Comic Book Review: Snake Tales

Comic Book Review: Snake Tales edited by Mike Howlett

Ophiophobia (fear of snakes) is a common phenomenon (Hi Mom!) and has plagued humanity from ancient times, even appearing in the Book of Genesis.  Even humans not afflicted with undue fear of the legless reptiles tend to distrust them, and snakes are often cast as villains or hazards in fictional stories.  And thus, this collection of eighteen tales from Pre-Code comics, with luridly-illustrated snakes and serpents in every one.

Snake Tales

As museum curator Dr. Frank T. Burbrink explains in the introduction, most of the science in these stories is dubious at best.  The behavior and anatomy of snakes as depicted seldom matches real life, and sometimes the writer just made up new species for the sake of the story.  “Slimy” gets used a lot, even though the vast majority of snakes are not given to producing slime.

This collection opens with “Mirror Image”, in which, surprisingly, the African King Rattler is not the bad guy, no matter what the fellow who finds it in his bed thinks.  It’s more an exploration of what fear can do to a man.

“Meet Me at the Cemetery” concludes this volume with the tale of a second wife visiting the grave of her predecessor, only to find a cobra on the grounds.  Her husband is suspiciously dismissive of her experience.  And who’s that exotic-looking woman cadging a ride from our heroine’s friend?

In-between are tales of people who worship snakes, people who turn into snakes (or vice versa) and two different women with snakes for hair.  Some standouts include:

“The Echo” is the only non-horror story, being more a pulpish tale.  Ventriloquist The Echo, his brother Doctor Doom(!) and sister Cora wander America in search of adventure.  In this tale, they find a snake-handling church, the leader of which has been defrauding his parishioners.   Some voice-throwing tricks make sure he gets what he deserves.

“Serpent of Doom” is a combination “cursed artifact” and “deal with the Devil” story.  Bud Hampton is fired by his boss, and buys a cheap necklace from a man whose face he can’t clearly see in the rain to placate his wife Lydia.  Lydia isn’t too impressed, and yet the snake necklace does have an appeal.  Especially when she learns that she can become rich and powerful if she calls upon Seth while wearing it–and murdering her husband!  (While many of the stories feature women in skimpy clothing, this is the only one where the female lead is in actual underwear.)

Soon, Lydia is rising up in the world, through judicious application of murder.  But she also starts exhibiting odd behavior and experiencing dry, scaly skin.  It may be too late to avoid paying the price for her success, unless perhaps you would like to buy a necklace?

“The Pool of Eternity” concerns a man who crashlands in the jungles of the Amazon.  A native snake priestess is determined to heal the handsome stranger, even if she has to resort to the title body of water.  It’s said the snake goddess will grant immortality to the drinker, so it’s forbidden to taste the fluid.

Naturally, the foolish young woman breaks this taboo.  The pilot is let go by the tribe, but their priestess is going to be punished.  When the man realizes that he is, in fact, immortal, he returns and induces the beautiful priestess to drink from the Pool of Eternity as well.  Unfortunately for them, the Jivaro have ways of dealing with immortal criminals.  Disturbing ways.

This might be a good time to mention that some of the stories have racist imagery and plot points, in addition to the usual Pre-Code horror use of shocking images.   Concerned parents will want to examine the book before allowing younger readers to peruse it.

The art ranges from excellent, “The Fangs of Death” to not very good, “The Snake Pit.”  The writing is uneven as well, but there’s some chilling stuff in here.  There’s also a cover gallery of some of the stories.

Recommended to horror fans who love them some unlikely snake stories.  Check it out from your library!

Manga Review: The Birth of Kitaro

Manga Review: The Birth of Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki

Blood bank worker Mizuki (no relation) is sent to investigate a report of tainted blood provided by his business, which has turned a hospital patient into the living dead.  Narrowing down the possibilities, Mizuki is startled to learn that the blood donor put down his, Mizuki’s, address!  It turns out there are squatters in the abandoned temple out back of his house.

The Birth of Kitaro

These squatters are yokai, a married couple who are the last of the Ghost Tribe.  Once, the Ghost Tribe was numerous, and lived all over the country.  But as humans encroached on their territory, the Ghost Tribe was forced first into the wilderness, then underground.  Over the years, their numbers have dwindled, until these two and their unborn child are all that remain.  The wife sold her blood to buy medicine, as both of the yokai are ill.  Out of pity, Mizuki agrees to keep their secret until the baby is born.

Months later, Mizuki visits the temple to find both of the yokai dead, and buries them.  But their child, Kitaro, lives, and Mizuki adopts him, even though he is repulsed by the sight of the little monster.

