Archive for October 2010

This Crooked Way   1 comment

It's colorful but doesn't say much about the contents.

After reading Blood of Ambrose, I was hot to read more  of James Enge’s fiction about Merlin and his children in the strange world of Laente.  I obtained both books at the same time, and dived right into the second one after finishing the first.

James Enge has apparently been writing his Ambrosian tales for some time.  Although THIS CROOKED WAY is the second book in his fantasy series, it shows a lot of internal evidence to suggest that much of the material in it was written earlier than the first book about Lathmar VII.  It consists of several novelets loosely linked to make a novel–it is a risky technique for novel creation.  The author doesn’t really build to a single climax–each tale comes to a climax and then it’s back to the beginning.  Four of the novelets–the entire center of the book–are told in first person narrative by four members of a family that he encounters.  Each person, Roble, Naeli, Fasra, and Stend see Morlock Ambrosius somewhat differently.  They all seem to be looking back on their adventures with Morlock as something that happened many years earlier, but no real context of time is given for their tale-telling.  In addition, a couple of stories are narrated by a Khroi nurse to her nurseling.  Why the insectoid Khroi would have any interest in the doings of a human wizard is never really explained.  Morlock does impact the Khroi’s history,  but not, in my opinion, enough to justify their superstitious awe of him.

In short, the book does not hang together nearly as well as the first book.  Taken as individual short novelets, the tales are good swords and sorcery.  Taken as a novel, it’s all kind of weak.  I believe James Enge noticed this himself, but probably had no better option for producing a sequel to his excellent BLOOD OF AMBROSE in a timely fashion.  He has an afterword that attempts to justify the existence of the stories in the real world, and to reconcile the differing points of view.  It’s a very nifty piece of apologetics, but . . .

On the other hand, Enge does give us a much better feel for his fantasy land.  We get to talk with werewolves and dragons, fight snake-leopards and a truly conceited Gnome.  The sense of fantastic invention is at a much higher level than in BLOOD OF AMBROSE.  Something new and marvelous is created in each story–you have to love it when a writer does that for you.

And, a coherent theory of magic begins to emerge from the fiction.  In Morlock’s world, there is something called tal. Tal is the intermediary between matter and spirit.  Spirit is helpless without matter, and matter is inert without spirit, and tal holds them both together.  Wizards can separate their tal from their body, sometimes they can control the tal of other beings.  It’s all kind of fuzzy, but the more control one has over tal, then the more magical things one can do.  Nobody does flash-bang magic in Morlock’s world–no fireballs or lightning bolts. It’s all curses and healing and spirit mastery. Spirit forms can range into the future and the past.  Golems can be animated.  There are all sorts of things that can be done with the proper manipulation of tal.  And then there is the mystical element of phlogiston, and aetherium, two elements of reality with what seem like magical properties.  Both Morlock and Merlin are masters of such knowledge.  It’s fun to see how Enge, with his college professor’s intellect, manipulates these elements in telling his tales of swords and sorcery.

Final Evaluation: THIS CROOKED WAY  isn’t quite as good a book as BLOOD OF AMBROSE, but it has a lot of innovation, intelligence, and adventure in it, along with a wry humor seldom seen in tales of heroic fantasy.  Read it! You will probably like it.

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Posted October 12, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

Before the Storm   4 comments

 

On Tuesday October 5, 2010 Phoenix, Arizona experienced what some are calling the Storm of the Century.  I was out on the roads of Phoenix during part of the storm–not the worst part,  lucky for me–and I would not be willing to give it that title.  I have lived in Phoenix for a very long time (as humans count such things) and I can remember worse, but it was certainly a major storm, and it caused major disruption all through the Phoenix metropolitan area.  Before the storm, however, I went out to visit one of my favorite scenic places–Papago Park. I had finished my morning business–library, bank, post office–and had my little digital camera with me (I was planning ahead today.), and thought I’d show off the beauty of Arizona.  We live in an amazingly beautiful and diverse world, people, and once in a while I like to express my appreciation of it.  Here, then is a short series of pictures that I took before the storm.

