Gene Wolfe was (he died this year) a prolific and acknowledged American fantasy writer. His short stories (I have one anthology, but it’s still waiting its turn), and novels have many admirers, among them Le Guin, Gaiman and Ellison. His signature? Unreliable narrators, selling you their version of very complicated stories. It’s not his invention, but I have to agree I really have to pay attention when reading Wolfe, not to get totally lost. I find it impossible not to get lost a bit 😉
My first encounter with Wolfe, though, was when I read his Soldier of the Mist, a novel (part of a trilogy, but I only have volumes one and two, the third part was published years later) about a young Greek mercenary who, after suffering a head wound, is only able to remember event of a current day. Not knowing who he is and pretty little about the world around him, he couldn’t be a reliable narrator if he tried to 😉 Fantasy element is added when he discovers he’s able to communicate with gods and other supernatural beings. I liked it, but couldn’t find any of Wolfe’s other works. A few years later, The Book of the New Sunwas recommended to me, and these tomes I devoured with great taste. Story of Severian, young (Wolfe’s heroes do have a few things in common, and not only their youth 😉 ) torturer (!) exiled for showing mercy – and wondering the dying Earth of far future. Quite soon after that I ordered a cheap, used copy of The Wizard Knight, for when I have a fancy to read more Wolfe. I finally read it earlier this year and with a great pleasure, although with a feeling it’s mostly more of the same.
I will start with an honest admission, as befits a review of the retelling of Arthurian mythos. Arthurian myths are very important to me – as are Greek and Norse, Slavic and Celtic, Sumerian and Egyptian myths, which all together form a still incredibly significant foundation of European culture. And within the wide realm of Arthurian myths, rooted in Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which in itself was a reworking of earlier tales, I have pledged my allegiance to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I don’t care it’s misogynist. I don’t mind that parts of it are not on par with the rest (I’m looking at you, The Book of Merlyn!). I fully believe it’s the most beautiful and heartfelt retelling of the Arthurian mythos, full of passion – and compassion – and understanding of human nature.
And so I approached Kristian’s recent retelling, Lancelot, with no small amount of trepidation. Armed with a glowing recommendation from Aaron at the Swords and Spectres I hastened to read it, but remembering our previous differences of opinion, O gentle friend, I remained wary. And indeed, it took me some time to warm up to this reimagined Lancelot, from his difficult, heart-breaking childhood to his equally troubled adolescent years on Karrek Loos yn Koos, the island of Lady Nimue. For Kristian spins the story in the one direction that had been relatively less explored before – Lancelot’s past. We see him as a child cruelly and early bereft of childhood, only barely escaping the fate of his family – with an angry hunting bird and a promise of revenge as his sole possessions. We see him as a wild teenager, stubborn and prideful, separate from others and self-unaware to the point of naivety. We see him grow, and learn, and as we do, we begin to see the promise in him, the seed of the future first knight of Britain and the leader of men. We see him triumphant, we see him defeated, but to the end unbroken. What we see most clearly, however, is the unwavering love and loyalty that had become a staple of this paradoxical knight – and in this, Kristian’s retelling is as faithful to the spirit of Arthurian myths as it only could be.
The Grey Bastards, French’s first installment in the Lot Lands series and the winner of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off 2016, has been steadily making its rounds around the blogosphere for a while, and became especially popular after the publication of the second installment, The True Bastards, earlier this year. The covers of both installments are really neat (I’d say “pretty” but somehow that word doesn’t seem to really fit fanged half-orcs) and give the reader a fair taste of the content. Which is, contrary to the expectations of some, less a story about nasty old pensioners, and more a curious mix of biker gang lore, bastardized Tolkien setting (well, I couldn’t resist) in a RPG-derived form, and some solid wordlbuilding.
The Lot Lands, previously called Ul-wundulas, are a domain ravaged and scarred by a war. The terrible orc Incursion into the greener and more fertile lands of the Hispartha kingdom a generation back had several unintended consequences: a swath of land between the kingdoms of humans and the domains of the orcs had been razed and destroyed, leaving it all but empty – a no-man’s land, vulnerable to another incursion and liable to start another war. In the wake of Incursion, the half-human, half-orc slaves of Hispartha had been freed and allotted a part of the empty lands, under the condition of protecting the border. Divided into several “hoofs”, a cross between a tribe, a warrior-group and a gang, they share the Lot Lands with insular and dangerous elves, unlucky and demoralized soldiers banished from Hispartha to the ungrateful task of manning the castilles along the border, religiously-minded Halflings defended by the world’s Tartars(!), called Unyars, blood-crazy centaurs, and Sludge Man – a dangerous demon inhabiting a fetid marsh and controlling moving masses of black, sticky goo.
