Monthly Archives: February 2011

More Beneath Ceaseless Skies

In a previous post a few nights ago, I reviewed one of the two stories in the current issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  At the time, I was under the weather, and so passed on reading and reviewing the second in favor of getting some much needed rest.  Some of you may  have thought that it was hardly fair to Eljay Daly, the author of the second story, “Dirt Witch“.  And I would agree with you.  So today I read that story, and here’s my review of it.

The story concerns a young girl named Dorota in the village of Szukowo.  The village is plagued by ghosts of soldiers.  If you have the misfortune to be caught outside after dark during the winter, you can be shot or bayonetted.  Some years ago, Dorota’s father stole a fire-flower from a witch, and since then the villagers have been able to defend themselves.  Unfortunately, as the story opens, Dorota’s father has died in a drowning accident, the details of which we’re not given.  What matters is now the village has no defense against the ghosts.  Mocked by her grandmother for not being as brave as her father, Dorota decides to find the witch and try to bargain for another flower.  Of course, it’s not going to be that easy. 

Daly does an excellent job of gradually revealing to the reader that things are quite what they seem.  Did I say “quite what they seem”?  Things aren’t at all what they seem.  The inside of the witch’s house is bigger than the outside and truly creepy.  There’s been a pattern in recent years to make witches good and beautiful.  I view this trend in much the same way I view the current fad of vampires being sensitive, attractive, and glittery in sunlight.  In other words, a bunch of bunk, a heap of horse puckey, and a cartload of crap.  (I toned that last sentence down in the interest of being sensitive to those of differing taste.)  I’m pleased to say that Daly has made her witch truly vile and despicable.  The woman is evil, but not without understandable motives.  This is a tough thing to pull off, especially in a short story, and most especially when the witch is only onstage for a what would be a few pages in a print venue.  Oh, and I thought the antlers were a nice touch, Eljay.

I don’t normally care for stories involving witches, partly for the reason listed above, but I enjoyed this one.  Eljay Daly is a new writer, and if this story is typical of her work, she’s going to be one to watch.  While this wasn’t heroic fantasy in the strictest sense, Dorota definitely shows courage and heroism and isn’t afraid to fight with whatever at hand can be used as a weapon.

As I’ve said before, I’m not very familiar with BCS, but based on what I’ve read so far, that is going to change.  If you’ve not checked out Beneath Ceaseless Skies, do.  The stories are high quality and well written.  The magazine advertises itself as a literary fantasy magazine.  Usually when something promotes itself as literary, I tend to treat it with a bit of skepticism since much of what’s called literary sacrifices story for style.  That’s not the case with BCS.  They’ve combined the best of story and substance.  I hope they’re around for a long time.

Student Arrested for Attempted Manufacture of WMD

I’m sure some of you who’ve heard the news reports (here and here for starters) in the last day or so are wondering if I knew the student who was arrested for attempting to make weapons of mass destruction.  (I’m also sure that some of you who are not from Texas don’t care.)  Probably this curiosity comes in part from my habit of setting things on fire in class.  The answer is “No, I never met the guy.”  But there’s been plenty to talk about this morning.

New Issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies

I’ve been a bit under the weather since I got back from ConDFW, so this will be a short post.  I’m getting better, thank you.  (And thank you, pharmaceuticals.  Better living through chemistry!)

A new issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies was posted today.  You should check it out.  I’ve been aware of BCS for a while but only recently began reading it.  I do enough reading on a computer screen as part of my dayjobbery that I haven’t kept up with the online publications like I should.  That’s in the process of changing.

Anyway, BCS posts new issues every two weeks, usually with two stories.  The current issue leads off with “The Ghost of Shinoda Forest”, by Richard Parks, a tale of honor and loss in feudal Japan.  This story showcases Parks’ ability to develop mood and character in a short space, and is one of the better stories I’ve read in a while.  It also is the latest in a series, but functions perfectly well as a stand-alone. 

