Monday, 8 December 2014

Isaac Asimov - The Gods Themselves (1972)

The Story

If you know this artist, please let me know
ASIMOV is a big name, but I don’t know how many people have read his work beyond the Foundation series and the copy of I Robot with Will Smith on the cover. Maybe a lot? But he rarely comes up in scifi conversations, unlike Clark and Dick.

The Gods Themselves was written a bit later in Asimov’s proverbial game. By the time it was published, Asimov was already a fabulously popular author who had quit academia to write full-time. The book itself was one of the first after a decade-long stint of writing primarily scientific nonfiction and definitely shows his disenchantment toward academic politics.

As with a lot of Asimov, the characters in this story are less important than the premise, not because he isn't interested in people, but more that he is interested in human society as a creature in itself. The book revolves around humanity’s accidental discovery of a new form of energy manipulation as a result of a tiiiny amount of interaction between two ‘parallel’* universes. 

*Note: In Asimov’s understanding, there is a difference between the idea of a ‘parallel’ versus an ‘alternate’ universe. A parallel universe implies that another universe (possibly with completely different universal laws i.e. life might not be carbon-based) is simply existing alongside your own universe, and that it is not necessarily connected in any way except in the way that it also just simply exists. In contrast, an alternate universe implies a connection between the space-time continuum of both. That is to say a world where Hitler didn’t exist versus one where he did, or where there are no shrimp. This is by far the more popular trope, because it is still recognisable within our sphere of experience and the other, simply, isn’t. An example of a parallel dimension could be the 'demon dimensions' in Buffy and Angel, or Lewis Carol's idea of Wonderland - places where shit is just generally different. 

This interaction between two parallel universes, both with radically different natural laws, is able to cause a shift in the subatomic structure of a certain kind of metal, making it increasingly radioactive. And BAM, just like that, suddenly humankind has an infinite source of energy.

The book is divided into three parts and set during a period in Earth’s not-to-distant future. Humankind, as a result of the infinite energy provided by the new 'Pump Technology', has solved most major world problems and has even set up a lunar space station as the initial step out into the stars.

The story hinges on the actions of three outcasts as they attempt to study the repercussions of Earth's new phase of technology. Peter Lamont, an Earthman, is searching for answers to how Pump Technology was 'really' invented. A Lunarite called Selene finds herself entwined in the political manoeuvrings between Earth and the newly independent Lunar Station. And finally, there is Dua, an enigmatic creature in the dying parallel universe who discovers a horrific secret.

The Tasty Bit

One of my favourite things about a great scifi story is that it’s not necessary to recreate Star Wars for it to be a masterpiece. Aliens, space travel and Jetson-like gadgets are sort of like dragons and elves, a lot of the best fantasy doesn't have it. 

In The Gods Themselves, Asimov creates a single new technology, an infinite power source. It’s a fantastically useful technology of course – but it’s still just the one. He then sends the new tech into his world (technologically similar to our own) and watches as it sets the entire story of humankind on its ear.

One of the most fascinating things about technological progress of humankind is that all it takes is one useful thing and the entire world – society, economy, political reality – everything changes. We’ve made all kinds of efficient adaptations to it, but we are still using the steam engine to get power for our cities, iPads, cars and air conditioners to this very day.

And no one can ever foresee how far and fast the world will move in these situations. Thus, it’s great to see Asimov’s characters struggling to find new ways to even think about the repercussions of the new technology. They have absolutely no idea, and neither do I so it’s a great way to follow a highly complex story.


My one problem with Asimov is that he can be a bit dry. His characters are very human, but a bit lacking in emotional reactions. His stories aren’t really about how people deal with each other. But frankly that’s fine because he makes up for it in unique story lines and bloody interesting puzzles.

He is also the best sciencesplainer that I’ve ever come across. It may be pseudoscience but I’m fairly sure I know exactly what he’s trying to say, and that's really rare 'cause my maths and science skills are nil. 

After hating his Foundation series, it was a massive relief for me to fall back into my general adoration for the man with The Gods Themselves.

The book has some rough edges, but is well worth a read.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Garth Nix - Sabriel (1995)

Cover image by Leo and Diane Dillon.

