Rogue Blades Presents: Recalling a Fantasy Hero — Hanse Shadowspawn

Friday, September 18th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

Thieves' World-Walter-VelezAs I’ve written before, my introduction to Sword and Sorcery literature came not through the more traditional routes of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, etc. I first delved into Sword and Sorcery almost by accident about 1979 when at the age of nine I picked up a collection of fantasy short stories titled Thieves’ World, the first in what eventually would become a long series of anthologies and novels and even gaming-related material.

At that point in my young life I had discovered Tolkien, and I had read what was then the first of Terry Brooks’ Shannara books, but that was about the extent of my fantasy readings outside of comic books.

Thieves’ World opened my eyes to a much larger and somewhat darker potential for fantasy literature, one I had yet to envision at that time.

Yet my love for the series, and for Sword and Sorcery, would not come immediately upon opening the book. The introduction by series editor Robert Asprin proved interesting enough as did the first short story, “Sentences of Death” by John Brunner, and the following tales were also worthy reads.

Yet when I got to the fourth tale, “Shadowspawn” by Andrew Offutt, something … changed. Something opened within me.

This tale featured one Hanse Shadowspawn, a young, cocky thief who often wore bright garb by the day but dark garb by the night. And he also wore a dozen or so daggers about his body. Hanse showed himself to be a cocky, swaggering sort of fellow, though he also had a soft spot for those he loved.

Over the next forty or so years throughout multiple short stories and a few novels, Hanse Shadowspawn still remains one of my favorite fantasy characters. Despite his upbringing on the roughest streets of the city of Sanctuary, he became a friend to royalty, rescued a near-god from a fate worse than death, found love, grew old and learned his parentage consisted of … but that would be telling. I’ll try to leave more than a little mystery. Let’s just say, Hanse proved no mere thief, and he was the best at what he did for a reason, for several reasons.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XVIII: A Mermaid In Paris

Friday, September 18th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

A Mermaid In ParisBack in my 2014, my first year covering the Fantasia Festival for Black Gate, I reviewed an animated movie called Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, the debut film from director Mathias Malzieu. The songwriter and lead singer of French pop band Dionysos, Malzieu’s also a writer; Jack was also a concept album and novel as well as a film. Now Malzieu’s got a new movie, filled with singing and dancing and whimsy. A Mermaid In Paris (Une sirène à Paris) has many of the same visual influences as Jack, but moves beyond them in a new way. Although it has a happier ending, it also has a truer feel for melancholy and grief, and with that a sense of greater depth.

We follow Gaspard (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a singer at a bar owned by his father Camille (Tchéky Karyo) who is thinking about selling the magical place, located on a boat, hidden under a café. One night, Paris is flooded, and Gaspard finds a beautiful mermaid (Marilyn Lima) washed up on the cobbles. He takes her to a hospital where, unknown to him, she gains strength by draining the life of a doctor, Victor (Alexis Michalik), with her song. Unable to get the staff to give her treatment, Gaspard takes her home, not knowing that Victor’s wife Milena (Romane Bohringer) has sworn to find her husband’s killer. Will Lula, the mermaid, kill Gaspard? Will Gaspard, who believes he cannot love a woman after a failed relationship in his past, be drawn to her nevertheless? If so, will Lula survive, who must be returned to her native element?

Such the questions of the film. We get fine answers, though the plot that provides them is a bit ragged, here and there. Specifically, Milena is a little underplayed. Nominally the villain, she doesn’t do that much over the course of the movie, and creates little sense of tension or threat. In a way, that’s a testament to how much Bohringer brings to the part; it’s impossible not to feel for her, and Malzieu’s direction and visual imagination makes her love for Victor a powerful counterpart to the development of Gaspard and Lula’s love.

It’s also true that the basic tone of the movie is one of romance, not logic. Reality is heightened, the visual world of the film shaped by emotion, primarily love. This is the Paris of fairy-tales and dreams: colour is rich, music is everywhere, the people are whimsical and lightly ironic. Where Malzieu’s first film was strongly influenced by Tim Burton, this one marries the Burton feel to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, specifically the Jeunet of Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. It is the kind of city into which a mermaid might wash up, and if the people of the film show less surprise at a mermaid than you might expect, that’s probably why.

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Future Treasures: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Friday, September 18th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Hench Natalie Zina Walschots-small Hench Natalie Zina Walschots-back-small

You know what we need in these dark, pandemic filled days? A good superhero tale. Natalie Zina Walschots’s debut novel Hench looks like it could fit the bill. Kirkus says it’s “A fiendishly clever novel that fizzes with moxie and malice,” and in a starred review Publishers Weekly calls it a “hilarious peek behind the scenes of supervillains’ lairs… [with] gripping action and gut-wrenching body horror.” It arrives in hardcover on Tuesday. Here’s the description.

