Category Archives: Fantasy Fiction

Thus did I betray my Earthborn heritage and perform a service for our conquerors, out of loyalty to a blinded wife-stealing Prince.

Nightwings, by Robert Silverberg

Nightwings was always my favourite of Silverberg novels, which given how much I loved his work as a teenager is no small thing. It’s always dangerous returning to books one enjoyed years past, but in this case at least it was worth it.

Nightwings

That isn’t actually the cover I have, but I think it’s pretty good which isn’t true of most covers this book got. It actually captures most of the themes of the novel while at the same time being intriguing and rather lovely.

Nightwings opens with three travellers making their way to the city of Roum. It’s the far future, millennia after our own age. Humanity has long since been divided into rigidly stratified guilds, some of which show signs of past genetic engineering. The narrator is a Watcher, forbidden by the tenets of his guild from letting outsiders know his name. He’s old now, but has spent his life wandering with his watching equipment which allows him to project his mind into space in search of the invaders who long ago promised to conquer Earth.

What there is of Earth doesn’t seem much worth the conquering, and through his whole life and the lives of generations before him there’s been no sign of these invaders. Earth is a place of ruins littered with fragments of the civilisations that once flourished there, but who overreached themselves and left the world impoverished and vastly reduced.

We saw the line of fusion-pylons built early in the Third Cycle to draw energy from the world’s core; they were still functioning, although stained and corroded. We saw the shattered stump of a Second Cycle weather machine, still a mighty column at least twenty men high. We saw a hill on which white marble relics of First Cycle Roum sprouted like pale clumps of winter deathflowers. Penetrating toward the inner part of the city, we came upon the embankment of defensive amplifiers waiting in readiness to hurl the full impact of the Will against invaders. We viewed a market where visitors from the stars haggled with peasants for excavated fragments of antiquity. Gormon strode into the crowd and made several purchases. We came to a flesh-house for travelers from afar, where one could buy anything from quasi-life to mounds of passion-ice. We ate at a small restaurant by the edge of the River Tver, where guildless ones were served without ceremony, and at Gormon’s insistence we dined on mounds of a soft doughy substance and drank a tart yellow wine, local specialties.

With the Watcher are Avluela of the Fliers Guild and Gormon the Changeling. Avluela has butterfly like wings which shouldn’t be able to lift her aloft, but which do so all the same. She lacks the strength to fly by day, but at night sheds all needless weight (including clothes, hence all the terrible covers) and takes to the skies. Changelings are those exceptions who have no guild, genetic refuse, diverse in their abnormalities and living in poverty and squalor. Gormon though is unusual for a Changeling, intelligent, strangely educated and fiercely proud.

The first section of the book follows the Watcher, Avluela and Gormon as they enter the ancient city of Roum:

Roum is a city built on seven hills. They say it was a capital of man in one of the earlier cycles. I did not know of that, for my guild was Watching, not Remembering; but yet as I had my first glimpse of Roum, coming upon it from the south at twilight, I could see that in former days it must have been of great significance. Even now it was a mighty city of many thousands of souls.

They do not receive the welcome they hope for. The Watcher discovers to his dismay that his Guild is no longer respected as it once was. Avluela captures the attention of the Prince of Roum (“…a hard and cold and cruel man”) who sees her as an exotic plaything to while away his duller hours. Gormon mocks the Watcher for his loss of faith in his own profession. All this comes to a head in a marvellous scene where they visit the famous Bocca della Verità, a rare survivor from 1st Century Rome (and which I thought Silverberg made up when I first read this, amazed therefore on my first visit to Rome to learn it truly exists).

Each of the three places their hand in the mouth of truth. Gormon, who has become Avluela’s lover, asks her of her preferences between him, the Prince of Roum and her first love who died years past. An unwise question with an answer he dislikes. Then he asks the Watcher if he considers his life to have been lived in vain. The Watcher, fearful that the legend is true and that the mouth will cut off his hand if he lies, replies:

“… to devote onself to vigilance when the enemy is an imaginary one is idle, and to congratuate oneself for looking long and well for a foe that is not coming is foolish and sinful. My life has been a waste.”

Then Gormon is asked a question. Earlier he had avoided answering where he came from, now he answers revealing that he is no Changeling but one of the long-awaited invaders, a forward scout. The Watcher has despaired of his life’s calling on the eve of its vindication. We’re less than a quarter of the way through the book.

Chapters follow after the fall of Roum (it’s no spoiler to reveal that this faded Earth can’t sensibly resist an actual invasion force) as the Watcher finds himself without guild since with the invasion arrived there’s no need to keep looking for it. He travels to Perris in the company of the now cast down Prince of Roum and becomes a Rememberer. He seeks comfort exploring Earth’s golden past, but discovers in the archives something of the reason for the long-promised and now fulfilled invasion. Perris itself yet retains its charm:

I walked through the glow of the Perris night, seeking fresh air. I strolled along the Senn and was accosted by an agent for a Somnambulist, who offered to sell me insight into the world of dreams. I came upon a lone Pilgrim at his devotions before a temple of flesh. I watched a pair of young Fliers in passage overhead, and shed a self-pitying tear or two. I was halted by a starborn tourist in breathing mask and jeweled tunic; he put his cratered red face close to mine and vented hallucinations in my nostrils. At length I returned to the Hall of Rememberers and went to the suite of my sponsors to pay my respects before retiring.

The tone is elegiac. We are not what we were, and with the invasion have become even less than that. The invaders are kind but omnipresent and are confident in their ownership. They reminded me of World War II Germans, which I suspect was intentional:

They were everywhere, prowling into the houses of Earth’s old religions, buying shining models of the Tower of Perris from Vendors at street corners, clambering precariously into the upper levels of the walkways, peering into occupied dwellings, snapping images, exchanging currency with furtive hucksters, flirting with Fliers and Somnambulists, risking their lives at our restaurants, moving in shepherded groups from sight to sight.

The third section of the novel sees the former-Watcher leave the Remembrancers to become a Pilgrim, heading to the holy city of Jorslem. He travels with another former Remembrancer, a mocking femme fatale from whose attentions he’s immune by reason of his age. He’s looking for redemption; she’s looking to shave a few years off which is a power they have in Jorslem if you are found worthy.

I won’t reveal what they find. Nightwings ends well, but the heart of the book comes earlier with the scenes of a tired and declining Earth housing a remnant humanity and beggar-aliens washed ashore from better worlds. Silverberg conjures up an image of a future so distant that almost nothing of us remains and that which does has long since lost its context, and yet for all the genetic engineering and guilds and alien conquerors the core experiences of humanity, of love and guilt and hubris and regret, they are still the same.

Other reviews

None on any of the blogs I follow, but I don’t know the SF blog scene well so that just means I’ve not found them. If you do know of any worth noting please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Fantasy Fiction, Science Fiction, Silverberg, Robert

I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola

This is a hard book to describe, let alone review. First published in 1951 and based on Yoruba folktales it was championed by Dylan Thomas but on release criticised as “primitive”, “lazy” and even “barbaric”. African critics were as divided on it as Western ones and reading it I can see why. Today we have concepts such as “magical realism” (a term I dislike) and we’re more used to novels that mix the ordinary and the fantastic. In 1952 it must have seemed like it landed from Mars.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

The story is fairly simple. The narrator (the drinkard) inherited a large estate on which he spent his days drinking vast quantities of palm wine with his friends. He had a personal palm-wine tapster, a man who goes up the palm trees to harvest their sap from which the wine is made. The tapster is gifted and his palm-wine is the best in the area, but he dies in an accident leaving the drinkard bereft. Ordinary palm-wine just doesn’t taste as good, and with the drop in quality the drinkard finds his fair-weather friends abandoning him.

When I saw that there was no palm-wine for me again, and nobody could tap it for me, then I thought within myself that old people were saying that the whole people who had died in this world, did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in on e place somewhere in this world. So that I said that I would find out where my palm-wine tapster who had died was.

One fine morning I took all my native juju and also my father’s juju with me and I left my father’s hometown to find out whereabouts was my tapster who had died.

This is a book where you have to embrace the language. The rhythms in that quote above are pretty typical, but they’re not the rhythms of British or American English. They’re Yoruban rhythms expressed in English.

The drinkard says that his adventures took place in the past when towns and cities were smaller and separated by thick bush and forest, but the reality is that this is set in no-time. The people use cowries as currency, as did the pre-colonial Yorubans, but at one point the drinkard sells his death for a colonial period “£70: 18: 6d”. The book is current yet timeless, as myths always are.

Some seven months after setting out the drinkard meets an old man who is actually a god and who claims to know where the tapster is. The old man asks the drinkard’s name and the drinkard identifies himself as “Father of gods who could do anything in this world”. Hearing this, the old man (god) sets him (drinkard) a task: to go to a nearby blacksmith and to get the right object which the blacksmith has made for the old man (god).

The drinkard uses his juju to change into a bird and listens to the old man (god) talking with his wife, and so learns what the object is that he needs to ask the blacksmith for. When he returns with it the old man (god) sets another task, to capture Death with a net.

