A few thoughts on Jirel

My recent posts over at Castalia House have focused on women in SFF; more specifically the fact that they’re nothing new! Contra one of the sub-bullets of The Narrative, great women writers and characters have been present in fantasy and scifi for ages. My latest example is C.L. Moore, who’s gotten a fair amount of recognition in the OSR/pulp scene all along and has seen a little burst of mentions over the past week or two in particular.

Finding a starting point with a writer as prolific as Burroughs or Brackett or Vance or Moore can prove a challenge. Luckily for me, I had stored away in my mindbox a review of Cirsova’s from last year. Jirel of Joiry just sounded both fascinating and different. For those of us who grew up on endless iterations and derivations of Dragonlance and Gary Stu the Emo Elf and a small, merciful injection of the Hobbit, this stuff continues to be mind-blowing:

A fiery barbarian-woman lordess who journeys to hell and blackens her soul to gain a weapon with which to vanquish her conqueror, only to realize too late her love for him.

Holy crap, that’s a weird tale.

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Anyway, here are a few thoughts and takeaways from reading the five Jirel stories written exclusively by Moore (there was one additional one penned in collaboration with her husband, which wasn’t included in the collection I read).

1. I mentioned this in my CH post, but it bears repeating – the Jirel stories aren’t primarily fantasy in the way the genre is understood today. This is probably because the genres didn’t used to be so rigid. Sure, Jirel of Joiry has fantasy elements. But it’s a weird tale; it’s horror.

2. Related – Jirel of Joiry is widely considered by critics to be a foundational, if underrated, member of the sword and sorcery sub-genre. This isn’t something I really care enough about to make an impassioned argument over, but I honestly don’t really see it. “Jirel Meets Magic” could fall into that basket, but the other tales contained very little if any physical combat. That is, she cuts up a few unseen horrors in the first tale, and she shanks a guard through a door in the last (which was admitedly pretty cool), but most of her conflicts are overcome by virtue of her spiritual and emotional strength, her prodigious courage, and her indominable will. There is certainly plenty of magic and an abundance of the strange and supernatural, but not a whole lot of “sword” going on at all.

 

3. Howard and Vance are still my favorite writers. What I mean is that Howard’s prose is just beautiful and flowing and demonstrates a clear understanding of economy of words. As Kaiju noted, it’s “lean and mean.” And it’s poetic.

Vance, on the other hand, knew how to both wield and craft words and build worlds like a true grandmaster. Some people may find it befuddling or pretentious, it’s true, but I absolutely love it.

That’s to say nothing of their titantic imaginations.

Well, Brackett impressed me to a similar, though not quite (yet) matching degree. Moore has, as well. I found the writing in “Black God’s Kiss” to be a little uneven in a purely technical sense, but I think that is most likely because it was written early on in her career and was perhaps less polished than her succeeding works.

Like with Howard, there is a poetic flow to Moore’s writing that not many authors achieve. The Jirel stories are lean, well-crafted, and wonderfully creative.

4. Moore would have fit right in if she were included in Appendix N.

Edit: After arguing on Twitter with some nerd-friends, I’m going to revise this statement. Personally, I found the Jirel stories to have much the same feel, in terms of content, setting, imagination, and characters, as some of the other beloved Appendix N authors. Compelling arguments have been put forth as to why Jirel is not “D&D,” and so I will concede that point. But the more important statement I wanted to make still stands – if you like the Appendix N stuff, you will like Moore.

Not only did she associate with and befriend writers like Brackett, Lovecraft, and Howard, but the way they inspired one another is pretty clear when you read their stuff.

That’s it for now. Go find some C.L. Moore to read.

-Bushi

bushi

Hiero’s Loooong Journey

It feels like I was working through this book forever, but I finally finished it. This statement, along with our title here, will probably hint as to my overall impression of the story, so let’s get the rating out of the way first again.

Hiero’s Journey: 2.5/5

Let’s add a qualifier to that, though – if you’re interested in the evolution of SFF or perhaps doing your own read-through of Appendix N, I’d bump it up a half notch to 3/5.

