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 LAST UPDATE  9/30/19

Golden Wings and Other Stories by William Morris, Newcastle, 1976    

This is a collection of stories Morris published in his college magazine. It has been reprinted as Early Romances. Most of the stories are fantasy by courtesy only, taking place in alternate past societies. There is a hint of magic here and there, mostly in the form of visions or dreams. The best story is “The Hollow Land,” but none of them are particularly memorable, about half are deadly dull, and all of them are horribly overwritten. 9/30/19

The Birth of the Blade by Dennis McCarty, Del Rey, 1993     

The author’s last published book is in the same world as the Thlassa Mey series, but set much earlier. Evil sorcerers rule the land and a goddess decides to choose a group of mortals to overthrow them. The gods are not allowed to intervene themselves, you see, except isn’t that exactly what she is doing? They have various adventures before being united to deal with the chief villains in a very perfunctory climax. I suspect this was to be the first in a new series, but no further adventures appeared. 9/28/19

The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris, Ballantine, 1969 (originally published in 1894)

Walter is a young man who has visions of two women and a dwarf which eventually lead him to explore an unknown land. He falls in love with one of the women and is lusted after by the other, both of whom have magical powers. There is an evil dwarf, a magically created lion, a tribe of primitive humans, a distant great city, a powerful storm at sea, etc.  The tone is that of a fairy tale. Many of the motivations are vague and there are lots of unanswered questions. There is, however, no real climax. The evil woman is thwarted off stage and retroactively, and the protagonist has several very minor adventures after that. Interesting but not very well constructed. 9/24/19

A Fable by William Faulkner, Signet, 1950  

Technically this is a fantasy. During World War I, a soldier is infused with the spirit of what might be Jesus and convinces many other soldiers not to attack the Germans, which leads to the Germans reciprocating. Naturally this doesn’t last. I managed to get through this while I was in college, but it was a struggle. It wasn’t any easier this time. Faulkner thought highly of it, but he was pretty much alone. It feels forced and pretentious and there’s not a single scene that I would describe as memorable. It also feels as though someone else had written it and I have to wonder what possessed Faulkner to write it. 9/21/19

The Water of the Wondrous Isles by William Morris, Del Rey, 1895  

I’m afraid I found this one tedious and self-absorbed. The various islands are obviously meant to be symbols, but it’s not always clear what they mean. A young child is stolen by a witch, escapes after growing to maturity, has a series of very low key adventures, falls in love with a knight who is already betrothed, and goes off on her own rather than betray a friend. She eventually finds her mother, who dies, then decides that she must be reunited with her lover. He has gone insane but she nurses him back to health. Very long, awkwardly phrased, lacking in any real adventure. I struggled to finish. 9/19/19

Black Is the Color by John Brunner, Pyramid, 1969 

This is generally included in lists of Brunner’s science fiction, but it’s really just a contemporary thriller with ambiguous hints of the supernatural. The protagonist almost inadvertently offends members of a voodoo cult in London and they decide to kill him with magic. He is not a believer, and it appears that everything is simply psychological, but the fact that he rejects the possibility consciously does not mean that his subconscious is not credulous. And even consciously, he is worried about more mundane forms of retribution. Magic does seem to work toward the end of the novel, but we are never explicitly told that this is the case. It is otherwise a fair but not entirely satisfying thriller – the two chief villains are deported and not really punished. 9/18/19

Across the Thlassa May by Dennis McCarty, Del Rey, 1991   

The fourth in this series is repetitive and boring and I was constantly picking the book up and putting it down. One of the heroines is kidnapped, again. The hero’s son is kidnapped, again. An old villain killed in an earlier book returns from the dead and has to be vanquished, again. King Lothar attempts to conquer the good kingdom of Carea, again. He fails, again. Clearly the author had run out of plot ideas. His next book would be his last although he was certainly good enough to have continued writing. 9/14/19

The Well at the World’s End by William Morris, Ballantine, 1970 (originally published in 1896)

The youngest son of the king of a small kingdom goes off to have adventures. He has a lot of them, too many in fact. Most are only a few pages long and the story is choppy and excessively anecdotal. It’s a coming of age quest with no real characterization. For me, it lacks the charm of The Wood Beyond the World and is repetitive, sometimes confusing because the characters are so interchangeable, and occasionally vague about details. Ballantine felt compelled to publish this in two volumes, although I can’t imagine why, given that they had already published the much longer Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner in one volume, and it was much longer. 9/11/19

