Archives: Reading

The Elfin Ship

Feeling, as I did, a trifle lonesome with my wife and daughter out of town for the week, “The Elfin Ship” by James P. Blaylock provided the ideal anodyne. It’s a warm fireplace and mug of hot, honeyed tea kind of book. Literature as comfort food.

“The Elfin Ship” fits the tradition of the leisurely road trip filled with adventures and perils that feel at less-than-serious on the surface, but ominous beneath the light-hearted prose. The book would be at home on the shelf next to “The Wind in the Willows,” “The Hobbit,” and “The Face in the Frost.” It’s the upper middle-class Englishman analogue stirred from his complacency and sent on a colorful round trip. You never truly fear he’ll fail to return and get to enjoy every way stop, every pipe smoked and tankard of ale drunk.

It is not easy feat maintaining this tone consistently for the duration of a long narrative. Given that “The Elfin Ship” was Mr. Blaylock’s first published novel, my hat is off to him.

My apologies for the brevity of this post. I’ve got some house-cleaning to attend to. My ladies are due back home in a couple of days and I fear my short reversion to bachelorhood has left the place rather a mess.

Rainy-day Reading

The grey days are here again. The storms roll inland from the Pacific in succession, bringing the seemingly continuous rain. The temperatures drop and coats come out of the closet. The days grow shorter. The nagging bugs commence. My daughter has already picked up a cold from somewhere and has graciously shared it with my wife. I imagine I’ll get to join the fun soon enough.

Goodbye summer. Hello long hours indoors. Those with the time curl up under a warm blanket and read. For the purpose of this web log post I’ll pretend I’m one of those fortunate folks with time on their hands, and not someone with a full-time job, a wife and infant deserving attention, novels to write, and a home to keep clean and maintained. I’m going to pretend I can do more than snatch a few minutes here and there to read.

Peregrine: Primus, Philosophy and Picaresque

I’ve written before about Avram Davidson. Might he not have graced the list of an alternate Appendix N? If I recall correctly, Gary Gygax was a Christian. Whether observant or not. But it is possible that he might find Avram Davidson’s rather acid and frequent criticism of religion distasteful and thus did not consider him an influence upon D&D. Pure speculation on my part.

The point is, I’m writing about Avram Davidson again. I just finished “Peregrine: Primus,” a short novel by Davidson, published in 1971. It is an interesting and entertaining read. It is in part a bildungsroman and in part a picaresque. A picaresque as composed by James Branch Cabell and John Meyers Meyers writing in tandem, if that gives you an idea of the style and quality. Funny stuff, droll, learned, rife with wordplay and bawdy innuendo.

Ursus

Today’s post comes rather late. I don’t apologize. I was busy desecrating the game of golf with some old friends, too seldom seen. Later the day involved overcooking meat on the grill and sweating off a pound or two adjusting the crib so that my hyperactive offspring doesn’t crawl out of it in the night.

Tonight, after scrubbing burnt barbeque sauce from the grill, I’m reviewing Ursus of Ultima Thule by Avram Davidson. In previous posts I’ve commented on some of the authors and titles from Appendix N of the Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. It’s not a bad list, Appendix N. Sometimes I read something I think ought to be in some sort of Appendix N supplement, a few loose leaves of paper distributed periodically to those of us with a DMG that we can fold in between the covers, appending Appendix N. Avram Davidson is one of those authors I think fits.

Davidson is perhaps less well known than his talents deserve. I know him primarily for a historical fantasy character, a hardcase sort of character from the sword-and-sorcery school whose adventures are set around the turn of the millenium Mediterranean. I picked up Ursus on the strength of Davidson’s short story writing.

I wasn’t disappointed. He’s written an early iron age fantasy, in the lost civilization tradition of stories set in Atlantis or Mu. He employs a highly stylized narrative voice. I can see that being off-putting for some readers, but it worked for me. Ursus is a short novel, far from the expected massive word count of today’s books. Probably for the best, the poetic style might have worn out its welcome had the book ran on much longer.

