“By This Axe” isn’t a bad story, but it isn’t a particularly good one, certainly not be the standards Howard had set in some of the other Kull installments. There are two main aspects to the plot. First, a group of dissatisfied men, two noblemen, a guard captain, and a poet, have recruited a former diplomat turned bandit, Ascalante, to help them overthrow Kull. This portion of the story is the better half.
The second portion of the plot concerns a young nobleman who wishes to marry a young slave girl who happens to be owned by one of the conspirators. This type of situation seems to be a recurrent theme in the Kull series, mostly in stories not published in Howard’s lifetime. Kull’s Councilor Tu insists that for a nobleman to marry a slave is simply not done; it would violate a centuries old law.
The rest of the story concerns the conspiracy attempting to assassinate Kull and failing. In the end, he uses his axe to smash the stone tablet on which is written the law forbidding slaves and nobility to marry. He declares that he is the law.
It’s easy to see why Farnsworth Wright rejected this story when Howard submitted it to Weird Tales. The whole romance subplot basically ruins the story. The slave girl comes across as both childish and childlike. She speaks of being spanked as punishment by her master at one point. She’s weepy and clingy. And her dialogue reminds me of early Shirley Temple movies or child characters in Victorian novels, all sweetness and earnestness. There’s was no way I was buying that this girl and the nobleman were madly in love. That whole aspect of the story had an almost pedaeophilic tone to it. I’m sure Howard didn’t intend anything of the sort. It’s just a combination of his still developing skill as a writer and my twenty-first century cultural concerns coming together. Still, the whole thing gave me the creeps.
“The Phoenix on the Sword”, while not one of Howard’s best stories, and certainly not the best of the Conan tales, is clearly the work of a more mature writer. Howard drops the whole romance subplot, and instead introduces a villain whose hand would be felt in a couple of other stories, the Stygian sorceror Thoth-amon. He’s a slave to the bandit as the tale opens, having lost a ring by which he maintains his power. Of course he finds it, and uses it to wreack his revenge by sending a creature from the Outer Darkness against the bandit. This is the only thing that saves Conan. The creature attacks during the assassination attempt. In the Kull story, it’s the nobleman who saves the day.
And don’t forget to comment. Everyone who comments on one of this week’s posts (posted Monday, Wednesday, or Friday) will be entered in a drawing to win a limited edition copy of Rage of the Behemoth. It’s a fantastic anthology, so comment early and comment often.
Dr. Jerry Pournelle
Tomorrow, as I write these words, and earlier today, as I post them (thank you software glitches for the delay), the last Space Shuttle, Atlantis, will land for the final time. And then, for all practical purposes, it will be over.
Yes, I know we’ll still have an astronaut corps. They will still fly, on other nation’s launch systems, to the International Space Station. At least until it’s deorbited in a few years. But we won’t have the capability to send our people into space. We’ll simply be hitching rides on some else’s rockets. Like other countries used to do on ours. We will no longer be the wold’s leader in manned space exploration.
The government, through NASA, originally said that a replacement launch vehicle will be built and are continuing to say that. Let’s ignore for a moment that retiring your launch vehicles without having a replacement is akin to quitting your job without finding a new one or selling your car when you haven’t bought a replacement and are a few hundred miles from home, shall we? These are the same people who have been promising for decades to balance the federal budget and reduce the national debt. Given the negative progress they’ve made, I’m not holding out hope for a replacement vehicle from the government. Especially since our
leerless feeder fearless leader last week said that it was time for private industry “to capture the flag.”
That’s almost certainly the only way we’ll ever get back into space. Through private industry. Our government won’t do it. The Chinese might. The Russians will probably keep something going not only to service the Station, but as a matter of pride. “The Americans beat us to the Moon, but we’re still in space while they’ve quit and gone home.”
If our government wants to implement a real stimulus package, perhaps our elected officials might like to consider this little fact: For every dollar spent on the space program, the government has received approximately $7 back in corporate and personal income tax due to the development of spinoff technology. For that type of increase in taxes, there would have to be more money circulating in the economy. There are several websites that list some of the things we enjoy today that came out of research and development in our space program. For starters try this one, and this one, and this one.
I know that we’ll send probes on various missions. At least for a while. And I know all the arguments for using robots and unmanned probes rather than people. And to a point, they’re valid. But there are some things robots can’t do. Do we quit when we get to the point that we’ve done all we can with robots? Or do we keep going?
There’s something in the human spirit that needs frontiers. Well, the healthy human spirit anyway. That’s why as a species, we’ve always been explorers.
