Category Archives: literature

Book Review: Kull: Exile of Atlantis

186182While most people know of Conan, only few have ever heard of Kull. Kull was, to my knowledge, the first serious attempt of Robert Howard to write heroic fantasy, but he had only very little commercial success with the series and I believe only managed to sell a single story to a magazine. It was only much later when he had already become famous with Conan that people really took interest in his earlier stories about Kull. This collection appears to include everything Howard ever wrote about Kull and I think even goes a bit overboard with it. Not only does it included several full stories (which admitedly would have made for a pretty thin book), but also earlier drafts for some of them and a number of fragments that were never completed and sometimes only conist of a few pages. If you only look at the actual full stories, this book is a lot shorter than it looks.

Kull does have his fans and many of them are sometimes quite vocal in asserting that Kull is not simply a proto-Conan. And while it’s true that Kull is not just that, he still is very clearly a proto-Conan. Kull is a barbarian from Atlantis who had a turbulent career as a slave, gladiator, and soldier, until he led a rebellion against the king of Valusia and strangled him with his bare hands, taking the throne for himself. Not only is that pretty much exactly what we’re told about Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel, but The Phoenix on the Sword is 80% identical to the Kull story By This Axe I Rule. Conan did not come from nowhere or out of nothing. Conan was Robert Howard’s attempt to take Kull and make the stories more action-packed with more monsters and grander villains. And as we now know, it worked.

While I’ve heard some people say that they actually like Kull more than Conan, I’m really not feeling that way. As a character, yes, perhaps Kull might be a bit more interesting. But when it comes to the actual stories and what is on the page, Conan is playing in a completely different league. The stories of Kull are not bad and clearly the work of a writer with a fascinating imagination. But as the craftsmanship goes I do find them rather lacking. There are good ideas, but as pacing and tension goes they are mostly pretty weak. And I don’t really feel surprised that Howard was not able to sell them to a magazine for publication. Even the completed stories still feel like drafts, and often like first drafts at that. As completed stories they aren’t just that good and I think reading Kull at his best is comparable to seeing Conan at his weakest.

When it comes to rating this book, it really is much easier than I’d like to: Nay! I do not think this is a good book. I can not recommend it to people looking for something fun to read. It’s still worth reading if your interest in Kull is an academic one. This is where Sword & Sorcery really started and where it took the shape we now know. And this is Robert Howard when he was starting out writing fantasy, which is also really fascinating to examine for a fan. But I don’t think it is offering much when you’re looking for entertainment.

Books to Read in 2016

For the next year I have planned to read a number of books I’ve been having on my list for a long time but never got around to actually give a go. I have to admit that I am not highly enthusiatic about most of them and my main goal is to broaden my horizon. But if I happen to find one or two writers I really like and want to read more, that would still be totally worth it even if the others end up disappointing.

  • Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski (1996)
  • The Black Company by Glenn Cook (1984)
  • Dark Crusade by Karl Wagner (1976)
  • Defiler of Tombs by William King (2013)
  • The Desert of Souls by Howard Jones (2011)
  • The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (1990)
  • Glyphbinder by Eric Bakutis (2014)
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (2012)
  • Times of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski (1995)
  • Under a Colder Sun by Greg James (2014)
  • Waylander by David Gemmell (1986)

At about a book a month that should be pretty easy to accomplish. And look, only two of them are older than I am! I am not only reading stuff from when my parents were just born. Only mostly.

2015: Empires, Assassins, and Dead Kings

Overlord posted the list of the 50 best fantasy books released in 2015 at Fantasy Faction today and it made me realize that I have not read any book that has been released since 2014. Aside from Stealer of Flesh from 2012 and The City of Dreaming Books from 2004, the most recent fantasy books I enjoyed are all from way back in the 90s or a lot earlier. I tried reading some others, like Gardens of the Moon, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and Tome of the Undergates, but got bored by all of them very quickly.

Going through a list of 50 books that a group of well read fans of the genre considered the best of the year, you’d expect to find a good number of works worth reading. But the sad truth is that there’s only two among them that at least somewhat caught my attention but also sounded pretty cliched. As far as I am able to tell, the whole fantasy market is currently dominated by stories of assassins murdering kings and emperors and starting a huge succession crisis, and it seems to have been for several years now. And I just don’t care at all for either assassins or court politics.

