Posts Tagged ‘literature’

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.

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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.

[Review] Mouse Guard – Fall 1152

At the moment, the Role-playing game, Mouse Guard, is all the rage in Denmark. I haven’t tried it yet, but I am looking very much forward to trying it out.

Now, if you know of the Mouse Guard RPG, you probably also know that it was based off a series of comics, written by David Petersen (a very Danish name, but he is American). So, when I discovered that the Danish Library of State had Fall 1152, I felt reading it would be a good way to get an initial taste of what the game would be about.

Cutesey? You want to come down here and say that again?

When I first heard of Mouse Guard, My thoughts were along the lines of: “Mouse Guard – that’s mice with swords. Like Reepicheep from Narnia. Awesome – if a tad cutesey.”

Now, readers of Narnia will know what that chivalrous mouse would have to say to such an accusation – however, even if Reepicheep is not cutesey compared to the rest of Narnia, the whole of that series has a cutesey varnish over a serious story. Thus, the Mouseceteer, Reepicheep, does conjure images of a cute and childish character.

Mouse Guard is not cutesey. The drawings are very pleasing to the eye, and the mice themselves have a certain cuteness to them that would be hard to take out of them. But this is a story of mice viciously killing and being killed. When blood is drawn on the 12th (rather short) page out of 186, you know this is going to be a serious story.

And that is an important lesson to learn from Mouse Guard: there is more to this story than meets the eye.

Brave mice, cruel world

The characters in Mouse Guard are mice. They may be dressed and wield hammers, pens or swords, but they are still mice, that is to say, very small. In Mouse Guard proves to be a brilliant move by David Petersen.

In many comics and fantasy stories, the writer must come up with nasty monsters and scary empires as opponents to give their protagonists someone to fight whom we can believe will provide a challenge challenge. But the mice don’t need to be afraid of huge, imaginary monsters – they can be afraid of small, real monsters, like adders, crabs and weasels. In this way, by making his protagonists smaller and more naturally vulnerable, Petersen has made his world more intense, more relevant. The rather mundane and – to us – not very dangerous animals that the mice fight feel like real threats – more than the fantasic and powerful monsters of many other comics. And when the mice talk about their supplies running short, it seems like a real and important problem. Very handily done, mr. Petersen.

I give you: the story

At this time, I feel it is time to tell you a bit about the story of Mouse Guard: The three mice, Kenzie, Saxon and Lieam are members of the Guard – a force of roadwardens, pathfinders and – when the need be – soldiers that guard the settlements of the mice. They have been dispatched to find a grain peddeling mouse that disappeared on the way between two mouse settlements. In the other end of the mouse terrritories, Sadie, another Guardmouse, is investigating the appearent disappearance of the Guardsmouse manning a distant lookout post. Independent of each other, these two groups of mice discover that a traitor is planning a strike on Lockhaven, the headquarters of the Guard. Now start their races to get back to Lockhaven in time to thwart this megalomaniac.

The story is concluded nicely, while at the same time setting the scene for the next book. Don’t worry – no cliffhanger ending.

There is something odd about the way the story is told. At certain times, the story seems to jump, skipping certain events. It is usually easy to piece together what happened – it is more of a style of storytelling. However, it is a style I’m not quite sure whether I like.

On the other hand, it seems like a part of the artistic project of the comic: the comic is not about realistically telling every little part of the story – instead, it is about feeling the important parts of the story, leaving out some of the less important bits. If this is the intenton, it does work.

Painting mice

Obviously, you can’t review a comic with out a few remarks about the artwork.

The story is done in a sqare format, mostly divided into 1-4 frames. The pages with five or six frames are few and far between – no page has more than six frames. This makes for  very clean, almost minimalistic pages, and provides a very peculiar pacing to the comic. When a spread has three or four frames, each frame feels more important. I guess this fits nicely with the odd way the story is told – the comic shows only the important parts, but gives each moment the “time” it requires.

The drawings, themselves, are very good. Beautiful, colour saturated paintings, often spiced up with images of nature which add imensely to the image of the environment. It is impressive to see how much spirit, Petersen can paint into a mouse – when we close up on a mouse, we can see a little human being staring up at us.

