Classic Review: Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

sailor

Format: paperback, first DAW printing, 1976

Pages:  160

Reading Time: about 2.5 hours

 

Michael Moorcock’s White Wolf’s Son is sitting in my queue, and it will be the last Elric story that I read. Before I get there, however, I’m skimming through the earlier books in the Elric saga to build up to the finale, and this review covers book two, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, from an old DAW printing I have featuring another fantastic Michael Whelan cover. For my review of the first book of the series, Elric of Melnibone, see this post. Chronologically, though The Fortress of the Pearl was written later, events in that book pre-date those in this book, but I’ve chosen to skip that one for now. As most Elric stories appeared in various issues of Science Fantasy magazine in the 1960s in no particular order, the DAW release was an attempt to order the stories chronologically, with the chapbook “the Jade Man’s Eyes” from 1973 rewritten and renamed Sailing to the Past and tacked on to the end of The Sailor on the Seas of Fate. I found a couple of really good reviews of The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, one from Karin L Kross of Tor.com and one from Tim Scheidler of Fantasy Literature. Karin’s review of this book is one of the best I’ve seen, and she makes some really good points:

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate has never really been my favorite Elric book. Where The Fortress of the Pearl stands quite well on its own and in the continuity, Sailor is a little more awkward; it’s as if you can see more of the welding marks in its insertion into Elric’s continuity between the origin story of Elric of Melniboné and his downfall of The Weird of the White Wolf; where that book actually feels like a cohesive work, despite being composed of short stories published months, even years apart, Sailor feels disjointed, its structure forced. However, even a comparatively underwhelming Elric book has more going for it than your usual high fantasy offering.

Karin reveals some information that I was not aware of: “The tale here originally appeared as a chapbook called “The Jade Man’s Eyes” (which was, as Richard Grey notes in “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock,” printed in green ink). This story fit into Elric’s continuity after the events of The Sleeping Sorceress (two books down the line from this one) and Elric’s sidekick was a fellow we’ll meet in the next installment of this reread, Moonglum of Elwher. More about him when we get there. In putting together The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Moorcock substantially reworked “The Jade Man’s Eyes,” replacing Moonglum with Smiorgan Baldhead, and having Elric picked up at sea by the explorer Duke Avam Astran, rather than being peeled off the streets of a city.

Karen also goes on to say: “The essential bleakness of the original chapbook is definitely present in this rework, though it feels a little odd at this placement in the continuity. Much is made of Elric’s dependence on Stormbringer, as well as the sword’s unfortunate tendency to overreach its wielder’s intended targets—and at this point in the series, neither of these tropes has yet become as central as they eventually will. The original “Jade Man’s Eyes” is perhaps a somewhat stronger story, particularly as Elric’s characterization is more consistent with the stories that take place later in his personal chronology. That being said, it’s possible to read “Sailing to the Past” as the point where Elric’s worldview starts to truly darken, transforming him to the nihilistic figure we’ll see in the next volume.

 

Tim adds this: “As always, Moorcock’s prose is great and Elric never fails to feel interesting as protagonist. The eerie, strange tone of the proceedings actually gives the novel a kind of dreamy allure: it’s not what readers of traditional sword and sorcery might expect, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a very well-done novel in many ways, especially going into it directly after Elric of Melnibone so that one has become acclimated to Moorcock’s “style over structure” method in a comparatively gentler text. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that for casual readers who really couldn’t be bothered about the multiverse or what-have-you and expect instead to see some sort of motion in the world Moorcock constructed in the first novel, this sequel may be a baffling disappointment. None of the other Melnibonéans we were introduced to in Elric of Melniboné have anything to do with The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, and indeed Elric’s meeting with Count Smiorgan is about the only impact Sailor has on the overarching plot of the series.

It may really have been a bit early to bring in the Eternal Champion idea, in all honesty: had Moorcock built to it over time a bit more, it probably wouldn’t have seemed so jarring here. Asking the reader to grow used to one world and one set of circumstances for the protagonist only to turn that on its head by dragging him out of that world entirely is probably a little demanding — and thus risky — in the second book.

 

The reason I chose these particular comments is because they affirm a lot of my own thoughts that I contemplated after I re-read the book. The three separate stories – Sailing to the Future, Sailing to the Present, Sailing to the Past – are so disjointed, that they have a feeling of being unrelated short stories thrown together to make up a single book, and at first it seems that only the “sailing strange waters” ties the stories together. Thematically there is an Eternal Champion Construct story, a medieval romance story, and a Black-Sword-Does-What-It-Wants story, and all jar against each other in a distinct lack of continuity. In the re-read, I remembered Sailing to the Future perfectly, most likely because the story is repeated later in Corum and Hawkmoon novels. I had forgotten Sailing to the Present completely, with no recollection of that story whatsoever. The tale I was most looking forward to was Sailing to the Past, as I remembered the ending to be important, but did not recall the events leading up to that ending. As Elric seeks answers to his past, he chooses a path that will come back to haunt him in his future. This is where Sailing to the Past becomes essential in establishing events in subsequent books.

