Tag Archives: Andre Norton

Heroes with Secret Pasts and a dying Earth: books read

Andre Norton’s THE JARGOON PARD is the first sequel to Year of the Unicorn, set in Arvon, the homeland of the Wereriders. Arvon comes off much like Estcore, a land that sealed itself off after arrogant mages opened dimensional gates to Very Bad Things, and protagonist Kethan has a backstory similar to Kerovan of Crystal Gryphon, a son born touched by magic so that his mother can use him as a tool to attain power.

Surprisingly, though, the book charts it’s own course, starting with Mom bearing a girl, whom she promptly swaps for the son of another woman (Gillan of Unicorn). Like so many Witch World protagonists, Kethan grows up feeling something of an outsider, then one of his mother’s rivals gives him a magic belt that triggers his innate shapeshifting powers. Now he’s a pard (big puma — the jargoon is the carved gem on the belt’s clasp) but he can’t turn back unless he submits to the will of his mother’s resident sorceress — and Kethan would sooner die. The results are solidly entertaining; this is also the first book to spotlight the worship of the harvest/mother goddess Gunnora, which plays a big role in many later books.

THE DARK WORLD has Henry Kuttner’s name on it but some researchers suggest C.L. Moore is co- or sole author. While it has a lot in common with Mask of Circe, it also resembles Dwellers in the Mirage (amnesiac hero with buried memories, good vs. bad girl, other-dimensional soul-sucking horror) and would later inspire both Roger Zelazny’s Amber and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Falcons of Narabedla.

Oh, wait, you might want to know about the story too! The protagonist is a WW II veteran suffering strange blackouts and odd memories. When he’s drawn into the eponymous alternate timeline, he discovers that’s because he’s actually Ganelon, a member of the ruling coven of mages, bound to the other-dimensional horror Llyr; the resistance against the coven managed to swap him and the real veteran (parallel world counterparts), leaving Ganelon with the veteran’s memories. Now that Ganelon’s back, he’s ready to regain power, which requires working with the resistance against the coven and somehow driving Llyr back from this plane of existence. The result is a lively fantasy, though the random mix of myth names (Llyr, Medea, Freydis) is jarring (as Lin Carter says, names matter).

In THE STARMAN OF LLYRDIS by Leigh Brackett, an Earthman who’s spent his entire life as even more of an outcast than Kethan learns the reason: he’s only half-human, the other half being Varddan, the one race that can survive interstellar travel due to a gen-engineering breakthrough a millennium ago. The protagonist proves his Varddan genes hold true and wins the right to live and work in space — but then allies himself with revolutionaries who want to share the genetic breakthrough with all the races of the galaxy. A perfect example of Brackett’s fondness for characters who achieve their dreams only to find them hollow (as her husband put it).

Jack Vance’s THE DYING EARTH is probably best known as the basis for spellcasting in D&D (Gary Gygax copied Vance’s idea that mages can only hold a limited number of spells in their mind) but deserves to be known in its own right. On a distant future Earth, various wizards and occasional mortals feud, seek love or quest for knowledge amidst ruined cities, ancient secrets and unpleasant cults.

This blew me away when I read it as a teen, but less so now. The treatment of the female characters is sexist and Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique (which I suspect was a big influence) is a much eerier, darker setting, and Smith is a better writer. That said, this is still entertaining and enjoyably eerie.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Gray Morrow, bottom image is uncredited. Rights to both remain with current holder.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Reading

Bruce Lee, Andre Norton, Agatha Heterodyne and Cats: books read

Reading Nerds of Color‘s post on how Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood disrespects Bruce Lee got me curious to read about the legendary kung fu star. Fortunately the library had BRUCE LEE: A Life by Matthew Polly, chronicling, Bruce’s story from hyperkinetic mixed-race child actor (his nickname as a kid was “Never sits still”) to teenage brawler and street punk to cha-cha fanatic to gung fu master, and all of that before he began his climb to become Hollywood’s first Chinese superstar. Martial arts movies and Asian-American actors are so much more common now (though obviously Hollywood’s still solidly white-dominated) that it was a shock to realize how out there Lee’s ambitions seemed at the time, and how much discrimination he had to deal with (one newspaper article on Lee actually worked “Rotsa Ruck” into the headline). Nor did he have it easy in Hong Kong, where initial enthusiasm for the hometown boy’s success was later shaded by concerns Lee’s biracial heritage meant he wasn’t Chinese enough. Very good.