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Ok, let’s back up a step before we proceed. Hiero’s Journey, published in 1973, tells the story of a warrior priest in the distant, post-apocalyptic future. It’s a world that’s been ruined by “the Death” and is now peopled by scattered human societies laboring to rebuild civilization; mutant, often monstrous, animals of various shapes and sizes; and Leemutes – deformed humanoid creatures that often appear to be some sick blend of man and animal. Psionics are heavily featured, which is a cool change-up from and stand-in for magic.

Hiero, our hero, is assigned a perilous and important task by the Abbey – the theocratic unified Church that presides over matters both spiritual and scientific in what used to be Canada.

It’s a good setup and Lanier’s got plenty of cool, far-out ideas and critters to play with. Unfortunately the execution just fell flat for me. Despite packing in plenty of action, the pace felt slow. In between battles and chases, the author spends pages describing forest or swamp travel. I couldn’t help thinking that a master like Robert E Howard would never spend so many words repeatedly talking about a moose chewing cud or insects annoying the protagonist and his companions.

Another, perhaps related problem I had was with Lanier’s failure to properly modulate the story’s tension. Literally every enemy Hiero encountered was “evil,” “malignant,” “unnatural,” and something that should not be. When you start off your story fighting Lovecraftian-level antagonists, you’ve set a pretty high bar for yourself. Near the end of the book he encountered a whole ‘nother “faction” (if you can call it that) of evil, but the concept had been diminished by that point since everything else he fought was the worst, too.

It’s also very plain that this story is a product of the 70’s. At first I was psyched that the main character was a warrior priest (a “Killman,” actually), but as things progressed it became clear that whatever Christianity had survived in Lanier’s future world wasn’t a version I identify with.

Before getting to spoilers, in summary I’d say that I really appreciated what Lanier was trying to do, and I think he put out some solid and inspirational ideas. He had trouble pulling off a great story, though.

For further reading check out Jeffro’s retrospective at Castalia House and HP’s thoughts at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.

*Spoilers*

 

To expound a little bit, I think Jeffro’s remarks about Luchare are dead-on. She starts off as a promising character. The manner in which Hiero encounters her made me think of Howard, actually, for there’s a Solomon Kane story in which the heroic puritan saves a native girl from flying beast-things, if memory serves. And yes, Howard is now my measuring stick for all SFF. But after saving Luchare and some initial awkward courting, she really serves no purpose to the story. Same with Gimp and his sailers, who are conjured up as a vehicle for some minor threads of plot that could have been reworked. When nameless sailors #5 and #6 are killed, we don’t care. They haven’t been fleshed out at all, except for some half-assed explanation about how they were so impressed by Hiero’s duel that they will now follow him anywhere without regard for life or limb.

We’re told many times that Hiero is a great leader, but he never really doesanything to convince me of it. Events kind of sweep him up. Sometimes he gets people killed but they’re just sailor NPCs so, you know. Lolz. The one time he feels bad about it, the sailors’ captain basically just tells him it’s no biggie.

The nature of Hiero’s vocation is also somewhat of a mystery for those who stop to think about it. He’s a Killman, yes – some combination of ranger and warrior (I think we’re told there’s an “assassin” component in there, but that part was never evident). But what is his function as a priest? He says a few prayers, but he never offers mass or gives blessings. Priestly celibacy is not dogmatic, so it’s easy to see how priests would once again be allowed to marry in a fallen, rebuilding society, but Hiero doesn’t marry. He is perfectly content to bang his girlfriend because, hey, they’re as good as married and he’ll get to it when their quest is done. He’s not even conflicted about it! And then Luchare dupes him into playing stud for the strange queen of the plant women, and of course he doesn’t really get pissed or see anything wrong with that. Not very clerical behavior at all.

Then there’s Brother Aldo and the Eleveners. Ugh. Aldo himself is likable enough, though throughout the whole story there’s kind of an undertone of “is he going to sell out the party and humanity to save Gaia?!” He never does, in this book, anyway. But as Jeffro pointed out, Aldo is too powerful. It’s kind of like if Obi-wan had escaped with the group off the Death Star and continued to go on Luke’s adventures. That would have overshadowed Luke’s growing Force abilities.

