Monthly Archives: March 2013

Discriminating Taste

In yesterday’s post about not being a literary snob, I made the comment that I’ve become more discriminating as I’ve gotten older.  I said I would explain what I meant by that today, and I will.

When I was in school, I was one of those students who would finish early and use the extra class time to read.  I discovered many of the major sf writers through the anthologies of Robert Silverberg.  The library at the junior high I attended in 7th grade had a number of them.  These were the reprint anthologies he edited in the 60s, not the New Dimensions series.  I doubt those would have been deemed acceptable, or as we would say today, age appropriate.

On the weekends (provided I could talk my father into taking me) I would also go to the mall, where there was a Waldenbooks, or the flea market, which had a couple of used book stalls.  One of them sold paperbacks with the covers torn off for a quarter.  I didn’t realize at the time that these were stolen books, reported to the publisher as having been pulped.

It was through these venues that I discovered the works of Jack Williamson, James H. Schmitz, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Isaac Asimov, Eric Frank Russell, Poul Anderson, and Silverberg himself, not to mention the juveniles of Robert Heinlein. Fantasy was just entering a boom phase, and before long I was reading that as well.  When I joined the Science Fiction Book Club in 9th grade, I first encountered the writers who made the greatest impression on me:  C. L. Moore, Edmond Hamilton, Fredric Brown, Frederik Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth, Leigh Brackett, and the writer who had the greatest impact on me, Henry Kuttner.  (I’d been reading Ray Bradbury since 5th grade, and Robert E. Howard was still a few years in my future.)  Outside the genre, some of the biggest influences I encountered during high school were Raymond Chandler, Rafael Sabatini, and Humphrey Bogart.

As I got into college and then graduate school, I continued to read widely in the field.  Until I got married, there was usually plenty of time to read a book or two a week plus a variety of short stories and comics.

It was during this phase that I developed some of the attitudes I discussed in yesterday’s post.  I began taking my reading seriously, at times too seriously.  I followed the award nominations and tried to read the titles that got the most buzz. 

After marriage and then parenthood came along, time began to be more and more at a premium.  Books began to pile up faster than previously.  And I realized something.  Reading wasn’t as fun as it used to be.  Or rather, make that what I was reading wasn’t as fun as what I had read when I was younger.

Over the last decade, I’ve reached a decision.  It is very likely I’ve passed the halfway point in my life.  If I haven’t I’m approaching it.  My father’s side of the family tends to live into their 90s and beyond on a regular basis if they take care of themselves.  I may not be at the halfway point yet, but time is slipping away.

Life is too short to read things because You Should or Everyone Is Reading This or It’s Going to be on All the Award Ballots or This Book Has Something Important to Say.  Especially that last one.  There are more good books out there that I haven’t read than I’ll ever be able to.  Unless I get locked into solitary confinement for twenty years with access to the world’s libraries, I’ve come to see the need to be more discriminating.

Not discriminating on  the basis of prejudiced against because of the publisher or the franchise, but discriminating on the basis of is this something I’m going to enjoy as much as I would that pulp over there?  In other words, more selective.  I’m trying to read more to my established tastes than to what certain voices in the field say I need to read.

So what am I trying to focus on?  Well, if you’ve read much of this blog, you know sword and sorcery is a major part of that.  So is epic fantasy, at least during periods when I have plenty of time to block out for reading, i.e., when classes aren’t in session.  As far as science fiction goes, space opera, especially space opera with a hard science bent, but also hard science in general, followed by time travel.  Historical adventure has been growing as a percentage of my reading over the last few years.  Horror is still there, but I’m pretty discriminating about it.  In the mystery field, PIs tend to be what I gravitate to, with police procedurals coming in second.  Cozies I can do without.  I consider noir and crime to be different from mystery, but they also get a lot of my attention.  And of course, I love short fiction of almost any genre. 