TREY OF SWORDS by Andre Norton (striking cover by Charles Mikolaycak) is set in Escore roughly during the events of Warlock of the Witch World. The characters are a stock type in this series: Yonan and Crytha, both mixed-race, both orphans, both uncertain where they fit in and Yonan crushing on an oblivious Crytha. The first two sections of the book involve Yonan discovering the magical Sword of Ice (or vice versa — the Sword chooses it’s wielders) and alongside an ancient warrior traveling back in time to avert one of the Dark’s great triumphs in Escore’s past. The effects of this in the present aren’t really dwelt with, except Crytha, who has just enough untapped power to be vulnerable to the Dark’s control, encounters some of the leftover villains of that battle and has to choose her own destiny. I can’t say this really grabbed me but that’s partly because I read it while I was surfeited with dog care and unable to focus. It does have an unusual end for a Witch World book in that Crytha doesn’t come to return Yonan’s feelings, and chooses a life alone to study her craft.

GIRL GENIUS: The Second Journey of Agatha Heterodyne: The Incorruptible Library by Phil and Kaja Foglio continues Agatha’s adventures as the threat of the mind-controlling Other looms over Europe and Agatha and her crew penetrate the catacombs under Paris in search of a McGuffin that … well, actually I’m not quite sure. There are so many characters, plot threads and character bits that I found it impossible to keep everything straight. It was still amusing (“I write love poetry about cheese.”) and I still look forward to the next volume, but it wasn’t very coherent.

YOUR CAT: The Owner’s Manual: Hundreds of Secrets, Surprises and Solutions for Raising a Happy, Healthy Cat by Dr. Marty Becker didn’t actually have any surprises as it covers the same material as the other cat books I’ve read recently. Which isn’t a criticism of the book — if it had been the first one I picked up, I’d have liked it fine — but I wound up skimming most of it. The chapter on cat training may come in useful though.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Two legends of the 1960s, and more: books read

JFK AND THE MASCULINE MYSTIQUE: Sex and Power on the New Frontier by Steven Watts, hooked me with its introductory chapter discussing the 1950s’ fears that corporate conformism was emasculating men (Watts sees this as a twisted image of the housewife’s frustrated life in The Feminine Mystique) while wives dominated husbands and working women were taking over business! JFK seemed the perfect antidote: a handsome war hero, charismatic politician, the embodiment of masculine vigor and a world-class ladies man — who cares what his policies were? And JFK’s own desire for manliness shaped his view of Vietnam, the CIA (and his fondness for James Bond) and the Cold War.

Unfortunately the book from there turns into multiple profiles of the era’s various macho men and womanizers such as Hugh Hefner, Frank Sinatra, Norman Mailer and Ian Fleming himself, included based on whether Watts can claim some sort of tie-in with JFK (Sinatra and the Rat Pack yes, but Kirk Douglas and Tony curtis are a stretch). While he shows how each man represented an alternative to suburban/corporate drone life, the broader question of masculinity in crisis takes second place to the biographies — and it doesn’t help that Watts’ idea of masculinity in revolt seems to be sleeping around a lot. This also needs more context: America had been fretting about masculinity before the 1950s just as it frets about it now (Women Taking Over and the End of Men are still rallying cries for sexists). Nor do I buy his conclusion that this style of predatory womanizing was so much worse than old-school patriarchy, it helped prompt the woman’s movement. Despite some good sections, this was overall a thumbs-down for me.