But the Eleveners and the Brotherhood. Ugh! Basically we’ve got two secret societies lurking in the shadows, infiltrating humanity’s budding outposts and pulling strings. The Brotherhood represents the evil physicists and hard scientists. They’re just so darn evil that they breed orcs and craft lightning guns and stuff. The Eleveners are some kind of next-level ecologist cult that has chosen to eschew technology in favor of oneness with Nature, and indeed will forsake humanity when necessary for the greater good of “Life.”

Thankfully Lanier doesn’t push and push with his Malthusian narrative, but the explanation about how Earth was thrown into chaos and death because of overpopulation, capitalism, and religious fanaticism, and scientific advancement is…well, stupid. So there was at least one big eye-roller.

Was there anything I did like? Well, I was initially partial to Klootz, Hiero’s intelligent mutant moose. But he was quickly overshadowed by Gorm the bear and was mostly relegated to chewing swamp vegetation.

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Hiero’s Journey pretty clearly had an impact on succeeding SFF. I’ve never played Gamma World, but I hear this book played a big part in inspiring that game. I’d also be surprised if there weren’t threads connecting the Fallout series to Lanier’s tale. At the very least I must give multiple props and a single kudo for that.

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

 

 

Bridge of Birds

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I read Bridge of Birds as a teen and remember really enjoying it, though I had no real recollection of the story. For some reason or another I was reminded of this book recently and decided to give it a reread. So I picked it up on Amazon and wedged it into my reading queue, and now it’s been read again.

Allow me, this time, to present you with a rating, and then I’ll work backwards. Good read – 3.5/5.

Set in a fantasy version of ancient China, Bridge of Birds reads something like a novel-length fairy tale. It incorporates reworked elements of Chinese mythology as well as threads of the author’s own crafting. If, like me, you’re not super familiar with Chinese culture and folklore, you may be hard-pressed to differentiate the two.

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Like many fairy tales, Bridge of Birds wields a sort of grim humor. Sometimes it borders on silliness, and other times it drifts into downright problematic (in my research for this post I came across one review I won’t link that noted the failure of BoB to pass the Bechdel Test. Lordy!). It also includes healthy portions of action, mystery, romance, and tragedy.

There were some slow points, especially earlier on in the story. These were often “world-building” moments, where Hughart’s narrator protagonist was relating some tall tale or historical event of some small relevance to the story. Fortunately, Bridge of Birds delivers a well-balanced experience. There were times when I felt the story was almost too slow or too silly, but then things would get serious or all hell would break loose and erupt into a fight or chase scene.

That balance may be the tale’s greatest asset. Much of the story is lighthearted adventure starring Master Li Kao (who would be something of a high-level sage/thief hybrid in a game) and the hulking Number Ten Ox – the brains and brawn of the outfit respectively. But every so often – BAM – the story throws you for a loop and delivers the feelz. Importantly, the times this happened didn’t feel contrived to me. They were beautiful, in a way.

*Minor spoiler*

The best example is perhaps the character of Miser Shen, who early on in the story is presented as just that – a greedy, avaricious man concerned only with his wealth. Later on, however, we learn that he was driven mad by the loss of his daughter and had resolved to accumulate enough money to pay the wise Old Man of the Mountain for the secret of bringing her back to life.

Shen’s prayer to his deceased child, which is actually based upon the translation of a real historical text, will probably stay with me for quite a while.

“Alas, great is my sorrow. Your name is Ah Chen, and when you were born I was not truly pleased. I am a farmer, and a farmer needs strong sons to help with his work, but before a year had passed you had stolen my heart. You grew more teeth, and you grew daily in wisdom, and you said ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ and your pronunciation was perfect. When you were three you would knock at the door and then you would run back and ask, ‘Who is it?’ When you were four your uncle came to visit and you played the host. Lifting your cup, you said, ‘Ching!’ and we roared with laughter and you blushed and covered your face with your hands, but I know that you thought yourself very clever. Now they tell me that I must try to forget you, but it is hard to forget you[…]”

*End spoiler*

Another kudo I give the book is how the story really comes together in the end. As Master Li and Number Ten Ox work to solve their mystery, the pace picks up and more and more seemingly unrelated characters and events coalesce to form an even bigger picture.