The drinkard goes to Death’s house where he (the drinkard) meets a small rolling drum which he bangs to announce his presence. Death however is angered at being visited by the living and commands the strings of the drum to tighten upon the drinkard, choking him. At this the drinkard uses his juju to command the ropes of the yams in Death’s garden to tighten on Death and the yam-stakes to beat him (Death). More tricks follow, and Death is captured.

The drinkard lets Death out at the house of the old man, who flees not having expected the drinkard to return. That is how Death came to be at large in the world, having been taken from his home and let out by the house of the old man.

You’ll have noticed my use of “old man (god)” and “he (Death)” there. It’s a technique Tutuola often uses and it takes a little getting used to as he’s easily good enough a writer that you’d never be confused without that clarification. It’s a stylistic choice, one that creates an almost ritual feel to the language.

You might think that having changed into a bird and captured death we’d be some way into the book, but in fact all that’s done by page 12 (and the book starts on page 3). Soon after the drinkard comes to another town where again he gives his name as “Father of gods who could do anything in this world”. An old man in that town asks the drinkard’s help to rescue his daughter, who has been kidnapped by a beautiful and expensively dressed “complete” gentleman who she followed from the market (which is why one should never lightly follow a handsome stranger from the market, good advice in any time or place).

The gentleman is in fact just a skull and only looked like a complete gentleman because he had hired clothes and body-parts on his way to the market. He lives in a hole in the ground with a family of skulls and is a dangerous spirit. The drinkard follows him:

When I travelled with him a distance of about twelve miles away to that market, the gentleman left the really road on which we were travelling and branched into an endless forest and I was following him, but as I did not want him to see that I was following him, then I used one of my juju which changed me into a lizard and followed him. But after I had travelled with him a distance of about twenty-five miles away in this endless forest, he began to pull out all the parts of his body and return them to the owners, and paid them.

That quote includes possibly my favourite phrase of the book: “the gentleman left the really road on which we were travelling and branched into an endless forest”. Blink and you’d miss the transition from the real (the “really road”) to the fantastical (the “endless forest”), because there never really is a transition and never a point where one starts and the other stops.

This next quote is from page 33 (of 129). By this point the drinkard has paused in his quest and has married and had a son. The son was magically strong and devoured all the food in the village, burning the homes of those who opposed him, so the drinkard burns down his own house with the child inside and then the drinkard and his wife set off again in search of the dead tapster. Unwisely, the wife briefly goes back to the house to retrieve a gold trinket (if Lot’s wife and Eurydice have taught us anything, it’s never turn around and look back):

When we reached there, she picked a stick and began to scratch the ashes with it, and there I saw that the middle of the ashes rose up suddenly and at the same time there appeared a half-bodied baby, he was talking with a lower voice like a telephone.

There’s no sense here of child cruelty; this isn’t remotely intending to be a realistic depiction of a couple slaying their own child. It’s a mythical event: the couple give birth to a child who is a spirit and have to destroy it to escape, but then release another spirit and so the tale continues.

By this point hopefully you’ve got a decent feel for the book’s structure and language. If it seems like this review is just one thing after another that’s intentional because that’s how the book reads. It’s essentially a collection of folk tales here all featuring the same central character, and so the drinkard and his wife encounter “wraith-island” and later “Red-town” which is populaced by red creatures and the “Red-people” and later yet an indefatigable man named “Invisible-Pawn” who is head of all the Bush-creatures and, and, and…

Whatever else it may be, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (or to give it its full title and subtitle: The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town) is not a simplistic book. It’s not primitive, it’s not lazy and I have no idea what a barbaric book would be but I know this isn’t that either. I actually found it quite a challenging read, partly as it just doesn’t follow any kind of narrative structure I’m remotely used to and partly because I had to adjust myself to its unique language (something which clearly some of those early reviewers weren’t willing to do).

The Palm-Wine Drinkard follows the rules of dreams. It’s a sequence of bizarre events each of which follow their own internal myth-logic but with no wider narrative save that the drinkard sets off to find his dead tapster and eventually returns from his quest after many adventures (I’m not sure one can actually spoil this book, but just in case I’ll avoid saying whether he finds his tapster or not).

If I knew more of Nigeria’s colonial history and pre-independence situation I’d probably have picked up on some then-contemporary parallels. As it is I only recognised that there were some references that I wasn’t really getting. That didn’t matter though as this isn’t something so simple as a parable or allegory. It’s richer than that; it’s Yoruban tradition captured on the page yet kept alive through Tutuola’s prose.

The structure, the kind of tales Tutuola tells, remind me of the Nordic and Greek myths I read as a child. I remember when Thor took refuge one night in a strange five-chambered hall only to discover the next morning that he had rested in a giant’s glove. Later some giants challenged Thor to drain a giant’s drinking horn, which Thor could not, but the giants grew frightened because the horn was really the horn of the sea and Thor was so mighty that he had almost drained the seas dry. Thor, like the drinkard, has an awful lot of fairly weird random adventures.

In the end I’m not quite sure what I make of Drinkard. It’s not the sort of book you’d dip into to relax of an evening and it’s not full of deep insights into mortality or whatever (save that it’s actually quite a good idea to sell your death as then you can’t die, mine’s available at reasonable rates should anyone want it). It’s very much its own thing.

Perhaps its curious originality is why it matters, because just by existing it helps broaden fiction’s possibilities. Without this would we have Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, or Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine (which I started this morning as at the time of writing)? We might, but I suspect Tutuola helped open the door those later writers walked through.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, but as ever I’m happy to be corrected in the comments.

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Filed under African Literature, Fantasy Fiction, Nigerian Literature, Tutuola, Amos

Ansige unreeled the tale of his tribulations, thoroughly ransacking the truth and then dipping into the bag of embellishment and sprinkling with a free hand.

Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord

‘I’m Giana. What’s your name?’

The djombi thought, shrugged and replied, ‘When I am without a shadow, I may be called Constancy-in-Adversity, though others who see me differently have sometimes named me Senseless-Resignation-to-Suffering. I am a small thing, as you can see, but my mother says I am quite powerful in my own way.’

Giana nodded. The names were too large and the concepts too weighty for her to grasp, but the last she could understand. Mothers tended to say things like that, usually just before sending you to the well to fetch water.

RiI

Paama has just left her husband, Ansige, and returned to her home village. She can’t be blamed. Ansige is a foolish glutton. He isn’t a bad man, but he is selfish and silly and his appetite is endless. Paama is a well regarded cook, but Ansige cares more for volume than quality so even that merit of hers is wasted on him.

Ansige and Paama and all humanity’s struggles are watched by the djombi: spirits who are as old as the world itself though not unchanging. Among the djombi is the Indigo Lord, a powerful being that once acted as guide and guardian to mankind but which over the long millennia came to despise us and became our adversary. There are parallels to Lucifer in Western myth.

Now some of the djombi wish to humble the Indigo Lord and to curtail his power, and so they steal from him the Chaos Stick which gives its bearer the ability to control probability itself. They need to find someone who they can trust with such power and who will have the strength of character and the wisdom to wield it safely. They choose Paama.

Ansige is headed to Paama’s village to win her back, accompanied by a caravan full of food and his servants Rahid and Pei. If he gets to Paama too quickly she might not have the space to develop as she needs to for the djombi’s purposes. A trickster spirit in the form of a spider is sent to intervene…

First Rahid bought a drink for them both, and they grew more cheerful. Then Pei bought a drink for them both, and on that they grew indignant, telling tale after tale of the madness that was a man’s life in the service of Ansige. Then a third round arrived, and they did not know who was paying for it but when they looked around, there was a friendly-looking spider of more than average size who raised his glass cheerfully in their direction and indicated with a wave that they should go ahead and drink up on his behalf. Heartened by such a gesture of diplomacy from a representative of the animal kingdom, they toasted him gladly and resumed their tales of woe to each other.

The tale of Ansige the glutton is apparently taken from Senegalese folklore, though it’s only a springboard here for a wider story. The spider-spirit is never named as Anansi, the famous West African character with much in common with Brer Rabbit and Coyote and Bugs Bunny and all those other wonderful mythic tricksters, but it’s clear that’s who he’s based on. Here they mix with a range of other characters mortal and immortal, all of them larger than life and yet all of them still convincingly human (even the ones who aren’t).

What makes it all work is tone. The book is structured like a slightly rambling folk-tale, full of diversions and asides each of which ultimately casts light on the main story. The narrative voice is an opinionated character in its own right and the whole thing is shot through with a warm sense of compassion and humour. At times the narrator addresses the reader (listener?) directly:

I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known? For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase ‘I am a pawnbroker’ in any known human language? Think! These creatures do not truly talk, nor are they truly animals, but they do encounter human folk, and when they do, they carefully take with them all memory of the meeting.

There’s a marvellous mixing here of the ordinary and extraordinary. It’s not quite clear when the novel is set, because it could be set near any-time as befits a semi-fable. There are spirits, but they’re no more fantastic than Ansige and his incredible appetite. The concerns of the villagers are those anyone would have: love; family; what to do with your life.

I grew up to a degree with fantasy and genre fiction, and I’m used to it having a certain sort of protagonist. Young; highly skilled; dangerous to their foes; born to a vital destiny; male. It’s a tedious list. Paama isn’t particularly young, her main skill is her cooking, she has no destiny to speak of and she’s definitely not male. The Indigo Lord threatens her family to convince her to give him back the Chaos Stick and she immediately agrees – why should she endanger her sister’s life for some magical device she never asked for? It’s distinctly unheroic.

