A Year in Books: February

Hombre – Elmore Leonard
The Book of Wonder – Lord Dunsany
Kings of Morning – Paul Kearney
The Mourner – Richard Stark
Phoenix in Obsidian – Michael Moorcock

 
Also On The Pile

Gothic Tales of Terror, edited by Peter Haining
The Day of the Barbarians – Alessandro Barbero

Hombre by Elmore Leonard. A stone-cold western classic, tackling themes of racism, alienation and, naturally, the propensity of men towards violence, Hombre is one of a clutch of excellent westerns that Elmore Leonard wrote during his long and successful career (and in fact he started out as a western writer until the popularity of the genre took a nosedive).

A moody and insightful first-person narrative tells the story of a botched stagecoach hold-up and its aftermath as John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches, leads the passengers to safety across a – to them – hostile environment while at the same time pursued by the vengeful outlaws who want both the money and the water they have.

A taut narrative, three dimensional characters and an atmosphere so richly realised you can almost taste dust while you read it, Hombre is simply a great book.

 

 
Kings of Morning by Paul Kearney. The third book of Paul Kearney’s Macht Trilogy – after The Ten Thousand and Corvus – which parallels the ancient world of both Xenophon and Alexander the Great. Low on magic, high on bloodshed and battle, Kearney writes with the same passion and eye for detail as the late and much missed David Gemmell.

Roughly based on Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire, Kings of Morning is an epic story, and once which brings the story of Rictus of Isca to its conclusion. Although, here, Rictus is something of a peripheral character, the story focusing on the other movers and shakers of the narrative – such as Prince Kouros who goes from schemer to coward and killer to tragic hero in the course of events – but then, with such a wide canvas to fill such narrative choices are necessary if the protagonists of the novel are to be given breath and life.

Like the earlier Macht novels there are many shades of light and darkness on display here. Like Gemmell, Paul Kearney rarely, if ever, deals in absolutes and there is no black hat v white hat morality here, but rather the sense of real people in real situations struggling to survive and stay true to themselves.

Quality fantasy from a writer of quality.

The Mourner by Richard Stark. I confess that I am a relative late-comer to the Parker novels of Richard Stark (one of the pseudonyms used by the late Donald E. Westlake) but they are rapidly becoming some of my favourite reads.

The Mourner, fourth in the series, sees hard-bitten career criminal Parker on the trail of a valuable statue and finding himself mixed up with international espionage (after a low, down and dirty fashion), double-crosses and a small fortune in embezzled funds.

One of the great anti-heroes of crime fiction, Parker is a fiercely intelligent, utterly amoral individual, prepared to be extremely violent when necessary (although, violence is rarely his first port of call) and as far removed from the shabby paladins created by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as it is possible to be.

The Parker novels are fast and immediate, rarely straying into introspection and, like their title character, no nonsense stories of violent men in a violent world. They are also extremely good examples of the ‘show don’t tell’ school of writing; since Parker and his actions are inseparable what we learn about the man is through deeds rather than words.

On the surface, Parker should be unlikeable – detestable, even – yet the skill with which Stark/ Westlake writes invariably means that the reader ends up ‘cheering for the bad guy; (to misquote the strapline for Payback, which was based on the first Parker novel, The Hunter).

In a different incarnation, Parker might have been Joe Manco (aka The Man With No Name) or, indeed, Karl Edward Wagner’s sword and sorcery anti-hero Kane… that’s how good he is.

 
The Book of Wonder by Lord Dunsany. Dunsany’s 1912 collection of short stories contains many, many delights – the proto sword and sorcery of The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, the knightly epics of The Hoard of the Gibbelins and The Quest of the Queen’s Tears, the contes cruel of How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles and the aching beautiful laments for other worlds in The Coronation of Mr Thomas Shap and The Wonderful Window – delivered with the jewelled prose that was Dunsany’s trademark in his early days.

For modern readers Dunsany can be a bit of a conundrum, his mannered style has most definitely fallen out of fashion, yet the breadth and scope of these stories is nothing short of wonderful, particularly if taken in moderate doses rather than at one heady draft.

Read and be astonished.

 

Phoenix in Obsidian by Michael Moorcock. The second of Moorcock’s Erekose/ Eternal Champion novels, this one finds Erekose torn from the world of the Eldren (where we left him at the end of The Eternal Champion) away from Ermizhad his true love, and into the far future of Earth, icebound and under the dim glow of a dying sun.

An incarnation of Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon and the legion of other heroes who had wielded the Black Sword throughout the Multiverse, Erekose finds himself in the guise of Urlik Skarsol, summoned to do battle against the otherworldly Silver Warriors who threaten the last cities of humanity.

This is sword and sorcery at its finest, and there were (and are) few who can do it like Michael Moorcock. The philosophical current that runs through the Elric and Corum novels runs deeper here – particularly given the nature of The Eternal Champion/ Erekose/ John Daker, who, uniquely amongst the heroes of the Multiverse, has at least a small understanding of his own nature and, as such, his own tragedy.

This is not to say that the book lacks action – far from it – monsters are slain, skirmishes and epic battles fought, strange decadent cities and desolate landscapes explored, but the tone of these stories is more doom-laden (if such a thing is possible) than even the later Elric stories.

As was so often the way with these novels, Moorcock packs a lot into a short space, throwing grand ideas away like confetti and never allowing the pace to slacken and the ending bears comparison with the gotterdammerung climax of Stormbringer, where destiny and tragedy collide and a world is changed forever.

Also on the Pile

 

Gothic Tales of Terror edited by Peter Haining. This superb collection, first published in 1973, showcases some of the best Gothic fiction from the period 1765 – 1840 and features many luminaries of the genre including Horace Walpole, Mrs Ann Radcliffe. Matthew G. Lewis and Charles Maturin. Highlights so far include Sir Bertrand by Anna Aikin, The Iron Shroud by William Mudford and The Monk of Horror, an anonymous short story which packs a huge amount of Gothic into roughly three pages!

 
The Day of the Barbarians by Alessandro Barbero. A short but concise history of the battle of Adrianople which Barbero identifies as the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire in the west. Dispelling the popular myth of civilized Romans versus Gothic barbarians and of the invincibility of the Legions.

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