Monday, June 21, 2010

The Compleat Traveller in Black

The list challenge continues!

John Brunner is better known as a science fiction author than a fantasy one. I believe the Traveller in Black is his best known fantasy creation.

The stories in The Compleat Traveller in Black were published over a number of years in various science fiction and fantasy story magazines before collected and issued in this format. To tell the truth I think the entire concept may have worked better in its original format.

The stories have a sameness about them. The Traveller arrives in a town or city, usually after having had some sort of contact with a powerful elemental and like a malicious genie uses his staff of curdled light to grant unpleasant people rashly made wishes which usually result in their downfall. His 'work' done, he moves on.

Because of the extremely episodic nature of the stories and the fact that there isn't really a narrative it made it hard for me to warm to this collection. The only character that readers get to know is the Traveller (he is never named, if anyone asks he replies that he has many names, but only one nature) and you don't really even get to know much about him, other than he has many names and only one nature and that he appears to have godlike powers that he employs to imprison elementals and attempts to create order from chaos, usually with disastrous consequences for those that he judges causing the chaos. I didn't feel particularly sympathetic towards him.

There was a lack of coherence about most of it, at times it seems as if the author abandoned storylines partway through. It's almost as if he were playing with ideas and jotted something down and then published it incomplete. Brunner's descriptions of the cities and some of their wonders are very good and bring the scenes to life, however he also seemed to feel a need to demonstrate his command of language by filling paragraphs with a lot of large words that added little to the story and only took up space.

John Brunner is not an author that this work would encourage me to explore further.

Similar stories can be found in many of the Arabian Nights tales and fairy tales. One of the most enjoyable books about gods meddling in the affairs of humans is Margaret Weis' and Tracy Hickman's Rose of the Prophet series.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Knife (published as Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter in the US) is a young adult fantasy by R. J Anderson, it's also her debut.

On first glance it seemed a little like Holly Black's Ironside series, which I quite liked, so the similarities attracted me to begin with.

Bryony is a young faery who has grown up in a large oak tree and longs to visit the world outside the tree, of particular fascination is the garden. When it comes time for Bryony to join the world of adulthood and be given an allotted task by Queen Amaryllis the young faery wants to be given a job that will take her outside the tree. Hunter would be ideal, but Bryony believes the best she can hope for is Gatherer. It's dangerous and tedious, but at least it will get her outside. Beyond her wildest dreams Bryony is made apprentice to the Queen's Hunter; Thorn.

Once outside and after a life threatening encounter with a crow Bryony comes to the conclusion she needs a better weapon for protection and the only place that has the required materials is the House. Bryony meets a human and connects with him. In the process Bryony will uncover the mystery surrounding the Queen, the secret of the deadly Silence and she'll fall in love, she will be ultimately forced to choose between the man she loves and the only life she has ever known.

Knife is a well written, easy to read story that holds the readers and interest and keeps the pages turning. It's not to everyone's taste, but I found it a nice change of pace from the more epic work I've been reading recently. I also was intrigued by R J Anderson's take on the faery world. It's a totally female dominated society, there are no male faeries, baby faeries come from eggs, however the mother has to die before the egg will appear.

Some people may find the naming of every faery after a plant somewhat tiresome, but I enjoyed it and was rather amused by it.

Although Bryony is physically well described I only had to look at Brian Froud's excellent cover art to know exactly what she looked like. I've rarely seen a cover artist capture a character so well.

It's an easy read, but if you want something cute with some interesting ideas then Knife is well worth a look. There's a sequel; Rebel, out and at some stage I expect I'll get that as well.

The Sword of Shannara

The list continues!

Back in 1977 a new publishing group called Ballantine, owned by Lester Del Rey, brought out an epic fantasy called The Sword of Shannara. At the time the genre we now call epic or heroic fantasy consisted largely of JRR Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings and...nothing else really.

The Sword of Shannara sold quite well and author Terry Brooks was widely hailed as the successor to Professor Tolkien.

Today if you admit to having read The Sword of Shannara and even worse actually enjoying it then you're met with a curled lip and a scornful 'That Lord of the Rings rip off!'

It is true that some of the major events and characters in The Sword of Shannara are Tolkienesque, but I found most of the similarities were superficial (Tolkien used wizards, dwarves and elves, so did Brooks) and the story is still entertaining. If you want to look hard enough, yes you'll become convinced that Terry Brooks rewrote The Lord of the Rings and retitled it The Sword of Shannara, although I don't know how you'd find the character of Panamon Creel in The Lord of the Rings as he was based on The Prisoner of Zenda's Rupert of Hentzau.

