As you know…

Why on earth does the phrase “As you know, …” exist in dialogues? Why would any person ever use it in conversation? It does occasionally come up in lectures and presentations, but then it means “as you should know, but I am saying anyway to spare you the embarrasment of asking the question, …” When you know the other person in a conversation knows these facts, it just makes no sense. Even as a writer, if you want a character to say something that is redundant because everyone in the conversation knows it, why would you draw attention to it by adding “as you know”. It might have gone by unnoticed that the statement was redundant for the characters if those words hadn’t been there.

Don’t draw attention to your flawed scene setup!

Book Review: Jirel of Joiry

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore is widely considered to be one of the great honored ancestors of the Sword & Sorcery genre by fans. There are a total of five tales of the character of which four have been published between 1934 and 1936, making them contemporaries of Robert Howard’s Conan tales and some of Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea. Moore is primarily known for her science fiction work (and she wrote the first draft for The Empire Strikes┬áBack) and build a very considerable reputation over the course of her career. I had not read anything by her before, but the name recognition alone had me go into this with pretty high expectations.

Jirel of Joiry is the ruler of a principality somewhere in “medieval” France. She’s a ruler and a warrior, which makes her the first published female hero of Sword & Sorcery (though Robert Howard wrote some which he didn’t get published), and you have to look pretty far and wide to find any other. However, I have to say I personally found her to be a very flat and one-dimensional character. She has no backstory whatsoever other than being the ruler of Joiry and her personalty consists of the two emotional states of anger and defiance. To me that barely qualifies her as a character.

941226The stories themselves are a mixed bag. I quite like the first story Black God’s Kiss and the last story Hellsgarde, but was hugely disappointed by the other three. One thing that Moore does get very right is the creation of atmosphere and the imagining of strange and alien sights and landscapes. This is stuff that stands up pretty well when compared to the imagery evoked by Clark Ashton Smith, who was certainly a master at this. But this is not much consolation considering that the plots all completely suck.

Black God’s Kiss stands well above the others in this regard, as it has things happening and progressing. Jirel has been defeated by an enemy general and imprisoned in her own dungeon, after having suffered the terrible insult of being forced to kiss him. This can not stand and so she calls on the priest of her castle to help her getting her revenge by leading her to a secret passage that leads into a strange nightmare realm, where she might find some source of dark magic to slay her enemy. The journey down the strange passage and through the other world is quite well done and I greatly enjoyed reading it. The story also ends in a quite surprising way that I found to be pretty brilliant. I’ve seen comments about people considering it misogynistic, but my impression was that there are dark forces at work and not that Jirel succumbs to some “female weakness”. I very much recommend reading this one and seeing it for yourself.

The same can’t be said for the other stories. Black God’s Shadow is pretty much part two of the previous one, but reads more like Moore was recycling all the strange sights she had cut from Black God’s Kiss to keep the story from getting too long and losing its pacing. But nothing actually happens. In Jirel Meets Magic and The Dark Land, she finds herself in different strange realms of magic that have their own weird sights, but again nothing at all actually happens. These three stories consist of nothing but descriptions of strange things seen in strange lands, but without a plot it’s hard to care about any of them. Hellsgarde is better again in that it doesn’t go to yet another strange realm and that it has a plot. Jirel has to travel to an old haunted castle in a swamp to ransom her knights out of captivity but finds it to be not entirely abandoned. It’s not a great plot, but it’s a plot, and it has a surprising reveal at the end, that unfortunately fails to actually change anything that happened before.

Another big problem I have with the stories beside the lack of character and plot, is that Moore did a pretty poor job at making things feel threatening. The stories are mostly nothing but descriptions of things, but she still managed to completely fail at following “show, don’t tell”. Pages over pages of descriptions of how things look like and how Jirel feels about seeing them, but the things she describes don’t appear to be threatening at all. The moonlight looks poisonous, the shadows look evil, and the river looks terrifying. And we have nothing to go with than taking her word for it. There’s no mention of how the moon, the shadows, or the river look different from ordinary examples and so there’s no reason why we should feel anything similar to what she tells us Jirel is feeling. In Hellsgarde we even get a man of ordinary stature with “the face of a hunchback” and “the voice of a cripple”. At the third mention of the hunchback with the straight back, I couldn’t help myself thinking: “You keep using this word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

So in my final assesment I have to say: Nay! While I think Black God’s Kiss is a good story and entertaining read, Jirel of Joiry is not a good or interesting collection at all. In fact, I think it’s really pretty bad. Moore is one of the few women who wrote Sword & Sorcery and Jirel one of the very few female protagonists of the genre, and I suspect this might be the reason of the character’s limited fame. We want more female writers and more female protagonists, and being able to find one back in the 30s we latch onto it. However, more recently we got The Copper Promise by Jen Williams which also has a female protagonist. I am currently reading it and while I am not much of a fan yet, Williams easily pushes Moore down to second place for women in Sword & Sorcery. Let’s just hope we’re going to see more competition in the coming years.

