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Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard

July 7, 2014 6 comments

BEAUTIFUL_BLOOD_by_Lucius_Shepard

Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard (Subterranean Press, 2014) is, in a word, magnificent! It manages something only rarely seen in these increasingly less intellectual years. It takes a work of fantasy about a dragon named Griaule and contrives to make it about ideas. Under normal circumstances, no doubt even the most hardened fantasy lover would run screaming from the room. But this carries off the entire project with such panache, you can’t help but be enthralled by the chutzpah and emerge applauding at the end.

Way back in “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) we were introduced to a large lizard. As a result of combat with an altruistic magician, concerned the dragon was becoming too much of a hazard for local people, the giant beast was, for the most part, frozen into immobility. Proving that humanity is remarkably adaptable, a settlement springs up around this beast in its magically-induced coma. In due course, the settlement becomes a village becomes a town becomes a small city. The few straggling lean-to hovels, develop a life of their own as some buildings extend up the sides and on to the back of the beast. Others become the essential ground-based buildings any group of people need from church to brothel, from militia compound to tax collection vaults. One of those who come to this new spawning ground for humanity is Richard Rosacher. He’s a man who pursues a dream of science and seeks to understand the body so obviously dominating the local landscape. Being a man who likes to work with blood, he pays a local to climb into the mouth of the beast to extract some of the life-giving essence from the beast’s tongue. Unfortunately, through circumstances outside his control, our hero ends up with a substantial amount of this blood injected into him. We spend the rest of the book watching what happens to the man and attempting to distinguish between evidence of determinism and free will.

Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard

So let’s get to some of the ideas. Going back to the origin of this enforced sleep, the beast has entered a phase of what we might term physical stasis, i.e. the body is not affected in any significant way by the passage of time. So Richard finds himself experiencing a form of dislocation in time. It seems he lives through the years but only fully inhabits his body at intermittent moments. This is sufficient to accumulate memories of what he has been doing but, only when he surfaces, does he pick up the thread of running the body in real time. At such times, he can receive warning messages in his dreams from contemporary or future individuals who have a “relationship” with Griaule, e.g. as scalehunters. In other words, he becomes a form of sock puppet for the dragon. Even when he’s autonomous, there’s still some doubt as to whether he’s truly free. Assuming the dragon to be a form of god, this may be inevitable since gods always manage to get their prophets to do what they are supposed to do. There’s a parallel model of this state in a child rapist called Frederick. He’s also transformed by Griaule and becomes altogether something more primal. The point of this counterpoint is to show both Richard and Frederick have different kinds of friend who offer guidance or direction, yet both in their own ways end up as forms of marauders.

In turn, this leads on to a consideration of the extent to which the beast should be considered a deity. At an early stage, we see flocks of birds and insects being influenced as they move around or fly close to the surface of the dragon. Even Richard finds he achieves a rather pleasing meditative state at some points on the dragon’s skin. During these times, he feels his mind can make sense of different factual elements in his life. Who’s to say whether he’s integrating these facts into a coherent understanding or telepathically communing with the dragon and listening to its thoughts. No matter who’s doing the thinking, the result is that Richard survives and the dragon’s existence is not threatened in any meaningful way (unless you count the poisoned paint and only the dragon knows whether it’s permitting the slow death to come). It’s therefore not unreasonable to believe the dragon is influencing the people who live on it and, to a lesser extent, around it. When a major physical beast or object can interact with those around it, promoting the interests of those who do its bidding and punishing those who defy it, characterising it as a deity is not unreasonable. Indeed, the otherwise powerful church feels threatened by the presence of the beast and would like nothing better than to dispose of it. Unfortunately, the fallible human beings in charge of the church lack the control over the people to sway them away from dragon worship (which can come with fringe benefits) in favour of conventional beliefs which have less provable benefits in a life hereafter.

In turn, this leads to a meditation on the different forms of leadership and whether it’s ever going to be possible to have a human leader without faults. For these purposes, we’re offered many exemplars. At the apex, we have Breque, an overtly corrupt and not a little incompetent man when it comes to the management of finances. He runs the city forming around the dragon and, amongst other things is responsible for defence. Carlos is the king of the neighbouring state. He lives for and through his people. If there’s a local problem, he jumps on his horse and rides out to solve it. He asks no thanks, only that his people love him. Ah, so he’s a narcissist and while such men can go through a benign phase, they can get a little tricky to manage if they lose confidence the people actually love them. Some of the most interesting debates consider how best to motivate the mass of people into doing what you want. One might develop an opiate for the masses, i.e. leadership through the exploitation of chemical dependence, or another might rule through a primary emotion like love or fear, or someone might seek influence through the interpretation of faith, and so on. Power comes in many forms, whether between individuals in relationships or at wider levels. Curiously, the dragon’s rule (if such it be) is through passivity. This leaves its presence as enigmatic and, of course, that allows people to develop all kinds of superstitions about it. Perhaps that’s the most effective long-term way to control people. To allow them to deceive themselves into doing what you want. Put all this together and Beautiful Blood emerges as the most intelligent work of fantasy published so far this year.