I always thought I am not asking for much, but stories about exploring ancient wonders and encountering monsters seem to be pretty much gone for the time being. There has been some whispering in the shadows for a while that Sword & Sorcery appears to be in a good position for a comeback, but so far this really does not appear to have materialized at all. Maybe there are some people writing stuff of this kind, but if that’s the case it’s apparently not promoted as such. Trying to find anything of that kind seems to be mostly a very fruitless endeavor. The one honorable mention as an exception to this is William King, who is mostly known for his licensed works for Warhammer. I really should read some more of his books. Stealer of Flesh really wasn’t bad, but it’s very similar to Karl Wagner and I’ve been given priority to the old master for the last year.

Book Review: Night Winds

Night Winds is the third Kane book by Karl Wagner that I’ve read. I already liked Death Angel’s Shadow and Bloodstone very much and so I had pretty high confidence that this one wouldn’t disappoint me either. Like Death Angel’s Shadow, Night Winds is a collection of several unconnected stories of various length. And as many others have already claimed before me, Kane seems to be at his best during these shorter tales when Wagner can get straight to the point. The more stories I read, the more I am surprised that only Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock are widely regarded as the great giants of Sword & Sorcery, but I think Wagner can easily stand among them as an equal. The stories of Kane are a lot more gloomy and less exhilarating fun compared to Conan, but I think when judging them by their own strengths they really come out pretty even.

416b88d85f358107ee285b84612551ddJust like Conan, Kane is always the centerpiece of his stories and the defining element of the series. The stories are not just with Kane, but always about Kane. And as a character he is extremely fascinating. Kane is possibly one of the most extreme cases of anti-hero with a heart so black and cruel that he would easily be a villain in any other stories but his own. And from what what other people tell about the things he is doing between the stories, being a full out villain is apparently his normal mode. Not only is he an evil man, Kane is also cursed to be immortal. He does not age and recovers from injury and sickness much faster than any normal human. But he can still be killed and he does feel pain like any living man and that’s the true punishment behind his curse. Because the one thing that Kane hates more than his eternal life is the very idea of seeking escape in death. He probably could kill himself or allow others to kill him with no problems, but his pride drives him to cling on to his tormented life with bare hands and teeth until his very last breath. With all the time in the world and a powerful body, he mastered the arts of fighting and sorcery ages ago and is quite probably the most dangerous person in the entire world. But in the world of Kane, sorcerers don’t cast spells and are much more like Lovecraftian ocultists, and even a warrior like himself can not fight a dozen men by himself. He spends his eternity by gathering armies of mercenaries and bandits to carve out small empires to rule, but eventually he is always either defeated by his enemies or simply gets bored with it and walks off into the wilderness with nothing but his sword and his clothes to sink into sorrow or find himself some new kind of diversion. It is during these times where almost all of the tales of Kane are taking place.

Continue reading

Kishoutenketsu, or putting the twist in the middle

While familiarizing myself with storytelling techniques and dramatic structure, I came across the term kishoutenketsu as a form of narrative structure common in East Asia. I had not heard the term before, but I instantly recognized the idea behind it. The word simply means Introduction, Development, Change, Resolution and this structure can be used for pretty much anything from a four line poem, to philosophical arguments, and whole TV shows. It’s used so frequently in Japan that it can often become a source of confusion when talking with Europeans and Americans who have difficulties with grasping what the point of an argument presented in this fashion is supposed to be.

The basic concept of kishoutenketsu is that a story or argument begins by introducing a subject and then continues to elaborate on it. However, about halfway or two thirds through the story, the narrative suddenly switches to a different subject that may only marginally or not at all be connected to what has happened before, or make everything that has come so far seem inconsequential. The beauty of it then comes in the fourth part of the story where it is then revealed how these two seemingly different plot strands are actually very closely connected and that they have really been the same story all along. What I find quite enjoyable about this approach to telling a story or making a point, and which probably why it became so commonly used in East Asia, is that it engages the audience to do their own thinking. It presents a puzzle that is meant to make you curious about how it will all come together in the end, and that curiosity makes you pay attention to the details and anticipate what intention the storyteller might have. And it’s not uncommon that the true meaning of the story will not be clearly explained at the end. It is both rewarding for the audience, as it makes you feel smart when you see the connections and the pattern, and also helps to make the message stick in your head because you actively worked on finding the meaning instead of just being handed a final conclusion that makes sense in someone elses mind. Continue reading

My Star Wars Headcanon

I’ve been considering to write a series of reviews for the Star Wars movies for quite a while, and with everyone (but me) being excited for the new movies and someone convinving me that Revenge of the Sith is actually a terrible movie with barely any redeeming qualities, this seems a good time to actually get around and do it.

