Book Review: Death Angel’s Shadow

I think I first read about Karl Wagners Kane a few months ago at Black Gate, and I thought it sounded very interesting. Stories of a true anti-hero whom many consider to be a monster, who is both a great swordsmen and very powerful sorcerer, yet still a character of great depths and deep reflection. I’ve read the story Undertow in The Sword & Sorcery Anthology and while not great, ot really made me want to read more of Kane.

So I picked up Death Angel’s Shadow, which is the first collection of Kane stories I am aware of, but that doesn’t have to mean that these are also the first written ones, and I believe they actually are not. So who is this Kane? He is a very muscular and skilled swordsmen, but that is where the similarities with Conan already end. Both Kane and Wagners writing are a very different story from Howards classic barbarian hero and his countless imitations.

Kane was not a man easily mistaken for another. His red hair and fair complexion, his powerful bearlike frame set him apart from the native Chrosanthians in a region where racial features leaned to dark hair and lean wiriness. And his rather coarse features and huge sinewed hands did not make him too exceptional from the mercenaries displaced from the cold lands far to the south. It was his eyes that banded him as an outsider. No man looked into Kane’s eyes and forgott them. Cold blue eyes in which lurked the wild gleam of insanity, hellish fires of crazed destruction and bloodshed. The look of death. Eyes of a born killer.

Kane is an immortal who has traveled the Earth for countless centuries, cursed by ancient gods to never find any peace in death. He is a great warrior, but also a very powerful sorcerer and through the centuries has ruled over many different lands and made his name known throughout most of the world as a tyrant, conqueror, and bandit. He is a man who is feared, and expects to be feared, and has no illusions or guilt about the death and attrocities he brought upon the world. Yet what we see of Kane, at least in this book, is not a mindless raging killer, but a man of many different aspects.

Reflections for the Winter of My Soul is the longest of the three stories, and I have to say the title really works for me. Is it pretentious? Of course it is. But I think good Sword & Sorcery has always to be at least a little bit preposterous and boastful, and I think this is off for a pretty good start. In the story, Kane is fleeing from enemies that outnumber him and ends up in a sudden snowstorm, from which he is miraculously saved by stumbling on a a small keep in the middle of the desolate wilerness. The lord of the castle has him nursed back to health and welcomes him as a guest, but immediately it becomes apparent that there is something darker going on in that place. Which is almost exactly the same opening and setup as William King used deacdes later in Stealer of Flesh. However, the two stories end up going in very different directions and Kings Kormak is pretty different in character from Kane, even though not necessarily in appearance, so I am letting that pass.

Cold Light is a very different story which has Kane hiding out in some remote and mostly abandoned city in the desert as he is slipping into another of his many phases of passive apathy that haunt his immortal existance. However, he is pursued by a group of crusaders who have vowed to rid the world of the murderous beast that is Kane, and greatly outnumbered he has to rely on his wits to defeat them.

Mirage is considerably shorter than the ther two stories, being more of a length that you’d expect from Howard or Leiber, but still an interesting read. Badly wounded after he was part of a failed rebellion and left for dead on the battlefield, Kane stumbles onto an old castle in the hills which is ruled by a mysterious lady.

I really like this book. While Wagner may not have been a great master of words, this is really solid writing here with some real substance and depth to it. My impression of him is that of “a man of simple words, but of deep thoughts”. His language is utalitarian, trying out a few elegant words here and there, but not getting too flowery or displaying any delusions of grandeur. At times his characters are explaining their thoughts and plans to such detail that it drifts into monologueing, which feels a bit stiff, and for Sword & Sorcery stories there is surprisingly little happening. I criticized plenty of other stories for a lack of action, but I think here Wagner really strikes a pretty good balance that works well for the kind of stories he is telling. Yes, they a grim and broody, but in an interesting and original way, that doesn’t feel like immitation of something the writer saw lots of other people do without understanding it. Perhaps it even was Wagner who those other writers later tried to immitate.

One thing I really like about the stories is that Wagner leaves a good amount of mystery. Kane is immortal, but he still bleeds and feels pain like any other human, and he greatly fears being overwhelmed in battle. Though he clearly hates his unending existance, he still clings on to live like a mortal man. But why he does, or the exact nature of his curse is never explained. There are plenty of hints in this book that tell us who Kane is. But that still doesn’t tell us anything about what he is or the greater story of his life beyond these few snapshots of a few days. Too many writers give away too many of the mystries of their stories, but Wagner does not. I really like that and the stories are so much richer for it.

I am usually not a fan of action scenes. Most fight scenes quickly bore me and when I watch The Fellowship of the Rings or The Two Towers on DVD, I often turn them off when the big fight scenes at the end start. I’ve seen them once, I know what happens. They no longer entertain me. I don’t even have The Return of the King of DVD, though I actually once went through a friends DVDs and discovered that he doesn’t have it either. That movie is nothing but boring battle scenes. It’s not that I dislike fighting or violence in fiction, but most of the time it’s just swords and explosions. That’s window dressing, but the actual story of fight scenes is really what it does to the people and their emotions. And most action movies and plenty of fantasy books just don’t get that at all. Kane does. There is very little description of how the fighters move and what they do with their swords. When there are fight scenes, and for a merciless killing machine like Kane there are really not that many, they mostly take place inside the characters head. And a very interesting choice that Wagner made was to keep Kanes skill at fighting to relatively realistic levels. When Kane is hopelessly outnumbered in Cold Light, the army of crusaders that has set out to destroy him has already dwindled down to just nine men. And even when he manages to get three of them alone into a trap, he still takes only one shot at one of them and then immediately makes his escape before the other two can react. Kane is immortal and a slayer of thousands, but he won’t take on three armed men at once. This is very different from what you usually see in fantasy, especially Sword & Sorcery.

