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Talking Terry Pratchett

Talking Terry Pratchett

It’s always a good time to talk about Terry Pratchett! He was, simply, brilliant. Pratchett, who passed away in 2015 from Alzheimer’s, wrote the terrific fantasy series, Discworld. He gets my vote as one of the great satirists of our time. And he used classical fantasy tropes to do it! Did I mention, ‘brilliant’?

I re-read (and listen to) Pratchett books throughout the year. I got in the mood again recently, and did a mini-binge. Discworld is fantasy world, with the entertainingly horrible city of Ankh-Morpork at its center. Parody, homage, satire – they are fantastic books. Pratchett pokes fun at our world (especially, society) though these books. If you Google search, ‘Terry Pratchett quotes.’ you will get some absolutely terrific ones. Most are from his books, but real-life ones can be pretty hilarious, too. The man was just incredibly funny. Add in being very observant, and a good writer, and you have the ingredients of a great author.

JINGO

It started when I decided to listen to a Pratchett audio book during the work day last week. I’ve read the series a couple times, and I can miss a bit here and there as I work. Jingo is one of the City Watch books. There are several ‘sub-series’ in the Discworld series, involving central characters. My favorite is the one with Sam Vimes and the City Watch. They are essentially very entertaining police procedurals, in a fantasy world. They’re a blast.

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Cleve Cartmill, The Devil’s in the Details

Cleve Cartmill, The Devil’s in the Details


Astounding Science Fiction, March 1944, containing “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill. Cover by William Timmins

Pulp writer Cleve Cartmill (1908 – 1964) is probably best known for writing the story that prompted an FBI visit to John W. Campbell’s office at Astounding. The story in question, “Deadline” (March, 1944), featured a bomb eerily similar to the one being developed by the Manhattan Project at the time. As an educated science fiction audience, Black Gate readers probably do not need that old story re-hashed. Instead, I’ll tell you about three of Cartmill’s fantasy stories published in Unknown, all of which are interesting and worth reading.

Historically, Cartmill is considered a competent but undistinguished pulp writer. In A Requiem for Astounding, Alva Rogers writes — “Cartmill wrote with an easy and colloquial fluidity that made his stories eminently readable.” I agree. But I also think there’s more to him than that. In the three pulp fantasy stories I’ll be reviewing here — “Bit of Tapestry” (1941), “Wheesht!” (1943), and “Hell Hath Fury” (1943) — Cartmill examines some deeper themes including free will and what makes us human. Although he doesn’t always follow through on these ideas, you are asked to think about them.

As a heads up, there will be heavy spoilers in this article.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard – The Series

Discovering Robert E. Howard – The Series

Back in 2015, because I didn’t know any better, I thought I could reach out to Robert E. Howard experts and fans from around the world, and convince them to contribute essays about Robert E Howard, for a Black Gate series. Yeah, I know: “Who are you, Byrne? Why do you think you can pull this off?” Because I don’t have the common sense that God gave a rock. Also – I can’t even sing as well as a rock (Bible reference there). So, without a clue (GREAT movie!), I reached out to a few folks, got pointed to a few more, and with the Black Gate name behind me, rounded up a VERY knowledgeable and talented group.

Howard was much more than just the creator of Conan (who I LOVE). He, of course, wrote many other characters, and for many other markets and genres. He lived an interesting life as well. And some generous folks contributed some tremendous essays!

It was a fantastic series, nominated for a Robert E. Howard Foundation award. The Howard community loved it, to no one’s surprise. The wide-ranging look at REH, covering his life and his works, was a superb addition to REH scholarship. It also planted the seeds for a follow-up series at Black Gate, Hither Came Conan, which was an even bigger hit! And you fans of either series, it will be a trilogy, as we’ll be emulating Hither Came Conan with another Howard character. But I’ve got another non-Howard series to put together first.

Here below is the entire series (which included a blog series being done separately by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward). I intentionally minimized the Conan content, as the goal was to paint a broad REH picture. And we covered Conan in depth with Hither Came Conan. Click on a few links and explore the amazing world of Robert E. Howard. Some tremendous stuff, which Black Gate was proud to bring together.

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Warrior Women Watch-a-thon Part 1: The Good

Warrior Women Watch-a-thon Part 1: The Good

I am currently in the first draft mire of a fantasy novel, bogged down by self-doubt and synonyms, but bravely wading on regardless. It’s the sort of sweeping epic that could get picked up and made into a second-rate show by a streaming service desperate for content, but my lofty aspirations aren’t the problem right now; rather, it is my need to educate myself as a writer. I generally avoid over-describing characters, but on two occasions I found myself writing about a pair of fighters and focusing less on their motivations and more on the amount of exposed thigh between their boots and Faulds. This had nothing to do with serving the story, and more to do with titillating 14-yr-old me and, after some revision, it got me thinking about the influences that led me here.

