Dilvish, the Damned: more “not Tolkien”

One of the things I enjoy most about old Appendix N work (and similarly classic and formational SFF) is that there’s so much “not Tolkien” fantasy to masticate. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some JRR hobbits and trolls, but I’ve gotten kind of worn out on today’s brand of knock-off Gandalfs and Legolas clones. Even when they’re Dark-Legolas.


So how about an Elfin hero who’s not so Elfy?

He’s got the green Elf-boots (TM) that assure he always magically lands on his feet, and seem to give him a vague sneaking bonus of some kind, but he doesn’t tote a longbow, thank God. Nor does he dual-wield any kind of fighting implements – no, he seems plenty comfortable with plain, old cold steel.

He doesn’t hear the whispers of the trees, nor does he charm animals, unless you count his companion/mount Black, the metal demon horse. And he doesn’t know any spells of protection or healing, but he does know a few incantations in the tongue of the underworld that can level cities.


Dilvish, the Damned is an interesting sort of protagonist, consorting with or banishing demons as called for in a given situation. Driven by a deep thirst for revenge against the Saruman-type who banished him to Hell, he still holds to his own strict moral code, which includes assisting the weak and needy when able, and killing only those who deserve it when it can’t be avoided. In the introductory stories, we see him racing, out of a sense of personal obligation, to save a city from conquest. Later on he helps various other unfortunates who just happen to be in his path. He doles out both death and mercy. Dilvish is no saint, but he’s clearly no villain, either.

My favorite parts of Dilvish, the Damned were the stories of gods and fantastical creatures with somewhat less-than-common spin. One story is about a meeting with a werewolf, whom Dilvish pities and would rather not slay. Now there are a lot of popular associations when it comes to werewolves – weakness to silver, the full moon, transformation. But all this story really focuses on is the unrelenting hunger of the beast. It struck me in a positive way.

Another tale includes the recounting of a deicide committed by an ancestor of Dilvish. Excellent dying words here:


I’ve become a big fan of short stories, and the episodic, yet continuing nature of Dilvish’s adventures scratches an itch. Although I really wish I knew what happened to that sweet invisible sword he picks up in one story and seems to lose sometime before the next. But alas, leaving some things unsaid or unexplained can be an effective storytelling technique.

The most disappointing part of the Dilvish stories has been Zelazny’s uneven writing, which is perhaps unsurprising for story written over the span of decades. Sometimes the writing is quite good and characters use archaic yet unstilted manners of speech (see above).

At other times the writing slips into a more…contemporary flavor.


This can be all the more jarring when the two writing/speaking styles intermingle in the same story. If you can get past this, however, the writing is pretty solid, even if not every story is a home run.

Dilvish, the Damned was a pleasant surprise for me. I enjoyed Zelazny’s Amber stories, but for whatever reason I was expecting a “hero” somewhere between Cugel and Elric. While Dilvish certainly falls short of the traditional Christian champion of yore, we do instead have a flawed but noble hero to cheer for.

He is named both “Damned” and “Deliverer” by characters in his world, and he indeed presents us with another (though lighter) shade of gray. But Zelazny still delivers us a hero, free of grimdark nihilism, and with enough uniqueness for me to recommend picking this one up if you get the chance. 4.5/5.




Make yourself useful, mage!

Yesterday Cirsova shared some thoughts on Twitter about a recent post over at Walker’s Retreat (which was in turn a reaction to a post at Dyvers blog).

This led to an interesting thread, if you’re of the sort who delights in this kind of raw nerdom.



A frequent criticism of D&D 3.5e, which is probably a middling version of the game in many senses (and yet like ice cream, each person has a favorite flavor), is that it’s too easy to get bogged down in rules and mechanics. Still, I think it gives a judicious and experienced DM the tools for a rather rich and dynamic game. A handyman may have a 50-piece ratchet/socket set in his toolbox; doesn’t mean he’s got to use it!

I must confess, I’ve never played a magic user. The only game I ever played in as a player gave me a taste of the charisma rogue, which I very much enjoyed.