The Chaos Lord learns though that there’s a catch. Now Paama has the stick she can only relinquish it to someone she honestly believes deserves it more than she does, and however much she’s threatened she doesn’t believe an ageless demon-lord is a good choice for that kind of power. Reluctantly then he has to take her on a trip showing her why she should give him the stick, and that means for the first time in a very long time he has to get to know a human being. He is pride incarnate, but for once he can’t just demand what he wants and expect to get it.

Here he and Paama find themselves in a cafe, where Paama is surprised to find the Indigo Lord making time for a newspaper and slice of cake by way of a break in their journey.

While she ate, the djombi read from a newspaper and absently snacked on portions of her dessert, ‘just for the taste,’ he said.

‘Why do you read that? I thought that you knew everything,’ she asked.

He gave her one of his unfathomable blank looks. ‘I like to read the paper for the same reason that I like the occasional bit of food – to sample human tastes.’

‘I thought you despised us,’ she said quietly.

His hands squirmed on the folded newspaper. ‘Not despise – not all of human taste is abhorrent. There are bits that are enjoyable.’

‘Like chocolate cake and comic-strip humour?’ she murmured, eyes downcast, with mild sarcasm.

‘Are you eating that last piece of cake?’ he asked, unmoved by her criticism.

There’s no great surprise where the story goes, but there needn’t be as the pleasure here is all in the telling. This is a novel packed with vivid and enjoyable characters: Ansige; Paama; the Indigo Lord; the spider-trickster-spirit; later a hunter who can find any quarry and is hired by a convent of magical nuns to track down what’s happened to Paama. It sounds ludicrous, but then so do most myths and fables where gods wander the Earth disguised as shepherds and foxes on the road disguise themselves as the Buddha. Just because it couldn’t happen doesn’t mean it can’t be true.

Now for two incredibly minor and petty criticisms. Firstly, Karen Lord, cats can’t eat chocolate cake! Chocolate is poisonous to cats. Bad author, bad.

That will make no sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book, but there you go.

The second petty criticism is a formatting issue on the kindle version, which has Karen Lord’s (oddly boastful) bio almost immediately following the end with basically just a paragraph break between the two. That sounds like nothing, but what it meant was that I read straight on from the end and suddenly found myself without any warning in an author bio. The contrast jarred and was surprisingly damaging to the mood Lord had created to that point.

It’s curious how such a minor point of formatting can damage a book, but it did. Not seriously and if I were grading this on Amazon it wouldn’t change the score, but it was irritating and it was avoidable. It was the literary equivalent of going to a classical concert and having some boor shout “Bravo!” the very instant the final notes start fading in the air so that you lose the chance of a moment’s reflection.

As I said though, these are petty points and to end on them alone would be unfair to a charming novel. Redemption in Indigo is a delightful book awash with life and with the chaos of a world that even with undying spirits still looks very much like our own.

Other reviews

David of David’s Book World put me on to this. His characteristically fine review is here. I also found online this rather good review from Culturally Disorientated, a blog previously unknown to me, here.

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Filed under Fantasy Fiction, Lord, Karen, Science Fiction

Nothing moved across the moor except the rain, which appeared as suddenly and soundlessly as a face pressed against a window.

Diving Belles, by Lucy Wood

I took a bit of convincing to read this one. It’s a series of short stories that take Cornish folklore and place it into a contemporary setting: a woman transforming into a standing stone; a wife whose husband was kidnapped by mermaids; giants and ghosts and spirits. It all sounded a bit urban fantasy to me – a genre I’ve never taken to.

Diving Belles though is a superb short story collection; genuinely original and exciting. It’s warm and well written and firmly rooted in a very physical sense of place. Wood has subsequently written a novel, Weathering, and I’ll absolutely be picking it up once I’ve finished my #TBR20.

Diving Belles

The title story here gives a good sense of how the collection works. Iris’s sailor husband was lost decades ago, enchanted away by mermaids. Now a woman in her village has set up a business that can reunite wives for a while with their stolen husbands, perhaps even bringing them back to land. It involves lowering the wife down to sea in a diving bell, and a friend has bought Iris a voucher entitling her to three attempts.

It sounds twee, or it did to me anyway, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s a wonderful mix of the pragmatic and the mythic. Mermaids and gift vouchers. Of course it’s also all terribly metaphorical: when Iris sees her husband he’s not aged a day while she’s now an old woman, just as all those we lose remain forever young in our memories because they can no longer age.

What sells it all is the prose:

Closer to the seabed, the water seemed to clear. Then, suddenly, there was the shipwreck, looming upwards like an unlit bonfire, all splints and beams and slumped funnels. The rusting mainframe arched and jutted. Collapsed sheets of iron were strewn across the sand. The diving bell moved between girders and cables before stopping just above the engine. The Queen Mary’s sign, corroded and nibbled, gazed up at Iris. Empty cupboards were scattered to her left. The cargo ship had been transporting train carriages and they were lying all over the seabed, marooned and broken, like bodies that had been weighed down with stones and buried at sea. Orange rust bloomed all over them. Green and purple seaweed drifted out through the windows. Red man’s fingers and dead man’s fingers pushed up from the wheel arches.

Diving Belles is a strong opener to the collection, and it’s immediately followed by Countless Stones which is just as solid. Here Rita has woken up to find that she’s transforming into a standing stone, as has happened to her before and as happens to others from time to time in her part of the country.

Rita knows she has a few hours before the transformation is complete, but she doesn’t know how long she’ll stay transformed for. She therefore prepares to make arrangements: to contact work to let them know she’ll be absent; to empty the fridge of perishables; to make sure she hasn’t left any washing up on the side. As she does so the particularities of transformation are closely described: the feeling of her toe joints hardening; a craving for salt; visions of the other stones she’ll stand among:

Rita filled up the kettle and put it on. There was a cold breeze from nowhere and suddenly she was up on the cliffs with the other standing stones, watching a buzzard rising and circling on its huge spread of wings. Then she was back in front of the kettle again and it had boiled.

Unfortunately, before she can make much by way of preparation Rita gets a call from her ex who needs her help driving him to a house he’s viewing. She dutifully heads out to take care of him even though she knows the weather is worsening and the detour will mean she’ll have to leave some of her own tasks undone.

Again, the metaphor isn’t particularly subtle. Rita is fixed in place, literally unable to move either from her place by the cliffs post-transformation or her relationship with her ex. The story works though because while on the symbolic level it’s pretty straightforward the prose makes it convincingly real. Rita’s particular problem may be magical in nature, but there’s nothing supernatural about a woman who puts someone else’s needs ahead of her own even when her own are more pressing.

Each of the stories combines elements of the prosaic and the fantastic, commingling them so that the extraordinary becomes more a highlighting of the ordinary than something separate to it:

  • an adolescent boy feels awkward about his body, as I once did myself, but here it’s because his father was a giant and he’s still short (he looks up his concerns on the NHS website);
  • a woman unable to let go of her past finds the ghost of a wrecker (the Cornish equivalent of this) in her spare bedroom rifling through her unopened moving boxes, assessing them for salvage value;
  • a woman tries on an eye-cream in her mother’s bathroom, and through its magic realises that her mother isn’t the lonely old lady she thought she was but has a faerie lover and a whole life she was unaware of, separate to her relationship with her daughter.

Not every story is as memorable as those, but most are and I could easily keep picking examples (the old folk’s home for retired witches springs to mind, a more melancholy tale than it at first appears). Another standout that I can’t resist mentioning is Notes from the House Spirits, where nature spirits inhabiting a house consider its various occupants over the years, the humans they don’t understand and can’t really tell apart. It’s a melancholic tale with the reader able to fill in the gaps the spirits can’t, and with the occasional wry stab of humour:

When she can’t find her watch, we find it for her, and put it in the pocket of her coat, but then she shouts that she has already looked in the pocket of her coat. We were only trying to help. It is not our job to find things.

Diving Belles is like little else I’ve read this year, or indeed any year. It stands an excellent chance of being on my end-of-year roundup list, and I can easily imagine returning in future to read it again. For me, this is a future classic, and one we’re lucky enough to get to read while it’s fresh.

Other reviews

David Hebblethwaite first put me on to this one, his blog post about it is here and links to a review he did for Strange Horizons here. Gemma of The Perfectionist Pen also wrote an excellent review of it here.

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Filed under Fantasy Fiction, Short Stories, Wood, Lucy

… this conglomeration of cryptic non-meaningful events…

The Traveller in Black, by John Brunner

John Brunner is one of the recognised greats of science fiction (that’s lost half the blog’s readers already). He’s best known for his meaty sociological sf works such as The Sheep Look Up, or Stand on Zanzibar. I always preferred though his shorter, punchier books. His megatomes are well crafted, important to the history of sf, dense with rich ideas, but they’re not light reads by any stretch.

Brunner was a prolific writer, but one with surprisingly few outright duds. In fact I’ve never read anything bad by him, but then it’s fair to say a lot of his books sank into obscurity so if there were bad ones I never saw them. The concept of the internet worm was created by him (in The Shockwave Rider, arguably the first cyberpunk novel), and he wrote marvellosu tales of time travel, space exploration, alien contact and all those things that gladden an sf fan’s heart. Not all his books worked equally well, but at his best he was very good indeed.