The Story



I interviewed Garth Nix recently for The Big Issueand came to the same conclusion that I often come to with prolific writers. They're like swans; they seem all glidey and smooth on the surface of the water, but really their little legs are whizzing away like motors underneath. Nix must be off with the actual fairies to come up with the bizarre settings that he does, but he doesn't even give a hint of it in person. It was all terribly mysterious. 

Sabriel is the first book in a rough series of (so far) four books. Nix sets the story around a rift between two universes. The Victorian Gothic country of Ancelstierre is populated by prim and proper schools, automobiles, and, almost definitely, no magic. On the other side of the rift is the perilous dark ages style land of the Old Kingdom where absolutely anything (but probably not anything nice) can happen. 

Our protagonist, Sabriel, is the daughter of the Abhorsen, a sort of necromancer-priest of the Old Kingdom whose task it is to hunt down revenant spirits and ghouls and return them to the realms of Death. 

Sabriel wakes up in an uneasy state one night in her Ancelstierran private girls' college. Emerging from her room, Sabriel discovers a ghoulish visitor wandering around the schoolhall with a package and a message. The ghoul (actually a ghoul), passes on the message that her father is stranded in the realms of Death. He had sent it to deliver the tools of the Abhorsen's trade: seven bells ranging in size, and a sword scored with runes. 

A remarkably cool, calm and collected character for a fantasy tale, Sabriel decides to leaves her life of safety in Ancelstierre to trek across the desolate, undead-infested Old Kingdom in search of her father and unravel the mysteries behind his disappearance. 

The Tasty Bit

The treacherous nature of death magic is probably one of my favourite fantasy tropes. Sabriel feeds this theme back in a number of ways, each of them terribly satisfying. 

Necromantic magic in this book involves the use of a special set of bells to raise and bind dead spirits. And while musically-induced magic is a fairly standard concept in fantasy, Nix's use of bells is, to me, more reminiscent of the old Catholic exorcism ritual of 'the bell, book and candle', which casts unclean spirits back to the realm from whence they came. 

In popular culture, the exorcism ritual carries with it the possibility of setting dark and demonic forces free from their confines. The person exorcising the demon is at most risk, because exorcisms come down to a battle of wills (an iconic example being The Exorcist), with one mind seeking to overpower the other. 

In Sabriel the psychological battle isn't so much with the evil spirits that she faces so much as the implements of the exorcism themselves. The seven bells, when wielded by a necromancer, can summon spirits from Death, bind them to a task or set them back to sleep. But the bells each have personalities of their own and dislike being used. If the necromancer's willpower falters, the bells' directive (they have names like waker, walker, sleeper, binder) will take control of the necromancer's mind. Losing control of the bells results in the necromancer being forced to do things like walk themselves into Death, or raise something that is best left slumbering. 

Sabriel is a great standalone book. 

Don't get me wrong, its sequels are solid and definitely worthwhile, but they don't necessarily add anything to the mystique of the world that Nix has created. And it's the mystique that makes this book so easy to devour, the world has a multitude of aspects that remain inexplicable yet at the same time seem deeply significant. Nix weaves these significances together into a complex reality that forever eludes your grasp, but keeps you searching for more. 

Other Stuff
According to Nix, the popularity of Sabriel, and The Old Kingdom series as a whole, was a bit of a slow burn. It did modestly well in its initial release, but where other books fell to the side and were forgotten, Sabriel was remembered and passed on (and down, and up, and back again) until it hit the New York Times best seller list with a million sales.

The latest book in the Old Kingdom series, Clariel, has recently come out. Not that I'm recommending post-2000 literature you understand. Just mentioning, you know, out of completeness. 

Friday, 24 January 2014

E. R. Eddison - The Worm Ouroboros (1922)

The Story
The Worm Ouroboros could be considered the first book of the fantasy genre, it was written in 1922 and uses the old classic myths as templates but tempers them with Arthurian drama and Gaelic superstition. It's a little rough in places and can switch between the old descriptive style "cunning and brave Odysseus knew how to defeat the giant..." to a more modern style of dialogue and pace. 

The Worm Ouroboros is an adventure story filled with impossible quests, sieges and naval battles, honourable deeds and treacherous acts. In shortit is an epic (at 512 pages), in a format reminiscent of The Odyssey

In the world of The Worm Ouroboros, a war for complete dominion over the Earth is underway. The origins of the war lie far behind the book itself, born of old battles, betrayals and the death-throes of long-eradicated kingdoms. The warlords of Demonland, Pixyland, Witchland, Impland and Goblinland now battle for revenge, for the honour of slighted allies and to administer 'justice' for old crimes. 