For other reviews of books by Lucius Shepard, see:
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

May 31, 2014 4 comments

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

As I mentioned in an earlier review, I’ve decided to have a proper look at Seanan McGuire (and that was before one of the latest books was shortlisted for a major award). At the urging of one of my readers, I’m going back to Discount Armageddon (DAW, 2012) and this first in the InCryptid series proves to be a good steer. At this point I need to wander slightly off the beaten track to think about why I tend to find urban fantasy such an unsatisfying subgenre. The answer, in part, is that the balance of the books tends to blur between conventional fantasy and romance. In itself, this is not a problem. I have no sensibilities to offend when it comes to different races or genders engaging in all the usual sexual activities and then some I might not have thought of (although there are few of those left after a long lifetime). Characters in books are free to do many of the things we might balk at, or find physically impossible, in the real world. That’s part of the fun of being a creative writer. But this subgenre has been tinged by the brush of romance so, to pander to a niche in the market not used to full-bore fantasy, particularly of the darker variety, the standard fantasy tropes are rather defanged and encouraged into the appropriate gender roles as the love interests. While this pandering may encourage sales to younger readers and women coming from the pure romance sector, it does nothing for older males like myself.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

So as you start off in this series, we take as read there are lots of real animals out there that we foolish humans think are pure mythology. Yes, there really are dragons and unicorns (well, maybe). The problem is the religiously fanatical Covenant of St George. The mission they have chosen to accept is the extermination of all the animals that God neglected to save on the Ark. So if anything survived the flood, that was against God’s wishes and the Covenant could go round the countryside slaying dragons for all they were worth because that was doing God’s work. One small group splintered from the Covenant and they have set themselves up as protectors of all the strange creatures that don’t disrupt the ecosystem, i.e. start killing humans. After several generations, we now come to modern times with the young Verity Price making a name for herself as protector of Manhattan, put-upon waitress at a fairly seedy strip joint, and professional ballroom champion wannabe. Everything is going along moderately peacefully until the required sex interest from the Covenant arrives to do a survey. If he finds an infestation of mythological creatures, he’s required to call in the troops for a purge.

Why then am I more positively inclined to this book? Surely I’ve just described a set-up for the usual dismal swamp of urban fantasies. Well, we have to start with the book having a sense of humour. The majority of these books take themselves so seriously, they sag under the portentous certainty something terrible is likely to happen (leaving us deeply disappointed when we turn the pages). But this book is ultimately about sex, and the natural drive to get some and enjoy it. How can a reader not be beguiled by the idea of a group of mice announcing a religious festival which requires Verity to kiss the next man to walk through the door. Perhaps more importantly, when we do get some sex scenes, they are proper sex and not some chaste peck on the cheek. Yes, there are the usual complications of a couple with completely different approaches to the world who must find sufficient mutual tolerance to allow the coupling to occur. But this is just good fun. He’s just so straight-laced and she so, well, different. It’s all rather unlikely in an enjoyable way. For all we are thrust deep into a covert world of different beasties and bogeys, all the characters and “animals” emerge as strangely plausible. Even when we get into telepathy, the explanation for the evolution of the ability actually makes sense. So this is weird in every sense of the word. Discount Armageddon proves to have an exuberance which converted me to the cause. Indeed, that’s what makes the climax rather more exciting than usual. The bad guys are actually a real threat and are on the verge of triggering what might be a fairly devastating event. So the book nicely does go quite dark with many characters dying or suffering quite serious injury. This is not to say the book has any claim to greatness. It has flaws, e.g. it seems there are multiple dimensions including a literal version of Hell in which one of the family may be trapped (this seems counter to the general scientific approach to classifying the different species albeit not inconsistent with a “fantasy” world in which magic works). But for the most part, this is an unpretentious book that’s great fun to read and will not offend those of a male persuasion who like their fantasy relatively undiluted.

For reviews of the books written as Mira Grant, see:
Blackout
Deadline
Feed
Parasite
and written by Seanan McGuire:
Chimes at Midnight
Half-off Ragnarok.

Wrath-Bearing Tree by James Enge

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Wrath-Bearing-Tree-large

This review must perforce begin with thoughts about Jack Vance. Perhaps my age predisposes me to believe him one of the best genre writers of the last sixty years — I did grow up reading his books as they were published — but there’s more objective evidence of his enduring popularity with much of his work still in print (a rarity today for someone who rose to fame during the 1950s and 60s) and a recent anthology dedicated to him selling well (Songs of the Dying Earth edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois). The anthology highlights one of Vance’s strength — the high fantasy story with a sense of humour. This is not comedy writing in the same vein as, say, Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Rather it’s more ironic or potentially sardonic in the situations explored and the attitudes exposed. This is a prequel to describing James Enge (the pseudonym of James M. Pfundstein) as subVancean in Wrath-Bearing Tree (Pyr, 2013), A Tournament of Shadows Book 2. This is not, you understand, a condemnation. Someone who writes in a comparable style is not, ipso facto, inferior in producing results. But it gives you a flavour of what the author intends, namely, an episodic travelogue across a hostile fantasy land with the option to smile if any of the jokes hit the spot for you. To clarify, this book is a form of expansion on Arthurian fiction insofar as the main protagonists are Merlin and his kin.

James Enge

James Enge

 

The opening episode is one of these outstanding moments that settle the reader down with a contented smile, now more hopeful the rest of the book will follow at the same high level. Our “hero”, Morlock syr Theorn Ambrosius (a son produced by Merlin) has the misfortune to be at sea. For the record, he has a chronic problem with motion sickness. It’s therefore a mixed blessing for him when a local entrepreneur sinks the ship by bombarding it with the local equivalent of Greek fire. Once he gains the shore, he has the pleasure of fighting for his life. Normally, this would not be too challenging but, having lost his footwear while swimming, his feet are being cut to pieces on the rocky terrain. As the pages turn, however, it becomes clear the author has shot his bolt with the first episode and our meeting with Merlin’s daughter(s). Sadly, we slow down to a crawl. Indeed, this opening episode is almost completely free-standing. It gives us the title to the book and then is only rarely mentioned again. So we traipse after Morlock as he fantasises about having the courage to speak with Aloê Oaij only to find himself sent on a mission with her. Hurray for their mutual lust, or something.

