This is the first book of a trilogy; and like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books (which he originally didn't want to separate into three volumes --that...moreThis is the first book of a trilogy; and like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books (which he originally didn't want to separate into three volumes --that was the publisher's idea), the Song of Albion books basically form a unit that should be read and considered together. An evangelical, Lawhead displays the influence of C. S. Lewis in places in his writing; the Christian symbolism in the last volume, The Endless Knot, is particularly clear. But his fantasy vision is his own, heavily influenced as well by Celtic mythology (American born, he moved to England to have better facilities for studying Celtic history and culture), and his fantasy world is supposedly the Celtic Otherworld, with a recreated Bronze Age Celtic culture whose elements of primitive monotheism he stresses (more so than they were in actual pagan Celtic society). He makes very creative and original use of different features of Celtic lore, such as the Silver Hand (which provides the title of the second volume), the endless kettle, Beltane fires, etc.
Lawhead is a capable stylist, skilled at creating absorbing plots, characters, and atmosphere; he does that here, and (as expected from an evangelical writer) there are no problems of bad language or sexual content in the trilogy. It is, however, very violent (a trait more marked in the last two books), with a good deal of grisly killing, massacres, blinding and beheading, often with the innocent, and characters the reader likes and cares about, on the receiving end of it. This is a reflection of a clear-eyed awareness of the capacities and results of human evil, squarely faced; but it's definitely not for the squeamish.(less)
Originally published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in the late 1930s, Moore's five stories ("Black God's Kiss," "Black God's Shadow," "Jirel Meets...moreOriginally published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in the late 1930s, Moore's five stories ("Black God's Kiss," "Black God's Shadow," "Jirel Meets Magic," "The Dark Land," and "Hellsgarde") featuring beautiful swordswoman Jirel, lady ruler of a feudal fiefdom in Dark Ages France, were as germinal in the development of sword-and-sorcery fantasy as the work of her contemporary, Robert E. Howard. Jirel is a strong and complex character, the first in prose fantasy's long and honorable list of butt-kicking heroines (Marion Zimmer Bradley dedicated her first Sword and Sorceress anthology to "every girl who grew up wanting to be Jirel)," tough but not brutal, proud and hot-tempered, but possessing a gentle side, too. The above description calls her "a good Catholic girl," and it's true that, like most people in her time, she's a loyal daughter of the Church --but she's not especially religious and wouldn't make any claims to sainthood! (And I wouldn't characterize her as even "a little stupid," either.) Though she's a veteran fighter of conventional battles, these stories involve her mostly in adventures of another sort, confrontations with dark sorcery, usually in otherworldly, extra-dimensional realms.
Moore's prose style here was influenced by Poe and Lovecraft (and she's fully their equal); her plotting and her creation of vivid fantasy worlds, all significantly different from the others, are highly original, and she excels at evoking a mood of strangeness and menace --Jirel's approach to Hellsgarde castle is a masterpiece of this sort. Some critics have found fault with Jirel's having romantic feelings toward her enemy in the first story, Guillaume, considering this a betrayal of feminist orthodoxy; but I think her complex feelings are quite plausible psychologically, and lend the story a depth and tension that it wouldn't have otherwise.(less)
Actually, I read Tolkien's masterful Middle Earth fantasy corpus, beginning with The Hobbit in the early 70's and finishing the Lord of the Rings tril...moreActually, I read Tolkien's masterful Middle Earth fantasy corpus, beginning with The Hobbit in the early 70's and finishing the Lord of the Rings trilogy almost a decade later, before this anniversary edition came out. (I also read all four books to my wife in the early 80's; she loved them too!)
This body of work is, of course, the genre-defining classic of modern fantasy --especially epic, or "high" fantasy -- which popularized the genre as the publishing market force it is today, exerted enormous influence over practically all subsequent fantasy authors (including R. A. Salvatore and Terry Brooks), and set the conventions readers would come to expect: a pre-technological setting, an epochal struggle between good and evil whose outcome is determined by magical factors, and a demand for personal moral growth on the part of the characters thrust into a pivotal role in that struggle. And Tolkien's depictions of wizards, elves, dwarfs, dragons, etc. became the template for all subsequent portrayals of these creatures.