Just the opposite in fact. We have only a limited amount of resources here. There are plenty of resources out in the inner solar system, in the asteroids and comets. If we are going to be good stewards of what we have, part of that stewardship could, and should, involve using the resources available off-planet.
We need to recapture that sense of Manifest Destiny. Only instead of taming the wilderness, we need to see space as the focus of that Manifest Destiny. Our future lies not only on Earth but in this solar system, and hopefully others one day. Cheesy Hollywood movies are probably not the way to instill that dream. It’s become pretty clear that in the area of space exploration, as in most areas, government isn’t the best choice either.
Private industry on the other hand…private industry can provide the motivation. I pray that it happens. There’s money to be made in space, just like in the 1500s and 1600s there was money to be made in the
I grew up dreaming of one day living in a spacefaring society. I’m afraid I’ll die doing the same.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Explore. Dream. Discover.
We’re rather fond of vikings here at Adventures Fantastic, so when I saw this in the store, I knew I had to at least consider giving it a try. After reading a sample in the middle, I took it home (after paying for it, of course) and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
While I’ve not gone in much for the current zombie craze, that might start changing, especially if I can find more stuff that’s this well written. For a first novel, Toby Venables sets himself a hard act to follow.
The story concerns a grew of down on their luck vikings, led by a man named Bjolf. The book opens with a raid on a small village. The only problem is a rival crew of vikings got there first. Bjolf and his crew end up fleeing for their lives, but not before acquiring a stowaway, a thirteen year old boy from the village named Atli, who just wants to escape his overbearing father.
Pursued into a fog, Bjolf and and his men lose their bearings and are only able to find land after a raven lands on their ship and they follow it to shore and into a fjord. They’re not sure where they are, but it’s no place they want to be. This is something they quickly discover when one of the crew is attacked by a draugr, an animated dead body. Seems the woods are crawling with them.
Still pursued by their rivals, they managed to escape both the draugr and the other vikings. Fleeing into a tributary of the fjord, they end up at a stockaded settlement, where they are welcomed as heroes come to rescue the people. That’s not quite what they had planned to do.
Bjolf and his first mate, Gunnar, have two continuing conversations throughout the book. The first is what would be the best country (i.e., one without a price on their heads) in which to settle down on a farm with a large farmhouse and a large woman in the door. (I’m not being sexist; Gunnar, a large man, actually says that at one point.) The other conversation concerns whether a man controls his own destiny or is at the mercy of fate.
The people are led by Halldis, daughter of the former chieftain, who was killed by his slave Skalla shortly after the draugr began to plague the people. Skalla now demands tribute each month from the remaining villagers. He’s working for some masters on an island further up the fjord. These masters are viewed as sorcerers and as the source of the draugr infestation. Of course, Bjolf and his men eventually do stay to help.
This is a book with many stories contained within the larger story arc. For Atli, it’s a coming of age story. For Bjolf and Halldis, it’s something of a love story, although given the situation, that never develops into a major plotline. But mostly it’s a story about friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice. And fate. And heroism. Oh, and did I mention sacrifice?
Venables does an outstanding job of balancing a large cast of characters. The crew is more than just window dressing and red shirts, to be killed off when convenient to the plot. About a dozen of the crew are given personalities and histories. And while many of the ones we get to know don’t make it to the end, at least not alive, their deaths aren’t just for cheap shock. The men feel each loss, and the reader does too.
On the other hand, juggling so many characters is a difficult trick. Venables doesn’t always pull it off. His viewpoint character shifts not only from chapter to chapter, but often several times within a chapter. The chapters are short, and this can be a little disorienting at times.
This being a zombie novel, and a viking one to boot, there’s a pretty high gore factor. If you’re squeamish you’ll want to keep some Pepto handy, because this book is worth reading. It’s not one long zombie fight, although there should be enough to keep most zombie fans happy. Instead the focus is on the characters and how they change throughout the course of the novel. Venables keeps things from sliding into silly most of the time, although I did find the flesh-eating ants to be a bit over the top.
One thing you should be aware of, though. Your understanding of the situation will change completely within the last fifteen pages. Some readers might feel cheated a little by the twist at the end, when the identity of the masters is revealed. Be prepared to have your chain yanked. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so that’s all I’m going to say.
Viking Dead was a fun read. Toby Venables will have a bright future ahead of him if he continues to write like this, especially if he improves throughout the course of his career. If you like a bit of zombie mayhem with some depth; if you like vikings; or if you like both, then you’ll definitely want to give this one a try. It’s part of a series called Tomes of the Dead. They’ve got a novel by Paul Finch in the lineup, so I’m going to at least have to try that one. I have yet to read anything bad by him. There are several others in the lineup that should appeal to fans of heroic fantasy. Abaddon Books is a British publisher, and from what I can tell a subsidiary of Solaris Books. Seems like our friends on the other side of the pond are publishing some good stuff.