The Glittering Plain by William Morris, Newcastle, 1891   

This was arguably the first novel of heroic fantasy, set entirely in an invented world. The protagonist sets off to rescue the woman he loves, who has been abducted by pirates. He has various adventures in several different places, including the land of the Glittering Plain. He is eventually successful, of course. Morris would drop some of the eccentricities of his prose after this one and his later fantasies are much more readable by contemporary standards.9/10/19

The Roots of the Mountains by William Morris, Newcastle, 1979   (Originally published in 1889) 

I found this long quasi-historical novel with fantasy overtones to be rather tedious. It’s a kind of sequel to The House of the Wolflings set generations later when the clans are beginning to coalesce into towns. There is just too much time describing the setting and culture and not enough on the plot, which largely involves the adventures of a young man who is trying to find his appropriate place in a world split between woods and cities. 9/7/19

Lords of Thlassa Mey by Dennis McCarty, Del Rey,  1989  

More adventures as our heroes are split into two parties after an evil sorcerer plots to open a gateway and allow the dark gods back into the world. There are kidnappings, zombies, soldiers, a magical curse, cultists, old enemies and new ones. A new hero is introduced – a minstrel whose singing contains magical powers. He becomes the romantic interest for the only unattached one among our continuing heroes. The climax involves one hero demonstrating a power we did not know he possessed, which is rather a cheat. 9/2/19

The House of the Wolflings by William Morris, Newcastle, 1978  (originally published in 1888) 

Morris first used fantastic elements in this historical novel about the battle between village based civilization and the big city, in this case Rome. He clearly sided with the Germanic tribes. The protagonist of this unusual tale – told half in verse and half in prose – is the war leader of the Wolf Clan. A mysterious woman who might not be human offers him magical armor, but ultimately he decides not to use it but to fight as a mortal man. The very long and detailed descriptions will put off most modern readers. 8/30/19

Warriors of Thlassa Mey by Dennis McCarty, Del Rey, 1986  

This one has an overly familiar plot. Take your cast of characters, split them up, send each on his or her own series of adventures – pirates, evil sorcerers, lecherous noblemen, hazards at sea, slavers, etc. – and then being them all back together at the end while the villains are defeated, if not destroyed. Throw in a magic sword about which almost nothing is said and which has virtually nothing to do with the story. Provide a map that does not include several of the places named in the story. Stir thoroughly and add a title. 8/26/19

The Wandering Duke by Susan Dexter, 2013  

Del Rey books decided not to go forward with the Calandra books, so many years later the author self published the next in the series. It is, alas, not very good. The king has had dreams which he believes indicate a goddess is summoning him and his best friend, the duke, agrees to go along on a rather tedious and ultimately disappointing quest. If there had not been so much fantasy appearing at the time, the series might have been more successful. 8/22/19

The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens, Bison, 2004   

This collects pretty much all of the author’s shorter fiction – including three novellas – but despite the title a good many of them are not fantasy at all, and certainly not dark fantasy. There is an introduction that attributes all sorts of prescience and importance to them but it is mostly nonsense. Some of the stories present pretty good adventures and there is a lost world and a genuine psychic. One is an imitation of a Poe story and one involves a sentient island in a future in which females are physically and culturally dominants. It’s a large collection with points of interesting, but reading it straight through is something of a chore. 8/19/19

Flight to Thlassa Mey by Dennis McCarty, Del Rey, 1986 

First in a series of five, the only books the author wrote. It’s a standard fantasy adventure. Disgraced knight comes out of retirement to help a princess held hostage to escape a villainous king while an insane wizard with a legion of followers tries to kill them as well. An uninspired series of adventures follow with a man who can see the future, but only provides teasing tidbits, and some of that artificially formal dialogue that was and still is characteristic of mediocre fantasy. There’s also an enchanted sword naturally. And Thlassa Mey is not a place, exactly. It’s an ocean. So it should be a flight TO Thlassa Mey.  8/9/19

Kingmaker by Margaret Weis & Robert Krammes, Tor, 2019, $29.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-811-8