You can see the trend here, can’t you?  Adventure in some form.  Sense of wonder.  An exhilaration at being alive.  Optimism coupled with a thread of darkness.  Anyway, those are the things I look for in fiction.  You can keep the books written to promote your agenda or expand my consciousness.  I’ve got a villain to fight, a princess to save, and a monster to slay.

Overcoming Literary Snobbery

When I was a lad, just discovering how vast the field of science fiction and fantasy was, I was firmly in what David Hartwell has referred to as the omnivore stage.  To put that in plain English, I read everything I could get my hands on with no regard to author, publisher, or to a limited extent, quality.  If it had anything to do with spaceships, other planets, or aliens, then I was interested in it.  (This was shortly after a certain fantasy movie in science fiction drag hit it big.)  I soon branched out to other subgenres.

As I grew older and more discerning, I also grew more discriminating.  As in discriminate against.  I became interested in only reading works of originality.  My definition of originality was pretty rigid.  The work had to be something created by an author on spec that had been published by an established publishing house or the continuation of such a work.  Franchise work, by its very nature, had to be substandard.

At least that was my thinking at the time.  This years before electronic publishing leveled the playing field.

Fortunately, my thinking has changed and changed for the better. I came to realize that franchise, or work for hire, had value.

At first it was just the acknowledgement writing a novel, say, in a franchise owned by a major studio could teach authors the skills necessary to succeed on their own when they wrote “good” books.  There is some truth in that, but it’s still a pretty snobby and condescending attitude.  It didn’t occur to me then, when I was younger and had all the answers, that there were other reasons authors wrote in a franchise.

For one thing, it was (and is) a way of keeping a career alive.  I didn’t understand about the returns system and Bookscan numbers.  It also never occurred to me that authors might write in franchises simply because they loved the characters or world.

Things have changed in my world.  I hope I’ve become wiser, humbler (relatively speaking), and more open minded in my reading tastes.  As well as more discriminating in a positive way.  I’ve become educated in the way publishing works.  I’ve gotten over the “if it’s not from a major publisher, it probably isn’t any good” syndrome.  In fact, if anything, I’ve swung more to the other extreme.  I’m finding the works from the big houses tend to be the more bland, safe, paint-by-numbers type of book.  Yes, I realize there are exceptions to this, and that there are a number of fine and innovative authors doing groundbreaking work.  But what I’m discovering is that if I want to read something that breaks the mold, a work in which the author is taking chances, or a story without an Important Message, then the indies and small presses are the way to go.

There are a number of authors I’ve discovered through their work for other publishers who started out in franchise work.  Franchise work that I’ve started to seek out.  Warhammer is at the top of the list, but there are others.

There are still some work for hire type books I’ll tend to give a wide berth.  There are still media tie-ins written by someone with no love of the genre or the property they’re writing, works designed to fatten the corporate bottom line. To the extent I can distinguish them, I’ll give them a pass.  I’m looking for good story-telling, vivid description, in-depth characterization, fast-paced action, and crackling dialogue. 

Those are the things I’m looking for.  And I don’t care if it’s a franchise or a stand-alone novel, from a major publisher or an indie author.  As long as the tale is well-told, the source doesn’t matter.

I’ll explain in my next post how I think I’ve become more discriminating in a positive way.

Blogging Northwest Smith: Juhli

With “Juhli”, C. L. Moore returned to the formula that had been successful in her first few Northwest Smith stories.  The previous installment, “Dust of Gods“, was most a straight-forward adventure tale, with little of the weird science fantasy elements in prior stories, and certainly none of the erotic imagery.

The opening paragraph discusses Smith’s myriad scars, focusing on one particular scar over his heart.  The next paragraph finds Smith waking up in a dark room with no idea where he is or how he got there.  He manages to find a wall and put his back to it.  This is a good thing because there’s something else there with him.  Whatever is there touches him, delivering a strong electric shock.  When he wakes up, the thing is still there somewhere, but there’s a young girl as well.

