Witch World

Andre Norton was not the first woman to write science fiction (Mary Shelley had her beat by a century, Margaret Cavendish by several), but she was the first to receive many of the modern genre’s honours – she was the first woman to be named a Grand Master by both the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the World Science Fiction Society, and the first to be inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

Deliberately using an androgynous name (or her pen name of “Andrew North” when that wasn’t masculine-presenting enough) in order to get her work in front of audiences she felt might have turned their noses up at reading women’s work, she would produce a staggering amount of material over the course of her career, even setting aside the numerous collaborations she undertook with other authors later in life, and much of her work was pitched towards what we’d now recognise as a YA audience – at the more mature end of what science fiction called the “juveniles”, or the lighter end of adult-oriented work.

Her most expansive series was the Witch World sequence, a series of dozens of novels set in a fantasy world; commencing in 1963, the books deliberately put gender roles and power structures under a spotlight, and whilst some aspects of the series now seems unrefined, that may well be because she was coming in at an earlier stage of the conversation to us, and at a time when some of the pitfalls of addressing this sort of thing in an fantasy or SF context hadn’t been so evident. For this review I’ll take a look at the first two novels in the series, which largely set the stage for the rest.

Witch World

One of the advantages of having written SF and fantasy since the 1930s is that you can use the old, now-cliched openings without a second thought, since you helped shape them in the first place. Witch World commences with the old fantasy trope of a man from our world being plunged into a fantasy world through some mystic wibbly encounter. In this particular instance, our traveller is Simon Tregarth, and the mode of travel is the Siege Perilous, an ancient sacred stone which instantly transports those who sit upon it by the early light of dawn to the universe that most needs them, or which they are in most need of. (The implication is that in the Arthurian myths Percival and Galahad can survive sitting on the thing because they were already in the ideal time and place for them to exist.)

Continue reading “Witch World”

The Remains of Middle-Earth

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories weren’t cranked out to satisfy an audience demand, and writing them wasn’t even Tolkien’s day job: writing the legends of Arda was effectively a hobby of Tolkien’s, a way to exercise the skills of his professional work in a recreational manner he could share with his immediate family and his friends in the Inklings.

Since Tolkien prepared far more material than he ever actually published, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were enriched by numerous references to a mythology only half-glimpsed by the reader, which plays a major role in creating the impression of a world with a rich past. Sure, it’s entirely possible to fake that sort of thing, but having the structure of those myths worked out both makes it easier to make those allusions seem like they relate to an actual story rather than being made up on the spot and can also help inspire aspects of the present story.

Still, a side effect of this is that after Tolkien died, he left behind a ton of unpublished material, a sizable chunk of which has been released since. First, Christopher Tolkien (with the assistance of Guy Gavriel Kay) produced The Silmarillion, as close a reconstruction of Tolkien’s intended narrative of the backstory of Middle-Earth as could be reached. Much later, three books were produced focusing on the three Great Tales – the stories of the First Age which Tolkien thought had the most scope for being fleshed out into full-length narratives that could be read in their own right; these were The Children of HúrinBeren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin.

Of those who engage with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth texts at all, many have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. A pretty decent number have tackled The Silmarillion and bounced off it hard; for those who enjoyed it, the three First Age books I’d say are also worth a look. For those who want more Tolkien material set in Middle-Earth, however, there’s an even denser, drier inner circle of material than the already a bit dry and dense Silmarillion-tier stuff: that is the raw texts offered up with extensive commentary from Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-Earth. Few indeed are those who have undertaken the journey into those realms; I, myself, have wandered into the border region and then written it off as not for me. Here’s what I picked up on my excursion…

Unfinished Tales

Despite the title, a chunk of the material here doesn’t really represent actual stories so much as essays and worldbuilding notes. A Description of the Island of Númenor, for instance, is mostly what it says on the tin, but it’s mercifully brief and the geographical details are interwoven with sociological points which set the stage for the next story.

Continue reading “The Remains of Middle-Earth”

Lenzi’s Variable Focus

Umberto Lenzi’s career, like many Italian directors of his generation, would require him over the years to adapt to a range of different genres. Tending to work more towards the sleazier end of the spectrum, he’d happily turn out sword and sandal epics, spy movies, gialli, or whatever other flavour of schlock was in vogue at the time, though he also made some original contributions of his own – for instance, his Man From Deep River is considered to have kicked off the cannibal subgenre (and his later Cannibal Ferox is, alongside Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, held to be the point where people said “OK, enough of this, the ‘who can be grimmer’ competition is over and we have our tied winners”).

As with any Italian director from this era, the quality of his output varied widely. Lenzi seemed happy to pitch his movies at the level demanded by the genre he was working in – going a bit more sophisticated for giallo, a bit sleazier for zombie movies, and so on – and when Lenzi is truly phoning it in, the results are awful. (Ghosthouse is only worth watching in the Rifftrax version.) Here’s a brace of three of his movies which have had recent Blu-Ray releases to illustrate what I mean.