By the third story, Elric recalls nothing of the happenings within the first story…the events of that first story become fleeting shadows that seem more like a dream. The second story is a buffer, which helps to stuff those dreamy memories into Elric’s subconscious. But instead of bringing him peace, his subconscious now nags at him and drives him to explore places and take actions he wouldn’t normally consider in an attempt to figure out where he came from and what his future may hold. Free will versus fate, opposing forces within the universe at war, and an increasingly sentient sword are explored. In a strong bit of irony, Elric has been fighting the concept of fate and believes that he has free will, but by making an honorable choice through free will, he will unleash a disastrous chain of events and solidify a dark fate. It is really a brilliant concept, although it could be argued that Elric’s honor really gave him no choice at all.

Moorcock’s prose is steady and at times is simple yet elegant, with what feels like Tennyson or Wordsworth influences. Take this introductory passage, for instance:

Distant thunder rolled; distant lightning flickered. A thin rain fell. And the clouds were never still. From dusky jet to deadly white they swirled slowly, like the cloaks of men and women engaged in a trancelike and formalistic minuet: the man standing on the shingle of the grim beach was reminded of giants dancing to the music of the faraway storm and felt as one must feel who walks unwittingly into a hall where gods are at play. He turned his gaze from the clouds to the ocean.

The sea seemed weary. Great waves heaved themselves together with difficulty and collapsed as if in relief, gasping as they struck the sharp rocks.

Moorcock’s style makes for a quick, easy reading experience, and like the first book, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is over all too soon – a novel twice this length would be more satisfying, but Moorcock’s gift has always been to paint fantastic imagery and wild tales with an economical use of words, and leave much of the details up to the reader’s own imagination.

Elric himself is a polite yet complex fellow, with a mixture of flowery speech, irony, skeptiscism, wit, wisdom, and world-weariness, with an honor and empathy not found in his people of Melnibone. Yet beneath it all, the cruel nature of his people lurks, and at times he loses himself to that nature. Also, Stormbringer is ever a constant, evil influence on his actions and perceptions. Elric’s sorcery is explained as the ability, in the high speech of Melnibone, to concentrate and summon forces through his noble blood and sheer willpower. Such sorcery is more of a deus ex machina, however, for Elric is able to call on old debts in certain times of need, yet in other instances he is unable to do so, and it seems to be largely a function of satisfying the plot. One aspect of Elric’s character, however, is his weakness, as at times he is only able to draw strength from Stormbringer, and when Stormbringer has not been “fed” with souls, Elric is often too weak to perform certain actions.

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is not the most satisfying Elric book to read, but it is important in setting into motion the events that will make the albino sorcerer with the black sword one of the most distinctive, influential, and legendary characters ever created in fantasy fiction.

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Classic Review: Shapechangers by Jennifer Roberson

1046558Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

Format:  paperback, First Edition, 1984

Pages:  221

Reading Time:  about 3 hours

 

It’s hard to recall when I first got my hands on Shapechangers. This book was released when I was still in high school, and back then I didn’t have a lot of money for new books…most of the books I acquired were in small used book stores that eBay, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have effectively squashed out of existence. I didn’t find them in the local library. I also didn’t pick up books during my subsequent military service, as I had to travel light and again I wasn’t earning a whole lot money then. Even after I left the military, I was only making minimum wage, so it was most likely the early 90’s when I finally picked up this first book. I got hooked and ended up hunting down the entire series.

Roberson doesn’t get a lot of credit for her imaginative series, despite being released about the same time as David Eddings was writing his Belgariad books and Raymond Feist was exploring his Riftwar Saga. Some of that is due to the content itself. The book does not actually contain, but gets right up to the edge of, rape and incest. As the books were targeted at younger readers, since it is a coming of age story, most such readers overlooked it, but it would have turned others away. This re-read at Tor.com provides an excellent plot summary, discusses how the reviewer, Tansy Roberts, felt about the books when she was younger, and how she views it now as an older reader. I think my opinions for the most part align with Tansy’s fairly well, but my re-read took me in a slightly different direction. Continue reading to find out my thoughts, and as always, ‘ware the spoilers!