If you want an old fashioned quest adventure story then Shannara fits the bill. The plot is fairly basic, along the lines of a young idealistic protagonist (Shea Ohmsford) in a sleepy backwater (Shady Vale) is told by a mysterious stranger (Allanon) that he holds great power, and is the only person who can stop an evil overlord (Brona) from taking over the world by wielding a magical artifact (The Sword of Shannara). To save the world and protect his friends and family the young protagonist sets off on a journey to retrieve the magical artifact and is joined by a band of diverse allies (Flick Ohmsford, Menion Leah, Hendel, Balinor, Durin and Dayel). Together they will overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, not all of them will survive, and either singly or in groups, they will learn things about themselves that they were previously unaware of. Some of them will find love, and ultimately their effort will save the word and defeat the evil overlord.

I last read The Sword of Shannara over 20 years ago, when I was still a teenager. It didn't hold up that badly. As long as you approach it in the right frame of mind it's an entertaining piece of fun. Brooks' prose is a bit overdone and I'm surprised that his publisher, editor and mentor Lester Del Rey let through a few minor continuity errors, but it's far from the only first novel to make that mistake. I'd recommend the book to readers in their early teens or someone who's new to epic fantasy and wants to find out what the genre is about.

The Sword of Shannara is no great work of literature, but it did show publishers that there was a market for epic fantasy out there and for that lovers of the sub genre owe it a debt of gratitude, no matter how derivative of JRR Tolkien they think it is.

I would advise reading The Lord of the Rings after reading Shannara and if you enjoy Brooks, he wrote a number of sequels and prequels to his first tale of the post apocalyptic world of Shannara. Along the same lines are Tad Williams trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and David and Leigh Eddings 5 volume epic The Belgariad.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sara Douglass on Dying

Popular Australian fantasy author Sara Douglass has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In this a deeply moving post at: she talks about comforting the living while dying. Ordinarily I wouldn’t comment on something like this, but this one hit me in a sensitive place.

Over the past 5 years I’ve lost both parents (my father passed away in July 2005 from a combination of lung cancer, liver cancer and emphyscema) and my mother died in March 2009 (renal failure).

Dad had emphyscema for years, it grew steadily worse, then the lung cancer hit and spread to his liver and that was pretty much a death sentence, he was given at most 3 months to live after they found the liver cancer, he lasted a week. I think it was the emphyscema that got him in the end, as that had been an ongoing problem it was strangely comforting to me that he died of an illness he had battled for a long time, and I believe had accepted some years before passing would eventually kill him. Once he’d been told that he didn’t have long he fought like hell to get back home, he wanted to die at home. We got him home 2 days before he died. Sara talks about this in her post, despite their wishes to the contrary most people do die alone, if they are in a hospital or nursing home the chances are greatly increased. Dad had my mother with him when he passed, I was at work. I tried to get home once I got the call, but he’d gone by the time I got there. His last words to me were to be careful (I was sleeping at my parent’s house in case I was needed during the night and drove home each morning to shower and dress for work), I still tear up whenever I think of those choked out words.

In many ways my mother did it tougher. She had nowhere near the time Dad did to come to terms with her mortality. She had breathing difficulties and thought that was the issue, but after the doctors had done their tests they diagnosed her with severe renal failure. We tried the caring for her at home route as well, but were unable to cope with it. After an attack that nearly killed her they took a proper look at her and realised that the problem was compounded by a urinary infection, which once they treated, she was able to live at home, and look after herself with help from family, an amazing neighbour and regular visits from the district nursing service. Inevitably she did collapse at home and was placed back in hospital. I still seethe with rage when I think of that place’s useless, compassionless ‘social worker’ telling me that she had to be placed in a nursing home because according to a report done by a geriatrician, who assessed her on one of her few lucid days that she did not qualify for palliative care. She fell out of bed one night because she tried to climb over the rails, and when I pointed this out to him this clot had the gall to tell me that she had a little fall! She was 4’8” and weighed less than 5 stone, she was nearly 80, there’s no such thing as a little fall in those circumstances. Like Sara said I am sure Mum not want to die alone, but she did. She fell into a coma 3 days before she passed, and one morning when the nurse did her rounds they looked in, and she had stopped breathing.

I urge people to look at Sara’s post, it’s got good advice and hopefully it will help people going through what my family did twice in 5 years.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fables: Peter & Max

I probably didn't really need to give this the Fables bit at the start, but Peter & Max is a Fables product, it's a standalone novel.

I'm always a little wary of comic writers branching out into novels. I'm sure there are exceptions, but most of them don't seem to work very well in the standard novel format. I was hoping Bill Willingham would be one of the exceptions. In his favour was the fact that Peter & Max was related to his concept of Fables, and no one knows that better than Willingham.