 

The first half of the book therefore has the besotted Morlock not getting it on with the young woman. Then the ice is broken with some anatomically explicit sex, followed by a slightly unfortunate explanation for Aloê’s frigidity. It seems her family were under a spell so they saw nothing wrong with a cousin raping Aloê as a child but the spell was not strong enough to persuade them it was acceptable for said cousin to cool his penis in the evening bowl of gazpacho. Soup rape is beyond the pale, no matter what the strength of the spell, you understand. While not a direct example of the book’s humour, it points to the problem. The inclusion of such a dark element combined with explicit sex scenes, should predispose the reader to find this a dark fantasy. Yet the author’s actual intention is to make jokes, sometimes about sex or the results of sex. Indeed, the author is so desperate to insert humour into the book that, as an omniscient author, he interpolates comments intended to provoke a smile. He doesn’t trust his characters and the situations in which they find themselves to be amusing. He has to puff up his own wares. The result is an increasingly tedious read. When a barbarian and thief are briefly introduced to meet their doom, you get to see how hard the author is trying to milk every trope for a smile.

 

So, sadly, all the good work of the first book in this series is thrown away. I was really looking forward to this, but ended up bitterly disappointed. Even the inventive bits like the two-sisters-for-the-price-of one, are rather wasted as anachronisms and clichés abound to allow our mages to invent the propeller, first in pedal power and then to supply enough oomph for a hydrofoil. Magical versions of steampunk are tiresome. Even getting the generations of Merlinfolk together fails to spark interest. They argue and not very amusingly. So despite all the twists and turns on the way to the resolution of their mutual problem, Wrath-Bearing Tree is not worth the effort. Jack Vance will be cringing in his grave if he gets to read this in the afterlife.

 

For a review of the first in the series, see A Guile of Dragons.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Kindred and Wings by Philippa Ballantine

October 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Kindred and Wings

To understand this series, you need to imagine a world where reality and chaos interface. As a physical place, this is Conhaero. In a way, it only exists out of sufferance. In other circumstances, it would probably never have existed at all. Having come into existence it could have completely collapsed back into the melting pot from which its constituent elements were drawn. But a bargain was struck which enabled land to form and persist. For all that it frays around the edges with mountains becoming plains and then lakes as random probabilities change the lay of the land, enough of the emerging continent continues in relative stability so that beings may live inside or upon it, and not perish by falling into random holes or being sucked up into the sky. These are the creatures that have their genesis in the formless void. They have come on to the land through their own efforts. They are the kindred of the title. Everything was going along well for them until different races began to arrive through the void. One was the Vaerli. Like the kindred they made a pact, granting them the right to remain on conditions. But they had seers who foretold their downfall. There would be a harrowing. The puzzle the Vaerli had to solve was how to recover after the inevitable fall.

Kindred and Wings by Philippa Ballantine (Pyr, 2013) the second in the Shifted World series finds Finnbarr the Fox (a Manesto-Vaerli hybrid) now riding the dragon Wahirangi as he searches for Ysel, the brother he never knew he had. Talyn (a purebred Vaerli) lost her people and found nothing but pain working for the Caisah, the mortal man who was granted immortality during the process later called the Harrowing. She’s changed employer but still rides Syris, her nykur steed. Now she’s abandoned the process of killing to secure pieces of the puzzle from the Caisah, she has a different mission, this time for the Phage. She acquires a scroll and, according to the Phage, the only way in which it can be destroyed is by the flame of a dragon. Since the only person with a dragon to hand is Finnbarr, this is forcing her to resume her relationship with him. Her ability to edit her memory continues to be fallible and she still finds herself reliving moments with him. Meeting up with him again will be a challenge to her peace of mind. Byre, Talyn’s brother, is still with Pelanor and, having travelled into the past, is now more positively moving forward into the future where he may finally solve the puzzle.

Philippa Ballantine

Philippa Ballantine

Complicating matters further are the plans of Kelanim, the Caisah’s current mistress who’s being manipulated into removing the “curse” of immortality from the man she sleeps with. She hopes, if not truly believes, that as a mortal man, the Caisah will be able to love her. In his present state, he simply sees her as a Mayfly, transitorily passing through his life before dying. As they say in books, this is a tangled web but it represents a metaphor in which to explore a number of all too common human strengths and weaknesses. The problem with people who acquire power is the sense of entitlement it brings. They become defensive, looking for every possible way in which their position can be reinforced without any real sacrifice being necessary on their part. This often goes hand-in-hand with pride. They come to expect deference from others. If necessary, those in a subordinate position are expected to make the sacrifices their “leaders” should make. If one or two whipping boys fail to provide results, an arena full may bring better results. This is how the Caisah has ruled. Not only is he immortal but he also possesses such power, he’s effectively invulnerable as well. Yet there are still those who plot against him. Their treason cannot be tolerated. As a people, the Vaerli seem to have lost their ability to empathise with others. They felt themselves superior to other races and groups. This led to pride in their ability to organise the world according to their wishes.

In all this, there’s an underlying irony. The Vaerli have seers who can see their pride will lead to a fall. The puzzle is whether this is predestined or can be avoided by the exercise of free will at critical moments. If fate is implacable and they must fall, is there a way to recover what has been lost? So the book is set in the form of a quest. Those in the past are looking for a means of redemption, knowing that much, if not all, the future is set on a fixed path. Individuals are also searching for their own identity and a better sense of what their role is to be in the greater scheme of things. For some, it means they will be required to die. For other it offers a chance for salvation.