The comparisons I can draw here are limited. A magic user may be standing in the doorway with his hands in his, uh, robe pockets as his party desperately fights off the goblin raiding party until he’s saved their bacon by expending a precious lightning bolt spell on the ogre boss that’s just rolled up on the exhausted heroes. As a silver-tongued rogue type, at least you’ve still got backstab, and hopefully enough HP and dexterity to help out on the front line for a round or two without getting insta-killed. You may not be a power-hitter, but you can at least do something useful most turns, whether it be culling a damaged bogie or firing off an arrow or two. Hey, at least I got you a flanking bonus!!

Anyway, when we consult our handy actuarial table of action types, we see that a magic user can…actually not really do much at all! My references above to aiding another or intimidating were actually useless advice in this context as they require melee range!

Unfortunately, without magical items or scrolls or maybe potions of some sort, a magic user’s not really got any recourse. Especially if he’s trying to sincerely roleplay his character.

What is one to do?

One branch of the conversation, which kind of circles back to Dyvers’ original post:


And I think that really may be the best solution – sprinkle in some magical goodies for your magic users to hold on to. But it’s up to the DM to anticipate and implement. If you return to some D&D’s source material, namely Dying Earth, you’ve got all manner of magical items for magic users to play around with between casting spells. Remember that in Vance’s stories, most wizards could only memorize a handful of incantations. While spells certainly accounted for an important portion of their overall power, perhaps equally important were the relics and magical artifacts that they were able to accumulate.

These gadgets can range in power, from extremely powerful to amusingly benign – think of Cugel’s “tube of blue concentrate,” which due to its mysterious nature elicited some degree of fear despite maybe just being a can of blue spray paint. These kinds of curios can be a real boon for a DM who doesn’t want to wantonly dish out wands of magic missile or other damage-dealing items, as they provide players with a great chance to get creative and do some quality roleplaying.


It’s also a thought for you fantasy writers. Instead of going with a vanilla wizard character who chants spells and draws runes, why not a codger with a bag full of doodads and magical junk?



Hard Vance: Dust of Far Suns

At our last (and first!) Bushi meetup, Gitabushi gifted me a number of old books, including a couple Vances. I also gifted him an old Vance book, but the trade was far from reciprocal, for JV is one of my favorites and Gita isn’t so impressed. C’est la vie.

Dust of Far Suns turned out to be another solid collection. Although one of the Demon Prince stories kind of dragged for me, I have yet to read a Vance story I didn’t appreciate as a work of superior quality. Dust is a pleasantly small little number with four quick and meaty short stories, unrelated so far as I could tell aside from all being set in the future.

Another notable fact is that they all seemed “hard” scifi to me. That is, Vance was never one to shy away from blending a little magic into his scientifiction if it suited a given story. These ones, though, all come across as scientifically plausible (to a layman like me, at any rate). There are parts, especially in the first and third stories, which go into some detail about futuristic technologies such as solar sails and image projection. Most of this was probably made-up science, but not being a scientist, I couldn’t tell.

The titular opening story is a cool little number about an old, hardened grump named Henry Belt, who is responsible for training space cadets. He’s bristly, he’s said to drink heavily, and everyone hates him, but he’s also responsible for turning out the best spacemen Earth has got. But he’s been informed by a prognosticator that he’s destined to die in space, and he’s getting on in years…so he tells his latest class that he doesn’t care much whether he makes it back this time. What will happen?

“Dodkin’s Job” tells the story of a Nonconformist living on a world run by the Organization, a global government run on red tape. Our hero is a man of no small intellect and ability, if he does say so himself, but he just can’t abide stupid, pointless rules and routines. But as a result, he’s been declassified (demoted in social rank and employment assignment) so many times that he’s only one strike away from becoming a “junior executive,” the lowest class comprised of the dregs of society. Still, his latest job is a drag and a new order has just come down that will cost him 3 hours of his personal time every day, just because some bureaucrat felt like flexing a little muscle. This will not stand!

