Archives: Tolkien

The Swordbearer. Elric? Turin? Not Quite.

Glen Cook’s bibliography indicates he’s been publishing fiction since the early 1970s. So 1982’s The Swordbearer shows the work of a writer with a good decade of craft under his belt. Ten years isn’t really that long in the scribbling biz, but even at this early stage in his career, some of the stylistic quirks of Cook are apparent: the naming conventions, the fast pace, the glossing over of detail, and the complex interlocking of backstabbers that makes figuring out who shot Nice Guy Eddie seem child’s play.

Anyway, Swordbearer is relatively early Cook, but nonetheless solid. How to pigeonhole the genre? Tough. A synopsis would suggest that there are enough quests, continent spanning wars, battles, and deep time backstory to easily qualify Swordbearer as epic fantasy. But the book isn’t even 240 pages long. It is told with Cook’s typical economy, sometimes reading more like Sword and Sorcery, even though the opening chapters suggest more of a YA, coming of age tale.

As usual with Cook, the characters are almost all morally complex. If Cook were a digital photographer, he’d be baffled by the chromatic spectrum, working only in grayscale. Even the big bad emperor assaulting the West is, ultimately, a sympathetic character. Some of the foul, murderous, nigh-immortal beings are portrayed as possibly redeemable, their actions understandable. But don’t trust any of the characters in Swordbearer. Keep spinning in a tight circle, because if you ever come to a stop, you’ll find a knife between your shoulderblades.

Sounds a bit like The Black Company, doesn’t it?

The hero of the tale is a likeable kid, forced to grow up fast, and selected/compelled to take up a cursed sword. A sword that has an evil will of its own. Swordbearer is fundamentally a tragedy, going over ground you’re already familiar with if you’ve read the doings of Elric and Stormblade and/or Túrin Turambar and Gurthang. But for fans of S&S, familiar ground isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

If I had to summarize Swordbearer, I’d call it preliminary concept work for The Black Company, combined with Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer and Mournblade, along with a special guest appearance from Tolkien’s Nazgul. I’m an admitted fan of Cook, so take this recommendation for what it’s worth: pick up a copy of The Swordbearer, crack open a beer, enjoy.

If you’re looking for something newer, how about my Falchion’s Company Series? Book one, book two, book three.

Aftermath

I had a party at my house last night, a triple celebration: my fiftieth birthday, the tenth anniversary of my marriage to MBW, and MBW’s U.S. citizenship. The house echoed at times with the play of what seemed a hundred children, but couldn’t have been more than a half dozen. At the end of the night we discovered that a glutinous jar of pink slime, some sort of kid’s plaything, had been ground into the HA’s carpet. While a few remaining adults got down to cleaning that up (it turns out ice cubes are useful in that regard — helpful tip for you) I went back downstairs to pack up leftovers and load the dishwasher. The aftermath of the party.

Naturally, that got me thinking about war. Specifically the aftermath, the cleanup. And more specifically, how fantasy novels tend to deal with (or not deal with) the aftermath of the epic battles that fill their pages.

The White Hills of Elfland

Snow both physically alters landscapes and creates illusory geography. The familiar, quotidian view out your window becomes something altogether new and different after even a moderate snowfall. It’s not all wondrous fairyscapes: the roadside landscape, with its new allotment of crashed and disable cars is a reminder that the temporary physical and illusory alterations come with hidden dangers. I think both Tolkien and Lord Dunsany would appreciate that.

Amateurish Tolkien Sleuthing

MBW, the HA, and I drove out to the Columbia River Gorge yesterday and embarked on a paddlewheel sightseeing excursion upriver. The sky offered better visibility than it had most of the previous month: about this time every year everything west of the Rockies bursts into flame. Smoke obscures the views. Yesterday wasn’t bad. The river breeze was nice.

Carousing Through the Dismal Season

The leaves are dropping, exposing the bare wooden scaffolding of the trees. The rain is either a constant or an intermittent irritant. Moments of warmth are welcome rarities. Yes, the dismal season is upon us until Spring comes to our relief.

And so, we party. There’s a reason we call it the holiday season. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve in rapid sequence. Why? Because the days are short, gray, and miserable and remind us of our mortality. When faced with thoughts of death what do we do? We gather up our friends and family and we eat and drink, deliberately focusing on the positives. Each beer, each glass of wassail is a middle finger to the skeletal fellow with the black cloak and sickle.

Home

Hobbits are the quintessential homebodies. So it is no wonder that Professor Tolkien’s literary masterpiece includes one of the few examples in speculative fiction of a lovingly detailed home. Bag End is so finely realized that most of us would love to live there. That makes it a rarity. Homes in speculative fiction are usually jumping off points, or places characters are pleased to leave, or destroyed in order to compel the characters to leave. Homes are seldom longed for, or if they are, we take the character’s word for it, instead of vicariously experiencing that longing ourselves as we do with the Baggins’ cozy hole in the ground.

The Entropy Shuffle

Entropy, all my cells diminish gradually. I’m not half the man I used to be. Oh, I believe in entropy.

  • sung to the tune of “Yesterday.”

It’s been the sort of month to make one think about entropy. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Or something equally Yeatesy and apocalyptic, but of lesser scope, fit to the scale of my life.

A few weeks ago I had to drive my wife and daughter to the airport. We woke about 3AM. I went out to warm up my wife’s car. At a quarter to four we went out, suitcase and baby in hand, to find the car had ceased running. And it wouldn’t start up again. I’d not fueled my car up the previous day because I’d anticipated driving my wife’s higher-mileage vehicle while she was out of town. There wasn’t enough gasoline to get us to the airport. The nearest station was closed. As was the next, and the next. Then, the next. Siri proved of no use, telling me no gas stations were within miles, even as I asked the question from the darkened parking lot of a gas station. Stupid Siri. We’d about despaired, planning to risk limping on fumes to the airport. Just as I drove out of the last gas station I saw the lights of another about a quarter mile down the road. Lights, meaning open. Saved!

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?

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.