I found Kindred and Wings slightly slow to get going. It takes a while to establish where everyone is and what they are doing. However, once the basic set-up is complete, we’re off on a well-paced plot to some interesting outcomes, at least one of which was unexpected. This leaves a satisfied smile on my lips. There’s enough intellectual substance to lift the book well above average for a high fantasy with dragons. This is worth pursuing.

For reviews of other books by Philippa Ballantine, see:
Harbinger
Hunter and Fox
Phoenix Rising (written as a team with Tee Morris)
Wrayth

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Diary of a Dragon by Tad Williams

Diary_of_a_Dragon_by_Tad_Williams_270_420

Value is one of these rather annoying words where meaning can change quite significantly depending on the context in which it’s used. If we start off in personal terms, we may have moral or ethical values as the basis for deciding whether to do or refrain from doing anything, i.e. they represent a set of preferences against which we judge whether we should act. However, these values may take on a more imperative nature if they are shared by the majority of people in our community. Indeed Kant argues that if the given moral value is recognised as valid and applied by the majority, it becomes an obligation. If social enforcement is insufficient to ensure compliance, law-makers can enshrine the value in laws and use punishment as the means of enforcement or award compensation to those who are damaged by noncompliance. But if we move into economics, we begin to talk about measuring value by reference to a currency or equivalent medium of exchange, i.e. there is assumed to be a link between value and the price people are prepared to pay for the goods or services.

Tad Williams

Tad Williams

Applying this, I might well see aesthetic value in a work of art that few others might see. If there was little or no demand, I might acquire the object of subjective value for a small monetary payment. But if the majority see intangible value in the goods or services, they will pay more to acquire it. Going back through my collecting years, I think the smallest book I bought new was Ringtime by Thomas M Disch. It was published by Toothpaste Press and cost $35 in 1983 for 40 pages, signed and limited to 100 copies. In my defence, I was collecting Disch and it was a rather beautiful production. All of which brings me to Diary of a Dragon by Tad Williams (Subterranean Press, 2013). It sells as an ebook for $3.99. As a paperback chapbook limited to 750 copies, it sells for $15. It has 64 pages with the cover and extensive interior illustrations by William Eakin. But don’t let the advertised number of pages deceive you. This is a short story, spread out over the pages with a “nice” piece of design.

So here comes your decision. As short stories featuring a dragon and a princess go, this is elegant and quite witty. The artwork genuinely contributes to the aesthetic value of the production. Indeed, the final sepia panel completes the story in a way words would struggle to match. In other words, this is worth reading and seeing as artistic content. But when we come to economic value, I find myself in trouble. When I bought the limited Toothpaste edition, I realized it was a calculated gamble as to whether it would hold its value. Looking it up on Abebooks, I see a fine copy offered at $350. I’m not convinced it will sell for anything like that (less than $100 is more likely), but you get the idea that it has more than kept its economic value. I don’t believe a paperback chapbook selling for $15 will hold its value. Since I don’t own a Kindle or Nook, I can’t say whether many will buy this at $3.99. But what I can say is that electronic versions cannot be resold, so there’s no residual value. I therefore arrive at the conclusion that only the diehard collectors will buy this slight piece and not worry about the economic cost. For them, just owning it will be value enough.

For a review of another book by Tad Williams, see The Dirty Streets of Heaven.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon

Limits of Power Elizabeth Moon

Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon (Del Rey, 2013) is the fourth fantasy novel set in the Eight Kingdoms (after Echoes of Betrayal) and it represents an admission failure on my part. I reviewed the second in this series and remember making a mental note to read the next in sequence. Yet now I find myself reading the fourth. Such are the perils of a busy life as a reviewer. I therefore come back in to discover the sad death of Kieri Phelan’s grandmother. This has sent the Elves into a state of shock as their home is now under threat without someone to maintain the taig. As the new king of Lyonya, Kieri has his work cut out to maintain harmony between the Elves and the Humans. Inter-species politics have always been challenging. Arian, his newlywed half-Elven queen, has also lost their first baby which leaves questions about the succession. All of which dramatic introduction brings us to the core of the book.

In a world where different species must try to find a way to co-exist without too much conflict, the expected problems are complicated by the presence or absence of magical powers. If all species were equal in magical ability, the situation would be more manageable. But when there are quite significant differences and, within species, not all have equal talents, the potential for jealousy and rivalry becomes inevitable. In a way, a part of the hope for conflict avoidance will flow from constructive engagement between the species. The fact that humans and elves are able to interbreed should have lessened tensions. Yet the half-breeds have not proved an effective bridge, often finding themselves on the receiving end of prejudice from political enemies on both sides of the divide. In other relationships, only the dragon has sufficient distance to be able to talk with all sides and find trust. That said, an interesting bridgehead has inadvertently been created by a human becoming the leader of one group of gnomes. This accident may prove significant in building trust.

Elizabeth Moon at home in bookish surroundings

Elizabeth Moon at home in bookish surroundings

Extremists out to ferment trouble have developed an interesting range of justifications for distinguishing and disparaging magical abilities. Starting with the humans, it’s largely considered unnatural for any member of this group to have any ability at all. Except, historically, there have been human magelords and one group is accepted because their powers are used for healing. This means the humans have to be able to close one eye and see everything except medical skills as deeply evil. This residual magic can be inherently evil, or by reinterpreting moral and religious codes, against the law and so a justification for death. Or it can be an argument rooted in economics. If people can light candles without the use of matches, it puts all the matchmakers out of work, and so on. Then it spreads to political jealousy. Suppose one of your legal systems for dispute resolution is trial by battle, the unexpected winner obviously used undisclosed magical powers to beat the more fancied opponent. Once you start, there’s no end to the ways in which you can reinterpret reality to make magic, real or alleged, seem evil.

