Archives: Authors

The Face in the Frost

The_Face_in_the_Frost_-_John_Bellairs

This another of my erratically spaced web log posts concerning the books of Appendix N. Today I consider “The Face in the Frost” by John Bellairs, a delightfully charming short novel.

Bellairs is known for children’s books and at first glance “The Face in the Frost” seems to fit that categorization. It begins whimsically. And a certain sense of whimsy suffuses the entire narrative. But the story soon turns onto increasingly dark pathways. This is not a children’s book.  Real dread prevents the comical adventures of Prospero (“not the one you are thinking of”) and Roger Bacon from becoming too light to take seriously.

James Branch Cabell: an Appreciation.

James Branch Cabell: an Appreciation.

Did America ever produce a more elegant writer than James Branch Cabell?  Every phrase, every simile, every line of dialog is smooth, cultured.  His work displayed urbane wit on par with Oscar Wilde.

Here is a paragraph from what many consider Cabell’s magnum opus, “Jurgen.”

So they fought.  Now Jurgen was a very acceptable swordsman, but from the start he found in Heitman Michael his master.  Jurgen had never reckoned upon that and he considered it annoying.  If Heitman Michael perforated Jurgen the future would be altered, certainly, but not quite as Jurgen had decided it ought to be remodeled.  This unlooked for complication seemed preposterous; and Jurgen began to be irritated by the suspicion that he was getting himself killed for nothing.

I love the droll, tongue-in-cheek understatement.  And the man filled volumes with this cultured verve.  Fritz Leiber often achieved similar heights, though he did not imbue his work with the same sense of aristocratic archness.  Clark Ashton Smith could weave words and worlds with the same facility as Cabell, but while both men wrote from a position of world weary cynicism, Smith seldom displayed the same degree of sustained humor and when he did it tended toward the grim rather than the philosophical.

And Cabell was doubtless a philosopher.  How should a man live in an uncaring universe, and does it matter?  Cabell addressed these issues.  And few since Shakespeare have delved as insightfully into love, lust, and marriage.

Cabell – at one point a household name – has sadly fallen into obscurity.  It is a shame that such a master – once banned in Boston, a sign of quality if there ever was one – should no longer be widely read.

What say we try to reverse that?

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont managed a rare feat: they transformed their role-playing game campaign into a series of interesting and readable novels.  It’s a trick worthy of remark.  Some of the novels Steven Brust and of China Mieville show evidence of a similar exploit of literary legerdemain.  But given that most role-playing games are, by nature, a distillation of existing tropes, a deliberate homogenization, it is truly impressive to see something unique emerge, a story that doesn’t appear to be the equivalent of a fourth or fifth generation photocopy.

The seams do on occasion show through in Erikson and Esselmont’s books.  While they’ve rebranded the demi-human races as laid down by the Ur-RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, an observant reader can get glimpses of the original product beneath.  “Edur” instead of “Eldar” (or elf.)  “Trell” instead of “Troll” (or some form of ogre/half-ogre.)  The clues are there, though in fairness they’ve rendered such archeology a pointless exercise; their creations are essentially sui generis.

The magical systems are fresh, showing no evidence of derivation from the Vancian system employed by D&D.  But at least one character wears his class openly on his sleeve.  Karsa is quite clearly Erikson’s effort to explore the Barbarian class as well as taking Robert E. Howard’s ruminations on barbarism versus civilization out for an extended exploration.

The books provide plenty of evidence to refute those who still claim that fantasy is “merely”* escapist fiction, with no greater merit.  The books explore philosophy, archaeology, historiography, religion, politics, war, psychology.  In fact the very depth, and the fact that the two writers show no hesitation to throw the reader deep into the woods without map or compass, dissuades some readers from tackling the pile of doorstops that comprise the still-ongoing series.

Well, I’m not dissuaded.  I may not agree with the Erikson or Esselmont on certain points of politics or the ideal aesthetic of the female figure, but I’m sold on these novels and I’m in for the long haul.  In fact, after writing this, I need to return to “Blood & Bones.”

Happy reading.

*See J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous remarks on escapism.

Appendix N Part 1.

Appendix N Part 1.

This is the first in an irregular series of posts on the books of Appendix N. To illuminate those not in the know, Appendix N appeared in the appendices of “The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons “Dungeon Master’s Guide.” It is a partial listing of the books and authors that influenced Gary Gygax’s contribution to the creation of the game. It is a solid, if incomplete, source of recommended works of pulp fiction.

In this installment I’ll consider the first entry of Appendix N: Poul Anderson’s “Three Hearts and Three Lions,” “The Broken Sword,” and “The High Crusade.”

Poul Anderson’s fingerprints smudge all components of D&D. “Three Hearts and Three Lions” directly informed the D&D version of the Troll and the Paladin character class, to provide a couple examples. The book describes the adventures of Holger Carlsen, a World War II solider who finds himself in a quasi-medieval fantasy realm of dwarfs and faeries and magicians and monsters along with knights, Christians, and Saracens.