But what probably impressed me the most about Kane is how much the stories are dealing with the dark deeds of humans and following a protagonist who most probably is much worse than the people he is fighting, while Wagner still manages to remain very much detatched and impartial. From everything we are told, Kane commited countless horrible crimes and attrocities without feeling any remorse for them. But we don’t see him do them and even in his own thoughts Kane never justifies or explains them. He is described as a monster, but when you watch him, he doesn’t feel like a monster. When Howard writes about Conan as a pirate or a bandit leader, whose men murder or plunder, Howard always appears to think Conan is really totally cool, and presents it in a way that assumes that of course we also would think that he is totally cool, which I personally often feel somewhat ambigous about. Yes, he wants to write about a man who lives in a time of foreign values, but it that is what he intended it to come across as, Howard didn’t do a good job in that regard. Wagner is very different. Kane is a great character, but objectively speaking he is a terrible person. Yet when Wagner writes about him, I don’t get any impression that he wants us to either hate or admire Kane. Kane is just Kane. The same goes for many of the enemies Kane is facing. Except towards the ending, which I felt a bit weak for that reason, Cold Light is really very unclear whether the crusaders who are hunting Kane are supposed to be heroic or just as evil as him. But I think they are not supposed to be anything. They just are what they are and do what they do. Towards the end some of the characters take the clear stance that many of their deeds really were evil and reject them, but that is what those characters are thinking. But Wagner really had a talent of keeping the voice of the author out of this. Terrible things happen. He does not judge them, nor comment on them, and as a result the stories never get preachy. When I read Kane, it does not seem to me that Wagner is indifferent to evil and brutality, and at some points you can see that he knows what good and decency are. But he appears to have had the confidence in his readers that they would be able to think about the contents of his stories themselves and make up their own mind, without telling them what it means and what they should think. And that at the same time he also manages to not make it appear as if he admires or glorifies Kane in any way, and I think that is a talent I have not seen any writer display before in such a way, and which really makes me enjoy the stories very much.

Book Review: The Sword & Sorcery Anthology (Part 2)

Part 2 of my review:

I want to say it here again, that I really love Sword & Sorcery and hope that I will be reading something great every time I begin a new story. And when it doesn’t start well, I keep on reading hoping it gets better and I am really looking for things to like about it and that I could recommend favorably. I was really hoping this second part of the review would be much more positive and make the book at least a decent anthology overall. But my reaction turned out to be something else.

It’s just going to get a lot worse.

    • Soldier of an Empire Unacquainted with Defeat by Glen Cook (1980): When the story began with a centurion of the Demon Guard of the Dread Empire, I didn’t exactly have high hopes for it. But it turned out to be good. Really good. I think it’s a rather odd pick for this collection, being three times as long as the other stories in the book and not having a lot of action or magic. There are a couple of spells, but the whole story could have been told entirely without them, and the action scenes would have to be called hyper-minimalistic. At some points I wasn’t sure if there even had been an implied at all, and at the end I didn’t know if the last enemy was killed or spared. It usually goes like “his blade flashed forward” and four sentences later “he spotted a vulture circling above” and that is all indication you get that there had been a fight at all. Bit weird to read, but otherwise the story is really quite good. Even though it’s not a magic about either action or magic. And I totally did not see the big twist at the end coming! How often does that still happen with this cliche-ridden genre? I am quite reminded by this story of Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, which so far is the only Sword & Sorcery book I like as much as Conan. Not only is the mood quite similar as well as the protagonist, there are also several plot elements that reminded me of The Lesser Evil and The Edge of the World. It actually would surprise me if Sapkowski hadn’t read this story before writing his own. Though it’s nothing like plagiarism, only very loosely inspired by it and then done something quite different with them. Great story, a joy to read.
    • Epistle from Lebanoi by Michael Shea (2012): I really hate this one. Convoluted sentences crammed with as many rare, antiquated, and made up words as possible make this a tedious chore to struggle through. And the plot isn’t anything good either. The first half is rambling monologues of infodumps that don’t make any sense, and the second half a big chaotic battle full of weird shit happening that doesn’t make any sense. The protagonist and narrator is only a bystander who doesn’t actually do anything and the entire time I hadn’t had a clue what’s going on. Nor did I actually care.
    • Become a Warrior by Jane Yolen (1998): Blargh! This is awful. It’s incredibly cheesy, sappy, really boring, but thankfully short. For the plot, I really have no words. I hate it! It offends me. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t have any action or magic, so I don’t have even the slightest clue how anyone in his right mind could have even considered this for a Sword & Sorcery anthology. I think this is the worst entry in a Sword & Sorcery anthology I’ve seen so far, and that includes everything in Swords & Dark Magic and Sword & Mythos. No, just no!
    • The Red Guild by Rachel Pollack (1985): This one is about an aloof girl assassin with mysterious powers and a dark and troubled past. This is about as interesting as it sounds and uses the cheap old trick of deliberately withholding critical information that all the characters know, to create a fake sense of mystery and depth. The second half has some supernatural element that is noticably lacking in most of the other stories, but all of that is overshadowed by the sappy drama.
    • Six from Atlantis by Gene Wolfe (2006): Well, this was unpleasant. No plot, no context, no reason, no sense.
    • The Sea Troll’s Daughter by Caitlin Kiernan (2010): I already reviewed this one as part of Swords & Dark Magic last year. It’s a story I really enjoy, even though it deals more with the rather unheroic aftermath of an adventure than the actual adventure itself and it’s clearly written as comedy. But it’s a story of foolhardy carousing and entertaining chaos, which is consider the true essence of Sword & Sorcery that makes it special, and which is lacking in many more recent stories. And I think it was genuinly funny. I like this story.
    • The Coral Heart by Jeffrey Ford (2009): This story has a mighty warrior with a magic sword and there’s some real action and sorcery there. But the first three quarters of this story only bored me. The ending was just really stupid.
    • Path of the Dragon by George Martin (2000): I know that Daenerys is character from the Song of Ice and Fire series, so that apparently makes this story part of it. If it’s something supplementary he wrote to the books or a couple of chapters from one of the books I can not say, could be either. He knows how to write, I give him that. He constructs solid sentences and effective dialogues and arranges them in a way that is smooth to read, without being pretentiously elaborate. This is a lot more than can be said for most of the writers in this book. But I have not read the Song of Ice and Fire series, so I have no idea what the context of this text fragment is and who all those people or places are and what kind of campaign this might be they talk about the whole time. The first third of it is some people I don’t know, talking about other people I don’t know, some tournament 30 years ago, and politics I don’t know anything about. In the meantime they occasionally play with baby dragons. The rest of the book is a quick stop in some slave port in which the protagonist is appalled about the condition and treatment of the slaves. There is no action and no sorcery here. Really, it’s all one really big chunk of exposition. Quite well presented exposition that avoids turning into a too obvious infodump, but still exposition about a nove I don’t know anything about and that isn’t the subject of this book. And yet it is by far the longest entry in this book. As good as the man writes, this really shouldn’t have gone into this anthology. Had they put it at the very back of the book as a preview, that might perhaps have been okay, but something like this really shouldn’t happen.
    • The Year of the Three Monarchs by Michael Swanwick (2012): “When the castle guards burst upon her, Slythe triumphantly exclaimed, “The tyrant is dead and I have killed him. I am now your ruler.” But, “Our loyalty is not to the man but the office,” the captain of the guard said. “You do not wear the Diamond Crown of Ilyssia. Therefore you must die.”