Fantasy Arizona

What you are seeing here is a kind of photo montage of the Phoenix desert as a fantasy paradise complete with a castle.  This is a display on an interior wall of my bank/credit union, and the picture didn’t come out as well as I hoped it would.  The building in the center is called the Tovrea Castle and you can read all about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tovrea_Castle  The lush vegetation that you see surrounding it does not exist in reality, although the castle does sit on a small hillock and is surrounded by 43 acres of desert landscaping featuring mostly saguaro cacti.  Because of its three-tiered design, the castle (or mansion as some call it) is known locally as “The Wedding Cake”–at least that’s what my family calls it.  I consider it to be one of the Wonders of Phoenix (which I plan to show you in this blog some time in the future).  The two pinkish, cave-pocked hills that rise on either side of the Castle are not there in reality.  They do exist about five miles to the northeast as the northern-most limits of Papago Park–the southern one is inside the park and the northern one is inside a National Guard training area.  (A decade or so ago I made a point of climbing the accessible one all the way to the top–a strenuous but not impossible climb for a 50 year-old.)  McDowell Road climbs up through a natural pass between the two hills–to the west is Phoenix, to the east is Scottsdale.  An amphitheatre of about 20 rows of stone seats has been carved out of the rock of the southern hill, and there is some roadside parking.  The theatre is used for sunrise services on Easter morning–at least it used to be.  I never attended one of those meetings, but I used to see them mentioned in the local news once a year.  These two hills are mostly sandstone, and the caves aren’t really caves, just hollows and overhangs.  Maybe I should call the rock mudstone–it isn’t the hard red sandstone you’d find in Sedona.  Behind the hills you can see the barren slopes of Camelback Mountain–the highest peak in the Phoenix area.  Camelback and its attendant hills is actually about ten miles northwest of the McDowell hills, and there is no way on Earth to stand between them and line them up with Camelback the way the picture shows it.  This view is of the southern face of the mountain, and it doesn’t show all the multi-millionaires’ mansions that cover the bottom half of the mountain.  They are fabulous residences indeed, and I have always wanted to live in one, but that will never happen–that is the domain of the super wealthy in Phoenix. (While I”m bragging, let me state that I once climbed to the top of Camelback Mountain also, back in the 90s, and that was the most exhausting climb and descent I’ve ever done.  You have to go up the back (north side) of the mountain which has a totally different character.)  I love that picture in the bank, but it is totally unreal.  Incidentally, the bright sun-like object in the lower left corner of the picture is a reflection of the flash from my camera–the mural itself is glazed and has a kind of shiny quality to it.

The picture in the bank made me think of visiting Papago Park, one of several huge city parks in the Phoenix area.  The park is the site of the Phoenix Zoo, and of the Desert Botanical Gardens.  There are also plenty of ramadas scattered throughout it for people who would like to sit down and picnic.

Entrance to the Phoenix Zoo.

Someday I’ll visit the zoo again with my camera and take pictures–some day in the winter.  The zoo requires a lot of walking, and I’m not very good with walking right now.  This is the entrance to it–a stone bridge across a lagoon full of fish and ducks.  Feeding the waterbirds from atop the bridge is always fun–they paddle so desperately to be first to get the bread crumbs or popcorn that visitors throw down to them.  I took this picture because I got lost in the zoo’s parking lot–not very full that day–and saw the giant globe over the entrance.  I’m not sure why the Phoenix Zoo has a giant world globe presiding over the entrance, but it does. If you use your imagination, you can just see Arizona up there in the northwestern curve of the globe–slightly to the right and above Baja Caliornia.