I met Parks when he was a regular attendee at the early Conestogas, the SFF convention in Tulsa.  This would have been in the late 90’s and early 00’s.  He quit coming after a few years.  I remember him as a soft spoken man, but one who was easy to talk to.  I’ve long thought him to be one of the more underrated writers working at short fiction lengths in fantasy for the last decade.  It would be nice to see him get more recognition.  He has several collections out, and has a web page, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to have been updated in a while.  There is a bibliography there, if you’re interested in reading more of his work.  Of course if you’re one of those people who like things current, check his livejournal page.  It was updated yesterday.

The second story, “Dirt Witch” by Eljay Daly, I haven’t read it yet.  Since I’m not feeling at the top of my game, I probably won’t read it tonight.  I’m going to turn in early.  When my energy levels are back up, I’ll post a short review.  Until then, I’m starting to fade and need to call it a night.

Report on ConDFW X

ConDFW X was held on February 18-20, 2011, at the Crown Plaza in Dallas, Texas.   Guests included Brandon Sanderson, Tim Powers, and Brad Foster.  Jack McDevitt, last year’s guest who was unable to attend due to weather, was also there.

Lee Martindale interviewing Jack McDevitt

This was a good convention.  I have only one complaint, aside from the usual that time passed too quickly and I had to miss some of the programming because I couldn’t be in more than one place at the same time, and that was the con suite.  It seemed to have thin offerings this year, which is unusual because ConDFW usually has an excellent con suite.  But that’s minor. 

It was a great con, a lot of fun, and I was able to interview several people.  Over the next few weeks, as I transcribe the interviews, I’ll post them here.

My biggest regret was that I wasn’t able to attend Tim Powers Q&A session, but at least I did manage to score a signed copy of On Stranger Tides, which is the basis for the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean IV, complete with original sketch. 

Tracy Morris, Tim Powers, Lou Antonelli, and Bill Ledbetter         

There was the usual number of writer oriented panels, on breaking out of the slush pile, how to write cross genre fiction, and that type of thing.  Steampunk was prevalent, and a good deal of the art show had a steampunk theme.  Beverly Hale’s line of steampunk accessories in the art show was particularly stunning.  I noticed about four or five self-published authors had tables in the dealers’ room, each of them trying to promote their books.  I leafed through one of them, and the dialogue was pretty stilted.  While I wish the author well, I hope the author is able to improve their craft. 

Probably the most eye-popping thing was in the charity auction.  Someone had donated a large (I’m talking huge here) number of movie related items:  posters, signed publicity photos, Star Trek figures.  That in and of itself wouldn’t be especially eye-popping except that two of the posters were signed.  One was Apocalypse Now, and the other was The Blues Brothers.  Yes, the entire cast of both movies, including Marlon Brando and John Belushi.  I have no idea what they went for, but whoever walked away with them surely got them for less than market price.

Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson used part of his GoH session to discuss how genre fans shouldn’t denigrate fans of subgenres that don’t like.  His point, which was much more eloquently made than I’m stating it, was that genre readers in general, and readers of fantasy and science fiction in particular, have been looked down upon and ghetto-ized by the literary establishment and the general public for years.  We shouldn’t turn around and do that to each other.

(l to r) Frank Summers, Mark Finn, Brandon Sanderson, Gloria Oliver, Stina Leitch, and Lee Martindale discussing magic systems.

The panel I found most thought-provoking was the one on how much should magic systems operate on scientific principles, meaning how well developed should the rules governing an author’s magic system be worked out.  When the discussion went to the audience, I suggested that many science fiction writers use more magic than many fantasy writers because they take Clarke’s Law and reverse it, making magic indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology.  I also suggested that maybe people were reading more fantasy than science fiction these days (at least according to sales numbers) was that fantasy was delivering the sense of wonder that science fiction used to deliver.  I may develop this idea and follow it up with another post.

All in all this was a great con.  Rather than talk about it, I’ll let my photos speak for me.

(l to r)  Brad Sinor, Teresa Patterson, Kevin Hosey, Scott Cupp, and Lee Martindale discussing the making of anthologies.
The hotel lobby seen from the 2nd floor.

(l to r) Frank Summers, Thomas Knowles, Bill Fawcett, Michael Finn
A good time was had by all.

Is Modern Fantasy Destroying Western Civilization?