So, yay or nay?

Well what do you think? FUCK, NAY!!!

You will very often hear that Sword & Sorcery has a bad reputation for being infantile and badly written with a strong leaning towards trash. And reading anthologies like this, I really can no longer make any arguments to refute this claim. If this book is indeed representative of Sword & Sorcery, then the genre is indeed dominated by shit! And I don’t mean unrefined writing and cliched plots with too much dumb violence that is only good for an immature chuckle. To call it trash would be misleading, as there are always people with a certain affectionate enjoyment for trashy art. But this? This is indeed just shit!

There were some exceptions, of course. The Tower of the Elephant, Black God’s Kiss, Gimmile’s Songs, Undertow, Soldier of an Empire, and The Sea Trolls Daughter are all very nice stories, but the majority of this book is just terrible and completely out of place here.

So what about that pretentious title “The Sword & Sorcery Anthology”? It’s not “The Complete Collection of Sword & Sorcery” and not “The Best of Sword & Sorcery”. If you want to know how the Sword & Sorcery genre got it’s reputation for being terrible crap, this is indeed the book you are looking for. After you read it, you’ll probably agree with all the detractors.

And that is a shame. Sword & Sorcery can be such a wonderful genre of daring adventure, larger than life heroes, magical places, and mystical creatures. Which you barely get to see in this book. Or this one, or this one. I am done with this crap. I am really very much tempted to simply stick with a few famous authors and read everything that they have written, by ignoring all the junk on the fringes. Because what new writers have I discovered reading these shitty anthologies? C. L. Moore, C. J. Cherryh, and Caitlin R. Kiernan. (Which happen to have a funny naming pattern. ^^) Sorry Ladies, but as much as I enjoyed your stories and looking for more, that’s not enough to have made this ordeal worth it.

To anyone interested in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, I very much recommend against picking up anthologies, at least any that have been released after the 80s. Instead take a look around for the most famous writers of the genre and pick up books from those who specifically strike you as interesting. I can very much recommend Robert Howard and Andrzej Sapowski, who I consider the best in the field, and what I’ve read from Glen Gook and Charles Saunders were also not quite bad. And if you feel you really have to, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock at least knew how the genre works and how to make it work for them, even if I don’t consider them good writers. But at least they are fun! Fun! That’s what Sword & Sorcery is all about.

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

– Robert Howard: The Phoenix on the Sword, 1932

Book Review: The Sword & Sorcery Anthology (Part 1)

Now this title is a boast as big as it can possibly get. Swords & Dark Magic called itself the new Sword & Sorcery and fell disappointingly flat in that regard. “The Sword & Sorcery Anthology” can only be read in two possible ways: Either “The Complete Collection of Sword & Sorcery”, which obviously it isn’t, or “The Ultimate Sword & Sorcery Anthology”. I am more than willing to judge a book by its content, but when the publisher puts such a claim into the very title of the book, I will judge it by that measure as well.

Since getting through this book is taking a lot longer than I thought, I’ll split this review into two parts, covering half of the stories each. (The second half may take another week or two, though.)