THE SILVER AGE FLASH OMNIBUS: Vol. 2 by (mostly) John Broome and Carmine Infantino collects the run of Flash (pun intentional) from #133 to #163. The Scarlet Speedster battles his Rogue’s Gallery, tackles alien invaders, copes with Iris’ constant carping (what would have been stock relationship stuff in fiction then looks a lot more shrewish now), teams up with Kid Flash, Jay Garric and the Elongated Man and loses his powers a couple of times. While I have most of this era in comics, it’s good to fill in the few gaps, and Infantino’s art is absolutely breathtaking in this format. Like most Silver Age comics, not for everyone, but definitely for me.

While it’s targeted at a much younger age range than me, I really enjoy DC SUPER-HERO GIRLS, the online cartoon that imagines DC’s heroes (and a few antiheroes) as teenagers attending high school under principal Amanda Waller and Vice-Principal Gorilla Grodd. In Finals Crisis by Shea Fontana and Yancey Labat, someone’s kidnapping the school’s top female students, but why? And can they pool their abilities to break free? This was light-hearted fun, and I do enjoy some of the results of mixing characters together, like having Katana and Beast Boy as sparring partners (he’s fast, agile and unpredictable so Katana finds him a great adversary).

THE LIBRARY OF THE LOST AND FOUND by Phaedra Patrick has a self-sacrificing librarian discovers a book holding a collection of her childhood writings, and autographed by her supposedly dead grandmother; investigating, the librarian gets to reboot her life and unearth a boatload of family secrets. I have real trouble with the protagonist: she’s endlessly put upon (I can understand caring for her sick parents, but washing and ironing her coworkers’ clothes?) and miserable throughout (if sacrifice sparked joy, that would be different — this is like my problems with Heroine Complex only worse) and at the end she’s way too forgiving of her family (even her emotionally abusive father was doing the best he could!) for my taste.

THE CRYSTAL GRYPHON is Andre Norton’s prequel to Year of the Unicorn, set in the Dales during the early years of the war against Alizon (the story seems to show Alizon was so successful because they used Kolder technology). Kerovan is a nobleman cursed from birth with cloven hooves and golden eyes (a minor plot weakness is that we’re alternately told his face is unearthly and that with his hooves covered he looks quite normal), betrothed in childhood in a political match to Joisan. Their meeting and wedding get postponed by the war, but inevitably their respective struggles draw them into each other’s orbit. That, in turn, pits them against a scheme by Kerovan’s mother (in a nice touch we learn she shunned him not because she thinks he’s a monster but because he’s not the demon-possessed child she wanted to create) to raise Dark Powers and take control of the Dales herself. While Kerovan/Joisan has a lot in common with Gillan/Herrel in Unicorn, Joisan’s a distinctive character, strong-willed and good-hearted but with no qualms about political marriage being one of her duties. Unfortunately, the ending gets very deus ex as the magic the good guys have tapped pretty much does the work for them.

THE EVOLUTION OF USEFUL THINGS: How Everyday Artifacts — From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers — Came To Be As They Are by Henry Petroski argues that in designing every day items it’s not “form follows function but “form follows failure” — thus utensil design in each generation is a response to what the older forks and knives can’t do (plus the sheer range of potential designs means there’s no one form for each function). Petroski applies this analysis to forks, paperclips, hammers (how many specialty hammers do we need?) and zippers, noting as he did in Small Things Considered that no design is ever perfected as we don’t know what might be done with them in the future. Good, and many of these details would be useful for fiction (broad-bladed knives in some eras were tools for putting food in our mouths; before the 19th century invention of the paperclip, packets of paper were often pinned together).

#SFWApro. Cover by Infantino, all rights to image remain with current holder.

