"I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas." -Michael Moorcock
With this simple sentenc"I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas." -Michael Moorcock
With this simple sentence, Moorcock reveals something troubling and endemic to the fantasy genre: that not enough fantasy authors start out with fantastical ideas. There are a lot of big writers out there (with really big books) who don't have very big ideas. But perhaps that shouldn't surprise us, since their ur-inspiration, Tolkien, has a remarkably vast amount of skill sadly limited by a very small vision, while Moorcock is the opposite: a man with grandiose visions who is sometimes limited by his meager skill.
Certainly, Moorcock is capable of some pretty, frilly prose, and shows in this story, as in the tale which opens Elric's saga, that he is capable of providing a consistent tone and driving plot. But, at his core, he is still (at least through the early Elric stories), a pulp writer, and he admits as much in the introduction to 'Stealer of Souls', talking about how many of the stories were rushed, how some were written for money, that many disparate stories were combined to make saleable novels, and how most of these stories were explorations of ideas that he would only fully develop in later series.
I admit I appreciate this straightforward humility much more than the pretension of many in the genre, and as usual, it is the most humble author who tends to produce the best work--it is almost as if some level of restraint and self-awareness was vital to being a skilled writer. Though not all of his experiments work out so well, like Leiber, the earlier writing seems to have the most drive and vitality. While this dark, mythic vision of Ragnarok might be the conclusion of Elric's tragedy, it actually comprises some of the earliest stories.
Like the introductory story of the series, this one has a consistent arc of plot and tone, and is much more concerned with Elric's psychological struggles than some of the others, where he is more standoffish and archetypally mythic.
There is also an interesting crossover here between Elric's story and the historical myths that inspired him--namely the Song of Roland, and it is an interesting choice on Moorcock's part to create a literal connection to his inspirations instead of merely a symbolic, allusive one. It is another sign of his authorial inventiveness and boldness to delve suddenly into pastiche and give his mythic world a very real connection to his reader's reality.
Once again, I am struck by the fact that, reading the entirety of the original Elric tales, I have grossed about eight-hundred-fifty pages, and in that space, have gotten a character's life: his several loves, many companions met, befriended, lost, and mourned, empires destroyed, mythical realms explored, and a worldwide war begun, waged, and concluded. In many other fantasy series, I might still be waiting for the plot to actually pick up.
Already I have gotten a depth and breadth that exceeds many longer works, and that is despite the fact that several of the Elric stories are experiments that never quite concluded, and thus acted as filler. I know that Elric is not quite an 'Epic Fantasy' (though it does have some epic scope), but it seems to me that too few authors actually have enough ideas to actually fill a series the length of the average epic.
Moorcock does have a wealth of ideas, many of them promising and unusual, and it's unfortunate that Moorcock never quite explores them all, though he has said that for him, the Elric stories were just the opening forays for concepts he would develop more fully later, and so I look forward to reading those later books and seeing how his promising concepts play out when he has the opportunity to put more time and thought into them. One complaint I had with the stories was that the interesting magical cosmology of the world never seemed to manifest in the characters, who tended to be more mythical than psychologically complex, and if, in the future, Moorcock is able to rectify this, it would deepen his fantasy immensely.
The conclusion is impressive, and if all of the stories had the same drive, continuity of tone, and depth of psychology, it would be a much stronger series. As it stands, it is an interesting experiment, an exploration of fantastical concepts that, if not as focused as we might hope, at least present a unique, inspiring vision of what fantasy can be.
There is an unusual tonal conflict central to almost all of the Elric series between the complex, metaphysical, magical world and the rather straightfThere is an unusual tonal conflict central to almost all of the Elric series between the complex, metaphysical, magical world and the rather straightforward, formulaic characters. Elric, himself shows some complexity and nuanced introspection in the very first story, but then the focus changes and we embark upon a sequence of adventures where a recognizable pattern emerges.
Again and again we see Elric battling against difficult odds, his terrible sword at first ably defending him, but soon its strength fails, and he is compelled to call upon pacts with spirits for aid, never certain whether they will obey or abandon him. Sometimes this is done well, and the summoned creature gives us an insight into how Moorcock's world works--and while it may temporarily solve Elric's problem, another conflict often develops from that solution.
When it is not done as well, it becomes predictable, a standard way to resolve story conflicts. Yet, I am reluctant to entirely condemn it, even then, since it is really no more repetitive than the fantasy hero who fights his way out of everything, or who calls upon some inner magical strength to inevitably overcome.
In addition, there is something mythic in the formulaic way that Moorcock constructs his stories and characters. It reminds me of how Howard always refers to Conan as 'panther-like', sometimes several times a story. At first this just looks redundant and sloppy, until one begins to think in terms of Homer or other classic epics, where the repetition of certain elements, particularly descriptions, becomes a character motif, like the epithet of a king.
Moorcock's stylistic formula extends beyond this convention, however. After the first book, I kept waiting for Elric's character to catch up with the complex metaphysics of his world, but he never does. It never quite extends down to the characters, because they are not created with the same philosophical outlook.
They are not, fundamentally, characters of existential realism and modern psychology, but mythic, archetypal figures, who develop friendships or rivalry insouciantly, who bear loves and hates that are ultimately facile. Like Beowulf or Roland, they are beholden to the plot, and their motivations, more often than not, are not willful, but received.
Which is why it is all the more unusual that the world, the cosmology, the many dimensions and realities, the magic, the gods, and the spirits tend to be so strikingly modern, owing more to quantum theories than to the great traditions. The characters cast their eyes back, while the world is halfway into an unknown future, which produces a rather strange effect. It is not that the characters are never existential, it is rather that, if they do have existential thoughts, they approach them like mythic archetypes would.
So, to some degree, I have stopped waiting for Elric to become a fully-fleshed, modern character, realizing that I only expected it because of the modern philosophy which underpins Moorcock's world. However, I am wary about declaring this experiment of his a total success. It is certainly interesting, unusual, and thought-provoking, but I am not sure that these two parts ever find a real common ground.
One definition of genius is 'the ability to take disparate ideas and synthesize them into a single, new idea', and while Moorcock sometimes approaches this, he never quite succeeds so fully that it satisfies, and so the core of the world and the characters are always strangely at odds.
More than this, the stories sometimes lack focus. They do not always have a central tone or idea that ties them together, even if there is a progression of plot, it can be somewhat arbitrary. Yet in this book, we get some of the most vibrant, cohesive tales in the entire series, reminiscent of the sort of focused excitement that make the Conan and Lankhmar stories so delightful.
These stories were almost enough to pull out a four-star rating, but it still felt rather patchwork, with some stories running too long, others feeling rushed, and rarely a strong enough central tone to tie them together into a larger arc. I have one more story to read before I try one of the much later Elric stories, and I am very curious to see whether Moorcock is able to tighten his ideas into a more streamlined conceptual whole, as he did in Gloriana.