The names initially seem… childish, but they work fine when you realise that they are actually all human. 

At the beginning of the tale, we meet the three golden lords of Demonland: Juss, Spitfire and Goldry Bluszco. Their adversary, King Gorice XI of Witchland, known for his treacherous nature, sends forth a herald to issue an ultimatum: that the lords of Demonland acknowledge him as their high king or he will invade. Infuriated by the rude proposal, Lord Goldry Bluszco challenges the Witch-king Gorice to a wrestling match and kills him.

Having lost the duel and his life, the spirit of the Witch-king flees his dying body and possesses the body of his own son so that he can retain leadership of Witchland. Aching with injured pride, he immediately begins to plot his revenge on the honourable rulers of Demonland, and in particular Goldry Bluszco, the man who killed him. Gorice, now inhabiting the body of his son (conveniently named Gorice XII), goes to the top of his great alchemical laboratory and, using fell magic, he conjures the primordial world serpent, Ouroboros, forth from the bottomless ocean to kill the three golden lords of Demonland. 

Two of the Demon lords, Juss and Spitfire, are saved from Ouroboros by a talisman that Juss wears, however the great worm manages to capture Goldry, spiriting him away to a land on the far side of the ocean, dragging him up an immense mountain and imprisoning him there atop a great tower.

Thus the epic is set in motion, Juss and his companions must travel to the end of the earth to recover their brother Goldry, but as they embark on their journey, the armies of Witchland strike and a great war erupts as the Witch-king Gorice XII moves to dominate all the world in their absencesoon the great kings of Demonland will have no kingdom to return to. 

The Tasty Bit
OK so the tasty bit of this story is barely a whisper behind the big bang of the Witch-king's summoning. The real event is the great change that the summoning of Ouroboros wreaks across the world. 

So you know, Ouroboros is a great world-serpent that is found in a number of cultures. It is often represented by the image of a snake in the shape of a circle holding its tail in its mouth. It was first found drawn on an ancient funerary slate in ancient Egypt, but has counterparts in Scandinavian, West African, South American and Greek mythology. Ouroboros is often seen as a symbol of eternity, infinity, union and self-destruction. 

When Gorice of Witchland summons the serpent forth, Eddyson's characters become stuck in a sort of personality loop. Like pieces in a great chess game, they move across the world trying to win their battles, but slowly it become obvious that they are walking the same patterns and making the same stupid mistakes again and again, like fairy tale creatures. 

The world changes as Ouroboros rises, becoming a strange, dreamlike environment, and from this point the characters are unable to grow, unable to change, unable to learn. Thus Ouroboros becomes the core around which the entire story revolves—the symbols of the great serpent, eternity and self-destruction, permeate Eddison's world.

The Verdict
I'm a true lover of Shakespeare, so the stylistic language that Eddison useswhich is neither fully Shakespearean nor old English, not Germanic, Arthurian or Welsh, but a mixture of them alldoesn't bother me all that much. Once you get into the swing of the faux-archaic style, the poetry and movement of the words are actually quite lovely. 

With that in mind, it took me two months to finish reading this book, something that hasn't happened to me since I last tried to read Wallace's Infinite Jest. I suspect that the rhythm of the book had something to do with it. The movement of the characters and plot ebbed and flowed strangely, and I didn't break into the rhythm until I was around 200 pages in. 

I am, however, a sucker for alchemy and alchemical accoutrements, mythical creatures and cool baddies, which this tale has in bucketloads. The book will make you work hard, but I would say that it's very-much worth it.  

Recommendation when reading: take each character at their word, they don't have any subtlety to their natures. 

Other Stuff
Good news is that The Worm Ouroboros has been re-published recently by Gollacz's Fantasy Masterworks, so it should be fairly easy to find. It's a neat old image on the cover too, an 1876 gouache painting by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. 

I haven't read any other Eddison as yet, but I'm open to recommendations!

Friday, 6 December 2013

Michael Moorcock – The Stealer of Souls (1963)

Cover: Bob Haberfield
My apologies for the lateness of this review, if anyone is actually waiting with baited breath, I am learning how to run a newspaper at the moment.