But not today. What I’ll be doing here is making my own personal list of Star Wars works that for me define what Star Wars is and which stories and characters I like to remember. And which in reverse implies which part of the Expanded Universe I’d rather ignore and pretend not to exist as part of the universe.

  • The Classic Movies: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, obviously. I heard Disney has announced theatrical cut version on DVD or Blue Ray. I’d really like to have those.
  • X-Wing: This was my very first videogame back in 5th grade. We just had gotten our first computer and one of my friends had this game, which we’ve played many days after school at his home for many months. Story is almost nonexisting, but it was my first game and the first Star Wars thing that wasn’t the movies. So it simply has to be on this list.
  • Tie Fighter: The second game in the series. And still to many people one of the greatest space combat and Star Wars game of all time. (Mostly people in their 30s, I would assume.) This one had a pretty good story, but almost nothing from it did ever get used in any other works. The exception being the Tie Defender, which I think was possibly the worst new idea introduced by it. But to my knowledge, it’s still the only Star Wars game with a story in which you play as the Empire, and had a huge effect on getting a look inside its military.
  • Shadows of the Empire: This one was created simultaneously as a book and a videogame and takes place between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The book follows Luke and Leia as they are trying to rescue Han Solo and get involved with the organized crime of Corruscant while the game is about the mercenary Dash Rendar, who is helping the rebels by following other clues that might help with the search, and the two cross paths every so often. The book has a lot of problems and the game is just very, very weird. But damn it, I was 13 and I devoured it and loved it. It’s not great, but it did a lot to shape my own image of what Star Wars is.
  • The Thrawn Series: By the end of the 80s, Star Wars consisted of the three movies, a comic series by Marvel (which got almost entirely ignored by any other works later), and the roleplaying game. There also was a Han Solo and a Lando Calrissian book with various stories that are kind of their origin stories, I believe. But that was it. Then the Thrawn novels came out and Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command changed everything. These three books changed everything. They single handedly started what became the entire Expanded Universe. Quite probably because they are really pretty good. And when you were 12 or 15 in the 90s, they were mind blowing! I read them again last winter with a group of other people, and I’m definitly going to review them as well. There are so many things that are now taken for granted that really didn’t exist before it. Not just Grand Admiral Thrawn, who is just the most magnificent villain, as well as Mara Jade and Captain Palaeon, who became very major characters in their own right. It also established the New Republic with the capital on Coruscant and Han and Leia being married and having kids, who also became pretty important characters in later books. The entire New Republic era goes back to just this one story. It’s probably the most important Star Wars work ever, right after the classic movies. Without it, there probably wouldn’t ever have been any more movies and the huge number of novels and videogames we have now might not exist either.
  • The X-Wing series: I mean the books, not the games. The X-Wing series takes place in a quite rarely seen part of the Star Wars history, being set between Return of the Jedi and the Thrawn series. The central hero of the series is Wedge Antilles, a minor character from the movies and the one guy who survived both battles against the Death Stars. After Luke stops being a fighter pilot to pursue his Jedi career, Wedge becomes the most famous and skilled pilot in the Rebellion and leader of the ultra elite Rogue Squadron. Killing the Emperor and Vader and destroying a major part of the imperial fleet was a major victory, but it didn’t remove the imperial government from power. The first storyline that covers the first four books is just about that: Destroying the Empire and establishing a New Republic. For that purpose wedge assembles a team of elite pilots and commandos, whose task is to take various secret missions to prepare the conquest of the capital on Corruscant. I really loved those books and got them again in English, but have not yet gotten around to read them. The books that follow also have Wedge as the lead character, but this time he’s creating a new special unit made up of various unique individuals specifically selected for the most unusual of missions that go beyond the capabilities of regular commando and infiltration troops. Who also travel around in starfighters and are damn good pilots, because this is the X-Wing series after all. I read the first three or four of these and while I did quite enjoy them, I eventually lost interest. But the first four books rank very high on my list, right after the Thrawn series.