Ursus is tbe coming-of-age story of a man who – Conan fashion – becomes a king. The eponymous Ursus is a boy by the name of Arn who discovers his heritage as a shape-shifter, a were-bear. He lives during a time when wooly mammoths still roam the far north, a time during which non-human races still exist. A dying king is dealing with ‘iron-sickness,’ a sort of chronic plague of rust. Arn finds himself caught up in the matter, meeting his father, learning something of his heritage, questing for a cure to the iron-sickness, and becoming a man.

I can see the book serving as inspiration for a game involving late ice age characters and/or shapeshifters. I can also, as I said, see readers putting the book down after the first chapter, unwilling to engage with the voice the author chose for the story. Me, I liked it and I’ll keep my eye out for more of Avram Davidson’s fiction.

A Child's Library

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I’ve been thinking about what books to purchase for Victoria Valentina. With what titles shall I stock her library? Honestly I’ve been pondering this since before she was born. Look, that’s just how I am. Don’t judge me.

I’ve already picked up a paperback copy of Tbe Wind in the Willows. She may be about a decade from appreciating that one. I read it aloud to my wife. It’s been more than thirty years since I’d last read it. It held up, though it is more ponderous and somewhat less whimsical than I remember.

A boxed set of of A.A. Milne is probably at the head of the list. Winnie-the-Pooh, When We Were Young, etc. Maybe Beatrix Potter. These are likely the foundations, the talking animals, stuffed or otherwise. We can move on to Charlotte’s Web later.

I’ll probably want a nice hardcover, illustrated fairy-tale collection. And a Hans Christian Anderson collection. I’ve already got The Hobbit, copies in English and Spanish. But this might be an excuse to buy another edition.

Looking at this selection I see a decided predilection toward the fantastic. Is it any wonder I write fantasy and science-fiction? I suppose I’ll want to pick up a Laura Ingalls Wilder set as well. Establish some historical grounding. I’ve got editions of Robin Hood and King Arthur tales, but those hardly qualify as historical.

Some might say that the books I’ve selected are written for more advanced readers, that contemporary children’s books are more age-appropriate. Some would say that the concepts and vocabulary in my selections will prove challenging for little Victoria, that the language is outmoded, the morals old-fashioned, that I’m attempting to impose my own childhood on my daughter.

You know what? I don’t see a problem with any of that.

Of course, she won’t even turn one until November. So I’ve got some time.

Bard

No, not William Shakespeare. I’m writing today about “Bard” by Keith Taylor. A hat tip to Black Gate http://www.blackgate.com/ for the recommendation. “Bard” was exactly what I needed, fast paced, well-written, humorous, cover-to-cover action and magic.BARD_KT1.jpg

“Bard” is an exemplar of 1980’s fantasy. Back then I could head to the mall with a five dollar bill, hit the Waldenbooks or B. Daltons, buy a paperback and still have enough for a sandwich at the food court, and maybe a few quarters left over for the arcade. For my book-buying dollar I’d get two or three hundred pages of story. The page counts grew during the ‘80s. It wasn’t uncommon for ‘70’s paperbacks to weigh in at 175 pages. The ‘80s were a stepping stone on the way to the current paradigm: book one of an endless cycle. I’m not opposed to cinder block-sized epics, but sometimes I don’t want to commit to 8,000 words and ten plus volumes that won’t be completed for the next fifteen years. Sometimes I just want a self-contained tale. Not that all novels from the ‘80s were stand alone stories. “Bard” has sequels, but there is no cliff-hanger ending compelling continued reading, no “to be continued” or “Book One of the Bard Saga.”

Instead we get an episodic tale of Felimid mac Fal, a bard, natch. He’s traveling through Britain, from his native Ireland, during the Saxon invasions subsequent to the Roman exodus – the era of the King Arthur legendarium. Arthur doesn’t make a personal appearance in “Bard” but references pop up here and there. Felimid is an atypical sword and sorcery hero. He can fight, and ends up doing a fair amount of it. But he’d rather avoid it, rather lie his way out of a conflict, use his wits and music and magic.

