Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Carter’s Thongor of Valkarth, a True Floater - Review by S.E.

Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria (Thongor, #1)Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria by Lin Carter
S.E. rating: 2 of 5 stars

Carter’s Thongor of Valkarth, a True Floater
Lin Carter’s Thongor is a clonan, a “clone” of REH’s 1930’s barbarian “Conan.” Thongor has all the expected traits: a broadsword, hails from northern cold climates, disdains civilization, and wears a loincloth. In addition to Thongor, other notable clonans emerging ~1970 include John Jakes‘s Brak the Barbarian and Gardner F. Fox’s Kothar of the Magic Sword.

Lemuria, and Weird Fiction History Let us highlight the titular location: Lemuria is akin to Atlantis, being a lost continent mired in myth and history. It is not entirely fictional. In fact, many scientists in the 1800’s including Ernst Haeckel (famous Darwin supporter) claimed the Lemuria was a sunken continent off of Africa/India and hypothesized it was the origin of man’s evolution (rather than Africa). In short, Carter chose a land that was rich in history, but did not capitalize on this much. There are a few call outs to Hyperborea (ancient northern Europe essentially, another mystical land with “real” history ….Hyperborea being the key one that inspired weird fiction originals: Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith). H.P. Lovecraft was a pen pal with Howard and Smith, and championed his own flavor of horror which influenced REH’s adventures—Lin Carter had several Lovecraft call-outs as well. However, Carter fails to tap the potential of Lemuria’s rich history.

Editions, Covers, and Expectations: This reviews the 1969 second edition (Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria), which expands the original 1965 (The Wizard of Lemuria) with an author’s foreword in which he reveals that the 2nd edition has a few thousand extra words—this is interesting since the novel is near novella length and still seems short. Paying tribute to a master (REH) is an honorable gesture; and this is admittedly Lin Carter’s first published work, so we do not expect his best. What should we expect? Let’s start with the covers. The original 1965 cover by Gray Morrow was more representative, featuring a dragon-like pterodactyl eating a spaceship. The 1969 edition has an arguably more attractive cover by Jeff Jones, which looks more Frazetta-like and promises more serious, dark fantasy than it does cheezy, sci-fi. Thongor is arguably a mix of sci-fi and fantasy, so either approach could work; upon reading, it is obvious we have been duped.
The wizard of Lemuria cover by Gray MorrowThe wizard of Lemuria cover by Jeff Jones
The Wizard of Lemuria by Lin Carter Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria (Thongor, #1) by Lin Carter

Floaters and ADHD Style: Moments of decent storytelling are interrupted by ambiguous self-parody: an air ship is quickly introduced and is unfortunately called a "floater", which brings to mind a type of low-density, egested waste. Since our uncivilized barbarian chances upon said floater, a unique prototype among all Lemuria, it is outright amazing that he can master the controls and fly away. But he does, and this nonsense is ever present and consistent. Our naked, loin-clothed hero is called “Thong”-or... I assume he is wearing a thong (he is characterized as being naked), but half way through, we suddenly learn Thongor is actually wearing “high boots” to protect himself from vile serpents. Wild disconnects are characteristic of the book.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a real disorder aptly named; it also suits the style of this book. One could easily argue Lin Carter had ADHD, and got a thrill of introducing, then instantly discarding, random goals/enemies. To wit: random wizard needs randomly found warrior and his randomly high-jacked floater to... guess what? …save the world in two weeks. Without this random confluence of events, the wizard would have not prepared to save it. WTH? Fortunate coincidence on every page attempts to mop up plot holes too big too fix; unlikely encounters bring shallow danger and instant reprieves. The faux drama is so over-the-top that each encounter deflates the previous. Hopelessly lost characters and magical weapons somehow always resurface…like low-density/high-fat poop (a.k.a. floaters).