Sometimes I just don't understand publishers. They send a review copy of the final book in a trilogy of which I've never even seen copies of the first two books, let alone read them. I thought about skipping this one, but I was in the mood for a fantasy adventure and Weis has entertained me in the past. Fortunately I was able to pick up most of the threads of the story, but not all of them. There's a fairly typical war in a fairly typical fantasy world, and the bad guy seems to be coming out on top. The story comes to a conclusion with a mixture of swashbuckling style adventure featuring a nicely portrayed female hero and a less interesting but still well done bit of espionage and subversion. Enjoyable naval battles add  another dimension. I suppose I will track down the first two and read them, but I already know how everything comes out, so they'll likely be disappointing unless I wait long enough for the memories to fade. 8/6/19

Death Goddess Dance by Levi Black, Tor, 2019, $28.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8252-8

Third and I think last in a series that mixes fantasy with Lovecraftian horror. The first book was fair, the second quite good, and the finale is excellent. The protagonist was formerly a servant of Nyarlathotep but won her freedom. As if the world was not already in enough danger, Nyarlathotep plans to release his father, Azathoth, and set him loose upon the Earth. So our hero has to make her way through a veritable labyrinth of horrors and face down a bunch of nasty characters in order to save not only the world but the entire cosmos. This was a lot of fun. I will be interested to see where the author goes from here.8/6/19

Avalon by Francis Stevens, 1919  

This was easily the author’s weakest novel, a very boring story about a dysfunctional family that owns an island off the Carolina coast, which they operate as a kind of medieval fiefdom. Except the oldest of the three siblings returns from five years out of the country to find that his sister is involved in some nefarious – and not particularly intelligent – plot against him. There’s a shipwreck and a murder, both of which happen offstage. There is a hint of the supernatural, but it is ambiguous at best and has no effect on the plot. A very boring adventure story, with very little adventure. 8/1/19

The Heads of Cerberus by Francis Stevens, Carroll & Graf,    (originally published in 1919) 

This is not, I am afraid, among the author’s better works. A vial full of powder is opened. Sniffing the powder transports people magically to an alternate world where the US broke up into 48 sovereign states. They are in Pennsyvania, which is a repressive religious dictatorship. After a few adventures and lots of lectures typical of utopian and dystopian fiction, they return to their own world. Some good moments, but not many of them, and the alternate world’s social system does not seem remotely workable.  7/20/19

Dragonslayer by Duncan Hamilton, Tor, 2019, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-250-30673-9

Opening volume of a trilogy. The setting is a familiar one to fantasy readers. Dragons are believed to have been extinct for centuries and most of the magic has left the world of Mirabaya. Any wars are distant and the rulers and knights have all become decadent or worse. Their world is about to be upset, however, because a dragon has survived in hibernation, is now awake, and is determined to wreak vengeance against the human race. None of the current crop of warriors can stand against the menace, so the ruler is forced to track down a legendary survivor of a revered order of knights. But unfortunately for the king, the man does not possess the kind of power that is required for the battle. Unfortunately for the man himself, he is bound by his personal code to make the attempt. If you haven't read this general story too many times already, you'll likely find this entertaining because the story line has enduring popular appeal and the writing here is not bad at all. 7/16/19

Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens, Paperback Library, 1968 (originally published in 1918)   

Two prospectors stumble upon a lost civilization in Mexico that closely resembles that of the Aztecs. After various adventures, one of them escapes. When he returns fifteen years later, the city is in ruins and the inhabitants are gone. But something sinister almost kills his sister and he finds himself pitted against not just a madman with dangerous knowledge but a god incarnate who longs to become the supreme deity. Reminiscent of A.Merritt, this is an imaginative, often very suspenseful story embellished with exotic scenery and events. It was the high point of the author’s short but very impressive career. 7/11/19

The Heart of Hell by Wayne Barlowe, Tor, 2019, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2456-6

This is the sequel to God's Demon from 2007, in which a revolution takes place in Hell. One of the demon lords emerges triumphant and leads the imprisoned souls to a different kind of afterlife, but that doesn't mean that Hell has ceased to exist. In some ways the demons are relieved to be free of their former duties, but fresh crises arrive and several individual characters find that they are carrying around their own private hells and have not escaped the torment. The book creates a bizarre setting filled with unusual characters. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a typical fantasy novel, although it employs some of the same elements. This might even find an audience among those who don't usually enjoy fantasy.7/5/19

 

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