GeGeGe no Kitaro is Shigeru Mizuki’s best known work, a horror manga for children.  According to the introduction, he took inspiration from Hakaba  Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro), a kamishibai (paper theater) performance series that had been popular before World War Two.  Most of the records of the series were destroyed during the war, but Mizuki took what was known and refashioned it for 1960s children.  It was an enormous hit, and there have been numerous anime adaptations.

This volume collects “best of” stories from the Kitaro series, rather than have them in order of publication.  Thus, Kitaro’s character design is very different in the first chapter, before he’s learned to groom himself.  Eventually, Kitaro is kicked out of Mr. Mizuki’s house to fend for himself with the aid of Medama Oyaji (Eyeball Dad), the animated eyeball of his deceased father.

The remainder of the stories in this volume guest star Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), a filthy, greedy fellow who constantly tries to find ways to profit from foolish humans and other yokai.  Often, he’s personally responsible for the peril that Kitaro must deal with, but other times Nezumi Otoko just finds a way to chisel some extra yen from the situation.

Another recurring character that makes an appearance is Neko Musume (Cat Daughter), a part-feline girl who is Nezumi Otoko’s natural enemy.  Kitaro uses her to convince the rat to give back all the money he’d swindled from a group of humans to grant them a form of immortality.  In this early story, Neko Musume is much less pretty than later adaptations make her.

In the early chapters, Kitaro isn’t too fond of humans due to being bullied for his hideous appearance and strange behavior; as he gains a heroic reputation the humans become friendlier and Kitaro reciprocates.  However, he knows that he can never be fully welcome in human society and wanders away at the end of most stories.

There’s a variety of yokai in this series, the most difficult to defeat is the gyuki (bullheaded crab), because anyone who kills the gyuki, becomes the gyuki!  Kids tend to be important in the stories, either as potential victims or the ones who call Kitaro in.

At the end of the volume are pocket descriptions of the yokai in this volume, and activities for kids like a maze and word search puzzle.

Keeping in mind that what the Japanese consider suitable for children varies from what many American parents will accept (there’s some rear male nudity, and people die), this would be a great gift for a horror-loving elementary school kid.

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Manga Review: Case Closed (Detective Conan) Vol. 63/64

Manga Review: Case Closed (Detective Conan) Vol. 63/64 by Gosho Aoyama

Quick recap:  When teen genius detective Shinichi Kudou (Jimmy Kudo in the American version) is shrunk to a childlike form in a botched assassination attempt, he takes the name Conan Edogawa and is taken in by bumbling private eye Kogoro Mouri (Richard Moore) and his daughter Ran (Rachel), who happens to be Shinichi’s sweetheart.  Conan must hide from the international crime organization that changed him, but also finds himself having to solve crimes, despite the fact that first-graders aren’t supposed to be that great at detection.  See my reviews of earlier volumes for more details.

Case Closed Volume 63

In the previous volume, Shinichi had taken an experimental antidote that allows him to assume his normal appearance for a few hours–only to spend most of that time separated from his friends.  As Volume 63 opens, he finally has an hour or two to spend with Ran as himself…or he would, except that they’ve stumbled across a man strangled to death while alone in a moving automobile!  Can Shinichi solve the crime before he shrinks again?

Then Professor Agasa takes the Detective Boys out for sushi on a revolving conveyor belt, only to have an obnoxious food critic be poisoned right by them.

This is followed by a story that the Americanized names makes not make much sense.  Genta Kojima’s (George Kaminski in the dub) father is enrolled in a special televised tournament only for people who write “Kojima” with a specific set of kanji (ideograms).  In the English version, it’s a contest for people who spell the name “Kaminski” that way.  Conan must figure out which of the contestants murdered the organizer of the tournament and why.  He’ll just hope it’s not Genta’s never before seen father!

The last story in the volume is the hunt for the “Silver Witch”, a legendary drift racer.  She seems to be back from wherever she disappeared to a few years ago, and luring mountain racers into auto accidents in the fog.  Has a big twist at the end!

Case Closed Volume 64

Volume 64 opens with the Detective Boys visiting Horn Rock, an isolated islet shunned by fisherfolk due to bad luck (unless you have a child on board.)  They find a scuba diver there, dead of starvation, and a curious inscription she wrote.  The complication this time is that they are accompanied not by Professor Agasa, but grad student Subaru Okiya, who is not in on Conan’s secret, and on whom Ai (Anita) sometimes detects the scent of the Black Organization.  Is he an enemy, or is there something else going on?  This is another case that you need to know kanji to solve.