  • Jedi Knight: I actually only played Jedi Knight 2 and Jedi Knight 3 (Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy). I always considered giving Dark Forces and Dark Forces 2 a try, but they are really old now and just don’t look that great. These games are the adventures of Kyle Katarn, a mercenary with Jedi training, who has a quite difficult relationship with Luke Skywalker’s new Jedi Order. He clearly is a good guy and often on the same side as the Jedi and the New Republic, but also very independent and difficult. In many ways like the early Han Solo, but clearly a diffent and well distinguished character. And the early games in particular were pretty dark for Star Wars. And the best thing about them: Lightsaber combat. In the games that I played, the lightsaber is awesome. It works like you expect it to work, easily cutting through enemies and slicing them to pieces instead of heavy impacts that take a couple of hits to deal enough health damage to kill. And there’s a lot of dark Jedi disciples to have lightsaber fights with as well. The stories of the games I played are not great, and as far as I am aware the characters or events were never mentioned anywhere else. But I like them and they feel very much like Star Wars. They are still pretty fun today.
  • Tales of the Jedi: I never really got into the many Star Wars comics. My brother had some, but I never gave them any real attention for a very long time. The Tales of the Jedi series was particularly unusual, as it was the only Star Wars work not set in the classic but instead 4,000 years in the past, at the time of the great wars between the Jedi and the Sith. Some of the characters and places were used as mythology references in the Jedi Academy novels, but that was mostly it. I think the quality is not too great, though the original storylines by Tom Veitch were quite interesting stuff. The later ones by Kevin Anderson really not so much. Their real impact came much later when the period got picked up as the setting for a videogame.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: This is one of the famous BioWare RPGs, which one might count as one of the biggest videogame series ever, going back to Baldur’s Gate in the late 90s and up to the most recent game Dragon Age 3. Counting the various spin-offs and sequels by Black Isle/Obsidian Entertainment, there have been 16 games in total by now. KotOR is probably among the most praised and once it was decided to no longer make licensed games, it led to the creation of the Mass Effect series. The first Mass Effect is very much a direct successor to KotOR with a different, but in many ways very similar setting. It is set a few decades after the Tales of the Jedi comic series and takes the name from one of its storylines. While I think the story and characters are not actually that amazing, the way the setting is represented really is. The galaxy is very much recognizable as Star Wars, but it’s also a quite different place from the later periods. Both the Jedi and the Sith are much more prominent, but at the same time everything is also much more decentralized  with various medium factions instead of just two massive ones. The game is a lot of fun, and I actually like the KotOR era even more than the classic movie era.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: Please people! Stop reusing the same titles for various different works! This comic is the third Star Wars story called Knights of the old Republic, after the first comic and the videogame. This one takes place shortly before the game and you see several familiar places and brief appearances of characters, but other than that really is a clearly separate story. Actually two stories, following the same group of characters. The central character is Zyne Carrick, who is possibly the worst Jedi ever. In the first story he gets caught up in a big conspiracy within the Jedi order and has to go on the run while he is framed for having fallen to the dark side and having murdered several Jedi. During the adventure he also gets involved in the Mandalorian War and crosses paths with Revan and Malak when they were still renegade Jedi fighting for the Old Republic against the wishes of the Jedi Council. The second story revolves more around Jarael, one of Zaynes companions, while he becomes a supporting character to her story. Both are really damn good, and this is by far my favorite American comic, standing shoulder to shoulder with Hellboy. I plan to read it again sometime, and then probably do a review of it.

Something quite interesting I’ve noticed a while back, is that most of the Star Wars works I really like and regard very highly don’t actually involve the movie characters to any considerable degree. The Thrawn series being the notable exception. I like the movies, but the heroes are the heroes of that story. Their story. Seeing them turned into statesmen somehow isn’t really doing it for me.

As you also might notice, no stories from either the Clone Wars or the New Jedi Order eras (and I don’t even know what this Legacy era thing is). I think the main reason is that they don’t really match with what I consider the true form of Star Wars. They feel more like spin offs with quite different styles and aesthetics. I actually wasn’t really happy with most stories set in the late New Republic era. The Correlian Trilogy was probably the last thing chronologically that I’ve ever read. And yeah, I wasn’t a fan. These stories also focus a lot on politics and seem to me to have lost the swashbuckling adventure style of the first two movies.