Long before there was Robin Hobb’s “Wit”, there was Roberson’s lir, animals bonded to the Cheysuli, which Hobb has generously liberated for use in her Assassin Apprentice series, including the pain and emptiness suffered when the bond between man and animal is severed. At the time Shapechangers was written, Roberson’s attachment of man to animal, and the ability of that man to assume his lir’s animal form, was fairly unique. Roberson, a fantasy reader who once said that she wrote The Chronicles of the Cheysuli because she got tired of waiting for writers to release new books, describes her vision in what is effectively an author’s note:

“The Chronicles of the Cheysuli is a dynastic fantasy, the story of a proud, honorable race brought down by the avarice, evil, and sorcery of others – and its own special brand of magic. It’s the story of an ancient race blessed by the old gods of their homeland, and cursed by sorcerers who desire dominion over all men. It’s a dynasty of good and evil; love and hatred, pride and strength. Most of all it deals with the destiny in every man and his struggle to shape it follow it, deny it.”

Shapechangers, and Roberson’s plotting and writing style, are all a grand study in contrasts. Roberson’s prose is easy to navigate, at times very elegant and other times stilted and repetitive. Dialog between characters drives the story, rather than elaborate descriptions of the setting or copious amounts of action. It is essentially a love story with fantasy elements, battles, and social commentary. The main character, Alix, flits between one love interest and another, denies and then accepts her heritage, follows cultures and customs and then follows her own instincts.

Roberson also proves masterful at character change. She has four main characters: Alix; Prince Carillon, heir to the throne; Duncan, the clan chief, and Duncan’s and Alix’s half-brother, Finn. Each of these characters begin with specific opinions and prejudices, but by the end of the book their journey has changed each character to be something more, something greater, in a believable way. That is no small feat for a book of 221 pages.

In fact, this compact book, which is a quick and easy read, packs more between its pages than books 4 times its size. Roberson tackles racism and prejudice, rape and incest, predestination/prophesy and free will, and a woman’s role in a male-dominated society. Roberson doesn’t include these things in her story because she advocates them, she writes about them because they are very real issues in the cultures she has created. For instance, the Cheysuli have a very strong Native American influence. The land of Homana, where the story takes place, originally belonged to the Cheysuli, but they were forced to give it up to human settlers and then serve those humans in order to avoid persecution. The displacement of native peoples is something we know well but choose to ignore, while Roberson has made it a central part of the story.

Likewise, after the Cheysuli are hunted and persecuted, they capture human women and subjugate them, which includes rape for the purpose of childbearing. The closest Roberson comes to realizing this in the story is when Finn considers doing so to Alix after he has initially captured her; in other parts of the story we learn of the practice through character dialog. If a people are being wiped off the face of the earth and their numbers have dwindled towards extinction, and the survival of their race and their customs depends on maintaining their population, they just might be desperate enough to force the women of the very race that persecutes them to bear their children. By writing about it, Roberson does not give approval to the practice – this is not Terry Goodkind constantly preaching a brand of philosophy – rather, Roberson merely points out what a desperate people might do to survive, without going into Steven Erikson-level detail. I very much admire Roberson for having the courage to explore such dark facets of culture and society in her work. For those who do choose to read further in the series, you will find these are not all happy ending type stories…several of the books contain very tragic scenes.

Shapechangers does have a few problems. Due to its (mostly) fast pace and copious amounts of dialog, we don’t always get detailed descriptions of people and places and must fill in the details using our own imagination. And regarding that fast pace, there are parts of the story where Alix is introduced to the Cheysuli ways and the story tends to drag a bit as Alix tries to fit in while at the same time attempts to cling to her own beliefs. Alix’s flip-flopping and flightiness at times had me rolling my eyes at the soap opera unfolding before me. Some of the dialog is so repetitive it becomes grating – I was ready to claw my eyes out when the phrase “What do you say?” is used for the seemingly hundredth time. Also, Roberson occasionally contradicts the system she has established. When Finn attempts to force Alix, Finn’s lir intervenes, saying “she is not for you.” Thus one of the lir, who have knowledge of the prophecy that plays such an important part of the story, attempts to influence events based on its knowledge of the prophesy. Yet later another of the lir explains to Alix that “the lir cannot precipitate it” when referring to the prophecy and how they cannot tell her what will happen. These two events seemingly contradict each other.

In my youth I found this story fascinating, and the re-read as an adult has not changed that whatsoever – it has actually given me greater appreciation of the depths of Roberson’s talent, despite any clumsiness in being Roberson’s debut novel. I had forgotten much of the story, almost to the point where I was reading it once more for the first time, making it more enjoyable than if I had recalled every detail of the plot. There are eight books total in the series, which is out of print but was re-released as a 4 book omnibus series, with two of the original books per omnibus. I have seen a variety of different covers, but only the art of the original series, beautifully done by Julek Heller, captures characters the way I imagine them. I do vaguely remember subsequent books containing more love stories, tragedies, cool lir and shapeshifting, and how truly evil the Ihlini sorcerers really were. I’m looking forward to re-reading the rest of the series and posting my thoughts here. I would recommend this story to those looking for a quick, sword and sorcery-type read that contains more depth than appears on the surface.