    • The Tower of the Elephant by Robert Howard (1933): If you do a collection of the works of Sword & Sorcery writers both current and past, there really is no way you could not include Robert Howards Conan. The Tower of the Elephant is widely considered a classic and iconic story, but I think personally it’s one of the weaker ones and painfully simply structured. I think there could have been much better choices than this.
    • Black God’s Kiss by C.L. Moore (1934): Jiriel of Jory is another character regarded as one of the classic Sword & Sorcery heroes, though a relatively unknown one these days. I hadn’t read any of her stories yet, and it certainly is interesting. However, I think I am being generous when saying that this story was “heavily inspired by” Robert Howards Worms of the Earth. Yes, it’s not a bad story, but a strong candidate for the Vanilla Ice Test: “If you remove the parts that were taken from another artists work, is the rest still good?” (The only good part of Ice Ice Baby was the sample from Queen.) And I have to say, not very much. There are some original ideas, but they really don’t shine out that much in a story that already isn’t that stellar to begin with. I am not judging Moore on this single text, but to present her work to a new audience, I think this wasn’t a good pick.
    • The Unholy Grail by Fritz Leiber (1962): Oh dear. I think I admitted before that I have a rather complicated relationship with Leibers stories. I think they range from not very good to pretty bad, but almost always they are still fun to read. Not only did he come up with the name Sword & Sorcery for swashbuckling heroic fantasy with darker undertones, he also was able to bring the best parts of this genre to shine even though his plots were not that great and his characters and dialogs generally quite bad. He may not have been a good writer, but he knew what made this strain of heroic fantasy tick and codified it, which very much earns him the reputation as one of the three grand masters of Sword & Sorcery. But, oh boy! The Unholy Grail would be his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story which I consider to be by far the worst! Fafhrd doesn’t actually appear in this one, and the Mouser is a completely different person from his usual self. Since it’s an origin story Leiber may have had reasons for that, but as a sample of the iconic duo of Sword & Sorcery, this is probably the worst possible pick ever!
    • The Tale of Hauk by Poul Anderson (1977): I’ve heard that mans name before and I think he has some big fans, but I never read anything of his or even know what kind of works he is known for. If there is one ultimate rule of writing other than avoiding Deus Ex Machina, then it’s not starting a story with an infodump. The full first quarter of the story is nothing but a single big infodump, which actually doesn’t matter to the plot at all. And even after that, the actual plot only begins around the halfway mark of the story. Unfortunately, the actual story itself isn’t very interesting. I hate to bring this up in seemingly every review I do, but this story isn’t really Sword & Sorcery at all. Yes, the story of Jiriel of Jory also takes place in France, but once she goes down the rabbit hole (which happens just a fifth into the story), she clearly isn’t in Aquitaine anymore. The Tale of Hauk is just a simple Nordic ghost story. And not even an interesting one. The story takes a lot of time to show off lots of minor and subtle elements of Germanic culture, of which I think most will only have any meaning to people who are as familiar with them as Anderson himself. At the same time, he is forgetting that there needs to be an actual plot for the story. It’s not a completely horrible story, and I’ve come across those in the past, but not something I would include in any Best Of anthology. And in a Sword & Sorcery collection, it really is quite out of place.
    • The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams by Michael Moorcock (1962): Like Howard and Leiber, ou can’t really make a Best Of Sword & Sorcery collection without Moorcock. When Leiber proposed the name Sword & Sorcery for the genre that had not yet been defined, but already quite clear in the mind of several people, he was actually replying directly to Moorcock who had called for a catchy title they could be using. The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams is a strange name for this story, as there aren’t any caravans in it, nor was I aware of any lost lore or visions of a better future. Before this one, I’ve only read a single one of Moorcocks Elric stories, but I think it was much better than this one. The dialog is clunky, as the two characters mostly talk to give information to the reader that they both already know, and there really isn’t any effective buildup or context given. A huge army destroying every country it comes through and now it reaches the city where Elric lives, so he and his sidekick sneak into the camp to take out the hordes sorcerer. They run into a dozen warriors who try to kill them, but given that the story is just starting, they are just a dozen unnamed ruffians, and they are going against what I assume to be the most terrifying sorcerer-knight in the world, the whole encounter is pretty pointless. Of course the heroes will butcher them without breaking a sweat. There’s an interesting part in the middle, where they have joined the horde and are still trying to work out a plan, and the horde is raiding another town. Elric and his sidekick feel bad about it, but they can’t do anything to stop thousands of warriors by themselves. That part could have been interesting, but is rushed through just as fast as everything else in this story and nothing comes out of it. In the end, the story is wrapped up with two Deus Ex Machina right after the other and the story is over. This wasn’t great, and I am sure Moorcock didn’t get famous because of this particular story.
    • The Adventuress by Joanna Russ (1967): This story is not fit for publication. I don’t have the faintest trace of an idea how this one ended up in a collection of the greatest Sword & Sorcery tales. Not only does it has nothing to do with Sword & Sorcery, it is also remarkably poorly written. There is no real discernable plot, the scenes are confusing and erratic, and the whole time I had no idea what’s going on. It’s about two unlikable women who do nothing but bitching at each other, one being constantly hysterical and screaming, the other lazily passive agressive. On the last few pages there is some kind of development of the two characters starting to respect each other, and while that may be a decent theme to write about, the story doesn’t have anything to do with Sword & Sorcery. As I said, this text is not fit for publishing.
    • Gimmile’s Songs by Charles Saunders (1984): I hadn’t read anything by Saunders before, but heard quite a lot about him. And based on this one short sample, he seems to be clearly one of the better authors who write for this genre. The story deals with sorcery, which is nice for a change, but lacking in any daring adventuring. It’s a decent story, but I didn’t find it exciting.
    • Undertow by Karl Edward Wagner (1977): On okay story. I think the twist at the end was too strongly telegraphed and predictable halfway through the story, and the mystery is mostly created through putting the scenes out of order and deliberately witholding important information from the reader, which usually are very cheap tricks. But there’s still a nice eerieness to it, and Wagners famous character Kane as a secondary character in the background work actually quite well and is genuinely creepy, which makes the story worth a read.
    • The Stages of God by Ramsey Campbell (1974): A disposed king stumbling through the wilds and nothing much happens. There’s an encounter with a giant monster and two magical battles, but each of them gets covered in just two sentences and it’s all very boring.
    • The Barrow Troll by David Drake (1975): This one isn’t terrible, but mediocre at best. One of the two characters is very bland, the other so unspeakably reprehensible that you almost immediately figure out what will happen at the end. This is not an anti-hero but a guy specifically written for damnation.

Book Review: The Last Wish

I’ve been reading a lot of Sword & Sorcery books recently, both classic and (relatively) new, and I now got around to finish The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Spoiler for the end of this review: Oh boy, am I happy!

