Trying to Write Part 4

Part I, Part II, Part III

11.

Nothing but mud and bones grew in the garden. It was an open air courtyard in the center of the keep surrounded by sheer stone walls, un-interrupted by windows or design of any kind. Single door was the only way in or out.  Crows swollen from feasting on corpses left to rot peered down from the their perches at the tops of the walls at their next meal chained to the lone wooden pillar in the garden. He yet breathed with head hung low dripping from the cold rain that beat against his body, mouth speaking words that only he could hear:

Weave and Spin

Hammer and Forge

My life your work

Crafted and shaped

Instrument of your hand

To live is to serve

Until upon your Mountain

I am born again

He finished his prayer and hung silently listening to the rhythm of the rain dancing on stone in the dark. The door to his prison opened and man stepped through, lantern in hand. He wore the armor of the guards, dual short swords hung at his sides. Orren raised his head to greet his new visitor.

“You must be the flayer. I’d tell you not to waste your time, that I have no knowledge that could aid you, but I doubt you’d listen. I imagine with a name like the flayer you probably enjoy your work too much to be dissuaded.”

“Keep quiet” he replied. “I am no flayer. That degenerate fetishizes his knives too much to be caught dead with them in the rain. I have come simply to ask you a question.”

“And what might that be?”

“Was it truth you spoke in the great hall? Have you power to vanquish the one that dwells beneath the mountains?” the man said.

“The power is not my own, but I am it’s conduit. Darkness flees at the name of my master. With who am I speaking?” Orren replied, confusion in his voice. Then he recognized the man as one of that stood guard upon dais of the master’s throne

“Does it matter who comes to free you?” The man said as he pulled a set of keys from his cloak. A moment later Orren was loose.

Orren rubbed his wrists and stood. “I suppose it does not, but should we die this night I’d like to know the name of the man for whom I will advocate at the gates of my Lord’s feasting hall.”

The man handed Orren one of the swords that hung at his side and spoke:

“Much blood will be shed this night, may it not be our own. My name is Berek. Follow me”

12.

Berek extinguished his lantern as soon as they entered the corridor that led to the garden and they raced along the damp stone, extinguishing every torch they passed that lit their way.

“I sent the guard on duty away on an important task, an important task that does not exist. He will realize my deception soon and alarms will be raised. We have little time.”

Berek navigated the labyrinth that made up the halls of keep without hesitation. Even had Orren freed himself of his bonds he would have been hopelessly trapped here in the winding hallways, a structure designed to confuse and disorient. They came to an abrupt halt by the a large wooden door flanked on either side by torches. Berek extinguished both of them, then he knocked.

“‘Berek, captain of Lord Zathen’s guard requires entrance. Official orders.” He shouted.

There was a rustling from within, the sliding of a deadbolt, and the door swung open. Orren stood in the shadows to the side of the doorway, sword in hand.

“Who is in charge here?” Berek barked, surveying the room before him. Swords and battle axes hung on walls next to shields and mail, they were nothing if not well armed. Three men sat at a round table playing cards, faces full of shock at seeing their captain unexpectedly.

“I…I am” said one of the men as he jumped up from his seat, spilling ale on the cards laid out on the table. “Forgive me, I did not know that you were coming.”

Berek frowned. “We will discuss playing cards on duty at another time. I’ve come to retrieve the armor and weapons confiscated from the prisoner. Our Lord wishes to study them.”

The guard squinted. “I was commanded not to release these arms to anyone, not unless the Master himself comes down here to retrieve them.”

“I catch you neglectful of your duty and now you are also calling me a liar? Perhaps you would like to see the flayer when he is done with our visitor?” Berek said moving his hand to the hilt of his sword.

“I mean no offense captain, but he will have my head without his direct order. My head is much more useful attached to my body.”

“That’s not what your wife told me” one of the men from the table interjected, causing the other guards to roar with drunken laughter. The head of the guard made an obscene gesture and threw his mug of ale at the offender, then turned back to Berek.

“I will go myself up to the throne and verify the orders. You can wait here with the other guards.” he smiled and started for the door. Before he could take two steps Berek drew his sword and removed head from shoulders in one swift movement. There was a moment of calm as the headless body crumpled to the floor. The blood streaked faces of the remaining two card players stared at their captain in disbelief, the head of the third player rolled with an almost comical wobble to their feet.

“Should have just given me what I came for.” Berek sighed.