“The Broken Sword” is Nordic rather than high medieval fantasy. Think elves and vikings. It features the doomed adventures of Skafloc, a changeling raised in the halls of Imric the elf. Where “Three Hearts” is light in tone and swashbuckling “The Broken Sword” is grim and lyrical, full of the ‘northern thing,’ fatalistic and tragic.

Arguably these two books were more directly influential to D&D’s conception of elves than Professor Tolkien’s writings. Anderson’s faerie-folk were soulless, distinctly non-Christian; amoral when not actively malevolent; seductive and sexual creatures. Tolkien acknowledged this folkloric tradition in”Smith of Wooton Major” and to some extent in “The Silmarillion” but the elves of Middle Earth must necessarily be perceived in a more heroic light than Anderson’s.

“The High Crusade” is a romp. An alien space ship lands near the castle of an English baron. The baron, Sir Roger, captures the ship, commandeering it for transport to France, but is instead taken to the stars where he begins a campaign of interstellar conquest. There are players of Dungeons & Dragons who grumble at the intrusion of science fiction elements into ‘pure’ fantasy. But the pulp literature predating the game did this as a matter of course. If one is to make the not unreasonable assumption that the books listed in Appendix N inspired not only the game itself but also the manner and type of scenarios the game’s creators played, then the sort of hybrid represented by “The High Crusade” is encoded in the very DNA of D&D.

I give all three books a high recommendation, allowing a slight personal preference for “Three Hearts and Three Lions.”

Steven Brust – An Appreciation

Steven Brust – An Appreciation

Steven Brust is one of the three masters of the first person smart-ass style. One of the other two, Glen Cook, was a prior subject of a Web Log appreciation. The third is the late, and lamented, Roger Zelazny.

Brust has written a substantial body of work, but is primarily known for his Dragaera novels. These primarily concern the exploits of Vlad Taltos, a human living amid an elaborately imagined civilization of elf analogues – the Dragaera, tall, immensely long-lived creatures. Other novels deal with certain of the Dragaera themselves. In these novels Brust – rather brilliantly – indulges himself by emulating Alexander Dumas’ “Three Musketeers” literary style, complete with flamboyant oaths and and humorously labyrinthine conversations.

Vlad Taltos is his crowing achievement. An assassin, an organized crime sub-boss, a witch, and a narrator delivering his own story with droll wit. Occasionally Brust explores different styles, employing other points of view to deliver Vlad’s tale. These books – for example “Athyra” – tend to suffer in comparison, lacking some of the spark of Vlad’s tongue-in-cheek delivery.

Another criticism: Brust is unabashed about sharing his political opinions. On occasion – notably “Teckla” – these views can be so intrusive as to dominate the narrative. If one – myself for example – is disinclined to be charitable to a Trotskyite viewpoint, then such heavy-handedness can diminish enjoyment of the book. Thankfully the politics are usually camouflaged well enough not to disrupt the reading experience – there if you looking for it, nigh invisible if you are not, or if you make an effort to ignore it.

With Vlad Taltos, Brust has created a seminal character in fantastic literature. Vlad is worthy of entry to the pantheon of such great scoff-laws as the Gray Mouser, Elric, and Conan, glorious rogues all.

Sadly the publisher, Tor, is no longer releasing the books in mass market paperback. This necessitates that I purchase each new volume in trade paperback. The full chronicle, when finally complete, will doubtless be an aesthetic triumph as a literary work, but it won’t fill a seamless, symmetrically pleasing stretch on my shelf.

It is possible that I demand too much.

Glen Cook – An Appreciation

Glen Cook – An Appreciation

Glen Cook’s footprints are all over the speculative fiction landscape. And they are large footprints. For readers he is a proven draw For writers he is enormously influential. Consider current heavyweights like Steve Erikson and Joe Abercrombie. What would their work resemble without “The Black Company?”

My reading would certainly have been impoverished without “The Black Company.” I remember “The Silver Spike” occupying my time while waiting at Fort Bragg for deployment on a brief training exercise in Honduras. And “Dreams of Steel” was one of many books keeping me entertained while sweating through months in Haiti. Cook is a writer who truly seems to grasp military service and soldiers.

And let’s not forget the ongoing case files of Garrett, Tunfaire’s premiere investigator and troubleshooter, reluctant knight in tarnished armor. Part Archie Goodwin, part Travis McGee, with bits of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade grafted on. Garrett is the closest thing to a fictional hero I can profess. It will be a poorer world once Cook ceases chronicling Garrett’s adventures.

Mention of two series barely scratches the surface of the layers Cook has added to the fantasy and science fiction landscape. Do yourself a favor, if you haven’t already, and explore that landscape personally.

If you have read him what is your favorite Glen Cook work?