Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Conan: The Tower of the Elephant

So, Conan. Having had a slow Sunday today, I got around to reading another story, this time one depicting a much younger Conan.

THE PLOT: While in decadent Zamora, Conan, a young barbarian from the far north, learns of the Elephant’s Heart, a massive gem with mystical powers that is in the possession of the sorceror Yara. On a whim, Conan decides to steal the gem, and teams up with the King of Thieves, also after the same target. But after braving many dangers in the pursuit of the gem, Conan finds a deeper mystery than he set out to find.

INTERESTING POINTS: This story also contains a dungeon… of sorts. A tower, complete with traps, guards, fierce beasts and treasure at the end. This one could very easily be turned into a dungeon for a role-playing game (and apparently, it has been), particularly if you are focussing on roguish stories of heists and burglaries.

This story also features some very direct interactions between Conan and the… otherworldly phenomena that supposedly puts Conan in connection with the universe of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. This is in some way the turning point of the story, but in many ways I miss some sort of foreshadowing. Of course it is difficult to achieve in a very short story.

MY VERDICT: The Tower of the Elephant is not quite as enjoyable as the previous two stories. I’m not sure whether I can mirror him in Terry Pratchett’s Cohen the (ancient) barbarian, a very obvious pastiche of the old Conan, but I have so far preferred the older Conan. In some ways, I feel like there’s something interesting about the domesticated barbarian who is king that is absent from the young barbarian – the king contains an inner conflict I have liked.

That is not to say that this is a bad story. though. It’s well written, and it is quite exciting. But I hope he can nuance young Conan a little in the other stories with young him.

Conan: The Scarlet Citadel

I am not getting to read as much Conan as I would like. The Complete Chronicles of Conan are, well, complete, hardcover, quite bulky and very heavy. Not a book to drag around with you. My main reading time, meanwhile, is in trains. And I have a tendency to go to bed later than I ought, which means I am usually too tired to read a lot. Besides, it’s been Christmas, and I didn’t want to drag the book with me home for Christmas. But. I have now read another Conan short story: “The Scarlet Citadel,” a story that follows “The Phoenix on the Sword”.

THE PLOT: King Conan falls victim to a betrayal, and while his army is crushed, he himself is taken prisoner by the evil sorcerer, Tsotha-lanti. While trying to break out of the wizard’s dungeons, he encounters another prisoner who helps him.

INTERESTING POINTS: This story contains a dungeon. When reading that section of the story, I can easily imagine that this was what Gygax and his contemporeries were thinking of when they created the early, dungeon-crawling rpgs. There is also two sorcerers, one half-devil power hungry evil guy and one arrogant, mysterious, but probably decent, non-evil one. This is a portrayal of wizards that I like: mysterious, preoccupied with other-worldly matters, and powerful enough that they get everything they desire of a worldly persuasion. Finally, I intrigued by the envisioning of a battle in the story as it puts me in mind of the podcast, The History of Rome, which deals with many ancient Roman battles – and this could have been one of them. In other words, the battles seem very realistic, at least top me as a layman.

MY VERDICT: A very good story. I am still quite impressed with the quality of Conan stories. I would say, though, that something about it doesn’t quite ring true. I think it might be the feeling that no matter what, Conan is never going to come to any true harm.

All in all, I would recommend it. The language is fine, the plot is pretty good, and there are some interesting portrayals of certain common genre traits.

Conan: The Phoenix on the Sword

I have just picked up The Complete Chronicles of Conan from the Library. I’ve never read any of Howard’s stories, so I figured it was about time to find out what the fuss was all about. The tales are mostly short stories. I’ll try to write little comments slash reviews of them as I finish them. The first one is “The Phoenix on the Sword,” which was apparently the first real short story with Conan as its main character.

The Phoenix and the Sword

THE PLOT: A conspiracy is plotting to kill King Conan of Aquilonia – who for his part is longing for some action to break the monotony of courtly life. But greater forces interfere on both sides of the struggle.

INTERESTING POINTS: It surprised me a fair bit that Conan starts out as a king retired from adventuring. While I knew that Conan would become a king, my image of Conan has always been that of the barbarian hero, fighting for himself and maybe some lady he’s trying to conquer. It surprises me that Howard had already thought of his retirement when he came up with the figure.

MY VERDICT: An interesting and entertaining story in many ways. The writing strikes me as unnecessarily old-fashioned in places, but I guess that’s to be expected for an 80-year old text. I like the portrayal of Conan – he’s nicely multifaceted, and I can sympathize with him as a protagonist. He seems quite real. The villains are evil, maybe a little too evil, but also very interesting – I would like to know more about them, which I think is a good thing.

In any case, I’m looking forward to more.

