Chirps of the Reading Canary

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

After the Serpentwar saga, Ray Feist’s career went a little off the rails. I don’t intend to dwell overly much on the circumstances since they’re personal to Feist and he’s laid them out himself for those willing to dig into the matter; suffice to say that the progression of the Midkemian timeline stalled a little. Feist busied himself with two series which are generally considered to be not his best work, and aren’t really mainline entries in the core story of the saga anyway. The Riftwar Legacy, starting with Krondor: the Betrayal, actually kicked off as a novelisation of the video game series beginning with Betrayal at Krondor, and ended up stalling half-finished until Feist penned the recent novella Jimmy and the Crawler to replace the last two books in the series, which were never completed. Didn’t like the game, don’t expect to like the books, cannot be arsed to review. Legends of the Riftwar series was a set of collaborations with other authors detailing side-stories from the era of the first Riftwar, including one volume written in collaboration with Steve Stirling and ahahaha, no, as longterm Ferretbrain readers who remember his brief stint as a commenter here will know Steve and I have the sort of history where it’s best we stay out of each other’s way.

Happily, over time Feist was able to put his life back together to the point where he felt able to actually pick up the threads where he’d left them at the end of Shards of a Broken Crown and continue where he left off. As you may remember, at the end of that book the godlike Pug set up the Conclave of Shadows, a sort of magical spy agency dedicated to fighting a covert war against the agents of the Nameless One, the ultimate god of evil who can steal your soul and enslave your mind if you find out his name is Nalar.

Shit! Sorry about that.

Anyway, this next trilogy is entitled Conclave of Shadows and gosh, I wonder what overbearing magical conspiracy for good will feature prominently here?

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We Need To Talk About Conan

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

This article is, to an extent, old news. There has been a ridiculous amount of ink spilled on the subject of Conan ever since Robert E. Howard began writing about the guy. Over and over again, people have said some variation of what Jason Sanford says here – to paraphrase, that Howard was tediously and egregiously racist by our standards, and that perhaps we shouldn’t keep loudly recommending his work as being essential reading in the fantasy genre. And like clockwork, in come the weaksauce defences. At best, you get pieces like this, in which Jonathan Moeller at least acknowledges that Howard was a racist but tries to argue that what Sanford was proposing was censorship. (It isn’t. Shunning is not censorship. Sanford never argued that Howard’s works should be suppressed or banned from publication, but Moeller seems to regard refusing to positively promote Howard’s works as being the same thing as actively working to suppress them.) At worst, you have people proposing the most incredible arguments as to why, despite all appearances, Howard wasn’t that bad of a racist, and wasn’t even a sexist either. We’ve had some of that here in the past, and I suspect we’ll see more; certainly, it seems to be a law that if you criticise Howard on your SF/fantasy website, fanzine or other forum, his defenders will manifest to wheel out the same tired arguments in his defence.

But the fact remains that the Conan stories have been skewered before, repeatedly, and by people with far more standing to complain about them than I’ll ever have. What’s prompted me to step in here?

Well, first off, it seemed timely. Having reviewed the Conan movies fairly recently, and having had exchanges about Howard on here too, the subject was on my mind. It had been a while since I had reread the stories anyway. People might be interested in a review since there seem to be several reprints making their way onto the shelves in the wake of the movie remake. Why not?

Secondly, the series seems ideal subject matter for the Reading Canary, though in the reverse to the way I usually do these articles – rather than being an exercise in asking “where does this series end up losing what made it good in the first place?”, this has turned more into a “which Conan stories might almost have been OK if Howard had been able to shut up?” deal. A lot of the tales I simply cannot enjoy any more because of the racism and misogyny on display. On top of that, one has to confront the stark fact that Robert E. Howard just wasn’t that good of a writer a lot of the time – remember, these stories were cranked out quickly, for a market that was permanently hungry for new material, and aside from some of the longer stories there’s little sign of polish. Howard would regularly recycle plots or slap a new name on essentially the same supporting character (I lost count of the number of female leads who were Caucasian escapees from dark-skinned slavers), and generally cut corners in order to produce as much product as he could. When the stories are often shit, often bigoted, and fairly often both bigoted and shit, the question arises as to whether any of them are worthy of their reputation at all.

Thirdly, I did this because in another life I might have been one of those defenders. I can remember reading the stories as a teenager and simply failing to notice the bigotry involved; I can also remember reading them again when somewhat older, and being able to recognise the bigotry but willing to argue that people should read the stories anyway because they were so influential and the quality shone through. Both are positions I regard with some embarrassment.

So, basically I am tilting at a windmill which already has a small forest of lances poking out of its sails for the sake of self-flagellating about my former bad taste. It’s more fun than it sounds, which is good because the Conan material is much less fun than I remember it being.

Obvious caveat: I’m a white man, so I have a thick woolly layer of privilege between me and a lot of the issues I talk about here. It’s entirely possible I give Howard an easy time in some places or don’t quite cut to the heart of what’s wrong in other places. I might even flip out at parts which aren’t actually that offensive in some places.

Oh, and trigger warning: racism and sexism aplenty in this stuff. Plus there’s one story which can be summarised as “Conan tries to rape someone and fails”, so yeah.

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Solving Crimes and Smashing Monasteries

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

If you want a lovingly depicted evocation of the era during which Henry VIII was dissolving the monasteries and defying Rome and generally setting England on a course of confrontation with the forces of Roman Catholicism for generations to come, I can make no higher recommendation than Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall; this is a masterful literary introduction to the life and career of Thomas Cromwell, one of the great self-made men of the era. However, even making allowances for its status as the first book of a trilogy whose last part isn’t out yet, it kind of lacks closure – there isn’t really a natural conclusion to the novel, it just kind of ends suddenly.