Classic Review: Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

Pawn of ProphecyFormat:  paperback, First Edition, 1982

Pages:  262

Reading Time:  6 hours

Pawn of Prophecy is the first book in the Belgariad, a series of five books that tells the story of a young boy named Garion.  It opens with a sort of “history of the gods and the world”, in which the basis for the story will be set.  From this we move to a narrative centered around Garion, a farm boy who lives with his Aunt Pol, and who is shadowed by a mysterious figure on horseback. When the eccentric Mr. Wolf shows up with some startling news, the quest to recover a stolen object begins. The story reveals that every one is not who they seem, including Garion, who is struggling to find his place in the world when he is uprooted from his home. Much has been written about this book…you can find reviews of the plot in many different places. I won’t re-hash the plot or provide spoilers here, but instead just give you some impressions of my re-read, and how it feels to revisit this book more than 20 years after I first read it.

This first book is, in my opinion, the worst of the series. For pages and pages, nothing really interesting happens. We are introduced to the characters and their personalities, and see some of the countryside as they travel, but significant events are few and far between. Only towards the end of the book does the pace and action pick up.  A person who had never read this book before could be excused for thinking that this book is full of tropes and stereotypes, a “coming-of-age” tale, the sort I would later come to detest. If, however, you consider its release in 1982, around the same time as Magician: Apprentice by Raymond Feist, you must consider that these stories were the basis for creating the tropes, not followers of such. Had the Belgariad and Magician books not been so popular, and thus not so emulated, they would stand alone on their own merits as quaint and enjoyable romps.

Eddings does some things well in this opening book. His characters, while at times one-dimensional, are likable and consistent. They communicate well, and the dialog is crisp and snappy. His world breathes with different cultures, each with their own political motivations, rituals, and beliefs. Too many authors these days set their stories in one culture, with people who either believe in the culture or are at odds with it. Eddings tries to populate his world with multiple cultures and should be commended for the attempt. My favorite character here is Silk. Witty, whiny, sarcastic, an actor and a thief, Silk is a great character, kind of a precursor to The Fool in Robin Hobb’s Assassin Apprentice.

Now, as an adult, I freely admit that when I approached the book, I fully expected the charm and esteem I once held it for it might have rubbed off a little. There were so many coming-of-age stories released in the 80s and 90s that I grew sick of them and vowed not to read them anymore. However, with the current trend towards darker fiction, I found my way back to such stories through series like Hobb’s Assassin Apprentice, Delaney’s Spook’s Apprentice, and Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series. What I have discovered is that between massive tomes of epic stories or dark volumes that are now popular, there is a place in my reading for light-hearted stories that are a nice diversion and quickly consumed. When I go back and read Pawn of Prophecy in this context, that it where the story shines. For despite its flaws, it has far more depth and consistency than many of the coming-of-age stories of today. I wonder if reading the series as an omnibus – as one complete story – might actually be better than individual novels.

So did the re-read work for me? From a nostalgic viewpoint, it did, but others won’t have that same experience. If you enjoy YA books, and can struggle through the first book, you will be rewarded with a series that gets a little better in each book. If you can’t get into YA, coming-of-age stories, or a slow plot that exists only to explore the lands and cultures of the author’s imagined world, you’ll want to avoid this. For me, it is a revisiting of my youth, a nostalgic reminder that once upon a time, I was not so critical a reader…

Classic Review – Thieves’ World edited by Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

twbook1

Format:  paperback, Ace Edition, 1982

Pages:  308 (including the editor’s addendum)

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

There seems to be an abundance of thieves and assassins in modern fantasy, but in the 80s there was little room for these types of characters as Epic Fantasy dominated the scene. One of the exceptions was Thieves’ World. Created by Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey, the concept was simple: create a shared world, in which authors were free to use each others’ characters in their story. The setting was Sanctuary, a city populated by crime lords, thieves, wizards, ladies of the night, squabbling priests, and brutal guards. Eight authors contributed stories for the first volume of this shared anthology, resulting in wonderfully diverse story lines, with each author centering their story around a memorable character.