The Last Wish was released in Polish in 1993 and contains stories written both before and after the release of Miecz Przeznaczenia (no English translation) the previous year. The stories also take place earlier, which makes The Last Wish both the second and also first book in the series, depending on how you want to count it. The book consists of seven stories of Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter from an old but fading orders of warriors who have acquired special powers through magic and alchemy. Six of the stories are conventional narratives with a beginning, middle, and end in the correct order, while with the seventh Sapkowski did something rather unconventional and quite clever. The Voice of Reason is about as long as all the other stories in the books, but split into seven different parts, between which the other six stories are inserted as flashbacks. It’s not like Geralt sitting down and telling another character a tale from his past, but instead we cut to those other stories so that Sapkowski can give us the necessary background info we need to understand the context of the next scene in The Voice of Reason. May sound strange, but in practice it flows very smoothly and works perfectly well.

Even though the book is kind of an anthology, I am not going to go into detail about each story individually, as they are all by the same author about the same character and they do form a single coherent, if very loosely connected work. In my previous Sword & Sorcery reviews there were always two things that really had me disappointed in a story: Lack of evocative descriptions and lack of thrilling action. While the former is mostly a personal preference, action, passion, and thrill is what I consider the most fundamental essence of Sword & Sorcery. You can change and experiment with all the common archetypes and conventions, but if there is no passion and fury, a story will always just be Heroic Fantasy. The Witcher has all the hallmarks of a Sword & Sorcery hero: An outsider who uses descisive action for selfish gains. And at least in the first two books, the tales of Geralt use the classic short story format as well. (The other six books don’t.) So I gave The Last Wish a try, hoping to find something for my Sword & Sorcery craving. And does it deliver?

Oh yes, and how!

Many descriptions of him make Geralt sound like a gloomy anti-hero, but in practice he is at least as good and compassionate as Conan. I would argue even considerably more so. In Geralts case it’s not that he doesn’t like other people, but simply that most people don’t like him for what he is. In the world of the Northern Kingdoms, which seems to be inspired by 17th century central-eastern Europe, the few witchers that are still around are clearly categorized as nonhumans, bunched together with elves, dwarves, and more monstrous creatures. And given the extensive modifications they underwent when they were recruited as children, that assesment is not completely unfounded. In addition to being much tougher and with a much higher resistance to poison and disease, the ability to see in the dark, limited spellcasting powers, infertility, and other unnatural traits clearly sets them apart from other people. And being basically a mercenary who show up wherever people are terrorized by monsters doesn’t exactly endear him to most normal folk. He never works for free, but that often seems to be more because he can’t allow getting a reputation to help everyone out of charity than being greedy or uncaring, and he is willing to negotiate for prices that his employers can afford. He is also very strict about only fighting monsters for pay and not doing any work as a mercenary or killer for hire. And while he likes being grumpy and sarcastic, he can actually be very diplomatic and reserves his contept for people who are calling for it. Even though Geralt is a lone wanderer who deals with peoples monster problems, he is quite different from characters like Conan, Fafhrd, or the Gray Mouser, in that he doesn’t revel in brawling and carnage. (Though he does admit to himself that his job not only pays reasonably well, but he also really likes doing it.)

Geralt is a person who is both very strong and good with swords and can shrug off considerable punishment, but he is also someone who doesn’t get into fights lightly. One problem with many Sword & Sorcery heroes is that they are almost invicible to the point where normal people don’t pose any possible thread to them and only main villains and boss monsters have any hope to injure them. Not only do I consider that weak storytelling, but it also trivializes death and glorifies violence. Now I love me some really cool action and furious battles, but I want both writers and characters to take fights with sharp weapons to the death serious and aknowledge that people are dying and mutilated. All to often, action fiction takes lethal violence as a joke. The Witcher is different. To Geralt, killing his enemy is a means of last resort, when everything else has failed. To him, violence does not solve a problem, it just ends a conflict by taking one side out of the picture while the real source of the problem doesn’t get adressed at all. The story The Lesser Evil is the most explicit about it, of the eight monster Geralt is dealing in the book, he kills only two. He also kills eight humans, of which six gang up on him at the same time and it can be counted as self defense. That’s really not a lot. Many fantasy heroes rack up higher body counts in a single scene.

Though that doesn’t mean that there are few fight scenes and lots of people end up getting hurt quite badly. In fact, The Voice of Reason takes place in a monastery where Geralt is staying while the wounds from his last adventure are healing. The book also has one of the most brutal and violent fight scenes I’ve read in a book. The fight itself is very short and ends with a headbutt to the face. But where most books would simply have the enemy knocked out cold and immediately forgotten, the rest of the scene brings up at several times that the woman got really badly hurt and while the leader continues interrogating Geralt, the rest of the group are busy tending to her smashed face while she is held to the ground in huge pain. At the meantime, some of the other characters are getting increasingly terrified by the situation escalting more and more. That’s the type of things I meant earlier, when I was talking about treating violence serious and not trivialzing it.

In fact, I think Sapkowski was quite ahead of his time, though probably it was also a major factor that the book was released in Poland in the early 90s, less than four years after the Poles had set into motion the mostly nonviolent collapse of the Soviet Union and its vassal states. He certainly had a quite different background and approach to writing than someone who had been watching endless Hollywood movies all his life. The major themes of the book are minorities, violence and nonviolence, accountability, terrorism, and state violence. You’d have no problem telling someone the book was written in 2013. But even 20 years earlier there were already people who felt like they had something relevant to say about them.

Another, minor thing I just love about the book, which makes it so much stand apart from American fiction, is the generous swearing. This is one of the most annoying things about American entertainment, this silly panicing about some casual swearing. Fuck that shit! ^^ The Witcher is about a badass dealing with lots of terrible people of both high and low station, and those people don’t threaten each other with death and torture in a child friendly language. And it’s really quite surprising how much character it adds to the people.

One more thing I feel like mentioning is how well picked the names for each of the stories are. They do sound rather poetic, but most of the time they are actually quite significant to the plot and often get mentioned word by word. However, it’s only during the later parts of the stories that the meaning really starts to make sense. Most books and stories have titles that are pretty much meaningless, describing either just a thing that appears in the story at some point, or being some banal and generic phrase. With this book it’s different. I recommend reading the stories while always keeping the title in the back of the head and occasionally pausing to think what meaning a scene might have in regard of the title.