Some basic plots for fantasy adventure tales

When trying to write Sword & Sorcery stories, I often end up discarding an outline because my initial idea doesn’t really offer much of an actual plot. The first observation I made is that any story that would be considered an action adventure tale needs four basic elements to be great.

  • A protagonist.
  • An antagonist.
  • A conflict.
  • A memorable location.

The first three seem completely obvious, but I realized that many of my initial ideas were really lacking both clear antagonists and conflicts. A travel adventure can make without them, but for Sword & Sorcery they are essential. (A memorable location is technically optional, but I think any adventure story benefits hugely from having a climactic scene take place on a really awesome stage.) So I sat down and went through all my favorite fantasy stories to see what the basic type of conflict in them is and hopefully find some useful pattern that helps me with coming up with my own plots. All of them would be what critics call “person against person” conflicts. “Person against nature” and “person against self” are pretty much nonexistent in heroic fantasy adventures. (Though Kane occasionally goes there in addition to fighting with lots of other people.) While looking primarily at fiction, all of them actually make for great adventure hooks for RPGs as well.

  • Assassins! Someone wants to kill someone for whatever reason. The protagonist has to prevent that, and might even be the target himself. (The Phoenix on the Sword, Cold Light, The Lesser Evil.)
  • Reverse Assassins! Same idea, but this time it’s the protagonist who wants to kill someone and needs to find a way around those who would try to prevent it. Relatively rare, but if you give the protagonist a good reason it’s also a nice starting point to create a plot. (Conan the Barbarian. Worms of the Earth.)
  • Escape: The protagonist is imprisoned or trapped and has to find and fight his way out. (The Scarlet Citadel.)
  • Rescue: Someone else is imprisoned or trapped and the protagonist has to save him.
  • Predator: A person or creature wants something and can get it from people by killing them. The protagonist has to put an end to this. (Alien, Predator, The Thing.)
  • Assault: Enemies attack a town, castle, or country to take control of goods, territory, or people. The protagonist needs to repell them. You could instead have the protagonist lead the attack, but that’s very difficult to present in a heroic way. (The Hour of the Dragon.
  • Arcane Power: Someone wants to get his hands on something that would give him great magical power. The protagonist wants to prevent this, either by giving the power to someone else or by making it unreachable. (Raiders of the Lost Arc, The Last Crusade, Bloodstone.)

This is a pretty quick and dirty list and such great stories as The People of the Black Circle and A Matter of Price really don’t fit easily into any of these categories. But if you’re in search of a good plot for an adventure story I think these are a pretty solid start.

Book Review: The Desert of Souls

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones is the story of Asim, captain of the guard of a powerful nobleman in Bagdad in the 8th century. He is also the narrator of the tale, reporting of his adventure with the sage Dabir some indeterminate number of years later. I am usually not a fan of historic fiction or first person narration, but here it turned out to be surprisingly fun. When their master had been sad about the death of his favorite parrot, Asim took him to a trip to the market to distract him and cheer him up, with Dabir getting roped in against his will. On their trip they met a fortune teller who told them that an opportunity for great adventure was waiting for them right outside her door, but if they prefer to go back to their ordinary lives all they would have to do is stay inside her house a few minutes longer and it would simple pass by. But of course they didn’t.

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Even though set in a historic setting, the book is clearly a fantasy story. But even the two heroes are very sceptical that anything supernatural is going on for quite some time. And while miracles and supernatural beings are accepted facts of their culture, the ideas of sorcerers and undead monsters in the middle of Bagdad just seems too unbelievable to everyone. It’s a very “classic” adventure tale and I’ve seen Jones write frequently about his love for Robert Howard and Harold Lamb. And it shows. I think as historic settings go, this is as close to the spirit of Sword & Sorcery as it gets. I am also reminded of Indiana Jones and Tarzan, so you probably might get an impession of what kind of adventure this is.

