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.