Review: 4 books I did not finish

For me thie last month was one of great disappointments. I played Dark Souls and watched the early seasons of X-Files, and both failed to live up to my expectations and had me quit at some point. I’ve also been trying to broaden my horizon in books instead of reading more Witcher or Robert Howard, which I already know I love. I ended up starting three different fantasy books and stopped reading all of them. For various different reasons, but also some that are very much the same. Since I have completed neither of them, I can’t do actual review of them. But I think that none of them are actually truly bad and each one has some great things about them. So what I’ll be doing is to give a short summary of each book, also including one I tried a few months back, and the reason I quit reading, as well as going into some more detail what they all have in common that had them fail in entertaining me. This is not “4 books I don’t like and the reasons why”, but instead “4 examples of novel openings that failed to capture my interest”.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

When I started trying to catch up with fantasy books that have come out or become popular in the last 10 years, the Malazan series was obviously one of the biggest names I’ve regularly came across. Normally I would never attempt to try a series of 10 doorstoppers, but praise for this one is so great that I thought I could at least read the first book and then decide if I want to do the whole thing. But it turns out, I could not. I don’t think I got very far with it either. The writing was nothing objectable and the scenes presented in a quite engaging way. This one was a while back, so I don’t remember very clearly, but I think I got introduced to four different characters. And at least within the limited amount of exposure they got in my reading, they were all totally bland and forgetable. Young nobleman, young female soldier, mysterious man on some special mission. And I think some kind of weird queen. And then I lost interest. I got introduced to several characters and to several locations and situations in which they find themselves. But I did not get any information on what role these people play in the story or their world and why or how these scenes are relevant to the plot. Usually I always try to go into a story pretty much blind. Vague praise of the qualities of a work get me interested and then I want to experience it myself without knowing where exactly the story will go. But since I was already at the point of giving up on the book, I tried looking up a brief and general outline of what the story is about. Then I asked people who love the series to try and explain to me what the story is about. And they couldn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand their replies or found them unhelpful for what I wanted to know. The fans themselves were not really sure what the actual story is. Aparently this behemoth of printed paper keeps on going about different people doing various things that don’t really follow any primary plot. I can appreciate abstract narratives and stories relying mostly on characterization. But I need a goal or purpose for the combined efforts of the characters. From what I can tell, this series doesn’t have that. Continue reading

Fantasy needs monsters

When I got back into fantasy books a year or so ago, I noticed that there seems to be a quite pronounced scarcity of monsters and nonhuman humanoids in the vast majority of works. When you talk with people about Sword & Sorcery, many have a very firm stance that it has to be human-only and that you can’t maintain the structure, dynamics, and themes of the genre if you include elves, trolls, or dragonmen. Today I came across a short article on another site which I’ve read and very much liked a while back, by a person whose opinions and understanding of the workings of fantasy I usually very much agree with and respect. The main thought was that monsters should be very rare and be limited to the truly unnatural, with a very distinct separation from normal wildlife. And I very much agreed with it, since it helps to ensure that the encounter with an actual monster will be something special and that the audience feels like there’s really an extraordinary danger.

I now very much think that I was wrong about it. Much of contemporary fantasy could be accused of being mostly a fictionalized version of the middle ages with the occasional sprinkle of magic here and there, but very little fantastic elements as far as the plot is considered. But even that would not be correct as many of these worlds are really more like 20th century societies in fictional lands that use technology that superficially looks medieval. I mentioned the relationship of humans, nature, and the divine in my review of the academic book Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature, but I am going to lay it out again in this article that is directly at fantasy writers. The idea that nature is something that surrounds human cities and is separate from the human world, and that the divine aspect of the universe is located in a completely different place or dimension is very specific to modern western thought. It has been argued that the foundation for this is already found in the myth of the Garden of Eden, when humans were instructed by God to rule over all animals and plants, but it really developed to its current form through the ideas of Enlightenment and Humanism. (Which since the late 19th century got exported throughout the whole world together with the western education system and the modern principles and procedures of science that were based on that conception of the world, so it’s not strictly a European and North American thing anymore.) But in the kinds of societies after which almost all fantasy lands and cultures are modeled this whole concept fairly alien. Even in medieval Christianity, where the distinction between humans and animals was pretty clear, God was generally assumed to work directly in the everyday world, either actively or through agents. And the believe that there were other human-like people living in distant parts of the world was very widely spread. The land of the dog-headed men was a frequent topic among explorers and even the church had serious debates about what to do with them once their land is found. A quite common opinion was that they should be baptised and integrated into the church, just like all other humans. Assuming they are not already Christians.