Cinematic Clonans: Carter’s Thongor reads like poor fan fiction more than it does a unique tribute to the Sword & Sorcery genre. There are parallels between the written Conan-Clonan development and the cinematic evolution. Those of us who lived through the 1980’s were generally (a) impressed with the cinematic adaption of Conan The Barbarian (1982, with Arnold Schwarzenegger), and less impressed with the movie-clonans that followed that were shallow rip-offs. The worst of the worst of these was Deathstalker There is a stunningly hilarious and through review of the Deathstalker series on cinemassacre.com from 2010. It dissects the absurdity of the series, even going as far as to quantify the ratio of fight scenes to women's breasts shown per movie. These movies are terrible, like most clones. What is sad is that many of these had great covers by artist Boris Vallejo, which promised to deliver serious Sword & Sorcery. Great marketing I suppose, but reminiscent of this Thongor book disappointing delivery wrapped in a great oil painting.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Doom of Undal - A Dark Epic for Historical-Fiction Readers, Review by SE

The Doom of Undal (Dragon Court #2)The Doom of Undal by Katrina Sisowath
S.E.Lindberg rating: 4 of 5 stars

(See also Fall of Undal-S.E. review and Sisowath Interview).

The Doom of Undal - A Dark Epic for Historical-Fiction Readers

Anunnaki Deities: Katrina Sisowath’s Dragon Court series fictionalizes the plight of the royal Anunnaki. Note, the Anunnaki were actual ancient Mesopotamian deities of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian cultures. Katrina Sisowath regularly publishes on Ancient_Origins.Net and drew upon her expertise to construct a deep, believable world including: (a) blood-letting rituals of mystery cults, (b) alchemy-based magic, poisons and drugs, and (c) grand architecture expected of ancient times. The world is very immersive and believable. Alien references are relegated to subtle steampunk details; on the continuum of sci-fi to fantasy, this leans heavily toward epic-historical-fantasy.

Royal Blood and Family Conflict: Sisowath writes in a very contemporary way, but The Doom of Undal’s mythical tone, use of humanoid gods, and epic nature is reminiscent of E.R. Eddison classic The Worm Ouroboros. Sisowath’s ancient Kings and Queens have dragon blood within their veins, but their inner monster/alien nature is suppressed as they rule over humans. Their curse/blessing manifests in various abilities which have associated temples to nurture/worship. The degree to which this eldritch power is overtly expressed drives the conflict. The balance of family legacy versus one’s own desires are constantly tested.

Epic Pace and Dark Themes: As many fantasy novels, there are many characters. Four emerge as our key guides, three of which are sisters (Rhea, Hathor, and Sobekh) and the last is a male from a different family (Cronous). We are first introduced to the three sisters when children; as they become parents their own duties pits sister against sister. Dark undertones simmer for the first 2/3rds of the book; the conflict boils over for the last 1/3rd… and truly lives up to the promises dark cover (my version depicts an imminent sacrifice of a pregnant women laying on an altar).

More Dragon Court: I read The Doom of Undal without reading the prequel Serpent Priestess of the Annunaki; however, I followed and enjoyed the story well enough to consider this a decent starting-point. The Doom of Undal itself is part one of duology; the second half, titled "The Fall of Undal" is due out later 2015. After reading this first half, I can’t imagine not picking up the second part to get closure on the fate of the land and characters.

Definitely recommended for epic fantasy readers who enjoy some history and are not afraid of darkness.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Brak the Barbarian - Quality Horror Adventure Undermined by Loinclothes and Ponies

Brak the Barbarian (Brak the Barbarian, #1)Brak the Barbarian by John Jakes
S.E. Lindberg rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before John Jakes became known for historical fiction, he wrote a series of "clonans" (i.e. Conan-like heroes based off of Robert E. Howard's hero). Jake's hero was: Brak the Barbarian. In his introduction, Jake says he merely wanted to have more stories of the ones he liked. With a little more effort, he could have a really neat hero. Instead, he took a cookie cutter mold of Conan, stripped him free of specific goals, and set him on a general trip "south" toward Khurdisan, an apparently dreamy place worth seeking with one's life and soul... but not apparently good enough to tell the reader about.