The Stealer of Souls encompasses five short stories ‘The Dreaming City’, ‘While the Gods Laugh’, ‘The Stealer of Souls’, ‘Kings in Darkness’ and ‘Flame Bringers’.

Rodney Matthews

The Story
I read Moorcock’s stories of Elric before I stumbled onto Robert E. Howard and the pale king with his malign sword has in many ways overshadowed any image I have of Conan. I realise this is probably because Elric is an archetypal dark hero, agonising about his shady and unfortunate existence, and 15-year-olds dig that kind of thing.

“Mighty Elric…Mightier sword!” The back of this book reads.

The world of Elric is a world in the before-time of Earth; ancient kingdoms have risen and fallen and new cities are built on the bones of old. This earth is a cruel place, harsh and filled with war bands and monsters, demons, gods, sorcerers and dark deeds.

Elric begins as a petulant and apathetic princeling, a brooding proponent of evil and violent acts. He leads an enemy army against his own kingdom, the ancient city-state Imrryr, and is willing to watch as the city is raped, burned and looted if it will get him his heart’s desire: his lover Cymoril and the death of the royal usurper, Yyrkoon.

Elric is an albino; because of this, he is weak, half-blind and extremely sensitive—entirely the wrong person for a heroic narrative. Elric is only able to achieve his legendary deeds because of the power of his vampiric sword, Stormbringer. He gains strength and clarity of mind when he uses Stormbringer to strike an enemy. The sword draws out the souls of the people it kills in order to feed Elric the superior strength he needs to be a feared and heroic figure. Thus it becomes clear that Elric is dependent on his sword for vitality and life, and that the sword, Stormbringer, holds the real power in the dynamic.

“Be wary of this devil-blade. It kills the foe – but savours the blood of friends and kin-folk most”, Elric warns his companion after the sword betrays him by guiding his hand to kill an innocent man.

Elric’s realisation of this ugly truth heralds his growth as a likeable character. He begins to realise that he is a tool of the sword, Stormbringer, rather than the other way around, and that he would like nothing more than to be free from the power it has over him.

The Tasty Bit
 There are a few neat things about the Elric books, one being the concept of the (always masculine) ‘Eternal Champion’, a device poetically similar to Joseph Campbell’s 1949 treatise, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The Eternal Champion is the figure that Michael Moorcock reincarnates in every new story. A figure doomed to be reincarnated in other places and times, when the ‘laws’ of the worlds are disrupted and a new, often ruthless, balance must be exacted. Alongside the eternal champion are two other figures: the Soulmate and the Companion, female and male consecutively. 

As Moorcock’s stories are episodic, the far-reaching and multi-tiered applications of an eternally reincarnated soul are endless and the individual heroes often run into each other through the mystical warping of time, space and narrative causality

While this concept doesn’t come into overt play in the Stealer of Souls, Elric as a character is aware that he is part of an ominous plan that goes far beyond the conflicts of gods and humankind. Getting your teeth into this tasty bit requires a certain amount of Moorcockian (haha…) dedication, in particular reading the Erekose, Hawkmooon and Corum collections.

In some ways I felt a little nervous about tackling a review of a Michael Moorcock book, especially Elric. There’s a lot of colour, movement and raw emotion on Moorcock’s writing, and the concepts are fascinating, but in many ways it’s the allure of oil on water—beautiful, intriguing even, but ultimately unsatisfying when looking for anything more complex. 

That being said the books are true treasures of the 60s. Moorcock describes his books as being born of the characters' emotional states, his environments are out of Bosch or Dali, immense and violent landscapes with grotesque figures. The worlds are psychedelic and colourful and the characters are so charismatically byronesque that it's impossible to ruin.

My only real qualms with Moorcock are his depictions of masculine versus feminine agency, which are a little bit too Arthurian, but ultimately inoffensive. 

Other Stuff
Gollancz has recently re-published a number of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books in its Masterworks collection. I find, however, that the new publications lack the physical grace of Granada’s ‘mayflower science fantasy’ prints with Haberfield's artwork. If you can acquire a 2nd hand copy of these books, I promise you it’s worth it!

Where to start: The issue of linearity doesn’t really come into Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books, as previously mentioned, because they’re all sort of reincarnations of each other. That being said, I don’t recommend reading the Erekose collection first, as it ruins the surprise.