Fantasy is obviously something you can’t do wrong. Pretty much every world imaginable can be well suited to be the setting for a certain kind of story. But lots of writers, and especially fans, make a pretty big deal of these worlds accurately portraying the technology of various historic periods and places. And often having fictional creatures around is perceived as being too fanciful and unrealistic. But at the same time there is generally no effort made at all to even somewhat approximate the way these people saw the world. We’ve had an interesting discussion at Fantasy Faction a while back about the possibility of “mythic fantasy”, and another one just last month about fantasy books in which religion and religious believes play an important part. (In both cases the search for existing works came up almost blank.) When you look at epics from antiquity and the proto-historic periods before it, it is very easy to see how very mucg similar they are to modern fantasy books, which have of course been very much inspired by them. But in those epics, the borders between human, nature, monster, and gods is often so thin and blurred that it’s not really there at all.

The book I mentioned above examines a small number of 20th century fantasy writers who went against that and deliberately set out to tie human concerns together with nature and the affairs of the gods. The gods don’t make any appearance in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s always clear that there are higher powers at work and that Sauron, Gandalf, and the elves are all major players in a conflict that is much greater than the kingdoms of man. In The Hobbit, Beorn is both a man and a bear, but different from either. You have eagles who are taking direct action in the struggle between mortals and immortals, and trees who walk and talk like humans. And of course all the talking spiders. Pretty much everything that Tolkien did was mindlessly copied countless times without understanding why he did it and what their purpose was. But this dissolving of the boundaries between humans, nature, and the divine was almost universally ignored, perhaps because it was too subtle to even notice without understanding it. There’s not really a lot of different creatures in Middle-Earth when you compare it to most roleplaying games and videogames, but all of them do not exist to create contrast between the natural and the unnatural, but to make such a distinction disappear. In European myths about fey beings, they always are as much part of nature as they are divine, and most of the time they also look very similar to humans. Even the classic fairytale witch is not just a regular old woman who knows a bit of magic, but also a monster. (Maybe I write an article about how the witch is the female counterpart of the ogre one day.) In any attempt to create “mythic fantasy”, the path into the world of spirits and magic should not lead through the wardrobe or the rabbit hole, but instead it needs to be identical with our own. In many mythologies, the Underworld is not another dimension, but an actual cave system that can be entered through any deep enough cave. To have fantasy that is in any way inspired by myth and tries to capture its essence, I think monsters are not just permissible, but mandatory. Without them and the dissolution of boundaries they present, any work can not go beyond the scope of pseudo-history.

Book Review: Nature and the Numinous in Mythpoeic Literature

Today I am reviewing a very different kind of book. It’s neither a novel nor a writing guide, but actually a scientific book written by Chris Brawley and released last year by McFarland as volume 46 of their series Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

9780786494651_lNature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy is not popular science, but the real deal. Proper academic literature written by and for scientists. I had not heard of Chris Brawley before and didn’t find any info on him in a quick online search, but this book touches in scociology, anthropology, religious studies, and literary criticism. I’ve studied cultural studies, religion, and intercultural communication for several years and this is just the type of book we’ve been using all the time. You probably won’t find it in regular libraries, but university libraries might either have it or could get it from another university that does. If it’s a topic that really interests you, it’s also not too expensive to just buy it yourself. (The book includes a list of all the other books that have been released in the series. “Culture, Identities and Technology in the Star Wars Films”, “Ursula Le Guin’s Journey to Post-Feminism”, and “J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy” are all titles I want to hunt down.)

