Monthly Archives: May 2011

Blogging Kull: Two Fragments

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey, 317 p., $17 

In this post we’ll look at the last of the Kull fragments, with a close examination of the racial attitudes displayed in one of them.  After that there are three lengthy and well known stories left to examine.

The first tale, although barely started (incomplete hardly comes close to describing this piece), has a title, “The Black City.”  It takes place in the city Kamula, which seems from what few details are given to be something of a resort, to use modern terminology.  It’s a place of art, music, and poetry.

Kull is in the throne room, wishing he could get some rest when Brule bursts in, vowing to tear the entire city apart.  He and two other Picts, Grogar and Monaro, are hanging out when Grogar leans against a half column.  The column shifts back into the wall, Grogar falls into the darkness behind it, and the column begins to shut.  Monaro is able to get his sword in the crevice to prevent the hidden door from closing completely, but he and Brule are unable to open it again.
It’s at this point Brule goes for Kull.  When they return, they find Monaro leaning against the wall in a listening posture.  This doesn’t surprise Brule, because Monaro had sworn he could hear music. 

Kull claps Monaro on the shoulder, and the man falls over, dead.  There’s a look on his face that is both horror filled and indicative of listening.  Kull looks at the blackness beyond the sword, which is still blocking the door, and thinks it’s almost something tangible.  He can hear a ghostly piping.

And that’s where Howard stopped.  It’s a shame, because while the opening and the trappings are fairly typical of what you find in sword and sorcery these days, and indeed they were becoming fairly stock in trade in Howard’s days, Howard uses them well.  Sometimes it’s not so much how original an author’s trappings are, but how he uses them.

The second fragent has no title and is about the same length as “The Black City”.  Kull and Brule are playing some type of game that seems to resemble chess, because Kull says his sorcerer threatens Brule’s warrior.  A third man, a young noble named Ronaro.

In response to Kull’s gibe about his sorcerer threatening Brule’s warrior, Brule begins to tell a tale of his early youth when he faced a sorcerer.  Unfortunately, we don’t get much more than a lead-in describing how the Picts organized their tribes.

What’s interesting here is how the men are described.  Here’s what Howard said about them in the concluding sentence of his description:  “about each of the three was that indefinable something which sets the superior man apart and shatters the delusion that all men were born equal.” Now Howard has taken a lot of flack, much of it misguided, over the years because how he presents race offends certain politically correct sensibilities.  This is just the type of line some of those people like to take out of context.  The preceding descriptions of the three individuals at the table emphasizes their accomplishments as well as the accomplishments of the ancestors of Brule and Ronaro.  Kull knows nothing of his ancestry.  The paragraph describing them begins thus:  “But in the countenances of all three gleamed an equality beyond the shackles of birth and circumstance.”

This paragraph is about as far from racist as you can get.  Especially when you take into account that Brule is described in both the fragments considered in this post as having skin that was noticeably darker than Kull’s and yet he’s Kull’s closest companion.  It seems to me, at least as I read this fragment, that Howard is saying men are superior based on their achievements, not their race, and that when judged on the basis of achievement, men are not equal.  He takes great pains to emphasize the differences in their backgrounds in the lengthy paragraph that precedes the one I’ve quoted from.  In other words, the attitudes Howard displays here are quite egalitarian and much more advanced for his day than he is often given credit for.

There have been much better discussions of Howard’s racial views than what I’m presenting here.  A thorough and complete examination of Howard’s view on race is well beyond the scope of this series, which focuses on Kull.  I point out the passages here as evidence that Howard may have held more open racial views than he has been given credit for because this fragment isn’t well known and because it’s extremely well written.

Status Report and Thank You’s

Good afternoon (or whatever time it is when and where you’re reading this).

For those of you either living in the States or US citizens living abroad, allow me to wish you a happy and safe Memorial Day.  If you are in the armed forces, allow me to offer my thanks and gratitude.  Your service and sacrifice is appreciated.

Hopefully your weekend will be restful and enjoyable and will include reflection on what and why we’re celebrating.  Here on the South Plains, it’s hot.  The record temperature for this day is 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and the thermometer in the car at 1:00 p.m. read 103.