The promise and disappointment of Dragon Wing

 

Returning to books and films you liked when you were young is an exciting but also slightly risky endeavour. It’s fun to rediscover old familiar territory, but there’s a very real risk that that old wonderland will turn out to have been a plastic swing, a see-saw and some sand with cat-poo buried in the corners.

And so, it was with some trepidation that I recently went back to Dragon Wing, the first book in the Death’s Gate septology by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickmann. I remembered it as a great world, but not the greatest story. And I was proven right.

Please note: this is a book review. But it is also a post about world building. There might be more to come on that topic, so if that’s your bone, stay tuned!

The sundered world

Dragon World takes place in Arianus, the world of sky. It is indicated that this takes place in “our” world sometime in a future in which the world has been split into four (or five, or more) worlds. Two races of powerful magicians, the Sartan and the Patryn, fought for control over the world, and rather let the Patryn win the whole world, the Sartan split the world. They made four worlds corresponding to the elements, and created the Labyrinth, a prison for the Patryn. Several hundred years later, the first Patryn are reaching the end of the Labyrinth into the glorious city of Nexus, and through the Death’s Gate into the four worlds to which the “mench” races of humans, elves and dwarves have been transported. But where are the Sartan? And why are the worlds failing?

The first book takes place solely on the World of Sky, Arianus. The people of Arianus live on floating islands of coralite, a porous material that secreted by a worm – like coral. The coralite is filled with a gas, keeping it floating in the air.

The floating islands of Arianus fall in three layers. In the Middle Realm, the elves and humans fight a long standing war, with human dragon riders raiding elves and elven dragon ships attacking human settlements. In the High Realm, the Mysteriarchs, the most powerful of all human wizards, have secluded themselves from the world. And down below, the Gegs (or dwarves to anyone but themselves) serve the great machine, the Kicksey-Winsey, every geg serving the great machine in some capacity for a significant portion of their lives. The machine is autonomous, seemingly has a will of its own, and is revered by the Gegs who serve it without really knowing why or what the purpose of the machine is. It does, however, produce a number of trerribly useful byproducts, like wooden beams, cloth – and water.

Now, in a world of flying, porous islands, water will fall, accumulating at the bottom. This means that while the Gegs live with almost constant thunderstorms, the High Realms have perpetual sunshine. It also means that while the Gegs have plenty of water, to everybody else, water is a most precious substance. Convenient for the elves, then, that the Gegs revere them as gods, delivering monthly supplies of water to keep the wheels of the elven empire turning.

The Assassin, the Idealist and the Changeling

The plot of Dragon Wing starts out rather dramatically. Hugh the Hand, a notorious assassin, is saved literally with his head on the executioner’s block, in order to be hired for what seems like a very easy job: to kill the king’s son. But the prince, ominously named Bane, is really the son of a mysteriarch. Along is also the prince’s clumsy and unseemly chamberlain (thought there is something odd about him).

Meanwhile in the low realm, the idealist geg, Limbeck Bolttightner, is sentenced to death for having incited young gegs to damage the Kicksey-Winsey – the worst crime a geg can commit. The means of execution will be flying out into the raging storms below. But like Hugh, Limbeck is saved, and he brings someone with him from below: Haplo, a Patryn, come to scout out Arianus for his master, and to seed chaos in the realm.

Of course, these two groups will meet and travel through the world of Arianus. When he book ends, the story of Arianus will be mostly closed, while the stage will have been set for the overarching story connecting the seven books.

But where are all the people

If the names of the authors of this book, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickmann, sound familiar, it is because they are the creators of one of the most famous D&D campaign settings and book series: Dragonlance (they seem to have a thing for dragons). That world is a great and rich world, with many different cultures and races, interesting and exciting epochs and a great story that you can immerse yourself in. It is also, however, a world that is very much made for high adventure. Much of the world seems like a backdrop for heroics and villainy, war and, most of all, adventure!

Dragon Wing feels somewhat the same. I keep wondering how this world works – where are all the people? How are all these realms kept running? Where are they – physically, in a world that can seemingly be traversed in a few days? A world that can be kept running on water sent through just one tube for a few hours every month (there are a few other sources of water, but they seem limited). In one scene in the book, someone tries to trick our heroes by creating an army of illusions, reproducing the same people over and over again, but creating a hollow world in the process. The same goes for the whole book: it feels hollow, claiming to portray a whole world, but that world is just a backdrop, without any real gravity.

It seems such a shame. Weis and Hickman have the makings of a great world here, but they didn’t make it feel real. And don’t tell me it can’t be done! George R. R. Martin does it eminently in his Song of Fire and Ice! Joanne K. Rowling made a world that started out for kiddies, which hinders her worldbuilding a little, but Hogwarts always  feels real, teeming with students. But sadly, I don’t get that sensation from Dragon Wing.