In my last two reviews, I have talked about how Moorcock's fevered imagination keeps these books aloft, even when the plot seems to grow disconnectedIn my last two reviews, I have talked about how Moorcock's fevered imagination keeps these books aloft, even when the plot seems to grow disconnected from the series, or the characters grow repetitive, but he seems to be losing steam, for this book moves along apace, advancing the plot here and there, but not materially adding anything new to our understanding of the world or the characters.
Moorcock's shorter plot arcs lack the grand set pieces and focus which make Leiber's and Howard's works so delightful, and even if the brief episodes which make up the larger plot might be called 'short stories', they do not show the completeness or unity of idea of Conan or Lankhmar.
I keep longing for a return to form from Moorcock, wishing that he could combine those moments of lucid, pretty prose with his wild metaphysical magics and the brooding introspection which first defined Elric. But alas, it grows harder to look past his errors when he begins to repeat himself.
As usual, he has problems finding scenes which illustrate his characters, and so he ends up relying on exposition, or on the characters talking at length about their own thoughts and reactions, which always ends up feeling stilted and incomplete, especially when those traits are not always outwardly demonstrated.
the series itself begins to grow repetitive, as Elric is always followed by some bosom compatriot, who by the end will be betrayed, or killed, or lost, or all three. Likewise there are the female interests, who seem to traipse in and out of Elric's life to torment him, but who often have little character of their own.
The series focuses narrowly, sometimes unsparingly, upon Elric himself, but it feels as if much more could be done with his character if he had an equally strong supporting cast to play off of. When secondary characters are summarily introduced and dropped, it becomes harder for them to have any effect on Elric--and if they do produce some sudden effect upon him, it can feel rather overly convenient if the relationship has not yet been fully-developed.
One of the hallmarks of the Conan series is that in each story, Howard shows us very different sides of Conan: different humors, desires, fears, and outlooks. In the first three stories we get Conan young, aged, and full-grown, and each portrayal depicts a different sort of man.
Clearly, with Elric, we would not expect so drastic a shift, as we follow him from place to place in chronological order, but I do find myself disappointed that we don't tend to see other sides to Elric: he is always brooding, somewhat naive, and less callous than he imagines himself. I keep waiting to find something surprising in him, some aspect of depth before unexplored.
In short, I wait for the mad philosophical explorations which live in Moorcock's magic to reach Elric, to show up in him in some fundamental way, to change him or leave a trace on him, to become an exploration of his character, and more than that, of his possibility.
The series is always looking forward, always moving forward--sometimes too quickly, sometimes without a chance to build or pause or ponder--but always moving; and I have to ask myself: for what? Where are we going?
Certainly there are hints, there are moments of conflict and feeling for Elric, but rarely are they given time to emerge, rarely is the story constructed so as to reveal them naturally. If they are not constructed carefully, over time, then when they arrive, they will always be too early, or too late, and seem almost inconsequential in the face of the vast cosmic conflict which tends to make up the heart of the story.
Elric feels weak and unsure. He travels somewhere to reach something strange and magical which has piqued his interest. He battles an otherworldly thing, which he defeats, but he now feels drained. He wanders through a strange dimension and faces another thing, which is powerful and dangerous. He almost dies, but then he summons something and it saves him. the most recent of a series of doomed soldier friends saves him and makes an ironic quip (always ironic). Elric departs no richer than he arrived, and despondent at his failure.
I am still enjoying this series, and it shows a lot of promise, but at this point, the gap between what it is and what it could be is widening. Sure, it's still more interesting, original, and better-written than most of the fantasy out there, but I'm desperate for it to really find its groove. Moorcock has the tools, I just want to see him use them all at once.
Too few fantasy authors ask what 'magic' means, which is a problem, since, with a few notable exceptions, magic is what makes fantasy fantastical. WheToo few fantasy authors ask what 'magic' means, which is a problem, since, with a few notable exceptions, magic is what makes fantasy fantastical. When reading Moorcock, it becomes clear you have found an author who is very interested in exploring what 'magic' is, and who has made very deliberate decisions about what his magic means.
Magic is a conceptual space. It was created, inadvertently, as a representation of the inner reality of human thought, as opposed to the external reality of the physical world. Human beings saw the physical world around them and, in attempting to understand it, created a matching symbolic world in their heads.
They looked at a river, which moves and changes, floods, and pulls people under, and they imagined a River Spirit for it. They would have a string of bad luck, remember a person who had spoken ill of them, and imagined they were cursed. Magic mostly exists as a way for people to take inexplicable things and imagine how they might be controlled or personified, hence making them more 'human'. So magic is largely symbolic, because it is made up of ideas, of the meanings that we create to make sense of the world around us.
Thus, anyone who has studied the history of magic, from epic poems, myths, theology, and early sciences--like astrology and alchemy--can see that magic shifts and changes with time to match the changes in how people think. As a conceptual, metaphysical space, magic is made to fit our changing ideas and philosophies.
Because of this, magic is fundamentally different in different cultures and at different time periods, because of what the people in those places and times are capable of imagining. If you go back to the myths of the Ancient Greeks, you will not find teleportation, alternate realities, or time-travel, because these ideas are based on modern knowledge and theories.
When the gods move swiftly from one place to another, they must still pass the intervening space--however quickly--because dematerialization does not have a place in the ancient Greek worldview. We may get visions of the afterlife and spirits who take the form of men, but they not the concept of an alternate world which is like ours, and which contains an alternate 'you'.
In plotting my own fantastical stories, I have often struggled in deciding whether or not to include such modern concepts in my magic, fearing that my story would end up like so many others: with characters, politics, and magic feeling so thoroughly contemporary that barely anything fantastical remains. When an author makes magic a simple replacement for technology, a tool for resolving plot conflicts so the characters don't have to, structuring it with points and levels and 'schools' like a videogame, it ceases to feel magical.
What makes it magical is when it is unpredictable, unusual, and when, instead of solving all the characters' problems, it makes new problems. But until reading Moorcock, I had not considered that since magic is built from the geography of the human mind, it could be used to look forward as well as back through time.
A fantasy author who seeks to capture the feel of the past must research, and must make sure the psychology of his characters and his magic give the reader insight into a different place and time. Likewise, a fantasy author can take a cue from authors of Science Fiction (and Speculative Fiction) and show us a vision of the future of human thought, even if it is dressed in the trappings of an ancient myth. Apparently, the problem with dull genre fantasy authors is not that they are too modern in their thinking, but that they are not modern enough.
As I mentioned in my review of the first volume in the Elric series, Moorcock draws on many unusual concepts in crafting his world, so that his magic is equal parts quantum mechanics and myth. The result is something wholly unique: a mythology of modern scientific concepts which are just as strange, unpredictable, and awe-inspiring as any ancient god.