Shock turned to rage on the faces of the living guards and swords were drawn. Berek was surrounded for a brief moment before Orren appeared in the doorway and ran his sword straight through the chest of the unfortunate fellow at the door. He kicked the now limp body off of his blade. It was now an even fight but not a fair one for drink had slowed the movements of the remaining guards. A few clashes of steel, screams of agony, and the fight was finished.

Berek walked over to the headless body and searched through the pockets. A moment later he produced a ring of keys and tossed them to Orren. He pointed to a chest in the back corner of the room.

“Put on your armor. More will be here soon and they aren’t likely to be drunk, just angry.”

13.

With armor donned and weapons in hand, Orren and Berek stepped out once more into the dark corridor. Berek had traded his short sword for a large double bladed axe. “We might have to hack our way out of here, this will help” he had said with a grin. Orren’s travelling bag was also recovered. His runic stones were all accounted for, but the flask was emptied of its contents. He would have to find a fresh water source when they escaped this wretched place.

They raced through the endless inky black, extinguishing all light as they passed. Darkness swallowed their path, there was no going back. Noises that no human could, or should, make could be heard behind some of the barred doors as they passed, they pressed on. Neither man spoke a word. Then Berek stopped suddenly. He remained silent for a moment then turned and spoke:

“Ahead is an entranceway to the keep. I thought it known only to myself and the master. Someone else has opened the door. I thought we had more time.”

Orren grinned. “The time for skulking in the shadows has ended it seems. Let us go to meet our fates beneath the light of the stars, the eyes of our ancestors.” Orren walked past Berek and out into the night. Berek hesitated for a moment in the black hall. He muttered to himself as he drew his sword and followed the foreigner out into the night, “At least it stopped raining.”

14.

They came out to a stretch of flat ground flanked by tall trees.  Across the clearing directly in the path of Orren and Berek stood was tall tussock grass swaying in the night breeze. Beyond that were the mountains. They were free.   

“Let’s go before we are seen” Berek said. The began their way across the clearing when Orren stopped. He reached down to the pouch that hung at his side a flipped open the flap. The four stones were aglow, pulsating slowly, blue light emanating from the bag.

“We are not alone.” Orren said with grim look upon his face.

“Indeed we are not. There in the grass.” Berek pointed the tip of his sword at the swaying tallgrass. A lone figure stood where the blade pointed, dressed in a long shredded shawl like that of a beggar. It stepped into the moonlight that illuminated the clearing and threw off the shawl. Orren’s grip tightening around his pike and he felt his jaw clench.

“Rather we’d have run into the entire barracks than him.” Berek said, spitting. Orren believed him.

Before them stood a man grinning madly wearing naught but a small cloth to cover his loins. He was lean and pale, almost sickly looking if not for the tight muscles that rippled beneath his skin, or at least what once was skin. His body was covered from head to toe in ancient script from the infernal language; words from the deepest of frozen hells, spoken only by the many tongued abominations that dwell there. Dark prophecies, blasphemies, horrific tales from the abyss had been carved into his flesh. His skin was but a monstrous scar, a walking testament of primeval malice.

In his hand was a dagger, a black blade attached to a gnarled wood handle. Orren could see it clearly in the moonlight, but no light reflected off of it. The blade was alive. He could feel its presence, and it could sense him.

“She was promised blood, she was.” The scarred man hissed. “I get to keep the skin but she takes the blood, your blood” He pointed at Orren. “Don’t put up too much of a fight and maybe we’ll kill you quick. Maybe. She always gets what she wants. It’s been too long since I’ve had to hunt my own prey.” He grinned, mouth full of teeth filed into razor-like points.

15.

“The blade…” Orren said. “I have seen its like before. It is not of man.”

“I’ve seen it before too, and I’d prefer to not be skinned by it. We have the advantage. Hurry before he calls for aid!” Berek shouted as he advanced quickly towards the scarred man.

Berek moved like a charging bull, an avalanche of steel and fury. He swung his blade at his foe but cut only the air. His opponent was quick, quicker than any human should be. His movements were almost arachnid in nature; limbs outstretched and dashing angularly from one point to the next. Before Berek could turn the abomination was behind him, a moment later and the stygian blade was brought across the armored shoulder before it. Metal and flesh split open like the seam of grainsack had been cut. Blood appeared for a moment…and then stopped. The wound was immediately blackened, as though a searing heat had cauterized it.

