A Year In Books – March

Guns of Avalon – Roger Zelazny
Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler
Starkadder – Bernard King
Tumithak of the Corridors – Charles R. Tanner
Cham of the Hills – Charles R. Tanner
Flashing Swords Ezine

Guns of Avalon – Roger Zelazny. The second book of Zelazny’s Amber series, Guns of Avalon begins (naturally) where Nine Princes in Amber left off, with Corwin free of his brother’s dungeon and plotting to take the throne of Amber with the aid of the titular guns.

Drawing upon some very explicit Arthurian imagery (one of the minor characters in the early part of the novel is a knight called Lance, for instance) and running a number of parallels with Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur (Dara Corwin’s ‘niece’ seems destined to play the role of Mordred as the series progresses), and the novels of T.H White, Guns of Amber reads at times like a multiverse version of Camelot (the mythical place as opposed to the musical, that is). Corwin continues to plot and scheme, leading to some memorable set pieces – the duel between Corwin and his brother Benedict is a swashbuckling high point of the novel – and ultimately being forced to chose between ambition and loyalty when Amber is attacked by a mysterious outside force which nonetheless leads to a victory (albeit a slightly hollow one) for the throne-hungry Prince.

As with Nine Princes In Amber, the mixture of sword and sorcery and wisecracking, ruthless and modern-minded protagonist (or at least modern-minded for the time in which it was written i.e: the early 1970s) gives Guns of Avalon a very different feel to most fantasy novels of the time, not least of all due to the introduction of Corwin’s machine-gun toting army late in the narrative.

All this and a nice twist ending to keep the reader wanting more. A good example intelligent, off-the-beaten track fantasy of which Zelazny was a master.

Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe is, arguably, the best known hard-boiled detective of them all, a tattered, latterday knight of the mean streets. Not the first of the hard-boiled private eyes and most certainly not the last, but his adventures as written by Raymond Chandler set the benchmark for twentieth century crime writing, taking murder out of the country house and putting it on the streets where it belonged.

The second of Chandler’s novels, Farewell My Lovely demonstrates all the strength and weakness of his writing, less concerned with plot than with style (Chandler, famously, didn’t even know whodunnit in The Big Sleep) but, my, what a style he had. Grim, edgy and darkly funny it spawned dozens of imitators most of whom only took away the superficial elements and forgot about the carefully crafted characters, biting satire and accurate if jaundiced view of life which loom large in Chandler’s best work.

Drawn into a web of murder, deceit and corruption, Marlowe is an unwitting and, initially unwilling, pawn in the hunt for Velma Valentino – the Lovely of the title – sought by her lovesick ex-con boyfriend Moose Malloy. The hunt takes him to both the lower depths and high society of 1930’s California, giving Chandler ample opportunity to focus his razor-sharp commentary on both to telling effect. The meandering plot is neatly tied up by the end but with Chandler and Marlowe the journey is far more rewarding than the resolution and the writing is a joy with a beautifully nuanced turn of phrase, elegant description or laugh out loud comment on virtually every page.

Starkadder by Bernard King. Bernard King’s 1986 novel Starkadder is, superficially, a retelling of an old Norse legend – the story of a cursed warrior who cannot die until he has carried out three betrayals. The concept of Fate and man’s inability to escape it looms large – personified by the Norns of Norse mythology – and even the gods themselves are not immune from its influence.
As with much of Norse mythology, the tone here is overarchingly grim, themes of vengeance, of the importance of honour and loyalty run deeply through the narrative as does the sense of impending doom, not just for the main characters, but for the whole of Norse society. The death of Starkadder heralds not only the end of the Yngling dysnasty (personified here by the mad King Oli) but also the coming of newer gods (or just God, for that matter, as Christianity begins to gain a foothold in pagan lands). At times quite brutal but never gratuitous, Starkadder is a well-crafted first novel, stepped in the customs and history of its time.

Tumithak of the Corridors by Charles R. Tanner. Something of a classic from the pulp era Science Fiction (indeed, I first read it a number of years ago in the Isaac Asimov edited anthology ‘Before the Golden Age’) Tumithak of the Corridors (1932) is the first of Tanner’s Tumithak Quartet – a tale of derring-do set on a future earth where the alien Shelks (human-headed spider creatures from Venus) have conquered the world and driven humanity underground into the Corridors of the title. Our hero, Tumithak, is determined to kill a Shelk and prove both his manhood and that these creatures can be defeated.

Swiftly paced in the pulp style, this short novella packs a lot into its narrative – even if the writing might seem a little stilted to a modern audience – there are fights with rival underground tribes, with savage dog packs and, of course, a life-or-death struggle with a hideous Shelk. Even given the limitations of early sf, Tanner paints a vivid picture of a dark future (one where surface-dwelling humans are ‘farmed’ by the Shelks for food in scenes that prefigure some of the stranger moments in Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog or John Boorman’s effete aristocrats in the very surreal and much maligned Zardoz) and his hero is everything you might expect, strong, resourceful and handsome. Good fun if you’re in the mood for a bit of good ol’ retro SF.

Cham of the Hills by Charles R. Tanner. Another far-future tale from Charles R Tanner, Cham of the Hills is a post-apocalyptic sword and sorcery tale set in the city of Niarc. Niarc is, of course, a futuristic New York and Tanner delights in some subtle and not-so-subtle wordplay of this kind throughout the narrative (Harling is Harlem, Bru-Kaleen is Brooklyn Behostun is Boston, Fidefya is Philadelphia and so on). It’s a slight enough story, involving the rescue of a hostage noble, but a good enough example of early post-holocaust sf. A word of warning, though, the often casual racism of the time in which it was written (1942) comes to the fore a few times but the story does contain some imaginative gems for all its brevity and lack of narrative sophistication.

Flashing Swords Ezine. A few years ago there was something of a revival of sword and sorcery, spearheaded by Flashing Swords – an ezine initially edited by Howard Andrew Jones before he moved on to Black Gate – named after the Lin Carter S&S anthologies of the 1970s. Like Carter’s series, Flashing Swords pretty much did what it said on the tin and provided sword and sorcery fiction from a number of up and coming writers, some of whom have since gone on to bigger and better things. The online issues are still available (via links from G.W Thomas’ indispensable Reader’s Guide to Sword and Sorcery) and I’ve been working my way through them recently. Quality varies from story to story and writer to writer, but there are a few gems to be found for the s&s enthusiast and none are less than readable.

Also on the Pile:

The 100th Millennium by John Brunner. John Brunner takes a stab at The Dying Earth and makes a pretty good job of it.

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu. Atmospheric and sexually charged vampire fiction from the Gothic era, a major influence on Dracula and numerous Hammer movies of the 1970s.

The Conan Saga by Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter, L, Sprague de Camp and Bjorn Nyberg. It goes without saying that ‘pure’ Conan is best (ie: those written by Howard and left untouched by other hands) but some of the pastiches and re-writes are not without their charms (even if it is heresy to express such an opinion) particularly if you are in the mood for some straightforward barbarian sword and sorcery.

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