Before getting into the plot, some words about the presentation of this book need to said. Fables is, as a product, with the collections, one of the classiest, best presented works I have seen in the field. Peter & Max is the same. I'm not sure how much Bill Willingham and his regular inker for the comic, and illustrator on Peter & Max, Steve Leialoha, had to do with how this book was published, but it seems like a lot. Vertigo really pulled out all stops to put out something well worth the price. So far it has only come out in hardback and I'd like it to stay that way. The same level of quality could not be achieved with a mass market paperback. The dust jacket shows the picture on the left side of this post and hints at the darkness within, without the dust jacket the black cover is etched with the picture of Peter & Max. The paper is thick and has an aged look, it is also of high quality grade. The printing is clear and large enough to be easily read. Steve Leialoha's line drawings throughout the book complement the story, and as it becomes darker so does the art, changing from something you'd expect to find in an Enid Blyton to pictures that would not be out of place in some of Fables darkest issues.

The story is about the Piper siblings; Peter (yes that Peter, the one who picked a peck of pickled peppers and was also very fond of pumpkins) and his older brother Max. It begins in the Fables world with which readers of the series are familiar and regularly goes back to the Homelands at about the time the Adversary took over and caused a rift between Peter and Max, causing them to take wildly different paths in life. The climax is the final confrontation between the brothers.

You do not need to have read any of Fables to appreciate and understand Peter & Max. Willingham explains his comic creation wonderfully for anyone who was not already familiar with the concept. There are a few in jokes that will be more easily understood by readers of the series and they'll connect more with Frau Totenkinder, who is the only regular Fables character that has more than a fleeting cameo.

Like with all of the Fables work I cannot recommend this too highly. If you've never read any of Fables Peter & Max would be a good place to start, and if you have read Fables then you already know how good it is and should be getting a copy of Peter & Max as soon as possible.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Mists of Avalon

10% of the way through the challenge!

Marion Zimmer Bradley had been writing science fiction and fantasy since the late 50’s and was best known for the very popular and prolific Darkover series, which successfully combined science fiction with fantasy. In 1982 she published a doorstopper of a book called The Mists of Avalon. The Mists of Avalon was a retelling of the Arthurian saga, only this time from a female point of view.

Although the story of Arthur and his knights had been told many times since the legend’s first appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s somewhat misanthropically titled Historia Regum Brittaniae (History of the Kings of Britain) it was not until Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon that anyone thought to explore how the story was viewed through the eyes of the ladies involved. Prior to this the women in the saga tended to be poorly drawn, and regarded as ‘window dressing’ for the main story.

To make Bradley's view of the story fit, a number of things about the original legend had to change. Most notable were the names. Morgana Le Fay became Morgaine and Guinevere was altered to the more traditional Welsh form of Gwenhwyfar. Merlin was not the name of the wizard/druid, but his title. The Merlin that many remember from the original legend was referred to as Taliesin. A number of the best known characters confusingly had more than one name. Arthur was known as Gwydion in childhood and only took the name of Arthur later in life. Lancelot was born with the name of Galahad and was actually the son of Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, when he was given the better known name it was spelled as Lancelet. Mordred, the result of a pagan fertility rite, and Morgaine’s son by her half brother Arthur was also known as Gwydion, and was only given the name Mordred by the Saxons, he adopted the better known name amongst Arthur’s court when he became a Companion of his father’s Round Table.

The story is narrated by Morgaine, but is told through the eyes of a number of the most involved women. These are: Igraine, the wife of Uther Pendragon and mother of Morgaine and Arthur. Morgaine, daughter of Igraine and Duke Gorlois and half sister to Arthur, mother of Gwydion/Mordred. Gwenhwyfar, wife to Arthur and Queen of Camelot. More minor players were: Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, aunt of Morgaine and Arthur, mother of Galahad/Lancelet. Morgause, aunt of Morgaine and Arthur, mother to Companions of the Round Table; Gawaine and Gareth, she also fostered Mordred. Niniane, the Lady of the Lake after Viviane, she was the granddaughter of Taliesin the Merlin. Nimue, the ill fated daughter of Lancelet and Elaine.