The ghoul jumped back a few steps before his now kneeling victim and held out the dagger. Not a trace of blood or flesh could be seen on it.

“Ohhhhh she likes you. Lots of fight. We will enjoy draining the life from you one cut at a time.”

He began to step forward with blade outstretched when the hook of Orren’s pike caught him from behind, hooking his right side. Orren pulled with all his strength, spinning the antagonist around to face him. A sound like metal scraping stone could be heard. The flayer glared at Orren, then reached down and unhooked the pike from his side. No mark from the blow could be seen. Any other man would have lost his innards from the force with which Orren had struck.

“She has remade me in her image. I am darkness incarnate. You can no more strike me down than you can the shadows that haunt your dreams. And you do dream don’t you? I’ve seen them. We’ve seen them.” He said ,curling his lips into a sneer. Then he charged, swinging his dagger. Orren was able to lift his shield in time and the black blade bounced off the woven strands, staggering its wielder. The flayer regained his footing and stared at the armored man across from him. His eyes narrowed and the grin he wore until now was no more. Uncertainty was now in his eyes, uncertainty and rage.

Orren slowly advanced. With shield raised he absorbed blow after blow from the demon blade, pushing that tattooed man back further and further. Orren left no opening for him, corralling him with pike and shield, always at his front. The flayer cursed and spit like a feral cat, blows harmlessly bouncing off the holy shield, ever retreating. They were now almost to where Berek kneeled. He was conscious, but his face was covered in sweat and pain. His eyes met Orren’s for a moment, and then he smiled. Berek grabbed his sword and lunged towards the legs of the assailant. At first glance it appeared to Orren that Berek had missed, the blade entering the space between the torturer’s legs. Then he jutted the handle of the blade forward, disrupting the cursed man’s balance.

Orren saw his opening and lept forward, bowling the flayer over onto his back. He landed atop the foe and pinned the evil weapon beneath the shield. The demon’s free hand raked across Orren’s face. Blood poured down and stung his eyes, yet he remained firm in his positioning. With his pike Orren slashed at the flailing limb, but he could only fend off strikes. No lasting damage could be done to anywhere the text of damnation was written. Berek saw the struggle and crawled over to aid. He managed to pin the other hand of the ghoul and for a moment all was quiet. Then the flayer began to laugh, a cackle straight from the bowels of the demon serpent itself.

“You going to hold me here forever? Why don’t you tell me a story while we wait? HMMM? Tell me of your family foreigner. How are they doing? Would you like me to tell you?” The flayer howled with evil glee, teeth glinting in the moonlight.

Teeth….teeth. There is no writing on the teeth.

Orren lifted his pike and with the butt of the handle began to slam it on the open jaw of  his captive. Teeth splintered and broke beneath the onslaught, howls of laughter turned to howls of pain and the sound of gargled blood. Then Orren reached down into the pouch at his side and pulled out one of the stones, still pulsating with light, and shoved it into the bloody maw of the flayer. The flayer began to choke and tried to spit, but orren held his mouth shut with his knee and his nostrils closed with his mailed fist. He swallowed and the stone was gone.

The flayer’s eyes opened wide and his face became twisted with agony. He opened his mouth and coughed up smoke and black tar like substance.

“We should probably get clear” Orren said to Berek. He stood up quickly and dragged his companion away . As soon as they released the hands of their captive he sprang to his feet, both hands raised to his throat, dagger lying in the grass beside him.

“WHAT DID YOU PUT IN ME?!? WHAT DID YOU DO!?” he screamed through coughs of smoke. “GET IT OUT!”

He shrieked in pain and began to claw at his stomach to no avail. Then he saw the dagger in the grass. He picked it up and plunged it into his abdomen up to the hilt, then dragged it clean across the width of his body. Black liquid poured out as he shoved a hand inside the gaping wound. He dug through his bowels as Orren and Berek looked on in horror, and then produced the small stone, still glowing.

“I’ve got it…I’ve…got it.” He said in a voice barely above a whisper. He looked at the two men before him and smiled, then crumpled to the ground.

Berek and Orren sat in silence for a moment staring at the carnage before them. The words carved into the flesh of the now dead man began fade before their eyes, and then disappeared. The black knife was gone.

“Did you know that making him eat that rock would do…that?” Berek asked, still staring at the corpse in front of him.

