A Year In Books – January

Elric of Melnibone – Michael Moorcock
The Skull Throne – Peter V. Brett
Who Goes Here? – Bob Shaw
Off Season – Jack Ketchum

 
Elric of Melnibone – Michael Moorcock

 
I normally don’t make New Year’s Resolutions (and the one’s that I sometimes make very quickly get broken) but one resolution I’m reasonably sure that I can keep this year is to re-read the original Elric cycle.

I am, as I have stated before, a huge fan of Michael Moorcock, and the Elric books were my introduction to adult fantasy. I say ‘adult’ because I have long been a fan of the Narnia books by C.S Lewis and read them avidly as a child – and as an adult too, for that matter. But it was Moorcock and Elric who really set the fire in my soul.

The original Elric saga, way back when, consisted of a few short stories, beginning with The Dreaming City, and a single novel, Stormbringer, but the popularity of Elric was such that Moorcock was compelled to add to the story of the doomed albino prince and his wanderings in the Young Kingdoms.

Written in 1971, Elric of Melnibone is, chronologically, the first of the Elric books, telling the story of how he came to possess the hellblade known as Stormbringer and how he was set upon the path that would ultimately bring ruin to Melnibone, disaster to his bloodline and suffer unspeakable heartbreak.

For much of Elric of Melnibone he is a troubled young man, strong in mind but weak in body, embroiled in imperial politics and constantly bedevilled by his would-be- usurper cousin Yyrkoon. When Yyrkoon makes a bid for the Ruby Throne, kidnapping Elric’s true love, Cymoril, introspection is replaced by action and Elric resolves to track down and destroy Yyrkoon.

Of course, this being Moorcock, there is much more to it than that, dark magic and Chaos Lords are invoked, great battles are fought and, by the end, Elric has found peace of a sort.

Written at breakneck speed, filled with wit and invention, with nods to Mervyn Peake in both the architecture and characters (Tanglebones and Dr Jest might have been equally at home in the castle of Gormenghast) Elric of Melnibone is sword and sorcery seen through a literary lens, particularly in the early sections of the story and, unlike some of the later books, is a true novel rather than an assemblage of linked novellas.

Yes, I think this is one resolution I will have little difficulty keeping.

 

The Skull Throne – Peter V. Brett

 
I have somewhat mixed emotions about Peter Brett and his Demon Cycle novels. His first novel, The Painted Man, was a wonderful debut, pacey, filled with memorable and believable characters, well-realized world-building and an absolute corker of a central conceit. The follow-up, The Desert Spear, retained a lot of the verve of The Painted Man but had (what I felt to be) an unnecessary obsession with sexual violence and in many ways diverted from the narrative set up in the first book. The the third, The Daylight War, seemed to be a novel that was marking time and the fourth, The Skull Throne, continues in the same vein – like Stoppard’s Rosencranz and Guildernstern Are Dead, concentrating on minor characters while the main story goes on elsewhere.

That having been said, I have always loved Rosencranz and Guildernstern Are Dead and, as ever, Peter Brett breathes life into his characters so that even this somewhat lengthy diversion is usually an entertaining read, only flagging from time to time.

It’s main problem for me is its deviation, the main protagonists of the Demon War – Arlen and Jardir are barely glimpsed – and when they are returned to at the end of the novel it is to set up a cliffhanger which could have easily been brought centre stage (although I suppose it would have made for a much shorter novel and, in these days of the doorstop book, that might not be such a good thing).

Similarly, Brett kills off some of the major supporting characters with an icy (dare one say it, Martinesque) disdain which robs their passing of any real emotion, particularly considering that some of these characters have been with the reader for four lengthy novels.

This is not to say that I’d didn’t like The Skull Throne, more that it has the aspect of ‘circling the wagons’ about it (as did The Daylight War) and stalled the overall narrative when perhaps it should have been pointing towards an ultimate resolution.

Still, it’s a well written and entertaining fantasy and, like many others, I am waiting patiently for the fifth and final novel in the series.

 

Who Goes Here? – Bob Shaw

 
Bob Shaw was that rarest of things, a science fiction writer from Northern Ireland. Although Irish literature has always held a strong streak of the fantastic within it – from Lord Dunsany to Paul Kearney – ‘pure’ SF has been relatively thin on the ground.

Moreover, Shaw’s work fell within the broad Anglo-American tradition of science fiction and used many of the tropes associated with it. His early novels, such as Night Walk, The Two-Timers and The Palace of Eternity owe much to such American writers as A.E Van Vogt or Jack Vance and (in the case of The Two-Timers) British writers like Fred Hoyle or John Wyndham, although were never derivative of any of them. A fine craftsman and intelligent storyteller, his work ranged from the space opera of the Orbitsville Trilogy to early(ish) steampunk with the later Land and Overland Trilogy, and encompassed many different sf tropes in his other work.

He was also, by all accounts, an hilarious public speaker, regularly bringing tears of joy to audiences at science fiction conventions. And although all his novels maintain a strong vein of dry wit, it was with the publication of Who Goes Here? In 1977, that his uproarious sense of humour hit the page.

Ostensibly a riff on the well-worn Future War style of novel best embodied by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (and later responded to by Joe Haldeman in his masterpiece The Forever War), Who Goes Here? is the story of Warren Peace, voluntary amnesiac and recruit to the Space Legion and of his quest to find out exactly who he is and exactly why he joined the Legion (other than to forget, of course).

Like a science fictional version of Catch-22, Who Goes Here? mocks the insanity of warfare – Warren is initially kitted out with only the bare essentials of uniform and given weapons which hardly even function on the battlefield, soldiers are forced into combat via psychic conditioning, all the officers are fanatics and all the NCO’s incompetent cowards.

Warren’s quest to find out exactly who he is and why he took the drastic step of joining the Space Legion provides a joyous romp through the galaxy, one that involves time travel and mysterious aliens as well as futuristic warfare.

A fast, funny and fun read from one of sf’s great storytellers.

 

Off Season – Jack Ketchum

 
Off Season was Jack Ketchum’s first novel. Published in 1980, the novel was a controversial best-seller, even running into editorial difficulties prior to publication. The reason was fairly straightforward, Off Season was – and is – an extremely violent novel, dealing with torture, rape and cannibalism.

Violent novels are not uncommon in the horror genre and there had been novels whose content shocked many readers and critics (particularly critics) – James Herbert’s early work, for example, particularly The Rat and The Fog, often contained graphic depictions of mutilation and death, and the short-lived horror boom of the late 70s and early 80s in British publishing did its best to push the envelope with writers seemingly competing to see who could write the most graphic scenes.

But Ketchum’s novel was slightly different, not least of all because its ‘villains’ were human – savage and interbred, certainly, but still human – its overall tone bleak and its ending devoid of all but the smallest shred of redemption.

When a group of well-to-do friends leave New York a short trip to Dead River, Maine, they find themselves targeted by a family of cannibalistic savages and are forced to fight back in order to survive.

Put in a nutshell, that’s the plot of Off Season, but Ketchum’s novel is never quite so straightforward nor, even for all its controversial violence, is it content to be simply a splatter novel. Taking its cue from such touchstones as Night of the Living Dead and Straw Dogs, Off Season asks some uncomfortable questions about the capacity of mankind – whether cannibal savage or well-heeled New Yorker – for violence, and its denouement, in which both friend and foe are slaughtered, is a genuine shock.

Of course, the passage of time has stripped the novel of a little of its power – we have become more and more accustomed to portrayals of violence on screen and in print – but Off Season remains a gripping and often disturbing read.

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