Under normal circumstances, this might not be too serious a problem but, as this novel gets under way, magical abilities are suddenly appearing across human lands. Caught up in these political problems, Mikeli Mahieran, the young king of Tsaia, has expelled Beclan Mahieran for displaying the talent. He has now left Tsaia with Dorrin Verrakai. This leaves the young Camwyn Mahieran in an interesting position, being uncertain whether he too might be showing symptoms of magical power. When Arian arrives on a state visit, we get into both species and gender politics with some discussion of the source of magic and the differences between the different schools of magic. Meanwhile, the Dragon drops off ex-sergeant Stammuel on an island where there may just be a threat from pirates and ex-thief Arvid Semminson finds himself adopted as a kind of quartermaster, now trusted as an honest broker to help keep troops provisioned, a curious life for someone now on speaking terms with Gird. Even Arcolin gets a promotion, refuses a kingship and looks for a wife. And then Kieri demonstrates to the Elves that, while he might not have all his grandmother’s powers, he has his own way of interacting with the taig and what lies beneath the Oathstone. Discovering the selani tiles is even more interesting as is the beginning of his power to re-establish the Elvenhome.

Put all this together and this is an interesting but more gentle read. We’re catching up with old friends and watching them move round the landscape, learning more about the powers and their limits as they go. There are occasional one-on-one fights but that’s not really the point of the exercise. This is just moving the broader narrative forward, keeping all the fans happy as their favourite characters are given their moment in the sun. As a final thought, Alured is lurking on the other side of the border. He’s due to make a move in the next book. Until then, there’s one note of sadness and two of joy. Limits of Power is a good contribution to the continuing tale.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For a review of an excellent collection by Elizabeth Moon, see Moon Flights. For other books in this series, see Crown of Renewal and Kings of the North.

A Guile of Dragons by James Enge

It’s sometimes surprising to see characters slowly acquire a life for themselves outside the original source material. Over the generations, one of the most transcendent has been Merlin, sometimes Merlin Ambrosius. He first emerges as a quasi-historical figure courtesy of Geoffrey of Monmouth, but them gets co-opted into the Arthurian legends. In more modern times, he’s a regular in fantasy books, the cinema and on television. One of the more intriguing issues has always been his origin. He starts off being the offspring of a mortal woman and a succubus and, most inspiringly, as Myrddin in the Stargate television series, where he’s one of the Ascended from the Pegasus galaxy. It’s this latter I find the most interesting because the creative writing team has this extraterrestrial insert Arthurian mythology into our culture, i.e. there’s a positive effort being made to provide a new context for the character and, most importantly, redefine the relationship with King Arthur. At least they were thinking constructively about the “magical” being we call Merlin and trying to push the envelope. Too often writers are lazy and trot Merlin out of the stables, simply assuming we’re all familiar with the backstory and don’t need any further explanations.

 

All of which brings me to A Guile of Dragons by James Enge (the pseudonym of James M. Pfundstein) (Pyr, 2012), A Tournament of Shadows Book I, which is the most comprehensive efforts to reinvent Merlin I can recall reading. What makes it all so satisfying is the degree of consistency between what has gone before and where it all might go. If there was a problem with the science fiction version offered by Stargate it was that there was no explanation for the dragons, dwarves and other associated flora and fauna of the mythology. Enge, on the other hand, has woven Merlin Ambrosius into a metareality in which all the different creatures and races exist and, in some cases, fight with each other. Like Myrddin, this Merlin has been interfering with Britain and, for that, he’s arrested and put on trial by the Guardians in the Wardland city named A Thousand Towers. The principal witness against him is Nimue who, as his current partner, is carrying his son. Proving all these opening chapters to be a prequel, she births the child while giving evidence. Merlin is exiled, the child is named Morlock syr Theorn Ambrosius, and he’s raised among the dwarves. Suffice it to say this is not a “normal” child because, as Nimue was being transported to the Wardlands by Earno, she tried to escape by jumping into the Sea of Worlds. This had a marked effect both on her and the foetus.

James Enge looking suitably professorial

 

The focus of the rest of the book sees the now adult Morlock return to his adoptive home with the dwarves in time to fight the dragons, their ancient enemies. Lurking to one side is Earno who had trapped Merlin and brought him to the judgment of the Guardians. He has travelled north because, in a vision, he saw the Wardlands fall in flames. Now he finds himself at the centre of the war that could burn out of control. For him, the problem is whether he should trust Morlock, son of the exiled “traitor”. Morlock could be working with his natural father, Merlin, to destabilise the Wardlands. Later, Earno could be the victim of a dragonspell. There are so many possibilities that might make him unreliable. To Morlock, of course, Earno is caught in the past and so deeply prejudiced, he can’t clearly see what’s happening around him. Indeed, the longer we look at the Guardian set-up, the less impressive it seems to be. As with all hierarchies, it has become complacent and riddled with the usual form of corruption through which people of approved status advance, and the others obey or leave. The problem with such organisations, no matter where they are, is their access to power. It’s not so much that power corrupts, but that the political use of power causes very complicated and divisive results.

 

This is a fascinating fantasy in which the eternally feuding Fate and Chaos hatch a plot to end the rule of the Guardians in the Wardlands. The real story of the dwarves and their relationship to the dragons is a marvelous surprise and explains why the war between them will be very difficult to resolve. As the novel progresses, it’s good to see Morlock come to terms with his fathers. The legacy of Ambrosius is never going to sit comfortably on his son’s shoulders, particularly as he was abandoned to the dwarves upon birth. Equally, Morlock has reason to feel betrayed by his adoptive dwarf father. A little humility and a lot of reconciliation is going to be required as this series unwinds.