  • The Voice of Reason: This story turns out to have many scenes in which a character tries to convince another to do a certain thing or another, because that would be the reasonable thing to do, and not causing themself unecessary trouble out of pride. However, many of the various character have rather different oppinions what would be reasonable, and quite often the appeal to reason starts drifting into bullying someone into compliance.
  • The Witcher: I believe this was the first story ever, and there is no deeper meaning to the title, other than it introducing the character.
  • A Grain of Truth: Things are not as they seem and often more complex than at first look, especially when it comes to thinking monsters. There’s quite a lot of half-truths and selective ommisions in this story.
  • The Lesser Evil: I really liked this one. As Geralt sees it, there are no lesser evil. Evil is evil, no matter how you want to rationalize it. But like the voice of reason, the lesser evil can be a matter of perspective, as well as a method to veil a threat.
  • A Matter of Price: Again, Geralt is resisting being forced to compromise on his principles. It first seems someone wants to hire him as an assassin, but things turn out more complicated.
  • The Edge of the World: I think the English translation of the title, while catchy, does not really capture the finer nuances of the original name. Looking at some online dictionaries, Kraniec doesn’t seem to mean “edge”, “border”, or “end”, but more like “periphery”, “outskirts”, or “extreme”. The story deals both with a place that is very far away and removed from the big centers of civilization, as well as the people who live there. Both literally and figuratively.
  • The Last Wish: I can’t say much without giving away some funny twists in the story, but this most probably isn’t anything like what you first think at the title at all.

I think it comes not as much of a surprise that I really love this book. This is pretty much exactly the kind of fiction I’ve been looking for in my search for modern Sword & Sorcery. I am dabbling myself in some early attempts to get words on paper, and the stories that inspire me the most are from Ghost in the Shell, Mass Effect, and Metal Gear Solid, which ironically are all science fiction and not fantasy at all. But they are all dealing with themes that I think would also work really well in a world of magic and monsters (and the technology in all three work a lot in the same way) and which I think could add some new relevance to Sword & Sorcery other than masculinity, courage, and honor. (I don’t consider Robert Howard a dumb macho writer in any way, but he wrote Conan four generations ago in a world and society that was dealing with things very different from the issues of today.) Geralt is a character who adresses exactly the same things that matter to me and does so successfully in a fantasy world. I also think that Sapkowski is really quite a step up from the common fantasy author. Not only has he something to say and important things to say, his style of storytelling is also quite sophisticated. As a reader, I really don’t have a high standard when it comes to the writing style of authors. If the plot is solid and the sentences allow me to keep up with what is going on and I don’t have to cringe at weirdly constructed sentences, I am perfectly happy. But in The Last Wish, Sapkowski is doing a lot more than simply telling us what happens. I mentioned the structure of the book with the six stories being put as flashbacks between the parts of The Voice of Reason and how the title of each story sets the overarching theme for the story and considering its meaning is part of the reading experience. I also remember when reading The Witcher, that I was very impressed how much personalty the characters had simply from the way they are speaking. At some points I did take notice that certain scenes were slightly drifting into socratic dialog, where two people arguing really is a vehicle to present a philosophical argument. But even though I noticed it, it did’t become annoying, because the characters were discussing genuinly interesting points. This book isn’t your average B-List fantasy novel to rush through and then pick up something else. I really recommend reading it to anyone, especially since it’s just a single book and not a particularly long one, so it’s not a huge investment if the subject and genre doesn’t normally interest you.

Book Review: Stealer of Flesh

Stealer of Flesh is a… well, I am not exactly sure what it is. It’s not quite a novel, nor quite a series of short stories, but something inbetween. Written by William King in 2011, Stealer of Flesh tells the first major adventure of Kormak, a Guardian of the Order of the Dawn who hunts the ancient creatures of the night. It consists of four stories that are very closely linked together but each have their own distinct character and take place in four very different locations. Calling them “episodes” feels very appropriate to me.

The story follows Kormaks hunt of a demon from the ancient past, who has returned to haunt the world, but is yet too weak to face a seasoned hunter of monsters and spirits all by himself. Several times does Kormak come face to face with the demon, but each time it manages to escape from him, keeping the hunt going for what seems like several weeks, though three of the stories all seem to take place within a single day.

King obviously is writing to capture the classic spirit of Sword & Sorcery. The stories are full with mentions of the Elder Sign and Old Ones, there is black lotus and Kormaks homeland is distant Aquilea, which surly doesn’t sound almost exactly like Aquilonia by coincidence. And to disperse any remaining uncertainty, King explicitly lists Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, and Smith as the people who inspired him in his introduction. You couldn’t make a stronger commitment to the genre than this. Which is why I think it entirely appropriate to not only judge Stealer of Flesh on its own merrits, but also on how well it manages to capture the spirit of the genre.

Unlike many other genres, Sword & Sorcery has pretty clear boundaries on which most people who use the term generally tend to agree. Joseph McCullough identified three defining elements of a Sword & Sorcery story, on which I completely agree with him: They protagonists “are self-motivated, outsiders, of heroic stature.” Kormak fits all those three criteria pretty well. He is a big warrior with great strength and a magic sword and possesses extraordinary skill as a swordsman. He also travels the lands very far from his home all by himself, seemingly without any companions or other attachments, and people regard him both with awe and uneasiness. His quest to search for evil creatures that prey on innocent people may seem very selfless at first, but once you have spend some time with the character it becomes increasingly obvious that it is not compassion that drives him. “It is what I do.” is all the answer he will give to those who ask, and not only is he frequently called out on that, he also is perfectly aware that it is a very flimsy justification for his quest himself. But while I agree that these things are fundamentally parts that make Sword & Sorcery tick, they are not the full essence just by themselves. They are the How, but not the Why. When Fritz Leiber originally coined the term, I think he was spot on: The Sword and the Sorcery are two strong symbols for nefarious magic and eldritch creatures, and for thrilling action and passion about larger than life heroes. King is certainly delivering in the Sorcery department and there is a quite unique and interesting background to his monsters. But where Stealer of Flesh is unfortunately lacking is in the regard of Swords. Kormak is not a character in the tradition of Conan and Bran Mac Morn, of Fafhrd or even the Gray Mouser. He is not a character of strong emotions, and to be frank, of any emotion at all really. Many of the fight scenes are very short with not much interesting happening, and when you look back at the whole story and are honest, Kormak as a character is rather dull. There is neither fury nor joy, no excitement, anger, or grief. At some point there seems to be some glimmer of hurt pride, but that is it. However, many of the secondary characters don’t suffer from that flaw at all and King seems to be quite capable at writing emotions. It’s just Kormak with his stoic indifference to everything, who doesn’t really work as a character.