Anyway, I haven’t posted for a few days.  Not because I’m slacking off.  I’ve been reading an anthology that will premier in two weeks in order to have a review ready to go up the weekend the book launches along with an interview with the editor.  That will be the same weekend as Howard Days in Cross Plains, which I’m also trying to prepare for.  I’ve been trying to make progress in a novel I’ll be reviewing.  My son completed the Third Grade this week (Yay!), so I’ve been celebrating that accomplish with him as well as just spending a little time with him before our regular summer schedule starts next week. Finally, I’ve got some projects in development, some of which involve Adventures Fantastic.  It might be another day or two before any new content goes live.  I’ve posted a list of links to some of my favorite posts at the bottom of the page in case you missed some of them.

May has been the best month I’ve had since I started the blog.  I’ve had a record amount of traffic and have picked up some new followers.  I want to thank everyone who has taken time to visit, share comments, post links, or otherwise been supportive. Stay with me.  I’m just getting started.

Here are some selected posts:

I’ve been blogging about Kull, one story at a time.  Here’s the first post.

In my opinion, Henry Kuttner, while acknowledged for his science fiction, did help keep sword and sorcery alive after Robert E. Howard’s death.  Here’s my look at the four stories in his Elak of Atlantis series.

My analysis of  Robert E. Howard’s “Skull-Face” was one of my earliest posts, and one of the most popular.

Besides fantasy, this blog also looks at historical adventure.  Here’s a look at the first in a series I intend to return to later in the summer.

Finally, some of my opinions.

Some Thoughts on the Occasion of Oprah Winfrey’s Final Show

For some, today is a day of great sadness.  Oprah Winfrey, mogul, talk show hostess, would be kingmaker, and self-appointed arbiter of what we should all be reading, is closing out her show with its final broadcast.  And while it’s sure to be a sobfest with a lot of celebrities giving testimonials about how Oprah has changed their lives, given them meaning, and cured them of rickets, it truly marks the end of an era. 

About time, I say.

Now maybe we can get someone to step into the vacuum and start a book club to promote what we should really be reading.  Fantasy (especially sword and sorcery), historical adventure, science fiction, and noir.  Can you imagine what publishing would be like if someone with as many sheep minions followers as Oprah has were to get on national television and promote Robert E. Howard?  Or Jack McDevitt?  Or Harold Lamb?  How about Rafael Sabatini?  Michael Koryta?  Or, to be really radical, the poster child for all that’s wrong in fantasy, Joe Abercrombie?  I could go on.

Can you just imagine it?  The shelves in bookstores, Wal-Marts, and supermarkets would be packed with great stuff to read rather than, well, the stuff they’re packed with now.

Of course, those writers appeal to people who aren’t cattle who can actually think for themselves, rather than having someone on TV tell them what to read, so that would probably never work.

A Summary of Grand Masters

Christopher Heath has written a great post over at Home of Heroics about heroic fantasy grand masters and who they’ve influenced him.  His assessment is insightful and informative.  Check it out.  The only one I’d add (at least off the top of my head) would be C. L. Moore.  Her Jirel of Joiry series, while barely enough to fill a book, are powerful and eerie.  Jirel was one of the first warrior women, and created in a time when science fiction and fantasy was a male dominated field.  Moore’s stories brought an emotional depth to the field that had been lacking in the bulk of the work published up to that point.  Heath credits Lovecraft for atmosphere.  While Moore’s writing was certainly atmospheric, I would have to say one of the techniques at which Moore excelled was imagery.  I’ve been wanting to take a detailed look at her Northwest Smith series, which is really fantasy in a science fictional setting, for a while now. Imagery will be one of the things that series will focus on.  Hopefully those will start appearing by the end of the summer.

Long Looks at Short Fiction: "Travelers’ Rest" by James Enge

Traveler’s Rest
James Enge
Pyr Books
free download

The first installment of Long Looks at Short Fiction, back in the early days of this blog, was an examination of “Destroyer” by James Enge.  It’s been in the top ten posts ever since it went live.