“Ullward’s Retreat” is about a future in which space and privacy are at a premium. There are just so many people that a typical family lives in a domicile the size of a large closet. But not Ullward! This guy’s amassed nearly 3/4 of an acre – a veritable paradise, and he’s very fond of showing it off. But he’s about to set his eyes on something much larger…

“The Gift of Gab” was probably my favorite of this collection, and it reminded me in parts of The Gray Prince. The story starts off with the disappearance of a crewman from the raft upon which most of the tale is set. But where could he have gone?

Vance’s experience as a seaman really shows here as he describes parts of the raft and its operation, as its crewmen carry out their job of mining the sea for metals to be sent back to Earth (I presume?).

I’ve said before that I really enjoy the imaginative depiction of alien beings and environments in my scifi, and “The Gift of Gab” really delivers with its mysterious sea world the the strange life found thereon.

Overall I’d give this book a 4.5/5. Really enjoyed it!




Gordon R Dickson’s Dorsai!

My first exposure to Gordon R. Dickson came through his fantasy title The Dragon and the George – a quite exciting tale of a modern, mundane man thrust into a medieval fantasy world. It’s been done many times, but in this case our protagonist finds himself in the body of a dragon. Great book!

At the time of that post I was doing a bit of light research, as I am apt to do, and found that Dickson was more recognized and lauded as a scifi writer. Since then I’ve read Mission to Universe; it was okay.

His Childe Cycle is supposedly where it’s really at. Perhaps.

I just finished reading Dorsai!, and it was pretty good. I feel disgusting placing a comma next to an exclamation point, but here we are. Before getting into specifics, I think we’ve got another solid 3.5-4 out of 5 in this one. I got through it quicker than the last one (Lest Darkness Fall) and I daresay I enjoyed it more, but it didn’t blow me away.


Dorsai! is the first book (in publication order) of Dickson’s uncompleted Childe Cycle – a story meant to span a millennium, from the 14th to 24th centuries. At the time of Dorsai!, humanity has expanded to the stars and begun to diverge. While there are not (yet) any branches of the species, planets have specialized. The titular planet of the Dorsai, for example, is a society of elite fighting men. Most of the worlds’ commanders and the best troops available hail from the warrior planet.

The story focuses on one Donal Graeme, a Dorsai who has just reached adulthood. Of course there is something “odd” about him; everyone says so. As the story progresses, we follow his career and meteoric rise through the ranks. Obviously the guy is a genius! His true motivation is somewhat obscured, though revealed to us and to himself in a vague, slow-drip kind of way, until the end of the tale.

Dickson does a nice job blending action and strategy (both military and political). I was reminded a little  of Ender’s Game and Foundation, in the satisfaction derived from following as Donal devises and executes an unlikely plan or figures out something no one else sees.

His world building was also quite well-done on a macro level, I thought. By the end of the novel I felt like I had a pretty decent picture of the worlds of Man and how they interacted with one another.

Bottom Line: If you see this one in a secondhand bookstore, pick it up. It’s good, inspirational, classic military scifi.


*Spoilers Ahoy*


All that said…I think Dickson wrote a decent-good book that could have been great. I think he wound up bogging himself down with Big Ideas and fantastical elements that got no follow-through. Character development was weakish. Anea, Lee, Galt, ArDell Montor, William, and even Donal himself fall all prey here. We get glimpses into personality and motivation, but that’s about it. Donal’s uncle Ian felt to me like perhaps the closest thing to a whole character, but he didn’t really get any kind of an arc.

There is a part where Donal is told that he is special in some way and that he can walk on air if he believes he can. He proceeds to do so, but then dismisses this unexplained power and never makes use of it again. This thread is just kind of lost. What was the point?

At the end of the story, Donal explains that he has a superhuman sense of insight – that he can see how events will unfold: sort of a quasi-Muad’dib prescience, I suppose. He is a sort of unforeseen evolution (as opposed to Dune‘s Paul, who was the result of carefully planned breeding come to fruition sooner than expected).


This is all well and good, but the dialogue and explanations between Donal and Sayona felt excessive. To know that Anea was designed to gravitate to the most powerful man of humanity is enough. To know that Donal’s a superman who can predict the future is enough. Too much exposition!