After that, Kogoro Mouri is called in to help a blind heiress discover which of two scarred men is the boy who saved her life as a child.  Making matters more urgent, the police believe the one who’s an impostor may in fact be the Whistling Killer one of the cops managed to scar years before.

Once the mystery of the scarred boy is solved, the story flows into the Whistling Killer case proper.  The killer did several murders years ago, but seemingly comes out of retirement to kill a man who taunted him on television.  Why now, and what is the significance of the song “Let It Be”?

The final chapter is the setup for a Kaito Kid story.  The flashy thief has again challenged Sonoko’s (Serena) wealthy uncle by claiming he will steal something from a supposedly theft-proof safe.  Or has he?  The challenge letter looks wrong, and Conan smells a rat.   Just who is the real villain here?  Wait for Volume 64 to find out!

Of these stories, I liked the Whistling Man tale the best as it’s good and atmospheric.    The two cases that rely on ideograms for clues suffer badly from the erasure of Japanese language for the American version.   There’s no movement on the myth arc, other than the suspicious behavior of Subaru Okiya.

Recommended if you are a fan of the series; more casual fans may want to wait for the next volume that has actual plot developments.

 

Book Review: Taran Wanderer

Book Review: Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

With the Black Cauldron destroyed, Death-Lord Arawn has retreated to his own lands for the time being, and no other major threats beset the realm of Prydain.  Long peaceful days at Caer Dallben have given Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper time to think.  Taran has realized a number of things, including that he wants to be together with Eilonwy for the rest of their lives…and that he has no idea who he is.

Taran Wanderer

That’s both in the metaphorical and literal sense.  Taran has no idea who his parents were, or if he has living kin.  And his life at Caer Dallben has been more about caring for the oracular swine Hen Wen than discovering his own way of life.  What if he is of noble birth?  What if he is truly a peasant?  Can he be together with a princess if his birthright is unknown?

Dallben the enchanter is as usual not a great deal of help; he either cannot or will not tell Taran the details of the boy’s heritage.  So it is that Taran sets out with his faithful companion Gurgi to the Marshes of Morva.  There, Taran consults the three dangerous sister enchantresses, but learns he cannot pay them a price high enough to learn his own secret.  They do, however, mention that the Mirror of Llunet might give him a glimpse of his true self.

Lake Llunet, where the Mirror was last seen, is clear at the other end of the country, and the rest of the story is about Taran’s journey there.

This is the fourth of five novels in The Chronicles of Prydain, a children’s series based loosely on Welsh mythology.  (Mr. Alexander mentions in the foreword that he’s borrowed bits from other folklore as well.)  The focus is on Taran’s character development, so there’s no one overwhelming threat, but a number of smaller problems and lessons that Taran must overcome or learn from on his way to maturity.

Indeed, Taran has grown a great deal from the callow lad he was at the beginning of the series; he shows wisdom whenever he thinks about how to help others, rather than his own problems.  But he still needs to let go of the notion that he needs to be special before he can embrace his true destiny.

Not everything is hard lessons; not-quite-human Gurgi and the prevaricating bard Fflewddur Fflam provide comic relief.  But there are villains as well, the terrifying Morda, who cannot be killed by mortal means (and who is responsible for some of the mysteries in earlier books) and the greedy mercenary Dorath.  Eilowny does not appear, but is often mentioned.

The book is well-written, though some of the running character tics grow tiresome by the end.  (And the lesson at the end is obvious at the beginning if you’re at all familiar with children’s literature.)   It’s a good breather before the climactic events of the final volume, where Taran and Eilowny must take their mature roles.

I recommend the entire series, and the Disney version has its good bits as well.

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6 written (mostly) by J.M. DeMatteis, Pencils by Don Perlin

The Defenders are one of Marvel Comics’ more oddball teams, beginning with a line-up of Doctor Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner, four of Marvel’s most powerful characters who did not belong to other teams.  After a couple of pilot stories, the “non-team” first assembled in Marvel Feature #1 in 1971 to battle the alien Scientist Supreme Yandroth, and shortly thereafter got their own continuing series.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

With four such volatile personalities, it was difficult to justify them staying together very long, and the warrior woman Valkyrie was added to the group to give them “texture” and a reason to cooperate.  Other members soon followed, either long-term or temporarily, and the Defenders got a reputation for being whoever happened to show up when danger struck, with Dr. Strange being the linchpin of the group.