In the second volume of the series, he allows his imagination to fly away with the concept, abandoning for the moment the introspective political intrigue that marked the first plot arc, and diving headfirst into something much more unusual. Instead of slowly building to a climax, we are immediately thrust through time, across dimensions, into dream and myth and symbol, where ships of fate ferry a handful of different faces of the same man to a rendezvous with the end of the world, where selves must be combined, Shiva-like, to save a universe already lost from what may be a robot and his sister.
It is jarring to say the least for Moorcock to leave us with a certain expectation after the previous book and then to abscond on this daring vision of half-dreams. Though the structure is sometimes less than flowing, and the prose rises to moments of greater beauty than the first volume, what carries it all over is the pure, unbridled imagination.
It is a vision that has proven very influential over the past half-century of fantasy--though it is an influence which often goes unrecognized. From the man-doomed-to-live to the soul-stealing sword to the battle between the forces of law and chaos over an entire 'multiverse' of realities, one is bound to find echoes of him in most modern fantasy, though sadly, very few of authors have done as much with the concepts and Moorcock did, and most have just reused them thoughtlessly, failing to recognize what made them interesting in the first place.
Eventually, Moorcock gets us back on track toward the central plot, but each smaller story is its own unique arc, reminiscent of the technique used by Howard and Leiber of creating many brief stories which suggest a larger, more complex world in the gaps between them, though since Moorcock's stories have fewer gaps, there is not quite the same sense of scale.
I would have appreciated more story and less explanation, and more character and psychology, allowing the vastness of the many worlds to loom mysteriously. Moorcock is not foolish enough to make his world truly small by over-explanation, but I enjoy a story more when the setting serves the characters and the plot, and not vice versa, and Moorcock sometimes crosses that line.
But throughout he is surprising, as the ideas drive the story along at a clip. It sometimes feels as if Moorcock is worried that his story might not be different enough, that he needs to establish the incomprehensibly vast strangeness of his world quickly and fully, but that's the thing about the incomprehensibly vast: it can't really afford to be rushed.
There is little risk of Moorcock being like other writers because he has a thoughtful, well-considered direction for his world. He has asked himself what magic means, what purpose it serves, and what sort of tool it is for him, as an author, and he has a good answer. If magic represents the inner-workings of human thought, then why should it have any limits other than what we are capable of thinking?
I have spent a long time searching for a modern fantastical epic which is worth reading. It seems like there should be one, out there, somewhere. I haI have spent a long time searching for a modern fantastical epic which is worth reading. It seems like there should be one, out there, somewhere. I have so enjoyed the battlefields of Troy, the dank cavern of Grendel's dam, Dido's lament, Ovid's hundred wild-spun tales, perfidious Odysseus, the madness of Orlando, Satan's twisted rhetoric, and Gilgamesh's sea-voyage to the forgotten lands of death. And so I seek some modern author to reinvent these tales with some sense of scholarship, poetry, character, and adventure.
There are many great modern fantasies, but the epic subgenre lacks luster. In reading the offerings--Martin, Jordan, Goodkind, Paolini, even much-lauded Wolfe--I have found them all wanting. They are all flawed in the same ways: their protagonists are dull caricatures of some universal 'badass' ideal, plot conflicts are glossed-over with magic or convenient deaths, the magic itself is not a mysterious force but a familiar tool, and women are made secondary or worse (though the authors often talk about how women are strong and independent, the women never actually act that way).
But then, they are all acolytes of Old Tolkien, who is as stodgy, unromantic, and methodical as a fantasist can be (without being C.S. Lewis). Though I respect Tolkien's work as a well-researched literary exercise, it is hard to forgive him for making it acceptable to write fantasy which is so dull, aimless, and self-absorbed. It is unfortunate that so many people think that fantasy began with Tolkien, because that is a great falsehood, and anyone who believes it does not really know fantasy at all. It nearly died with him.
Yet there are many who do think he started it. They like to comment on reviews, especially reviews of their favorite books--especially negative reviews of their favorite books--which have, lamentably, become a specialty of mine. And often, they end up asking me "Well, what fantasy do you like?" There are many I could name, numerous favorites which have shocked and overawed me, which have shaken me to my core, which have shown me worlds and magic I dared not dream. But none of them are epics.
I could mention Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a powerfully self-possessed work and one of the only fantasies of the past twenty years that I consider worth reading--the other is China Mieville's Perdido Street Station--but these are a Victorian alternate history continuation of the British Fairy Tale tradition and a New Weird Urban Fantasy, respectively. I could mention Mervyn Peake's Titus books, which so powerfully inhabit my five-star rating that Mieville and Clarke must be relegated to four--but this is a work whose fantastical nature would probably not even be apparent to most fantasy enthusiasts.
Alas they are not good counter-examples. I can (and do) mention Robert E. Howard's Conan, and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series, but these are fast-paced adventure stories, and though their worlds may be vast, mysterious, and grand, the stories themselves lack the hyperopic arc at the heart of an epic work.
But there have been many suggestions, many readers who have come to my aid, and who have named authors I might look to next, in my quest: Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael De Larrabietti, John M. Harrison, Scott Lynch, Patricia McKillip, and John Crowley (Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss have been both suggested and sneered at). It is my hope that, somewhere amongst them, I will find the exemplary epic fantasy I am looking for--but I haven't found it in Moorcock.
Moorecock is good, he has scope, depth, complexity, and long, twisting plots, but at their core, his stories are modern, metaphysical, and subversive. They are light and lilting, ironical and wry--too quick and twisting to be 'epic'. The characters are introspective and self-aware, and it is clear that it is they, and not the world, who will be at the forefront.
It is all so thoroughly modern, so reinvented, full of sprightly ideas and metaphysical brooding. But it is decidedly not modern in the accidental, self-defeating ways of all those pretenders to the 'epic' title. The characters are not merely the male-fantasy counterpart of a bodice ripper, with modern, familiar minds dressed thinly in Medieval costume. The world is not simply our world with an overlay of castles--dragons for jet fighters, spells for guns, with modern politics and sensibilities.
No, Moorcock's world and characters are alien and fantastical, but Moorcock does not achieve this by ripping them whole-cloth from history, but by extrapolating them from modern philosophical ideas. Fantasy stories have always been full of dreamscapes, of impossible places for the reader to inhabit. These places draw us in, somehow we recognize them, like our own dreams, because of what they represent.
Anthropomorphism is the human tendency to see people where there are none: to see smiling faces in wood grain, to assign complex emotional motivations to cats, and to curse at the storm that breaks our window. The 'Other World' of British Fairy Tales is based on the latter: the assigning of our luck--good and bad--to capricious spirits. The world of fairy has rules (as do storms), but those rules are mostly a mystery to man.
