From the mediocrity of War-Gamers' World and One Against the Moon to the horror of Fimbulwinter and The Hidden Children, I read these things so you don't have to. But hey, there's good news as well! Mystery lovers will delight in 13 Minutes and Squeeze Play, and Robert E. Howard is here to restore my faith in fantasy fiction with "Shadows in the Moonlight".
Hugh Walker's War-Gamers' World (1975) is a disappointment. It is a set-up that we don't see so often any more, and, in fact, might be one of the first of its kind. Our protagonist is a gamer, and, in the opening chapters (paragraphs, even), he's sucked into his game world. No longer is he the master of fate - merely one of its pawns! He's seeing, first-hand, the carnage and chaos of his 'game'! He learns a valuable lesson about humanity, privilege and power!
Actually, none of that happens.
Instead, the book's thematic premise is forgotten by the end of the first chapter, and War-Gamers' World quickly degenerates into a lackluster, infodumping, dry, and boring by the numbers adventure. I wouldn't have minded the conventionality of it all, if it at least had a sense of being self-aware. But, instead, this is mediocre swords and sorcery. As a lesson, I suppose, if you're going to write fiction about your RPG game and make that clear within the text, I don't think that's something you can then ignore.
That said, the series has extended for many volumes in its original German, although only the first three were translated into English. And, conceptually, it is all pretty cool - here's an interview about the (ongoing) play of the original game and here's some information about a (later) edition of the game, which touches on its history. I'm fascinated by the idea of transmedia 'universe' building, especially when the 'easy outs' of TV and film aren't involved. And there's clearly a success story - of sorts - built in here. But contrasted with say, Dragonlance (game and novels built simultaneously for maximum awareness), Tékumel (novels demonstrate the world and provide adventure seeds) or even Forgotten Realms (novels develop and explain game world changes), this seems... fluffy.
I'm a Robert Chambers fan (duly noted here and, er, here), and The Hidden Children (1914) is one I'd never read. A valiant young officer leads a raid deep into Iroquois territory to kill of Native Americans, win the fair maiden, and triumph for Democracy and such. Set in the American Revolution, Chambers provides VAST swathes of exceedingly dull historical infodumping. Page after page of obscure reference, name-dropping; a veritable tsunami of bloat. To be completely candid, I was so bored that I couldn't even be bothered to see if the names or instances were real or not.
In hindsight, it makes some sense contextually. Chambers was something of an American Kipling - respected, mass market and, well, rather jingoistic. Given the timing of the book's publication, the endeepening (kind of like embiggening, see) of American history would've made a great deal of sense. Similarly, there are very clear parallels between the (grotesquely over the top) war crimes Chambers details in The Hidden Children and the propaganda being shared about the HORDES OF HUNS in Europe. Since the founding of America, Americans (or proto-Americans!) have been defending womanly virtue and wreaking havoc on baby-killing subhuman hordes!
Chambers went on to write even noisier exhortations of manly valor / depictions of hideous Other - see, for example, In Secret (1919). I suppose, by contrast, The Hidden Children is practically subtle.
What's notable about The Hidden Children is that, about about the halfway point, it goes completely batshit. Our protagonist is in the middle of one of his excruciatingly patronising mono-dialogues with a Mohican friend, explaining to the reader pretty much every skirmish that happened in the Revolution to date. And then, without warning, they're talking about THE CAT SORCERER. No lie. Proper double take!
So, yes, buried in this crappy historical fiction is also crappy historical fantasy, complete with a (mythical) tribe of demon-worshipping Native Americans with a prophetic witch, hallucinatory visions, Satanic rites, and, of course, the aforementioned sorcerer. Mind you, it is still not worth reading. But kudos to Chambers for throwing that in.
For what it is worth, Chambers can't even be consistently inconsistent - even in his terrible books, there's something that flags up his talent as a writer. In this case, it is the romance. Our square-jawed hero meets - and is captivated by - a suspiciously posh camp follower. They flirt, he offers, she spurns, he offers again, she spurns again, they flirt some more, etc. They're pretty good fun, at least, by contrast to the rest of the book.
E. William Brown's Fimbulwinter (2014) - speaking of books about games, Fimbulwinter is 100% self-aware, but to an excruciating degree. Daniel Black is an engineer, screwed over by WOMEN and STUPID LAWS and UNAPPRECIATIVE BOSSES. He is made an offer by sexy Hecate to leave this stupid misandrist world behind, and travel to a fantasy world where he can be a wizzerd and do cool stuff. All he has to do is take care of Hecate's sexy disciple and her sexy disciple's sexy friend. He immediately starts meta-gaming, and explains, at length, every decision he makes as he maxxes out his character's new magical powers. Our hero treats the world like a... well... game, and is also, very clearly, someone you would never, ever want to game with, because he's a rules-lawyering asshole. Also a sexist chump.