In some ways Bridge of Birds hearkens back to earlier days of SFF, when genres were a lot more fluid. This isn’t the sort of story I’ve often come across, and it presented me with a refreshing change of pace.

It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you find the premise or the genre uninteresting, I doubt you’ll change your mind. Likewise if you have no interest in Asian folklore or mythology, you may want to give it a pass. But if your interest has been piqued, I recommend you check it out!

-Bushi

bushi

Birds and Flash and junk

Egad – has it really been a week since the last blog post?  I guess when Gita’s not writing the blog-oil recedes to a trickle around here!

I was out of town this past weekend for a wedding. Lots of Thai folk. It’s kinda of amazing, actually – the general expat community in Japan was pretty open in my experience. That is, my circle of friends was constantly assimilating newcomers, who would in turn bring in newbies of their own. Made for some fun parties. The Thai community here in the US, from what I’ve seen through my wife, seems similarly friendly and inviting, but it feels like a smaller world. We met people in North Carolina who had traveled from different parts of the country (and from Thailand), and yet there were varied threads to be discovered. In other words, it wasn’t just “hey, you with the bride or the groom?” There was mesh.

Aside from that, I’ve got a Castalia House post lined up (as in “in mind”), and a couple other things a brewin’. I’m mostly dividing my time between C# study and reading  Bridge of Birds. I’ll have some thoughts on that up soon.

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I’m also halfway through the Greatest Adventure of All, which is pretty dang great so far. Flash Gordon is a beast. Animated Aura’s not so bad, either.

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Soon it’ll be time to power my way through the rest of Hiero’s Journey, and then I’ll once again be confronted with the paralyzing decision of what to read next. Saberhagen? Vance? Some more Brackett? But I haven’t read Tarzan yet! Maybe I will just descend into madness instead.

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-Bushi

bushi

How I got into Gothic fiction: Getting out of your comfort zone

Two or three years ago, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to read Dracula. Now I’ve never been a huge fan of classic fiction (though I’ve read plenty and enjoyed some) or of horror (though I’ve tried and enjoyed less than classic fiction). But hey – it’s one of those books that any real SFF fan should at least consider reading.

I was glad I did. Though it was a bit of a slog at first, once I got used to the style, it was enjoyable if slowly-paced. Not only was it interesting to get a look at an older portrayal of the modern vampire, but it was informative to note the differences between the source and the stereotypical Dracula character. For instance, he could of course transform into a bat, but he could also turn into a wolf, and indeed had power over all manner of “creatures of the night.” Though there was a seductive element to his powers, he wasn’t a suave Adonis. Rather, he was an old mustachioed man with stinky breath.

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Gleaning the older source material and inspirations for contemporary Scifi-Fantasy has become a pleasurable pursuit. My foray into Appendix N has been part of this, but that’s just one small component, one nook.

My next encounter with Gothic horror was prompted by HP, who was reading Frankenstein for Halloween. This one went down a little easier because of my experience reading Dracula. Although once again the pacing felt a bit slow (which may be characteristic of the genre or the times), I felt much less impeded by the old-style prose. Frankenstein was an interesting read, indeed, for the changes and inaccuracies he and his monster have suffered at the hands of Hollywood and successive lazy writers are particularly notable.

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Recently I’ve been reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is a much shorter book. Although it’s not my usual cup of tea, I find myself acquiring a taste for the flavor. And so I’m glad I stepped out of my comfortable zone when I did and opened myself up to a type of story I had little interest in. There’s a lot to be appreciated here!

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-Bushi

bushi

Inspiration and fear

No one has asked me about my inspirations for writing/blogging, but theoretically it is a question that someone could ask.

I think not many people know that I occasionally write write. That’s probably because (a) I historically haven’t done it very often and (b) I don’t talk to many people about it. My cohort did bring it up on Geek Gab, but that’s about the extent of any organizational dissemination.

I was just thinking about this because of a Twitter thread that wandered into my timeline this morning.