But Moorcock's world personifies the ideas of Kant and Nietzsche: his 'Other Worlds' (called 'Planes') are those of the human mind: they are places of morality, like heaven and hell, except he has updated the concept to existential morality. There is Chaos, and there is Law; Chaos is the selfish urge, Law the communal urge, and he arrays his magic, spirits, and dreamscapes along this axis.
Like Milton, he has infused his epic with the latest thoughts and notions, updating it for the modern age. Also like Milton, Moorcock's influence has been felt, far and wide, despite the fact that most people do not recognize it.
The Dungeons & Dragons game prominently used his Law/Chaos dichotomy, among other concepts, and his 'Wheel of Psychic Planes' is an influence on their most audacious and unusual publication, the philosophical 'Steampunk' setting, Planescape. And many of these tropes have filtered down into the grab-bag common to the modern voice of fantasy stories.
Reading Elric, one will invariably be reminded of a dozen other books and games, as Elric drinks endless potions to maintain his strength and vitality, slaying twisted demons on a plane of fire in search of a rune-sword, dressed in ornate black armor and a dragon-helm. Indeed, the central mythology (and much of the plot) of the Elder Scrolls games--in particular Oblivion--owe a vast debt to Elric and his world, and not simply for the land of 'Elwher'.
Clearly, Moorcock's odd vision has been transcribed onto the imaginations of fantasists, but as with those who were inspired by Tolkien, most of his followers have failed to recreate the weight of the original message. Except for a few outliers, like Planescape and Perdido Street Station, most authors have copied the outward appearance of Moorcock's alien world, but were not skilled or knowledgeable enough to take the substance along with the form--the existential ideas, the vital core of his dreamscapes, are most often missing, or at best, faded.
But while the ideas and the overall vision are strong--even compared to the ubiquitous attempts to recreate them--there are a number of flaws in Moorcock's presentation. The first and most damaging is a weakness in the voice. Moorcock has a lot to say, but must sometimes resort to explaining his ideas to us. He is not always able to deliver his world and characters through interactions, hints, tone, and actions. He is hardly an inexperienced enough author to explain to us that which is already self-evident, but it is a weakness in his delivery which sometimes takes us out of the flow of the story, so that we must step back from the world and listen to Moorcock talk about it, though he does do his best to veil it with Elric's thoughts.
Secondly, it can be difficult to get a strong impression of his characters, they are often difficult to sympathize with or to predict. It isn't that they aren't vivid and active, but that their actions are often based around ideas and concepts--the things Moorcock built his world on--which can create a sense of a top-down world, where the characters are there to fulfill a purpose, to explore various notions and philosophies.
The book is certainly not an allegory--there are no easy one-to-one correlations to be made between characters and ideas, but the world does not revolve around personalities--except, perhaps, for Elric's, but his thoughts and motivations are often the most difficult to reconcile. The personalities of all the other characters are, more or less, wholly dependent on him.
To some degree, the characters seem to operate on much older fantasy rules: their capricious yet repetitive acts becoming motifs for the larger ideas in the story, not unlike Tolkien's fantasy forefather, E.R. Eddison, whose characters seem half-mad with heroism for its own sake (another candidate for my favorite epic, if I didn't think his beautiful, deliberate archaism might prove too remote for many readers).
Part of the reason for this is that Elric's personality and world were created as an exercise, and with an explicit purpose: to portray the anti-Conan. He is sickly, weak, pale, effeminate, sorcerous, erudite, cruel, reluctant, intellectual, and hardly promiscuous. Conan becomes king by his own hand, while Elric begins as emperor and we witness the hardships of his downfall.
But this contrariness, while coloring the story, is hardly its center. Moorcock uses it as a springboard--an inspiration to drive him to something greater. It is one more example of the fact that genius is at its best when it has a lofty challenge before it. Moorcock is not interested in making a parody, but in exploring a little-trodden path, operating on the notion that if you start with something familiar and begin to move away from it, you are bound to end up somewhere else.
I must also mention an unbelievable incident involving a group of blind soldiers, which put dire strain to credulity. A bit of creative myth or capricious magic could have saved it, but as it stands in the book, it makes little sense.
But despite the subtle weaknesses in voice and characterization, Moorcock's idiomatic adventure story is eminently enjoyable. There are few fantasy books I could name which suggest such a playful intellect as this, and though it is not as wildly imaginative as his Gloriana, this philosophical exploration disguised as a pulp adventure is a delightful read that never gets bogged-down in indulging its own thoughtfulness.
Back when I was a young fencing coach, I had an epiphany about how skill develops that has come to define the way I approach learning. I'd be workingBack when I was a young fencing coach, I had an epiphany about how skill develops that has come to define the way I approach learning. I'd be working with students who might have been fencing for a few weeks or a few months when a new face would walk in. I'd put a sword in his hand and set him up against one of the others and, as often as not, the newcomer would win, despite having no foreknowledge of fencing.
His frustrated opponent would sigh, shake his head, and declare "it's not my fault, he was doing weird stuff". When we first begin to practice any activity, we have no preconception for how it's going to feel, for the rhythm or the most effective techniques--we just do what comes to mind.
Then, we are taught all the basic rules, and these rules can be constraining. I could beat every one of those regular students because I knew how to deal with circle parries, ripostes, and balestras. There was nothing about the direction of attack or the changes in distance that was going to surprise me. Learning the rules changes how you think about the game, and it makes you predictable.
I've seen the same pattern in writers: often, their first few works are vivid and unusual, difficult to pin down. Writing is still a challenge to them, an unfamiliar thing which they must figure out as they go along, and creativity is the result of trying to overcome difficulty.
After a while, they begin to settle in to a mode. They have figured out what works for them, they have the methods and shortcuts down. But without hardship to drive them, this can lead to predictable, repetitive work.
This is the second volume in Del Ray's collection of the Conan stories, and it is the only collection of all Howard's original manuscripts for those stories, untainted by later editors. As I mentioned in my review, the earlier stories from the first volume are wilder, and show more variability, depicting Conan at many points in his life, dealing with a number of different situations.
This volume is more homogenous: they are about an older Conan embroiled in political machinations, which was enjoyable for a student of history, as anyone who has read Tacitus or Sallust cannot fail to recognize Howard's stylistic inspiration.
That isn't to say that the stories do not also contain the patented bloody action which Conan is known for, but for the first time I began to feel that Conan didn't need action. His stories are always about human desires, about interaction and struggle, and open conflict is only one way to resolve such conflicts. Howard shows he is willing and capable of exploring other aspects of his world, and that, unlike other authors who wrote about the character, Howard never forgets that Conan is not merely some emotionless killer, but a man with "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth".
