Friday, September 21, 2007

Writers Passing

The last couple of weeks, a couple of writers of certain note passed away, Madeleine L'Engle on September 6th at the age of 88 and Robert Jordan (real name James Oliver Ragney Jr) at the age of 58 on September 17th. I won't attempt to recap their lives or even the totality of their works. By this point most news sites will have given most of the details on the latter and the former has a wonderful official website:

It's interesting that both writers really helped me think and see things and yet I've read exactly one book of theirs each.

With Madeleine L'Engle, it was A WRINKLE IN TIME. I read it when I was much younger than I am now (leading me to the impression that I thought she was currently a bit older than 88. It was one of those books that I would pick back up occassionally and read yet again and always be surprised at some little detail that I had missed or forgotten about the first time around. I remember being struck at the idea and dilemma of how would you describe the concept of color to someone that has never seen? And that to a kid, she described the perfect concept of Hell, leastways to me when she talks about houses all alike and at a set time, all the kids come out of the houses and bounce a ball exactly in sync. Even though I loved to read more than play sports and such, such discipline and exact order was anathema to me. I'd squirm to even read and think about it. I still have that beat up paperback from 30 years ago stashed away somewhere.

Robert Jordan, it's a different case. I had long ago read and re-read Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS as well devouring all the mythology I could as a kid. Yet, when I cast about for other fantasy novels, they mostly just fell short. They either struck me as being too much like Tolkien without the actual charm and breadth of his vision. And I gave up. Until around the time they made the movies and I revisited the world of Fantasy and thought I might try my hand at it. And, I read a bunch of Fantasy novels from the likes of Drake, Feist, Weisman, Simak, Goodkind, Brooks, Martin, Leiber, Howard, etc. And I worked my way towards Jordan, though I wasn't seeking to start such a major series already in progress. But I found a good deal on a paperback version of the first book and I was shortly going on a trip overseas and the book would make good airplane reading.

From all of this reading, I discovered several things. One, unless you're reading the novels based on role playing games, there really isn't much in the way of the European folklore based fantasies. There really aren't that many with elves, dwarves, and goblins and such. There were many good ones, some better than others with intriguing worlds, characters and such. Though I realized few really approach the likes of the older writers or even seem to try. Although one friend did say he liked Jordan's take on the Howard characters, that he was one of the better writers of the character, which my friend considered high praise.

Two, almost all fantasy novels are parts of a series and rarely self-contained in one volume. This is where the curse of Tolkien is truly felt in the Fantasy genre. I don't mind series books in that the characters continue from book to another. I love finding in the Mystery genres detectives that I like to follow from one story to another. But, with Fantasy, each book is usually part of a finite series, a trilogy or such even if the characters will continue on past this particular trilogy to another trilogy and another. You cannot just pick up ONE book to get the story.

Third, there really is a set formula that links almost all of these books, even when the styles and such differ wildly. And this really gelled for me while reading Jordan's WHEEL OF TIME book. First off, despite the fact there is world-building going on, the defined world of this particular fantasy world in whatever book you're reading is pretty small, about the size of South Carolina. Often there's a reason, some impassable mountains or seas, but the operating world is isolated instead of feeling vast and big. Second, the novel must start even smaller. The hero will be some common man from a smaller backwater community of this world. There's a certain logic to this, it allows the reader to quickly get on the same level as the main character(s) in the book. Of course this means very quickly the character must leave this small sheltered area and enter into the much larger world. There's a reason for this structure, most fantasy novels are mileau novels, they exist to explore the fantastic world they are set in and for this they must travel away from their comfort zone. The other all too familiar tropes brought out, the hero of destiny. The hero is destined to be the champion of the realm, is heir to be king, a prince or princess in hiding, the end result of prophecy. It's basically shifting the focus from Frodo in LORD OF THE RINGS to Aragorn. And you cannot have a Child of Destiny without having the Big Evil. Only, frequently the Evil is ill-defined, they are evil because they do evil things and they do bad things because they are evil. As such, the bad guys have no real charisma, no real motivations, they just are.

Not to say these books are bad or anything. Just that these patterns emerged. Some books play with those patterns or change them around some, they'll keep one or two and discard others. WHEEL OF TIME pretty much has all of them though and while there were some scenes I liked, for the most part I just didn't see a reason to continue past it. I think part of that may be that since he was telling a mileau type story, I just didn't find this particular world all that interesting or fantastic with the first novel, pretty much my same response with Goodkind's WIZARD'S FIRT RULE. It didn't draw me in, making me want to search out the immediate next book. Instead, I was a bit relieved, thinking, "well, I finished that."