2 Comments

Filed under Comics, Reading

SF, England and graphic novels: this week’s reading

THE GINGER STAR was Leigh Brackett’s 1970s reboot of her Eric John Stark, showing him as an interstellar rather than an interplanetary adventurer. After Stark’s closest friend disappears on the dying backwater world of Skaith, Stark goes there to hunt for him despite opposition from the cults and gen-engineered races dominating the planet. This makes it something of a Greatest Hits mashup, taking Stark and adding in a dying world like Brackett’s Mars, the genetic engineering of Sword of Rhiannon and the prophecy element of Nemesis From Terra. Lower key than some of the earlier Stark novels, but still good.

Andre Norton’s SPELL OF THE WITCH WORLD was the first book from then-rookie publisher DAW, consisting of three short stories set in the Dales before, during and after the war referenced in Year of the Unicorn. Dragonscale Silver feels like Norton’s reworking earlier witch-world books (psi-linked siblings, a woman of Estcarp blood being raised in the Dales) but it works, and gives us a female warrior mage for the protagonist (she and her lover Jervon show up in a couple more stories, IIRC). Dream Smith has a scarfaced metalworker creating a dream kingdom where he and his deformed lover can live away from the world’s eyes, but it’s way too disability-cliche for me. Amber Out of Quayth is the best story, a Gothic romance like Year of the Unicorn: a woman marries into a sinister family of amber dealers and discovers almost too late they have Dark Secrets. The Dales would remain the setting for the next two or three books.

A SOCIAL HISTORY OF ENGLAND by Asa Briggs suffers the usual problems that any survey of 2,000-plus years is going to have to skim a lot of material. With that limitation, a good overview of the social influences facing Britain such as class, race, money, trade, sex and technology constantly shifting England’s social landscape.Very dry, but informative.

THE FOX: Freak Magnet by Dean Haspiel, Mark Waid and J. M. DeMatteis has had lot of good reviews (from the MLJ Companion, for instance) but I was less than impressed. The protagonist is the son of a Golden Age hero who donned the suit to draw out villains and become a Peter Parker-style photographer of super-action. Unfortunately, even though his career is settled and he’s happily married, the bad guys just keep coming … This premise reminded me of DC’s Blue Devil (ordinary guy plunged into weirdness) but it was nowhere near as entertaining. And the climax, in which the Fox is trapped in WW II and has to ally with the U.S. Shield, Japan’s Hachiman and German’s Master Race, is really weak: the idea that era was driven by a blood lust alien to our own time doesn’t hold up.

FATALE: West of Hell is the third volume in a series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips so I’m not surprised I didn’t understand everything going on. I was surprised how little I cared: the stories of femme fatales in multiple eras obviously all tie together, but I have no interest in reading V 1 and 2 and exploring how it all makes sense.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Steranko, all rights remain with current holder.

2 Comments

Filed under Comics, Reading

Witches and a sorceress: books read

When kicking around ideas to pitch McFarland, I sometimes thought of proposing a book on screen witches. I don’t think had I done it that it would have been as good as Heather Greene’s excellent BELL, BOOK AND CAMERA: A Critical History of Witches in Film and Television. Greene chronicles the topic starting in the silent era when witches in movie were mostly the victims of the Salem witch trials (later films about Salem largely ignored the trial and used the town as a signifier that Here There Be Witches) or wise women in Western and rural settings (I like her insight that the New Age bookstore owner serves the same purpose in more recent years in giving the hero mystical insight). It was the 1930s that gave movie witches their first landmarks via Snow White (the Queen being the first Sexy Evil Witch) and The Wizard of Oz (Margaret Hamilton’s witch taking the Halloween crone used in cartoons for comedy and not only making her menacing but becoming the archetype). Later films shifted witches into real horror and rom-com such as I Married a Witch, threw in Wicca and Satanism (frequently mixing the two) and witch superheroes such as Charmed.

Greene also tackles the role of the male witch (where females usually use their power to get guys, the male witch uses power to get more power) and black women (more complicated than I can cover here) and argues that the witch in any film represents a rebellion against the constraints placed on women (so in the rom-coms I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle the witch gives up magic in favor of mortal housewifery). It’s a shame the focus is American (no Harry Potter films as their part-English made) but within that limit, a winner.