He only wrote one fantasy novel though, that I know of. As it happens, it’s long been one of my favourite fantasy novels, by any author. Recently I picked up a second hand copy, and coming off a reading dry spell decided to revisit it. It’s still a favourite.

Nowadays the term fantasy fiction conjures up images of dragons, wizards, unacknowledged princes and plucky heroines. It wasn’t always like that though (arguably it’s not entirely like that now, but contemporary fantasy fiction is a bit moribund). Brunner ignored cod-Tolkienism. His work fits in a much more interesting fantasy tradition filled with authors such as Dunsany, Vance*, Tanith Lee.

The Traveller in Black is a man with many names (one of them, tellingly, Mazda), but a singular nature. He inhabits a realm which sits on the edge of our own, neither part of our universe nor wholly separate, on “a borderland between chaos, existing in eternity, and reason, existing in time.” This realm is filled with humans, and human cities, but also by spirits and elemental creatures of great power. Leftovers from the chaos from which the universe was formed.

In those days, the forces were none of them chained. They raged unchecked through every corner and quarter of the cosmos. Here for instance ruled Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes, capricious, whimsical, when he stared things melted in frightful agony. There a bright being shed radiance, but the radiance was all-consuming, and that which was solid and dull was flashed into fire. At another place, creatures in number one million fought desperately for the possession of a single grain of dust; the fury of their contesting laid waste solar systems.

 The Traveller’s singular nature grants him certain powers, including the ability to grant wishes. He is just, but he is also possessed of a certain mordant wit. If a wish is born of malice or greed the Traveller will fufil it but the wisher, if they live, would likely prefer afterwards that the wish had remained ungranted.

… In the rich city Gryte a thief spoke to curse the briefness of the summer night, which had cut short his plan to break the wall of a merchant’s counting-house. “Oh that dawn never overtook me!” he cried. “Oh that I had lasting darkness whereby to ply my trade!” “As you wish,” said the traveler, “so be it.” And darkness came: two thick grey cataracts that shut the light away.

So too in Wocrahin a swaggering bully came down the street on market-day, cuffing aside children with the back of his hand and housewives with the flat of his sword. “Oh that my way were not cluttered with such riffraff!” he exclaimed, his shoulder butting into the traveler’s chest. “As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, and when the bully turned the corner the street he walked was empty under a leaden sky-and the buildings on either side, and the taverns, and the shops. Nor did he again in all eternity have to push aside the riffraff he had cursed; he was alone.

In terms of plot The Traveller in Black is fairly straightforward. It was originally written as a series of short stories, and the novel itself consists of a variety of visits by the Traveller (where, if anywhere, he is between visits is never explained) to this curious realm. Each visit is both different, and yet the same. The details vary, chaos is slightly reduced on each occasion, but each time he passes from city to city granting wishes to the dismay of those he encounters.

In one city, on one visit, human sacrifices are being made to a great stone idol and the mad king wishes that he could bring it to life so that it could destroy the city’s enemies. In another a beautiful but unwise woman stands by a river that changes everything that bathes in it, and wishes she could be changed so that she could understand which actions would be wise and which not. The Traveller notes to her that her wish may itself be unwise, for he is not without pity, but she has not of course the wisdom to listen.

There’s a fairy tale quality to all of this. One elemental, now bound, spends its days seeking to forget its fate. It uses its small remaining power to raise tiny dust storms that wipe clean the tracks of travellers passing over the hill in which it is entombed, erasing all memory of their journey as it seeks to erase all memory of itself. There are warriors, beauties, cunning merchants, enchanters, all slightly larger than life (and Brunner was perfectly capable of crafting entirely realistic characters when he wished). One city is ruled by enchanters:

Each enchanter had come after his or her own style: Petrovic walking with his staff called Nitra, from which voices could sometimes be heard when the moon was full; Gostala riding on a creature she had conjured out of the deep water which was its natural element, that cried aloud in heart-rending agony at every step; Ruman on the shoulders of a giant ape fettered with brass; Eadwil on his own young legs, although his feet shone red-hot when he had gone ten paces – this as to do with a geas about which no one ever inquired closely. The air about them crackled with the struggle between protective conjurations and the tense oppressive aura that enshrouded [the city of] Ryovora.

If Traveller is about anything, it’s about the folly of human desire for gods and magic and shortcuts to thought and hard work. The outcomes of magic are always doubtful. Sorcery here is the equivalent of a fad diet, getting you at best only that which you could have got anyway through a little perseverance, but at a higher price and most likely you’ll pay that price and yet achieve nothing at all.

Brunner gently mocks us. In one story a man of our world, of 1970s Britain, is summoned by unknown means and sent  by the Traveller to a city that wished it had a god. They install their new god, the divine Bernard, in a temple despite his protestations that he is merely lost. Bernard asks his worshippers where he is, how he got there, why they’re giving him gifts of fruit and praying to him. “But they would not answer him; they merely listened respectfully, then went and wrote down what he said, with a view to creating a canon of mystical precepts.”

For all that this is a melancholic book. The Traveller brings justice, order, reason, and that which he supplants is wild and dangerous and frequently insane. The world we, the readers, inhabit is undoubtedly a better one than the bubble of chaos the Traveller is so busily shrinking. Still, it’s a romantic place, and Brunner himself is wise enough to know that while sensibly we may prefer a world where streams reliably run downhill and trees rarely if ever speak to us, still in our hearts we are pulled to the fantastic. We know that unicorns don’t exist, and if they did would likely not be our friends, but still we wish they did.

I found one other review of The Traveller in Black online. The reviewer loves the book, as to be honest I do, and there are over 20 comments most of them from other fans of the book. Brunner was a genuine talent, and while I’m glad he’s remembered I do sometimes think he’s remembered for the wrong books.

* The following two quotes, which didn’t fit in the main body of the review, couldn’t be much more Vancian:

A death had lately occurred, that was plain, for approaching the city gate came a funeral procession: on a high-wheeled cart drawn by apes in brazen harness, the corpse wrapped in sheets of lead, gold and woven leaves; a band of gongmen beating a slow measure to accompany musicians whistling on bird-toned pipes no longer than a finger; eight female slaves naked to the ceaseless warm rain; and last a straggle of mourners, conducting themselves for the most part with appropriate solemnity.

and

… in Leppersley he cast the bones of a girl’s foot to read the runes they formed, and after great labor he incarcerated Wolpec in a candle over whose flame he smoked a piece of glass which thereupon showed three truths: one ineluctable, one debatable and one incomprehensible. That was in Teq, when the end of his journey was near.

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Filed under Brunner, John, Fantasy Fiction

Imaro

Following the extraordinarily dark How the Dead Live, I had planned to immediately start the next volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. I found, however, that I needed a break, some light relief, something where I wouldn’t be thinking about the nature of existence and what it means to be human. I chose Imaro, by a narrow margin, it came very close to being an Edgar Rice Burroughs Pellucidar novel instead…

Imaro is a sword and sorcery novel by African-American writer Charles R. Saunders. Written firmly in the tradition started by Robert E. Howard, it is a deliberate attempt to write a hero that an African-American reader can relate to, to create a Black Conan.

Originally published in 1981, Imaro was in part a response to Saunders’ perception that fantasy literature overwhelmingly featured white protagonists and marginalised black characters. As an African-American man, Saunders struggled to entirely relate to the characters in the books he was reading, and was unhappy with the often racist depictions of Africans. In his foreword to the current 2006 edition he states that he thinks matters have improved, making him a more optimistic man on that front than I am. In 2005 after all, the sci fi channel broadcast an adaptation of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard from Earthsea featuring an entirely white cast. That book, for those unfamiliar with it, contains no white characters at all – a deliberate decision by Le Guin who wrote it in part to address the exclusion of non-whites from fantasy fiction.

But enough of politics, or almost so. The other interesting aspect of Imaro, beyond the text itself, is that the 2006 edition is heavily revised from the original 1981 edition. An entire story is in fact omitted, replaced with a wholly new story. Imaro inhabits an Africa-analogue called Nyumbani, essentially our Africa but with countries and peoples renamed to give Saunders a little more creative freedom. The 1981 edition contained a key story, including the origin of a central character, set in a kingdom modelled on Rwanda and featuring a genocidal conflict between the two tribes inhabiting it. Later events turned the story, from Saunder’s perspective, into a mockery of real-world horror and as such although he was keen to see Imaro reissued, he was not keen for that story to be reissued. His answer was a new tale, and consequential revisions. How they compare to the original I can’t say, but I do think it interesting how history caused Saunders to have to rewrite so much material.

Anyway, on to Imaro. Imaro is the child of a woman of the Ilyassai, essentially the Masai. His father is of another tribe, making him an outcast within his people, tolerated and raised within their customs but never liked. He grows, as sword and sorcery heroes do, to be a young man of extraordinary ability, huge strength and quick wit. But, he has enemies, and this novel which is rather a series of connected short stories tracks his time with the Ilyassai and his later adventures across Nyumbani as he seeks his destiny.

