Sunday, 29 November 2015

Short Story Sunday 09: Black Colossus (Reading Conan 04)

“Black Colossus” by Robert E. Howard, originally published in Weird Tales (Jun. 1933)

Out of the Conan stories I’ve read so far, this is easily my least favourite. It was painful to read it. The plot read like a draft version of “The Scarlet Citadel” and the descriptions of people and places are endless and quite distracting. Robert E. Howard has undeniable skill when it comes to the use of descriptive language to set the mood and create atmosphere. It just so happens that sometimes he misses the mark and ends up describing things needless for pages on end. Since I started this project I’ve always been slightly worried that some of these stories would be duds. I didn’t expect to encounter one so soon. “Black Colossus” is a bore with a few nice moments tucked into the story. Sadly, those nice moments just aren’t numerous enough or good enough to make this story worthwhile.

The story opens with a thief who breaks into the tomb of a long dead wizard named Thugra Khotan. Soon after entering the treasure room, the thief encounters the awakened wizard and dies at his hands. Miles away and what surely must be weeks later (though it’s never clarified in the story), Yasmela, princess of Khoraja, is having a nightmare. Natohk, the Veiled One, is threatening to destroy her kingdom and capture her for himself. He and his armies are near Khoraja and it won’t be long until he can act out his threats. In the hopes that he will aid her, Yasmela pleads to her god who tells her to go out in the city and request the aid of the first man she encounters. The first man she meets is Conan. He is already a member of Khoraja’s army and she asked him to take command of the kingdom’s forces. Conan agrees. He will fight for Yasmela and Khoraja as long as they continue to oppose Natohk and his hordes. Conan sets out to meet Natohk’s force and the story ends in a large scale battle.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Star Wars: Young Jedi Knights: Heirs of the Force Review (Unread 032)

In my anticipation for the latest Star Wars theatrical release, I’ve been exploring the Expanded Universe. This might seem a little odd to some people after Disney’s announcement that the EU is no longer canon, but that doesn’t matter to be one bit. I’ve read enough novels and comics that are part of the EU to know that it’s a pretty incredible fictional universe to explore. It can match, scene for scene, the enjoyment to be had from the Star Wars films and it often does that by exploring some pretty ludicrous ideas. It’s sometimes beautiful, scary, uplifting, exciting, funny, embarrassing, action packed, and it’s just about everything you could ever ask for from genre literature. I believe that whatever descriptive word you can think of it can be applied to stories set in the EU. It’s a large, inexplicably complicated, occasionally messy shared universe continuation (and, uh further prequelization) of the Star Wars films.

It’s much more than just tie-in media. These novels and comics aren’t just a collection of one-off stories that don’t really matter. They’re not stories that occur between the stories we already know from the movies (though they are that, too). The Expanded Universe is really well named because it does what the title suggests. It expands everything you know about Star Wars and in just about every direction possible. This brings us to Heirs of the Force.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Short Story Sunday 08: The Tower of the Elephant (Reading Conan 03)

“The Tower of the Elephant” by Robert E. Howard, originally published in Weird Tales (Mar. 1933)

This is the earliest original Conan story that I recognized by the title alone. That’s because I’ve read one of the comic book adaptations, the one originally published in Conan the Barbarian #4 by Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Sal Buscema. I’ve actually written about that particular issue in my review of Conan Saga #2 which collects issues #4-6 of Conan the Barbarian. Unlike the two previous stories, I was pretty familiar with this one and I was looking forward to see how the original telling by Robert E. Howard would differ from the comic book version. Overall, not a whole lot in terms of plot, but the execution was better.

A young Conan is in the City of Thieves in the country of Zamora. He’s spending his evening in a tavern where a man is talking of the riches and jewels tucked away in the Tower of the Elephant. Conan mentions that the tower looks unguarded and it must be an easy target for thieves. He questions why no one has tried to steal from the tower before. Soon the exchange of words becomes an exchange of fists and a brawl takes over the tavern.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Star Wars: Dark Force Rising Review (Unread 031)

Cover art by Tom Jung.
It’s been a few months since I read Heir to the Empire the first volume of The Thrawn Trilogy. Not sure how I lost track of the series but the constant commentary on the upcoming seventh instalment of the Star Wars film saga has brought my attention back to one of my favourite franchises. It just made sense to finish reading this series before moving on to other novels in the Expanded Universe. This series is so important to the entire EU and introduces a lot of elements to the Bantam era Star Wars novels. Unlike the first book, I knew what to expect this time around and I think I enjoyed this volume more because of it. Once again written by Timohty Zahn, Dark Force Rising is a direct continuation of the events depicted in Heir to the Empire. As such, there are a lot of similarities between both books, but the second volume tops the first in execution, character development, and plot.