The current state of affairs has Prince Kadakithis, or Prince Kittycat as the locals call him, arriving in Sanctuary to “clean up the armpit of the Empire.” The Prince is a member of the Rankan Empire nobility, which is at odds with those who favor the old kingdom (and gods) of Ilsig. The Prince is attended by his personal bodyguard called Hell Hounds. But the Prince has an agenda of his own, and to everyone’s surprise, they may be underestimating the resolve of man who they consider a fop…

At the end of the review I’ll have comments on the book as a whole, but first you’ll find a brief synopsis of each story; these tales vary in length from 23 to 53 pages. Most authors weave a fast-paced story bereft of intricate details. Such are the tales of a thief’s world…

Sentences of Death by John Brunner: here Brunner plots a story about a young woman who has been abused at a young age and is in the employment of a scribe. It is a tale of a magic scroll that weaves a spell of death, an attempt on the Prince, and revenge. However, this young woman mainly exists to introduce us to the character of Enas Yorl, a cursed, shape-changing mage. I would have preferred to read more about Yorl, who would be a much more striking character with more pages and detail devoted to him.

The Face of Chaos by Lynn Abbey: a new author at the time that this book was released, Abbey gives us a tale centering around Illyra, a fortune-teller who gets caught up in trying to avert a virgin’s sacrifice to bless a newly-constructed temple. We are introduced to the gods of the land and how they are at war with each other. This is the first story where the author uses other writers’ characters.

The Gate of Flying Knives by Poul Anderson: In this story we are introduced Cappen Vera, a minstral who has recently lost his meal ticket. Illyra features prominently here as Vera seeks to find his lost love, Danlis, with the fortune-teller’s help. We are first introduced to the Maze, a dangerous slum, and The Vulgar Unicorn, where scoundrels go to buy and sell information and make contacts. Vera’s quest to reunite with his love bring in other writers’ characters such as Jamie the Red, One Thumb, Hanse (Shadowspawn), and Enas Yorl. The minstral makes a daring raid through a portal in a temple in his rescue attempt, but the results are bittersweet. Though constantly changing tenses, Anderson embraces an adventurous spirit and even throws in a little poetry. This is probably my second favorite story in the book, and it is also the longest.

Shadowspawn by Andrew Offutt: Young Hanse, also known as Shadowspawn, is enlisted to steal the Prince’s rod of authority and discredit him. When the traitors try to double-cross Hanse, all hell breaks loose. Offutt weaves a light, deft tale of betrayal and uneasy alliances, and this story is easily my favorite of the bunch.

The Price of Doing Business by Robert Lynn Asprin: Jubal is a former gladiator-turned-crimelord who deals in the black market. In a moment of betrayal, Jubal nearly finds what the price of doing business is in Sanctuary, and discusses his choices in a philosophical battle with a Hell Hound. Asprin does a good job of explaining character motivations in this tale.

Blood Brothers by Joe Haldeman: This is a story about One Thumb, the crooked bartender at The Vulgar Unicorn. Some of his merchandise goes missing, and he attempts to retrieve it, only to fall into the middle of a sorcerous feud. I have to say the ending left me a bit puzzled and put off, and this is probably the worst story in the anthology. It’s also the shortest.

Myrtis by Christine DeWees: Myrtis is the proprietor of the Aphrodisia House, a pleasure house in the red lamp district that services the men of Sanctuary. When the Prince comes up with a plan to close the brothel houses, Myrtis is forced to hatch a plan that will counteract the Prince’s wishes. DeWees displays a deft hand and elegant prose; though having very little to do with thieves, Myrtis is by far the most well-written tale of the anthology, a great accomplishment for a novice writer.

The Secret of the Blue Star by Marion Zimmer Bradley: Lythande is a mercenary/magician who becomes embroiled in a sorecerous duel. For on Lythande’s head blazes the blue star, a symbol of Lythande’s order, and symbolizing a secret. If the secret were discovered, Lythande would lose all wizardly powers. And another magician seeks to learn this secret of Lythande’s. With a clever writing style and a flair for the dramatic, Bradley deftly weaves a tale with a reveal that will surprise some, but that other readers may correctly anticipate. A good short story, although having little to do with thieves except for a brief appearance by Cappen Vera.

Some of the stories seem a bit light on thievery and skullduggery…it is mainly the setting of Sanctuary, itself being a respute for such activities, that lends the book its name. Character voices change from story to story, which the editor explains as a difference in the perspective of the storyteller. For instance, Lythande may appear quite different in various stories, but that can be attributed to the difference in, say, a story told by the cursed sorcerer Enas Yorl, as to one told by the cynical thief Shadowspawn…characters have different perspectives, and see the world – and other characters – differently from each other. And it’s the imaginative characters that give these stories their appeal…characters in later books in the series don’t quite measure up.

In conclusion there are a few gems here, but anyone looking for the kind of thieves you’d find in a novel from Lynch or Weeks will be disappointed. These are light-hearted tales, with little emphasis on character detail and heavy doses of tongue-in-cheek humor. Looking forward to the next book in the series, Tales From the Vulgar Unicorn, things start to turn a little more serious and a little darker. If you like anthologies and don’t need to read dark, serious tales all the time, you might enjoy a few of these stories. Considering the age of the book, you should be able to acquire it cheaply at a good used book store, as I doubt many libraries would carry this. The point is, don’t spend a lot of money to acquire it, as there are several newly-released anthologies out there that are probably far superior to this.