The list of characters and books in the Eternal Champion series is huge, I recommend: Corum, Elric, Erekose, Jherek Carnelion (not to be confused with Jerry Cornelous, another book by Moorcock), and Dorian Hawkmoon.  

Cover: Bob Haberfield, this probably isn't a very good example of his work, which is fascinatingly psychedelic and perfect for Elric.

Artwork: Rodney Matthews , whose aesthetic I absolutely adore, also did a number of covers for Moorcock - go forth and see his amazing work!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Paula Volsky - The Wolf of Winter (1993)

The Story
Paula Volsky passed me by in the 90s. It may have been too nasty—I was reading a lot of groundling fantasy: Eddings, Feist, Weis & Hickman and some lovely dovelys like Patricia Mckillip and Sherri S Tepper.

The Wolf of Winter entrenches the reader in a harsh northern world: snow and ice, wind and thick forests. A land populated by large-framed, brutish and decadent people who view intelligence as pointless and kindness as irrelevant. A world where magic exists, but rather than making things soft and cushy, it eats away at the minds of those who attempt to use it.

At the beginning of the book we meet Varis, a man at odds with the world around him. He is born into the royal family of Rhazaulle, facing humiliation and ostracisation for his perceived weaknesses: he is too smart, physically frail and quiet. Eventually, sick of his nebulous existence at court, Varis exiles himself to the northernmost regions of the country to continue his studies. It is in these dark and forgotten corners of the kingdom that he encounters a sorcerer of immense power, a ghoulish figure who offers to teach him the forbidden and mind-destroying magic, necromancy.

To access this ability, Varis learns, all magic-users must imbibe highly poisonous and addictive drugs to heighten their senses and quicken their minds. These toxic substances eat away at mental cohesion, eventually causing an irreversible madness called–and I still cringe at the word–spifflication. Once Varis sets himself on this path, he finds within himself a malevolence he never knew existed, and an irresistible desire for the power of the throne. 
Varis's experiences dominate the book. And although, theoretically, he is an antagonist of sorts, the reader grows to understand the world through his eyes. In fact the true protagonist doesn’t really throw herself into the action of the story until a good halfway through.

Finally we meet the protagonist: enter Varis's niece, who is similarly bookish and intelligent. Shalindra, however, uses her interest in the forbidden necromantic arts to oppose her uncle’s murderous ambitions. She is the crux upon which two countries will either succumb to the maddened necromancer, or be ruled by the rightful heir to the throne. As the story progresses, however, the reader realises that Varis and even his ghoulish mentor can't be the ultimate evil of the talethat Shalindra’s feet are on a dark path. 

The Tasty Bit
Necromancy, when done properly, has to be my favourite premise. In fact Sabriel by Garth Nix and The Awakeners by Sherri S Tepper are probably the only other stories I know where necromancy is more than a cheap ‘wo0oo0o spooky evil’ gimmick to show the crossing of taboos. (Note: I am not talking here about stories of the ‘undead’, but tales of necromantic ritual)

In The Wolf of Winter, even a highly intelligent mind is unable to understand magic. It takes a chemically heightened mental faculty to even comprehend the strictures involved in summoning and controlling ghosts. Eventually these substances take a toll on their minds and the magic-user degenerates into incoherence and random sadism. 

I also found that behind the culture of necromancy in Volsky's world there is a strange…almost inevitable process. The nature of 'spifflication' (something only lightly touched on in the story itself), is actually concerned with the need to procreate and a sort of grooming: ‘spifflicated’ sorcerers compulsively breed and spawn new spifflicated children, they search out new humans to ‘turn’ to necromantic ways. Thus, in Volsky’s story, the final pervasive evil is the fact that the magic itself exists at all–a cruel twist by some sort of demonic creatrix.

The Verdict
Volsky’s world of necromancy and mind-blasted (sigh - spifflicated) sorcerers is absolutely fascinating. I was immediately taken in by the nature of (sigh) spifflication and necromantic ‘performance enhancers’, a kaleidoscope of story possibilities exploded and I had absolutely no idea where Volsky would end up. I tore through it in 3 days!

Sadly, despite her wonderful writing, thrilling premise and excellent style, the story itself seemed lacking in its final direction. In many ways, I feel that The Wolf of Winter would have been most effective in a much shorter format and focussed entirely on Varis’s experiences. Volsky forsook what should have been a story of spine-chilling intensity in favour of a diffusive plot and mysterious air that lacks a final, much-needed punch. Still, the book was devoured in just under 3 days, so I’d say it evens out to awesome.

