Three fantasy titles of all shapes and sizes - Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Falcons of Narabedla, Greg James' Under A Colder Sun and Alex Marshall's A Crown for Cold Silver.
Mike does radio things in a Government Lab. Electricity happens, and, ker-wham, he's mind-ported to Narabedla, Last of the Rainbow Cities. Mike's consciousness rests in the body of Adric, one of Naradebla's arrogant ruling class. Adric's mind isn't totally gone, but sort of repressed, helping Mike/Adric get dressed and occasionally resurfacing in a plot-pushing kind of way.
M'Adric is thrown in at the deep end. Fortunately, there are a lot of people around who are happy to elaborate on Narabedla's history, culture and current events. M'Adric learns that the rulers of Narabedla all have a captive Dreamer under their thrall - a powerful, wish-granting psychic - more djinn than mortal. Adric, in his pre-Mike days, seems to have done something naughty and loosed one of the Dreamers. Now the entire system is under threat. Will there be a revolution? Should there be a revolution? Plots within plots, betrayals within betrayals - including Mike and Adric scheming against one another. From within the same body!
Falcons combines the 'man transported' portal SF trope, a bit of dying earth and a lot of Faustian-science-fantasy. Unfortunately, it never comes together. Mike-as-Mike is never compelling enough, never in possession of a strong moral compass - so his actions on Narabedla feel artificial. Nor do we ever establish Mike-as-Earthman (on either world, honestly), so the otherness of the alien world - or even the ripe possibility of what it could mean to Mike - never comes across. The plot is, well, gobbledegook - M'Adric bouncing from one situation to the next, very rarely of his own agency. Similarly, what we get of Narabedla itself is in the course of infodumps that would make Auric Goldfinger seem taciturn. Which means, all together, Falcons has us waddling through pages of clunky language and space-fantasy wak-wak without a character, a story or even a compelling world.
In Falcons defence, it is utterly serviceable, but sadly treads water where other, better, books have plunged. Even setting aside obvious predecessors such as Burroughs and Twain, there are vaguely contemporary books such as Howard's Almuric (1939) (infinitely more fun), Sarban's The Sound of His Horn (1952) (vastly more engaging characters) and Jane Gaskell's Strange Evil (1957) (a brilliantly uncanny world and gorgeous prose).
Greg James' Under a Colder Sun (2014)
One of last year's #SPFBO finalists, Under a Colder Sun is the first of a two part series featuring Khale, an immortal wanderer.
Beginning with a dedication to Karl Edward Wagner, Colder Sun wears its blackened and crumbling heart on its moldy, bloodstained sleeve. This is a throwback to the era of the grim, dark warrior - a time when men were men, and men were also emo as hell.
Interestingly, I think we can throw down some definitional sumo here. This book is damn grim, and really, really damn dark, but I hesitate to pin the 'grimdark' label on it. For one, Colder Sun is more nostalgic than post-revisionist - a child of a previous generation, like Wagner's Kane or Moorcock's Elric. (Arguably it is more Revisionist Howard than Post-Revisionist Tolkien, if that makes sense. Enjoy!) Secondly, grimdark - it seems to me - is (subjectively) realist, not full-on nihilistic. There is always a moral compass, but, unlike, say epic fantasy, a grimdark protagonist will set it aside. In books like Colder Sun, there's no moral compass at all. There's no right, just infinite layers of wrongness.
Colder Sun - like its influences - has an unrelentingly bleak view of the world. This is a world where, where if someone draws a dagger on a man, they use it to 'worry the head of his cock'; where the opening threat is 'I will call my men so they can rape your tight little arsehole they throw you in the water to drown'; where murder, betrayal, kidnap, and blood-sacrifice are the expedient way to get things done. And all of this? That's from our heroes.
The plot of Colder Sun is pretty straightforward. Khale is hired to take the princess Milanda to a mountain of necromancers. In turn, the necromancers will save Milanda's kingdom from its greedy neighbours. Khale kills the king on the way out (as one does), so he's followed by, Leste, one of the city guard. Who, incidentally, also kills someone on the way out. One gets the impression that the quests in this land don't come with return tickets.