There is still a problem with the mice, however. Many of then are quite hard to distinguish. Especially two os them, who are of the same height and and hair colour, and wearing cloaks of the same colour, are almost impossible to tell apart.

All in all

I’m very pleased with Mouse Guard. The artworks good, the story’s rivetting and served very nicely.

I wholeheartedly recommend the book to any comic fan out there.

Something wicked this way comes – book review (sort of)

I just finished reading Ray Bradbury’s novel, Something wicked this way comes. This is my attempt at a review – attempt, because I am very confused about what I think about the book.

The story of the book is fairly simple, but is expanded by Bradbury’s style of writing – to which I shall return shortly, as it is what I am primarily confused about.

The book follows Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, two boys born one minute to and one minute past midnight on Halloween eve (symbolic names? Nooo – do you think?). Will is the light one, Jim the dark one – something Bradbury makes very clear. One night, they hear a sound and sneak out to see an ominous train arrive with a travelling carnival, complete with many creepy circus freaks. Soon, they discover that the carnival is more than it appears to be – for one thing, the carousel makes you older or younger by riding it. In the end, the boys square off against the circus freaks with the help of Will’s old librarian father.

As I said, the story in itself is fairly straightforwards. The writing, not soo much. The writing is never straightforward or to the point, instead wandering off in poetic metafors and lifewisdom. Take for instance this passage, from when the boys watch the train with the carnival on board:

The train curved away, gonging its undersea funeral bell, sunk, rusted, green-mossed, tolling, tolling. Then the engine whistle blew a great steam whiff and Will broke out in perls of ice.

Way late at night Will had heard – how often? – train whistles jetting steam along the rim of sleep, forlorn, alone and far, no matter how near they came. Sometimes he woke to find tears on his cheek, asked why, lay back, listened and thought, Yes! they make me cry, going east, going west, the trains so far gone in country deeps they drown in tides of sleep that escape the towns.

Those trains and their grieving sounds were lost forever between stations, not remembering where they had been, not guessing where they might go, exhaling their last pale breaths over the horizon, gone. So it was with all trains, ever.

Yet this train’s whistle!

The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river-cold wind through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping or worse! the outgone shreds of breath, the protests of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, burst over the earth!

Tears jumped to Will’s eyes. He lurched. He knelt. He pretended to lace one shoe.

(Something wicked this way comes, chp. 12, pp. 46-47)

…and this is in no way a particularly longwinded example. Note that all this takes place in a short instant, and that the character in focus here – Will – is noted for his innocence, and probably wouldn’t think like this. Having action sequences done like this tends to take away the speed of the action.

On the other hand, there is a certain intensity to it, sort of like with slow motion. Each small thing that happens is focused on, and we are left gasping for air, as the suspense is held to the bursting point.

One thing is pacing, another is clarity. With such a longwinded text, it should be easy to follow the events of the text, always knowing what is going on – right?

Wrong. The text often hints, often covers things up in flowering phrases, often taking long detours away from the subject matter. All this frequently makes the text confusing, leaving you wondering what actually happened in the scene.

In some cases, this may actually be what the author wanted, however. Sometimes, it doesn’t promote a feeling of confusion, but a feeling of mystery. The book is a book of mysteries and larger-than-life children facing larger-than-life enemies. This mystery and significance of the book’s world is often linked tightly to the writing, which opens up for poetic interpretation. This is quite important: the book deals with things that cannot happen – yet I would claim it is not really a fantasy novel, making a new world based upon the old, but with new rules. Instead, it’s a symbolic text, turning the carnival into a symbol for things in human existence. The fact that we don’t quite understand what’s going on makes the supernatural more ominous, actually giving it an added importance.

The above is probably a bit confusing to read – like I said, I don’t quite understand what’s going on in the book. (Besides, I am a bit tired, which also affects my ability with words). So I’ll try to sum up, so that I have at least given a clear recomendation:

Reading this book, I was sometimes bored – but all the time, my interest in the tale drove me on. If you can stand, or even enjoy, the sometimes cryptic writing, the book is an interesting read which I at least have not regretted reading.

On the other hand: If you want something concrete and/or fast paced/action packed, this is not the book for you.

Heureka! I’ve got it!

A subject for this blog – and a name for it,  apart from just boring “Elias’ blog.”