The Boys meets My Year of Rest and Relaxation in this smart, imaginative, and evocative novel of love, betrayal, revenge, and redemption, told with razor-sharp wit and affection, in which a young woman discovers the greatest superpower — for good or ill — is a properly executed spreadsheet.

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy?

As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured. And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.

So, of course, then she gets laid off.

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Goth Chick News: The (Trend-Setting) House on Haunted Hill

Thursday, September 17th, 2020 | Posted by Sue Granquist

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House on Haunted Hill (Allied Artists, 1959)

In 2019 (aka “the Time Before”) one of the quintessential horror movies of our time celebrated its 60th birthday. The House on Haunted Hill (1959) starring Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Alan Marshal and Julia Mitchum was not only critically acclaimed in its own time, but still has an 88% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes today. Filmed for $200K over the course of 14 days in 1958, the film has netted over $1.5M and counting, thanks to video rentals and streaming. Ironically, its 40th anniversary remake in 1999, starring Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen cost $37M to make and has only netted $43M to date worldwide, making the original House proportionally the clear winner with fans.

What you may not know is the many ground-breaking elements of the film which still influence entertainment and promotion today. To start, director William Castle was the original master of guerilla marketing. His technique first appeared with his movie Macabre (1958) but due to its success, it was replicated with House a year later. Mr. Castle offered $1,000 Lloyd’s of London insurance policies for those brave enough to watch his horror film. However, if anyone with the policy by the died of fright during the movie, that person’s next of kin would be paid $1,000. In addition to this, Castle had select theater owners station nurses in their lobbies and park hearses outside. Castle himself said it was a shame no one actually expired during his movies as it would have been exceptional publicity. Today, directors such as J.J. Abrams (Super 8) and J.A. Bayona (Jurassic World; Fallen Kingdom) have taken such gimmicks even further to promote their films. Just Google the name of the movie and “guerilla marketing” to see the examples.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XVII: Feels Good Man

Thursday, September 17th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Feels Good ManI try to keep an eye on comics, but like many people my first exposure to Pepe the Frog was as a poorly-drawn meme spouting racism. I remember reading about Pepe’s comics origin, but the name of Matt Furie, the cartoonist who created him, remained a piece of trivia. As did his comic Boy’s Club, where the frog first appeared. Now there’s a documentary telling the whole story of Furie, Pepe, and Boy’s Club — a tale of politics, appropriation, and how art can be used in ways the artist could not imagine, for worse and for better.

Feels Good Man is the debut film from director Arthur Jones, and it’s solid work, starting with its structure. It begins with Furie, a soft-spoken man who discusses his early life and work up through the creation of Boy’s Club. The cast of the comic were four anthropomorphic animals loosely representing parts of himself, and Pepe the Frog was one of the less important of the four. Furie has no problem in saying that the book was full of lowbrow humour — Pepe’s name was chosen, he says, because it sounded a little like pee-pee.

One page would turn out to be more important than he could dream, with a sequence in which one of Pepe’s roommates accidentally walks in on the frog in the bathroom, and sees him pissing with his pants and underwear all the way down to his ankles. Later the roommate asks Pepe why he lowers his pants so far and Pepe says “Feels good man.” That catchphrase spread as a joke, first among Furie’s friends, and then beyond, and then to the internet in the form of a meme.

Here the film moves away from Furie to discuss memes, and the 4chan message board, and its culture of offensiveness and self-loathing, and how Pepe fit into all of that. Much of the film from this point on shows Pepe and his image mutating further and further, joined in memes with characters like Wojak, co-opted by the racists of the alt-right, used by nihilists to push the election of Donald Trump — used even by Trump himself. Pepe was listed as a symbol of hate by the Anti-Defamation League, despite the best efforts of Furie to regain control of the image. Internet tech-bros paid ridiculous sums for ‘rare Pepes’ on the blockchain. Then, out of nowhere, an improbably happy ending, as pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong come across the frog online and use him as a symbol of their movement.

Furie remains a constant throughout the film, and he makes a satisfying if soft-spoken protagonist. You have to feel sympathy for him — his artistic creation was used without his permission in a way he abhorred but was powerless to stop. We see that Furie’s more than Pepe, and get a sense of his other work; we also see the difference between the Pepe he draws and the Pepe redrawn in memes, how Furie’s warm, thick ink line is more inviting, how his graphic sensibility recalls underground cartoonists and through them classic animation.

