The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman
(Tor Books, May 2021). Cover by Marie Bergeron
“Christophe the Insulter” was for years the single funniest performer at the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Wisconsin, with one of the best cons… er…. shows: Pay me to insult your friends in front of an audience. The more you pay, the more I roast them. It was dark, it was brutal, it was wickedly funny and everyone went away feeling good — even the victims.
Interestingly, that sums up the writing of Christophe’s real identity as horror (and now fantasy) writer Christopher Buehlman; a man whose growing canon of work is filled with some of the most disturbing and dark portrayals of classic horrors — vampires, werewolves, demons (and angels, who are pretty scary, too), and necromancers — but also moments of just brilliant, wicked humor and you always close the back cover deeply satisfied. Consequently, I was deeply excited to read his first foray into mainstream fantasy — The Blacktongue Thief.
It’s been a little while since we visited. If you don’t recall, last time, I took to task G. Willow Wilson for writing a lovely tale in The Bird King, that at the same time it has been hailed for providing strong feminist and Muslim characters, did so by perpetuating centuries old stereotypes about the Spanish Inquisition and creating antagonists that literally could never have existed. In short, to tell the tale she wanted, Wilson mangles Iberian history, and doesn’t provide so much as a footnote to acknowledge it.
I ended that column with:
Wilson is one of a number of authors doing a beautiful job of mainstreaming and normalizing Muslim characters and settings in fiction. But it is problematic doing so while promulgating false historical narratives. Please, give us a more realistic presentation, a detailed Author’s Note at the end, or just make it a secondary world that is so obviously based on our own, but the names have been changed to protect the guilty. Guy Gavriel Kay has made an entire career at just this, and is probably blurring the line between Historical Fantasy and Low Fantasy. He’s absolutely one of my favorite writers.
Now, I get to have my Marc Antony moment: Friends, Readers, Countrymen, I come to critique Guy Gavriel Kay, not to praise him….
G. Willow-Wilson author photo by Amber French for SyFy.com
Since this column began this year, we’ve looked at the visual continuity of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (and why, ironically, it does a better job of wordlessly telling the sweep of Middle Earth’s history than Tolkien’s millennia-long, cultural stasis does), authenticity (and lack thereof) in The Witcher, and talked about the commonalities and differences of historical fiction and fantasy with several, excellent authors who work in both arenas. Along the way, I’ve coined a few loose terms (or rather, put existing ones into a hierarchy):
Historical Fiction — Stories set in our world, but in generations prior to ours, generally just on the edge, or earlier, of living memory.
Historical Fantasy — Stories set in the same milieu as the above, but with fantastical elements, sometimes very subtle (a lot of magical realism falls in here), sometimes not so — urban fantasy set in bygone eras, alternate history with vampires, or magic works, or orcs, etc. The world is clearly our own, so the fantastical elements can’t too dramatically upset that balance.
Low Fantasy — Stories set in a secondary world, that is “realistic” to varying degrees but generally follows the real world in terms of technology, laws of physics, etc. A great deal of old-school Sword & Sorcery, and modern Grimdark fit in here.
High Fantasy — sky is the limit. The secondary world has its own peoples, its own laws, and it is whatever the author wishes it to be. Anything from Tolkien’s Middle Earth to Zelazny’s Amber, the worlds of Brandon Sanderson, Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan all fit here.
In the future, we’ll look at these “big themes” and interviews with authors once more. But it’s time to look at how actual works play with these ideas, to varying degrees of success. And here is the trick: success as a novel, does not necessarily mean success as history. In these next two columns, I’m going to look at two authors whose work I really enjoy — and talk about why a particular work of theirs just didn’t work for me. In one case, because of a failure of historical authenticity; in the other, because of too much slavish devotion to it.
Adrian Cole is hardly a stranger to fantasy fiction.
Born in Plymouth, Devonshire in 1949, Adrian first read The Lord of the Rings in the late 1960s while working in a public library in Birmingham, and was inspired by the book to write an epic entitled “The Barbarians,” which was eventually revised into The Dream Lords trilogy, published by Zebra Books in the early 1970s. He has been writing various ghost, horror, and fantasy tales, in both short-story and novel-length, ever since. His career is well-established and diverse, from psychological, alien-horror, to superheroes, fantasy trilogies to young-adult novels.
So it is particularly interesting that Adrian’s newest work is an anthology of stories about the adventurer Elak of Atlantis: Elak, King of Atlantis, which was just released earlier this month by Pulp Hero Press.
Atlantis? A vogue setting in early to mid-20th century fantasy fiction, we don’t really see novels or short stories in Atlantis anymore. Ah, but you see, Elak is himself a piece of history…
After Robert E. Howard’s unfortunate suicide in 1936, a number of authors stepped up to fill the void. Most wrote reasonable, working tales, that were largely forgettable, and they themselves were forgotten. One, however, was the masterful Henry Kuttner, who danced easily between fantasy, horror and science fiction, and had a stellar career, made the more so by his collaborations with his wife, C. L. Moore. Kuttner wrote four Elak of Atlantis stories, which appeared in Weird Tales between 1938 and 1940. They are an abridged version of REH’s Conan stories, and follow the exploits of Elak as he passes from sword-for-hire to king. But Elak is not a “Clonan”: he’s a civilized man, a noble cast-off, who wields a rapier. Whereas Conan is destined to seize a crown, Elak is trying to avoid his destiny. Unlike Conan, he is not a loner with “guest star” companions, and is accompanied by the perpetually drunk thief Lycon, and the druid Dalan, who is trying to get Elak to accept his destiny to rule the kingdom of Cyrena.
We first meet Elak returning from an encounter with the wife of Atlantean nobility and that strikes a note in the tales: there is a light-heartedness to them, although the world is a dark one. If you can imagine an Errol Flynn swashbuckler with wizards and Deep Ones, you have the vibe.
Of course, that doesn’t tell us why, 80 years after Kuttner abandoned the doomed island, Cole is bringing it back up from its watery depths.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!]
Christian Cameron, a well-known historical fiction author who writes espionage novels under the pen name Gordon Kent and fantasy under Miles Cameron, is a Canadian novelist who was educated and trained as both an historian and a former career officer in the US Navy. His best-known work is the ongoing historical fiction series Tyrant, set in Classical Greece, which by 2009 had sold over 100,000 copies. But in recent years he’s not only chronicled ancient Greece, but 14th-century European history — military, chivalric, and literary — in England, France, Italy, and Greece and roughly in parallel with the career of Chaucer’s knight (the Chivalryseries). And, as Miles Cameron, he also writes fantasy with the Traitor Son tetralogy and Masters & Mages trilogy.
Cameron is a passionate reenactor, and uses the experiences of reenacting, including knowledge of the material culture and the skill sets required to recreate any portion of life in the past as essential tools in writing his novels. Cameron helps organize and direct military and non-military reenactments in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In addition to recreating the life of an early 5th-century BCE Plataean Hoplite, Cameron also runs a group dedicated to the role of rangers and Native Americans in the American Revolution, and participates in tournaments as a knight of the late 14th century. One such tournament is the Deed of Alms, an annual HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) charity tournament hosted in Toronto to combat homelessness. GDM: So you’ve had a long and very successful run as an historical fiction writer before adding fantasy to your repertoire. Which genre was your first love?
CC: Fantasy all the way. Except Dumas’ Three Musketeers, which is to me the greatest adventure novel ever written. I had a friend who was seriously in to ‘Old School’ fantasy; Lord Dunsany, Tolkien, E.R. Eddison, Robert E Howard… etc. Amazing stuff.