But the style and tone of these stories becomes predictable. We do not get the subversive women or eccentric secondary characters, instead there are mostly cliches and placeholders, dull copies of figures we've seen in earlier stories. It seems like Howard has settled into a groove here, which isn't beneficial for pulp or weird fiction.
But there is one thing in this collection that is new for Howard: length. Many authors have tried to transition from short works to novels, and it's rarely a pretty thing to watch. For later master of Sword & Sorcery Fritz Leiber, the additional length meant a loss of pace and depth. Whereas before, a hundred pages would hold a half dozen stories, each with its own tone and setting, now it was all the continuation of a single tone.
But Howard shows that he is able to make the transition without losing his fast pace or his myriad views of the world. Though the novel-length Hour of the Dragon takes many themes and ideas from previous stories, the way they are woven together with action, intrigue, and a larger, overarching plot is skillful. There is no filler there--indeed, there are a number of scenes that could have run on longer, with more detail, without hurting the book's pace.
The larger plot is reliant on that genre standby: the fetch quest for the magical mcguffin--but Howard's treatment of it is not as simplistic or convenient as most genre books. Conan doesn't port the thing around in his pocket and pull it out to get himself out of jams, the same magic both opens and closes the action of the plot, and the item itself has its own history, distinct from the events of the plot. Beyond that, any careful reader familiar with the Mythos connection between Lovecraft and Howard will see numerous clues about how magic in Conan's world has a more insidious, cosmic source.
What was disappointing in the story was the fact that, despite depicting an ancient, pre-deluge world, the combat was all described in terms of high chivalric cavalry charges, longbows, and heavy armor. It would have been more interesting to see a take on Greek or Roman warfare instead of a rehash of Doyle's White Company.
So it seems that after his early experiments, stories that were sometimes erratic but rarely repetitious, Howard has settled into a more predictable style, that plateau we all hit after we have learned and internalized a set of rules. But then, why learn them in the first place? The secret is that once we have mastered those rules, once they are second nature, we can begin again to experiment, and to become unpredictable.
Though many think of a 'black belt' as the sign of a master, in truth it is the sign that a student has learned all of those basic things which must be gotten out of the way before the real learning can start. Once those basic elements no longer occupy us, we are free to really explore.
So, here's my hope: that in the third volume, Howard will be able to combine the creativity of his early works with the reliability of this middle stretch so that his final stories will will live up to their reputation as the strongest of the Conan tales....more
A lot of fun, much like the stories that inspired them. Though Chaykin's pacing is sometimes choppy, his use of the language is delightfully in-characA lot of fun, much like the stories that inspired them. Though Chaykin's pacing is sometimes choppy, his use of the language is delightfully in-character. It's unfortunate that the series didn't catch on, it could have been a more humorous compliment to the many successful Conan comics.
As usual, Mignola is a delight, though it's amusing to see him at a much earlier stage, where his lines are more sketchy and his angular shading has that definitively early nineties 'edgy' look so favored in comics and Vampire roleplaying books. I love his draughtsmanship, particularly the buildings and statuary, which manage to be intricate and mysterious without relying on the obsessive miscellany of a Bachalo or Darrow.
It's always interesting to see how artists characterize Fafhrd and the Mouser, since they are not as narrowly-defined as Conan or John Carter. The Mouser, in particular, has always been a shifting, undefined figure in my mind, with the sort of average, forgettable face that lets a thief lose himself in any crowd.
Mignola's Mouser is a little more beefy and heroic, with sharp, Eastern-European features, which I found an interesting vision, and fitting for the character. I also appreciated Mignola's range of expression and the pure personality of his characters, something all too rare in comics, where wooden faces scream with an unsettlingly even mixture of joy, hatred, pain, and sorrow.
In the end, there's no replacement for an inspired artist....more
What it is that makes Howard so much more compelling than his many imitators? To the untrained eye, it may be hard to see differences, since his faultWhat it is that makes Howard so much more compelling than his many imitators? To the untrained eye, it may be hard to see differences, since his faults are sometimes more readily apparent than his virtues, though he has plenty of both. Some might try to 'salvage him' from his pulp origins, but despite all his literary aspirations, I'm happy to call him a pulp author, and one of the best.
I have a great deal of praise for this edition in particular, volume one of a three-part series which collects for the first time Howard's Conan stories as he originally wrote them, without the meddling of either magazine editors or De Camp (who shamelessly rewrote Howard's unfinished stories to match his own views, and released them as 'originals'). It is also first to publish them in pure chronological order, eschewing all and sundry attempts to produce an official 'internal chronology'.
Howard meant the order to be somewhat ambiguous, mimicking the epics and histories that inspired the names and events of his stories. Our delightful editor plays the old Lit Crit game of connecting all the dots from the Conan tales to their origins in Plutarch, Bullfinch's Mythology, Lovecraft, or Bierce. I'm indebted to her for helping me to see Conan with new eyes by lending me the perspective of the Howard scholar.
Seeing the way his world sprang up from notes, sketches, and maps is fascinating, and the critical essays try to get a little more mileage out of Lovecraft's misunderstanding of Howard's pseudo-historical names. They are meant to be evocative of a world that, while familiar, still holds surprises. We can recognize a type, a historic conflict, terrain, and temperament without being tied down to the specificity of true historical fiction.
Howard did not want so narrow a view, and was never a stickler for small details, as evidenced by the singular madness his chronologers develop trying to account for the appearance and disappearance of Conan's red cloak and horned helm throughout the stories. Howard liked an underpinning of consistency, but excitement and story always took precedence, which is why, despite drawing names and plots from history (much as Shakespeare did), he never let them bog down his stories, always aiming, above all, to entertain.
When I say that we get Howard without editorial meddling, we must still understand that he was writing for an audience, and that much of the excitement and titillation in his tales was a sugaring of his pill for the lower denominator. Yet for all that, much of his psychology and sexual politics is deceptively complex. It is easy to dismiss him as a cliche strong man with an endless following of swooning women, but there is something more subtle at work.
Firstly, each story that shows Conan in a relationship is written from the point of view of the woman. Often, Conan does not even appear until after her character and situation are already developed. We rarely get an emotional insight into Conan, into his plans or emotions, but we do see into his heroines, which is the reverse of most fantasy romances.
In addition, Conan is often painted as the object of desire. The author's vision rests equally on the desirability of Conan and of the women, showing how and why feeling might develop between them. Conan, having been raised outside of civil society, cannot charm the women, bargain with them for favors, or fool them. His appeal is not that he has wealth, prestige, or grooming, but that he is attractive, confident, physically powerful, guileless, and does not mingle his desires with ulterior motive. He is part 'bad boy', but he is also attractive because he lies outside the arena of sexual politics.