The plot might seem a little light at first glance, but a lot of what goes on is nicely matched up with character development so it’s a little deceptive. The political instability that plagued the New Republic regime in Heir to the Empire further develops. Bothan councillor Borsk Fey’lya continues to garner more support to his cause and it’s dividing the New Republic’s military strength. This is leaving them vulnerable to Grand Admiral Thrawn’s fleet. Han and Lando are sent on a mission to gain more supporters and in doing so they pick up the trail that might lead them to the secret location of the Katana Fleet, a large fleet of 200 Dreadnought-class vessels that date from the Clone Wars. Thrawn also picks up the trail and begins looking for the lost fleet as well. Meanwhile, Luke searches for Joruus C’baoth, an old Jedi Master, in the hopes of continuing his training in the Force. Leia travels to the Noghri homeworld to fulfill a promise she made in the previous book. Here she’ll continue her work to bring more support to the New Republic.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Blog Fantastic 044: Storm Front by Jim Butcher Review (Unread 030)

When I prepared my introduction to The Blog Fantastic, I had some authors and series in mind. Books that I knew I wanted to check out or revisit. Some of those have been a pleasure to discover or reread. A few of the books I revisited or tried out where disappointments. One of them I didn’t even finish (consequently I didn’t review it either). The flip side of these disappointing books is that there are others books that pop up on my radar and inexplicably jump to the top of my reading pile. Even better, some of those books I enjoy. Jim Butcher Storm Front, the first in his Dresden Files series, is such a book. I’m not sure where my interest in this book came from, but it’s a good fit. There was a distinct lack of urban fantasy in The Blog Fantastic archives.

For those who aren’t all caught up in the Dresden Files craze, they’re a pretty clever combination of private detective fiction and urban fantasy (or paranormal fantasy). It’s a good mix, but something has made this particular series very popular even in comparison to other similar series. I don’t know why just yet, but I’m sure I’ll find out if I keep reading past the first book. Let’s start with the setting, Chicago, the windy city. This is the home of Harry Dresden, a wizard for hire which means he’s essentially a private detective for hire and he specializes in cases that deal with magic. One of his regular clients is the Chicago Police Department, most often the Special Investigations Unit.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Short Story Sunday 07: The Scarlet Citadel (Reading Conan 02)

“The Scarlet Citadel” by Robert E. Howard, originally published in Weird Tales (Jan. 1933)

This tale begins in the middle of a battle, set during the time where Conan is king of Aquilonia. He’s consolidated his military strength with the neighbouring kingdom of Ophir to defend their lands from the conquering king of Koth, Strabonus. Soon it’s revealed that the battle was a trap and that the kingdoms of Ophir and Koth are conspiring together, with the hopes of destroying Conan. They’re aided by the sorcery Tsotha-lanti and Conan ends up in chains. He’s tossed into Tsotha’s citadel, inside a dungeon filled with ancient and evil horrors.

In the dungeon, Conan manages to free himself from his chains. There, he encounters strange evils. They range from giant snakes to demon toads. Surprisingly, the giant snake is the least terrifying of all these creatures. After he frees another prisoner, a sorcerer called Pelias. Together they manage to escape from the dungeon. Now free, Conan moves his focus to recovering his kingdom from the tyranny of Tsotha’s evil. Pelias aids him, and Conan finds himself thrown about by the wills and desires of sorcerers and magics he doesn’t understand. He survives the final confrontation on the battlefield, but not solely because of his skill and might as a warrior.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Blog Fantastic 043: Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern Review (Unread 029)

Every once in a while I like to look at the Blog Fantastic page and assess the reviews I’ve done so far. Most of the time when I do this it’s to help me decide which book I should read next. As regular readers know, I’m reading several series at the same time rather than read a single series from start to finish before moving on. I do this because I like variety in my reading pile. That’s how I roll.

This time, what stood out to me, is how many reviews I’ve written of books in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. This is my seventh review in that series, more than any other series I’ve read so far and I think I know why. This series has been one of the most enjoyable to read since I’ve started the project. Not only do I enjoy reading the books, I find the reviews are relatively easy to write. I don’t have to think too much about what the content of the review will be, it sort of comes out naturally once I’ve finished reading. This differs from some of the other series I’ve reviewed.

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is kind of a pain because the books take so long to read. They literally take me weeks and sometimes it’s discouraging because those books regularly have entire chapters of 20+ pages where next to nothing happens. Other times, I’m devouring roughly 200 pages during a weekend because out of the blue, the plot kicks in and there is action galore. The books also give me conflicting feelings as I fluctuate from love to hate, sometime within a single chapter. They’re so sprawling in content and length that I find them a little exhausting. Other series that I absolutely love, like Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea, are also hard to review. The difficulty is caused by different reasons though. LeGuin’s books are just excellent, masterpieces of the genre. When I review them I can’t help but feel inadequate, as if my commentary doesn’t begin to describe the excellence of her writing and the stories contained in her books.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Short Story Sunday 06: Vandana Singh and Malka Older

“Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” by Vandana Singh
Read in Year’s Best SF 16 (2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Originally published at Strange Horizons (2010)

“Somadeva” begins with the revival of a centuries-long dead writer whose magnum opus, an 18 volume compendium of stories arranged in a complex web of interlocking stories. He’s not sure if he’s come back to life or he’s the echo of his former self revived in the present or even if he’s an entirely new being created by the books of his life work so cherished by Isha, a woman travelling in space. Together, they continue to travel the stars in search of new stories. Isha gathers them together in the hopes of better understanding the origins of the alien cultures they encounter. Along the way, Somadeva, the revived writer, contemplates the essence of stories and their mysterious relationship to all things living.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve never read of this author before. I’m glad I’ve just discovered Singh because this story was masterfully told. “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra” is nothing short of excellent. Mirroring the fictional 18 volume work of Somadeva, this short story includes stories within stories along with interlocking stories. Together, they all form an intricate web of narratives that all support and embellish each other. The story deals with primal and universal themes of being and it asks big questions. Do stories create the world or are they ways for us to understand the world around us by passing down the knowledge acquired through the ages?  Some answers might be found within the text. In fact, one of the main ideas of this story is that all stories have multiple interpretations resulting from the life and experience of the person analysing it.