A Year In Books – May

Everyday Life In The Viking Age – Jacqueline Simpson

Out of the Silent Planet – C.S Lewis

The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe

AAA Interplanetary – Robert Sheckley

Witch of the Sands – Peter Fugazzotto

 

Everyday Life in The Viking Age – Jacqueline Simpson

 

First published in 1967, Everyday Life in the Viking Age is, obviously, not at the cutting edge of Norse historical research but, regardless, is an excellent primer about the Viking Age. First and foremost, it dispels the myth (still prevalent today) of the bloodthirsty Viking raider (best summed up in the ancient phrase “From the fury of the Northmen, deliver us, O Lord”) and instead examines in detail the various aspects of Norse/Viking life – the importance of trade, the structure of the family, clothing, funeral rites and, of course, weapons and warfare.

Although written for a younger audience, the book never talks down to the reader and succeeds admirably well as an introduction to a rich and fascinating era.

 

Out of the Silent Planet – C.S Lewis

 

I’ve always been a huge fan of the Narnia books but, I must confess, had read little of C.S Lewis’ other work until recently. Out of the Silent Planet, first published in 1937, is the first of Lewis’ Space Trilogy (also known as the Cosmic Trilogy) comprising of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

Written at a time when science fiction was struggling to cast off its pulp roots and reinvent itself as a viable literary form (a struggle which, to a certain extent, still continues within SF) Out of the Silent Planet owes something – at least in structural terms – to the planetary romance of early science fiction, best typified by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Otis Adelbert Kline, but where Burroughs and Kline wrote action-packed, fast-moving tales of Earthmen on exotic worlds whose heroes are quick with both their wits and a sword (or any other weapon) Lewis’ novel is much more meditative. His protagonist – Elwin Ransom – is the polar opposite of John Carter, a scholar and theologian rather than a sword-swinging bravo and his adventures on the planet Malacandra (which is eventually revealed to be Mars) are as much of the mind as the body. Less Sword and Planet, more Philosophy and Planet, if you will.

Abducted from Earth by the scheming Weston and Devine, Ransom at first believes that he is to be sacrificed to the native Sorns but, upon escaping, discovers that he has found himself on a virtual utopia populated by strange, but intelligent and humane creatures.

Much of the novel concerns Ransom’s exploration of both the culture of the natives (the Sorns, the Hross and the Eldila amongst others) and the landscape of Malacandra. And much, too, is made of Ransom’s journey to enlightenment and his discovery of the true nature of not only Malacandra but of his home world – Thulcandra, or Earth, the “silent planet” of the title.

Deeply imbued with Christian philosophy, Out of the Silent Planet is not a novel to read if you want swashbuckling adventures on other worlds but is a fascinating examination of Christianity and Christian belief viewed though a different lens.

 

The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe

 

The first of Gene Wolfe’s much-lauded New Sun sequence, The Shadow of the Torturer introduces us to Severian, an apprentice then journeyman of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, a Guild of Torturers in the far future when the Earth (or Urth) has grown ancient.

Exiled for showing mercy to one of his clients, Severian elects to become the Lictor of Thrax, basically a common torturer and headsman and The Shadow of the Torturer relates the first part of his journey to take up the post.

A dense and darkly humourous novel – Candide by way of Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance – The Shadow of the Torturer is a Dying Earth story par excellence, a rich and heady brew that is best sipped rather than taken at one long draught. Severian himself is a compelling central character and narrator, a man with an eidetic memory who rarely reveals the full truth, and the supporting cast, from the doomed Chatelaine Thecla, who’s love inspires Severian to his reckless rebellion against the Guild, to the comically sinister Dr. Talos and Baldanders to the mysterious beauty Dorcas and the lusty Agia, are equally as well rounded and memorable.

The city of Nessus, in which the action of the novel takes place, could also be thought of as a character and certainly is as mysterious and grand in its own way as any city in the Dying Earth genre – as baroque as Viriconium, as singular as the Last Redoubt, as stunted as Diaspar – and its strange landscape provides the backdrop for all that follows.