 

As a final thought, the prose is rather stripped down and functional. This is not a criticism as such, but it records the fact that many who write fantasy believe a more florid style is appropriate. This gets the job done and makes A Guile of Dragons one of the most interesting of the fantasies so far this year.

 

For a review of the next in the series, see Wrath-Bearing Tree.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Devoured Earth by Sean Williams

July 25, 2012 4 comments

The Devoured Earth, Books of the Cataclysm: Four by Sean Williams (Pyr, 2012) pitches us straight into the action. The airship piloted by Griel but supported by Mage Kelloman and Skender, carries the Castillo twins up into the mountains. Those of you who’ve been following this story will remember the twins are now occupying the body of the homunculus: two peas in the one pod. On a different part of the mountains, Sal, Kail and Highson are in pursuit of the group including man’kin and Shilly, but falling further behind. Knowing the problems should Yod break through, Pukje offers them assistance. It’s suits him to have everyone in the right place at the right time. Shilly herself is still linked to an older self in another time. The older and apparently wiser Shilly spends her final years producing a vast pattern capable of bending time and space. All the younger Shilly can do is copy down parts of it. It’s like a jigsaw with no clear set of references to show which piece goes where in the overall design. But she’s the only seer left who can catch real glimpses of such a distant future. And even that glimpse is a fleeting one as Yod shuts down the link. You remember Yod. He wants to eat everyone.

The problem confronted by the defenders of the current realities against Yod is that the original design of the realms may be considered flawed. The presence of the Third Realm has always allowed people to explore the possibilities that exist at each pivotal moment of choice. Because of this, humans have been able to make optimal decisions. Equally, Yod can find new ways in which it may be possible to break through the defences. The problem is always one of prevention or early cure. If you can prevent a parasite from infecting the body, you remain safe. If you can detect a parasite early and kill it before it gets a toehold, you restore safety. But if you are complacent and do nothing when the parasite first appears, it grows powerful and can kill the body. People are vulnerable because they are slow to act.

A headshot of Sean Williams

Through the reappearance of Ellis Quick aka Nona, the sole remaining Sister of the Flame, the disparate forces gain a valuable ally. Then with the glast floating into and out of view to express his enigmatic delight in the world just as it is, we come into the final straight in this sprawling four book epic. There’s also a need for the author to be neat and tidy when it comes to wrapping up all the loose threads into a suitable tapestry we can all look back on and admire how well it’s all woven together. This reflects a fundamental truth that, at some point, everything stops. On the way, some characters might try to simplify decisions. In a way, this a way of deceiving themselves. People often feel more comfortable if they can winnow all the possibilities down to a final binary choice. Too many variables looks confusing, an admission that life is just too complicated to understand let alone control. Although, when you do come to think about it, half the fun we have as human beings lies in the randomness of our existences. We live with the risks of uncertainty — some even becoming addicted to gambling. Of course many individual lose, but, if we make humanity the casino, the House always wins. Change comes in fits and starts, but there’s a steady evolution. As a species we’ve never sat back on our laurels for too long. It’s always been one group or another pushing into more uncertainty and hoping for the best.

As a final thought, the language of the book is interestingly colloquial. It’s often the case that authors writing a major fantasy with epic pretensions aim for hyperbolic excesses. Let’s end a world today and offer help to the others from the future. You know the kind of thing you throw out on a wet Thursday afternoon when you want to get the plot going with a bit more pace. Usually the prose style affects high seriousness, a kind of majestic formality you might associate with the workings of courts in mediaeval times. Yet Sean Williams is frequently chatty and, through that conversational approach to the storytelling, cuts through much of the self-important affectation that makes many fantasy novels hard work to read. My only complaint is that all four books get bogged down in exploring every last option and possibility. There’s no end to the invention and creativity and, for me, that’s a problem. I prefer my books shorter unless there’s something wonderful waiting for us at the end. OK, so that asks the question. Is this the end that makes the entire reading experience worth all the effort? In this case, there have to be several answers. The first explains what happens to all the mass of people and different races who currently occupy the world(s). Yet, once you clarify the future for the mass, you can’t avoid asking about the individuals and, since this all began with the twins and Ellis, they need to be settled. There’s emotional satisfaction and almost everyone else who survives gets the payoffs they deserve. However, it’s not quite enough for me. I can admire The Devoured Earth and all that went before it, but I was not enthralled. It may be different for you. Whatever it’s faults, it’s certainly not a standard fantasy and so interesting to read in its own right for that, if for no other, reason.

For a review of the first book in the series, see The Crooked Letter.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard

Many moons ago, Lucius Shepard launched a dragon called Griaule into the unsuspecting literary world. Although it’s always tempting to apply the usual label of fantasy to such flights of fancy, the reality was that of a sophisticated allegory and, in the six stories published as The Dragon Griaule by Subterranean Press (2012) we get to relive the excitement of five reprints, and savour the latest contribution to this hopefully continuing saga.

So what exactly is Griale? At face value, this is an enormous beast that, in the best traditions of fantasy, rose to the top of the predator tree. When it became too dangerous to be allowed to roam freely around the countryside, eating whatever it fancied, a world-class magician was summoned to kill it. Unfortunately, this meeting ended in a draw. The physical body of the dragon was brought down to the ground by the spells and substantially frozen into immobility but, even though the magician gave up his own life as the price of the beast’s death, it did not die. It continues to think and, at set moments during the day, it opens and closes its eyes. Although this might not seem a bad outcome, the dragon possesses the ability to influence the thoughts of those who come into the zone of influence. Not unnaturally, it’s somewhat displeased with its present state and so tends to influence the humans and animals around it to act to their detriment. It likes a good war every now and again, finding amusement in bringing down the proud and foolish that would stand against it.