Leo Grin, founder of the now highly collectible The Cimmerian journal and former manager of the website of that name (see links to the right), has posted a blog in which he takes many of the more popular contemporary fantasy authors to task for how dark and (in Leo’s view) nihilistic their work is.  One of the people he singles out is Joe Abercrombie, who has responded.  This has, as some of you know because you’ve also responded, set off a huge online…we’ll call it a lively discussion in the comments of both blogs as well as other places.  Abercrombie includes links to some other sites taking up the discussion, although I’ve not had time to read them yet.  (This is the sort of thing that makes you forget about deadlines, like that addition to a lab I need to have written by the end of the day.)

I see both “sides” of the discussion, although I’m not sure that taking sides is wise or productive, as well as finding points in both posts that I agree with, as well as some I don’t.  I’m going to be buried under grading the first wave of exams by the time today is over, as well as traveling starting tomorrow afternoon.  Therefore, I’m going to refrain from weighing in on this discussion until next week, after I return and have had some time to reread Joe and Leo’s posts, as well as some of the others.  Since Leo’s last three words were “to be continued”, I’m sure there will still be plenty of discussion going when I get back.

If you haven’t read any of this, start with Leo’s post and take it from there.  And please feel free to express your opinions here if you’re so inclined.

Now back to the dayjobbery…

New Additions

If you’ve visited Adventures Fantastic before, you may have noticed a set of links of potential interest in the upper right hand corner that weren’t here the last time..  I’ve been intending to do this for some weeks now, but tonight was the first time I had a chance to actually sit down and do it.  I’ll be adding more as I come across things I like and as time allows.  For now, though, here are a few other places to visit that you might enjoy.  Although I suspect many of you are already familiar with them.

Blogging Kull: The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune

This was the second Kull story published in Howard’s lifetime, and the last one to feature Kull as the viewpoint character.  He would make one more published appearance, in “Kings of the Night”, but that tale is primarily a Bran Mak Morn story with Kull in a secondary role.  After that, no more Kull stories would be published in Howard’s lifetime.

This is an extremely short piece, more brooding than action.  In fact, Kull never draws his sword at all.  Only Brule engages in any slaughter. 

Howard chose to open this tale with a quote from Poe, and it’s quite appropriate.  Kull is burned out when the story opens, in what Howard describes as “the time of great weariness”, and what would be called today a midlife crisis.  (I’m looking forward to my midlife crisis and getting a Harley and a hottie, but I will probably ease into it slowly with the one that requires the least maintenance.  That would be the Harley.)  Instead of grabbing a wench and a fast horse and hitting the road, Kull merely broods about the meaninglessness of life and how nothing satisfies him now.  While Howard wasn’t fond of religion and the church, I have to wonder if he had been reading the book of Ecclesiastes when he wrote this.  Howard describes Kull’s daily routine as “an endless, meaningless panorama”, much like the author of Ecclesiastes describes life as “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” 

When no one is around, a servant girl suggests to Kull that he visit the wizard Tuzun Thune.  Whereas Conan would have probably ravished the girl, Kull merely follows her suggestion.  Tuzun Thune tells Kull to gaze into his mirrors and become wise. 

The first mirror shows the past, and the savage battle for survival against flying dragons and other beasts.  It’s a world of endless struggle, with Death the only certainty.  The second mirror shows the future, in which Atlantis and Lemuria are beneath the waves, and only their mountaintops remain, islands in the vastness of the ocean.  Valusia and the other Seven Kingdoms are gone and forgotten, all their splendor and treasures dust.  Tuzun Thune says this is the way of the world, one tribe supplanting the previous.  It’s all very depressing.

Then Tuzun Thune has Kull look in a third mirror.  Kull sees only his reflection and wonders who the man is who gaze matches his own.  He once knew him   Kull begins to wonder who is the man and who is the reflection.