Born in the late sixties, my formative years were spent in 1970’s Britain, surrounded by page 3, Benny Hill, Carry On and Leela on Dr. Who. Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman was all the rage, and Caroline Munro was in everything I loved. Women could be warriors but, by thunder, they had to be sexy too.

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By Crom: A Pair of Perrys (Conan)

By Crom: A Pair of Perrys (Conan)

I have talked about Conan pastiches in a couple of prior Black Gate posts; and I’ve linked to them at the bottom of this one. Here’s something from one of them:

From 1982 through 2003, eight authors (though primarily four) cranked out 43 new Conan novels for Tor. At two per year, the quality varied wildly, as you can imagine. John M. Roberts’ Conan the Rogue is an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and one of my favorite Conan books. Steve Perry’s Conan the Indomitable is one of the worst fantasy books I’ve ever read (even though it is a direct sequel to Perry’s Conan the Defiant, which I mostly liked.)

So, let’s take a look at those two Steve Perry books. I think that Ryan Harvey may hold Roland Green in less esteem than he does Perry, but I suspect it’s a close call. I think that Perry was the Tor author cranking out Conan books just for the money. On the whole, they’re bad, and I recommend everyone else ahead of him. Though I don’t recommend Green much, if ever. I talk about the books, and Conan writers, who I like, in the other posts below. You can see what I consider good about them. I don’t think Perry respected the character, or cared about the quality of the plot. Having said that, Conan the Defiant wasn’t too bad as a sword and sorcery paperback. Unfortunately, its follow-up was tripe.

Conan the Defiant

Conan the Defiant is the second of the five novels which Perry wrote in the Tor Series. In William Galen Gray’s chronology it is the fourth Conan tale (following Conan of Venarium, “Legions of the Dead” and “The Thing in the Crypt”), and taking place before Sean Moore’s Conan the Hunter.

The young Conan comes upon a lone priest being waylaid by five bandits. Impressed with the stranger’s skill with a wooden staff, the Cimmerian wades in and helps the man dispatch his opponents. Cengh, a priest of the Suddah Oblates, is later murdered, sending Conan on a quest of justice for his short-time friend.

In typical Conan fashion, he beds Elashi, a desert-bred warrior maiden, as well as Tuanne, a beautiful zombie. Yep, a zombie. Being the irresistible stud he is, the trio engage in threesomes all along their trek to the bad guy’s castle. This one seems to rate higher than normal on the Conan adolescent fantasies scale.

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Rogue Blades presents: “Deep in the Land of Ice and Snow”

Rogue Blades presents: “Deep in the Land of Ice and Snow”

Return of the Sword-smallMy short story “Deep in the Land of Ice and Snow” originally appeared in the collection The Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure by Rogue Blades Entertainment. Enjoy.


The wolves were too many. Belgad knew that as he soon as he spotted the beasts. There were nearly a score of them, and if that were not bad enough, the creatures were huge, each nearly the size of a riding pony. What was worse, the wolves were quiet and had managed to surround him without his spying them sooner.

No, this was no ordinary pack. They had appeared from nowhere, and they had no qualms about scaling the side of a mountain for their human prey.

Belgad forced himself to climb higher, the bitter cold winds whipping at his long yellow hair. His fingers, the tips protruding from rags he had used to swaddle them, gripped the edge of another boulder and lifted him with the help of solid placement from his fur-lined boots.

On top of the boulder, Belgad found a flat spot and sat there, letting the cold air fill his tired lungs. His body needed rest after days of hiking dense forests and climbing steep hills, but he would not close his eyes; the wolves were drawing nearer, below and above. It would only be a matter of time before they would pounce.

After what felt like hours to the big man wrapped in furs, one of the wolves, the largest, began to creep its way along a narrow path toward him.

Belgad watched the animal with anticipation, knowing soon he would be in battle.

Eventually the wolf was below Belgad, just out of reach of the man’s legs hanging off the side of his stone seat.

“Will you eat me today, wolf?” the large man said to the animal.

The wolf’s only reply was uplifted ears and a tilted head.

“I think not,” Belgad said, drawing in his legs and pushing off them so he was standing on the boulder.

The wolf blinked, and that was when Belgad took notice of its eyes. The animal had eyes the shade of morning blue ice.

