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I really like fantasy novels. I can remember the first time I read The Lord of the Rings. I have very fond memories of reading the Dragonlance books and even Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons novels. Not to be that hipster guy, but I read Game of Thrones years before they talked about making a tv show. I don't want to be that cranky old man who claims everything was better in his day, so I will say instead that it's getting harder to find new fantasy that appeals to me. It's all either in a modern urban setting, or it's so simplistically written that the target audience is obviously meant to be in middle school. Luckily there's a lot of great fantasy from days of yore out there that I either haven't read yet, or read so long ago that I can revisit it and experience as almost new. Warlocks and Warriors is an anthology from the 70's. Anthologies are dicey, because the quality is always going to be a bit uneven. This book was worth the read for me just for the introduction by editor L Sprague DeCamp alone. It is now approximately 52 years since it was written and is still just as relevant in my opinion. He talks about how someone had recently said that to write a best seller a book had to be about politics or sex. He points out that those are great topics to read about, but they are not the only things about which good stories can be written. (The same thing goes for tv and movies too btw. I shouldn't have to choose between watching rapes and grisly killings with my kids or having to sit through some PBS kids show. We need some shows to fill in that happy medium place. But I digress.)
The first story is one I was pretty excited about from the synopsis. It is titled Turutal by Ray Capella (real name Raul Garcia Capella). It's set in the same world as Conan the Barbarian. I have read some of the Conan books by Robert E Howard and a couple by Robert Jordan. I love the world but just hadn't come across much else. This story was not the reintroduction to that world that I would have hoped. Crom is invoked and the villain is a sorcerous Stygian. There is magic and a battle of sorts. There is an army of undead pygmies? Unfortunately what there is not is context. Characters aren't really introduced, they just sort of start doing stuff. We don't really know who they are or they they got in their situation or why they are doing the things they are doing. It leaves you feeling a bit untethered, not in a fun Lovecraft kind of way but in a "I'm not really sure what's happening here" kind of way. It feels like someone plucked the middle bit out of a longer story and published it. Still, it's good enough that I'd like to read that longer story.
The Gods of Niom Parma by Lin Carter is obviously influenced by mythology. It has the pantheon of gods of a famed city meeting on their mountaintop abode to decide the fate of the city which has been turning away from them. They can't decide whether to be merciful or to level the joint. The decide to send the ocean god down as a human to scope everything out, and agree to hold off on doing anything until he comes back with his report. He meets up with a fisherman, and a relationship is born which, if the story had been written in more modern times, would have just been described as a romance. The author kind of talks around that though. The story is a twist on familiar old myths, and is written like something out of Bullfinch's Mythology. You can see the end coming from a mile away, but it's an okay read all the same. Especially since it's not very long.
The Hills of the Dead by Robert E Howard is a Solomon Kane story. Kane is one of Howard's other well known characters (Conan of course being the most famous) but I haven't read many of those stories. Kane is a Puritan who apparently loves to wander through Africa even though he seems to hold their people and their beliefs and customs in disdain at best. He has a friend (sort of, I guess) who is a shaman who gets him to take a totem even though Kane is kind of a dick about it. Kane meets up with a girl who tells him that her village is terrorized by the living dead. I hope it's not too much of a spoiler to give away that the totem is exactly the tool that Kane needs to fight these monsters. It's an interesting twist on vampires, but I have to admit I find the protagonist less interesting. The story was okay, it held my interest but I wasn't burning to read more when it was over.
Henry Kuttner is a name I will admit I was not familiar with, but apparently he was a very important science fiction and fantasy writer in the 30's and 40's. He was friends with Lovecraft and contributed to the Cthulu mythos. His story Thunder in the Dawn is a Conan clone. Elak is secretly a prince of Atlantis in exile. He is enlisted by a druid from his homeland to rescue his brother the king from Viking invaders and their warlock lord named Elf. There's lots of action and magic, and both a love interest and a goofy sidekick for our protagonist. His lady friend starts as a harem girl but quickly develops a taste for killing, which no one in the story seems to find as disturbing as perhaps they should. The story skimps a bit in details and events seem very compressed, but I think that is what happens when you try to write epic fantasy in short story form. It's a fun story, but not as great as one might expect from a writer who is cited as an influence by most major fantasy writers of the 20th century. This is another story that seems to share a world with Conan, since the character Elak was in the Cthulu mythos story Spawn of Dagon, and Conan is also in that world. It is interesting that the fantasy writers of the time seemed to cross over their works with other peoples' so often.