Borders, unable to find a buyer, has announced that it will liquidate and close all remaining stores. Passive Guy at The Passive Voice has summarized announcements from a variety of sources, each with a slightly different take on the situation. You can read PG’s post here. The comment that most disturbs me, after the fact that nearly 11,000 people will lose their jobs, is that some publishers are now planning on smaller print runs since Borders will not longer be available to stock their books. While this makes sense from a short-term business perspective, long term that could have a detrimental effect on authors. With smaller print runs, sales will be lower. Currently, if sales are low, publishers drop authors. How with the new lower print runs affect the drop numbers? Will we see more authors being dropped by publishers, resulting in fewer selections on fewer bookstore shelves? Will those author be able to continue series that have existing audiences by indie publishing, or will the publishers control the rights to those series? I suspect the answers to those questions with vary among authors and publishers, but I have concerns about some of my favorite midlist authors.
I posted this at Futures Past and Present but thought some of you might enjoy it. I’ve clearly been attending the wrong conventions.
Realms of Fantasy, June 2011
$6.99 print, $3.99 pdf
I’m not sure why, but I can’t seem to find copies of this magazine until the month after the one printed on the cover. With all other publications of a monthly or less frequent nature, the date on the cover is always in advance of the month it hits the stands. Which is all besides the point.
What is the point is the fiction. But before I get to that, I do want to thank the publisher for going to a different cover stock. Unlike the previous issue, the ink on this one didn’t rub off on my hands. (Now to start lobbying for an epub format…)
This is the one-hundredth issue, which makes it something special, especially since it’s been canceled twice in the last few years. To celebrate, this issue has one hundred pages. (One hundred two actually, but why quibble?)
There are the usual columns: Folkroots, Gaming Reviews, Movies, Artists Gallery (a gorgeous spread featuring Petar Meselkzija, with whom I was not familiar), Graphic Novels, and three book review columns, with one devoted to general fantasy, one to YA, and one to paranormal romance and urban fantasy. There’s also a letters column devoted to the anniversary, a list of facts about the magazine, and an editorial by Shawna McCarthy, which I’ll comment on later. A new feature, of which I heartily approve, is the poetry. The inaugural poems were by Ursula K. LeGuin, who will be hard act to follow for whoever has the poetry in the next issue.
Well over half the magazine (54 pages if my arithmetic is correct) is fiction. So how does it stack up?
There are seven stories of varying length. Leah Bobet leads off with “The Ground Whereon She Stands”, in which a park ranger in Idaho wakes up one morning to discover plants growing from wherever she puts her feet. I’m not spoiling anything when I say the hedge witch she goes to for help turns out to be the cause of the problem. Josh Rountree and Samantha Henderson gives us a protagonist who survives in a post-apocalyptic world by hunting dust angels in “Escaping Salvation”, which is a place, not a spiritual condition. This one could almost have been science fiction, but the authors do give enough information about the apocalypse to set it firmly in fantasy territory. Sharon Mock’s poignant fairy tale is the cover story, “The Economy of Powerful Emotion”, which in a way reminded me of the story of the King Midas and his golden touch. Thea Hutcheson describes “The Good Husband”. Patrick Samphire’s “The Equation” pits those who use science against those who feel the magic. Euan Harvey goes to ancient China to tell a tale within a tale within a tale, all wrapped up in a nasty little knot at the end that’s “Wreathed in Wisteria, Draped in Ivy”. Wrapping up the issue, David D. Levine tells of a woman plumber who must free an undine trapped in a condemned house before it’s destroyed.
That’s a quick synopsis of the contents. Here’s my take on them.
“The Ground” was the most literary of the contents, with lots of lush description, bordering at times on being overwritten. One thing I found annoying was the never-ending litany of different plants growing from the protagonist’s feet. It was almost as though the author were showing off her botanical knowledge. Not being familiar with many of them, I had no idea what they should look like or if there was any particular symbolism associated with them. I also found the way the characters responded to the situation to be a bit casual and relaxed.
“Escaping Salvation” was the longest and also the most violent story. Dust angels are hostile and form during sandstorms. If you can kill them (before they kill you) and cut them up before they fall apart, their limbs have commercial value since they can be grafted onto human flesh. The story moved at a good pace, balancing action and character development, with a nasty human villain. I found the ending to be a bit bleak for my taste, but it was one of the more enjoyable stories for me.
