tale.

I grew up in a house where bookshelves were the most important pieces of furniture, and I was happy to take advantage, but in a hidden corner of the basement was a particularly important shelf, the one where my dad kept his old 70’s science-fiction and fantasy paperbacks. Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe. Not a bad haul. In one of those books, a short story collection from Gene Wolfe, was a story called “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories,” which is about a child reading a story featuring a villain who he later imagines (or maybe not, it’s a Gene Wolfe story) breaking the fourth wall and discussing his role as a bad guy. He talks about how he and the hero seem to hate each other, but that backstage they actually get along and understood their interdependence.

I was enormously impressed by the opening volume in the series, The Orphan Fleet, a fast-paced tale of action set in a community of abandoned children. It’s a fascinating and beautifully realized setting that’s unlike any you’ve encountered before. Here’s what I said in my original review.

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The High House by James Stoddard

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

51nkGCbEv1LI need to find some new superlatives for the books I read. Too often I fall back on “terrific” or “awesome” or just plain “great.” Those are all stalwart words, but after I’ve described two or three books with them, it just seems lazy to describe the next two or three with the same exact words. I do it to make clear I liked a particular book and that I think it’s worth Black Gate readers’ attention, but it’s really lazy of me to just keep using the same superlatives again and again. That said, James Stoddard’s The High House (1998) is exceptional, superb, and top-notch.

The High House of Evenmere is

a truly beautiful pile of building, all masonry, oak, and deep golden brick, a unique blend of styles — Elizabethan and Jacobean fused with Baroque — an irregular jumble balancing the heavy spired tower and main living quarters on the western side with the long span flowing to the graceful L of the servants’ block to the east. Innumerable windows, parapets, and protrusions clustered like happy children, showing in their diversity the mark of countless renovations. Upon the balustrades and turrets stood carved lions, knights, gnomes, and pinecones; iron crows faced outward at the four corners. The Elizabethan entrance, the centerpiece of the manor, was framed by gargantuan gate piers and pavilions, combining Baroque outlines with Jacobean ornamentation.

The building “is the mechanism that propels the universe, (. . .) If the Towers’ clocks are not wound their portion of Creation will fall to Entropy.”

Lord Ashton Anderson is responsible for protecting the High House. The foremost enemy of the house is the Society of Anarchists, led in the field by the Bobby, a man dressed in the uniform of a police constable and with a face from which the features sometimes vanish, leaving him looking like a “faceless doll.”

The story, though, is not Lord Anderson’s, but his son Carter’s. When Carter is nearly killed and the Bobby steals the Master Keys, Lord Anderson sends his son away for safety. Carter doesn’t return for fourteen years, during which time his father vanished while on expedition in the land of the Tigers of Naleewuath.

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Grimmer Than Grim: The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

…since you are my son and the days are grim, I will not speak softly: you may die on that road.

Morwen to her son Húrin

41lJZHCn54L._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_One of the most significant elements of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — and missing from Peter Jackson’s misdirected films — is the almost suffocating atmosphere of great melancholy over a lost, better world; lost due to pride and jealousy. Even in the The Hobbit, a book aimed more at children than adults, it pervades the story, one that depicts the actions of pitiably small individuals against a world that, outside the green confines of Bilbo’s Shire, is dangerous and long bereft of the comforts and protections of civilization and order. It rises in The Lord of the Rings from a mournful undercurrent to a major theme. The characters cross a landscape littered with the ruins and remnants, such as the remains of Amon Sul and the titanic Argonath, of a nearly forgotten past. The once mighty elf realms, even Lothlorien, are reduced to dying shadows of what they were. The towering city of Minas Tirith is crumbling and half-empty.

It’s in the under-read The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s complex sequence of Middle-earth myths and legends, that he fully explores the litany of misbegotten oaths, pride-blinded decisions, betrayals, murders, rapes, and invasions that led to the downfall and destruction of the old world. And between two tales, those of the war of the house of Fëanor and Morgoth and the sinking of Númenor, we learn of the ruination directly underlying the events chronicled in The Lord of the Rings.

One of the worst tragedies told in The Silmarillion is that of doom laid on the family of Húrin Thalion, and specifically the fate of his son Túrin Turambar and daughter Niënor Níniel. Inspired by the Finnish story of Kullervo (a story Tolkien turned his own hand to, released in 2015 and discussed here), Túrin’s fate mimics his but is tied to a greater story that concerns not just his own family but all Middle-earth.

The Children of Húrin (2007) is a standalone expansion of that story, and takes place in the final stages of Morgoth’s (essentially Satan’s) war on the Elves and their human allies. Following their great defeat in the battle of the Dagor Bragollach, the Battle of Sudden Fire, the elves and their allies have spent twenty years rebuilding their forces in order to launch a direct attack on Morgoth’s great fortress, Angband. It is during these preparations that the book opens.

