A Year in Books – April

Kellory the Warlock – Lin Carter
The Great Siege – Ernle Bradford
Writing to the Point – Algis Budrys
The Black Company – Glen Cook
Cutter and Bone – Newton Thornburg

Kellory the Warlock – Lin Carter

In certain fantasy circles (particularly in sword and sorcery circles), Lin Carter is something of a divisive figure. As a writer, editor and critic he was important in the revival of sword and sorcery, in particularly the rediscovery of Robert E. Howard’s seminal Conan stories in the 1960s, which is arguably the single most important moment in the rediscovery of s&s as a literary form. However, together with L. Sprague de Camp, he later expanded upon the ‘Conan Universe’, editing a number of Howard’s originals, finishing fragmentary manuscripts and adding pastiche stories which ‘filled in the gaps’ of Conan’s career – something many felt akin to sacrilege and led to the dilution not only of Howard’s work but s&s in general. It was a pattern he followed in most of his own literary output, taking overt inspiration from the works of Lord Dunsany, Jack Vance, Edgar Rice Burroughs and others and producing imitative work time and time again. Thongor the Barbarian, for example, was his homage to Conan, the World’s End series imitated the Dying Earth of Jack Vance and his Callisto novels owe a great deal to the sword and planet of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Most writers, of course, begin as imitators to one degree or another before – hopefully – forging their own style and finding their own voices, but Lin Carter, generally speaking, remained an imitator for the great majority of his career, something which had led to his work being dismissed or downright reviled by many critics.

And then there is Kellory the Warlock.

First published in 1984, Kellory the Warlock is a fix-up novel comprising of mostly unpublished short stories about the titular character and his path to revenge upon the Thungoda Horde who slaughtered his people and crippled his sword hand. It’s a fairly episodic tale, extremely downbeat in places, violent, grim and downbeat.

What separates it from the bulk of Carter’s work is that Kellory isn’t an avatar of any other fictional creation. Sure, as others have pointed out, there are shades of Michael Moorcock’s Elric here and there, and maybe a dash of Thulsa Doom for good measure, but, even so, Kellory is very much his own man, very much Carter’s own creation and the novel is all the better for it.

This is not to say that Kellory the Warlock is Lin Carter’s neglected masterpiece – it’s often overwritten, features cod-medieval dialogue and some rather purple prose – but nevertheless it’s a fast, fun read and its underlying moral (“be careful what you wish for”) anchors the story in a dark place.

Other than Kellory and his initially reluctant companion/ love interest Princess Cathalla, the characters are lightly sketched and mostly from central casting (brutal warlords, fey and sadistic princes, laughing desert brigands et al) and the world-building is somewhat sketchy, but this doesn’t detract from the essential entertainment on offer (and I suspect that Lin Carter’s first and foremost ambition as a writer was to entertain).

Good dark fun.

The Great Siege – Ernle Bradford.

The Great Siege of Malta in 1565 marked the limits of Ottoman expansion. For four months the Knights of St John and their allies held off the forces of Suliman the Great and ultimately denied control of the Mediterranean to the Turkish Empire.

It is a story filled with fire and fury, and Ernle Bradford tells it well, evoking the horror of siege warfare and the privations undergone by both attacker and defender alike.

Primarily a military history of the siege, the book offers little insight to the combatants other than to stress their fighting prowess so that, at times, the story takes on an almost mythic quality. Similarly, although it strives for balance, more consideration is given to the Christian defenders (and in particularly the Knights Hospitaller) than to their Muslim counterparts, although given its publication date (1961) and the fact that the bulk of the narrative derives from the memoirs of Francisco Balbi di Correggio an Italian mercenary who lived and fought through the siege, this is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, Bradford does his best to be even handed and never indulges in a simple ‘good vs bad’ analysis of the situation or its principal players.

History as written by the victors, to a certain extent, but fascinating for all that.

Writing to the Point – Algis Budrys

Like most writers (I suspect) I have many books on the subject of fiction and how to craft it. Some are good, some not so good, but I keep buying and reading them in hope of finding the odd nugget of wisdom.

Algis Budrys’ Writing to the Point is a slim, no nonsense volume that concentrates purely on writing stories. There is no discussion of style, voice, perspective or any of the other tools that a writer needs but rather a precise analysis of story, the elements necessary and how to use them to write commercial fiction.

A quick and rewarding read that cuts directly to the chase.

The Black Company – Glen Cook

Something of a modern classic, Glen Cook’s Black Company (the first in an ongoing series) is the novel that brought grime and grit to fantasy, together with a moral ambiguity that blurred the lines between hero and villain, good and evil.

Told in the first person by an unreliable narrator – Croaker is the Company medic and annalist, responsible for documenting their deeds – the novel tells the story of the titular Black Company, a mercenary band fighting under the banner of The Lady, an inhuman sorceress who may or may not be the most evil creature to ever walk the earth.

It is this moral ambiguity – combined with unflinching scenes of battle, combat and death – that gives the novel its greatest strength and, given the predominance of the Grimdark aesthetic in contemporary fantasy, keeps it fresh and relevant some thirty years after its first publication.

By comparison to the previously mentioned Kellory the Warlock, published at roughly the same time, The Black Company is a revelation. For all his grimness and violence, Kellory is still undeniably a hero, driven by the need for vengeance while the characters in the Black Company – Croaker, Raven, Elmo, One-Eye and the rest – are anything but heroic, despite their martial prowess, and neither are they the masters of their own fate.

One of the first fantasy novels to give a ‘grunt’s eye view’ of the world, The Black Company well deserves its classic status.

Cutter and Bone – Newton Thornburg

As much social satire as crime novel, Newton Thornburg’s 1976 début is a wild, manic, wisecracking odyssey through the death of the hippy dream, the rise of corporate America and a generation’s loss of identity.

Filled with memorably damaged characters – not least of all the ageing gigolo Richard Bone or the physically and psychologically crippled Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter – the story of a would-be extortion is at its heart a study of lost and aimless men as much as one of crime and punishment.

Even the central mystery – did Bone really witness the aftermath of a murder carried out by tycoon J.J Wolfe? – is left tantalisingly obscure up to the genuinely shocking ending. But this is no cosy detective tale (although it has many things in common with, say, the later Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald which themselves cast a weary, jaundiced eye over Californian society) and plays fast and loose with the conventions of the genre.

Filmed as Cutter’s Way in 1981, both the novel and the film are neglected masterpieces, well worth seeking out.

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