And then there is Wolfe’s prose. Like Jack Vance before him, Gene Wolfe is one of science fiction’s true stylists and the story’s central conceit – that it is a manuscript from the future translated by Wolfe into (more or less) contemporary English – gives him full rein to use his considerable vocabulary. This is not to say that The Shadow of the Tortuerer is wilfully obscure, far from it, but rather that it behooves the reader to think more deeply about what is on the page and to indulge in what is almost a game of literary hide and seek where the meaning of words, of characters and situations even, takes on a deeper significance.

A stunning work of science fantasy by a master of the form.

 

AAA Triple Ace Interplanetary – Robert Sheckley

 

Alright, so not technically a novel, or even a collection (I’m not even entirely sure that the stories have been collected in English other than in The Masque of Mañana together with many other Sheckley stories) but rather an excuse to read some old favourites one after the other from various sources.

Concerning the (mis)adventures of the titular AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service, who specialise in making world fit for human habitation, and its two owner/operators Arnold and Gregor, the AAA Ace series consists of eight short stories, mostly written and published in the 1950s when Robert Sheckley was at the height of his powers.

They are light-hearted pieces, well plotted romps through the galaxy that both satire and celebrated the best of 50s SF.

Ghost V, the first and, arguably, the best of the AAA Ace stories (published in 1957) a down-on-their luck Arnold and Gregor are hired to decontaminate a ‘haunted’ planet. What they find there is, literally, the stuff of their childhood nightmares and their solution ingenious and amusing.

In The Laxian Key, our heroes, once again in impoverished circumstances (actually, most of the AAA Ace stories being with Arnold and Gregor in a state of ‘financial embarassment) discover a machine that could potentially make their fortunes. Sadly for them, the product in question is virtually worthless on Earth and, to make matters worse, once the machine has started it can only be stopped by using a Laxian key, an object which has long since been lost.

The other stories see them battling invisible rodents (The Squirrel Cage), finding yet another machine that could make their expeditions a cake walk (The Necessary Thing), their lives in peril from an overly protective spaceship (The Lifeboat Mutiny), finding that transporting alien livestock is no simple matter (Milk Run) or ridding a haunted alien castle of its inhabitants (The Skag Castle).

A final story, Sarkanger, saw publication in the early 90s, alas it is the only one of the series I yet to read but I’m keeping an eye out.

Robert Sheckley was a science fiction maestro, a prolific author of short stories (including one of my all time favourites The Store of the Worlds) who also wrote many fine novels (Immortality Inc, The Journey of Joenes aka Journey Beyond Tomorrow, Mindswap and The 10th Victim), but the AAA Ace stories are among his very best, and are that rarest of things, genuinely funny science fiction.

 

Witch of the Sands – Peter Fugazzotto

 

The Hounds of the North are elite warriors engaged in a long, seemingly endless, battle against the forces of witchcraft and magic. Their leader, Shield Scyldmund, has long since brought them South to serve with the forces of the Dhurman Empire. When he and his men are called away from the chaos of battle to hunt down a witch, old rivalries, old doubts and, worst of all, old questions of loyalties are brought to the fore.

Peter Fugazaotto’s short fantasy novel has many nods to the greats of the genre – there are elements of Robert E. Howard, Glen Cook’s Black Company and David Gemmell’s Drenai series here – but never slavishly imitative of them. His characters are cut from familiar cloth but always manage to retain their own identity and the climax, in which the Hounds are pitched in a desperate battle against the forces of the undead, is thrilling and bloodsoaked.

Fast paced and jumping right into the action, The Witch of the Sands is a quick and entertaining read, one that nicely begins Fugazzotto’s Hounds of the North series. It is available free from the author’s website at http://peterfugazzotto.com/

 

Also On The Pile

Magic In The Ancient Greek World – Derek Collins.

An in-depth analysis of magic in ancient Greece.

Greek Mercenaries – Matthew Trundle

An excellent examination of mercenaries in ancient Greece.

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