Leaving the zoo behind, I next went to my true destination in the park–Hole-in-the-Rock.  This place is another one of the “Wonders of Phoenix” (my term), and has always had a kind of special significance to me.  Erosion has drilled a hole right through one of the pink mudstone hills that make this part of the desert distinctive.  Centuries ago the Hohokam people, who had an extensive culture of irrigated towns and villages here along the Salt River, used this natural feature as an astronomical observatory.  Way back in 1946 my father met my mother here in Phoenix, and he told me that he used to take her out to Hole-in-the-Rock on midnight dates.  I’ve always imagined that I might have been conceived in this area.

Road leading to Hole-in-the-Rock.

Like other eminences I have made a point of climbing to the top of Hole-in-the-Rock, way back in the day.  It isn’t an easy job, the rock is slick, almost vertical, and has few hand and footholds.  You must press yourself flat against the rock and spider your way up it moving from one hand or foothold to the next to reach the top.  One of my favorite memories is of the night in the late 70s when I decided to show Hole-in-the-Rock to my friends Liz Danforth and Bear Peters.  Of course we climbed it that night–we were young and adventurous, and never stopped to consider the broken bones we’d be likely to have if we fell.  Actually, getting to the hole itself is a piece of cake.  There is a path on the back side of the hill that leads right to it–no more difficult than climbing a (very long) flight of stairs.

This is a closer view. I am parked almost at the foot of the hill, and you have a better view of the hole and the cave that it leads to.  I used to take my children here to watch the desert, and count the airplanes taking off from Sky Harbor International Airport, some ten miles to the southwest. 

While I was in this part of the park/desert I stopped and took a picture of the back side of one of those mudstone hills you can see in the bank’s picture.

 

This is a good shot of the lush Arizona desert, and you can see the cave-riddled hills in the background.  They really aren’t that high–perhaps a couple of hundred feet, but the strangely melted appearance has made some writers imagine that they are all that is left after nuclear bombs went off–perhaps thousands of years ago. 

Not far from Hole-in-the-Rock is another bizarre little local wonder that almost nobody in Phoenix knows about.

Buried like an Egyptian Pharoah.

This is Hunt’s Tomb.  George W. P. Hunt was the first Governor of the State of Arizona, and he served for seven terms.  You can read a little bit about this landmark here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunt%27s_Tomb  It seems that I have always known about this place–my father showed it to me when I was a child at the same time that he showed me Hole-in-the-Rock.  I have, in turn, showed it to my children, Jillian and James.  I wonder if they will remember it.

Hunt’s Tomb is a good lookout point for seeing the eastern regions of the valley.  While I was there, I took a few more shots showing the different mountains that surround Phoenix.  Although my city is in a valley, there are mountains around it in all directions.

This one shows Camelback Mountain off in the far distance.  Do you see how the bottoms of the cumulo-nimbus clouds in the sky are turning dark?  This was perhaps my first clue that a storm was coming.

Looking toward the South Mountains over the back side of the Phoenix Zoo.

South of Phoenix lies a short range of mountains named aptly enough The South Mountains.  The whole range has been made into a city park, and is, I believe the largest city park in the world.  Notice the darkness in the western sky–the storm is gathering.

After I left Papago Park I went over and browsed through an antique shop in Scottsdale.  I took pictures there too, and that will be the subject of a future blog.  As I drove over there I listened to the car radio, and got a weather report–the voice on the radio said there was a 40% chance of thundershowers in the Phoenix area with gusts of wind possibly in the 80 to 90 mph range.  Yikes!  A 90 mph gust of wind is something to be reckoned with–as fallen trees and power lines all over the valley would later attest.

Leaving Scottsdale a little past noon, I noticed that the sky was becoming very ominous indeed.  I wanted a picture of it, but the problem was in finding a good place to stop the car and get one. This is the one I got.

The sky over Phoenix

By this time the wind was blowing strongly.  Actually it was already raining and hailing in the west valley some 20 or 30 miles away.  The chance of storms had gone from 40% to 100% as far as I was concerned  Later that afternoon the city would be blasted with a torrential downpour and hailstones the size of golf and tennis balls, striking in some places with enough force to smash through the windows of cars and buildings.