Andrew Norton’s SORCERESS OF THE WITCH WORLD supposedly ended that saga (the next book came out four years later) as Katthea, amnesiac from the previous novel, flees the Valley for fear the dark powers will find it too easy to control her. Her odyssey leads to her becoming a tribal shaman, then stumbling through a dimensional gate into a nightmarish post-apocalyptic world (one of the book’s pluses is that we never really learn what’s going on there) where she finds her parents and her Great Love. This bogs down during the tribal phase, picks up in the Otherworld but even as a kid I found the ending abrupt, summing up the next decade in Escore to tell us that the good guys won and evil was destroyed forever (this makes me think Norton really did expect this was the last Witch World story).

#SFWApro. All rights to cover remain with current holder.

3 Comments

Filed under Reading

Is our writers learning? Magicians on two different worlds

Today I look at two books from recent reading that I liked, but I thought had serious flaws (of course both authors are way more successful than me, so perhaps you should my opinions of them with a grain of salt)

After Year of the Unicorn Andre Norton returned to Estcore for WARLOCK OF THE WITCH WORLD, focusing on Kemoc, the second of the Tregarth triplets. In the aftermath of Three Against the Witch World, Kaththea has found a boyfriend, the noble warrior Dinzil. Everything about Dinzil sets off Kemoc’s alarms, but everyone tells him he’s just jealous of his sister finding someone besides him and his brother. He tells himself that’s right … but then, during one military sortie, he winds up injured, poisoned and alone. And he learns that Dinzil is, indeed, a dangerously bad dude, offering Kaththea training in magic with an eye to luring her to the dark side. With the help of the mer-woman Orsya, Kemoc journeys to Dinzil’s dark tower, picking up a magic sword along the way. Unnervingly, a seer predicts there are three possible outcomes, all of which lead to Kemoc killing Kaththea. As she can’t tell him what events trigger those dooms, he’s completely frozen in deciding what to do next (a nice touch).

The sword, unfortunately, is the book’s big flaw. It’s like a really overpowered magical item in D&D; in addition to standard stuff (flaring in the presence of evil) it can dig through magical barriers, move by itself and at the climax, when Kemoc does kill his gone-to-the-dark-side sister by throwing the sword into her heart, it’s the sword that saves her, turning so she’s just knocked cold by the pommel. That’s the part that really bugged me because it felt like a complete cheat.

AN UNKINDNESS OF MAGICIANS by Kat Howard (of Cathedral of Myth and Bone) takes place during a power struggle between the great Houses of New York’s magical community (if Howard referenced any magic outside of NYC, I missed it). Sydney is the key player among several POV characters: recently released from the House of Shadow (which imprisons mage children as a battery of power other sorcerers can draw on), she’s the champion of one man hoping to found his own house; has a hidden agenda assigned her by Shadow; and an agenda of her own, to smash the nightmare House of Shadows once and for all.

The magic system is pretty simple: apparently you just will it and it happens. As the effects are weird and colorful, this doesn’t come off as Charmed-style magic as psi-power. The magic duels are over fast, with little suspense (Sydney’s very, very good) but that’s okay as the focus is more on character and political scheming: actually winning the duels is secondary.

Where the book disappointed me is that all the character conflicts, the political scheming and Sydney’s war on shadow wrap up with about a fifth of the book left to go. The plotline veers to the mysterious malfunctioning of magic (something set up early on), a battle with one evil, ambitious schemer and Sydney sacrificing her own power so that magic doesn’t disappear completely. It felt like none of this tied in to what the book was about — Sydney’s sacrifice and the need for it came completely out of left field.

I liked both books, but I could have liked them a lot more.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Gaughan, all rights to image remain with current holder.

2 Comments

Filed under Reading, Writing

Sherlock Holmes: “One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it.”