Orren shook his head “No…but…I knew he wouldn’t like it very much.” He walked over to the dead man and pried the stone from his crooked fingers. He wiped some black gunk off of it in the grass and placed it back in his pouch. They were no longer glowing.

“We should go. Can you walk?” Orren looked at Berek.

Berek stood slowly, wincing in pain. Then he smiled, “I’ve had worse.”

Trying to Write Part 4

Into the Dying Earth

It’s been a long time coming – I’ve finally gotten underway on Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth.

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Having sampled the first entry of his Demon Princes series and the standalone the Gray Prince, and noting that he’s perhaps best known for Dying Earth…well, I’ve wanted to read it for quite a while, and it’s been perched near atop of my queue for some time now. But I kept veering off to read something less widely-reviewed or topical of conversations being had within the online SFF community. No further delay can be abided!

Tales of the Dying Earth is a collection of Vance’s four Dying Earth books – The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rialto the Magnificent. The contained stories take place on an ancient, decaying Earth far in the future. Although related to and maybe overlapping with the “post-apocalyptic” tag, these tales properly fall into a subgenre named after Vance’s creation – “dying earth.”

Vance’s Dying Earth draws heavy inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith’s contribution to the genre in the Zothique cycle. I haven’t read any of his stuff yet, but soon enough.

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What I have read of CAH’s work suggests that he’s another one of the greats that’s fallen into unjust obscurity. Together with Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was a contributor to the Cthulu Mythos and one of the “big three” of Weird Tales magazine. If cosmic horror is your jam, he’s required reading.

I believe Kaiju is going though some of Smith’s material now. For my part, I’m hoping soon to dig into Zothique – the tales of an earth on its last legs. Technology has been lost, the sun has dimmed and reddened, and horrors roam the world. Sounds fun.

So far this is also the flavor of Vance’s Dying Earth. Ghosts and demons abound, and men scrape for wealth and power. Technology is lost and magic, while common, is on the decline. As for horrors, well.

Chun the Unavoidable is a scary guy.

The Dying Earth and Zothique make me think of Final Fantasy VI. Though the SNES classic initially presents more of a post-apocalyptic world than a dying one, there are many similarities.

FFVI’s protagonists encounter all manner of terrible and demonic creatures; abominations; cultists; crazed sorcerers and evil horrors. So too is the world littered with bits of forgotten and ruined technology and proofs of lost magic and powerful artifacts. Espers take the place of gods and demons, though ultimately in a sadder, more servile role.

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Image Source

 

After the collapse of the floating continent and Kefka’s rise to small “g” godhood, the world is changed. The seas become blighted and the land wastes and new terrors are unleashed upon the earth. Strange cults arise. A horrible demon even roams the skies.

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The reach of the dying earth subgenre extends far and is observable in all manner of succeeding media.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Jack Vance and the Dying Earth are cool. Clark Ashton Smith is cool. Final Fantasy VI is cool. And you, friends – you are cool.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Into the Dying Earth

A different Dickens Christmas story

A belated Merry Christmas to you, friends. We’ve nearly made it another year.

Apropos of the recent discussion within the online Scifi/Fantasy community about the worrying “memory-holing” of notable authors and works, I’d like to briefly introduce a lesser known Christmas Charles Dickens story.

“The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” is a forerunner to what is probably his most famous work, A Christmas Carol. It’s a story I only became aware of by way of its appearance in Tales Before Narnia. Near the beginning of his career, Dickens wrote a serial called the Pickwick Papers. This tale of a Scrooge-like gravekeeper and his encounter with a menacing goblin assemblage is one of the short stories from Pickwick.

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Reflecting upon the story now, after having read some Dunsany, it seems to me likely that the patriarch of modern fantasy was himself inspired by some of the more fantastical of Dickens works. The fey nature of this particular tale, along with the appearance of a goblin court (not so well known as the fairy court, I’d venture), smacks to me of Dunsanian flavor.

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Should you wish to give the story a read, you can find it here, along with some brief background and commentary.

 

-Bushi

bushi

A different Dickens Christmas story

Heroes, witchcraft, and more Amber

As I go into a busy couple of work weeks before the holiday lull, I’ve been focusing most of my “game time” recently on Heroes of the Storm (with a little Dominions IV on weekends). For a long stretch I’d been sticking to Quick Match (casual play), but now something inside me has reawakened and I’ve been jumping back into ranked. Perhaps it’s the changing meta or watching pro and semi-pro games online that have whetted my appetite.