There were several discussions throughout the story about the economy of the worlds. While I did find the idea intriguing – that because planets specialize they must trade and contract men and women of different specialties from other societies, this too became a little too dense for me to easily follow. The idea that some planets want to trade people as commodities, essentially, while others want to allow their workers some degree of freedom to choose their assignments – this would have a good place to end, for me.

One element I did appreciate was the bond between Dorsai men. Of course they were prepared to fight and kill one another when finding themselves on opposite sides. But in the abduction mission near the end of the story, Donal, El Man, and Ian wind up fighting and subduing a fellow Dorsai. He surrenders and they “hire him out” as a prisoner (an interesting if not immediately clear idea). He then takes them as far into the base as his honor will allow without directly betraying his commander.

Again, on the whole I found this an enjoyable read. But ultimately it felt like Dickson got too ambitious and got in his own way. He spent too much time on half-developed grand ideas that would have been better spent on further development of his characters.




C.L. Moore’s Tree of Life

C.L. Moore is one of those unfairly obscurified SFF writers of decades past. This summer I did a little gushing about Jirel of Joiry, a terribly great series of short stories, but since then I’ve been sampling different fare. Until the other day, when I was looking for some quick train reading and remembered that I’d downloaded an e-book version of “The Tree of Life” (available for free on Amazon and at Gutenburg).

I wasn’t quite as impressed with this one, but there’s still a lot to admire and enjoy about it. First off, it makes a case that Moore was another author skilled at writing diversely.

“The Tree of Life” belongs to Moore’s Northwest Smith series of short stories. Along with Jirel, Smith was one of her trademark characters and probably represents her most recognized foray into scifi. Although we don’t learn overly much about the protagonist in this tale, we see that he’s on the run and that he’s cut from the same cloth as Conan and Eric John Stark – namely that though he’s intelligent, there’s something primal and barbarian about him.

While we’re talking about Conan, I don’t consider that note about intellect to be of small significance. The mainstream perception of our favorite barbarian has come to envision him as a dumb, muscly brute, but in fact he was no dullard. For one, Conan spoke a number of different languages, and if you’ve ever tried to pick up a second or third, you’ll know this is not an easy feat. That struck me about Northwest Smith, actually – in this story Moore flat-out tells us that our protagonist is familiar with a number of different languages, and he’s able to brokenly communicate with some alien creatures that speak a language similar to one he’s picked up to a small degree. This commonality between Smith and Conan is no surprise, really, as we know Moore and Howard were at least friendly (if not friends) and enjoyed each other’s work.

As in her Jirel stories, Moore blends in a generous dose of semi-Lovecraftian horror. Combined with the somewhat romantic science fantasy of the Smith setting, we’ve got a nice, refreshing blend of elements going here.


Moore’s way with language is characteristically impressive:

“It was no ordinary danger. A nameless, choking, paralyzed panic was swelling in his throat as he gazed upon the perilous beauty of the Tree. Somehow the arches and curves of its branches seemed to limn a pattern so dreadful that his heart beat faster as he gazed upon it. But he could not guess why, though somehow the answer was hovering just out of reach of his conscious mind. From that first glimpse of it his instincts shuddered like a shying stallion, yet reason still looked in vain for an answer.”

Though I was put off at a certain point in the story when she reuses the word “dynamo” a little too often for my liking…

I’m loathe to really say much about the story’s plot, as it’s not really very long and the buildup is part of the fun. So if any of this sounds enticing, go check it out!.

In summation, this is a great, free little SFF romp. It might not be my suggested entry point into her works, but it works as a standalone, it’s quick, and it’s imaginative, quality writing by a top-notch old great.




Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Ironic Heroes

I recently finished up reading Swords Against Death, the second collection of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

If you’re not familiar with them, they’re a pair of adventuring rogues who’ve contributed a great deal to the Sword and Sorcery genre. They’ve also got an entry in the secretly famous Appendix N. Essentially they’re a couple of dude-bro friends, a barbarian and a more traditional (smaller) acrobatic thief type, who seek out riches and debauchery all over the world.


The characters themselves, while not as iconic as Howard’s Conan, have many SFF-nerd-fans among the older crowd. As one would expect of the Greatest Swordsmen in the Universe (TM). At times I was reminded of Drizzt, actually, and I’m sure there’s a seed here in Fritz’s duo.