Kull visits Tuzun Thune every day, staring at his reflection in a mirror.  He becomes more and more fascinated by the world in the mirror and wants to know what he would find if he passed through to the other side.  He is in the process of doing so when when Brule shatters the mirror.  Kull comes to his senses to find the lifeless body of Tuzun Thune on the floor before him, Tuzun Thune’s blood dripping from Brule’s sword.  Brule informs Kull that he is the victim of a plot by one of the other nobles, a plot only discovered that very day.  The servant girl who told Kull to visit Tuzun Thune is in on it.  She’s on the floor covering in fear for her life while this exchange between Kull and Brule is taking place.  Amazingly Kull says she was merely a pawn and lets her go unpunished.  After the girl tells Kull about Tuzun Thune, Howard describes her this way:  ” the smile of her scarlet mouth was cunning behind Kull’s back, and the gleam of her narrow eyes was crafty.”  That doesn’t sound like someone who was a pawn to me.  We know she and Tuzun Thune were both members of the Elder Race, who once ruled Valusia.  Conan would never have dismissed her this way, although he probably would have let her live.

In a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith sometime in February 1929, Howard lists all his sales to date.  He records that he got $20 for “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” and that it was “more of the Shadow Kingdom, occult and mystical, vague and badly written; this is the deepest story I ever tried to write and I got out of my depth.”  [Collected Letters Vol. 1, REH Foundation Press, 2007, p. 311]

This is a deep story, but I don’t agree with Howard’s assessment.  It’s not badly written at all.  Some of the paragraphs are quite powerful in their descriptions and mood.  Howard was in his early twenties at this time.  It’s wouldn’t be unusual to feel that sense of weariness he describes.  Here’s a young man who is trapped in a small town where no one understands him.  He had to wonder at times if his desire to write was worth it.  I spent part of my adolescence in a small town about fifty miles from Cross Plains, and I can tell you that what Howard describes is a very real sensation.  Anyone who doesn’t conform to the lowest common denominator expectations of society in those towns will sooner or later experience the fatigue (the weariness) that comes from trying to be your own person when all you meet is opposition and exclusion.  Instead of being out of his depth, Howard seems to me to have poured out his feelings and his experience in this story. 

I think he nails it perfectly, and that’s why for all its brevity, this is a major story in Howard’s oeuvre.

What I Read While Stuck in Airports

I’ve been on the road for the last few days, traveling due to dayjobbery.  I’ve spent a lot of time in the air and in airports.  I had to make two connections to get where I was going and again to get home.  I took my Nook with me, loaded with stuff.  Unfortunately, you aren’t supposed to have the things on during taxiing, takeoff, and landing.  Something about interfering with the plane’s navigational system or something.  I’m not sure of the details. 

Anyhoo, before I left I bought and downloaded the Beneath Ceaseless Skies anthology.  This is a collection stories from the first year of the magazine.  I must confess to not being as familiar with the publication as I need to be.  That’s going to change.  I’m only about a third of the way through, but the stories are top notch.  Less sword and sorcery than I prefer, but still good high quality, well-written pieces.  Worth checking out, and for three bucks, you will get your money’s worth.  All proceeds go to the authors and artists.  Check it out, along with the magazine.  I’ll be posting about it more in the future.

In addition to reading a business book and the current issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, I ended up getting a used paperback copy of David Drake’s Other Times Than PeaceI pretty much only read this one on the way back while I couldn’t read the Nook, so I only got about 130 pages into it, finishing the first two stories.  Still, Drake does a good job of pulling you into a tale with only a few words.  One of the things I like best about his work is that he draws on ancient history.  He’s another author I need to read more of.

I still haven’t started the latest McDevitt, Echo, and since he’ll be at ConDFW next weekend, I need to get moving on that.  I haven’t had much time to blog lately, but I thought I would pass along some recommendations on what I’ve read lately.  Expect a report on ConDFW when I get back.  Until then, look for at least one more post later this week.

The Frost King, The Frost-Giant, and Their Daughters

It’s been bitterly cold here on the South Plains of Texas for much of the last week.  Temperatures were near record lows for several days.  Just when it looked like things were going to warm up again, we got more snow Sunday.  And that made me think of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”, which made me think of “The Frost King’s Daughter”.  And I knew what the next post on this blog would be.