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Doors Open, Doors Closed: Alan Garner’s Elidor

Thursday, September 17th, 2020 | Posted by Thomas Parker

(1) Elidor, Del Rey-small (1) Elidor, Del Rey-back-small

Elidor (Del Rey, July 1981). Cover by Laurence Schwinger

One of the best things about starting a book is that you can never be sure exactly how you’re going to respond to it, and those responses can range all the way from hurl the damned thing across the room hatred to toe-curling bliss, with all of a million subtle shadings in between. Every once in a while, though, a book breaks through even the upper ranges of enjoyment and appreciation and just absolutely knocks you flat, a reaction that’s especially powerful when you aren’t expecting it. That’s what happened to me when I reached onto the summer reading pile and came away with a book that I’ve probably had for twenty years or more without ever getting around to, Alan Garner’s 1965 fantasy novel, Elidor. It’s ostensibly a children’s book, but I’ve rarely had a more adult dose of fantasy.

Garner’s contributions to the genre have been few but intense, consisting of the Adderly Edge trilogy (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and Boneyard), Elidor, The Owl Service, and (depending on your definition of the fantastic) Red Shift. The first of these books appeared in 1960 and the last in 1973. (The exception is Boneyard, which was published in 2012, almost fifty years after the second book in its group.) Since the mid-seventies, Garner has abandoned fantasy and devoted himself to essays, memoirs, and works based on English history or folklore. His fantastic fiction is a testament to the proposition that you don’t have to keep on doing something if you do it right the first time. (He has said that he resisted pressure to turn each book into a series because to crank out automatic sequels “would render sterile the existing work, the life that produced it, and bring about my artistic and spiritual death.”)

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Fantasia 2020, Part XVI: Me And Me

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Me And MeOne of the genuinely wonderful things about covering a film festival is occasionally getting to be among the first audiences for a movie trying something new. That is, being an early viewer of a movie that does things unlike other movies, and getting to make one’s own mind up on whether those things work. Movies at a festival have often not had a critical consensus formed around them, and have not yet been defined by other writers or had their influences mapped out. You as the viewer are alone with the thing, almost contextless, in a way that’s rare these days.

I feel this most vividly with movies I don’t fully understand. Not movies I think are bad, or movies I’m wholly sure are good, but movies into which I must feel my way slowly even after seeing them. Like or dislike a blockbuster tentpole, a Marvel film or Star Wars film, I understand what they’re trying to do and how. It’s when watching a movie that gives me clues but baffles me, a movie that clearly is animated by wisdom and intelligence but which I can’t quite assemble into a coherent whole, that I’m aware of being among the first to try to articulate what I’m seeing.

To say all this is to give an idea of the effect of Me And Me (Sarajin Sigan, 사라진 시간). It’s the debut feature from Jung Jin-young, who also wrote the picture. Jung’s a veteran actor, and he’s clearly thought through what he wants to do with his movie. At one viewing, I will not claim to fully understand it. But then, it’s fair to say that understanding is not always necessary to appreciate art.

The movie starts in a small village in Korea, with a young teacher, Soo-hyuk (Bae Soo-bin), and his wife Yi-young (Cha Su-yeon). It soon becomes clear that Yi-young has a problem: at nightfall she’s possessed by a spirit of a dead person. Not necessarily the same dead person every night, either. News of this spreads through the village, and leads to tragedy, which brings a police detective, Hyung-gu (Cho Jin-woong) to town. (Cho’s also the star of Jesters: The Game Changers, an example of a film that does what it does in a much more linear manner.)

With Hyung-gu’s entrance on the scene the story shifts to follow him as he investigates the rustics of the town. By about the middle of the film all the mysteries seem to be cleared up, and we at least think we know what’s happened. Then there’s a swerve. Without wanting to give away too much, it may be said that Hyung-gu wakes up to a very different life. As he, and we, try to work out what’s happened, unexpected connections come to light; the movie does some odd structural things; finally it ends, with the plot apparently not resolved as we might have looked for, but with a circularity (and a shot repeated from the opening) that implies things have worked their way around to a slightly better state.

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Alien Languages and Scientific Mysteries: The Best of Hal Clement

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020 | Posted by James McGlothlin

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The Best of Hal Clement (Del Rey, 1979). Cover by H. R. Van Dongen

The Best of Hal Clement (1979) was, according to my research, the nineteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. (Only two more to go!) Lester Del Rey (1915–1993) provided the introduction (his fifth and final in the series). Hal Clement, whose real name was Henry Clement Stubbs (1922–2003), was still living at the time and thus available to do the Afterward. Sci-fi artist H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) provides his eighth cover in the series. His work graced more volumes than any other artist in the series.

The first time I heard of Hal Clement was in a Black Gate post by John O’Neill back in 2013 about this very book. As usual, John gave a fine review. But I commented back then (you can still see my response in the original post):

This review in no way enticed me to seek out or try reading any Hal Clement. I don’t think it was a bad review, Clement just doesn’t sound very compelling to me.