Classic Review – Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

DragonsofAutumnTwilight_1984originalFormat:  paperback, first printing, 1984

Pages:  441

Reading time: about 10 hours

This is a review that may cause some groans among the audience. Dragonlance has its share of proponents and detractors. I find myself somewhere in the middle, and the following review will reveal why.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight is the first book in the Dragonlance Chronicles. Based off of Dungeons and Dragons sessions the authors experienced in their self-created world of Krynn, you run into some of your standard tropes – haughty elves with pointy ears, gruff dwarves, Kender (the hobbit equivalent of Krynn), Draconians (the orc equivalent of Krynn), honorable knights, etc. A group of disparate parts is assembled to quest after the Dragonlance, a powerful magic relic. However, there are also some unique ideas, like gnomes that are inventors, gully dwarves that lack brainpower, and an addled old wizard named Fizban who manages to create as many problems as he fixes.

Sometimes the first book in a series can drag as world-building and characters are established. Dragonlance avoids this by copious amounts of action sequences, and characters and world-building are developed on the fly. This methodology works surprisingly well, as each character has his or her own voice, and establish their personas more through their actions than through info dumps and backstories. The overall effect is a light, quick-paced read that doesn’t to fail on entertainment…there’s fight scenes, magic battles, humor, inner turmoil, and love interests.

Some readers will find this potporri a turn-off, as you won’t get lengthy introspection but you will get comedy that at times strains one’s patience as it tries too hard. Others dismiss the plot and action-driven sequences as simplistic and derivative. Fans who enjoy modern, dark and gritty fantasy and don’t care for lighter fare like Terry Brooks or David Eddings probably won’t care for this, either.

The main characters are a varied bunch. Tanis the half-elf is really the lead protagonist…he’s the glue that holds the group together, but has his own problems including a love triangle and struggles with the lack of acceptance from humans and elves. Sturm Brightblade is a Knight of Solamnia, who is attempting to restore the honor of the fallen knighthood. Goldmoon is barbarian cleric, a chieftan’s daughter of pure heart who bears the Crystal Staff, which the Draconians are searching for. Riverwind is Goldmoon’s mate and protector, quick to anger and defensive of Goldmoon. Raistlin is a young mage whose health is shattered but possesses much power, though he seems to have his own interests at heart. Caramon is Raistlin’s twin brother, a hulking bruiser with a slow mind who is protective of his brother and overlooks Raistlin’s agenda. Flint Fireforge is ancient dwarf, gruff on the exterior but soft on the inside. Tasslehoff Burrfoot is a Kender that has an innocent nature, a thief who steals without really being aware of it.

The plot involves a homecoming, in which the characters return after some time of having parted ways. The happiness at returning to their home of Solace is disturbed by the arrival of Goldmoon and Riverwind with the Staff, and the goblins and Draconians that have occupied their home. When the group helps Goldmoon and Riverwind escape this threat, and offer to escort them to a city of wise men (who hopefully have answers regarding the Staff), they become marked. What follows is the group attempting to evade capture by Draconian forces as they get into one problem after another. They learn that a god known as the Dark Queen covets the Staff, and controls the Draconians. Eventually their adventure leads them into a battle with the Dark Queen’s champion, Verminaard.

The story has some problems, mainly that it seems to lack direction as it moves from conflict to conflict. Also, fight scenes, which are abundant, are not only poorly described, they feel like the reader is sitting in on a Dungeons and Dragons session – it’s almost as if you can hear the dice rolling as it determines the outcome. The humor in the story sometimes feels forced. And although the characters are likable enough and have a legion of devoted readers, you won’t find much depth to them.

There are a few nice extra features…the front sports a map, which is always welcome. Each chapter heading features pencil artwork from Den Beauvais. The end of the book has a few pages that render the poem “The Song of Huma”. And the last two pages involve the authors talking about how the characters and world of Krynn came to be.

In conclusion, this book does have some charm and is fast-paced. At times it feels a little dated, but if you like epic fantasy, with a variety of characters, lots of action, standard fantasy tropes, and easy-to-follow writing, you might like this. Dragonlance does have a legion of devoted fans, a large library of follow-up books, and has spun off numerous products such as role playing books, board games, and miniatures for a reason.