The tale (or tales, if you prefer) concerns the lone survivor of a battle in the frozen north.  Having just killed the only member of the opposing army left standing, he sees a beautiful young woman wearing only a gossamer veil walking among the dead.  She taunts him with her body, and he pursues hers.  Of course, this is a trap.  After a time, she calls her brothers forth, two ice giants, to kill the man.  Instead, he defeats them, captures the girl, and is about to ravish her when she calls on her father, Ymir.  The girls is transported into the sky in a blaze of blinding light that leaves the hero unconscious.  He is awakened by a band of his allies who were delayed by an ambush.  After he tells his story, one of the older men in the group tells the warrior he saw Ymir’s daughter Atali, who haunts battlefields and lures survivors to their deaths so that she might present their hearts to her father.  The old man claims to have seen her as a youth when he was too wounded to follow her.  Everyone thinks the old man had his brains addled by a sword stroke until the hero unclenches his fist to find a veil.

This pair of stories are essentially the same, only the names have changed.  “The Frost King’s Daughter” concerns Amra of Akbitana, while the “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is an early Conan story that was rejected by Farnsworth Wright (more on that later) and wasn’t published until the August 1953 issue of Fantasy Fiction.  Unfortunately, that version was rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp.  It wasn’t until 1976 that Howard’s version saw print in Donald M. Grant’s Rogues in the House.  This was a hardback collectible volume, not a mass market edition.  “The Frost King’s Daughter”, on the other hand, was published in the March 1934 issue of The Fantasy Fan.  You probably couldn’t afford an original copy of that little fan publication, provided you could find one.  Fortunately, the entire run has been reprinted in facsimile (details on how to order are here.)

The first mass market publication of Howard’s original version of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” wasn’t available until 1989, when both stories were printed side-by-side in Karl Edward Wagner’s Echoes of Valor II.  If you aren’t familiar with the series, it ran to three volumes (as far as I know; if there was a fourth I missed it).  Wagner, a fan and writer of sword and sorcery who deserves to be better remembered, compiled collections of rare heroic fiction.  While many of the stories Wagner selected have been reprinted in recent years, especially the Robert E. Howard and C. L. Moore pieces, there are still some tales that haven’t seen the light of day since and make the volumes worth seeking out.

In his introduction, Wagner states that Howard wrote “The Frost King’s Daughter” first and that the Conan version, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” was the rewrite.  How he knows this to be true, Wagner doesn’t exactly say.  He supports his case by saying that “The Phoenix on the Sword” was a rewrite of the Kull story “By This Axe I Rule” (documentably true), and that “Frost-Giant” was a rewrite of “Frost King”.  We know Howard would recycle stories if they didn’t sell, at times changing the names of major characters, and we also know that sometimes the details of his stories would change from one draft to the next.  Furthermore, there is evidence that Howard was still developing the character of Conan as well as the Hyborian Age for the first several Conan stories.  Patrice Louinet, in his essay “Hyborian Genesis” (The Coming of Conan), does a thorough job of showing this development.

And here we encounter a small problem.  Louinet suggests that Howard changed the title of the story and Conan’s name to Amra when he sent the story to The Fantasy Fan.  His evidence seems to be the publication date of “Frost King” as well as an unreferenced letter from Howard to Charles D. Hornig, editor of The Fantasy Fan.  Patrice Louinet is one of the leaders in the field of contemporary Howard scholarship.  Wagner was one of the foremost authorities of his day.  So who is correct?  Was “Frost King” the rewrite, or was “Frost-Giant”?

As far as their respective texts are concerned the stories are almost identical.  I compared them, and there was only one significant deviation I found.  This one:

“Far have I wandered, from Zingara to the Sea of Vilayet, in Stygia and Kush and the country of the Hyrkanians; but a woman like you I have never seen.”

So who do you think said this, Conan or Amra?  Based on the place names, which are the settings of other Conan stories, you would probably think Conan, right?