This volume covers Defenders issues #107-125, and a couple of extras from 1982-83.  We open in the aftermath of a major plotline involving a group of self-proclaimed super-patriots trying to take over America with a group of powerful telepaths.  These telepaths and Kyle “Nighthawk” Richmond combined their mental powers to blow up the bad guys’ base, apparently dying in the process.  As the assembled heroes reel in shock during the aftermath, a stray minion of the super-patriots manages to get the drop on Valkyrie, killing her.

SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT!

It turns out that due to her convoluted backstory, involving the Asgardian goddess Amora the Enchantress, Valkyrie isn’t quite dead yet.  The heroes split into two groups when Amora offers a deal to restore Valkyrie to full life.  This plotline ends with Valkyrie restored to her true form of Brunnhilda, and no longer with the curse of being unable to fight women.  (She also loses some of her disdain of men in the process.)

Several members of the Defenders are lost in transit back from Asgard, but before that plotline bears fruit, there are solo issues focusing on Eric Simon “Devil-Slayer” Payne and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker.  Then there’s Avengers Annual #11. which features the return of perennial Defenders villain Nebulon.  He and his wife Supernalia clash, pitting the Avengers and Defenders against each other.

This is followed by Marvel Team-Up #119, which features Spider-Man and Isaac “Gargoyle” Christians in a story about aging and the acceptance of same.  Isaac has some insight into these matters as he was already a senior citizen when he made the Faustian bargain that made him a living gargoyle.

The missing Defenders turn out to have been transported to Earth-S, a parallel universe where the main hero group is the Squadron Supreme, a parody of/homage to the Justice League.  On their earth, Kyle Richmond is President of the United States.  Which would be great if he weren’t under the mental control of the alien known as Overmind.  As is most of the Squadron, saving only Hyperion (their version of Superman), who is suffering from lethal radiation poisoning.

And Nighthawk, “our” Kyle Richmond, is helping him out, having been transported to this Earth by the group mind that were once human telepaths.  He brought in the missing Defenders, who now summon the rest of the team for a moon mission to keep the Overmind from conquering the rest of the universe.

Except it turns out that “our” Kyle Richmond is actually “their” Kyle Richmond, given Nighthawk’s memories by the group mind.  But wait, then who’s the President?  It’s actually Null the Living Darkness, which has been puppeteering the Overmind to draw attention away from its protective shell.  The climax is kind of disappointing as it’s the group mind’s show, co-opting everyone else for a battle of wills with the ultimate darkness, only to have Null destroy itself with its own inner light.

So in the aftermath, “our” Kyle Richmond is as really dead as a Marvel superhero gets (not coming back from the dead until 1998!); Earth-S’ Kyle Richmond regains his true memories and reunites with his old teammates (who would go on to the Squadron Supreme miniseries, one of the best superhero stories ever); the group mind inhabits the currently vacant body of the Overmind; and the Defenders return to their own Earth.  (With a slight detour for some of them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired adventure.)

The next few issues weave together the resolution of the Patsy Walker/Daimon “Son of Satan” Hellstrom romance, Hank “Beast” McCoy’s growing irritation with the Defender’s “non-team” ethos… and the return of the Elf with a Gun.  This last had been a subplot during the Steve Gerber run, involving an elf with a gun popping up and seemingly murdering random people.  It was abandoned when Gerber left the book with the apparent death of the elf in an accident.

Mr. DeMatteis wanted to change the direction of the book, so revived the elf (now revealed to be multiple identical beings) as the agent of a time tribunal that was attempting to prevent the destruction of Earth.  Removing random Earthlings had not done the trick, so the tribunal had to convince the four original Defenders that they must never all be in the same room together again.  Unfortunately, the elf took over the narration for a couple of issues, and he was written as a very annoying character.

The resignation of the four founders gave Beast the opportunity to reconfigure the group as the New Defenders (complete with title change as of #125).  He roped in his old X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel, holdovers Valkyrie and Gargoyle, and new member Heather “Moondragon” Douglas.  A powerful telepath who had a revolving door hero/villain history, she had been released into the custody of the Valkyrie to re-learn human values.  (The Overmind simply disappeared between issues; this would become a plot point later.)

This began a period in which the New Defenders were an official team, with rules and such.  But that’s for Volume Seven.

Overall, a decent run with consistent art, and some good character focus stories.  Some of the writing is a bit heavy-handed with the morals; there’s a consistent theme of learning to have hope even in a world full of loss and pain.  The Dr. Seuss inspired story will either be laugh out loud funny or a total miss depending on your tastes.