The Other Stuff
Published 1993 by Bantam Books, Great Britain. I don't think this is currently in print, let me know if I'm wrong. 

Monday, 14 October 2013

C. S. Lewis - The Magician's Nephew (1955)

This book has some of my favouritest baddies ever! 

In my first year of university, everyone in my course had to study the Bible, specifically Genesis (the first bit, about Adam and Eve). This was not for any ‘religious teaching’ as such, but for the supreme influence that the Genesis story has had on Judeo-Christian societies and their respective artistic movements. We see the Adam and Eve story everywhere: it comes through in all forms of morality tale, in paintings and sculptures, in classic literature and in children’s books all the way down to ads for ice cream on TV. The story possesses a wealth of symbols that to this day make a story rich and exciting: taboo acts, power, temptation, desire, destruction, love, fear, salvation and betrayal. 

The Magician’s Nephew is another such tale!

The Magician's Nephew, one of the lesser-known Narnia Chronicles, was written in 1955 as a prequel to the first five books. While the other books of the Narnia series were written in the space of a year, The Magician's Nephew took a whopping 5 years to write. It was followed a year later by the final book in the septet, The Last Battle.

The story starts with a boy and a girl (whatever Lewis’s thoughts on gender, he believed in indoctrinating the two sexes equally). Digory is a bit of a wet blanket and Pol’ is sharp and tomboyish. The two children live in London in the same tenement block and one day decide to explore the interconnected attics where they live. Scurrying through the attics, they accidentally find their way into the study and laboratory of Digory’s Uncle Andrew, the archetypal mad-scientist who decides that the children will be perfect test subjects for his attempts to travel between worlds.

Tricking Polly into putting on a  ring that immediately teleports her ‘somewhere away’, Uncle Andrew then proceeds to use Polly as bait, telling Digory that he must travel after her with a different set of rings that allow them both to return or Polly will never find her way home. Thus begins their adventure.

Uncle Andrew is a brilliant character, he is a conniving and narcissistic wretch with grandiose delusions of being a master magician. “Ours is a high and lonely destiny”, he says proudly to Digory, attempting to explain away his cruelty after using Polly as a test subject.

Digory, dictated by Uncle Andrew’s cruel whim, takes the rings and teleports to a strange forest dotted with pools. Digory finds Polly and the two children discover that each pool will take them to another world. Before heading back to the clutches of Uncle Andrew, they decide to go exploring. 

The cool thing here, is the immediate understanding (as a reader) that the possibility of danger and harm coming to the children is incredibly real. Unlike the Pevensie’s (Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe), Polly and Digory come from poor and under-privileged families and are very aware of the harshness of the world. Where the Pevensies are destined to become the four kings and queens of Narnia, Polly and Digory are no one, they are lost in an immense universe surrounded by evil and oblivious adults. There is a truly ominous air as they jump into a pool and find their way into a strange world called... Charn.

Jadis, the last Queen of a dying world is the archetypal Eve/Lillith figure, a woman with the blood of demons. She is composed of such a raw and uncompromising greed for power  that she destroys her entire world rather than lose it to another. Lewis’s love for symmetry is shown here. Where Lillith/Eve was one of the first beings of Earth, Jadis is the last person left alive as her world begins to die.

Sensing Jadis’s dark and titanic nature, the children attempt to escape her by using their rings, but the sorcerous queen manages to follow them home; an act that eventually leads Uncle Andrew, Jadis, Digory and Polly into a newly formed Narnia, as the world itself is being born from the ashes of Charn.   

The book has two of the most compelling bad-guys I have ever had the pleasure of coming across in children’s fiction (next to the two truly vicious parents in Pullman's His Dark Materials series): Uncle Andrew and Queen Jadis together illustrate the worst elements of humanity. They are charismatically awful, described by Digory as ‘bearing the mark’, a vague term that has to do with their obsession with the darker magical arts and could translate as the eternal hunger for power.

The Magician's Nephew is choppy and lacks the long quest element of Lewis’s other books, but it reveals to the reader a visceral core of the biblical tales, and reflects why the Genesis tale is still so powerful after so many years: everyone loves to hate a great bad-guy!