It’s a very interesting book. If you can read it. This is at times pretty heavy stuff. Being an American academic book, the way it is written and the content explained is relatively easy to follow. It’s nothing like German academic books where it often seems like the authors are trying to write in code to prevent the contents falling into the hands of the uninitiated and being released to the general public. (It’s easier for many German students to read American academic books in English than German academic books in German.) But knowing its audience, it does rely on a good amount of preexisting familiarity with the field and jumps straight into the deep end. Someone who is not familiar with many of the technical terms might possibly miss more than half of the information presented in it. But first semester students manage. If you really want to know what this book has to say on its subject, I very much recommend giving it a shot. Even if you don’t understand half of it, the other half might still be quite eye opening.

The main topic of the book is the numinous in the stories of Tolkien, Lewis, and Le Guin. The numinous is a concept that probably very few people outside of this segment of academics have heard of, but it’s not really that difficult to understand. It was introduced about a hundred years ago by Rudolf Otto to help with discussing religious experiences. The central idea is that people occasionally have moments in which they become aware that the world and life are more than just the things they normally pay conscious attention to, which results in a feeling of amazement, wonder, fascination, elation, and possibly fear. Otto argues that such experiences are universal to humans in all places and all times, but people explain these moments and emotions in a wide range of ways based on concepts from their culture and religion. Religious studies is a field that stays neutral and detached from any assumptions about the existance or the nature of the divine and limits itself to the way how cultures and communities deal with such questions, which is a segment of anthroplogy and sociology that can be scientifically studied like any other human behavior. As such, Otto did not attempt to define what could possibly be the source of these experiences, so instead of a noun he refers to it with an adjective that describes it’s most relevant quality. It is numinous. Whether people think of it as God, nirvana, eternity, or a fluke of the human brain, the people who experience such moments become aware of something that to them feels numinous. (From latin “numen”; a divine presence.)

While many writers of fantasy and their readers aproach their works as adventure stories with magic and strange creatures, some see their own works not only as entertaining diversions, but have the aim to create stories that are “eye opening” and get the reader to think about their everyday world in a different way. Not simply to change opinions, but to see more, think more, and feel more, and to experience the world and life as more than just rational facts. Brawly quotes Tolkien that “what fantasy does is to help lift that “veil of familiarity” and allows us to “clean our windows” so that we see the world clearly, and religiously.” Other authors that are examnined in this book are C.S. Lewis,Samuel Coleridge, George MacDonald, Algernon Blackwood, and Ursula Le Guin, which is a quite homogenous group as the author admits himself, with Le Guin specifically included to provide some contrast. But since the topic of the book is quite specific, concentrating on a quite narrow segment of fantasy fiction is not a serious disadvantage. His point probably comes across much clearer than if he would examine a very broad range of highly different writers and works.

I came across this book entirely by accident while looking for any possible pieces of writing advice regarding religious elements in fantasy, since I’ve long been feeling that most fantasy I’m seeing is somewhat stale or even sterile when it comes to being “magical” and “wonderous”. At some point this book title showed up among the search result and with my background in cultural and religious studies recognized it as being exactly about the kind of thing I was trying to get some insight on. Even though none of the authors examined in this book are of the kind I usually read. And though the book is not about writing advice at all, I found it extremely helpful for my own purpose. One of the big points made by the book is that both Christian thought and Western Enightenment are centered around the basic assumption that there is a clear distinction and separation between humans, the divine, and nature. If the divine does exist, humans are not part of it. Humans are also not part of nature. They look at nature from the outside and maipulate it for their own benefit or accidentally causing damage that will become a problem to them in the future. And this position is highly criticized by the examined writers and their stories often tend to tear down these distinctions and seprations. In their stories, humans are part of nature, and both humans and nature are part of the divine. And frequently play very important roles for the fate of the gods and the universe.

The Lord of the Rings is always a good example, not just because it’s so well and widely known. In the world of Middle-Earth you have the ents, who are both like humans and like trees. And there are the eagles, who are animals that can talk and also clearly have some strong connection to heaven. In The Hobbit, you also have a man who is both a human and a bear. And of course there’s also Gandalf who has a human body and lives among humans, but also is divine in nature. Or the elves who are both like people and also at home both in our world and in heaven. Tolkien blurs the lines of what is human, animal, plant, or deity. There are no borders between them, only gradients. And this unification of human, nature, and divine certainly fits the concept of the numinous. An increased awareness of the universe as a single whole. I always wanted to create stories with a strong presence of a Spiritworld and cultures that see their world in an animistic way. Reading this book helped me quite a lot in understanding how that might work in practice.