 

Side note: it’s a little off-putting that so many people don’t know how to properly pronounce “aegis.” With the last few hero releases, the meta (that is, the popular play style and character picks) have definitely come to revolve more around mobility and lockdown. Varian, for example, may not have a super high win rate right now (mysteriously), but he’s incredibly difficult to fight against. That short cooldown stun and dash plus his solid damage mitigation make him a high threat in both solo lane dueling and team fights. Keep your distance or you’re likely to get chunked or erased.

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Luckily I haven’t seen a whole lot of Varian in Team League. Unluckily, this is because there are a bunch of other characters who are dominating the scene at the moment and can be incredibly frustrating to play against.

Chen is not one of these, and yet strangely the only two games my team won last night were games in which I went with the Pandaran asshole.

At any rate, I hear the ranked system will undergo an overhaul for season 3, and I’m looking forward to it. Should make Team League a lot more accessible once again.

In other news, I finished up with the Hand of Oberon last night. Onto the Courts of Chaos. I won’t include any spoilers here, but the Amber books do a very nice job of ladling out the intrigue and reveals in never-quite-satiating portions, leaving you always wanting to know more about the setting or the family or who’s plotting to kill who.

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I do not picture Benedict as Fabio with a robo arm.

I’ve also stuffed Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness! into my bag as train reading material. I’m about 40 pages in and so far it’s not really up my alley. Major, organized religions as the bad guys and bad guys as the actual good guys are not usually tropes I enjoy, and we seem to have both going on here. Still, it’s a short book so I’ll power through it and see if something changes my mind.

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Closing thought: I wonder if the scarlet priests were an inspiration for the Forgotten Realms red wizards, visually at the very least.

 

-Bushi

bushi

Heroes, witchcraft, and more Amber

Badass Womanly Women in SFF

A popular grievance of the Left is a lack of “inclusion” by either the Powers That Be or the population in general. As if we happy associates of the white, Christian Patriarchy have the time to step away from counting our piles of gold coins and smoking fine cigars long enough to actively knock the undesirables (or deplorables, if you will) down to the base of the ladder where they belong. This idea is usually born either by recently enlightened members of the aggrieved class or else sufficiently apologetic, self-appointed proxies. Self-righteous pensters have been decrying a lack of diversity in X for quite some time now.

Though it wasn’t the (original) central issue, there was plenty of talk focused on this topic during the whole Gamergate affair. Plenty of people pointed out that there are many prominent female video game characters – something easily ascertainable to those who have actually played video games or done some cursory research.

What about women in other media?

We’ve been told how great it is that we’re now finally getting some diversity in TV and film. With strong women like Rey in the Force Awakens and the Ghostbusters reboot, who needs traditional gender roles? Indeed, who needs men?

This dreck has been percolating for a while now. Is there a pushback coming?

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For the greater American culture, I’m not so certain. The pendulum swings both ways for sure, but it’s not easy to predict the full range of the cultural fulcrum. In a more limited arena, at any rate, the battle rages on.

To counter the cries of discrimination, I’ve noted several bloggers and online literary critics highlighting female excellence within the scifi-fantasy arena – pertaining both to writers and characters. Leigh Brackett and Margaret St. Clair are familiar names to Appendix N scholars or those fans on the farther side of the SFF Generation Gap. CJ Cherryh, Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L’engle, Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey, and Katherine Kurtz are some other big names who have been around for decades. Hell, JK Rowling is one of the best selling authors of all time, with Agatha Christie (a different genre, but still) topping the chart in a tie with William friggin Shakespeare. There are many more to name.

In light of this topic coming to the fore, I’ve been thinking about “strong” female characters. And you know, the recent brand is boring. The Left advances the ideas that gender is fluid and non-binary, and that traditional gender roles are outdated and discriminatory. And we wind up with bland characters like Rey, who wear formless potato sacks and can do everything better than men. She is woman, hear her roar.

JC Wright has written extensively on the subject of the strong female character. Physically and psychically, men and women have different strengths and weaknesses. While social crusaders may not personally like or accept this fact, minding it goes a long way toward developing well-written characters.

I’d like to briefly highlight a number of female characters I’ve identified who serve to exemplify this point. Note that these characters range in time of origin and in source medium. We can even draw from back in the Dark Ages when the women’s voices were suppressed and they were forcibly excluded from literature.