When I recently came across this short story on the Pyr website, I knew I had to write an LLaSF column about it.   It’s just taken me a while to get to it.  Pyr has made this story available to celebrate the publication of its 100th title, The Wolf Age by, who else, James Enge. It’s set before the events of Blood of Ambrose and is self contained.  If you’re not familiar with Enge’s alcoholic swordsman/sorcerer Morlock, this story provides a good introduction.

There’s an old saying that something is worth what you pay for it.  In this case, it’s definitely not true.

This isn’t a particularly long piece, only 8500 words, but that’s fine.  It’s still a Morlock tale.  Morlock and his apprentice Wyrth are traveling through a strange land where the livestock grazing in the fields resemble overgrown beetles.  Wyrth thinks something is amiss, but Morlock insists on staying for lunch and at least one night.

It seems Wyrth  is right.  Things are definitely not well in the town.  And the hills are the last place you want to go to get away from the trouble.  It goes back to a bargain made a number of years ago.  Of course the hills are where Morlock heads when he gets enough information to make a decision to get involved.

The plot is straightforward enough that I won’t go into the details.  Suffice to say that Enge writes intelligent fantasy for the thinking person.  In order to find out exactly what’s happening, Morlock has to make a truce with the villain and enter his cave.  The problem now is to defeat the villain without breaking his oath while rescuing the young girl he’s gone to find.

There’s humor here, but also horror and tragedy.  It would have been easy for Enge to dwell on the horrors in the cave.  Instead he shows us enough to let us know just how dangerous Morlock’s opponent is.  There’s enough humor in this portion of the story to leaven the atrocities.  And Enge brushes over how the survivors of the village have to cope with the aftermath, which, although horrific, isn’t as horrific as the situation before Morlock showed up.

Enge is fast becoming one of the best practitioners of sword and sorcery working today.  If you haven’t read him, download this story and see what all the talk is about.

Congratulations to the Nebula Award Winners

The winners of this year’s Nebula Awards were announced yesterday in Washington, D.C.  They are

Novel:  Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

Novella:  “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirksky (Subterranean Summer 2010)

Novelette:  “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone (Analog 9/10)

Short Story  (tie):  “Ponies” by Kij Johnson  (, 1/17/10)
                             “How Interesting:  A Tiny Man” by Harlan Ellison (Realms of Fantasy 2/10)

Adventures Fantastic would like to congratulate all the nominees and especially the winners.  A complete list of the nominees as well as winners of associated awards can be found here.

Seven Days of Online Fiction, Day 8: Recap

So a week ago today, I acted on this crazy idea I had to look at a different venue for online fiction every day for a week, with as much a focus as possible on fantasy.  I called the project Seven Days of Online Fiction.  It started when I read Karen Burnham’s list of work that had received multiple award nominations this year; most of the short fiction was available online.  (Karen updated the list on Wednesday.) 

I’ve had the opinion for a long time now that what has been appearing online is just as good as what the print magazines have been publishing.  I intentionally left anthologies out of the mix because even the few anthology series that appear regularly have at least a year between volumes and are often trumpeted as Events.  I wanted to look at what was appearing on a consistent basis.

So I managed to read and post for seven days in a row, although the last couple of days were a bit of a strain from a time commitment perspective.  Links to each day are in the sidebar on the right.  The next time I do something like this, I’ll have at least half the posts done before any go live.  Anyway, I thought I would take today, Day 8, if you’ll allow, to look back and see what I’ve learned from this experience.

First, let me review the parameters.  I love science fiction, but I tried to restrict myself to fantasy since that’s the focus of this blog.  There are a number of great sites that specialize in science fiction; needless to say, they weren’t considered.  There are also some sites that publish both science fiction and fantasy.  I had hoped to feature Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons, but the stories in those were science fiction.  At least they appeared to be; I skimmed the first few paragraphs but didn’t have time to read them all the way through if I was to stay on schedule.  I’ll go back and read them at my leisure now that this project is complete.  Because I was looking at the current issues, any stories in the archives were out of bounds. 