The girl, who is named Apri, is the servant of Juhli.  Juhli is a fearsome member of an alien race that lives in the city of Vonng.  Vonng exists in two planes.  In Smith’s the city is in ruins, but in Juhli’s plane the city is still quite inhabited.  Smith learns that he’s been captured, but his capture is an error.  He’s been captured to feed Juhli.  The error comes from Smith’s notoriety.  Normally those taken are folks who won’t be missed.

Juhli makes her appearance and takes Smith and Apri to a structure that loops back on itself.  What I mean by that is when Smith walks in a straight line between the columns supporting the roof, he eventually returns to his starting point.

Juhli isn’t human, although there are some superficial resemblances to humanity.  For starters, she’s basically humanoid from the waist up.  Moore doesn’t give a clear description of her from the waist down but implies she has the body of a snake.  Her facial features are definitely not human.  Her mouth is circular and doesn’t close, and she only has one eye in the middle of her forehead.  Above that is some type of organ that resembles a feather.  In spite of this inhuman appearance, Juhli is described as being beautiful.

Juhli wants to feed on Smith’s life force, and takes him in her arms.  She places her mouth on his chest, which is the source of the scar mentioned in the opening paragraph.  During the process, Smith experiences emotional extremes:  exhilaration, terror, any strong emotion Juhli forces him to experience.  In the process Smith sees the universe and Juhli’s world through her eyes.

I’ll not spoil the ending by saying how Smith manages to escape.  I will say the ending is particularly bleak.

In “Juhli” Moore returns to the themes she used early in the series.  There’s a beautiful, inhuman woman (or at least female) who tries to kill Smith through some type of psychic means.  There’s some sexual imagery, although it’s not to the level of “Shambleau” and certainly not to the level of “Scarlet Dream“.

Yet the whole thing seems tired, like Moore is just going through the motions.  We’ve seen this before.  It’s not really new.  Instead the story has an air of familiarity about it.

In spite of this, I liked the story.  This is, after all, C. L. Moore we’re talking about.  Her prose is superior to most of what you’ll find, even when it’s not necessarily her best.  The woman could make long descriptive passages interesting, something that’s not easy to do.  So, while not as strong a tale as some of the earlier entries in the series, “Juhli” is still a decent story.


Writing Fantasy Heroes Giveaway

Writing Fantasy Heroes
Jason M. Waltz, edl
Rogue Blades Entertainment

I recently wrote a post about my copy of Writing Fantasy Heroes arriving and how eager I was to dive into it.  That post got more traffic, and certainly more comments, than most of the posts I’ve done in the last couple of months. 

Since then, two things have happened.  First, I’ve read about 1/3 of the book, and it’s every bit as good as I hoped.  I’ll review the book once I’ve finished, so I won’t go into details here.

The second thing that  happened, and the one that has a direct bearing on readers of this blog, is that I received an email a few days ago from Jason M. Waltz, the publisher of Rogue Blades Entertainment and the editor of the aforementioned book.

It seems a couple of years ago, I took advantage of a special RBE was running and prebought several titles.  Writing Fantasy Heroes wasn’t one of them, probably because it wasn’t conceived of at the time.  That’s a guess on my part.  What isn’t a guess is that this is the book Jason had intended to make a part of the prepurchase deal, subbing this book for another one.  But then I went and bought the book before he had a chance to send me my copy.  He asked what I wanted to do about it, and I quickly decided to do a giveaway.  Since Jason is the person who has the copy of Writing Fantasy Heroes in his possession and will be handling the mailing, this is a joint giveaway between Adventures Fantastic and Rogue Blades Entertainment.

So, here’s the deal.  Between now and when I post the review, which will probably be just after Easter if I can keep the schedule I’ve sketched out, anyone who posts a comment here answering the following question will be entered.  The question is:  What one characteristic above all others is essential for a fantasy hero and why?  Your answer could be long or short, but you have to say why that characteristic is the one you think is the most essential.  Hopefully, this will generate some thought provoking discussion as well as a little buzz for RBE.