The Blood of Heroes (1989), Kidda

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In a post-apocalyptic world, a roving team of juggers hop from town to town playing the Sport (one part football, one part gladiatorial bout) as they make their way to the capital city, where they will fight to join the League. Along the way they pick up the scrappy Kidda – a small but quick woman who becomes their quik (the runner who tries to carry a dog skull to the opposite team’s end of the field without being savaged by the enemy defenders). Rather than brutishly pummeling the much larger men, Kidda had to rely on her natural agility, speed, and size to make it in the brutal game.

 

Star Trek Voyager (1995-2001), Captain Janeway

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Star Trek Voyager gets a lot of flack, and many Trekkies seem to consider it the worst or one of the worst series. I’ll have to write a defense sometime, because it’s actually my favorite of the bunch. Janeway is Exhibit A for me. She exhibited the best qualities of Kirk and Picard. She was a skilled diplomat, leader, and scientist, and yet she was quick to kick ass and take names when shit hit the fan. I found Janeway’s femininity striking. Although she did have some romantic subplots that never went anywhere, Janeway was extremely maternalistic. When it came to protecting her crew, she was a mother bear. She was no physical powerhouse, but she repeatedly displayed great courage and emotional strength.

 

Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)Six, Eight (Boomer and Athena), President Roslin

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There were a number of great female characters in the reincarnation of Battlestar. Of course Grace Parker was engaging as both Boomer and Athena, and Six as Caprica and other roles. Roslin was written a little unevenly, but she usually made a fine leader, relying on her forceful personality, wiles, and resilience. I’d contrast these characters with Starbuck, who was crafted to be a brawling hottie but more often came across as obnoxious and destructive.

 

Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), Ripley

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Ripley was another maternal female character, at her best when she was protecting Newt. She wasn’t always the strongest, but she was intelligent, resourceful, and determined, as was perhaps best displayed in the iconic Aliens scene in which she takes on the mother alien with the work loader mech.

 

Flash Gordon (1934-) – Dale Arden, Princess Aura

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Flash Gordon was published as a comic strip in 1934 and has been serialized in a number of different media throughout the years. Two major recurring characters are Dale Arden (his companion from Earth and main love interest) and Princess Aura (daughter of Ming the Merciless). Although on the surface they may look like typical princesses in need of rescue, they’re both strong and independent characters. I haven’t personally read the comic strip, but in the 1980s film Aura saves Flash’s life and Dale effects her own escape. They’re both capable, brave, and beautiful (I know, scandalous for me to say!) without having to usurp the role of the male heroes.

 

Willow (1988)  Sorsha, Queen Bavmorda, Fin Raziel

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Ok, so Willow’s Sorsha wasn’t the most well-fleshed-out of characters. She went from basically being an ice cold bitch to eventually deciding to join the good guys against her mom. I guess the ladies just can’t resist the Madmartigen D.

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Oh well. At any rate, she was a decently depicted female warrior type – this is what you get when you’re not dealing with abnormal behemoths like GRRM’s Brienne. She can fight; she can stab some old robed men plenty well. But when she’s dealing with a skilled, larger male like Mad M, she’s no match. I guess this is hinted at by her prominent quiver of arrows, though I don’t think she ever has a bow or makes use of any of them.

We’ve also got Fin Raziel, the great magical old dame Willow must seek out because she’s a powerful mage and he’s just a two-bit magician. If woman are going to have equal opportunity, we also need some prominent strong female villains, and so we’ve got Bavmorda, who is probably the strongest magic user in the film. She’s vicious, cruel, self-serving, and good at being bad.

Willow is particularly notable because it gave us the old woman magic battle years before we got the old man magic battle on screen. Revolutionary!

 

The Wizard of Oz (1900), Dorothy

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The story that spurred perhaps one of our most classic, iconic films, and the protagonist is a little girl. She may not have been roundhousing flying monkies or pummeling the wicked witch, but Dorothy’s kindness and charisma aided her in recruiting many friends throughout her journey (especially if you include the other books in the series). Her quest to return home required a fair amount of courage, as well, which you may notice is a recurring virtue on this list.

Again, this is just a small sample of female characters from a variety of SFF. And they were arguably all well done and strong despite not competing with men where men excel and/or just being good at everything.

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-Bushi

bushi

 

Badass Womanly Women in SFF

Shadows and dust of Amber

For the month of October, I mostly opted to play follow the leader – dashing through Nine Princes in Amber with the Puppy of the Month Club, and Frankenstein in solidarity with HP over at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.