My problem was, that when I was thinking about what I wanted to fill this blog with, I was imagining just about everything: Rolplaying, writing, computer games, film, literature, maybe a bit of journalism, a dash of philosophy, let simmer a few years and you get… nothing. Just a random collection of thoughts. But then I realized that there is a red thread running through almost all the things I do: they have to do with stories and storytelling.

The kind of storytelling that I spend most time on is Roleplaying. The fantastic thing about storytelling is excactly that you create a story together, a story which is more real, more living, than if a single one of you were to have written it. This is my measure of a good roleplaying game: I don’t care about realism, and immersion usually leaves me luke warm – but a game that helps us tell a magnificent story wins my heart every day.

Another kind of storytelling is of course the more standard kinds of storytelling, with a clearcut storyteller and a definite audience. Today, this is ususally films and books, both of which I love and have far less time for than I’d like. But from my mother, I inherited another kind of storytelling: storytelling! The kind where you tell a story to a captive audience, telling a story, written in advance by you or someone else, yet not read aloud, but told, adapted to fit the teller and the listener; gesturing and acting, but never leaving the role of the storyteller. This kind of story flourished in hundreds and thousands of years in a largely ilitterate world. Today, though, it has dwindled, now being mostly the province of professionals.

Journalism, between Truth and Story
Journalism is of course also, in its nature, about storytelling. In fact, it lies in the language of journalism: the greatest treasure of a journalist, his preciousss, is his story. A journalist is like a prospector, panning the rushing streams of leads and information for the telltale gleam of pure, twentyfour karats STORY.

This is kind of ironic, though. A story is, in its nature, not true. It may be based on truth – but it is told, cutting out, colouring, highlighting the climax. Yet one of the the virtues of a journalist is his “truthfulness.” His articles should be True, not adding anything to the Truth, not at all embellishing, but only what is actually there, in his research. A journalist is expected, at the same time, to tell a riveting exciting story that draws in his reader, and tell his story as objectively as not humanly possible. Oh, the paradox (and the Humanity, obviously – journalism certainly has its Hindenburgs from time to time).

Interactive stories
Another kind of storytelling I’m rather fond of, is the kind I can interteract with and control to a certain degree; I am, of course, talking about video games. To me, the game’s story is absolutely crucial. I have a friend who loves games like Hearts of Iron and Crusader Kings. To him, a game should be simulator; he knows nothing better than micromanaging an entire country, practically in realtime, through the World Wars or the Crusades. Iam quite different. I tried Crusader Kings, but quickly grew bored with it. Give me a good adventure game, on the other hand… I replayed Sid Meyer’s Alpha Centauri several times, because they have managed to infuse the game with a brilliant story, told through voice clips, videos and fragments of text.

So… Filemonia?
In short, storytelling is my game. It’s what I know, what I do, what I like. And thus, I’m going to be telling the world that this is a blog about storytelling.

So, why the title, “Filemonia”? Well, gather around, now, and I’ll tell you the story. The first time I told stories (that is, did actual storytelling), I told the Norwegian fairy tale, Tatterhood, as well as a Danish folk tale. Now, Tatterhood is my mother’s signature tale and a story of female empowerment, and the other had a cumbersome title in Danish.

The next time, however, the first time I actually spent a lot of time preparing myself for the storytelling, I told two brilliant tales by Michael Ende. The first was “the Dreameater,” a fabulous little tale of the King of Sleepland, who goes on a quest to find a cure for his princess’s terrible nightmares, and return with a verse that summons the Dreameater, who arrives to eat all the nightmares. A nice tale, which I actually considered for the title of the blog. The other, however…

The other Ende tale was one called Philemon Faltenreich (Philemon rich-on-folds), about an elephant, standing on the bank of the Holy River. However, a group of flies decide to play a football match against Filemon, but he never notices. Now, Filemon was perfect for several reasons. It is a good little story, probably my favorite. The word – Filemonia – is nice, and sounds a bit like both philosophy and harmony. And finally, Filemon is a philosopher, and an  elephant, just like me (please, don’t ask me why I am an elphant – just take my word for it).

And thus, I got this show well and truly under way. Hope you will find it interesting, though provoking, entertaining, worth returning to, worth reading and worth commenting.