Once the review of Writing Fantasy Heroes goes live, I’ll put all the names in a hat and draw one at random.  Actually, I probably have my son draw the name.  He’d enjoy my involving him like that.  I’ll announce that person’s name the day after I post the review.  I’ll also contact that individual directly and/or pass that person’s name directly on to Jason.  He will be mailing the book.  This is an unread copy, not the copy I’ve got.

There is one other thing.  The winner will be requested, but not required, to post a review of the book once they’ve read it, either on their own blog, Goodreads, Amazon, or some combination of the above.

Writing Report, 3/20/13

I only got 378 new words tonight, and I’m pushing it to write this post.  I’m that exhausted.  The only reason I am writing this is I changed directions tonight.  I didn’t scrap the two previous night’s work so much as set it aside. I realized that the story I was writing was too complex to be told in the amount of time and within the word count limitation I’m dealing with.  I started another story, same characters, same series, but this one should be short and more straight forward.  I fully intend to finish the one I started two nights ago, but as it’s going to have elements of mystery in it, I’ll need some time to make sure all the details and clues are where they need to be in order to play fair with the reader.  The one I started on this evening is more pure sword and sorcery with a straightforward plot, emphasis on action rather than intrigue and suspense.

Writing Report, 3/18/13

I’ve updated the writing report up at the top of the page, if anyone is paying attention.  I started a new story tonight and completed 629 words.  I’ve got a market in mind for this one that closes at the end of the month.  Not really sure where this one is going.  It’s an installment in my Prince Balthar and Rodrik series.  I’ve got three of them already in various stages of completion.  The logical thing would have been to finish one of those, except I’m not sure what to do with two of them, and the third I want to submit somewhere else.  So I decided to start this one.  I hope to have it finished within the week.  It’s part of the things I didn’t manage to get done over spring break.  My intention is to work on it every day until I type the last word.  I’ll update the writing report as I go along.

Writng Fantasy Heroes Arrives

Writing Fantasy Heroes
Jason M. Waltz, ed.
Rogue Blades Entertainment
trade paper, 202 pages, $14.99

This isn’t a review.  That will come later, after I’ve read the book.  I don’t normally profile books until I’ve read them, but in this case I’m making an exception.  I think you’ll understand.

This volume contains 13 essays (plus an introduction by Steven Erikson) on how to write heroes in fantasy.  The contributors include (in no particular order) Glen Cook, Brandon Sanderson, C. L. Werner, Howard Andrew Jones, Ian C. Esslemont, Ari Marmell, Paul Kearney, Orson Scott Card.  I could go on.  But I won’t.  You can discover the rest for yourself.

I’ve reviewed works by several of the above here at Adventures Fantastic, and there are others on that list I haven’t gotten to yet, at least as far as reviews are concerned. There will be some great writing advice in there.  (I know, I’ve already peeked.)

I also know some of the people who read this blog are writers at various stages of their careers.  In the interest of helping you improve your craft (because I’m selfish and want great books by you to read), I thought I’d announce this book here.  And, yes, gloat, because my copy arrived today.  I’m going to steal time from some other commitments later tonight and start reading it.  I’ll post a full review when I’m done.

Writing Fantasy Heroes is from Rogue Blades Entertainment and is available from Amazon and B&N.  I was completely surprised when I heard about it.  Rogue Blades Entertainment hasn’t had anything out in a while, and they’ve been sorely missed.  Jason, it’s great to have you back.

Of Giants, and Beanstalks, and Unintended Consequences

Jack the Giant Slayer 
Rated PG-13
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson,  Ewn McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsen, Ewan Bremner, Ian McShane

As a family outing, we went to see Jack the Giant Slayer a little over a week ago.  I was expecting it to be an enjoyable film, but I was surprised at how well done the whole thing was.

The film is, of course, a take on the classic fairy tale, and there was a nice piece at the very end illustrating how the story in the film morphed into the story we’re all familiar with today.