After having finished the book, I just can’t shake the feeling that King both knows Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher stories and also took them as a major inspiration for Kormak. The similarities between Kormak and Geralt are too striking to be mere coincidences. Kormak is a warrior of an ancient but dying order of monster hunters, who is a master swordsman who carries a special monster-slaying sword on his back, special amulets with the Elder Sign around his neck, and has been trained in special techniques to defend against magic. And his stoic calm and bleak oppinion of his profession also match Geralt perfectly. In the 70s we got a small horde of Conan-Clones, here we are obviously having a Geralt-Clone. The difference between Geralt and Kormak is that Sapkowski makes it work, while King ends up with a character who is a lot more dull and gloomy rather than badass.

While the lack of action and passion are the main flaws of Stealer of Flesh, the writing is otherwise mostly quite good. King manages to be genuinely witty in many of the dialogues and brings up several quite interesting thoughts throughout the story. The one that struck me the most is how Kormak is thinking at two or three points how strange it is that he is hunting creatures that are older than the mountains and could continue to keep on living for much more than that, because they are killing people who would die after just a few decades anyway. It doesn’t cause Kormak any doubts about what he is doing, but it’s an interesting thing to think of anyway. And there is a good share of similar moments like that in the book.

While King tries to hide it in dialogues, he’s still guilty of doing obvious infodumps. Three characters musing about the philosophical implications of things they all know can be interesting, but in this case it ends up mostly being statements of basic facts about the history of the world and its magical creatures, with the occasional “yes, it’s quite sad” thrown in to make it seem like the characters are actually involved in some kind of discussion or debate. This could have been handled a lot better. At other times, the dialogues become a bit repetitive, bringing up the same arguments and observations we already discussed one or two scenes before. In some cases I had the feeling that these were oversights rather than intentional, and that these parts could easily have been improved with some editor input. Perhaps the weirdest parts of Kings writing are the sex scenes. King either doesn’t want to, or isn’t capable of writing sex scenes, which usually wouldn’t be anything objectionable at all. Yet it seems like he feels that there must be some sex scenes in a story like this, and the result is just strange. Quite often, it all happens within just two sentences. One sentence flirting, one sentence kissing, and then it’s straight to the next scene on the next morning. Generally there isn’t any buildup at all, and the first time it happens the woman just drops her dress in the middle of a conversation and Kormak immediately guides her towards the bed, out of complete nowhere. I am quite happy with keeping out unneccessarily long sex scenes as they are frequently popping up in movies that are about something entirely different. But if you do it like this, why bother in the first place. Conan and Geralt pick of lots of women on their adventures, but that’s part of their character. With Kormak it just seems completely random.

It’s not all bad, though. Yes, Kormak is a bit dull as a character and the story tends to be a bit gloomy and lacking action at many times. Now the only Moorcock story I’ve read is Red Perls, and I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of him based on that. But what reading Stealer of Flesh most reminded me of was this story. Yes, that’s right: I am comparing William Kings writing to that of Michael Moorcock. What writer of Sword & Sorcery wouldn’t be happy about that? Another thing I do quite enjoy about Stealer of Flesh is the format. It was written to be published as an ebook, which means King had no required length for the story, so that it looks like a full sized novels when standing in a bookstore. At about 60,000 words, it would be very short for a novel, but also far longer than any short story. It’s a relatively long adventure, but packaged into four individual stories that are each quite densly written. I think the 15,000 to 25,000 word length is excelent for adventure stories but with the change from magazines to books from the 40s to the 60s, this is a format that has become pretty much lost to us. You can write very great stories that way, but there just wasn’t any good way to get them into stores for a very long time. With digital publishing, writers can write their stories as long as they need to be, with no arbitrary numbers of pages to be filled to meet certain standards in the printing industry. I am always happy to see more fantasy written on this scale, and since it’s much easier to get into that a trilogy of novels, I hope to be seeing a lot more new writers in the future, who bring some new ideas that publishers would not consider profitable to print. (Also, the book is simply called Stealer of Flesh, and not The Stealer of Flesh. I think that is a lot cooler.)

With all that being said, in the end it does not come down to a percentage or a number of stars, but to a simple Aye or Nay? Was it worth to read this book or was it a waste of time?

Aye, I say!

Reading Sword & Sorcery, particularly modern one, has not always been a pleasure. While I was reading Swords & Dark Magic and Sword & Mythos, there were plenty of moments where I just groaned and really felt like getting a big red pen and marking all the terrible writing mistakes. Those two books were ordeals, and even reading Fritz Leiber I was making a lot of faces the whole time. The worst I had with Stealer of Flesh were occasional small sighs when a dialog was starting to repeat some of the arguments that had already been a page before. Stealer of Flesh is a story with its fair share of dents, but from what I’ve been able to tell completely free of any cracks or holes. While this may not be the most glowing of verdicts, I still recommend to any fan of Sword & Sorcery to give it a look. Especially because King has put it up on his website for free. (As well as Guardian of the Dawn, the first appearance of Kormak.)