This books is certainly not for everyone. But if you have some interest in the subject and get an opportunity to flip through it, I very much recommend giving it a look.

Names for Fantasy genres that have some merit and those that don’t

I wrote about the problems of the names used for various types of fantasy fiction at some point last year. But a recent discussion at Fantasy Faction did get me to think some more about it. People categorize most fantasy stories by different genres, which generally is a reasonable thing to do. But in practice many of these genres are not only not defined in even a loose sense, they are also often used completely contradictory. Some of them do have some real merit and are useful in helping people to get a general idea of the style of a work and to find other works of a style that they like. But others are really useless at best or needlessly confusing at worst, and in my opinion should no longer be used by people.

The Good

  • Epic Fantasy: While there is a lot of disagreement what exactly defines a work as Epic Fantasy, there seems to be very little contention about which works are included in this genre. Most importantly is obviously The Lord of the Rings, which really is the gold standard. Epic Fantasies are stories that are about a transformation of the world or a all the lands inhabited by a culture. Ofte it is the reinstating of an old order that has been lost, but in any case it leads to the creation of a better future for everyone. (Which may or may not include the villains.)
  • Urban Fantasy: I’ve also never seen any real confusion here. It’s any work set in the contemporary world, or a fictional world closely modeled after it, with the addition of magic and magic creatures.
  • Sword & Sorcery: Sometimes misused, but it is known exactly who created the term and what he was intending by doing so. Michael Moorcock wrote in a magazine that someone should create a term for the kind of fantasy that he and others were writing to distinguish it from the type of The Lord of the Rings. Fritz Leiber thought that they should call it Sword & Sorcery. So the actual definition of the genre is “the writings of Moorcock and Leiber”, and he also elaborated that he considered Robert Howard to be the best writer of this genre there ever was. What the stories of these three authors have in common is that they deal with protagonists who stand outside of regular society and its rules and commitments and fight for personal goals and by their own moral rules by facing enemies and obstacles head on, generally having to deal with supernatural threats like sorcerers or demons.

The Bad

  • High Fantasy: This term is hugely popular and used all the time. Probably because it can be applied to pretty much everything and has no actual meaning at all. What does High mean? Much? Good? Much Fantasy and Good Fantasy are not genres. The only consent there seems to be about High Fantasy is that Urban Fantasy is not included in it. That’s really not enough to go by for a genre.
  • Heroic Fantasy: This really just occured to me today, but I think it’s actually just as bad as High Fantasy. What does the term tell us? That the protagonist is heroic and does heroic things. With the implication that there will be action. Well, which fantasy story doesn’t? If you count them as fantasy, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz are probably not Heroic Fantasy. But that’s also really not enough to make it a genre. Both The Lord of thr Rings and Conan are often called Heroic Fantasy and they are clearly completely different beast caterint to entirely different tastes.
  • Dark Fantasy: Really the same problem here. It doesnt really tell us anything about what kind of story we can expect other than it won’t be flowers and rainbows. And again, which fantasy story isn’t. Thankfully this never really caught on and we should just forget about it.

The Ugly

  • Low Fantasy: High Fantasy is already bad. But this is much worse. It only tells us that it’s not High Fantasy, and with that one not actually defined it has no meaning at all. Some people use the term, but there is absolutely no agreement about what it’s supposedly describing. Sometimes Conan is Low Fantasy, sometimes Narnia is. It’s completely unusable.
  • Grimdark: Grimdark is a joke that got lots of people laughing for the wrong reason. The term comes from the tagline of the wargame Warhammer 40,000, “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”. The earliest versions of the game were an obvious satire of hypermasculine and hyperviolent fantasy and sci-fi and mocking the 14-year-old boys who loved and often came up with all that nonsense. Obvious to anyone but those 14-year-old boys. They didn’t get that they were made fun of and that other people enjoyed it for being stupid and ludicrous, like deliberately watching terrible movies or reading The Eye of Argon. I remember not too long ago when “grimdark” was used as a derogatory word to mock terrible gritty and violent fiction similar to that parodied by Warhammer 40k. But apparently some of the creators and fans did not realize that they were mocked and in recent years started using the term themselves. The term Grimdark now refers to both the parody of a genre as well as to the genre itself. How weird.