Why this reaction? In that post John O’Neill accurately summed up Clement’s writing:

Clement wrote in a category that is nearly extinct today: true hard science fiction, in which The Problem — the scientific mystery or engineering puzzle at the heart of the tale — is the central character, and the flesh-and-blood characters that inhabit the story are there chiefly to solve The Problem. When Clement talked about writing, he mostly talked about the requirement to keep his stories as scientifically accurate as possible; he described the essential role of science fiction readers as “finding as many as possible of the author’s statements or implications which conflict with the facts as science currently understands them.”

John further commented, “Okay, that ain’t how I view my role as a reader — and I read a fair amount of hard SF. But your mileage may vary.”

So, to say the least, I was not looking forward to reviewing The Best of Hal Clement. “Hard” science fiction does not sound like my cup of tea. Nevertheless, to my surprise, I really enjoyed this book.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XV: Kakegurui

Tuesday, September 15th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

KakeguruiConsider if you will the high school story. By which I mean a story set at a high school, usually involving some members of the student body. It’s relatively unusual for these kinds of stories to be about actual academic achievement, or to put more than maybe one or two members of the faculty in the foreground. It happens, of course. But usually high school stories are about the students, and their lives and interactions, with classes and teachers and adults as external factors that can be used to shape the story but are ultimately incidental to it.

In this sense Kakegurui may be considered to approach the platonic ideal of the high school story, dealing as it does with a school for the children of the ultra-rich where there are no teachers and no classes and no adults. All the students do is gamble, with not only money but status on the line. A tyrannical student council runs the school, and those who lose the games become slaves — called ‘kitties’ or ‘doggies’ depending on gender.

The movie was directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa from a script Hanabusa wrote with Minato Takano; it’s an entry in a franchise that started with a manga written by Homura Kawamoto and illustrated by Toru Naomura. There are spin-offs series and a prequel, along with an anime adaptation. The live-action movie follows the continuity of a live-action TV version, which has run for two seasons and is available on Netflix. I haven’t watched the show, but there were relatively few manga adaptations at Fantasia this year; and I tend to enjoy those more than most do, perhaps because I have little experience with the original comics. At any rate, I watched Kakegurui (also Kakegurui: The Movie, Eiga: Kakegurui, 映画 賭ケグルイ), and was entertained.

The first minutes of the Kakegurui film introduce us to the school, Hyakkaou Private Academy, and to some of the people and factions at play. A mysterious transfer student named Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe, Ajin: Demi-Human) emerges as the lead character, but there are also a group of punkish rebels, and a puritanical sect of anti-gambling students who have formed a Village of their own in an unused building on the school grounds. The plot of the film’s mainly to do with Jabami being pulled into the conflict between the Village and the student council, but there are schemes within schemes at play.

Which is to say that the film doesn’t end with anything approaching finality. It’s still mostly satisfying. The construction of the plot’s solid, and I’m impressed at how much exposition is delivered quickly yet comprehensibly in the film’s opening minutes. Much of what’s set up pays off, but this is clearly an installment in an ongoing story, and while it wraps things up for its main characters the institution of the school remains relatively untouched.

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Many Paths of Character Creation

Tuesday, September 15th, 2020 | Posted by Patrick Kanouse

Star Wars Force & Destiny-small Star Wars Force & Destiny back-small

For many RPG gamers, creating characters is one of the highlights of gaming. They get to make significant choices and craft and hone their character to their vision. If they are invested in the character, players typically engage more in the collaborative storytelling environment that RPGs are. For many players, this is the most creative time in the process, for thereafter they engage in the setting as laid out by the game master (GM). They may have an influence on the game and that setting, but the act of creating primarily — if not exclusively — resides with the GM after character creation. Even in truly sandbox games where the players can go wherever and do whatever, they are operating within the construct of the GM.

RPGs across the spectrum devote pages to character creation, often taking up a significant portion of any rulebook and entire supplements that provide new options. Most games lay out these options as a series of choices the player makes — though always reserving GM fiat.

Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars: Force and Destiny, and others use a process whereby you select a species (if applicable), select a career, apply a number of adjustments to the basic character template, and then make choices about talents and specializations and skill choices. The names may vary (class, feats, etc.), but the basic principles remain. For example, in Force and Destiny from the core rulebook, players choose from one of eight species. These have default attribute score adjustments and some level of unique trait or ability (breathing underwater for Nautolans for example). Players then choose from one of four careers and then choose from one of three specializations in that career. One of the narrative or logical challenges with this construct is that if you want to play a 40-year old human smuggler, you may have the exact set of skill points, etc., as other players, who may have a 20-year old bounty hunter just making her mark on the world. Truth be told, this is not a significant challenge, but one nonetheless. Particularly in class-based systems. My 40-year old cleric is at level one — the same as that 20-year old barbarian.

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