Saunders has a real love and knowledge of African folklore and customs, he introduces the ways of the Ilyassai smoothly and makes them understandable if not always wholly sympathetic. Other cultures, forest dwelling tribes dependent on fishing, bandit kingdoms, urbanised coastal nation states, are all also brought to life and Saunders creates an Africa that is a vibrant and diverse place. A land of many cultures, often mutually incomprehending, but each credible and seeming-authentic (I don’t know enough about Africa to say how genuinely authentic).

As the book progresses, Saunders works in words in the tongue of the Ilyassai, names for animals, coming-of-age rituals, weapons, and then going forward those words are often used without further explanation so that as you proceed the reader becomes himself a little Africanised – helping achieve the immersion so important to this kind of novel.

Freedom. The concept held little meaning for Imaro, except during times such as this, when he ran alone in the Tambure, dry grass swishing against his bare legs. It was then that he felt that he truly belonged in the savanna, at one with the vast herds of impala, zebra, kudu, gazelle, and countless other hoofed creatures that along with tembo, the mighty elephant, roamed wherever their will guided them. Even more did the youth identify with the Tamburure’s deadliest predators: Ngatun the lion, Chui the leopard, Matisho the hunting-hyena. These creatures hunted the grass-eaters as it pleased them, without regard to the strictures imposed by clan or tribe.

Saunders also explains, but without heavy exposition, the reason for certain customs, for example the Ilyassai believe that when an Ilyassai dies his soul enters the body of a lion, when a young man comes of age he must slay a lion to prove his courage, and in so doing release that soul so it can again reincarnate into the body of an Ilyassai. Fascinating stuff. The book is full of small descriptive details that add to the richness of his setting.

Imaro knew he was in the Land of No One, a wild uninhabited stretch of territory that served as a borderland between the realms claimed by the Turkhana and the Ilyassai. It was not uninhabited now. A band of Turkana had set up a small encampment, consisting of a fresh-dug firepit and a circular barrier of spiky thornbrush. It was the encampment of a hunting party or a war band, quickly erected and easy to dismantle.

As well as all this culture and myth, Saunders draws as so many sword and sorcery writers do on HP Lovecraft. Evil sorcerors in Nyumbani use mchawi, witchcraft, but those who grow too devoted to it change and become something no longer wholly human. Mchawi grants power, but at a terrible cost. Mchawi is also, of course, found in ancient ruins of uncertain origin and in peculiar and monstrous survivors of an earlier age – beings alien to humanity and the natural world.

Ages ago, the misshapen pile of crumbling masonry was a building, an edifice of colossal proportions. The gigantic stone blocks from which it had been constructed once fit together with immaculate precision. But that time was thousands of rains ago, as humans measure time. Now, the structure was only a mound of aging stone, futilely defying the passage of the rains even as the name of its long-dead builders had long since been forgotten. It hulked in the midst of the Tamburure like a monument to a time so distant that even the land surrounding it had changed.

And:

The builders of the Place of Stones were short, squat, manlike in shape … and thoroughly nightmarish. Narrow, elongated eyes glittered balefully in the green light suffusing the ruin. Bestial fangs filled their gaping mouths. Colorless hair sprouted in thin patches across scabrous, unclothed skin. Cat-like claws curved from the fingers of hands otherwise human in form.

Saunders avoids, however, the bleakness of Lovecraft’s vision. Here those who are the source of mchawi, mysterious entities not encountered in this book, are opposed by other entities which may be beneficient. In one of the book’s more interesting elements, it is clearly implied that Imaro himself is a form of weapon, designed by the beneficient entities to fight their enemies. That he himself may not be wholly human, but something more crafted to inflict harm on those who would harm humanity.

Saunders’ prose style is straightforward and efficient, this is a work driven by its plot and its ideas, and Saunders is largely happy simply to communicate both. Generally, he avoids falling into Howardian pastiche, though on several occasions he refers to Imaro’s mighty thews, which jars every time he does it for obvious reasons (obvious to those with any knowledge of the genre anyway, if not I’m happy to explain in the comments). The Night Shade imprint is easy to read and attractively bound, though on occasion there were unfortunate typos and the odd missing or plainly incorrect word.

Imaro hurdled the flaming thornbush, and drove his blade into the throat of the war-leader. As blood spewed from the Turkhana’s neck, the iron hand of panic crushed the courage from the rest of the warriors. To their terror-stricken minds, Imaro was a ghost returned for vengeance, for they could not believe that a bound man or boy could have survived the Tamburure at night. Shrieking prayers to their gods or ancestors, the Tamburure broke and fled. And Imaro ravened among them like Ngatun himself.

Note the second use of the word Tamburure there is an error, it should be Turkhana as it is the people who are fleeing, not the savanna. Still, in the main Night Shade have done a pretty fair job here.

There is a difficulty with Imaro, however, one that is one intrinsic to its genre. Imaro himself is stronger than any other man, a better warrior, he is cleverer and more charismatic, he’s not even bad looking. That’s ok, the uber-protagonst is common in this genre and there does at least seem to be an in-setting reason why he’s so special, but it does rather reduce tension. Imaro, put simply, is a winner and although he is on a few occasions beaten into unconsciousness it’s perfectly obvious that by the end of each story he’ll have gutted everyone responsible. As I say, that’s probably unavoidable given the nature of the genre, but it does mean you sort of know what’s going to happen most of the time.

Imaro’s world is also not a subtle one. Bad guys tend to be very, very bad. Good guys aren’t good as such, but rather are men who stick to their word or who don’t betray friends (genuinely good characters would be out of genre) and those who fall into that camp stay in it, though as is generally the case with companions to sword and sorcery heroes the more sympathetic characters don’t tend to have a high survival rate. It is a world painted with a broad brush, proud warriors, evil sorcerors, beautiful women trained in strange erotic arts, wise old women, peaceful fisher-people, strange idols and hideous demon-things (really, what’s not to love?).

But, and it’s the key but, it’s a lot of fun. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not going to change your perceptions of the genre, but it’s good solid sword and sorcery set in an Africa-analogue rather than a mock-Europe and with a nice level of cultural detail. If you already enjoy this sort of fiction, this is well worth checking out, if you don’t this isn’t the one that will change your mind. I enjoyed it though, and I intend to read the next in the series, where Imaro goes in search of the ancient kingdom of Cush…

Imaro

And, for the curious, Charles Saunders’ own website is here. There’s also a nice interview with him here.

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Filed under African-American Literature, Fantasy Fiction, Saunders, Charles, US Literature

He wanted a sword long enough to slash the sky and tumble the dwellers in paradise from their beds

I’m not, as a rule, a fan of the fantasy genre. Indeed, shortly I’ll be blogging about a work, The Crystal Cave, that I started over a year ago and which I think I have to recognise I’m simply never going to get round to finishing. Like any genre though, it has its exceptions, its talents, Fritz Leiber being one of them. Unfortunately, Swords and Devilry, the first volume of his collected Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser stories, is not an example of Leiber at his best.

Taking a step backwards, in the 1930s and 1940s pulp fantasy tended towards tales now known as sword and sorcery. These were generally episodic adventures in which protagonists of doubtful morality lived large on a lightly sketched stage. Tolkien, with his massive epic, changed all that, and after him sword and sorcery went into decline, eventually being squeezed out of the marketplace of ideas by bland multi-volume pseudo-Tolkeinian works now often referred to as “fat fantasy”. Part of this was I think due to Tolkien’s success being so huge as to encourage legions of imitators, part in that the morality of fat fantasy is essentially Western and liberal and comforting while the morality of sword and sorcery drew heavily on intellectual currents of the 1930s such as existentialism with an emphasis on the human-created nature of gods and ethics and the individual having little responsibility or purpose beyond that they created for themselves.

In its day, a lot of sword and sorcery was produced, but by the 1970s it was a dying genre. Today it is largely extinct, though writers such as Richard Morgan are apparently trying to resurrect it. Most of what was written is now forgotten, but among those who are remembered is Fritz Leiber, the man who actually coined the term “sword and sorcery”. Fritz Leiber’s great creation was the city of Lankhmar, and the two rogues who inhabited it, Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser. Leiber wrote a number of stories through the 1940s featuring this pair, one a tall Northern warrior and the other a small semi-wizard and civilised swordsman from the warm south. Together they stole, loved, drank and faced death (on one occasion, if I recall correctly, literally and in person) in a series of adventures often only loosely linked in terms of chronology or indeed logic. At their best, Leiber’s stories had an immediacy and passion which makes them deservedly remembered, at their weakest they were sometimes trite with dubious sexual politics.

Which brings me to Swords and Devilry. Swords and Devilry is a collection of some of Leiber’s Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser tales, one of six volumes containing all such. The oddity, however, is that the volumes are in order of internal chronology, such as there is, not real world chronology. The result is that although it is for his tales written in the 1940s that Leiber is best remembered, the ones in this (the first) volume were in fact largely written in 1970, by which time Leiber’s talent was perhaps starting to wane and when the freshness of his initial creation was increasingly affected by his knowledge of the wider fantasy genre as it had developed over the years.