Left wanting more Thomas Cromwell, I was drawn to the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom, in which a hunchbacked barrister from Tudor London solves murders under commission from a succession of historical figures – with his patron in the first two books being Cromwell himself. I have no idea whether splitting up the Shardlake series and grouping the novels by patron is an even vaguely sensible way to analyse the series, but it’s a convenient way to break it up for Reading Canary articles so hey, here’s a review of the two Cromwell-themed books in the series.

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A Cure For Conan

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The whole point of the Reading Canary concept is to help people choose which parts of epic, long-running fantasy sagas they want to read without wading through the ill-conceived, idiotic additions authors feel compelled to tack on if the series is permitted to keep going for long enough. This being the case, the Canary can’t confine itself to simple linear sequences of novels, so I’ve decided to take the plunge and start working on charting the bibliography of an author who has devoted decade after decade of his illustrious career into turning his back catalogue into an enormous labyrinthine mess.

Specifically, I’m going to tackle Michael Moorcock.

It is extremely difficult for newcomers to know where to start with Moorcock, not least because one of the things his work is most famous for is its level of interconnectedness. As Moorcock explains it, more or less all of his work is based around his core ideas of the multiverse and the Eternal Champion. Each one of the fantastical worlds, potential futures, alternate histories that Moorcock’s stories are set in comprises a different plane of the multiverse, a vast cosmic battlefield across which the forces of Law, Chaos, and the Cosmic Balance duke it out, whilst we mortals are puppets in their vast games who might hope, one day, to see a day when Law, Chaos, the Balance and Gods in general are things in the past and we are our own masters, not subject to the whim of competing cosmic forces.

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The Reading Canary: Sovereign Stone

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

There was a time, towards the tail-end of the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product line and for most of the 2nd edition era, when Larry Elmore was the artist – not just the guy that TSR came to to illustrate the front covers of major Dungeons & Dragons releases, but the guy all their other artists tried to imitate. His realistic style, eschewing the mixture of the bizarre and the amateurish that characterised earlier artwork in Dungeons & Dragons products, was important in raising the production values of the line, and on top of that became inextricably linked in many people’s minds with the style of fantasy that TSR was pushing at the time with the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance product lines. Less inclined towards massive rippling thews and nudity as a default than the likes of Boris Vallejo, Elmore’s art reflected a shift away from Howard-influenced sword and sorcery and more towards the sort of high fantasy written by the likes of Terry Brooks, Ray Feist, and Weis and Hickman – a subgenre that was itself influenced by the authors’ own experiences of Dungeons & Dragons, either officially or unofficially.

For those nostalgic for “old school” Dungeons & Dragons – or for fantasy fiction as it stood before the late 1970s – this shift represented the beginning of the end, the time when D&D stopped being about the fantasy genre and started becoming the fantasy genre, but for those who, like me, came to D&D in the early 1990s Elmore’s style is, itself, a thing to be nostalgic for – pieces like this looked like our adventurers had come to life and dragged their kills along to Elmore’s studio to get a portrait done, and were an endless source of inspiration.

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The Reading Canary: Ravenor

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Dan Abnett’s first Warhammer 40,000 trilogy centred around the activities of the Imperial Inqusition, Eisenhorn, by and large had a laser-sharp focus on the main character, but one of the more memorable supporting characters was Ravenor, Eisenhorn’s apprentice. In the second book of the Eisenhorn trilogy the cool and capable Interrogator Ravenor was caught in the middle of an air raid on a victory parade, which resulted in grotesque and crippling wounds to the young star of the Inquisition. We met him again in the third book, in which we find that whilst Ravenor was physically incapacitated, he was able to devote himself to developing his psychic powers to their fullest potential, and had become an Inquisitor in his own right – one willing to bend the rules just a little, but not to the extent to which Eisenhorn was breaking them at that point in time.

It was natural, after Eisenhorn’s trilogy had proven popular enough to demand a sequel, for Games Workshop to ask Dan Abnett to write a sequel, and it was natural, after Eisenhorn had reached a point at the end of his trilogy where he could no longer be a functional protagonist, for Abnett to have to find a new hero. Ravenor, as the only member of Eisenhorn’s retinue to make full Inquisitor, and as one of the most interesting characters in the first trilogy, was the obvious choice.

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The Reading Canary: Read By Dawn – The Shocking Downfall

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

About a year back I found myself favourably impressed by the Read By Dawn series of horror anthologies, which focus on stories submitted by new authors who have not been published widely previously. Although I liked both of the volumes I read, I thought the second one was a great improvement over the first – Read By Dawn 1 had too many over-short mini-stories, too many stories which relied on gimmicks and cheap shots, an over-reliance on serial killers and torturers as antagonists (perhaps a result of Adele Hartley, editor of the series, also being the curator of the Dead By Dawn horror film festival, and the cinematic horror genre’s current over-reliance on Saw-style serial killers and Hostel-style torture), some toe-curlingly bad poetry, and in general not enough stories that were proud to be unabashedly rooted in horror.

All of these things were problems which, by and large, were solved in Read By Dawn 2, so I find it kind of depressing that they’ve all come back in Read By Dawn 3, the latest book in the series. In fact, let’s go through these issues one by one, because this anthology is such a comprehensive failure that I think it is worth tearing it apart sloooooowly.

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