Also, I didn’t look at or Subterranean.  These are two of the major hitters.  While accepts unsolicited manuscripts, in their guidelines they discourage submissions from writers who aren’t established pros.  Subterranean, at least last I heard, is by invitation only.  I wanted to see what was showing up by newer writers.

Finally, I restricted myself to venues which had fiction posted for free, which eliminated sites such as Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.  There were a couple of reasons for this.  First, cash flow is incredibly tight at the moment because my wife is recovering from surgery and we’re paying bills on my salary until she goes back to work in a couple of weeks.  Until then, reading material that costs money is a luxury I’m having to do without.  Also,  I wanted anyone who was interested in reading one of the stories I looked at to be able to do so without an outlay of cash.  That’s not to say I think fiction online should be free.  I don’t.  I believe in paying for quality product so the producers of said product can continue to produce.  For the purposes of this project, I wanted it to be as inclusive and convenient as possible to my readers.  If you enjoy the fiction on a site, you should consider contributing or subscribing.

I read a total of10 stories and ranked them on the basis of quality using a binary classification.  Either the quality was high or low.  I classified 8 of them high, although a few were marginal.  I suspect those of you who read the stories took issue with me on some.

The sites I visited were the following (in order):  Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Electric Spec, Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, Abyss & Apex, and Quantum Muse.  Obviously, I read more than one story from a couple of the venues.  Those were Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Ideomancer, and Electric Spec. For each magazine, I asked one simple question:  If I had never read this magazine before (and in some cases I hadn’t), did I enjoy this story enough to make me want to read more from this particular venue?  The only one where I said “No” was Ideomancer.  Not that the pieces weren’t well written, but there wasn’t much action in them.  One was a Bradbury-esque mood piece.  The other read like something out of an MFA class.  Neither had much in the way of plot, and I found the character development minimal in both.  Probably because characters grow through experiences, especially challenging experiences. 

The others, though, are all sources I’ll go back to.  I’m not sure all of them will become things I’ll read regularly, but they’re worth checking out.  For what it’s worth, I’ll check back in with Ideomancer.  Hopefully you looked at some of these and found a new source of fiction. 

So what’s the significance of Seven Days of Online Fiction?  Not much in the big scheme of things. There was nothing scientific in my methods.  One of the flaws with my approach is that I’m taking a random sample, and it’s quite possible that what I found in any of these magazines was better than average or worse than average.  For the ones I was familiar with, I know that’s not the case, but that’s only three of them.  Second, this was entirely subjective.  What I like, you might not.  A story I think stinks could sweep all the awards it’s eligible for next year.  Then there’s the physical aspect.  Fatigue can make a difference in how a person views a story, as well as what type of day they had at work, etc.

So to summarize, I decided to randomly look at seven different online publications, some familiar, some new, and see what type of quality I could find.  What I found was some good, solid fantasy.  Some better than others.  I also discovered some new writers, writers I’ll keep an eye out for in the future.  And I had a number of enjoyable evenings reading.  And that may be one of the most important things I got from this little exercise.

Seven Days of Online Fiction, Day 7: Quantum Muse

For the almost final installment in the Seven Days of Online Fiction series (I’ll do a summary post tomorrow or the next day; here are installments one, two, three, four, five, and six for those who missed them.), we’ll look at another site that was new to me.  This one is called Quantum Muse. It’s a monthly with a featured artist, an editorial, and weekly flash fiction updated on Mondays.  The editorial process here is a little different from most.  Stories are submitted to a peer review group, which contributors have to join.  In order to have their stories critiqued, authors must review the work of others.  Once a story has received five critiques, it’s moved off the list for consideration by the editors.  This is an interesting way to do things, which frankly makes me a little leery.  Peer review of fiction can weaken a story, making it more bland, just as often as it can strengthen one.

The story for consideration is called The Quack by Ross Kitson.  I couldn’t find much about Dr. Kitson from the internet, so all I know of him is what’s in his author bio.  I’m assuming that “The Quack” is his first published story since his bio doesn’t list any other publication credits. 