Swords and Devilry essentially consists of four linked novellas, the first two respectively are origins stories for each of Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, before they came to Lankhmar, the latter two telling of how they became friends and of their first adventure together. The difficulty is that the charm of Leiber’s tales lay in the friendship between his two protagonists and the marvellous life he gave their city, it’s unfortunate then that for 120 pages of 192 the characters haven’t actually met or made it to Lankhmar yet. None of the tales which made these characters so loved appear in this volume, none of Leiber’s best writing does, and as such although I still enjoyed it I enjoyed it to a degree with memory’s eye, rather than perhaps the eye of a mature reader. I enjoyed it in expectation of what is to come in later volumes, less so for what is present in this one.

Niall at Torque Control has written an excellent piece on this volume, here (you need to scroll down the page a bit past some introductory remarks), he notes (correctly in my view) that the central theme of the volume is one of the lure of civilisation, in contrast to the simplicity of living with nature. At the start, Fahfrd is a tribesman among barbarians ruled by snow-witches (in some ways better than that sounds, in others much more sexist in the depiction of women generally, a problem throughout this volume), he dreams of escaping to the warmth of civilisation, and falls in love with a visiting dancer who both symbolises a wider world and promises to give him a path to it. In the next story (The Unholy Grail), the Grey Mouser is a hedge wizard’s apprentice, living in civilised lands but in the rural and more outlying parts of them. He falls foul of a local baron, leading to a conflict described by Niall at Torque Control as “incredibly generic”, an assessment I agree with. The Snow Women is at least sometimes funny, The Holy Grail isn’t even particularly consistent with the depiction of the Grey Mouser in other stories.

In the second pair of novellas, the characters have moved to civilisation’s heart, Lankhmar, a jaded metropolis which duly consumes such little innocence as our heroes possess. Possessed of streets named “Cash Street”, “Dim Lane”, “Cheap Street” and the like, it is “Lankhmar, City of sevenscore Thousand Smokes”, later described by one of the characters as follows:

Lying low between the Marsh, the Inner Sea, the River Hlal, and the flat southern grainfields watered by canals fed by the Hlal, Lankhmar with its innumerable smokes was the prey of fogs and sooty smogs. No wonder the citizens had adopted the black toga as their formal garb. Some averred the toga had originally been white or pale brown, but so swiftly soot-blackened, necessitating endless laundering, that a thrifty overlord had ratified and made official what nature or civilisation’s arts decreed.

Elements of classic Leiber style can be seen in the above passage, a fondness for alliteration (of which more shortly), a wry commentary on the exigencies of civilised life, but here it is a touch flat, a touch obvious, too much reliant on exposition. In later, paradoxically earlier, stories Leiber uses all these elements with a surer and lighter touch and the result is descriptions no less detailed but quicker sketched and more amusingly written.

Sometimes Leiber deliberately writes to excess, here he indulges his tendency to alliterate but employs it to comic effect underlining the drunkneness of the characters:

But the Mouser and Fahfrd merely exclaimed in mild, muted amazement at the stars, muggily mused as to how much their improved visibility would increase the risk of their quest, and cautiously crossing the Street of the Thinkers, called Atheist Avenue by moralists, continued to Plague Court until it forked.

I rather like the Atheist Avenue joke there, the sheer excess of alliteration is I think quite intentional, but at the same time when I read it I was thrown bodily out of the story, the language so plainly sculpted for effect that it quite distracted me from the narrative.

Some elements do work well, the last few pages of the collection are the strongest part, reflecting I suspect that by then Leiber has finished setting up the characters to be as they were when first written in the 1930s, the backstory is complete and it shows in a sudden improvement in literary style and content. The pair’s intrusion into the villainous thieves’ guild disguised as beggars is suitably comic, with them convinced of the brilliance of their disguises and all others commenting behind them that the standards of beggars are clearly slipping. Later, the assault on the thieves’ guild is both exciting and horrific, particularly the fiery attack on the entryway and Fahfrd’s rage-fuelled killing of a child that mistakenly comes into his path (an action regretted afterwards, but its mere presence shows how morally questionable these characters are intended to be). All this comes very much at the end of the volume, however.

Along the way, an enchantment involving magically controlled fog is suitably chilling, as is an evil sorceror’s disturbing familiar, but too there are continual issues with the depiction of women as either scatter brained, controlling shrews or manipulative femme fatales. Leiber’s work is at its best when it focuses squarely on Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, and their ongoing relationship with their city, each other and their curious patrons Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes – neither of whom make an appearance in this volume at all. Swords and Devilry suffers from the absence of these elements, and is at its best when they briefly come to the fore.

I’ve been very harsh in this blog entry, perhaps because the truth is I love Leiber’s work, and have since I first read it in adolescence. Stories such as The Bleak Shore, The Howling Tower, Bazaar of the Bizarre, The Cloud of Hate, Lean Times in Lankhmar (with its marvellous satire on religion) are all small marvels. Sadly, none of them are in this volume which I perhaps judge harder because of my fondness for Leiber’s better works.

Swords and Devilry appears as part of a compendium volume, along with the much better Swords against Death, and is currently out of print. Undeservedly so, despite my many critical remarks in this blog entry, bad Leiber is not a patch on good Leiber, but it remains better than much contemporary fantasy.

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A Dunsanian Diptych

By way of follow-up to my post on Lord Dunsany’s Book of Wonder here, I have included  below two stories taken from that work.  Both I consider to be fine pieces which effectively demonstrate Dunsany’s style.  The second is perhaps my personal favourite from this collection. 

The Hoard of the Gibbelins

The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man. Their evil tower is joined to Terra Cognita, to the lands we know, by a bridge. Their hoard is beyond reason; avarice has no use for it; they have a separate cellar for emeralds and a separate cellar for sapphires; they have filled a hole with gold and dig it up when they need it. And the only use that is known for their ridiculous wealth is to attract to their larder a continual supply of food. In times of famine they have even been known to scatter rubies abroad, a little trail of them to some city of Man, and sure enough their larders would soon be full again.

Their tower stands on the other side of that river known to Homer—ho rhoos okeanoio, as he called it—which surrounds the world. And where the river is narrow and fordable the tower was built by the Gibbelins’ gluttonous sires, for they liked to see burglars rowing easily to their steps. Some nourishment that common soil has not the huge trees drained there with their colossal roots from both banks of the river.

There the Gibbelins lived and discreditably fed.

Alderic, Knight of the Order of the City and the Assault, hereditary Guardian of the King’s Peace of Mind, a man not unremembered among makers of myth, pondered so long upon the Gibbelins’ hoard that by now he deemed it his. Alas that I should say of so perilous a venture, undertaken at dead of night by a valourous man, that its motive was sheer avarice! Yet upon avarice only the Gibbelins relied to keep their larders full, and once in every hundred years sent spies into the cities of men to see how avarice did, and always the spies returned again to the tower saying that all was well.

It may be thought that, as the years went on and men came by fearful ends on that tower’s wall, fewer and fewer would come to the Gibbelins’ table: but the Gibbelins found otherwise.

Not in the folly and frivolity of his youth did Alderic come to the tower, but he studied carefully for several years the manner in which burglars met their doom when they went in search of the treasure that he considered his. In every case they had entered by the door.

He consulted those who gave advice on this quest; he noted every detail and cheerfully paid their fees, and determined to do nothing that they advised, for what were their clients now? No more than examples of the savoury art, and mere half- forgotten memories of a meal; and many, perhaps, no longer even that.

These were the requisites for the quest that these men used to advise: a horse, a boat, mail armour, and at least three men-at-arms. Some said, “Blow the horn at the tower door”; others said, “Do not touch it.”

Alderic thus decided: he would take no horse down to the river’s edge, he would not row along it in a boat, and he would go alone and by way of the Forest Unpassable.

How pass, you may say, the unpassable? This was his plan: there was a dragon he knew of who if peasants’ prayers are heeded deserved to die, not alone because of the number of maidens he cruelly slew, but because he was bad for the crops; he ravaged the very land and was the bane of a dukedom.

Now Alderic determined to go up against him. So he took horse and spear and pricked till he met the dragon, and the dragon came out against him breathing bitter smoke. And to him Alderic shouted, “Hath foul dragon ever slain true knight?” And well the dragon knew that this had never been, and he hung his head and was silent, for he was glutted with blood. “Then,” said the knight, “if thou would’st ever taste maiden’s blood again thou shalt be my trusty steed, and if not, by this spear there shall befall thee all that the troubadours tell of the dooms of thy breed.”

And the dragon did not open his ravening mouth, nor rush upon the knight, breathing out fire; for well he knew the fate of those that did these things, but he consented to the terms imposed, and swore to the knight to become his trusty steed.

It was on a saddle upon this dragon’s back that Alderic afterwards sailed above the unpassable forest, even above the tops of those measureless trees, children of wonder. But first he pondered that subtle plan of his which was more profound than merely to avoid all that had been done before; and he commanded a blacksmith, and the blacksmith made him a pickaxe.

Now there was great rejoicing at the rumour of Alderic’s quest, for all folk knew that he was a cautious man, and they deemed that he would succeed and enrich the world, and they rubbed their hands in the cities at the thought of largesse; and there was joy amoung all men in Alderic’s country, except perchance among the lenders of money, who feared they would soon be paid. And there was rejoicing also because men hoped that when the Gibbelins were robbed of their hoard, they would shatter their high-built bridge and break the golden chains that bound them to the world, and drift back, they and their tower, to the moon, from which they had come and to which they rightly belonged. There was little love for the Gibbelins, though all men envied their hoard.