“Suckers – I’m not afraid of writing!” I thought glibly to myself at first. But putting aside the fact that I’m not sure I qualify as a real writer, I think actually this “fear” translates differently for different people.

When writing is literally your job and you’re living and eating off book or story sales, there must be some degree of anxiety. What if the Muse starts playing hard to get? What if I just can’t cut it? Well, guess I’m eating wood pulp.

For my part, and I suspect this isn’t an uncommon sentiment, I experience more of a periodic sense of minor hopelessness; especially since hitting gold with the older SFF authors. I read Howard, Vance, Burroughs, now Brackett, and I think to myself – how in the nine circles am I going to write anything even approaching as good as this?

The answer, I suspect, is by reading and writing. A lot. Well, becoming a big name Scientifiction writer has never been a serious life aspiration for me, so I’m not worrying too much about it. Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t “fear” in the same way as others.

Blogging has really been more of a passion, and a more immediately realizable ambition for me. I’ve name-dropped Cirsova’s blog and Jeffro enough times by now that if you’re a regular reader you should be familiar with them as two of my major influences.

(By the way – Jeffro’s Appendix N book is finally out in physical copy. Go have a look!)

Since before that, though, I’ve always appreciated writers who are both technically proficient and mechanically interesting to read. Tycho over at Penny Arcade is one such. He’s obviously a very intelligent individual filled with all kinds of book learnin’. And yet his voice is full of quirk and his writing often drips with a sort of eldritch tang. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but reading his posts makes me want to write.

There’s an old, dead blog called the Sneeze. The Internet has imbued its corpus with a sort of divine incorruptibility. But the guy who ran it – a certain Steve – he was another one who made me want to blog. It’s harder than it looks, being able to write both intelligently and conversationally without coming off as a fucking dunce.

I hope someday to master that skill.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Eric John Stark: Conan in space!

Last week I wrote a piece over at Castalia House talking about my experience thus far with Leigh Brackett. My interest in the Queen of Space Opera was initially piqued not really because of her inclusion in Appendix N, but because she apparently was involved in writing the script for The Empire Strikes Back, in addition to several other old kickasses like Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, and El Dorado.

Clearly the woman knew how to write a romping good action story.

It took me a while to discover and appreciate her depth. Having read several of her short stories now, I can say with conviction that she’s not over-hyped by her fans in the Scientifiction scene. Her writing is not only engaging; I daresay it’s got an imaginativeness to rival that of any other pulp/Appendix N author I’ve read thus far.

And now that I’ve finished reading the first Eric John Stark book (one of Brackett’s premier recurring characters), I feel comfortable saying this – Stark is Conan in Space!

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Let me first expand upon this a little before crouching into a defensive posture to clarify that perhaps provocative assertion.

Stark is an elemental man of action. If he isn’t outright called a barbarian, he is portrayed as one. Though possessing of a keen wit and sharp, almost animal instinct, he is prone to rage and bloodlust. There’s one point in the story where Stark advances to kill an enemy who had unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate him (and in a rather underhanded way), despite knowing that the man is protected and a deathly punishment is certain. Stark doesn’t care, or rather he is beyond self-control.

He’s also both intelligent and charismatic. The whole plot of the Secret of Sinharat is spurred by a warlord’s invitation for Stark to sign on as a military trainer. Someone’s gotta turn those undisciplined hordes into Fighting Men ™!

None of this really surprises me, as I’ve read and been told that Brackett was a big fan of Rob E Howard, and I think that shows in her style. I don’t think her writing possesses the same bardic flair as Howard’s, but that’s akin to pointing out that Jason wasn’t as physically strong as Hercules.

Now I want to make a point of saying that I make this Conan comparison in the best way possible. You see, there’s a lot of Conan pastiche out there. A LOT. And plenty of it is sloppy, uninspired, and/or lacking in execution. Eric John Stark is none of those things. Just from the first Stark tale, I can tell he’s different enough from Conan to be his own, unshadowed character. Plus he’s black!

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Of course being that I haven’t read Tarzan yet, maybe I’m all wrong about this and Stark is actually Tarzan in space!

 

Addendum: H.P. and I finally come to almost the exact same conclusion on something!

-Bushi

bushi