The basic premise is that long ago, a group of monks tried to reach Heaven by creating some magic beans.  When they climbed the beanstalk, they discovered a land between Heaven and Earth inhabited by man eating giants.  The king at the time manages to defeat the giants by forging a crown from their blood.  When he wears the crown, the giants have to do his bidding.  He sends them home.

Years pass, and the king is long dead, the giants considered to be legend. 

Cut to the present, where the evil Roderick isn’t satisfied with marrying Princess Isobelle.  He wants to control the entire kingdom.  And he’s found the crown and the remainder of the beans.  Only there’s a priest who knows about Roderick’s scheme and steals the beans.  He gives the beans to Jack in exchange for a horse, with the instructions to keep the beans away from water.  (Where have we heard that before?)

Two heads aren’t always better than one.

You’re probably  thinking you can guess the rest.  Don’t be so sure.  The story presented here is more complex than the fairy tale it’s based on.  One of the things that this film does well is show how unintended consequences can really mess you over, starting with the monks who create the magic beans.  Even the villains aren’t immune to this.  I won’t get into specifics because I want to avoid spoilers, but the unintended consequences in this film are part of what made it worth watching.  The story went in some directions I wasn’t expecting because of them.

Jack the Giant Slayer is rated PG-13 because of violence and some gross humor.  My son isn’t quite 11 yet, but the movie was perfect for him.  (Now that he’s getting to be old enough, there more movies I can take him to that don’t involve talking animals.  I’ll probably review more films with an eye to what is and isn’t appropriate for that age range.  Those of you with children about that age keep an eye out for them.  And if there’s a film you’d like to see me review, let me know.  No promises, but I’ll try to see and review as many as I can.)  Not only did my son like the story, the special effects, and the humor, there were some good values promoted in the film.  Values he picked up on and asked me about.

Not just the aforementioned unintended consequences, either.  Courage and heroism are presented as positive things, with none of the postmodern disdain for a character who is good and noble.  This was embodied in a number of characters. 

Princess Isabelle is a more modern minded young lady than you find in the old fairy tales, something that’s become cliched in contemporary movies and much fantasy.  On the other hand, she’s not overplayed in this regard.  Elmot (Ewan McGregor), in addition to having hair that can withstand any circumstance, comes to accept Jack as a friend despite Jack being a commoner and Elmot of noble birth. 

But the character who stole the show for me was King Bromwell, played by Ian McShane.  He starts out as a self-absorbed king who is more concerned about rules than his daughter.  He not only doesn’t know her, he doesn’t care how his decisions, namely her arranged marriage to Roderick, affect her happiness.  This leads to her running away and ending up in the land of the giants.  Yet, Brohmwell does open his eyes.  One of his two most effective scenes was when he ordered his general to cut down the beanstalk to prevent the giants from climbing down the beanstalk even though Isabelle hasn’t returned.  When the general just stands there, the king grabs the axe from his hand and starts cutting it himself.

It takes more than fancy armor to be a king.

The other is later in the film when the giants are laying siege to the castle.  Bromhwell is fighting alongside his men, and Elmot tells the soldiers to get the king to safety.  His response: “Like Hell!”

The only continuity issue I had with the movie was when the beanstalk is cut down, part of it falls on the castle.  Yet just a few hours later, when the giants attack, there’s no sign it was there.

I found this the perfect fantasy movie for older children and preteens.  Not too dark, but not all sweetness and light.  There’s a good message of equality, courage, and sacrifice, but the message is second to the story.  The way it should be.  Highly recommended.