So they all cheered, that day when he mounted his dragon, as though he was already a conqueror, and what pleased them more than the good that they hoped he would do to the world was that he scattered gold as he rode away; for he would not need it, he said, if he found the Gibbelins’ hoard, and he would not need it more if he smoked on the Gibbelins’ table.

When they heard that he had rejected the advice of those that gave it, some said that the knight was mad, and others said he was greater than those what gave the advice, but none appreciated the worth of his plan.

He reasoned thus: for centuries men had been well advised and had gone by the cleverest way, while the Gibbelins came to expect them to come by boat and to look for them at the door whenever their larder was empty, even as a man looketh for a snipe in a marsh; but how, said Alderic, if a snipe should sit in the top of a tree, and would men find him there? Assuredly never! So Alderic decided to swim the river and not to go by the door, but to pick his way into the tower through the stone. Moreover, it was in his mind to work below the level of the ocean, the river (as Homer knew) that girdles the world, so that as soon as he made a hole in the wall the water should pour in, confounding the Gibbelins, and flooding the cellars, rumoured to be twenty feet in depth, and therein he would dive for emeralds as a diver dives for pearls.

And on the day that I tell of he galloped away from his home scattering largesse of gold, as I have said, and passed through many kingdoms, the dragon snapping at maidens as he went, but being unable to eat them because of the bit in his mouth, and earning no gentler reward than a spurthrust where he was softest. And so they came to the swart arboreal precipice of the unpassable forest. The dragon rose at it with a rattle of wings. Many a farmer near the edge of the worlds saw him up there where yet the twilight lingered, a faint, black, wavering line; and mistaking him for a row of geese going inland from the ocean, went into their houses cheerily rubbing their hands and saying that winter was coming, and that we should soon have snow. Soon even there the twilight faded away, and when they descended at the edge of the world it was night and the moon was shining. Ocean, the ancient river, narrow and shallow there, flowed by and made no murmur. Whether the Gibbelins banqueted or whether they watched by the door, they also made no murmur. And Alderic dismounted and took his armour off, and saying one prayer to his lady, swam with his pickaxe. He did not part from his sword, for fear that he meet with a Gibbelin. Landed the other side, he began to work at once, and all went well with him. Nothing put out its head from any window, and all were lighted so that nothing within could see him in the dark. The blows of his pickaxe were dulled in the deep walls. All night he worked, no sound came to molest him, and at dawn the last rock swerved and tumbled inwards, and the river poured in after. Then Alderic took a stone, and went to the bottom step, and hurled the stone at the door; he heard the echoes roll into the tower, then he ran back and dived through the hole in the wall.

He was in the emerald-cellar. There was no light in the lofty vault above him, but, diving through twenty feet of water, he felt the floor all rough with emeralds, and open coffers full of them. By a faint ray of the moon he saw that the water was green with them, and easily filling a satchel, he rose again to the surface; and there were the Gibbelins waist-deep in the water, with torches in their hands! And, without saying a word, or even smiling, they neatly hanged him on the outer wall—and the tale is one of those that have not a happy ending.

Chu-Bu and Sheemish

It was the custom on Tuesdays in the temple of Chu-bu for the priests to enter at evening and chant, “There is none but Chu-bu.”

And all the people rejoiced and cried out, “There is none but Chu-bu.” And honey was offered to Chu-bu, and maize and fat. Thus was he magnified.

Chu-bu was an idol of some antiquity, as may be seen from the colour of the wood. He had been carved out of mahogany, and after he was carved he had been polished. Then they had set him up on the diorite pedestal with the brazier in front of it for burning spices and the flat gold plates for fat. Thus they worshipped Chu-bu.

He must have been there for over a hundred years when one day the priests came in with another idol into the temple of Chu-bu and set it up on a pedestal near Chu-bu’s and sang, “There is also Sheemish.”

And all the people rejoiced and cried out, “There is also Sheemish.”

Sheemish was palpably a modern idol, and although the wood was stained with a dark-red dye, you could see that he had only just been carved. And honey was offered to Sheemish as well as Chu-bu, and also maize and fat.

The fury of Chu-bu knew no time-limit: he was furious all that night, and next day he was furious still. The situation called for immediate miracles. To devastate the city with a pestilence and kill all his priests was scarcely within his power, therefore he wisely concentrated such divine powers as he had in commanding a little earthquake. “Thus,” thought Chu-bu, “will I reassert myself as the only god, and men shall spit upon Sheemish.”

Chu-bu willed it and willed it and still no earthquake came, when suddenly he was aware that the hated Sheemish was daring to attempt a miracle too. He ceased to busy himself about the earthquake and listened, or shall I say felt, for what Sheemish was thinking; for gods are aware of what passes in the mind by a sense that is other than any of our five. Sheemish was trying to make an earthquake too.

The new god’s motive was probably to assert himself. I doubt if Chu-bu understood or cared for his motive; it was sufficient for an idol already aflame with jealosy that his detestable rival was on the verge of a miracle. All the power of Chu-bu veered round at once and set dead against an earthquake, even a little one. It was thus in the temple of Chu-bu for some time, and then no earthquake came.

To be a god and to fail to achieve a miracle is a despairing sensation; it is as though among men one should determine upon a hearty sneeze and as though no sneeze should come; it is as though one should try to swim in heavy boots or remember a name that is utterly forgotten: all these pains were Sheemish’s.

And upon Tuesday the priests came in, and the people, and they did worship Chu-bu and offered fat to him, saying, “O Chu- bu who made everything,” and then the priests sang, “There is also Sheemish”; and Chu-bu was put to shame and spake not for three days.

Now there were holy birds in the temple of Chu-bu, and when the third day was come and the night thereof, it was as it were revealed to the mind of Chu-bu, that there was dirt upon the head of Sheemish.

And Chu-bu spake unto Sheemish as speak the gods, moving no lips nor yet disturbing the silence, saying, “There is dirt upon thy head, O Sheemish.” All night long he muttered again and again, “there is dirt upon Sheemish’s head.” And when it was dawn and voices were heard far off, Chu-bu became exultant with Earth’s awakening things, and cried out till the sun was high, “Dirt, dirt, dirt, upon the head of Sheemish,” and at noon he said, “So Sheemish would be a god.” Thus was Sheemish confounded.

And with Tuesday one came and washed his head with rose- water, and he was worshipped again when they sang “There is also Sheemish.” And yet was Chu-bu content, for he said, “The head of Sheemish has been defiled,” and again, “His head was defiled, it is enough.” And one evening lo! there was dirt on the head of Chu-bu also, and the thing was perceived of Sheemish.

It is not with the gods as it is with men. We are angry one with another and turn from our anger again, but the wrath of the gods is enduring. Chu-bu remembered and Sheemish did not forget. They spake as we do not speak, in silence yet heard of each other, nor were their thoughts as our thoughts. We should not judge them merely by human standards. All night long they spake and all night said these words only: “Dirty Chu-bu,” “Dirty Sheemish.” “Dirty Chu-bu,” “Dirty Sheemish,” all night long. Their wrath had not tired at dawn, and neither had wearied of his accusation. And gradually Chu-bu came to realize that he was nothing more than the equal of Sheemish. All gods are jealous, but this equality with the upstart Sheemish, a thing of painted wood a hundred years newer than Chu-bu, and this worship given to Sheemish in Chu-bu’s own temple, were particularly bitter. Chu-bu was jealous even for a god; and when Tuesday came again, the third day of Sheemish’s worship, Chu-bu could bear it no longer. He felt that his anger must be revealed at all costs, and he returned with all the vehemence of his will to achieving a little earthquake. The worshippers had just gone from his temple when Chu-bu settled his will to attain this miracle. Now and then his meditations were disturbed by that now familiar dictum, “Dirty Chu-bu,” but Chu- bu willed ferociously, not even stopping to say what he longed to say and had already said nine hundred times, and presently even these interruptions ceased.

They ceased because Sheemish had returned to a project that he had never definitely abandoned, the desire to assert himself and exalt himself over Chu-bu by performing a miracle, and the district being volcanic he had chosen a little earthquake as the miracle most easily accomplished by a small god.

Now an earthquake that is commanded by two gods has double the chance of fulfilment than when it is willed by one, and an incalculably greater chance than when two gods are pulling different ways; as, to take the case of older and greater gods, when the sun and the moon pull in the same direction we have the biggest tides.

Chu-bu knew nothing of the theory of tides, and was too much occupied with his miracle to notice what Sheemish was doing. And suddenly the miracle was an accomplished thing.

It was a very local earthquake, for there are other gods than Chu-bu or even Sheemish, and it was only a little one as the gods had willed, but it loosened some monoliths in a colonnade that supported one side of the temple and the whole of one wall fell in, and the low huts of the people of that city were shaken a little and some of their doors were jammed so that they would not open; it was enough, and for a moment it seemed that it was all; neither Chu-bu nor Sheemish commanded there should be more, but they had set in motion an old law older than Chu-bu, the law of gravity that that colonnade had held back for a hundred years, and the temple of Chu-bu quivered and then stood still, swayed once and was overthrown, on the heads of Chu-bu and Sheemish.