In many of the earlier tales, the two are fighter-thieves. Certainly powerful, but not really any more unbelievable than Conan or John Carter or Ender Wiggin (geez, I just realized I don’t even know any contemporary characters to allude to anymore). If you’ve read the first (chronological) collection, Swords and Deviltry, you’ll know that eventually they each morphed into some combination of fighter/ranger/rogue/wizard/barbarian/bard. In Swords Against Death, however, they’re simpler characters, and that is to the good.

It’s also worth noting that some of the stories take place in Lankhmar, which was one of the early fantasy cities that really came to model the “urban adventure” game setting. And the Fafhrd and Mouser stories are also one of, if not the earliest setting to make use of a “thieves’ guild.”

So what I’m saying here is that Leiber broke a lot of ground. Even if he doesn’t become your favorite author after reading these tales, there’s a lot to recognize and appreciate.

What did I think of Swords Against Death? Well, I’m glad I read it. And I liked it much more than Swords and Deviltry.

Once again I was surprised that the collection seemed to lead with the weakest material, for “The Circle Curse” is rather uninteresting.

The stuff in the middle is mostly good. There’s plenty of good adventuring and some cool ideas, like a house that eats people.

The final stories are interesting and my feelings are mixed. “The Price of Pain-Ease” held a compelling premise and a kind of cool adventure hook for any GM’s who are paying attention, but the foolishness and selfishness of the protagonists (who are supposedly as close as brothers) ultimately didn’t carry well.

“The Bazaar of the Bizarre” was an apt title. The main idea of this story was almost cool, but ruined by clumsy explanations and silly execution. One of the main shticks could have been direct forerunner to the whole idea behind the cult-classic film They Live, and it was an engaging idea here. As a weird story, The Bazaar works, but I think it’s one of the weaker entries here.

The idea of these two rogues becoming beholden to mysterious and powerful wizards struck me as a potent way to unlock future story ideas, but the way in which this developed could have been done better.

Another thing that niggled me throughout was the framing of Faf and GM as heroes, when they’re clearly not. As is often the case, Cirsova had some good insight into this for me, being the under-educated “critic” that I am.


In summation, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are worth checking out if you enjoy Sword and Sorcery, if you’re a GM looking for game ideas, or if you’re an Appendix N archaeologist. Skip Swords And Deviltry and go for Swords Against Death.




Evolving tastes

I’m very particular about the usage of the word “evolve.” Probably because in politics it’s so often misused. Some scummy politician will hand-wave away a long-held “conviction” by claiming that he’s “evolved” on an issue.

“Nevermind what I told my constituents for 7 years and that I’m now up for reelection. My views on abortion have evolved!”

Too often there has been no actual growth, no improvement; just a shallow change of position born of political calculus. True evolution implies a gradual process and often a beneficial change. Example – a child doesn’t like broccoli, but as he ages his tastes evolve and he grows to tolerate or even enjoy the healthy green vegetable and maybe other once-repulsive weeds.

Similarly, I once found little attractive about the old classic SFF covers of Frank Frazetta and his ilk. For whatever reason, they just didn’t do it for me. I think a large part of it may have just been that they belonged to old, musty books in my basement. I had not yet been exposed to the high adventure of Robert E Howard or the excitement of Burroughs, and so there was no association there, no fondness.


I’ve read similar accounts online, and it makes me wonder. Is it age and experience that’s brought an appreciation for the work of Roy Gerald Krenkel?


Is it my familiarity with the weird tales depicted by Margaret Brundage that have made her illustrations more alluring?


How large a part have the stories themselves played? Or is it just that I’ve gotten used to this particular style of artwork?



Either way I’m glad that I’ve come to enjoy it. At first, when I was just getting acquainted with the old greats, I didn’t pay much attention to the cover art of the Conan stories. But now I see. There are many beautiful (though a lot of admittedly strange) pieces to be found among the collections of these older artists, and the joy of discovering new cover art has added to the pleasure of finding classic SFF books.

How about you, dear readers? Do you like this kind of art? If so, have you always, or did it grow on you?