Blogging Northwest Smith: Dust of Gods

“Dust of Gods”  was the fourth Northwest Smith story, and it was the last of the series published in 1934.  The picture on the left accompanied the story in its original publication in Weird Tales.  I scanned it from the only reproduction I’m aware of, the anthology Weird Tales:  32 Unearthed Terrors (Dziemianowicz, Weinberg, and Greenberg, ed., Bonanza Books, 1988).  The book was printed on paper not much higher grade than the original pulp, and it’s yellowed with lines of text bleeding through from the other side of the page.  But at least you can get a feel for what it would have been like to read the story in its original appearance.  (What, you didn’t think I could actually afford copies of Weird Tales from the 30s, did you?)

Anyway, this installment in the series is a departure from the earlier tales.  For one thing, Smith is not off by himself getting into trouble.  His partner Yarol the Venusian is with him.  In other words, Smith has company when he gets into trouble.

Secondly, there isn’t any exotic feminine menace in this one, and there certainly isn’t any of the sexual imagery that we saw in “Shambleau“, “Black Thirst“, or “Scarlet Dream“. While there isn’t any sexual content or theme, there is still an exotic menace. But compared to the earlier ones, it’s not that great of a menace.

The menace this time is more of a science fictional nature.  The previous stories were science fantasy.  “Dust of Gods” is essentially science fiction, although not of the hard science, nuts and bolts variety.

The story opens with Smith and Yarol in a bar on Mars, drinking and commiserating about their lack of funds.  They notice some men acting strangely at a nearby table.  Smith and Yarol are contemplating approaching the men when another man at an adjacent table stops them.  He tells the duo that the men worked for him but failed to complete a task, recovering something very ancient in a lost Martian city.  He convinces Smith and Yarol to try and succeed where the others have failed.

What he tells them is that at one time, before man arose on Earth, there was a fifth planet from the Sun where now there are only asteroids.  This planet was ruled by three gods, all long gone, and two of them forgotten by most members of the races currently inhabiting the solar system.  The third is still remember, and goes by the name Pharol.  In fact Yarol had used his name as an oath minutes before the man approach him and Smith.

These gods came from another realm, and ruled until catastrophe befell the fifth planet.  All that’s left of Pharol is dust, and it’s this dust the man wants Smith and Yarol to retrieve for him.  In need of cash, they sign on.

The two end up in an ancient Martian city near the North Pole of the planet.  Deep beneath the city, after avoiding a trap, they find a chamber filled with a strange glowing light that flows like water.  In the center of the chamber is a huge throne built for three occupants.  And in one of the seats there is a pile of dust.  Yarol climbs up to gather the dust while Smith waits below, thinking while he watches the light pour out of the chamber.  He concludes the guy who has hired them is up to no good, and if he gets his hands on the dust, there’s no telling what kind of damage he could do or if there would be any way to stop him.  They decide to leave the dust.  Just to be safe, they destroy it with their blasters.

And that’s pretty much all that happens in the story.  It’s very much a departure from the earlier tales.  The setting is a pretty standard science fiction setting for the time in which “Dust of Gods” was written.  The concept of gathering literal dust of a god is an original idea, and not one I’ve seen much done with outside of this story.

But this story lacks the power and impact of the earlier ones.  Maybe it’s the lack of suggestive or outright sexual imagery.  Maybe Moore was having an off day when she wrote the story.  (Okay, a series of off days since she almost certainly didn’t write this one in one day.  Or maybe she did.  That would explain a lot.)  It almost reads as though Moore had tired of the character, but with another 10 installments to come in the series, that’s hardly likely.  Moore’s prose is still as rich and evocative as ever, but it seems like there’s less she wants to evoke.  The menace isn’t particularly threatening, and all Smith and Yarol really have to do is think for a bit.  While they do encounter some danger, it’s not really of the soul-shattering kind in the previous stories.

Whatever the reason, I found “Dust of Gods” to be the weakest story in the series to date, even though it’s not a bad story.  That sounds harsh, but it’s really not saying much.  Moore on a bad day was better than almost every writer of her time on a good day, with a few exceptions such as Howard.  She’s certainly better than many of the writers working today, even the acclaimed ones.

There are 10 more stories to go, and I’ll look at another one soon.