As he readies himself for a battle he has doubts about, Húrin tells his wife, Morwen, that should the Enemy prevail, their son Túrin should be sent to safety in the elven kingdom of Doriath. Húrin’s worries prove well-grounded, and even more disastrously than in the previous battle, the Elves and their allied forces are destroyed. This second great battle is called the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Most of the generals are killed, and the few survivors are driven into hiding as their lands are overrun by orcs and men allied to Morgoth.

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Unbound Worlds on the Best Sci-fi and Fantasy Books of December

Thursday, December 28th, 2017 | Posted by John ONeill

The Chaos of Luck-small Fleet Insurgent-small The Girl in the Tower-small

It that’s time of year again. You know what I’m talking about. That time when everyone and their grandmother publishes a Best of the Year list. Why do they do it? Why??

I’ll tell you why. Because we love them. We love Best of the Year lists, and probably always will. We’ve got a few days left until the end of the year, and we’ll cover as many of them as we can. Starting with Unbound Worlds and their Best Sci-fi and Fantasy Books of December 2017, written by Matt Stags.

The Chaos of Luck by Catherine Cerveny (Felicia Sevigny, Book 2; Orbit, 432 pages, $16, December 5, 2017)

A Brazilian tarot card reader and a Russian crime lord race to stop a conspiracy in this steamy science fiction adventure – the sequel to the exciting series that began with The Rule of Luck.

I completely missed the first Felicia Sevigny novel, The Rule of Luck, released last November from Orbit. I guess that means I have more to look forward to. This series about Brazilian tarot card reader Felicia Sevigny and Russian crime lord Alexei Petriv, the most dangerous man in the TriSystem, is set in the year 2950, after humanity has survived devastating climate shifts and four world wars. Petriv will trust only Felicia to read his cards, but the future she sees is dark indeed.

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Lost and Found Treasure

Friday, December 22nd, 2017 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady

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A few weeks ago, I was cruising Facebook when I stopped up short at a familiar image.

It was on our esteemed editor John O’Neill’s wall. And as is often the case with such things, I was struck by a wealth of memories. I received Sword and Sorceress VII as a gift for my 12th birthday. It was probably bought at the B. Dalton in College Mall in Bloomington, IN, one of two easily accessible bookstores on that side of town back in 1990. (Before anyone does the math too fast, yes, I’m celebrating a big birthday next year. It’s in May, if you want to send gift cards for more books.)

I couldn’t tell you exactly which stories were in this volume. I know it had one of Mercedes Lackey’s “Tarma and Kethry” tales in it, but beyond that none of them stand out alone. But as a whole, that volume changed my life as a reader. While I’d feasted on the The Chronicles of Narnia, Robin McKinley, and Susan Cooper, this book was my first exposure to fantasy for grown-ups. And it was full of women.

When I think casually, 1990 doesn’t feel that far away. But in terms of the way women were portrayed in fiction it was another era entirely, and in ways I can’t even begin to explain unless you were there.

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New Treasures: The Trials of Solomon Parker by Eric Scott Fischl

Sunday, December 17th, 2017 | Posted by John ONeill

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The Trials of Solomon Parker doesn’t look it, but it’s part of a series. A loose series maybe, but still a series. The first novel, Dr Potter’s Medicine Show, was published by Angry Robot back in March. At least you don’t have to wait long between installments.

John Shirley called the first novel “A powerful alchemical elixir concocted of post Civil War historical fiction, dark fantasy, and Felliniesque flavoring.” And the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog labeled it a “gritty, down-and-dirty debut.” In her feature review at Tor.com, Arianne Thompson described it as:

An Enthusiastic Carnival of Horrors… even though Dr. Potter rightly belongs on the “horror/occult” side of the Weird Western spectrum, it cleaves apart from the sensational grimdark vogue that so heavily tints our view of the past. Fischl’s command of his characters’ world is grotesque, vivid, joyful, and sublime — an uncommon realism that honors the human side of history, and a reminder that a carnival of horrors is still a carnival, after all, with miracles and spectacles awaiting anyone brave enough to venture into the sideshow tent.

The B&N Sci-Fi Blog says “compelling and broken characters, and damn good storytelling elevates The Trials of Solomon Parker to whole new level of weird western. Two excellent books in a calendar year – Fischl is definitely a writer to watch.”

The Trials of Solomon Parker was published by Angry Robot on October 3, 2017. It is 384 pages, priced at $7.99 in paperback and $6.99 for the digital edition. The cover is by Steven Meyer-Rassow.

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