Grey Bastards are one such hoof, consisting of several seasoned riders tasked with a double duty of patrolling the lands in the vicinity on the backs of great war hogs and with protecting a village of women and orphans which had symbiotically grown under their fortress. In this world, another conflict seems inevitable – and the protagonists of The Grey Bastards are in the middle of it all. Intrigued yet?
The other science fiction franchise. Or the science fiction franchise, if we christen Star Wars science fantasy. Where George Lucas took Campbell’s ideas and put the eternal myths into a space adventure story, Gene Roddenberry envisioned a better future for spacefaring humankind. He created a vision of an utopia, in which more enterprising, unruly individuals join the Starfleet in order to find adventure, because in the post-scarcity Earth society there’s not much of that. In Starfleet, they travel across the universe, to meet exciting new people and… not shoot them, unless absolutely necessary.
Piotrek: I’ve always been more of a Babylon 5 guy, but I appreciate Star Trek more and more. As a kid, I’ve seen a random selection of mainly The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine episodes, and there was not enough large-scale conflict for my taste. I generally liked it, but John Sheridan was my space captain. So, my introduction into the world of Star Trek was pretty chaotic… but I always liked the idea of trekking through galaxies in a big spaceship, and in time I came to also appreciate stories about (relatively) peaceful exploration.
Ola: My own acquaintance with Star Trek was no less chaotic, I must admit. I watched nearly all episodes of The Next Generation as a pre-teen kid, and for years Picard was the only true captain of the Enterprise 😉 I waited with bated breath for each episode, and while some of them were rather convoluted for a six- to eight-year-old, it was still a great adventure. Fantasy worlds, various races with distinct cultures, drama on the ship, imminent danger… What I liked about Star Trek then and value even more now was the nearly non-violent approach, so rare in modern pop-culture. Differences were abundant, conflicting interests as well, but more often than not a peaceful resolution could have been – and heroically was – achieved. Exploration and understanding were the key values of the Star Trek universe, and inspired countless SF visions since. As for the liberal vision of future military, with its weirdly relaxed and convoluted structure, the red- and mustard-colored uniforms and the variety of ranks coupled with a nearly total lack of discipline, back then I didn’t even bat an eye 😉
Soldiers Live is the final installment in Glen Cook’s Black Company series. I’ve read it over a year ago, but somehow couldn’t force myself to write down a review. Mostly, I think, because Soldiers Live is an elegy to Black Company so heartfelt and bittersweet and true – to its own history, sentiments, internal logic and the author’s worldview – that I found the necessary return to it surprisingly tasking. Over time this book came to resemble a tender spot one only gingerly agrees to touch, for it is a reminder of a past encounter with unyielding reality. What remains – a wound, a bruise, a slowly healing scratch – whatever the case, it’s a sign that reality won despite our best efforts of will 😉
And so it is for the Black Company. It still goes on, united by a common dream, but in nearly forty years of its history told by Cook over the course of nine books it has changed so profoundly it’s hardly recognizable for what it once was. And the crucial change is, obviously, its people. There are almost none of the old guard left, and whoever lives still, bruised and battered and exhausted by the constant struggle, has not much time left.
Sometimes we go a bit outside genre, and it’s not always politics 😉 This occasion, however, definitely merits this little jaunt beyond our usual hunting grounds.
Piotrek: Well, it is election day in Poland, and the stakes are high, but it’s against the law here to discuss politics on election weekend. Lets just say, I’m depressed and did not prepare any champagne for the evening. Looks like four more years of catho-national populism.
Good things do happen, though, and last Thursday a very distinguished Polish writer got a Nobel for 2018. Who is she? A dreadlocked feminist winner the Nobel needed, claims Guardian, and I very much agree. I’m not always happy with Swedish Academy’s choices, but this time I am, and not because she’s Polish (who cares) and only partially because of her political views (which tend to be pretty close mine, the regime hates her 😉 ). I see her books as both insightful, very up to date – but rooted in the troubled history of our region – and extremely readable.
Right in time for October spookiness, Gaiman’s cheeky and heartfelt tribute to both Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft is a lovingly crafted mystery clad in horror. Gaiman’s short story won 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the 2005 Locus Award for Best Novelette, and had been adapted to the comic book medium by Rafael Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone, and Dave Stewart over a decade later.
I must admit I did read the short story back in the time, but the comic book adaptation somehow made a much greater impression on me. Maybe it’s the Lovecraftian vibes, which so greatly lend themselves to the dark, shadowy frames filled with menacing tentacles and splotches of vivid green, or maybe it’s the structure of the story, beautifully misleading the readers, throwing red (or rather emerald) herrings left and right, only to reveal its true nature to the careful reader (and indeed, half the pleasure from reading Gaiman’s take on the world’s best detective stems from knowing all necessary facts about Sherlock Holmes ;))