Sherlock Holmes was, of course, talking about double-checking your deductions when he said that: is there another explanation besides your theory? But I think it’s another of those Holmesian lines that applies well to writing. Because the last thing we want is for our readers wishing we’d done something different.

It’s bad if they read our writing and start correcting it (“There’s a much smoother way to say that.”). It’s worse if they start questioning the plot logic: wouldn’t it make more sense if X had done Y instead of Z? And it’s really bad if they finish and think “That’s not how it should have ended!”

This is not a new problem. People have hated the ending of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for a couple of centuries (sticking with what was historically plausible, Scott has his hero marry the bland Rowena rather than the more interesting but Jewish Rebecca). Only in the 21st century, everyone can get together online to vent or Tweet their displeasure at you, which I imagine feels worse. In the Internet age, even a small group of dissatisfied fans can kick up what seems like a storm of negative criticism.

I doubt it’s possible to write a book so perfect nobody has problems. But I do think/hope it’s possible to write one good enough that the people looking for alternatives are only a minority. And that the majority is enough to make our work profitable.

At the words level, I like Kaye Gibbons’ advice: write and rewrite until the next word feels inevitable. I don’t always manage it, but I know what she means. At the plot level, it includes avoiding idiot plot: nobody should do something dumb just because that’s the only way to make the story work. They should have a very good reason for putting themselves at risk. The ending has to pay off on the story’s beginning; it has to be logical; and it has to be emotionally satisfying as well.

For an case study, let’s look at YEAR OF THE UNICORN, the fourth (others say third) book in Andre Norton’s Witch World series.

The protagonist, Gillan, is an orphan (one of her parents has Witch blood) in the Dales, across the ocean from Estcarp. The Dales have just emerged from a war with Alizon, which they won with the help of the shapeshifting Were-Riders; in return, they’ve agreed to provide the Riders with thirteen brides to take home. Frustrated with life in a monastic sisterhood, Gillan contrives to become one of the brides. She winds up paired with Herrel, as much an outsider among the Riders as she felt in the Dale. Unfortunately the unattached riders resent Herrel’s success and distrust the magic in Gillan’s blood. They replace Gillan with a magical clone and abandon the real woman to die. Can Gillan survive?

Norton made a number of surprising choices. She breaks with books one and two to give us a completely different part of the Witch World, one she wouldn’t return to for years. Year was her first story with a female protagonist. Rather than fantasy adventure, it’s a Gothic romance with a Beauty and the Beast element. As it’s first-person POV, the wording is archaic, almost stiff at times (but it does include the delicious line “He kept smiling. It was enough to make one dread all smiles.”). And in contrast to many romances, neither of the leads is stunningly good-looking — attractive, but not godlike.

These choices don’t work for everyone. The Gothic romance element when I first read the book turned me off. So did Gillan’s long quest to catch up with the Riders; it’s an interesting, eerie journey (That Which Runs the Ridges is a very ominous monster), but it’s a solo act, with no-one to talk to or interact with for chapter after chapter. And the point where Gillan recoils from Herrel’s shape-changing feels like she’s acting out of character to advance the plot. While I think most of Norton’s other choices were good, not everyone agrees.

But that’s the risk we all take when we write.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Gaughan, mug by the Philosophers Guild. All rights to images remain with current holder.

4 Comments

Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading, Sherlock Holmes, Story Problems, Writing

A psi spy, Helen of Troy and a return to the Witch World: Books

THE BRAIN BOY ARCHIVES by Herb Castle and Frank Springer (with Gil Kane providing art on the first issue) collects the adventures of psychic teen spy Matt Price. Recruited by the US government, he uses his telepathic and telekinetic powers to tackle various threats to America, most notably the Latin American dictator Ricorta, a psi himself.

I’d heard that this Dell Comics series was above average and it is. In Brain Boy #3, for instance, Matt investigates the disappearance of a number of Americans in the Arctic. Is the threat foreign espionage? No, it’s a Tyrannosaurus mentalis, an intelligent, psionic tyrannosaur! The plots in most of the issues (six total) are similarly well done. The only problem I had with it is that Matt’s girlfriend Maria, despite being another psi, is largely written as a typical 1960s nagging women-are-never-satisfied character.