Now let’s translate this dragon into a major leader like Genghis Khan. Those who assert the right to govern a country are rarely altruists. They are more usually selfish and power-hungry. Without active constraints, they move across the land like predators, asserting control and killing the opposition. But no matter how bloodthirsty such individuals may wish to be, they lose momentum as states develop. Then a magician may cast a spell we can call the Constitution and give citizens power over the leaders through the ballot box. This brings the wannabe leaders down to Earth but does not kill them. They band together into parties and try to influence people into voting them into power. Once in government, the victorious predators move both overtly and covertly to implement their policies. On occasion, this means fighting a war here and there. But in a democracy, the leaders must sell the idea of the war to the citizens who must do the fighting. By a curious coincidence, wars often bring prosperity to the winning countries. Memories of these benefits influence some citizens into a benign view of the policies. Those who disagree are branded unpatriotic and cowards. This creates a deterministic universe in which the majority are manipulated into conforming to the wishes of the dragon. Free will in an individual cannot access power. Through the socialisation process, every aspect of our lives is directed by minds beyond our capacity to understand as individuals. Even the language we use is distorted as the meaning of words is “enriched” by more subtle undertones, enabling the leaders to convince us to do as they wish. For these purposes, it makes no difference whether we’re being convinced to accept a religious faith, or believe in science, or follow the wishes of a dragon.

Lucius Shepard diagnosed with an acute case of dragonitis

So how are the opposition to fight the manipulative power of this sleeping dragon? There can only be so many Kent State massacres and less fatal public demonstrations. Alternative ways of finally killing the dragon have to be found. “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) suggests that, over a period of time, the artists of the world can slowly kill the beastly policies by overlaying them with the paint of more environmentally friendly policies. They can mine the earth for the poisons that create the most beautiful colours. When the world sees the old set of predator policies redefined by the veneer of modern sensibilities, they will be freed from the thrall of the dragon. Such are the dreams of the idealistic young and so probably doomed to fail because grasping the meaning in Griaule’s thoughts is beyond us. Who’s to say it was not the dragon’s idea that teams of painters labour for decades to make it look more beautiful? As “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter” (1988) and “The Father of Stones” (1989) demonstrate, sometimes the best you can do is get on with your life. There’s no point in worrying about things you can’t control. So the young girl moves inside the dragon’s body to spend her life as a carer, while our worthy lawyer is engaged to run the ultimately paranoid version of diminished responsibility as a defence to murder, “The dragon made me do it!” However, even though the body of the dragon may be already dead or, perhaps, merely dying, it still wants to make little dragons so “Liar’s House” (2004) sees its efforts to produce an heir. “The Taborin Scale” (2010) is discussed in another review linked below, which leaves us with the new story.

“The Skull” is set in contemporary South America. When Griaule was finally pronounced dead, i.e. the buyers thought it was safe to dismantle the body, the parts went to all parts of the world and so spread Griaule’s lies and political misinformation everywhere. The skull was bought as a single lot and, after much effort, transported to a country not unlike Guatemala where its presence stimulated much bloodshed. Later, when the trappings of modernity littered the landscape in the form of cities, the skull remained in the jungle, slowly accumulating worshippers. At this focal point, an American man meets a woman. Perhaps they fall in love but, in a moment of panic, he runs back to the safety of US soil. Later, when he hears rumours, he returns to find the skull has literally gone missing. When he explores further, he finds a form of reincarnation has taken place and the spirit of the dragon has a different voice.

From a metafictional point of view, all these stories could be viewed in completely different ways. Some have suggested that the dragon is itself a metaphor for fantasy fiction. The exploration of the body allows Lucius Shepard to investigate and reflect upon many of the tropes that have been an integral part of the genre. So, as readers, we should look beyond the superficial events described and see the broader discussion of storytelling. He can look at the different ways in which stories can incorporate myths to act as a lens through which to view realism. By questioning and challenging the current conventions of narrative, he can discover whether it’s possible to discover new ways of expanding the craft of telling a story, of reshaping words into different artistic forms. Such are the dreams of those who pursue metafiction. Although, if we wanted to be less theoretical, we could take a more literal view. As in all stories, characters have no true will of their own but must perforce act out whatever the author dictates. If we view Lucius Shepard as Griaule then the world he creates must always work in the way he specifies. There should be no escape for the characters. Except there’s a sense that, when there’s real love, the characters may achieve some degree of independence. That they can to a greater extent live their own lives. Perhaps if a pair of lovers were to meet up with Lucius Shepard in the real world, they might find him vulnerable. Try as he might to fly up and away from them, love might conquer his imaginative creativity and allow the couple to live happily ever after — as in all the best fairy stories.

Interesting jacket artwork by J. K. Potter.

For other reviews of books by Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

This collection has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.

 

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 3. What Is Dead May Never Die

 

Game of Thrones is based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. The content of Season 2 in this television adaptation by HBO is drawn from A Clash of Kings. As before, the production is helmed by David Benioff and D B Weis. Here is the link to my retrospective overview of Game of Thrones Season 1. This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in each episode, so do not read this if you want to watch without prior knowledge.