Part of the success of Tolkien's work derives from the breath- taking scope of his world-building, which reflects his day jobs as a philologist and medievalist; he created entire languages and folklores for his "Middle Earth," as well as a detailed, millenia-spanning history. But more importantly, as a devout Catholic, he embodied his deeply Christian world-view in the writing: his fantasy world (though he doesn't employ the kind of explicit Christian symbolism that C. S. Lewis does) is the scene of conflict between and evil with world-altering significance, under a superintending Providence, in which the individual moral choices of both the high and the lowly have significance, and temptation is an ever-present danger.(less)
While I first read this book in the mid-70s, I read it again to my wife a couple of years ago (we both loved it then as much as I did the first time)....moreWhile I first read this book in the mid-70s, I read it again to my wife a couple of years ago (we both loved it then as much as I did the first time). Most people know that C. S. Lewis was an effective Christian nonfiction apologist, using the tools of reason and logic to build the philosophical case for Christian faith. But he ultimately became convinced that an even more effective apologetic is available through the "truth of art," the instinctive and emotional appeal that stories exert -- especially the kinds of stories that draw on the deep, mythical archetypes of fantasy to illuminate the real universe. The Chronicles of Narnia, his classic fantasy series, was the fruit of that discovery, set in Narnia, a magical land whose world lies in another universe, in which magic works and time moves differently than it does here, and in which Christ is incarnate as the great talking lion Aslan. This first book of the series presents one of the most powerful symbolic literary presentations of the Christian gospel ever written. Although the intended audience, in Lewis' mind, was children (and his author's various direct addresses to the readers presuppose this), there is nothing invidiously "juvenile" about the quality of the writing; it can be enthusiastically appreciated by anyone who loves tales of imagination and adventure, fantasy and wonder; and the truths here, like those in Jesus' parables, are simple enough to speak to children but profound enough to challenge adults.
This is the "first" book of the series in the sense of first to be written (and usually the first to be read). However, The Magicians Nephew is a prequel which describes the creation of Narnia, and the origins of the White Witch and of the wardrobe that serves as a gateway to Narnia; Lewis himself recommended that this prequel be read first.(less)
For Morris (who was not only a writer, but an artist, scholar, and handicraft enthusiast as well), medieval Europe was a still --relevant social and e...moreFor Morris (who was not only a writer, but an artist, scholar, and handicraft enthusiast as well), medieval Europe was a still --relevant social and economic model for the regeneration of modern society. It also profoundly influenced his creativity. His fantasies, which are (along with those of Lord Dunsany and George MacDonald) among the most influential works in the genre before Tolkien, are set in a medieval environment that serves as an invented fantasy world. They're also written in a deliberately archaic, medieval-sounding style similar to that of his translations of the Icelandic sagas into English (which won't be to all readers' taste).
His plot here has a strong erotic undercurrent (and "erotic" is not a synonym for "dirty") and often considerable sexual tension, and it obliquely raises the issue, usually taboo in Victorian literature, of divorce and remarriage. But he treats this with 19th-century delicacy, and within the framework of an essentially chaste moral vision, so it does not come across as at all offensive. The story itself is an exciting, involving and appealing one, drawing elements from his study of medieval folklore and bringing them to life in imaginative ways. A masterful work, from a master of the genre!(less)
The thirty authors of the selections here (Avram Davidson and Fritz Leiber are represented twice) include a roster of some of the best-known names in...moreThe thirty authors of the selections here (Avram Davidson and Fritz Leiber are represented twice) include a roster of some of the best-known names in speculative fiction in the last 60 years of the 20th-century, plus some less well-known writers who deserve to be more famous. Dozois' definition of fantasy is broad, including pretty much anything supernatural as long as it isn't horrific, plus forays into soft sci-fi; Terry Bisson's "Bears Discover Fire" is an example of surrealism -and one of the few works from that school that's really an good, readable story!--, and Charnas' take-off on The Phantom of the Opera is not speculative as such, but certainly exotic and macabre (and makes me want to read the original book). The tone of the stories varies from tragic and poignant to humorous, with settings from the past, present and future, and all around the world and on other worlds. A couple of stories, like Keith Roberts' "The Signaller," are explicitly pagan in their world-view; but a surprising number have a Christian message or favorably- treated Christian elements. Arrangement of the stories is mostly chronological (though T. H. White's "The Troll" is dated by a copyright renewal rather than by its original publication).
It's impossible for me to pick a single favorite story here; but if I'd try to narrow it down, some finalists would include: Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John story "Walk Like a Mountain;" Howard Waldrop's "God's Hooks!" White's "The Troll;" Thomas Burnett Swann's "The Manor of Roses;" Avram Davidson's Manatee Gal Ain't You Coming Out Tonight" and "The Golem;" Poul Anderson's Viking ghost story "The Tale of Hauk;" L. Sprague de Camp's "The Gnarly Man;" and Harold L. Gold's "The Trouble With Water." Other authors represented with quality pieces include Tanith Lee, Gene Wolfe, Judith Tarr, James P. Blaylock, and Bruce Sterling.
Naturally, in an anthology this thick, few readers will like all of the selections: I didn't care for the ones by Ursula LeGuin, Esther Freisner, or George Alec Effinger. But in the main, Dozois' editorial taste is impeccable; the overall quality of the other 29 stories makes this absolutely one of the best general collections of speculative fiction that I've ever come across. It's a reader's treasury --and an excellent sampler introducing the work of authors you find yourself wanting to get better acquainted with. (And the editor's appended list of "Recommended Reading" is a nice feature for helping you do it!) Dozois is also the editor of Modern Classics of Science Fiction and Modern Classics of Horror; I haven't read either of those --but I definitely want to someday.(less)