*Moderate spoilers ahead!*

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There are already a number of great Amber posts up, so feel free to check those out if you’re familiar with the story already and looking for some analysis:

Hooc Ott laid down a fascinating look at Amber’s influence on a classic D&D campaign module.

Jon M’s overview is worth a read. He makes some astute observations about the tone and setting of the story, and I’m in full agreement on how it concludes. It doesn’t feel like a good place to end, and while I generally prefer novellas to lengthy tomes, had I been reading Amber as it was written I’d have been disappointed.

The Frisky Pagan also makes some good points. I found myself nodding along to his opinion about the highs and lows of the first Amber tale. The invasion of Amber did seem anticlimactic and relatively dull compared to the character-building periods like Corwin’s imprisonment.

As I read the story myself, I found myself thinking about an exchange I had with Alex of Cirsova on Twitter:

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As to his distaste for Corwin, I didn’t share the feeling but I can definitely see where he’s coming from. As the book advances, Corwin demonstrates admirable feelings like remorse, pity, and guilt. He may be a narcissist, but I didn’t find him consistently unlikable.

Alex’s second grievance gave me more pause (incidentally he also observed at the PotM Club blog that Amber’s shadowstuff was one of the main inspirations for D&D’s illusionist class).  I haven’t read past the first book, so I could be completely off-base here and contradicted by the succeeding stories, but my impression was that the Shadows were more than illusions.

So far as the children of Oberon believe, Amber is the only Substance; all else is Shadow. However it also appears that the people of Amber do not know everything about their world or how their powers work. They seem to speculate and take for granted.

Furthermore, Corwin feels sympathy for his Shadows. When he and Bleys move against Eric, our protagonist notes his pity for their dying, suffering soldiers. When faced with his inevitable defeat at sea, Corwin even decides that though he would personally never choose to surrender, he would give himself up to save his men. If these devotees were mere dust, only illusion, then why would he do such a thing (especially seeing as he clearly values himself so highly)? Is this nothing more than the sympathy one might feel for a video game avatar or maybe even a pet? Possible, but doubtful to me. Feelings of human decency might compel me not to beat a hooker to death in GTA, but they would not make me sacrifice in real life for said digital prostitute.

Even if Corwin doesn’t consciously realize it, I think he knows that the people of the Shadows are more than nothing. Perhaps this is a result of having lived on our Earth for some centuries. That, too, raises an interesting point. If the Shadow worlds are just reflections of Amber, devoid of any substance, then we too are nothing.

Again, I could be completely off the mark here. I’ll pick Amber back up sometime and see what else is said of the Shadow. But I want to give Zelazny credit here and believe that #ShadowLivesMatter, too. Otherwise, as Alex says, there are some big elements rendered meaningless.

-Bushi

bushi

Shadows and dust of Amber

Dickson’s Dragon and the George

I’ve mentioned Gordon R Dickson previously and have been meaning to write up something about him. I came to one of his most popular works, the Dragon and the George, through the Rankin and Bass animation as a kid. I’ve retained a soft spot for those old cartoons, watching them again every few years, and as an adult I’ve been more proactive about seeking out their source materials.

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Though this is the only one of his stories I’ve read thus far, Dickson, like many of his contemporaries, didn’t confine his work to one genre. In this tale we’ve got somewhat genre-bending plot elements (some sort of pseudo-scientific astral projection casting characters into an alternate, fantasy version of earth), but Dickson’s other most well-known series, the Childe Cycle, has played a large and influential role in the military science fiction arena. That’s all I can really say about it for the moment, but it’s on my reading list.

I’ve lamented the fact that Dickson didn’t make it onto Appendix N or any of the other indices on the Grand List, which is why I include my own blue column. It’s difficult to generalize about an author without having read more than one entry from his body of work, but I feel good about my praise in this case. Dickson has been stylistically compared to Poul Anderson in some regards, and I can see why. Incidentally, Dickson and Anderson did some work together. I’d love to get my hands on some of that.

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Dickson’s Dragon and the George, like some of Anderson’s work, especially Three Hearts and Three Lions, blends elements of Christianity and folklore, along with bits of the author’s own imaginings.