Asim’s narration works very well for the book. Overall I think the characters are not very complex, but both Asim and Dabir have clear personalties and it shows through not only in their dialogues but especially in the way that Asim describes the events and adds his own thoughts on them. He is somewhat of a simple man and while apparently being able to do a good job at protecting the house of his master and his family, all the praise for him is generally about his loyalty, honesty, and bravery. But he really isn’t the sharpest knive in the drawer at any stretch. The language he uses to tell his tale is simple and he often glosses over the details of the more arcane and ocult things that are going on, admitting that he didn’t really understand what the sages and sorcerers had been talking about. At the same time you also learn a lot about him from the little and seemingly irrelevant details he does mention because they seem to be important to him. It’s frequently mentioned in passing that they took a short break for prayer or that they washed hands before sitting down to eat, and while you almost never see him mentioning the turbans people are wearing, there are numerous cases where he points out that a person did not wear a turban. I don’t know the cultural dress code of that place and period, but simply by mentioning it it becomes obvious that Asim considers them improperly dressed and that to him that tells quite a bit about their character. While somewhat simple minded and a warrior, his honesty and integrity are without doubt and he is very conscious of his manners and proper behavior. Or at least as he sees it.

I sprang off my left foot, caught the roof ledge with my fingers, and pulled myself up. Dabir urged care; I do not think he heard my response, as I was too busy not falling to answer clearly, and my words do not bear repeating.

As far as knowledge of history and culture goes, the Arab world is not one I am particularly familiar with, but throughout the book it is always very apparent that Jones does. At least once or twice every chapter there is something mentioned that makes me stop and think “Oh yes, I think I heard about that somewhere before. Interesting to see it included in this story.” I mentioned the regular breaks for prayer and the washing of hands, as well as the absence or loss of turbans, but there’s always a lot more of this kind everywhere. At one point early in the book there is a mention of Turks, and that seemed somewhat dubious to me so that I looked it up. And as it turns out, the Turks had already been muslims in the 8th century, even though it was only many centuries later that they migrated from modern Kazhakstan to Turkey. And not only are there muslims in Bagdad, but also Zoroastrians and as they travel down the Tigris there are scenes involving “Marsh Arabs”, an ancient ethnic minority probably very few people in the western world have ever heard of. All this makes it feel that this story takes place in the real Abbasid Caliphate and not just some Arab-themed fantasy world that has some well known place names thrown in. What always intrigued me most was the use of the term “Greek”. In the tale as told by Asim, it’s always simply “the Greeks” without any additional commentary, and given the way he narrates the story it feels very appropriate. Asim knows what he means by Greeks and assumes that all his listeners do as well. But at this time in history, any “Greek” ambassadors or spies would be from Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. And most of eastern and northern Europe was not christian yet, so to Arabs in the 700s the word Greek might even be seen as synonymous with Christian. I really liked that the Greek sorcerer in the story is a necromancer. Resurrection of the dead is a purely Christian concept and the whole idea of Hell was adopted from ancient Greek mythology. I don’t know of Jones took any liberties there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were rumors circulating in the muslim world about Christians creating undead monsters in secret. The Romans had rumors about Christians being canibals and practicing child sacrifice some centuries earlier, so it doesn’t seem unlikely. And after all, even the word necromancy is Greek. In contrast to that, the Zoroastrian priests use fire magic, which also seems like something that the people of Bagdad probably would not have found too difficult to believe.

Jones has written quite a bit about the Sword & Sorcery genre over the years, among them some of the most interesting and insightful articles I’ve seen about it. He really does know the genre and how it works, and this shows very much in this book. It’s really a lot of fun. There’s almost always something happening and the narrator is always giving his own thoughts and perspective on the events in a way that is very enjoyable. (The first boat ride was the only point where I thought it should hurry up and get back to the action.) There are frequent fight scenes, but they are generally kept brief enough to not bog down and keep the action moving. Things tend to happen in interesting locations and there are lots of turns that give the whole thing a certain pulpy quality. Calling the book formulaic would be doing it a great disservice and create the wrong impression. It’s not a heap of cliches in any way and feels very original. But I think overall it could have much more of a spark and been much more audacious. Jones manages to avoid the story getting campy or pretentious, which is always a real risk with this genre, but I think it could have used a good amout of more fire. Structurally I think it’s an excelent adventure tale, but I got the impression of it being a bit too careful and slightly stiff. Aside from Asim, who being the narrator is always present throughout the entire tale, the supporting characters all seem somewhat underused. From what glimpses we get of them, Sabirah, Hamil, Farouz and even Diomedes seem like really interesting characters, but they actually do and say only very little throughout the entire story. Ali could have been a villain you would love to hate simply based on all the times he showed up to ruin someone’s day, but sadly we don’t really ever learn anything about him. He’s just the knife guy.

But even considering that, I think this book is really pretty great. It doesn’t read like a book by a seasoned career author, which it isn’t, but it’s one of the books I had the most fun reading in quite some time. That’s really one of the things I’ve been missing from many books I’ve recently been reading. As well written as many of them are, they are not fun. There’s a second book with Asim and Dabir, which I am sure I’ll be reading eventually. And if Jones adds a bit more fire and audacity to his tales, I think he could be really outstandingly good.

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.