The story concerns a young man, probably not much more than a boy, named Anase who ends up working for what would be called a snake oil salesman named Deradin.  Only this is a pseudo-medieval world, so the term snake oil salesman probably wouldn’t have been in use.  I’m not sure when the term “quack” entered the English language, but I suspect it was later than medieval times.  But that really doesn’t matter much since this is a fantasy, and unlike some titles, this one tells you something about the story.

Anase is a troubled lad, whose mother died in a tragic fire.  He’s terrified of fire now.  Of course this is going to be significant before the story is over.

Anase intervenes when two ruffians try to take their pound of flesh (literally) from Deradin.  He takes Deradin to his house, where his sister lies dying.  In order to work off the debt for the tonic his father purchases from Deradin, Anase goes with him. 

Things take a turn when, reacting to fire, Anase runs out into the road and is hit by a carriage.  He suffers a compound fracture.  A woman heals him with a potion from a vial she carries into which she adds some of her blood.  Anase’s leg is as good as new.

Of course Deradin has to have the potion.  In obtaining it, he and Anase discover that everything has a price and sometimes the price is high.

I’ll not spoil the ending for you.  Instead allow me, if you will, to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the story.

First, the quality of the writing is a little rough, especially at the beginning of the story.  Initially Anase seems to be older than he is.  He is in a theater, giving advice to a drunken actor when events are set in motion.  I got the impression from the first couple of paragraphs that he had bought the theater.  It’s only during his meeting with Deradin that it was obvious he was a boy or young man without the means to purchase much of anything.  I’m not entirely certain this part of the story is necessary.

His naivete was a little hard to buy in a couple of spots.  The hints about the fire that killed his mother and the continuing consequences took me a little while to piece together.  While I acknowledge the possibility that I was more tired than I realized when I read the story, I felt these tidbits of information could have been made a little more prominent.

Now, as to the strengths of the story.  This is in many ways a coming of age tale or more accurately a rite of passage, since Deradin is changed by events as well as Anase.  The themes of loyalty, integrity, sacrifice, and friendship are central.  The story was most effective when Anase and Deradin have a falling out and part ways.  From that point, I was hooked; up until then I was rather ambivalent about the story.  Deradin proves to have more courage and loyalty than he appears to have initially.  The confrontations near the end deepen his character.  The concluding scene shows how much Anase and Deradin have matured by what they give up.

I debated how to classify this tale in the quality count I’ve been keeping.  On the one hand, the writing was bit rough and there were places, especially in the beginning, where I felt the writing could go more smoothly.  Although I’m not sure I’m astute enough to say just how.  The story is told in first person, and perhaps it took Dr. Kitson a few pages to find the correct voice.

Despite its initial roughness, I felt the story did improve as it went.  The writing became more polished as the prose fell into a rhythm.  The narrative and descriptive passages mixed well with the dialogue, with no type of writing dominating to the detriment of the others.  The characters grew, although I would have liked to have seen more of Anase’s family.  And the woman who healed Anase, when he tries to steal her potion, clearly had paid a price to use the stuff.  That was an effective scene, but it made me I wonder why Deradin didn’t try to get the formula from her or make a deal with her instead of merely resorting to theft.  When you read the scene, pay attention to what she says and see if you don’t wonder the same thing.  In some ways she was the most fascinating character in the whole tale.

With the criteria I’ve used all along in this series, I now have to ask the question:  Assuming I’d never read this particular online publication before (and I haven’t), was this story good enough to make me want to try some of the other stories on this site?  The answer is yes.  “The Quack” probably won’t make the short list for any awards, but it provided me with an entertaining read.  I think the author has potential and will continue to improve.  The other stories in the May edition sound interesting.  There’s another fantasy, a science fiction, and an alternative which the blurb makes to sound like science fiction.

Total quality count (high, low), Day 7: 8-2

The Latest on ebooks

Passive Guy over at The Passive Voice has been doing an amazing job of keeping up with changes in the publishing world, frequently posting two or three items a day.  Today he posted this little tidbit about ebook sales surpassing paperback and hardback sales combined at Amazon.  If you’re interested in where publishing is going, he’s one of the people you ought to be reading.