I’d assumed HELEN OF TROY: Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell would be a look at interpretations of Helen through the ages down to our own time, but Blondell instead focuses entirely on the ancient Greeks: how they prized beauty in women while fearing its ability to override reason, and how various poets, philosophers and writers rationalized waging a ten year war for a woman who abandoned her husband. Specialized, but interesting within that specialized range.

While jumping to the next generation is a common way to stretch out series, I’m surprised Andre Norton made the jump just three books into the Witch World saga. THREE AGAINST THE WITCH WORLD covers twenty years (following Web of the Witch World) in the first chapter or two, shuffling Simon and Jaelithe offstage in favor of their telepathically linked triplets. The Wise Woman of Estcarp seize the sister, Kaththea, as a new recruit, forcing her brothers Kyllan and Kemoc to free her, then head east into Escore, a land mysteriously blocked from the awareness of Estcarp blood (being half Terran, they can make it). Here they discover a region where magic was once much more powerful until a devastating war drove Estcarp’s founders out. Things are quiet but the Tregarth siblings’ coming is stirring up powers that were better left sleeping.

The levels of magic in Escore are much wilder, more alien and nastier than what we saw in the first two volumes, which makes this book work better for me. However it always seemed a little unfair that where his siblings have some degree of magic, Kyllan’s limited to controlling animals.

#SFWApro. Cover by Frank Springer, bottom cover uncredited, all rights to image remain with current holder.

4 Comments

Filed under Comics, Reading

Women of Wonder: This week’s reading

The Witch World sequel WEB OF THE WITCH WORLD is an apt title as the Kolder are now using mind-controlled Enemies of the Estcarp Way in an elaborate plot to ensnare the witches; when the scheme stretches to include kidnapping Loyse, Simon and Jaelithe start spinning webs of their own (though as other shave pointed out, their plots fall by the wayside). A major plot point is Jaelithe discovers losing her virginity didn’t cancel out her powers, leaving Simon worried she’ll return to her old life (it’s a nice touch that Jaelithe never sees any conflict between Career and Family) while the witches mutter about Jaelithe doing the impossible (which pays off in the next book). One of those sophomore installments that sells the series.

JUDGMENT NIGHT by CL Moore collects several short stories along with the eponymous space-adventure novel. Jaille is princess and heir to the reigning Galactic Empire, horrified her father is actually willing to talk peace with their rising rival, the H’Vali. Perhaps she should see to it that peace doesn’t happen … but then it turns out the H’Vali leader Egide is the man she had a one-night stand with on a hedonistic pleasure planet. Will either of them turn from their course? And what of the Ancients, the all-powerful entities getting ready to judge humanity and pronounce sentence on their continued rule of the galaxy.

This doesn’t work for me as well as Moore’s Northwest Smith stories does, partly because it’s more serious and less pulpish, partly because the protagonists are both antiheroes, and not the likable outlaw kind Smith embodies. Still, it’s a good story with a good female lead and I did not expect the way it turned out.

THE BEST OF LEIGH BRACKETT was part of the same anthology series as the Best of CL Moore collection I read a couple of months back. All these DelRey “best of” collections had an introduction and this one, by Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton, was one of the most fun. Hamilton talks about his wife’s writing, why they never collaborated except for one story (he plots everything out, she pantses) and a lot of fun personal stories.

The stories themselves are an excellent lot. The Jewel of Bas about two thieves caught up in a battle for the fuure of their world; Shannach — The Last! in which an ancient Mercurian enslaves human colonists; The Moon That Vanished, in which a broken man is forced on a quest for the ultimate McGuffin; and Enchantress of Venus, one of her Eric John Stark’s stories (if I still DMed, I’d totally work the Red Sea of Venus into my campaign). The other stories are good, except Vanishing Venusiasn with its ugly colonialism (“Wow, Venusians are soulless monsters, we needn’t have any qualms about wiping them out and taking their land!”). Hamilton suggests a running theme in Brackett is of a strong man who attains his dream and discovers it’s hollow; he has a point, but several stories also fit a theme of “reality is better than dreams” (made explicit in Jewel of Bas).