Thieves' House by Fritz Leiber is far and away the best story so far. This may be because I have read stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser before. But it's also because the story is more interesting and better crafted. The story starts with a plan to retrieve a jeweled skull of a former master of the Thieves' Guild. Getting the skull is not the main story though. In fact we skip right over that and get to the thief who concocted the plan showing up with the skull and being followed by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who he had double crossed after they helped get it. The skull also had a pair of skeletal hands, which come to life to kill the current master of the Guild when he tries to pry the jewels loose. The master's lover absconds with the skull through a hidden passage. Fafhrd and the Mouser clash with the thieves and Fafhrd ends up being tasked by the other dead masters of the Guild with returning the skull to it's rightful resting place. The story is a great mixture of action/adventure, intrigue, and horror. It also feels surprisingly modern for a story published in 1943. This is definitely a highlight of the book.
Black God's Kiss by C. L. Moore is different than the other stories in this book. Not only is it set in the middle ages rather than in some protean prehistoric era, but the main protagonist is a woman instead of an overly muscled barbarian. So far only The Hills of the Dead has broken with these trends, and I'll be honest this story is more enjoyable than that one despite having an ending I didn't care for. Jirel is the leader of Joiry, which has been taken by a villain named Guillame. Guillame tries to force his affections on her, but she is too intent on vengeance for him to be able to complete his conquest in the way he wants. She manages to escape her dungeon and decides to go down a convenient tunnel to hell hidden in her castle to find a weapon to help her bring down her conqueror. After traversing a very Lovecraftian landscape she confronts a demon with her form who tells her how to get what she wants. It turns out the weapon is a kiss taken from a disturbing statue. She can feel the curse trying to kill her and she knows she must pass it on with another kiss before she succumbs. She manages to make her way back through the hellish (literally) landscape and the creatures trying to stop her and finally gets her revenge. And this is where the story lets you down. Because as Guillame dies she realizes what she has done. It may be that she is upset because she has bargained her soul for a momentary act of revenge, but it comes across more as though she realizes she was really into him the whole time and now she regrets killing him. This is creepy and gross and I would have preferred her to be more triumphant, or for her regret to be more clearly linked to the morality of how she gained her goal.
Chu-Bu and Sheemish by Lord Dunsany is the shortest story here, but maybe also the most fun. It is written with purposefully archaic language, which together with its quirkiness makes it the most modern feeling of the stories in the book so far, despite the fact that ti is probably the oldest. It deals with 2 jealous gods who use their very limited powers to prove who is best. I won't say much more except to recommend you read this one. If you don't read anything else that's in this book, this story is worth seeking out.
The Master of the Crabs by Clark Ashton Smith is a weird story. It's a story about wizards and pirate booty that has no pirates and very little actual magic. It's a little slow moving but has a gratifyingly gruesome ending. This story is part of a cycle set in the land of Zothique. It feels very similar to Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. It is fine, but ultimately pretty forgettable.
H.G. Wells is not a name that springs to mind when one thinks of fantasy fiction. His story here, The Valley of Spiders, just barely qualifies in my estimation. No real setting is given, but the characters ride horses and use swords, so I guess it can squeak in. It deals with 3 men who are chasing some fugitives. The characters are barely sketched out and the backstories are left vague. There is enough there so that you get the power dynamics at play, but just barely. The reason for chasing the fugitives is hinted at, but actually could use some fleshing out just to explain the determination of the leader to keep on. The crux of the story is the pursuers coming to a place that happens to be a crossing for big spiders who float around on bubbles of web, and how they deal with being overcome by the spiders. There's barely any story here, it's more of just a scenario really. It's okay for what it is, but War of the Worlds is in no danger of being replaced as Wells' best liked work here.
The final story is The Bells of Shoredan by Roger Zelazny. This story is part of a larger narrative involving Dilvish, who has escaped from Hell to be a hero. That may be why I feel like I'm missing important parts of the story. There's enough to follow what's going on, as long as you don't care about the details. Lots of names and titles are thrown about with no explanation of who they are. This is another story that's barely a story, with the biggest action piece being told in the introduction as an event that has already happened. The characters aren't fleshed out at all. No real motivations are given for any of the actions taken. People just seem to do things because that's what the author needs them to do. There is one character in particular that has no bearing whatsoever on anything that happens, so it seems odd to take up such a large percentage of such a short story introducing him. I'll be honest, I've never much enjoyed Zelazny and this story didn't do anything to change my mind. The language was needlessly archaic, in a clunky way that made the narrative hard to follow. It felt like most of the dialog was just people referencing people or places with "fantasy" names with no way of knowing who or what is actually being referenced. It just feels like Zelazny spent a lot of time world building, but then doesn't want to let us in to his world.
© 2022 Gracchus Gruad