The women are often the victims of civilization; that is to say, they have been carefully bred to be beautiful, desirable, and controlled. They rarely have power in their own cultures, often finding themselves at the whims of powerful men, and so it makes sense that they would seek out Conan, who is not a part of this unbalanced social system, and who has the physical and mental strength to extricate them from their perilous powerlessness.
On the surface, "The Vale of Lost Women" is the story which most condemns Howard as a chauvinist (and racist), but there is a subtle subversion within the tale that shows Howard as a much more canny student of the human condition than most give him credit for. The premise of the story doesn't do Howard any favors, and certainly hasn't aged well: a well-bred white woman has been captured by a barbaric pseudo-African tribe by whom Conan has found himself employed.
He finds the woman accidentally, during a revel, chained up in a tent, and she begs him to release her, saying that surely not even a barbarian like him would leave a white woman in the hands of the cruel black chief. It's hard to read without feeling a lump of political correctness rise in our throats--but socially and historically, it's neither and absurd statement, nor an insulting one.
'Odalisques' or white, virgin girls were the most valuable in trade for Barbary pirates to Moorish harems. Even today, Black women get fewer responses in online dating than any other race/sex group. Just because it's unpleasant doesn't mean that it isn't socially true, and just because it is a social fact doesn't mean that it is an ultimate truth.
We can say it is a social fact that women have been controlled and judged by the slut/virgin dichotomy, but that doesn't mean that they desire to be controlled, or to be sluts or virgins. It also doesn't mean that stories which portray this unfortunate dynamic necessarily support it. Machiavelli wrote about the way the world was, not the way he thought it ought to be.
Let me say that again: just because a writer says that white women are more culturally valuable doesn't mean that they are any more attractive, intelligent, or worthwhile than any other person. Cultural values are funny things, and don't necessarily align with real values. Just because someone is willing to pay $500 for a rare Beanie Baby doesn't mean that a Beanie Baby is somehow better than a comparatively cheaper encyclopedia or road atlas.
It's easy to get hung up on what the author is specifically saying, and hard to step beyond it and look at how and why it's being said. A character's statement is different from an author's, and Howard is surprisingly careful to keep social observations in the mouths of characters, not the narrative voice. After her appeal to racial loyalty, the woman offers herself to Conan in exchange for being freed from the tribe, aghast at the lengths to which she must go. But Conan laughs.
He laughs and tells her that she is sadly mistaken if she assumes that she can merely trade sex for favors, as she has been taught to do in civilized society. It's this simple observation that shows that both Howard and Conan are better students of the human condition than they get credit for. For Conan, sex does not have this connotation of a social trade, it is an act engaged in out of desire, not coercion. This separation is the same conclusion Angela Carter makes about De Sade in her incomparable Sadeian Woman, that the trade value of sex must be unveiled and demystified in order to approach any kind of sexual equality.
We must recall that this understanding of sex is enforced on both sides, and that if women have an artificially increased value in sexual social trade, it will eclipse any other value they have, or that they might wish to have, and few will consider them as anything else.
But Conan, being outside of that system, values women differently. After his moment of insight, he shocks us back with his barbarism, saying he really couldn't leave a white girl like her in the hands of the chief, and that he's tired of 'black sluts', which is unpleasant and unsympathetic enough to clamp our minds shut again, though whether it might be true to the world or character, I leave up to you. After all, it is rare that a person raised under one set of signifiers for attractiveness learns in later life how to appreciate a completely different idea of beauty.
He does decide to save her, but not in trade for sexual favor, which once again separates Howard from the thud and blunder writers who followed him. Again and again, if we look at Conan's scattered romantic relationships, we see that he is only interested in the fulfillment of mutual desire, and that the woman's side of the relationship is often the side Howard chooses to explore. Conan rejects the notion of coercing women, let alone forcing them, as beneath him.
He doesn't pressure women, or conquer them, or trade for sex, and the women are constantly surprised at his lack of overture, his refusal to make a game out of the whole thing, or a schoolboy's lovesick obsession. But then, Conan is less interested in an 'erotic victory' than in mutually beneficial pleasure, even if that pleasure is not socially condoned, and is, instead transgressively focused on female desire. Conan's outsider status as a barbarian allows him to approach women on more-or-less equal terms, giving them an opportunity to reject the values which bind them and to choose for themselves.
Sure, the relationships and their consummation can be idealized and romantic--they're still pulp--and I'm not claiming Howard didn't harbor certain racist and sexist opinions, but the way these themes develop psychologically in his work is rarely so simple. Howard, like Conan, was a man of contradiction and surprising subtlety.
His language also makes his work stand out from the pack: high-energy, evocative, and well-paced, his world and characters are always alive and active on the page. He takes generously from his historical and literary influences, playing with vocabulary and style to evoke a far-off period without growing so distant that he risks losing the uninitiated, as an eccentric linguist like Eddison is liable to do.
One thing the reader must come to terms with in order to enjoy him is Howard's repetition. He has favored words, phrases, and descriptions that come up again and again throughout the stories, and sometimes they feel like crutches. Part of it is that these were to be consumed as single stories, so some repetition would not likely have been noticed--but it happens even within a story.
At these points, I am tempted to compare Howard to the deliberate repetition of the epic tradition of the 'Homeric Epithet', an oft-repeated poetic phrase that becomes part of the rhythm of the text, such as "wine dark sea" or "long-haired Acheans"--or the way every warrior in the Shahnameh is described as a lion, and every beautiful woman is a cypruss. Howard knows that there is power in phrases, and by repeating them, he creates motifs, identities, and connections. But, as usual for Howard, it's a combination of highs and lows: we get glimpses of his powerful, poetic language intermixed with his less effective, florid attempts.
But more than even his most effective prose (and occasional, surprisingly unoffending poetry), what sets Howard apart is his pure storytelling. His sense of pacing is admirable, often cutting out unnecessary scenes that other writers would not have realized were redundant. The stories flow along, drawing equally from the verisimilitude of historic tales and the archetypal form of the adventure story.
He moves fluidly through themes and styles, combining romance, war stories, supernatural horror, political thriller, and treasure hunting all in one story, maintaining a lilting, surprising pace without losing the story's center. His stories as a whole also work to build a grander world, much of it left for the reader to complete between hints and loose threads. There is a definite sense of historical discovery in this style, and the first three Howard stories give us Conan as a king, as an untried youth, and as a wary reaver.
Read a hundred pages of Conan and you will get a picture of a whole life, a man in different stages, changed by the world. We also get a glimpse of that world, and understanding of its places and ways without being explicitly told what they are. Compare this to almost any other fantasy writer, and they will come up short.
A hundred pages of Tolkien, Jordan, Goodkind, or Wolfe, and you haven't even left the protagonist's home. You won't get a view of the world, nor character growth. You might read a thousand pages of a fantasy series and see less growth than you would in a few Conan stories.