The writing is also, well, bad. In lieu of description, Fimbulwinter aims for reference, telling us that women are hot like 'fashion models' or monsters are scary like velociraptors. (Poor raptors. They deserve better than this book.) Where the book does concentrate on detail, it is in excruciating monologues about how Daniel is using his powers in really cool (not cool) ways. Like to build walls. Or replenish his resources without having to log out for 12 hours or pay microtransactions for additional content.
When Daniel's not monologuing about how he's tweaking his mana pool, he's having sex... in badly written, wildly improbable ways. Not something I suggest often, but I think Fimbulwinter needed less research into engineering and more into porn, if only for a basic appreciation of human anatomy. Oh, hey, he also has 'reasonable' dialogues with straw men about how it is awesome to be in a world where women have to trade sex for protection again and, boy, that there age of consent is meaningless. This is Scott Adams writing Gorean Everquest fanfic. Avoid, unless you're desperately seeking the world's largest and most unpleasant Mary Sue.
Robert Howard's Shadows in the Moonlight (1934) is a Conan novelette. Conan rescues - inadvertently - Olivia, a princess in the midst of escape from the harem of a conquering prince. She's got nowhere to go (her family flogged her to the prince in the first place) and is trapped in the wilderness with only a - rather disinterested - barbarian. For lack of other options, she tags along with Conan, and the two try to sneak out of enemy territory towards safety. One thing leads to another, and they wind up on a deserted island. There are pirates, monsters, angry gods and a giant ape. Conan rescues Olivia - a lot. And Olivia even rescues Conan. Mutual appreciation ensues.
It is pretty fun, as all Conan stories are. Although not particularly deep, as some of them can be. Conan's always a hoot, whether he's fighting, rowing or just galloping around in a manly way. Seeing him through Olivia's rose-tinted perspective only adds to his mystique. To her, he's something superhuman. This is tangential, but "Shadows" reminds me a bit of The Spy Who Loved Me, because of the opening theme - Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" - which is, I think, the only Bond song from the perspective of the love interest. Which is a long-winded way of saying that this story is from Olivia's POV, not Conan's, which is an unusual take. "Shadows" is neither subversive nor feminist in any way - although you could see how, 80 years later, a re-working of this story could be. More interesting as a narrative exercise than a thematic one, but an example of how Howard, even as he was creating the Sword & Sorcery formula, was already finding new ways to keep it fresh.
A few shorter takes:
Sarah Pinborough's 13 Minutes (2016). Teen noir! A girl drowns (under mysterious circumstances) and is dead for 13 full minutes before being, somewhat miraculously, resuscitated. Told from alternating POVs: Tasha, the girl herself and the school's lead Heather and Becca, her former best friend. Becca's POV, especially at the beginning, is the more compelling. She's trying, desperately, to escape Tasha's orbit, and define her own life, on her terms. But Tasha's charisma, and the memories of a more benign past, keep reeling her back in. But as Tasha gets her confidence back after her near-death experience, her voice becomes more interesting: this is a Mean Girl with surprising depth, and a lot of fun to read. 13 Minutes is, perhaps, overly long - there's the mandatory Big Twist in the final third that drags out a bit as it builds to a karmically-appropriate, if slightly hallucinatory, denouement. But great voices and meticulously detailed construction, make this a fairly excellent teen noir.
Donald Wollheim's One Against the Moon (1956). Like the Martian, but from 1956, and without... science. And, Wollheim had some weird ideas of what was happening on the Moon, even for 1956. There are a lot of aliens on the moon, apparently. Living in trapped air bubbles, each with their own ecosystems and, in some cases, civilisations. It is a pretty silly place. But kudos for naming the protagonist "Robin Carew", because, you know, subtle. Not as fun as it should've been, honestly.
Paul Benjamin's Squeeze Play (1982). Paul Auster under a pen name! A surprisingly traditional, noir - more Horace McCoy than Chandler (if you care about parsing noir traditions). George Chapman is a retired baseball star. He hires PI Max Klein to investigate death threats but (spoiler?) it is too late. As Max learns more about the victim's life, he reappraises his own. Max can't help but contrast his own life with Chapman's. Max is a failed baseball player and a failed DA with a failed marriage and no future. Chapman's a baseball legend with the perfect wife and a bright political future. Max takes Chapman's death personally; almost like a case of survivor's guilt.
The investigation itself is linear: interviews, fistfights, and the occasional break to muse about baseball. The latter is particularly interesting, as Auster loves baseball, and does a great job of weaving the religion of the game across the book. As Chapman's secrets all come to light, the most shocking revelation is that, despite being a star, he never loved the game. Whether or not the reader feels the same as Auster about baseball, this is presented with compelling gravity: to live life without joy is to have never lived at all. A terrific book.