“Economy” was brief and consisted of 38 chapters, most only a few paragraphs. RoF is known for being fairy-tale centric, and while that can become wearing, this was one of the better fairy tale treatments I’ve seen in a while. Not based on any fairy tale I’m aware of, the story starts off with the curse being laid on a princess, that her tears will always be diamonds. Much of the story concerns the prince who saves her.
“The Good Husband” contained some effective writing, which is probably why I finished it. The viewpoint character is a female land spirit with human form who needs a man to husband her, and in doing so, husband the land. She finds him in a drifter who is sent to the farm by the neighboring women. (They know the score; if the spirit’s farm prospers, so does everyone else’s.) Too much of the story was about the spirit pining for the dirfter to take and ravish her and was concerned mostly with her emotions. This sort of thing might appeal to some readers (I suspect mainly women), but it didn’t do much for me.
“The Equation” was a first person narrative which consisted of mostly dialogue or the protagonist’s thoughts. It used the old trope of science versus magic, but it didn’t really break any new ground. According to the brief bio included, the author’s work is available on his website. I might check it out because he isn’t bad as far as style and construction goes and has been published in some professional markets.
Euan Harvey’s “Wisteria” was the highlight of the issue for me, and not just for the great illustration. It was the closest thing to sword and sorcery in the magazine, and one of the few where the action wasn’t solely emotional or internal. The structure of the story, with nested narratives, will require attention, so I don’t recommend this one right before turning out the light at bedtime. Harvey had a story in the previous issue, and I have to wonder if he’s going to go for a hat trick and get one in the next issue. I hope so, because his stories seem to be more to my taste than most of the other stories in the two issues he’s been in.
“The Tides of the Heart” was entirely predictable and somewhat contrived, with the conclusion wrapping up all the problems so neatly. Two of the three columns on the first page really didn’t have anything to do with the main plot, just served to introduce the character, which probably could have been done more concisely. I’ve enjoyed some of Levine’s other work, so this one was a bit of a disappointment for me.
So of the seven stories in this issue, I liked three of them, which is less than 50%. Unfortunately the contents of this issue were very much what I think of when I think of a typical issue of RoF. A lot of stories which deal with emotion, usually from a feminine perspective, or stories where the style of the writing is emphasized as much as the story itself, or a combination of both. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but I look for other things when I read fantasy. I don’t really care if the viewpoint is male or female, but tales of action, adventure, and the threat of physical danger appeal to me more than stories that are mostly in-depth looks at the emotional lives of the characters.
I realize that an editor does two things when she or he selects the contents of an issue of a fiction magazine. First, editors choose stories they think will appeal to as many readers as possible. Second, to a greater or lesser degree, they choose stories they like and that resonate with their own personal tastes and biases. Both of these things are done with the goal of attracting new readers, thereby increasing circulation and the accompanying revenue. If an editor has been at a publication long enough, and there are enough readers whose tastes are compatible with the editor’s, then the second item (the editor choosing stories he/she likes) will often set a tone for the publication which would be different from the tone if the magazine hadn’t yet attracted a core audience. And that tone and the associated content won’t be to every potential reader’s taste. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.
Shawna McCarthy edited Asimov’s back when I was in high school. As a courtesy to Ms. McCarthy, I won’t say how many
decades years ago that was. I realized back then that her tastes and mine would probably diverge more than they converged. Again, nothing wrong with that. I’m sure there are some reviewers who will absolutely love this issue and think it’s one of the best, and I’m sure a number of the people who read it (and this review) would agree with that assessment. I’m not of that opinion. There just wasn’t that much here for me. I prefer the previous issue to this one.
In her editorial, Shawna McCarthy asked what the readers wanted to see more of, but then followed the question with “Don’t say sword-and-sorcery – we would publish more of it [if] we received better submissions in this vein, believe us.” For now I will believe her, although I have to wonder if her idea of better submissions and mine would have much in common.
Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. My purpose is not to bash RoF or Ms. McCarthy, but to provide enough of a description of what did and didn’t work for me and why that someone reading this review will have a good idea as to whether he/she would enjoy the issue. Let me make the Small Suggestion alluded to in the title. If Ms. McCarthy wants to see better sword-and-sorcery, let’s give it to her. From the way she worded her statement, I suspect she gets a lot of requests for more S&S or has been catching flak for not including enough. I’d like to see RoF succeed with the new publisher, but if I’m going to continue buying it, I want to see more issues like the previous and fewer like the current at the very least. Even that won’t guarantee I’ll keep reading. More heroic adventure fantasy, sword and sorcery, call it what you will, that will guarantee my paying my money to read it. So let’s see if we can send her some so good she’ll have to buy it.