My question has always been: what do we gain from those thousands of extra pages? A more exciting story? A more complex world? A deeper character? Sadly, the answer is often no. Few authors seem to have taken Howard's lesson that saying more isn't as easy as simply writing more.
But then, Howard set the bar pretty high. There's nothing wrong with pulp, because pulp is written for an audience. Too often, these days, one seems to find authors obsessed with a kind of 'pure' writing that refuses to bow to any audience, editor, or sense of fun, and all you're really left with is pretension.
I think I'll stick with pulp for a while, and I'm eager to get the next two volumes of this collection, because, for all his flaws, it's still hard to find a fantasy writer who can better Howard.
Picked this up because it was a cheap collection of many of Howard's Conan stories. I've since gotten the much more thorough and accurate Del Ray collPicked this up because it was a cheap collection of many of Howard's Conan stories. I've since gotten the much more thorough and accurate Del Ray collection (though only the first volume), which I suggest highly. This edition doesn't include any of the stories De Camp altered and finished, publishing them under Howard's name posthumously, so one need not worry about bowdlerization or other tampering.
Curiously, this edition was published in Thailand, which is likely cheaper, but I wonder if they are also profiting by the fact that in most countries besides America, Howard's stories recently entered the public domain, which isn't likely to happen here as long as the Mickey Mouse Laws keep getting passed.
What marks this book as particularly cheap are the slapdash illustrations, one of which is featured on the cover in blotchy color. If this is the same John Ridgway who made a name for himself in 2000AD, Hellblazer, and Judge Dredd, I'm at a loss to explain the sad quality of the art here. There are occasionally signs of quality in the hatching or backgrounds, but for the most part the drawings are indistinct, lacking in chiaroscuro dynamic, and the anatomy is flat and ungainly. Perhaps it was a rush job, perhaps Ridgway is suffering from a lack of dexterity, or perhaps the publishers decided it would be cheaper to publish his roughs rather than pay for completed pieces.
Still, it's this sort of thing that makes me wish the publishers had asked me. I may not have name recognition or much of a portfolio, but I can't help but feel I could have improved on this book.
I was reading a few stories in here, but now that I've found my Del Ray, I think I'll switch to that.
Unfortunately, the last few collections of Leiber's epic series cannot measure up to his earlier stories. In this volume, he once again refrains fromUnfortunately, the last few collections of Leiber's epic series cannot measure up to his earlier stories. In this volume, he once again refrains from the short, punchy stories which won him fame. Instead, he writes a single slow-going, bloated story originally released in chapters, which means Leiber is constantly reminding us what we're reading and what happened.
As we chart the ebb of Leiber's once-voracious imagination, each book has less semblance of plot, moving sluggishly between unimportant problems and convenient solutions. Leiber's heroes have grown older and settled down, but even so, he doesn't provide us anything new to carry the plot to take the place of their lost derring-do.
A charming portrait of their dotage might have been an amusing and satisfying conclusion to our heroes' lives, but we don't get that. Instead, we get more of Leiber's fetishism, meaning allusions to orgies, whole-body shaving, awkward euphemisms for anal sex, and even some teen lesbian teasing. He does momentarily ask us to consider what The Mouser and Fafhrd's relationship might have been, if they were more than friends, but this brief aside hardly balances the otherwise one-sided sexuality.
We also get more of his poetry, which isn't pretty, though I was taken aback by the way he dropped in the four-letter words. I don't mind such good Anglo-Saxon language, but it didn't make his awkward verse any more palatable.
If he seemed like Pratchett in the former volume, this one has taken a half-step into sex farce. Unfortunately, a sex farce is not something that should be done halfway.
Little remains of the bold characterization or striking language that marked the height of his talents. The growing cast of undifferentiated characters (including a gaggle of sexy teen girls) muddles about the dull, cold island trying to solve a problem whose source is never clear and whose solution provides little in the way of a conclusion.
The simplest definition of plot may be 'things happen', but woe to the author who takes that too literally. Leiber's early stories are some of the most delightful, imaginative, and varied in the genre, but the latter are mere shades, faltering in a mummer's dance of a glory that they cannot recapture.
When I first started reading Leiber, my expectations were pretty low. He is often praised along with the other 'giants', but the fantasy genre is awasWhen I first started reading Leiber, my expectations were pretty low. He is often praised along with the other 'giants', but the fantasy genre is awash with unwarranted praise: the barely-differentiated is lauded as revolutionary, and many of its 'giants' are giant only in disappointment. But Leiber surprised me. Throughout the Lankhmar series, he has shown a lively, stylized voice, an eye for character and suspense, and an evocative sense of wonder.
Unfortunately, he begins to fall off his pace in this volume. He is fearless in his approach, which is great when he's on top of his game, but when he errs, causes him to stumble incautiously. Likewise, his light, laughing tone can be asset or flaw, dependent on how solid the pacing is beneath it.
Early on, we get an uncharacteristically wild choice, almost a non sequitur, which never ties back into the plot. The entire structure is unusual for the series, eschewing loosely-connected episodes for a more linear novel. The length and focus on one single story doesn't mesh well with Leiber's lilting style, and his imaginative, sometimes lovely asides are sadly absent.
I've seen the same thing happen before, from Mignola to Poe: the change from short and vibrant stories to long, sustained plot arcs is not easy to manage. Leiber doesn't really update his style to match the new length, which leaves us with a long, overly-involved short story.
The reason for greater length in writing is to add more depth, allowing the story to unfold gradually. Previously, these Lankhmar collections have achieved depth by the wild variance of the stories. Though all are loosely connected in an overarching plot, each one presents an opportunity for Leiber to play with tone, setting, character, and purpose in a different way. This makes sense, because they were written at different times--sometimes decades apart--at different points in Leiber's career.
This untethered, multihued style of world-building is very Howardian, and Howard used it deliberately to let his world unfold naturally, through many tales, only vaguely connected, filling some areas in with great detail, and leaving others as half-heard mysteries. Unlike the straightforward, encyclopedic style of most doorstop fantasies (appendices included, thank you J.R.R.), we learn about the worlds of Howard and Leiber like students of history, which makes sense, because it was a voracious study of detached pieces of history lent whimsy to both authors' creations.
It's a pity that he abandons this organic system for something so linear, especially as his struggles with pacing undermine his wit. With a less varied tale, he has less to play with, and starts to resemble his later imitators, like Pratchett, writing a fairly simple, amusing story with a few high points, but numerous low points where humor is not adequately supported by insight.
There are also some problems with sexual politics here, which is all the more disappointing because of Leiber's previously good track record with women who were both independent and unique. It's not a complete reversal, but Leiber's focus grows considerably more one-sided, and consequently, his women lose dimension.