Recommended to fans of the characters or 1970s Marvel storytelling.

 

Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Book Review: Goblin Quest

Book Review: Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines

Jig has always lived in the mountain, only hearing third-hand stories about the outside world.  Even stepping outside the goblin warrens is dangerous, why risk going any further?  Still, he dreams of being promoted from his lamplighter duties (a child’s job) to a patrolling warrior.  Jig’s smart, but that counts little in goblin society when he’s also small and weak, with poor vision.

Goblin Quest

Then  one day Jig is bullied into acting as a scout for a lazy patrol, only to find himself captured by adventurers who have killed the rest of the goblin patrol.  A captive, Jig is forced to become a guide for the party of four.  There’s Prince Barius, a younger son touchy about his honor and his low status among his siblings; Ryslind, Barius’ brother whose magic seems to be adversely affecting his sanity; Darnak, a dwarven cleric and tutor to the brothers, and Riana, an elvish pickpocket who was also dragooned  into serving Barius.  It seems they’re after the Rod of Creation, a powerful artifact that supposedly created the mountain itself.  Jig’s chances of survival just keep dropping!

This is the first volume in the “Jig the Goblin” trilogy of comedic fantasy novels by Jim C. Hines, who was a Guest of Honor at Minicon 52.  It’s heavily based on the kind of “kill monsters and take their stuff” style of fantasy common to games of Dungeons & Dragons, and in specific seems to be parodying aspects of the Dragonlance series of D&D tie-in novels.

One of the common hallmarks of comedic fantasy is to tell the story from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t the typical hero of heroic fantasy stories, and in this case, it’s one of the “monsters” who would normally be cannon fodder to allow the protagonists to show off their prowess before getting to really tough opponents.

Jig is initially only sympathetic because of his underdog status; he’s cowardly, selfish and all too willing to let others suffer or die in his place.  As the story progresses, Jig has his horizons expanded as he learns about the adventurers from their perspective, and realizes that goblin social norms put them at an even greater disadvantage than they already had due to their small size and lack of technology.  He even finds a god!

Meanwhile, the adventurers are no heroes; Prince Barius’ motive for seeking the Rod is entirely self-centered, Ryslind has a hidden agenda, Darnak is at least honorable, but must serve the brothers’ will, and Riana is only serving due to a threat of prison or execution.

And that’s not getting into the truly strong and evil monsters that wait deeper within the mountain.

Once Jig is dragooned into the party, the plot is a fairly straightforward dungeon crawl with some backtracking towards the end.  The back half of the book reads quickly, and the ending is reasonably satisfying.

Recommended primarily for fans of the tabletop role-playing games the setting is based on.

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle

Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle by Louis L’Amour

My name is Ronan Chantry, and I am alone upon this land.

He is a scholar and a gentleman, but Ronan Chantry was raised in the wilderness, hunting, trapping and tracking.  Now that his wife and son have died in a fire, and pursued by the reputation of killing a man in a duel, Chantry returns to the wilderness.  He does not remain alone for long, joining a small band of men also going into the West to try their hand at fur trapping.

The Ferguson Rifle

Their camp is nearly raided by allies of a treacherous Native American guide; but some time later the group makes friends with the Cheyenne, while trying to evade Spanish soldiers who have not yet gotten word that the Louisiana Purchase has gone through.  Then Ronan stumbles across Lucinda Falvey, whose father was murdered for the secret of a lost treasure.

The murderer and his minions have pursued Lucinda into the Dakota Territory, and turns out to have connections to both Lucinda and Ronan’s pasts.  Chantry and his allies must evade the killers, find the treasure and get the woman to safety–perhaps an eccentric mountain man has the key to survival?

This is the first novel written in the Chantry family saga by all-time great Western writer Louis L’Amour.  (But the last in internal chronology.)  The title comes from Chantry’s signature weapon, a firearm given to him by Major Ferguson himself.  It’s a customized prototype without the weakness in the lock mortise.  Since the story is set about the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, a rapid-firing breechloader is a formidable advantage.

This is a fast-moving story with clear but often evocative use of language; not a lot of time is spent on characterization, with bad man Rafen Falvey getting the bulk of what depth there is.  Chantry is not just smart and well-educated, but wilderness-savvy and skilled at all forms of combat he turns his hand to.  His one weakness is prideful anger, which led him into the fatal duel, and into the knock-down drag-out fistfight that is the climax of the book.  The use of coincidence to drive certain story elements does come close to breaking suspension of disbelief.

Recommended to Western fans, and those looking for a good manly adventure story.

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