Horror and action are good: Jake's writing of Brak excels when he employs his version of horror/Lovecraft-themed weirdness. There are true moments of neat-trippiness and terror that I wish he had done more often.

Shallow motivations are bad. Countering this, Jake over-stressed the "barbarian is more civil than city-folk" theme that RE Howard was known to push (i.e. Brak is always the more honest and honorable than any of the civilized people he crosses). Also, there is the matter of inappropriate attire: no matter the environment (whether its the Ice-marshes or the desert), he wears a loin cloth and rides a pony (he has four ponies in five chapters, each one is new since the others die). He is giant, and must look ridiculous on a pony. And he has braided hair, that is strangely described as "savage." This book has 5 chapters that chronicle Brak's life after being outcasted for reasons unknown and never told to the reader.

I chronicled my own adventure with Brak. I would recommend reading the first and fourth chapters:

Chapter I The Unspeakable Shrine: Brak is indeed a Conan clone; hailing from icelands; wearing loincloth in a tundra? Yob-Haggoth antagonist-god is Lovecraftian. Trippy scenes with Adriane (Yob-Haggoth supporter). Anti-civilization themes echoes REH's approach. More entertaining than cheezy.

Chapter II: Flame Face: This was a sub par story. Brak leaves the ice marshes in his loincloth only to take a slow route to Khurdisan, his random goal in life. He spends months working to buy a pony to carry him south ? Really... A pony? Then instantly gets captured and imprisoned in a mine for 50 days. No worries he escapes, of course, and the random villain gets her due justice.

Chapter III: The Courts of the Conjurer: was par with Ch1. A decent adventure story, some betrayal, and a creature named Fangfish (akin to the nomenclature of Ch2's Doomdog). More "barbarians are more civil than civilization" commentary. Still Brak's desire to ride small ponies and wear no clothes seems forced. Pretty shallow personality and goals.

Chapter IV: Ghosts of Stone: This is the best so far. A ghost city called Chamalor, the best follow up to ch1. A good dose of horror and more info on Septegundus, undying evil wizard. The Thing That Crawls, T'muk, is a nice Lovecraftian creature. Enjoyed this story.

Chapter V: Barge of Souls: Brak meanders south via a battlefield. The good parts include interactions with ghosts and haunted war grounds. Too much weird coincidence undermines some really great touches. Minor spoilers below:

Minor spoilers: There is an evolution of a shield design which was very thoughtful; this was countered by Lord Hel (antagonist) and his Tiger men being nefarious but stupid (they betray a prince, accidentally get rid of the body...but then they need a body for an obvious ritual...but lucky ho... Brak looks like man they need, but they need him dead...but they don't kill him when they have him restrained...instead they decide to drug him...but they don't do that well...Brak escapes... WTH?). At the end Brak could stay with a Queen, who begs him to stay. He says no....I have to go to Khurdisan. She pleads, Why? He says, I don't know. Then leaves on a pony? WTH? He says, he must go in part because of the great stories he has heard. Well that's nice. The reader has heard none of those by the end of book one. That's right, we still don't have a glimmer of what motivates the hero by the end of act one, except that he seems to like to ride ponies

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Clonan and Obscure Books - Sword & Sorcery Groupreads for May-June 2015

All adventure readers, please join the Sword & Sorcery crew's group topics. Clonans and Obscure Books are the May-June topics of interest. Time to dig through your bookshelves and used bookstores to find forgotten treasures...and re-evaluate the Clonan craze. 

Clonan Discussion-Link  and    Obscure Book Discussion-Link

May June 2015 Groupreads: Clonans and Obscure Books
Masthead Banner cover art credits (Left to Right):
Frazetta 1969 cover: Thongor Against the Gods by Lin Carter
Frazetta 1968 cover: Brak the Barbarian by John Jakes
Jeff Jones 1969 cover: Kothar Barbarian Swordsman by Gardner F. Fox

Thongor Against the Gods (Thongor, #3) by Lin Carter Brak the Barbarian (Brak the Barbarian, #1) by John Jakes Kothar Barbarian Swordsman by Gardner F. Fox