Jordan has loads of fans, and for their sake I do hope that maybe someone can be found to finish that last book, to give the heroes and villains the send-off they deserve while remaining true to Jordan's vision. Guess it depends on far he had gotten and how extensive his notes are. As a fan, I'd hate to be a book shy of finishing an epic.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ka-zar The Great... the Brunette?

ka-zar comic artWell, finished up the reprint of two of the Shadow's official London adventures. Have to admit, London and castle grounds make for a good location for the Shadow, almost as much as Chinatown. I kinda wanted to see the Scotland Yard inspector Eric Delka come off a bit better, I'd have liked to see him in his own mysteries.

So, next up is "The Lost Empire" from KA-ZAR THE GREAT pulp circa 1937. Now I read the first one some time ago so there's a few things I didn't really recall. But Ka-zar is depicted on the covers much as Fiction House's Ki-gor, a bronze giant with darkish blonde hair and he was blond in his few golden-age comic reprints that I've read. And he's of course blond in the present day adventures.

Yet the text in the story talks about his lion-mane like black hair that falls to his shoulderska-zar cover art (notice on the cover how short his hair also is). But despite his appearance inside the story, it's obviously the cover images that have dictated how he'd appear for the next 70 years.

I remember Zar the lion (Ka-zar means "brother of the lion") but I don't really recall Trajar the elephant or Nono the ring-tailed monkey, but again that could be because it's been a couple of years since I read that first story.

Then when it talks about Ka-zar being heartbroken over feeling betrayed by his love and who he had sent away by the name of Claudette (!?), I realized this is the third issue of the pulp, not the second. There's a whole issue I'm missing! Sigh. Anywho, this is shaping up to be crackling good yarn complete with a hidden lost race.

We'll get the negatives out of the way first. There's the practically sentience of his animal pals and the fact they can all talk to each other in the language of the beasts that can derail your suspension of disbelief. But, there's not a lot of it, to the point it's not much worse than some of Burroughs' liberties (such as a prehistoric man being close enough to the apes, that he can talk to modern day ones with no problem in THE ETERNAL SAVAGE, one of many problems with that book). There's also the latent racism that exists in books like this. Some of which can be defended if you pause and think about it objectively a bit (it is about uncivilized and uneducated areas of the jungle and natives do tend to be more barbaric as well as superstitious) but there are other areas where you just shake your head and be thankful we've become a little more aware since then. For the most part though Ka-zar dislikes all men equally. It's no more than what's usually found in Burroughs or Howard.

It's a good book though. In some ways it's better crafted and more ambitious than Burroughs, it almost reads as the type of book Lester Dent would have come up with if he chose to write a Tarzan type character. It's not as fantastic or atmospheric as Burroughs and he doesn't really get into explaining the nuts & bolts of the strange lost world to the point of almost boring you as ERB is wont to do at times such as TARZAN AND THE ANT-MEN.

Basically, Ka-zar is travelling the jungle with his animal companions in order to forget his heartbreak over the seeming betrayal of Claudette which has caused him to distrust all mankind. However, his elephant causes a landslide and while Trajar the Elephant escapes harm, Ka-zar, Zar the lion and Nono the monkey fall into a deep sheer chasm and knocked unconscious. Unable to scale the walls, he follows a cavern into a nestled valley with an Egyptian city complete with degenerated in-bred slaves and their "white" Egyptian citizens. But it's a civilization posed on revolt as their old ruler has died under mysterious circumstances. It's now ruled by his proud haughty daughter, worshipper of the good goddess Isis but fears the machinations of the two chief priests, one of Seti and the other of Pthos, the dark god of the slaves. Into this comes Ka-zar, too proud to bend to the will of the young Queen and feared by everyone else. It differs a bit from Burroughs in that the Queen is played as being young and thoroughly royal. She reacts emotionally and quick to punish to the point that while beautiful, to Ka-zar's eyes (and this reader), she comes across cruel at times. And it's a situation that Zut, the wily priest of Seti is quick to exploit, eager to set himself up as ruler. If this was a Burroughs story, he'd be the bad guy because he was a coward and had the hots for the Queen, but here he's a schemer through and through. And while there's the usual Queen has the hots for the hero situation, she doesn't really come off quite as weepy and subservient because she is a female. That a lot about her stems from her relative youth, suddenly being thrust into a situation beyond her, and just being raised as being royalty and above everyone else.

So, for a while the story is Ka-zar in a situation where neither party is necessarily the "good" side. In a much longer novel and under slightly more deft hands, there's a lot to be mined here that only really gets touched on. But then this is supposed to be an action/adventure story and it eventually does develop in open battle and he has to choose somewhat obvious sides. And the story ends on a somewhat bittersweet note through the machinations of again the too smart lion.

If you like jungle lord stories, this one is definitely worth seeking out.