Well, you would be wrong.  Amra said this.  In the Conan version of the story (Frost-Giant), the wording is “Far have I wandered, but a woman like you I have never seen.”  Conan’s wanderings and the Hyborian geography are never mentioned.  The only reason that I can think of for Howard to add place names from the Conan stories to a rewrite of a Conan story in which he changes the name and nationality of the viewpoint character is to clue readers in that Amra is really Conan.  And since it had been established by the time “Gods of the North” AKA “The Frost King’s Daughter” was published in The Fantasy Fan that Amra was one of the names Conan was known by, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this was Howard’s motivation.  But why would he do this?  The only explanation I can come up with was that because Conan was a Weird Tales character, either Howard had an agreement with Farnsworth Wright not to try to sell a Conan story to another market (I’m unaware of any such agreement) or he felt that do sell a Conan story to another market would, in a sense, be dishonorable.  It was standard practice in the pulp days for an author’s character(s) to only appear in one magazine.Howard may have been abiding by that practice.

On the other hand, it could be that “Frost-Giant” is the rewrite.  The passage quoted above, the one with the place names, tends to disrupt the flow of the story.  Certainly, its prose is more purple than the same passage without the travelogue.  It could very well be, since as far as I know the exact composition date of either version of the story is unknown, that Howard was already working out the geography of the Hyborian kingdoms and simply hadn’t settled on a final name and nationality of his principle character.  I will be the first to admit that the evidence isn’t conclusive either way, but this is the interpretation I favor.  I’m sure if there’s information I’ve overlooked, Howard fandom will let me know about it.  Quickly.

There’s one other thing I want to address.  Wagner says Wright rejected “Frost-Giant” because it was too racy.  Considering the sexual imagery in some of C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories (another topic for another day), not to mention the sex implicit in some of the other Conan tales, I’m not sure I buy this line.  If Wright was that uptight, why did he publish some of those Margaret Brundage covers?  (I know, I know, racy covers on pulps had nothing to do with the contents.)  Wagner says Wright’s view of Conan was of “a noble barbarian out to perform deeds of chivalrous heroism.”  Again, Wagner doesn’t provide details to back this position up.  In fact, Wright’s rejection of the story, which Wagner quotes, simply says Wright didn’t care for the story and gives no reasons as to why he didn’t care for it.  The general consensus I’ve heard for years on this point was that Wright didn’t like the hero attempting to commit rape.

But is this what Conan/Amra really does?  In the interest of stirring up trouble taking a deeper interpretation of the story, let’s look closely at what happens, shall we?  Atali taunts Conan.  “Spreading her arms wide, she swayed before him, her golden head lolling sensuously, her scintillant eyes half shadowed beneath their long silken lashes.  ‘Am I not beautiful, oh man?’ ”  Sounds to me she’s trying to entice him to pursue her.  This is born out at the end of the story, when the old man Gorm tells Conan Atali lures men to their deaths.  Gorm also describes her as beautiful and naked.  Atali continues to taunt Conan, essentially daring him to follow her.  Conan’s reaction is described as a madness that sweeps away his pain and fatigue.  Howard makes the pursuit sound as though Conan were possessed.

Rather than trying to commit rape, I read the story as Conan being put under a spell of desire by Atali.  Only Conan is stronger than she bargains for.  When he kills her brothers, she realizes she can’t control him nor reverse the spell.  Otherwise, why would she have to call on Ymir for help?  Am I saying Atali was asking for it?  You bet.  Even a casual reading of the story would tend to show that was the case.  What I’m NOT saying is that every (or even any) attempted rape victim was asking for it, so please don’t read that into my remarks.  I don’t consider what Conan/Amra does here to be attempted rape because I don’t interpret his actions as being of his own free will.  This is a fictional story, a fantasy, in which an evil woman’s spell goes wrong and she can’t control the desires she has deliberately cultivated in a man, with the outcome being other than what she intended.  I don’t for a minute think that’s how the real world works, and in spite of some of Howard’s detractors, I don’t think Bob meant that here either.  I think he was telling an entertaining story in the best way he could with a character whose personality he was still developing and exploring.  And in that, he succeeded.

So, to sum up.  I think “Frost-Giant” is probably a rewrite of “Frost King”, and furthermore Conan has gotten a bad rap these many years, accused by some critics of attempting a crime of his own free will when in truth he had no choice about.  Those are my thoughts on this cold winter night.