There were a few issues with me for the book. I doubt I was it’s target audience, being neither female or pagan. I found it hard to sympathise with any of the women in the book. Igraine was weak willed. Viviane was manipulative. Morgause was a schemer, using her physical attractiveness as a tool to further herself. We never really got to know the characters of Niniane and Nimue well enough to make any real judgement about them or their actions. Gwenhwyfar was mentally unstable, and for some reason was made into an agoraphobic (I’d never seen that even hinted at anywhere else and am unsure why the author felt the need to give the character that crippling phobia). I’ve seen her described as pious, and yes she was, she was also petty, but to a certain extent I understood her piety and why she turned into a religious fanatic. She was a young, convent raised girl who was thrown into a court where everyone seemed to be related to everyone else. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Camelot took inter relations to a new high. Gwenhwyfar was a genuine outsider and when she was unable to conceive a heir for Arthur, coupled with her forbidden love of Lancelet, no wonder she clung to the one constant in her life; the church. Morgaine herself has been described as being strong, but I didn’t get that impression of the character. She drifted with the story and let events take her where they would, rarely actively trying to influence her own fate until it was too late.

At the time of writing the book the author was an active neopagan and she felt a need to ram that message home with sledgehammer subtlety. I found the all too regular pagan rants and her tendency to compare the pagan religion against Christianity, with the latter coming off second best every time somewhat tiresome and largely needless.

It’s a good retelling and even though you know the outcome the story is still gripping and that it can hold interest over it’s 1,000+ pages is testament to Bradley’s skill as a storyteller. It was an interesting and, at the time, revolutionary spin on an oft retold legend. The book was a huge bestseller when it was first published and even now is still very popular. Marion Zimmer Bradley later expanded the concept to include a number of sequels and prequels, mostly written with Diana L Paxson. Since Bradley’s death in 1999, Paxson has continued to write Avalon books.

If you enjoyed The Mists of Avalon and wanted to explore other Arthurian stories, or if you didn’t like The Mists of Avalon due to it’s pagan and/or feminist slant, but still wanted to read about Arthur I can recommend 2 works. One is T.H White’s Once & Future King (I regard this as the definitive retelling of the legend), this can be enjoyed by child and adult alike. For a more realistic spin on Arthur, there’s Parke Godwin’s marvellous Firelord, Arthur as he could have been, but probably never was.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

1001 Nights of Snowfall is not actually a collection of the continuing Fables comic. It's a companion piece to the series. It can be read without any prior knowledge of the series, or by the fully initiated. I think actually having read the series adds some more depth and meaning to the stories within.

The first story: A Most Troublesome Woman, is drawn by Charles Vess and Michael Wm Kaluta. Vess is quite well known as a comic book artist and his style is clearly evident in this story. It sets up the collection. Snow White is sent to the Arabian NIghts Fables in their homeland as an envoy. Their Sultan marries her and prepares to behead her the following morning as he does with all his wives. Snow White makes a deal with him. If she can entertain him with a story, will he postpone her execution? He agrees and for the next 1001 nights the former fairytale princess bargains her stories for her life, at the end of the 1001 nights the Sultan has so enjoyed her stories and so releases her. It's rather like Snow White plays Scheherazade. The stories in the book are a selection of some of what she told the Sultan, concentrating mainly on those that involve the Fables readers of the series were already familiar with.

The Fencing Lesson, illustrated in a quasi medieval style by John Bolton, told the story of Snow's early days with Prince Charming. It showed a darker side of the fairytale and it's heroine, it also shed some light on why most Fables don't mention the 7 dwarves, especially to Snow.

The Christmas Pies, was drawn by Fables regular artist Mark Buckingham, and was a Reynard story, it told of how the clever fox fooled the Adversary's forces and led many of his fellow animal Fables to safety in our world.

A Frog's-Eye View, with regular series cover artist James Jean at the artistic helm, was the story of Ambrose the Frog Prince. Drawn in gloomy sepia tones, it was a heart breaking tale of why Flycatcher was so damaged for as long as he was.

The Runt, majestically drawn by Mark Wheatley, was Bigby Wolf's backstory. It explained about his brothers, his strained relationship with his father, and why he became the villain that he was in the Homelands.

Diaspora, illustrated by Tara McPherson in an almost abstract, cartoony style, was how Snow White and her sister Rose Red fled the Adversary's forces in a magical forest and found shelter in a seemingly abandoned cottage.

Contained within Diaspora was The Witches Tale, vividly drawn by Esao Andrews. This was Frau Totenkinders backstory. How and why she became a wicked witch, THE wicked witch when you come to think about it.

What You Wish For, a two pager with Brian Bolland's lavish artwork, was the story of the mermaid Mersey Dotes.

Fair Division, with Jill Thompson's sumptuous art, is the story of King Cole, and gives readers an insight as to why this little known, barely remembered nursery rhyme Fable was held in such high esteem by the other Fables and elected to the office of Mayor for so long.

1001 Nights of Snowfall is a concept book and a beautifully presented and drawn one. It's available in either a softcover or hardcover edition. I'd heartily recommend adding it to your Fables collection. What do you mean you haven't started one yet? Do so immediately! You'll thank me for it, I promise.