 

Let’s start this review of What Is Dead May Never Die by thinking about the amount of sex we’re being offered as viewers. A part of HBO’s reputation depends on its willingness to push the boundaries of taste. Content will not be denied a showing simply because it’s explicit. We need to see this in context. Anyone who wants material classified as pornography can find it easily, whether online or in other published media, but HBO is classified as a mainstream television network. For genuinely explicit content to appear on a prime-time show is therefore challenging established cultural norms. Of course, Americans at this point begin waving their copy of the Constitution and chanting about First Amendment rights as if laws somehow justify bad taste. This is the old, no-one forces you to watch an HBO show argument. When you switch to the channel, you know what to expect. Except what’s the actual benefit to the story? If A is notoriously a libertine, do we actually need to see him engaging in sexual intercourse to understand what that means?

Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) enjoy the ride home

 

To understand this point, we need a few examples. There’s been a repetition of a brothel scene from Season 1 where Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) is teaching one of his new whores the art of simulating sexual satisfaction to enhance the enjoyment of paying customers. Actual sex seems gratuitous. Since the training depends on the noises made, physical expressions and the body movements, this can be practised by everyone with their clothes on. It’s actually tiring the staff if they have to keep exerting themselves and tired staff make for unhappy customers. We’ve also had Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) demonstrating both the missionary position and penetration from behind. We’ve seen Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) so overcome with excitement he has sex with Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) standing up and over a table laid out with maps of battlefields. Surprisingly, we see brother Theon Greyjoy feeling up Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), his sister (that’s also in the book and nothing to do with HBO trying to push the envelope — being faithful to the text always offers the television station a better defence against the charge of introducing gratuitous sex to sell the adverts). Although he was not aware of her identity, she was not averse to allowing him to continue at the heavy petting stage. Thematically, we’ve also been flirting with incest between the Lannister brother and sister, and between a father and his daughters. The Lannisters were shown together in Season 1 but, so far, the Crasters have kept all their clothes on. Presumably it’s too cold to expose the vulnerable bits for us to see. And then there’s the gay sex with Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) and Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones). Not bad for the first three episodes. When HBO runs out of sexual options to display, it will presumably be time for the gratuitous violence.

Arya (Maisie Williams) really coming into her own as a boy

 

Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is finding it tough to reconcile his private code of morality with the circumstances surrounding him. As Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo) explains, the Watch needs men like Craster (Robert Pugh). For Rangers north of the Wall, it can be the difference between life and death. No matter what the Watch thinks about the religion, they are to look the other way when Craster offers all his baby boys as sacrifices to the old Gods. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) and Gilly (Hannah Murray) do, however, make a real connection. Bram Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) tells Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) the old retainer about his dreams as a direwolf. The Maester tries to dismiss such stories as old wives’ tales. The dragons have gone, the giants are dead and the children of the forest are forgotten. Bram, however, is sure he can tell the difference between mere dreams and actual experiences.

Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) standing tall

 

Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) arrives at the home of Renly Baratheon in time to see the impressively tall and muscled Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) winning a tourney. Lady Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) makes her first appearance as Renly’s wife even though he actually prefers her brother, Ser Loras Tyrell, the most appropriately titled Knight of the Flowers (who was knocked to the ground by Brienne but didn’t enjoy the experience of being beaten by a woman). The Greyjoys are also planning their campaign knowing that Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has gone south and left the north unprotected. Now Theon must choose whether to make an essentially cowardly attack upon Stark lands or retain some vestiges of loyalty to the family that held him safely as a hostage for so many years. In the end, he chooses his own family. A pragmatic decision since, otherwise, he probably ends up with nothing.

 

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and Shae (Sibel Kikilli) are also finding their relationship difficult when she may be taken hostage to persuade the Hand to act in ways he would usually deny, while Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) confronts the reality that, come the end of the campaign against Robb Stark, she will have to marry Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). Tyrion’s solution is to hide Shae as Sansa’s handmaiden. Perhaps they can give each other moral support. Tyrion tries to find out which members of the Council are trustworthy by looking as if he wants to forge alliances through by marrying off Myrcella Baratheon. Naturally, Cersei is outraged that her daughter should become a pawn and this reveals Pyclle (Julian Glover) as Cersei’s spy. When Pycelle is imprisoned, Varys (Conleth Hill) philosophises to Tyrion about the nature of power. It’s all illusion, residing temporarily where the majority people believes it to be found. Littlefinger is disappointed his own commission was a deception. Perhaps there are other ways he can help Tyrion.

Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) and Lady Margaery (Natalie Dormer) holding court

 

Arya (Maisie Williams) is still having trouble sleeping, remembering the execution of Ned Stark. Yoren (Francis Magee) offers what comfort he can, sharing that he watched the murder of his brother. Years later, he killed the murderer and took the Black. All this comes minutes before the King’s men come back in numbers to kill Gendry (Joe Dempsie). Yoren falls and the soldiers start sacking the camp. Arya opens the cage to release Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) and the other two criminals. She survives as a captive and tries to convince the soldiers they have already killed Gendry. She points to the helmet he fashioned as a blacksmith lying beside a dead body. She’s not only brave but also loyal to those who may become her allies or friends.

 

Well, that’s What Is Dead May Never Die. I fear the structure that works well in the written form, is less successful on the small screen. Short episodes with different points of view, switching chapter-by-chapter in a continuous text, can maintain interest. The fact of reading through to the end of the book maintains the continuity. But television seems to separate out the narrative threads and encourage a certain lack of cohesion. Season 1 managed a better focus. Season 2 is more diffuse without a strong individual character to unite around. Ensemble pieces only work well when the characters actually interact. I wait with interest to see how the writers manage the transfer of the rest of the text to the screen.

 

For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 1. The North Remembers,
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 2. The Night Lands
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 4. Garden of Bones
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 5. The Ghost of Harrenhal
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 6. The Old Gods and the New
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 7. A Man Without Honor
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 8. The Prince of Winterfell
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 9. Blackwater
Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 10. Valar Morghulis
Game of Thrones: Season 2 — the HBO series considered

 

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