This is amplified by the rather silly fetishism which continually crops up throughout the book, yet the sexuality is rarely either humorous, realistic, or enticing enough to overcome its superfluity. I'd heard that a previous Leiber fantasy story had been censored for overt sexuality, and I was disappointed to hear it, but reading this book, perhaps it was for the best. Sexuality shouldn't be edited out, but awkward writing should.
Overall, it's not a bad book. even though it isn't Leiber's best, it's still solid, with good high points, and fun to read. Unfortunately, his later works grow even more stilted, sexually awkward, and drawn out. This one, at least, has a rising plot and some amusing twists, which cannot be said of the books that close out the series.
Leiber has shown himself capable of vibrant, clever, moody books, but he has lost his touch with age, as regrettably happens to many authors. Every crLeiber has shown himself capable of vibrant, clever, moody books, but he has lost his touch with age, as regrettably happens to many authors. Every creative mind has its peak, and Leiber has passed his. Though published as separate stories, the chapters of this book form one long, uninterrupted plot, lacking the variance in mood and style which marked his earlier collections.
His attempt to continue a single arc while publishing the chapters as stories is awkward, as Leiber constantly reminds us of characters and plot elements as if we were new readers, but can't seem to find an unobtrusive way to do so. Really, the reminders don't even feel necessary; they weren't in the loosely connected stories that mark his creative peak. He also reintroduces characters and events from several books ago, but oddly enough, rarely prefaces these with reminders.
I lamented the faltering of his once-strong women in the last book, and this one is worse. The first quarter shows a strange obsession with the protagonists' former relationships, culminating in the only example of a clip show I've ever seen in a novel. It would be perfectly natural for characters, as they grow older, to reminisce, or even to obsess over their past, but this is less about the characters' internal hang-ups than a parade of nude women who have lost their personalities.
Happily, we soon move on to the main plot, which starts promisingly with curious worldbuilding involving Death and his demesne. These light-hearted, long-form novellas only seems to grow more and more like Leiber's follower, Pratchett. But this plot is also left behind for an unrelated conflict on a faraway island, an isolated Thule that has little of the charm of Newhon.
Leiber goes off on rather involved asides about the cosmology of the world, with characters acting as encyclopedias, giving unwelcome Tolkienian details about how the stars are meant to work. This is a sudden departure from the Howardian mode, which prefers to reveal the world by small clues, as one might learn about Rome from numerous stories and historians.
The cosmology prefigures some interesting background details from Dungeons & Dragons, which has always been more Leiber than Tolkien or Howard. His portrayal of godhood, worship, and alternate worlds parallels Planescape, one of the most remarkable and unusual roleplaying settings. It's unfortunate that, in this case, the inspiration cannot live up to the idea it spawned.
The story's conclusion, despite a great deal of build-up, is strangely absent, departing not with a bang, but a whimper. The characters are strangely inactive, failing to solve problems and generally relying on literal Dei ex Machinae. The secondary characters have less personality than the last book, and the love interests are defined more by their appearance than by thoughts or decisions.
Leiber does occasionally find his voice, and there are some lovely and evocative passages, as well as exploration of archaic terms and structure, though I couldn't say if that is the result of greater fidelity in a modern edition to the original stories. But by and large, Leiber's dotage has shown an increasing lack of imagination and an almost total loss of the vivid characterization that marked the high water mark of the series.
The final remaining Lankhmar book continues this trend, stranding our heroes in their new, dull land and trading in adventure plots for meandering scenes and uninspired sex comedy. It doesn't lessen the achievement of the earlier books, but I'm glad I started at the beginning of the series, or I might have given up on Leiber altogether as simply another old man working chiefly in cliches and awkward chauvinist obsessions. He still isn't as dull or long-winded as some guilty parties of the genre, but it's sad to see a fruitful mind grow sere.
This was much better than I was expecting. I enjoy a good pulp now and again, but this nearly reached the mirth and derring-do of Dumas' Musketeers. MThis was much better than I was expecting. I enjoy a good pulp now and again, but this nearly reached the mirth and derring-do of Dumas' Musketeers. Many of these stories were written before those of the first collection. They were short magazine submissions, and it was only later that Leiber thought to write introductory stories.
Being written in the early part of Leiber's career at different times and places, the stories show a great deal of pleasing variance. Each short tale presents its own setting, its own locations, and its own feel. They are all loosely connected into a grander arc, and the reader is invited to draw connections and conclusions about the interstitial parts, evoking real historical accounts.
It's not difficult to see how, writing these stories without a clear path, at many times throughout his life, we get a grander scope of his world, from vibrant, rough stories to more complex, idea-driven ones. This somewhat piecemeal approach is engaging and unpredictable, especially in comparison to Leiber's later work on the series, which is unfortunately repetitive and narrow in scope.
There are a few sections which grow a bit silly and stilted, but it is altogether quick and enjoyable, with the vivacity, wit, and creativity to keep the reader occasionally surprised and often amused.
Though Leiber wasn't the first to write swords and sorcery adventures, the imagination, verve, and whimsy of his writing not only set him above his coThough Leiber wasn't the first to write swords and sorcery adventures, the imagination, verve, and whimsy of his writing not only set him above his contemporaries, but have made him one of the most influential authors in epic mythological fiction. He is responsible for Thieves' Guilds and Wizard Scrolls, as well as numerous elements of characterization and tone.
However, he didn't simply pluck these concepts from the waiting air. Like Howard, Leiber enriched his work with details from ancient tales and histories, thereby adding forgotten traditions of literature back into the modern style. He took Thieves' Guilds from an adventure story of Cervantes (himself the innovator of the modern novel and adventure story), taking hold of a disparate and forgotten thread and weaving it back into the pattern.
As modern offers, we should gratefully accept these gifts, and there is no better way to thank the grandmasters than to reinterpret their ideas for a new readership. However, we should also take a further lesson, and recall that Leiber was not satisfied to simply rewrite Howard's tales, but also looked to change and challenge his own style. Too many authors, particularly in fantasy, seem happy to write the same stories that have already been written, with only the names changed to protect the guilty.
This first collection presents the way in which Leiber's most famous creations, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, met; and also presents stories of their origins before their portentous meeting. They are as imaginative and fast-paced as any of Leiber's stories, but are not Leiber's best work.
These stories were actually written much later, when Leiber began to try codifying and structuring his world more deliberately. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be a fruitful direction for Leiber, often robbing his stories of their characteristic unpredictable energy. The next three collections of earlier stories show greater wit, depth, and willingness to experiment with plot and characterization.
Despite their weaknesses, they are certainly superior to the sad wane of the last two books of the series. So read this book for fun, or for completeness, or because you're tired of the scores of less audacious fantasy writers treading water in his wake.