Despite its title sounding like the sort of playground insult that people should really know better than to use these days (it’s a perfectly legit Italian word which happens to sound terrible in English), Spasmo does in fact at least start off as one of the more clever giallos out there. A young man and his girlfriend ride their motorbike to a ruined cottage by the coast to get some privacy – though they’re not so concerned about privacy that they’re shy to ask a dark figure sat in a car a little way away from the cottage to light a cigarette for them. In the middle of their making out, they are interrupted by…

Continue reading “Lenzi’s Variable Focus”

Two Flavours of Fantasy Cheese

Today I have for you two little mini-reviews of movies made on a micro-budget, with swords and medieval nonsense aplenty. One of them is a joyful, colourful product of the early 1980s; the other is a shitty zombie movie from 2013. What do they have in common? They were both in my review backlog, that’s what!

Hawk the Slayer

The sinister Voltan (Jack Palance) is the outcast son of some dude who doesn’t get to be named onscreen but I think is meant to be some kind of king (played by Ferdy Mayne, who was the same age as Jack Palance and looks younger in this). Grumpy about being outcast, Voltan breaks into the castle as the King (High Priest? Grand Vizier? President?) is meditating over a pool of dry ice in a hidden shrine lined with gold foil. Voltan’s younger brother Hawk (John Terry), a good boy who managed to reach adulthood without being exiled by the King (Duke? Earl? Prime Minister?) stumbles onto the scene just in time to hear the dying words of the King (Caliph? Mayor?), who has been fatally stabbed by Voltan. As his last act, the King (Prince? Doge? Emperor?) teaches Hawk the secret art of activating and commanding the MindSword, the blade that is their family’s heirloom and can be telepathically controlled by its rightful owner.

Continue reading “Two Flavours of Fantasy Cheese”

Not To Be Confused With Dragonball…

Yet another point-and-click adventure which has been released for free on GOG, 1994 release Dragonsphere was the third and final point-and-click adventure to be developed by Microprose. The adventure game market was pretty crowded at the time, and – as the designer’s notes at the end of the manual concedes – the fantasy adventure game market was particularly crowded, with Sierra’s King’s Quest and Quest For Glory series going strong and Revolution Software, Westwood Studios, and Adventure Soft all tossing high-profile contributions into the market for good measure at around the same time in the form of Lure of the Temptress, the Legend of Kyrandia series, and Simon the Sorcerer.

Microprose’s plan seems to have been to combine the Microprose Adventure Development system’s capacity for more realistic graphics with higher-quality, more serious writing to offer up a more immersive game experience; in the long run, I guess Dragonsphere can’t have performed very well in the market because Microprose stopped making point-and-clicks after this, but that’s a shame because it’s actually the best of the freebie adventures on GOG I’ve tried so far.

Continue reading “Not To Be Confused With Dragonball…”

Kindlefluff: The Last Degree by Dina Rae

A reminder, since it’s been a while since I’ve dipped into this: “Kindlefluff” is the term I use for my reviews of books which I absolutely would not have acquired were they not going for cheap or free on Kindle (not counting Kindle Unlimited pieces). Hang onto your hats folks, because this one is a doozy.

The Last Degree by Dina Rae was a book I picked up for free but, at the time I got it at least, had a list price of £1.92. At the time, I both had a fairly clear idea of what I was getting into and absolutely no idea of what direction the book would take. You see, it’s a conspiracy thriller about the Freemasons, and you never know which way one of those things is going to jump. By the end of the book, I was left in no doubt as to where Dina Rae’s priorities lay as an author, and ended up glad that I hadn’t given her any money..

The thing about Masonic conspiracy theories is that they’re like the Swiss Army knife of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories almost always boil down to politics in the end, and specifically revolve around the alleged conspirators plotting to do something for reasons the theorist finds foul – you almost never have theorists saying “well, actually I kind of agree with the agenda of the big conspiracy, I just object to their methods”.

Continue reading “Kindlefluff: The Last Degree by Dina Rae”

GOGathon: Sierra’s Muddled 1991

So far in our journey through the graphic adventure output of Sierra we’ve seen how the first King’s Quest trilogy bedded in the AGI engine before a range of new games explored a wider variety of genres and then the debut of the SCI engine brought about new technical improvements. Further experimentation followed, and 1990 saw the end of Sierra’s EGA graphics era and the dawn of the VGA era.

This included the unveiling of Sierra’s first fully point-and-click-based adventure game, King’s Quest V, which ditched the old text parser in favour of an icon-driven system. In 1991, four new games in very different genres would take this system out for a spin – but who would excel in this brand new world where the mouse ruled supreme, and who would reveal themselves to be stuck in the game design ethos of yesteryear? With LucasArts’ Secret of Monkey Island having released the previous year, this question is all the more important…

Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers

This picks up right where Space Quest III left off. Roger Wilco has saved the Two Guys From Andromeda and dropped them off safely at Sierra’s headquarters, and now he’s set a course back for his home planet of Xenon, which he hasn’t seen since the start of Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge. Stopping off at a bar for a drink, he immediately runs afoul of the Sequel Police – a time-travelling paramilitary force under the command of Vohaul himself, who still lives after a fashion.

Continue reading “GOGathon: Sierra’s Muddled 1991”