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders; top cover is uncredited, bottom is by Boris Vallejo.

3 Comments

Filed under Reading

Bad girls, a future Earth, a nuclear hero and witches: books read

BAD GIRLS: Young Women, Sex and Rebellion Before the Sixties by Amanda H. Littauer is the flip side to Trials of Nina McCall, looking at the kind of sexually active women the American Plan longed to lock up somewhere. Littauer’s selection includes “victory girls” who partied with soldiers during WW II, lesbians, prostitutes, kids going steady (which teens rationalized made it OK to have sex) and women discussed in and responding to the Kinsey Report on female sexual activity. Informative, but Littauer’s style is stiff even for a university press book, and I can’t help feeling there’s something missing, though I’m not sure what.

EARTH’S LAST CITADEL by CL Moore and Henry Kuttner starts in 1943 as protagonist Alan helps a brilliant, crotchety scientist escape from the Nazis. As the Nazi agents (a former mob triggerman and an Karen, an adrenaline junkie who does spy work for the thrills) catch up with them, all four are trapped by an ET, then thaw out in the very, very distant future, after the ET’s race has xenoformed Earth to their liking, then died out. Exploring the strange title city, the quartet (fully aware that their political disagreements mean very little now) discover an Eloi like race, a malevolent telepath — oh, and one of the aliens may not have died after all …

This is exotic, imaginative and colorful, the kind of pulp stuff I love. However, while I enjoyed it, it’s kind of a mess; the plot changes direction so much I wonder if they were making it up as they went along and kept changing their minds (it was serialized, like a lot of SF stories at the time). Karen is an interesting character but she virtually vanishes, with more attention going to Alan’s Eloi love interest; nor do they do anything with the idea the scientist, while brilliant, would sooner party than work. by

Cary Bates redefined Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom (the prototype for Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen) in his 1980s series, turning him into a government agent posing as a superhero to infiltrate the metahuman community. Nobody who followed Bates did anything good with the character, and DC’s New 52 turned him into a Dr. Manhattan knockoff. Now comes THE FALL AND RISE OF CAPTAIN ATOM by Bates and Greg Weisman which allows Bates to reboot the character close to Bates 1980s version. In his last battle, Captain Atom apparently dies but actually gets thrown back to the past. When he returns (I’m simplifying a lot of plot here)  he presents himself as a new, improved legacy hero — but what about the family he left in the past? And can he really trust his military superiors? Nothing’s been done with it since, and I’m not sure how it works for anyone who doesn’t love the 1980s version, but I give it solid thumbs up.

Andre Norton’s WITCH WORLD was an insanely weird genre mash-up when I read it in the 1970s (about ten years after it appeared). Simon Tregarth begins as a veteran forced into a life of crime which is about to get him killed. A mysterious occultist offers him an escape via the Round Table’s Siege Perilous, which magically takes anyone who sits in it to the world they belong.

From that thriller opening (which I like enough I’m working on a variation of it) Simon arrives in Estcarp, a land ruled by a matriarchy of witches. Already surrounded by hostile nations, they’re now facing the threat of the sinister Kolder, who turn out to be a high-tech race as alien to the “witch world” (never called that, it’s just the world) as Simon.

It’s a good book with some interesting characters; I particularly like that Simon, while competent, isn’t a chosen one or a superman, he’s just a competent soldier. He doesn’t really do anything spectacular until the final section of the story. Given how many protagonists I see who are devastatingly bad-ass, this was refreshing.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Tim Hildebrandt, middle by Lawrence, bottom by Jack Gaughan

2 Comments

Filed under Comics, Reading