Classic Review – Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

LordFoulFormat:  paperback, 11th printing, 1977

Pages:  474

Reading time:  about 13 hours

Lord Foul’s Bane is the first book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series. The first three books in the series feature Thomas Covenant as the protagonist. Before I get to the plot, I should first opine that Covenant is the ultimate anti-hero: an average man, suffering from leprosy, with two amputated fingers, divorced from his wife (due to the leprosy), feared by his neighbors (again, the leprosy), and who is anti-social and self-loathing from – you guessed it – his leprosy. To make matters worse, early on in the story, Covenant rapes a woman. There’s no way to sugar-coat this horrible act – Donaldson smacks you right across the face with it. The fact that Covenant believes himself in a dream, or feels a sudden emotional response to being healed, are no excuse. Yet after the briefest of dismissals, he moves on. It is at this callous moment, this suddenly insignificant turn, that some readers choose to abandon the story in disgust. In truth I certainly understand why someone chooses this course of action. However, by doing so they miss out on what is a fantastic story. Be assured that this is not an insignificant event…the consequences of this single act will come back to haunt Covenant for the rest of the series.

The plot revolves around Covenant being summoned from our world to a place called The Land. Throughout the series, we are never really sure whether The Land is some real place, or just a product of Covenant’s imagination when he falls unconscious and strikes his head. Magic is real in The Land, and Covenant is summoned by an evil creature called a cave wight, who is named Drool Rockworm. This creature summons Covenant with an artifact known as the Staff of Law, seeking to claim the white gold wedding band which Covenant bears. An item made from white gold is the most powerful source of magic in the land, and Rockworm seeks to dominate with it. But before Rockworm can take control, another being intervenes. Things go from bad to worse when Covenant learns that this mysterious being is Lord Foul the Despiser, an ancient enemy of the land who has been gathering power for 1000 years and also covets the white gold’s magic. Leaving Covenant with a message to deliver to the Lords who care for the land, Foul warns of Rockworm discovering the Illearth Stone, another destructively powerful magic. However, Foul claims that eventually all creatures will bow down before The Despiser.

From here the plot follows Covenant’s journey through The Land to carry the message to the Lords, and aid them in their attempt to stop Rockworm. It seems that the amputated fingers of Covenant invoke memories of The Land’s greatest hero, Berek Halfhand. Donaldson uses this journey, and subsequent quest, to introduce the people and magic of The Land, and several fantastical elements. There are Loremasters, who can make fire from wood without burning it, or mold and work stone as if it were clay. There are the Lords, who use magic staves to channel power from the earth. Hurtloam is a mud that heals wounds, and Aliantha is a plant, of which a single berry nourishes like a full meal. The Bloodguard are a monk-like people that fight without weapons, Giants are a gentle sea-loving folk that carve stone, and the Ramen care for the Ranyhyn, the great wild horses. There is much, much more, and Donaldson reveals an incredible amount of imagination in creating this world.

Donaldson’s prose runs smoothly and effortlessly, although he will have you occasionally running for a dictionary to look up words that are obscure. Although Covenant’s self-loathing becomes a chore to read through, an aspect of Donaldson’s writing that requires much praise is his ability to make you care about what happens to The Land and it’s people. One of the glaring complaints I have with some other writers (such as Terry Brooks for instance), is that they focus on the heroes and a few supporting characters to the exclusion of all others. Such writing has me asking why I should care about whether or not all those other people are saved. I never feel that way with Donaldson’s story…from the Loremasters and Lords, to the Bloodguard, Ramen, Saltheart Foamfollower (a Giant and Covenant’s friend), and servants, all of them have a nobility and strength of spirit that makes you want Covenant to succeed and save them. These people even care about Covenant despite his negativity and self-absorption. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most readers care about what happens to The Land a lot more than they care about Covenant, and I’m sure this is Donaldson’s design. The Land is a place worth saving.

In conclusion, this is a book worth reading. The characters are well-developed, have their own voice, are easy to root for, and act consistently. Fantastic elements abound, and Donaldson describes The Land with abundant detail. There is a map of The Land in the front of the book, and a glossary in the back. The ending occurs a little abruptly, but the stage for the next story is set. It is a story that holds up to today’s environment remarkably well. If you can overlook the main character’s flaws and attitude, you are in for an excellent story. Highly recommended for readers of high fantasy who don’t mind a seriously flawed protagonist. Also, the Darrel Sweet cover art is probably some of his best work. It makes Sweet’s Wheel of Time artwork seem uninspired. There are some alternate covers available that are more mainstream but less interesting.

Classic Review: Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

Elric of MelniboneFormat:  paperback, first Daw printing, 1976

Pages:  160

Reading Time: about 2 hours

As I stated in my review of Nine Princes in Amber, the other major influence on my reading during my teen years was Moorcock’s Elric series. My library had the fourth and fifth books in the series: The Vanishing Tower, with a giant bug on the cover, and Bane of the Black Sword, with a cool-looking, giant lich on the cover. It was those great Michael Whelan covers that sucked me in. Both books functioned well as stand-alone stories, and both immediately captured my imagination. This was a time when I was standing in line to see The Empire Strikes Back, discovering Dungeons and Dragons, and playing my Intellivision game console. It was literally a time when the world felt open and unscripted to me, as if anything were possible, and my mind openly embraced the Elric novels. Not long after I read books four and five, I was able to track down the rest of the books and start from the beginning – and what a beginning it is.