For more brilliant C. S. Lewis villains, I recommend The Last Battle. If you can deal with some of the more really biblical stuff, I recommend his sci-fi trilogy that begins with Out of a Silent Planet, which has some cool ideas but is pretty patronising. And also, The Screwtape Letters, a Faustian sort of story that is actually pretty funny!

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Robert E. Howard - King Conan: ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’, ‘The Scarlet Citadel’, The Hour of the Dragon (1932-1935)

NOTE: What I’m calling King Conan in this review isn’t actually what falls under the Wiki entry, which is about a collection of stories under the novel heading King Conan. Those stories actually cover the time long before Conan becomes king, and they finish before the king stories end—something which I find to be very silly in a collection entitled King Conan. 

“I’ve roamed far; farther than any other man of my race ever wandered. I’ve seen all the great cities of the Hyborians. I’ve roamed in the unknown countries south of the black kingdoms of Kush, and east of the Sea of Vilayet. I’ve been a mercenary captain, a corsair, a kozak, a penniless vagabond, a general—hell, I’ve been everything except a king, and I may be that, before I die.”
The fancy pleased him, and he grinned hardly. Then he shrugged his shoulders and stretched his mighty figure on the rocks.

The Weird Tales original
and controversial
 artwork by Margaret
Frank Frazetta's just as
controversial novel covers
in the mid-60s.

Robert E. Howard was a genius and the Conan tales are pretty much perfect.

OK so these statements alone probably don’t sell you on the fact, but the fact is that the Conan stories are the absolute height of pure pulpy fiction! Now if you're not a fan of pulp or fiction, then you may be looking at the wrong review.

As far as his pulpy style goes, Howard uses a decadent amount of adjectives, his descriptions of Conan are more remarkable when they aren't likening him to a jungle cat; the lissome and stunning qualities of Howard's ladies are listed every time, and the serpentine sorcerers never fail to affect a dastardly mien. Strangely, what is 'purple prose' in any other novel merely heightens the action and the, well, sword-and-sorceryness of the story! The writing, the pacing and the characters are balanced on a level that is incredibly hard to achieve. You can drop into Conan at any point, even toward the end of a story, and it will make perfect pulpy sense, carrying you all the way to the end.

You can’t get fantasy books like that these days, they don’t exist. 

The three stories reviewed here, ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’, ‘The Scarlet Citadel’ and The Hour of the Dragon, (to be found most recently in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series The Conan Chronicles, volume two, and originally published in 1932, 1932 and 1935 respectively), are Howard’s first two stories, and a follow up novella that he wrote three years later.

And so we meet Conan, the son of a harsh and barbarian culture, a man destined for fame and fortune as he traipses across the world finding monstrosities to slay, jewels and riches to spend and feisty pirate chicks to love.

Whilst most people think of Conan as a youthful barbarian mercenary and rogue filled with wanderlust, Howard’s first ever Conan tale, ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’, in fact begins as Conan has 'given up' his footloose and fancy-free ways. As the story begins, Conan has murdered a despotic king and settled down to become ruler of a Romanesque civilisation called Aquilonia. 

The next two stories follow Conan’s fall from kingship and his desire to regain possession of his crown, saving the people of Aquilonia from the designs of petty lordlings and their darker masters. With diverse and powerful allies and an even more powerful array of enemies, Conan struggles to regain his throne and thwart the avalanching evils taking over the land.

The King Conan stories illustrate the running theme of Howard’s later Conan tales: the juxtaposition of the primitive world against the sophisticated veneer of the city-states. Conan’s transition into ruler of a civilised society becomes a struggle that in many ways he is ill-equipped to undertake. 
He is an honourable king, but a barbarian nonetheless and he is beset by the battles of a civilised world: politics. Conan’s liege lords plot his assassination, they turn the people of Aquilonia against him and procure dark and dreadful sorceries to bring him to his doom. Conan struggles to keep alive the blunt honesty, awareness and instinct of his primitive world. The struggle between the two alien moralities however, political subtlety and strength of arms, settle him into a complex equilibrium, an inner balance that his enemies lack.

The most interesting thing about these three tales (there’s always something), for me, is that Howard began his stories not with the youth Conan setting out on his own as a Mowgli figure into the world, but as an older man, a practiced pirate and mercenary turned king. The ‘purity’ of Conan’s way of life is at its most poignant in these King Conan stories as the barbarian, with a newfound sense of responsibility, struggles against a world he cannot fully understand, a world where his heroics fail to earn him respect and where words can overpower and malign even his greatest deeds.