No one rebuilt it, for nobody dared to near such terrible gods. Some said that Chu-bu wrought the miracle, but some said Sheemish, and thereof schism was born. The weakly amiable, alarmed by the bitterness of rival sects, sought compromise and said that both had wrought it, but no one guessed the truth that the thing was done in rivalry.

And a saying arose, and both sects held this belief in common, that whoso toucheth Chu-bu shall die or whoso looketh upon Sheemish.

That is how Chu-bu came into my possession when I travelled once beyond the hills of Ting. I found him in the fallen temple of Chu-bu with his hands and toes sticking up out of the rubbish, lying upon his back, and in that attitude just as I found him I keep him to this day on my mantlepiece, as he is less liable to be upset that way. Sheemish was broken, so I left him where he was.

And there is something so helpless about Chu-bu with his fat hands stuck up in the air that sometimes I am moved out of compassion to bow down to him and pray, saying, “O Chu-bu, thou that made everything, help thy servant.”

Chu-bu cannot do much, though once I am sure that at a game of bridge he sent me the ace of trumps after I had not held a card worth having for the whole of the evening. And chance alone could have done as much as that for me. But I do not tell this to Chu-bu.

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The Book of Wonder, by Lord Dunsany

The Book of Wonder is a 1912 short story collection by Lord Dunsany, a writer and playwright now most famous for his fantasy stories, predominantly in the form of short stories and with an atmosphere and style so different to what is now considered fantasy fiction as to put it almost in another genre.

The Book of Wonder contains 14 short tales, each one strong in elements of the fantastic, the mythic, the romantic and often too the tragic. Dunsany was a major influence on fantasy and`”weird fiction” in the first half of the twentieth century (particularly on HP Lovecraft, a writer ironically at his best when furthest from the style of the man who most inspired him), and later on artists as disparate as Guillermo del Toro and Jorge Luis Borges. Today, my impression is that Dunsany is a writer more referenced than read, which having myself now read him I think is rather a loss.

Fantasy fiction is I think today probably the most moribund genre in literature, a genre in fact which is if anything peculiarly devoid of the fantastic, marked with multi-volume epics spanning hundreds of pages in which meticulously detailed worlds are explored in tedious depth by characters most notable for their morality and outlook being remarkably similar to that of contemporary Americans. A few current writers have tried to reinvigorate the form, some with a degree of success (China Mieville), some heroically but I think unsuccessfully (George RR Martin, who in trying to reinvent the genre has I think instead become lost within it) and some with results I can’t yet speak to as I’ve not read the relevant work (Richard Morgan, though I have high hopes). Generally, however, contemporary fantasy is an immensely commercial genre in which highly formulaic works are produced for a fanbase most notable for its apparently unquenchable appetite for repeatedly being served the same highly conservative fare.

It was not always so. Dunsany comes from an age in which the fantasy work had, in my view, as much right to be taken seriously as any other genre, and an age in which fantasy works of genuine talent and value were being written. That age ended, in my view, around the 1960s/1970s for reasons beyond the scope of this blog entry, though it does strike me there is some irony in discussing Dunsany and in doing so hearkening back to some lost golden age the like of which has passed from the world.

For Dunsany, the essence of fantasy is romance and wonder. The first story of this collection, the Bride of the Man-Horse, draws on classical myth to tell the tale of a centaur by the name of Shepperalk who ventures into the world for reasons that are unclear but seem intrinsic to his nature. He rides through a range of places the names of which follow no geography or known history but which rather are chosen to evoke mystery and a sense of the unknown. He is in a sense a spirit of freedom and romance, travelling amongst the mundane:

Bells pealed in frantic towers, wise men consulted parchments, astrologers sought of the portent from the stars, the aged made subtle prophecies. “Is he not swift?” said the young. “How glad he is,” said the children.

While travelling through the world of men, he encounters a being of immense beauty and unusual parentage:

The lions came not to woo her because they feared her strength, and the gods dared not love her because they knew she must die.

He sees her and takes her for his own, or to be hers:

He galloped with half-shut eyes up the temple-steps, and, only seeing dimly through his lashes, seized Sombelenë by the hair, undazzled as yet by her beauty, and so haled her away; and, leaping with her over
the floorless chasm where the waters of the lake fall unremembered away into a hole in the world, took her we know not where, to be her slave for all centuries that are allowed to his race.

Three blasts he gave as he went upon that silver horn that is the world-old treasure of the centaurs. These were his wedding bells.

And there, in what is far from the strongest tale in this collection, we have many (though not all, of which more shortly) of the classic Dunsanian elements. There is barely a plot here, a centaur goes for a ride, meets a sort-of-woman and goes off with her. There is little by way of logical worldbuilding, there is a hole in the world which is there because the image evokes wonder, not because we know where it goes or Dunsany has given any thought to such a matter. The point of the tale is, quite simply, wonder. The centaur goes out, magic rides among us, the marvellous and the strange exist and we can but gaze at them as they pass and say to ourselves how glad they are.

As noted above, The Bride of the Man-Horse lacks one of Dunsany’s key characteristics as a writer which most endears him to me. That trait is a sly wit, a darkly comic bent which often infuses his tales and which delights in peculiar dooms and (perhaps) undeserved fates. In Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men the famed thief Slith and his two criminal companions set out to steal a golden box said to contain the most wonderful poems ever contemplated by man. The story opens as follows:

When the nomads came to El Lola they had no more songs, and the question of stealing the golden box arose in all its magnitude. On the one hand, many had sought the golden box, the receptacle (as the Aethiopians know) of poems of fabulous value; and their doom is still the common talk of Arabia. On the other hand, it was lonely to sit around the camp-fire by night with no new songs.

The tale takes us through the journey of the three thieves, the strange hazards they avoid and then to their ultimate plan for recovering the golden box and the poems it contains:

This was their simple plan: to slip into the corridor in the upper cliff; to run softly down it (of course with naked feet) under the warning to travellers that is graven upon stone, which interpreters take to be “It Is Better Not”; not to touch the berries that are there for a purpose, on the right side going down; and so to come to the guardian on his pedestal who had slept for a thousand years and should be sleeping still; and go in through the open window. One man was to wait outside by the crack in the World until the others came out with the golden box, and, should they cry for help, he was to threaten at once to unfasten the iron clamp that kept the crack together. When the box was secured they were to travel all night and all the following day, until the cloud-banks that wrapped the slopes of Mluna were well between them and the Owner of the Box.

Here again we have the essence of much of Dunsany’s style, implied detail (“the berries that are there for a purpose”) and evocation without elaboration – critical elements of description left vague and unspecified in nature (what form does the guardian take after all?). In short, much is left for the reader to imagine, and that I believe is the point. Dunsany’s tales are intended to engage the reader’s own imagination and to inspire the reader to flights of fancy. Unlike current fantasy writers, Dunsany does not detail his world, elements recur (Slith is referenced in other tales) but no real attempt is made at consistency. His language is chosen for tone and flavour, not for logic. Why, after all, would the fantastic be logical? If it is logical, sensible, ordered, is it fantastic at all?

It is no spoiler to say that Slith and his companions meet unusual dooms, in Slith’s case so peculiar that his is mentioned again in later tales. This is not a story of a heroic band fighting evil as would be found in sub-Tolkien fantasy, rather it is a fairy tale of a band of thieves, the treasure they sought to steal, the things they met and the fate they encountered. It is morally ambiguous, did Slith and his companions deserve their fates? Not especially. Is it just that the finest poems of mankind are locked away where none can read them? Clearly not. Dunsany’s is not a world of morality, it is not a world in which right triumphs, rather it is a world of romance and of the extraordinary, which may be dire as well as marvellous. Which is, in fact, marvellous in the oldest sense, in that we marvel at it even though we may not perhaps entirely approve of that at which we marvel.

In a number of places Dunsany makes comment on our own world, individuals cross from it into his worlds of romance, and clearly he sees ours as a rather forbidding and censorious place. Dunsany argues that dreams have merit, that imagination is not idle, that fancies should not be crushed forever in favour of the pragmatic. It is a view I sympathise with, life is more than mere utility, art has its own value and is its own justification.

Dunsany’s work is to a modern reader quite strange, this is ultimately a book of fairy stories aimed at adult readers, it is though also a work of superbly written fantasy which betrays a knowledge of classicism and myth which is worn lightly, deployed with humour but which does I think create a genuine sense of the fantastic. Dunsany is a writer of the impossible, fantasy in the sense of that which cannot be but which perhaps is in some ways brighter than that which can. He is a dreamer, and an advocate for the value of dreams. Immediately after this post, I intend to separately post two tales by Dunsany both of which are now out of copyright and which together give better than I can a sense of his wonderful mix of the romantic, the sinister and the very funny. Having now discovered him, I intend to read more by him, and it is obvious to me why he was so important to writers such as HP Lovecraft and Jack Vance, among many others.

I link here to a fascinating article in the New York Times which I found while writing this piece, which discusses in greater depth Lord Dunsany’s life and works. The Project Gutenberg edition of the Book of Wonder can be found here.

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Filed under Dunsany, Lord, Fantasy Fiction, Short Stories