Book Review: Sword & Mythos

Sword & Mythos is anthology of stories released this year by Innsmouth Free Press. The ebook version had cost me only about 4€, which I consider fairly cheap. The introduction describes the concept behind the collection as “Lovecraft meets Howard and Moorcock” and there is an additional essay in the end of the book that shines some light on the relationship between Lovecraft and Howard and how they put occasional nods to each others works in their stories. The Primeval Thule RPG setting which I bought just a few weeks ago is based on the same premise of the works of these two great writers being set in the same world and the result works brilliantly. I am big fan of the short story format, especially in its pulp era incarnation (so much easier to digest with ADD than huge multi-volume novels that take you weeks to finish), with both Howard and Lovecraft being among my favorite writers. As a huge fan of Sword & Sorcery, the idea of S&S with lovecraftian horrors had me very excited. The Scarlet Citadel and Iron Shadows in the Moon are probably my two favorite fantasy stories.

So just the title of this collection had me excited and the cover looks really exciting and promising. Unfortunately, this cover lies. The Chinese warrior woman does not appear in any of the stories. Neither does the monster. Nor Sword, nor Mythos to tell the truth. If I simply had picked up the wrong book and misunderstood what I was buying, I might see things more lenient. But this book makes it very clear both in the introduction and the essays, that this is meant to be a collection of stories that blend the Sword & Sorcery of Howard with the cosmic horror of Lovecraft. And it just doesn’t deliver that at all!

The influence of Howard on these stories is pretty much zero. There is absolutely nothing anywhere in this book that in any way gives even the slightest nod to Howard’s Hyborean Age or the Sword & Sorcery genre in general. Sword & Sorcery is all about adventure, excitement, and action, and almost none of the stories in this book have any of that. So what you get is a couple of attempts at Lovecraft in other historic settings. One is set in the time of King David but all the others appear to be set between 500 AD and today. Now, I could have been happy with lovecraftian stories from other corners of the world and historic periods, but even that the book does rather poorly. It appears to me that most of the readers have never read Lovecraft, and if they did, don’t understand what they are about and how they work. In most cases, the only connection is some name dropping of Dagon or Shub Niggurath, but in rather inappropriate contexts. In these stories, the Great Old Ones are never treated as great cosmic forces whose mere existence seems to defy all the laws of nature, but instead just as some regional nature spirit like any other. One character even has something like a star spawn or flying polyp as her spirit guide, and she is not some raving cultist but a respected spiritual leader of her culture.

Even ignoring the failure at emulating either Howard or Lovecraft or even just paying homage to them, most of these stories are rather poor. They seem to fall into three general categories: The first group are “entries” that are only 2 to 4 pages long and consist of nothing but cryptic monologues without any kind of context. I find these just terrible. Is that an attempt at highbrow art? No, just no! The second group is longer, but the stories also consist mostly of cryptic rambling with no clear idea what they are about or something clearly identifyable as plot. Best case, these writers try to create a fake appearance of depth by intentionally withholding important information to keep the reader confused as he is unable to make sense of anything that is going on, even though the protagonist knows these things. At worst, the authors themselves have no clue what’s going on and don’t feel that they would need to. Either case is bad writing. Lovecraft often left things ambigous, but he almost always started his stories by explaining who the narrator is and where the story takes place, and then step by step reveals additional information in the order that explains why the protagonist did things as he did. In the end, you may be wondering why it happened and how it could have been possible, but it is always explained what happened. Simply half-arsing it and leaving things unfinished is no replacement for that. Last are those stories that at least try to create some kind of adventure or exploration narrative. Unfortunately, most of them are very weak. When monsters are encountered they are easily slain in 3 sentences and at no point does their appearance give the characters any pause or real concern. It is true that Lovecrafts stories were written in a mindset that was deeply atheistic and even nihilistic but confronted with scientific discoveries that seemed to defy the rational world of our everyday experience. For characters who believe in the existance of spirits and other realms of existance without any doubts, the sight of magic and monsters would be nothing that shakes their image of the world. But as I see it, the point of the lovecraftian mythos is, that religions and mythology are merely feeble attempts of humans to assign some form of logic to these beings that makes sense to their minds. But seeing the real thing up close and having it reaching its tentacles at you is something that even in the mind of a believer of gods and fey should not exist. But instead we get Deep Ones and the Young of Shub Niggurath and the characters merely show a bit of displeasure at their ugliness. That’s not what the mythos is meant to be.

There is one silver lining though, the very last story in the book. The Sorrow of Quingfeng turned out quite good and Greg Yuen seems to be the only one involved with this book who actually is a fan of Lovecraft and understands his stories. Really the best way to describe it is as “a Lovecraft story set in old China”. This is a great homage and the kind of story I had expected from the whole collection. It’s about an old court official who is writing a report of his extraordinatry experiences during his last assignment. He begins with explaining who he is, how he heard of the strange events that led to his investigations, and the peculiarities of the remote region he was visiting. There he meets a young local officer who is to be his assistant and together they start investigating the disappearance of an entire mountain village, which leads them to horrifying encounters with things that should not be and forces them to overcome their fears in a daze of shock. This is classic Lovecraft right there! Not only does Yuan mange to capture the style of Lovecraft, he is also one of very few contributors to this book who tries to add some touch of Sword & Sorcery to his story by giving the second protagonist Wuxia style fighting skills. His final sacrifice (not a spoiler if you know Lovecraft) is not with a pack of dynamite, but with a combination of cold steel and his chi. The story seen just by itself is decent, though not amazing. But in an attempt of recreating Lovecraft in a different part of the world, this story does an excelent job.

However, no matter how much I am pleased with this one story, it does in no way change the fact that this book is overall rather bad. Swords & Dark Magic had at least 5 decent stories of considerable length. This one has only a single short one that didn’t feel like a complete waste of time.