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Rogue Blades Presents: Recalling a Fantasy Hero — Hanse Shadowspawn

Rogue Blades Presents: Recalling a Fantasy Hero — Hanse Shadowspawn

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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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Of Lambs and Lizardmen

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Of Lambs and Lizardmen

For the Killing of Kings-small Upon the Flight of the Queen-small When the Goddess Wakes-small

The Ring-Sworn Trilogy by Howard Andrew Jones: For the Killing of Kings (Feb 2019), Upon the Flight of the Queen
(November 2019) and the forthcoming When the Goddess Wakes (April 2021)

A bit of prologue and some full disclosure to the Gentle Reader

The purpose of this column has been looking at the challenges of historicity vs. fantasy in the process of world-building; well at least when the fantasy in question is trying to be either realistic or set in our world or a near-neighbor. From contrasting the visual departure of Jackson’s LotR films as a more effective means of showing the vast sweep of Middle Earth’s history, to critiquing the swordplay of the Witcher TV show, to interviewing authors who play in both the worlds of Historical Fiction and Fantasy,  I’ve come to realize we have a pretty clear continuum:

  1. Historical Fiction – just what it says. Whether it’s set in the Paleolithic or WWII, it’s a story set in our own past, with the ostensible goal of painting a portrait of that time and place.
  2. Historical Fiction with Elements of “Magical Realism” – really more of a technique of “literature” but the story is more or less as above but there may be hints or some unexplained and unexplainable element.
  3. Historical Fantasy – this is a specialty for folks like last month’s interviewee Scott Oden. Our historical past, only elements of magic, monsters, etc., exist, something like a “secret history.” A lot of traditional sword & sorcery exists here, but so does the fantastical work of writers like Judith Tarr or G. Willow Wilson.
  4. Low Fantasy in a Secondary World – the world I NOT ours, and may not even be based on any clear cognate of our civilizations, but it’s “realistic” in the sense that it’s technology and structure follows our historical models. Magic and monsters exist, but farming gets done with an iron plow and three-field rotation, people ride horses and camels (or something like them), etc. A lot, if not most, of fantasy fits this model and fantasy.
  5. High Fantasy – Magic is powerful and sweeping, there are non-human races who can do magical things, the gods may be capable of manifesting themselves or their will, etc. A lot of epic fantasy fits into this mode.

We can quibble on where those lines are (Tolkien is High Fantasy, but is Martin?), and maybe there are further subdivisions (for example, Urban Fantasy overlays the last two), but the definitions work for this column because the further you go from #1 on the continuum, the less important “historicity” becomes. 

Which brings me to my guest….

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Of Orks and Orkney

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Of Orks and Orkney

Scott Oden Scott Odin

One of these men is an author, the other is Odin…there’s more commonality than you might think.

Scott Oden  is an American writer best known for his historical novels set in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, and historical fantasy. Oden’s breakthrough novel was 2005’s Men of Bronze, set in late Pharonic Egypt; it was followed in 2006 by Memnon and in 2010 with The Lion of Cairo, which mixed pulp-style action and sorcery with Crusader politics in Fatimid Egypt. His most recent novels are the opening volumes of the saga of Grimnir, the last orc, following a quest for revenge across the centuries, from Brian Boru’s Ireland in the 11th century to 14th century Messina in the forthcoming third and final volume. Considering how much his areas of interest and writing overlap with Christian Cameron, whom I interviewed last month, it was fascinating to see how much the two authors methods of world building do, and don’t, overlap.

GM: So you’ve written both historical fiction and fantasy. Which genre was your first love?

SO: Definitely fantasy. The Hobbit was my gateway text, back when I was 8 or 9 years old, and I quickly followed that with The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s Conan (the Ace editions), and eventually Moorcock’s Elric and Karl Wagner’s Kane. I liked some historical fiction as a kid, mainly the fictionalized biographies of Harold Lamb — especially Alexander of Macedon… what kid wouldn’t marvel to the feats of Alexander, as described by Lamb? I was — and remain — a huge aficionado of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse myth. I had this little pocket-sized encyclopedia from Scholastic called Gods, Demigods, and Demons by Bernard Evslin. I still have that battered old copy . . . [GM: So do I!!!]

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Rogue Blades Presents: It’s a Time for Heroes

Rogue Blades Presents: It’s a Time for Heroes

the-lost-empire-of-sol-front-cover-smallIn a matter of weeks, months, it has become a different world. Even within the confines of speculative literature and what’s oft referred to as nerd or geek culture, there have been big changes. For instance, disappointing to those of us who had planned to attend this year, Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, has been canceled, as have hundreds of conventions and gatherings across the globe. Closer to home for me, a board member of Rogue Blades Foundation, a nonprofit publisher focusing on all things heroic, we have had to push back to 2021 publication of the book Robert E. Howard Changed My Life (though The Lost Empire of Sol is still expected to be published next month).

Now don’t think this is grousing, complaining. I’m merely pointing out how some of the world has changed of late. For that matter, some of the changes aren’t all bad.

As a writer and editor, I normally work from home, so all this isolation most of us are having to contend with of late isn’t new to me. What is new for me is that everybody else is home. Including all my online gaming buddies. And most of them don’t seem to be working at home. Which means they have lots of time for Dungeons & Dragons. Which means I have lots of time for Dungeons & Dragons. And other games. Which means I’m getting less work done than usual.

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