Elric is the ruler of a nation called Melnibone, the Dragon Isle, in a place where we are not really sure of but is later revealed to be one of many planes of existence in the Multiverse (with Earth being one such plane). I might have been lost reading this book had I not read the latter books first, because those books included a map of Elric’s world. Elric himself is an albino, with pale white skin, red eyes, and less-than-average strength that requires drugs to sustain him and give him energy. Later plot details do not specifically state, but leave open the possibility, that Elric’s condition could possibly be the result of centuries of inbreeding – the Melnibone empire desires little contact with the outside world. There are whisperings, particularly from Elric’s cousin Yyrkoon, that his condition threatens to weaken the empire. Where emporers in the past would have executed such musings from a traitor, Elric dismisses such talk as insignificant. This is our first glimpse into what makes Elric different from his countrymen – that he is lenient and capable of forgiveness and mercy.

Another major character introduced early in the book is Cymoril, Elric’s cousin and Yyrkoon’s sister. When the book states that Elric plans to make Cymoril his emporess, you can understand where my inbreeding comment comes from. This early part of the book almost seems to be written in second person. Instead of text such as “Elric knew this and wished he could please his court as it strove to honor him”, instead you get a present tense rendition: “Elric knows this and wishes he could please his court as it strives to honor him”. It is somewhat strange to read a story written this way when you are used to first-person or third-person accounts. However, by chapter two the book reverts to a standard third-person format.

The plot revolves around pirate raiders seeking to plunder Melnibone and steal its treasures. At the same time, Yyrkoon plots against Elric because he desires the throne. When Yyrkoon’s plans are set in motion, Cymoril is put into a deep, sorcerous sleep, and Elric must go on a journey to obtain the means to wake her, and then confront Yyrkoon. It is here that Elric has his first encounter with Stormbringer, the famous soul-sucking sword, and he also meets Rackhir the Red Archer for the first time (Rackhir will appear in later books). We also start to get a feel for the vastness of the Multiverse and the creatures and powerful beings that inhabit it. The creation of the Multiverse and the Eternal Champion is truly Moorcock’s gift to fantasy – multiple worlds existing on different planes, sometimes mirroring one another, and often times intersecting with results that strain the fabric of existence itself. The Eternal Champion is one of those mirror-type elements: a hero saving the world, in various aspects, across those multiple worlds. Elric is a manifestation of the Eternal Champion concept, though that fact is not fully revealed until the next book in the series.

Moorcock’s writing is not without flaws. Most of the imagery required for the story the reader needs to imagine, as Moorcock provides enough to get the job done, but could have provided more. Also, the motivations of supporting characters could have been explained in more detail. I guess what I’m really saying is that I’d really like this book to be twice its size; 160 pages goes by far too fast and then the story’s over. This is something Moorcock corrected with later Elric novels like The Dreamthief’s Daughter.

In Elric of Melnibone you won’t find hundreds of pages of characters delivering monologue, spanking each other, engaging in lengthy introspection on their internal demons, or a description of every leaf color or market smell. What you will find is a fast-paced, action-laden adventure full of sword fights and sorcerous duels. This story embraces the “Sword & Sorcery” genre, whose modern roots were established by Robert E. Howard with creation of Conan, and who in turn derived it from Greek mythology and Tales of the Arabian Nights. The genre name was coined by Fritz Leiber in an exchange with Moorcock, who wanted a name to define the style. As the popularity of Lord of the Rings grew, by the late 80s and early 90s, Epic Fantasy had caused Sword & Sorcery to become a derogatory term. Many current authors of the “dark genre”, like Abercrombie, Lynch, and others owe some of their roots not only to Sword & Sorcery, but also the anti-hero, a character with flaws. Elric was the first character I read about with serious flaws: the weak strength, the subsistence on drugs, and a naivete that would come back to haunt him.

Personally, I feel that there is room for all these types of genres to co-exist, and I think reading only one type is self-limiting. I like taking a break between 1000+ page Epic Fantasy novels, and diving into a Sword & Sorcery book, which is typified by action sequences full of armed conflict and magic. It’s good to see releases like The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones bring back interest in the genre. Elric of Melnibone is highly recommended for fans of Sword and Sorcery, and also anyone looking for a brief respite from huge novels. I also encourage people to read this to see where the origins of current fantasy found its inspiration from.