 

It always gladdens my heart to see references to Christianity and prayer in fantasy writing; probably primarily because I’m a Christian, but also because paganism becomes tiresome after a time. Sure, tales of Odin and Ares and Crom and a thousand nameless gods can be fun and mystifying. Pantheons have their place. But these days that’s all fantasy has become – small “g” gods, demons, and grab bags of assorted stock D&D creatures, like dwarves, elves, goblins, and trolls. There’s obvious a large market for it, but it’s not the only way or even necessarily the best way to craft. That’s one big tragedy of the infamous Generation Gap.

Another similarity between Dickson’s story and some of Anderson’s work is the theme of supernaturally-driven factions at play against one another. Whereas Anderson portrays this struggle as a war between Law and Chaos, Dickson’s Dragon Knight series pits the forces of History (order) and Chance (chaos) against once another. As the two writers were collaborators and friends, and Dickson’s basis for the series, “St. Dragon and the George,” was published before Three Hearts and Three Lions, I wonder if the pair didn’t share ideas and influence one another here.

Where Anderson made his mark on nerdom with his characterization of trolls and treatment of the Paladin (among other areas, I’m sure), Dickson also employed some interesting and perhaps unique creations and spins on traditional fantastic creatures. Dickson’s dragons were not cold, unintelligent, evil reptiles, nor were they invincible, cunning, Smog-like monsters. While they were indeed avaricious treasure-hoarders, they were not uniformly bad. While Gorbash and Smrgol were somewhat forward-thinking, they were basically conservative and self-interested. Still, Dickson took dragons in a somewhat superversive, idealistic direction through Smrgol. In a late conversation with our fighting man, Sir Brian Neville Smythe, Smrgol proposed the idea of dragons and “georges” becoming friends:

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Also interestingly, while dragons were forces to be reckoned with, they were hard-pressed to contend with fully arrayed knights. Dragons had learned to respect, if not fear, a “george in his shell, with his horn.”

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Dickson also had his own take on the monstrous ogre. Deadly foes, the grand elder Smrgol was the only dragon (before Jim in Gorbash’s body) ever to have defeated one. Thus he was able to advise the protagonist on the creature’s strengths and weaknesses.

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Although they didn’t seem to gain widespread fame or popularity (if only they’d been picked up by a popular pen and paper game!), Dickson also created his own creatures. One of the high points of the related film (for me) and a constant threat throughout the book was the menace of the sandmirks – horrid, murine little monsters that would swarm and drive their victims insane before converging and devouring them.

Dickson also created a memorable and vicious foil to the sandmirks in the character of Aragh, the English Wolf. Intelligent animals can make for some interesting characters when done right.

One of the elements I appreciated most about the Dragon and the George was the balance of Dickson’s writing. Not every writer can pull off lighthearted jokes about a confused knight being envious of having a social security number and then transition to exciting battle scenes and tragic deaths that evoke the feelz.

As I read these older stories, I sit on the sidelines and scratch my head over the whole Appendix N War (perpetuated by trollish snobs, in my opinion). When I stumbled upon Jeffro’s survey of the body, and Cirsova’s scattered writings on the subject, I took it for what I think it’s meant to be – a study of one source list of the roots of modern SFF. For some people there’s a gaming aspect to it; after all, the list is literally pulled out of D&D. That’s great – take inspiration from wherever you can get it. Look at the Bible – one of the oldest and most classic collections of literature we’ve got. Countless stories, turns of phrase, and cultural references draw from the Good Book, and yet how often do we hear criticism of Bible study? “I’ve already read the New Testament, why revisit that?”

For my part, I’ve already mentioned the Generation Gap several times, and I’ve also reiterated that “old is new again.” For many readers, this is untread ground. I mean, there are a lot of us born in the 80’s and later who grew up with bookshelves full of the much-maligned “80’s and later” stuff. So what’s wrong with taking a look at, as Jeffro calls it, a time capsule of SFF from a few decades ago?

As Jon M and others have pointed out, Appendix N is a great resource for new writers interested in bringing back pulp.

For my part, Appendix N was a starting point, as I think it has been for many of these guys. It’s not a sacred, unalterable syllabus. Rather it’s a map, an atlas. Not everything contained will be to everyone’s liking, and there’s plenty of great stuff that didn’t make the list (coming back to Dickson). Appendix N is enough to last an avid reader for a while. And when you’re done, there are other paths. App N is an excellent doorway to a lot of this other stuff.

Just my two cents, and I have trouble seeing why respect for or interest in antiquity pisses some people off so much. Read what you like and let others do the same, for crying out loud.

-Bushi

bushi

Dickson’s Dragon and the George