“Bard” is steeped in Irish folklore. That’s another reason the book is an exemplar of ‘80s fantasy. Celtic myth enjoyed a vogue in the fiction of the decade. Seemed like every book you picked up involved the Sidhe, or Tuatha de Danann, or the Fomorians. Not that I minded. If that vogue comes around again I won’t complain.

Pick up a copy of “Bard.” I think you’ll enjoy it.

Happiness and Endings

We look for happy endings. But there are no endings. Except, y’know, death. The story may stop, but it doesn’t end, only the narration ceases at a particular moment, a transition to some other event the author doesn’t record.

Everyone is looking for a little slice of paradise. No one finds it. At best it’s transitory, that blissful stretch in Margaritaville where the beer is too cold and the daiquiri too fruitiful. And then the bar tab arrives and you come back to earth, or the hangover arrives, or you roll over in bed and see that you just might have made a huge mistake.

It’s all cyclical. Every paradise contains the seeds of its own hell. And we’re all capable of creating our own individual circles of the inferno. James Branch Cabell knew this. Read “Jurgen.” Our humble protagonist, the pawnbroker Jurgen, is given a second chance at youth, a chance to avoid all the errors of his life. But of course he simply makes a similar sequence of mistakes, complicit in his own miseries. It’s what we do.

No true story has a happy ending. J.R.R. Tolkien writes of the ‘eucatastrophe’ in which the tides abruptly shift, bringing a wave of happiness. But even “Lord of the Rings” ends on a bittersweet note. “The Princess Bride” (the book, not the film) get it exactly right, cycling from ‘the happy ending’ on to the immediate difficulties that follow.

Of course some seem to like the problems. E.R. Eddison’s “The Worm Ouroboros” for example deliberately eschews peace exchange for an immediate reset to turmoil. Less boring, you see. I do see, but I for one could put up with the occasional stretch of boredom for a corresponding length of peace.

But, that’s life. We know it from infancy. Watch a baby through the day transitioning endlessly from delighted wonder to wailing despair. “And they all lived happily ever after” is rightly confined to children’s fables. Stories, if they are honest, reflect the fragile and temporary nature of happiness.

I suppose that’s how it ought to be. Things are defined by opposition. How could we recognize happiness without a bit of misery? What would we have to look forward to, to strive for? In that respect, the emotional cycle is a boon, right?

How’s that for a happy ending?

Is it Ever Mother's Day in Secondary Worlds?

Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there. This day got me to considering the relative paucity of mothers featured as characters in science fiction and fantasy. Get rather short shrift for page time, don’t they? This is simply an observation, I’m making no judgments, issuing no call to action for greater inclusion and representation of mothers. Screw that noise. Domesticity and child rearing are seldom prominent aspects of space opera or swords-and-sorcery. That’s just the nature of the beast. If writers found more entertainment value from motherhood they’d write in more scenes for our distaff progenitors.

But what examples do we have of dear old Ma in speculative fiction?

Glen Cook's Fantasy Fiction: The Instrumentalities of the Night

I’ve written before about Glen Cook’s fantasy fiction. But with a writer as prolific as Mr. Cook there is always more to say. I’ve not been shy of pointing out that I’m a fan. His – and Steven Brust’s and Roger Zelazny’s – employment of the first-person smart ass school of fiction was influential in the writing of “Reunion.”

I’m currently reading book four of his series “The Instrumentalities of the Night.” It is classic Glen Cook: fast paced, spare in descriptive detail, full of snappy banter between and among characters (often including extensive stretches without identifying the speaker, which can get confusing if you’re reading at speed and not closely tracking the interchange.)

Absorbing Reading

Victoria Valentina listening to Daddy read his latest story.

Victoria Valentina listening to Daddy read his latest story.

How deeply do you become involved in a story? Are you an outcome based reader? That is, do you read a story only to find out what happens, whodunit, how the plot resolves? Or do you plunge completely into the fictional world? Do you laugh aloud at the jokes and unexpected twists? Do characters become so real to you that you mourn if they die or suffer loss? Do you set the book down and stare blankly at the wall as you absorb the news of a tragedy that’s befallen, imagining the reactions of the characters and the repercussions on the society?

Ever thrown the book across the room?