Something else that Martin and Rowling do well, is write. Rowling has a playful attitude towards her language, without which Harry Potter would surely have flopped. And while Martin doesn’t write Shakespearean prose, his writing underlines his world, as well as the specific pair of eyes this chapter is seen through. I don’t get this from Dragon Wing either. The prose is a bit awkward, and the storytelling a bit off. I don’t really believe the characters. They seem to be caricatures, stereotypes. Alfred is too clumsy, the villain too cruel, Hugo too cold. And part of this is the prose, which doesn’t make it all seem real to me.

…but it was a good idea

Despite my criticism, I don’t dislike Dragon Wing. It was not a waste of my time to re-read it. It is a b-novel – a high-fantasy adventure. Well, that’s what I got. It’s less black and white, than Dragonlance, and more about a greater ethical dilemma, which is good. And it presents a great idea for a world – a world that, from what I remember from reading it long ago and reading up on it on Wikipedia, will be even more fleshed out in the following books into a great little cosmology. A special place in my heart is reserved to the Gegs, who may best be described as hobbits meet the industrial revolution minus unions, plus worship of the machine. If the world hadn’t been so shallow, I would have wanted the campaign setting immediately!

But it IS shallow. And that is what is keeping me from picking up book two, what prevents me from immediately following Haplo into the World of Flame. I will probably do it before too long – but it will be to discover the world and cherish the good ideas, not to savour a truly good book.

Soulless – an Alexia Tarabotti novel

Take Jane Austen, transplant her to steampunk Victorian London and throw some vampires and werewolves into the high society setting and you’ve got the world of Soulless, the first book in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, featuring Alexia Tarabotti as the strong-willed female protagonist

Soulpunk

Miss Alexia Tarabotti has no soul. In a London where soulful vampires and werewolves are the cool kids in the class, with many fine men and women aspiring to immortality, having no soul is mostly a minor inconvenience for Alexia. What is more of an inconvenience is that she has with two beautiful half-sisters from her mother’s second marriage, which leaves Alexia as the weird spinster sister, who has even inherited a slightly tan skin from her Italian father. Alexia, however, is nothing if not practical, and is coping admirably with her fate.
Her life takes a surprising turn, however, when miss Tarabotti accidentally kills a shockingly ill informed vampire trying to feed from her. This turn of events brings Lord Maccon, Her Majesty’s chief supernatural law enforcement officer back into Alexia. Lord Maccon is a distressingly uncouth fellow, being a Scotsman, and a werewolf alpha to boot, and he and Alexia have no desire to spend more time than necessary in each other’s company. Unfortunately, Lord Maccon is also in possession of a powerful animal magnetism and a preference for women with southern complexion and wide hips. And of course, the dead vampire is not the only peculiar thing to happen to miss Tarabotti, necessitating more encounters with the Scottish Lord.

Austenpunk

The genre is quite unequivocally steampunk. Dirigibles rule the skies, weird aetheric devices are state-of-the-art, and weird pseudo-scientific theories on the origins of vampires and werewolves abound.

The Steampunk genre is a curious fish. In most iterations, it is a genre that says: what would Victorian times be like if the laws of physics were radically different, allowing for very different, much flashier science, with the resulting very different social dynamics. At a glance, it might seem like a kind of historical science fiction, but that’s not really where it’s at. It’s usually more proper to call it a kind of Science Fantasy, a genre that covers fantasy stories with technology playing a significant part. Star Wars is of course the prime example of this, with its fairytale setting and it’s magic – sorry, force – wielding knights.

The Parasol Protectorate doesn’t go to those kinds of extremes. In many ways, it keeps the weirdness relatively low. The supernatural and the weird science is there, but it never takes over completely. There’s still room for the other part of this weird hybrid creature, stitched together in the literary lab of Dr. Calliger: namely Austenesque society comedy/drama. Particularly the first parts of the book are very much in the veins of Jane Austen, though with a comedic touch and a modern view of sexuality. The latter is particularly revealed as the book goes on, and Miss Alexia finds herself in some scenes that Austen would never have presumed to engage in, involving naked men and (gasp) physical intimacy!
The sexuality certainly has its place in the book. One of the interesting points in the book is the clash between repressed Victorian society and the more basic instincts of the supernatural characters. I would, however, question the gratuity of it. While this reader enjoyed the description of Alexia’s almost scientific exploration of the art of kissing, certain scenes towards the end of the book add little to the story, and might unkindly be speculated to be the author’s secret erotic fantasies in literary form. And while the Austenian tone works well to underline Alexia’s social hardships, the end of the book is drawn long by purely social scenes that seem to add little development to the story. The last parts of the book might easily have been cut short by several pages without losing any plot development. A shame, because the pacing of the book up until that point had been very good.