Howard’s use of these juxtapositions in his seminal work highlight the cruelties and chaos inherent in what we perceive to be civilised society. The later Conan tales revisit, again and again, the brutal honesty of barbarism versus the sly workings of civilisation that have replaced it, but, perhaps because they dwell on his prideful 'youth', they lack the disconcerting depth of these early stories. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Michael Coney - Cat Karina (1982)

Prophecies bug the crap outta me. 

Prophecy is religious rhetoric. It attempts to create a situation where people can only react in limited ways. Thus the prophecy of Judgement Day: it's coming soon and only the worthy will be able to enter Heavenso you damn-well better be worthy. 

In a book with prophecy, even if the character struggles to avoid their destiny, they are only going to bring it about all the sooner. There is no lesson or growth because there was no other way that the story could have happened. Thus Oedipus will return to Thebes having killed his father and will take his mother, the queen, to wife. So also does Shere Khan, the Tiger, hate humans and seek out Mowgli because he fears he will one-day die at human hands. And, all for a prophecy, Garion treks across the world to fight men he has never met because of an age-old battle that he should have no reason to care about. 

Prophecy avoids the need for human motivations: at its best it is pointless, at its worst it is lazy.

This being said, chaos theory is an area of prophecy that doesn’t have so much of a ‘nails on a chalkboard’ effect. Scientific prediction, in this day and age, is infinitely less painful to believe. Obviously I don't expect this argument to hold up in a strict debate, chaos theory is a hypothetical concept that can only be effectively calculated in retrospectlike prophecy.

Right then. 

Cat Karina is a story told in the shadow of an intergalactic and immensely knowledgeable entity called Starquin. We don't meet him, but his presence is the reason for the story. This entity has found himself trapped in Earth's galactic sector and in order for Starquin to escape the tiny universe, one person must make three important choices that will set one of her descendants on a path to aid Starquin's release.

The sci-fi novel is set within a posthuman society in Earth's post-apocalyptia. Humanity on Earth is still attempting to resurrect itself from the detritus of a series of catastrophic mistakes that have brought technology down to a primitive level. The various humanoid races that inhabit Earth are kept in check by a religion that preaches cooperation with nature rather than the domination of it. Meat-eating is frowned upon, fire is avoided (even for cooking), and the ‘working of metal’ is seen as evil. 

The book opens at a period of transition in this peaceful society. Despite the taboo, humans are once more beginning to work metal and use fire and the day is coming when people will once more begin to deliberately kill each other.

The story begins with the protagonist, Karina, lying trapped on a wooden train track, soon to die when the train hits. She is met by an emissary of Starquin, who saves her life in exchange for her oath to obey Starquin's orders.

Karina is descended from a race of humans who were genetically spliced with leopard genes. The ‘felinos’, as they are called, are a volatile, attractive and extremely vicious race loosely based on the cultures of Latin America. True Humans are still the dominant race on Earth, but there are a lot of other humanoids of the 'specialist' races, including crocodile folk, monkey folk and bear folk.

The story’s prophetic premise perhaps works because Karina is exactly the type of person you don’t get in prophecy books. She doesn’t agonise about her promise to Starquin or worry about her future, sometimes she doesn’t even believe that Starquin exists. She is a slave to instinct and acts without thinking about the consequences. Most of the time she forgets about her promise completely. This way the prophecy is only incidental to her life, not the reason for it. 

One thing that truly struck me about Cat Karina is Coney's use of a religion that completely forbids the social and technological advancements that humanity has always moved towards. The humans and their client races are meat eaters denied meat, they are territorial creatures forbidden from war and they are technologically dependent yet they cannot use materials other than wood and stone. Despite the hundreds of years that these humans have spent, desperately clinging to the ideal of a cooperative and nonviolent society, they have not been able to relinquish their violent and competitive instincts. The book illustrates, in evocative and vivid words, that despite our advancements and concern with technology, philosophy and religion, humans are still as animalistic as we always were.

Karina is a compelling character born into an unforgiving world and surrounded by a society about to erupt into violence. The book is funny, fast-moving and perceptive, the characters are convincing and well-rounded and the cover art by Kelly Freas is beauuuutiful!