Once in motion the plot is fairly picaresque, as the characters encounter one horrible set-piece after another. Folks with vested interests in Khale's failure do things with undead and demons. Our heroes fall into a lot of decaying tombs. There are eldritch monuments and dark gods and dying villages around every bend in the road. There's a crumbling landscape filled with crypts and bug monsters. Everything that can rot, rots. Everything that can die, dies. Everything that can come back from the dead, does. Goodness is futile, innocence a lie, honour a joke. If there's ever a spark of hope, expect it to be raped, eaten and killed in the next chapter.
The result is a book that is unashamedly, unabashedly grueling - not helped by the Wagnerian (pun! but it works!) language: thundering and Baroque. Steel yourself for portentous prose such as:
He was a scarred and cratered eclipse: a greater darkness than all the shadows in the world drawn together as one.
[Her eyes] brimmed with an archaic malice accrued over centuries of unlife. Khale knew such eyes well. He met them as the gaze of an equal.
"Beware the men of this world above all things. They have a darkness born to them that not even the Gods can fathom. I know this because I am its root and seed."
All of which could easily be screamed into a microphone by someone wearing leather trousers and a clown mask.
The thing is - within the context of Under a Colder Sun, all of this fits.
Even as it gnaws the gristle of its own angst, Colder Sun is damn atmospheric: bloody, dirty and utterly chilling. The magic is suitably sinister, and sits on just the right side of unknowable. The fights are well-choreographed and, despite Khale's invulnerability, surprisingly tense. Plus, certain set-piece elements - the lost, underground city, for example - are, to steal from Lovecraft, properly Cyclopean. There's proper heft to this book, that, although occasionally ponderous, is befitting this particular genre.
I didn't expect to find a 1970s throwback as an SPFBO finalist, but it is solid, well-crafted throwback to a sadly-forgotten era. In that sense, this is very much the kind of book I hope to find as an #SPFBO judge this year - although not to my personal taste, it is imaginative, passionate and stylish, and that offers plenty to talk and think about.
Alex Marshall's A Crown for Cold Silver (2015)
Even I was convinced that I had, but I think I conflated a lot of mental cud-chewing and a lot of fragmentary social media praise into a review that, as it turns out, I never wrote. A Blade of Black Steel lurks on the horizon, so now is as good a time as any to commit something to page.
First, hey-o! Alex Marshall is Jesse Bullington! zomg. There's actually something amazing how that doesn't... in any way change either my appreciation or my interpretation of Crown.
The latter is a particularly key point, as Crown is a provocative, feisty book that treads the line between post-revisionist and snarky. I think it left a lot of readers, myself including, a little uncomfortable. It is satirical, but is it satire? How are we supposed to interpret this without knowing where the author stands, if there's mens rea? This is fantasy, dammit, not no bookerwookerliterashizzle - spell out how we're supposed to feel!
Because, undoubtedly, Crown is great fantasy - a fascinating demon-based magic system, a swashbuckling mercenary, a strategic mastermind Out For Revenge... monsters, swordplay, mayhem, sprawling worlds (and plots) all building up to a big twisty reveal. It is dense, complicated, intricate, morally ambiguous and all those other buzzwords that define a contemporary epic.
And yet, it is also easy to read the book as a vast, well... piss-take... of epic fantasy, a dirty, silly world with geography named for metal bands and a spiralling narrative that doesn't seem to take anything seriously. And that latter point is very different from being funny. Crown can be read as an anti-fantasy, a book that dares to mock the ponderous legacy of the genre. It has a perverse idea of heroism, a distinctly unchivalric notion of sacrifice, and a warped idea of triumph - and literally every moment could be read tongue in cheek.
I suspect the truth - at least, how I saw it - is somewhere in the middle. Crown isn't pastiche, as much as it is knowing subversion. In lesser hands, it would've been clumsy, or even derivative. But in Marshall's, it winds up being inimitable genius. This is a rambling review - maybe that's why I never wrote it? - but A Crown for Cold Silver is the book I simply can't get out of my head.