Punk Deluxe

The book in general is very good. It is a light and easy read, and it successfully balances the Austenesque with steampunk so that societal intriguing can take over when supernatural action runs out of steam – and vice versa. The characters are very well portrayed, particularly the main characters, and very few are portrayed in an entirely one-sided manner. Unfortunately, the villains fall in the latter category, being treated to very little “screen” time, being added almost as a pretext towards the end of the book. Hopefully, this will be different in the following instalments of the series.
And so, I fully recommend Soulless. It’s not a perfect book, but it is witty, entertaining and fresh, without being too much of any. It’s even a book I might recommend to some non-steampunk friends as a good book regardless of the fantastic elements.

Why I liked but didn’t love Anne McCaffrey – an obituary

I just read that Anne McCaffrey has died, 85 years of age.

This made me stop and think of those of her many (around 100, it would seem) novels I’ve read. I’ve of course hit the Pern books, first with the Danish translations of the “Harpers Hall” mini-series (Dragosong, Dragonsinger and Dragondrums), later with some of the books about dragonriders, including the first book, Dragonflight, and later on a number of the others – it’s been more than ten years since I read the last Pern book, as far as I can remember, and I can’t remember exactly which ones it was.

I’ve also read some of her books that are more obviously sci-fi: The ship that sang, about a girl with birth defects who is stuck in a tank and destined to end her days as the brains of a spaceship. Think HAL, but there’s an actual human brain in the middle of the circuits. The Crystal Singer books, about a woman who goes to harvest some special crystals on a special planet. The crystals are crucial to  interstellar communications and transport, and are thus very valuable. Finally, I read The Rowan, about a girl who turns out to be one of the strongest psychics in the known universe, and thus asked to take care of transporting goods to and from her solar system.

It seems I’ve only dipped my toe in the ocean that is Anne McCaffrey’s opus. I’ve enjoyed reading her books -but I also enjoyed the DaVinci code, the same way I also enjoy eating greasy McDonald’s food, so that’s not necessarily a criteria for reading, and certainly not for recommending, a book.

I also feel like she is a woman who wanted something with her books. The Pern books particularly are full of lessons about the codependence of humans upon each other, one group needing the other, and each individual having a worth in themselves and a need for others. Similarly in The ship who sang, in which, firstly, the ship is actually a disabled person, and where, even though

she’s a genuine spaceship, she still needs something – a Brawn to her Brain, someone who can walk around inside of her and take care of fiddly bits that require hands.

But at the same time, I have a few troubles with her – like the fact that she regularly states as a natural thing that her protagonist is bound by a lifelong debt to some company. Like Cillashandra from the Crystal Singer series, who racked up a massive dept from training and initial outfitting, and who then accumulates more debt every time she needs a new service from the company.

But there’s something else – something I find far more worrying and which leaves a far worse taste in my mouth: the way all of her heroines seem to end up in very, VERY conservative patterns. Basically, with two possible exceptions that I can think of, the heroines I’ve encountered in her books all end up playing second fiddle to a man. Often a younger man, but certainly a man they’ve somehow helped create, and then they realize that they are much better off being his adoring and supporting number 2. Like [spoilers galore] Killashandra, who finds a pretty young boy in book two, who comes to join her at the crystal planet in book three and end up leader of the guild. Or the Rowan, who is the strongest telepath they have, and who then discover a wild talent on a far away, forgotten planet, who is even stronger and who end up on top of the telepath hierarchy with her as number 2. Or Lessa, who risks her life traveling through time so that she can be a housewife and her husband can be a real, dragon flying, hero.

In short, I think Anne McCafrey has done a lot for sci-fi, and she has written many great books. I’d just wish they didn’t leave me with such a bad taste in my mouth.

Muktuk Wolfsbreath, or why isn’t this a scenario?

One of the comics in my reader is seemingly winding down (though another chapter might start). I consider this a good reason to recommend it to all of you.

The story of Muktuk Wolfsbreath starts when our first person protagonist is approached by a dame (or broad). She has a problem: someone has taken her son. She needs Muktuk to rescue him. He finds out a  nasty fella called Birdbutt is behind it, and demands that she explain how on earth the lady got such a powerful character on her back. But, after a little bit of “persuasion,” Muktuk goes after Birdbutt to get back the lady’s son.

The catch: Muktuk is a Sibirian shaman, and Birdbutt doesn’t have the boy’s body, but his soul.

At the url appropriately titled http://hardboiledshaman.com/ Terry LaBan has unrolled the tale of Muktuk Wolfsbreath, a travelling, hardboiled shaman-for-hire. The way LaBan transplants the traditional noir hardboiled detective to the Siberian tundra is quite sublime, and makes for great reading – and at 77 pages, it’s not terribly long, either.

It also makes me think the same method can be used in writing roleplaying games or scenarios: take a particular kind of story, move it to a completely unrelated setting, and watch the fun unroll. Sherlock Holmes in the stone age? Sir James of Bond? Why not!