Ken and his adventuring companion--the little blue Kia--in the parking lot at Phoenix College.

I got my son James to take this picture of me when I picked him up at Phoenix College around 1 p.m. If you look at the sky, you can see that areas to the northwest were already being blasted by the storm.  But, not me, not yet.  I didn’t personally experience the storm until about 5 p.m. when I took James and Harley and myself off to Samurai Comics for an evening of Shadowfist gaming.  At that time I drove the car through as dense a downpour as I have ever seen.  Water was running a foot deep in the streets.  Visibility was perhaps 100 yards. We just missed a burst of hail on Camelback Road–I could see the ice in the streets as I drove.  With my typical adventurer’s luck, I escaped with only a little drenching when I parked the car and went into the comic shop.  Many others in Phoenix were not so fortunate.

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Posted October 6, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

Blood of Ambrose   5 comments

 

I wish I could write as well as James Enge, and by write, I don’t mean string words together in sequences.  I’ll match my vocabulary and command of the English language with anyone–I might not win, but it will always be a contest.  No, by writing, in this case, I mean plotting.  Some authors have the ability to complicate their stories to the point where the reader really can’t predict what’s going to happen any more.  They add characters.  They add complications.  The story just keeps getting better and better.  James Enge is one of those writers.  My friend, Michael A. Stackpole, is another, but I’m not talking about Mike right now.

I’ve just finished BLOOD OF AMBROSE by James Enge.  It’s my kind of book, heroic fantasy with wizards and swordsmen and dragons and undead things and various monsters.  There are plots and counterplots at the very highest level.  It seems that the throne of the Empire of Ontil is at stake, but keep reading and you will learn that the entire world is threatened.   King Lathmar VII is being threatened by Urdhven the Protector, an evil usurper who wants the throne for himself.  Urdhven has already slain the boy-king’s parents, seized control of the army, and taken the capital city.  As the book starts, the Protector is slaughtering Lathmar’s last few friends and kin.  The semi-immortal sorceress Lady Ambrosia, Lathmar’s grandmother many times removed, has to send for help from her despised wizardly brother Morlock.  Morlock and his Dwarf apprentice/companion Wyrth gets the call for help from a crow—Morlock has a treaty with the crows.  (grin)

And the book just keeps getting better from there.  I’m not going to recapitualate the plot, but I will say it’s definitely worth reading.  I want to finish this blog so that I can get away from the computer and start the second book: THIS CROOKED WAY, which continues the adventures of Morlock, master Seer and Maker, after he leaves Lathmar and the Empire of Ontil behind him.

What I want to do is ask some questions about modern fantasy.  Just things to think about–are they trends or truisms?

1.  In the early days of heroic fantasy, the genre was often called Swords and Sorcery.  Some say that Fritz Leiber coined the term.  Lin Carter popularized it.  I’m willing to give them the credit, I suppose, but I called it that way back when I was a kid in high school reading my first Conan and Grey Mouser stories, long before I learned that Leiber was supposed to have invented the term. What else would you call a type of literature characterized by heroic warriors who very often found themselves fighting against dastardly wizards?  Have you noticed how most of the books in heroic fantasy seem to focus more on the wizards than the swordsmen these days?  You don’t find many Conans, Thongors, or John Carters any more.  The heroes are all wizards, or at the very least rogue-wizards.  Michael Moorcock more or less started the Rogue-Wizard traditon with his Elric of Melnibone stories.  That series started in the early sixties, and was a rebellion even then against the simplistic swordsman vs. sorcerer tradition of Howard and Leiber.  It seems like every fantasy I pick up these days has a wizard for a hero.

2.  Which leads to the second question, are wizards intrinsically more interesting than swordsmen?  Who is the deeper character: Merlin or Arthur, Gandalf or Frodo, Elric or Conan, Spock or Kirk?  We can extend the analogy. Spock is a kind of scientific wizard–he pulls technological saves out of his Vulcan hat so often that Kirk, the swordsman prototype takes it for granted.  It quickly becomes apparent to anyone playing fantasy role-playing games that the magical characters are the ones that will develop into the most powerful and most likely to survive.

3.  Why are these fantasy worlds so earthlike?  Most heroic fantasies are clearly set on different worlds that are not Earth.  Enge sets his tale on the planet Laent.  The geography is non-earthlike, and there are three moons, but the animals are all creatures from Earth.  It is surprising how few animals are actually mentioned in this 400 page novel.  There are horses and crows and dragons–all creatures from Earth.  The people are recognizably human.  Such a setting makes sense if you can tie the world to Earth in some way–Tolkien, and Howard, and Moorcock all set their adventures on the Earth that existed before the modern continents took form.  Lin Carter does the same for his Thonor books.  Fritz Leiber set his adventures in the fantasy world of Nehwon, but at least one of his major adventures for the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd took place on Earth–Adept’s Gambit, the very best, IMHO, of the Mouser novels.  Is it a failure of imagination or is it absolute necessity that heroic fantasy worlds be near duplicates of Earth?

4.  Enge set his Blood of Ambrose series on a planet that is not Earth.  Why then does he tie it to Earth and paticularly why does he tie it to Arthurian Britain with characters named Merlin and Nimue Viviana?  Why is Latin the old secret language of magic?  It doesn’t just look like Latin–the author says it is Latin in the first book.

5.  These are questions I would ask Enge if I ever got to talk to the man.  Clearly he is a scholar of fantasy and knows exactly what he’s doing.  I don’t believe he is simply echoing popular names from Arthurian mythology when he talks about Merlin, Nimue, Uthar (Uther Pendragon was Arthur’s father and a hero in his own right.)  Is he simply using those names because he knows they will resonate with his readers?  That would be a cheap trick if you ask me, but if there is some deeper connection, then the cheap trick becomes a stroke of brilliance.  (It’s odd how the significance of things all depends on your point of view, isn’t it?)

In the final analysis, James Enge succeeds in the real task of any writer of escape fiction.  He tells a great story and entertains the reader–me in this case.  Long may he write!

 

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Posted October 5, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

The Wizard’s Tale   Leave a comment

 

 

I remember a time when Kurt Busiek wasn’t one of the three most famous comic writers in the world.  Look at him now.  He has done everything, written everything from X-Men to Superman, and worked with some of the best artists in the business.  Working with good artists is very important.  Kurt has found a really good one in David T. Wenzel who illustrated The Wizard’s Tale.

This is the tale of Bafflerog Rumplewhisker, the last in a long line of evil wizards.  As evil wizards go, he does more good than harm, but at least he pays lip service to the Council of Evil Wizards. The time comes when he can’t sit on the sidelines any longer.  He must travel through time and space to recover the Book of Worse–the ultimate evil grimoire.  How he succeeds, who he meets (a faded princess), and what happens to the Land of Lune are the meat of the story.  You should read it if you like fantasy at all.

This is no epic fantasy, however.  It’s really just a showcase for the art of David Wenzel. Busiek hasn’t given us much more than a short story, but Wenzel has given us eye candy that could last forever. How do you stretch a short story into a 144 page graphic novel?  You do it by giving the reader lots of full page illustrations, and even some double-page illustrations.  The grotesque, the beautiful, and the magical fill every page and every panel to bursting. Here’s another sample of Wenzel’s artistic magic.

I rate The Wizard’s Tale as the best of all the grajphic novels that I grabbed from the library last week.  (I got 5 more today–grin.)  If someone were to give me one of them, this is the one I’d like.  If I found it while browsing in a used bookstore, this is the one I’d buy.  Even new, I’d say it’s worth every penny of its $24.99 retail cost.  This would make an excellent gift for that booklover you know who dotes on fantasy.

On a scale of five stars, I give it seven.  It’s that good.  My thanks to Mr. Busiek and Mr. Wenzel for creating this masterpiece.

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Posted October 2, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized