Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Witchblood

Book Review: 'Witchblood' by Will Shetterly

3 / 5 Stars

‘Witchblood’ (197 pp) was published by Ace Books in March 1986; the cover art is by Penalva.

Author Shetterly is best known for his shared-world series from the 1980s, set in the city of ‘Liavek’. He also authored the initial, and succeeding, volumes in the successful Young Adult series ‘Bordertown’.

‘Witchblood’ is set in a quasi-Oriental fantasy world, where those who practice magic – the Witches of the book’s title – have been forced to live apart from others, a consequence of wars and atrocities committed by their forebears against the common folk.

The novel’s protagonist is one Rifkin, a Zen adept and practitioner of Kung Fu; the narrative is a first-person flashback of his days as a wanderer.

During his travels off the beaten path, Rifkin finds himself obliged to serve as the bodyguard for a young witch named Naiji. This is no easy assignment, for the castle within which Naiji and her brother Talivane make their abode is due to come under attack by a warlord named Komaki. The castle’s defenders are badly outnumbered; can Rifkin teach them enough of the Art of the Warrior to ensure their survival ?

This perilous situation isn’t helped by Rifkin’s growing awareness that he has magical powers of his own. Are the powers his to control, or do they originate from a more sinister source ? As the forces of conquest move on Castle Gromandiel, Rifkin and his small force of defenders must find some way to wrest victory from what seems to be certain defeat ….

‘Witchblood’ is a competent take on infusing a sardonic, world-weary approach to the sword-and-sorcery theme.

As a protagonist, the diminutive Rifkin shies from the bellowing derring-do of a ‘Conan’ or ‘Brak the Barabarian’, preferring instead to avoid combat / bloodshed if at all possible (in the best Zen Martial Arts tradition). He delivers his koan-inspired aphorisms with more than a hint of humor. Indeed, with his constant quips, skepticisms, and wisecracks, Rifkin has more the personality of a Jewish, New York City-based standup comic than the traditional fantasy hero.

The novel relies heavily on lengthy passages of dialogue and banter to impart its story, and the action takes some time getting underway, but once the battle scenes start, they hold the reader’s interest.

Author Shetterly makes it clear that in this contest, complete victory may not be achievable, giving his novel a more gritty, realistic quality than that exhibited in other ‘Oriental’-themed fantasy novels, such as the ‘Rajan’ series by Tim Lukeman.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Telefield by Macedo

'Telefield' by Sergio Macedo
from the December 1977 issue of Heavy Metal

Just when Cedryll and Cyris, our swingin’ New Age couple, decide it would be far-out to do some meditation in the nude, some nasty bikers, or mad scientists, decide to come by and lay some heavy negativity on the scene. 

But, as is always the case, the good vibrations of the couple’s psychic energy fields are sufficient to repel the bad guys…..and the meditation in the nude can resume !

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Book Review: The Year's Best Fantasy Stories 5

Book Review: 'The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 5' edited by Lin Carter

2 / 5 Stars

'The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 5' is DAW Book No. 370 (204 pp.) and was published in January 1980. The cover artwork is by Jordi Penalva.

This edition of the ‘Year’s Best’ features tales that saw print in 1978 and 1979; many were appearing for the first time in this volume, while others appeared in other anthologies, or small- and large- circulation magazines.

Reflecting the rather lean pickings in the genre for that year (and, too, editor Carter’s preferences), a number of entries were previously published, and qualified for inclusion due to being reprinted in one form or another in ’78.

The anthology leads off with ‘The Troll’, written by T. H. White in the 1930s; more a horror story than fantasy, it deals with a tourist’s unlucky excursion to Sweden.

There are several shorter pieces. ‘In the Balance’, by Tanith Lee, is a fable about students and their pursuit of magical training. David Mallory’s ‘St George’ takes the legend of the virtuous knight, and tries too hard to do something hip and smarmy with it. 

Grail Undwin’s ‘Rhian and Garanhir’ is a slight tale of unspoken yearnings between a knight and a princess. Evangeline Walton’s ‘Above Ker-is’, originally written in 1927, deals with a  self-righteous cleric and a mocking village maid. Marvin Kaye’s ‘Ms Lipshutz and the Goblin’ is an effort at fusing fantasy with New York City-style Yiddish humor.

As was typical for Carter, this volume contains at least one entry relating to R. E. Howard or his creations. ‘The Gem in the Tower’, written by de Camp and Carter, is a modestly successful Conan tale in which our barbarian hero, doing a turn at pirate, investigates a sinister structure on a remote tropical island.

Yet another ‘unpublished’ REH manuscript ‘discovered’ by literary agent Glenn Lord finds its way to ‘Year’s Best: 5’ (even Carter expresses some incredulity at the frequency with which these unpublished manuscripts appear). 

This time it’s a story titled ‘Lord of the Dead’, starring belligerent detective Steve Harrison, blundering around Chinatown, and its Inscrutable Orientals, on the trail of an assassin. Devoid of fantasy elements, and apparently composed by Howard for publication in a detective / Oriental themed pulp, the inclusion of ‘Lord’ indicates editorial fatigue on Carter’s part.

There are two stories featuring female protagonists. Pat McIntosh’s ‘Child of Air’ is a rather oblique tale in which Thula the warrior maiden sees herself contested over by rival mages. In Janet Fox’s ‘Demon and Demoiselle’, Arcana the lady wizard seeks to retrieve her familiar from a powerful warlock; there is an emphasis on satiric humor.

Humor is also the main ingredient in Craig Shaw Gardner’s ‘A Malady of Magicks’, in which the down-at-heels wizard Ebenezum delves into strange phenomena at an otherwise prosperous farm.

Adrian Cole contributes ‘Astral Stray’, in which a familiar, seeking the protection of a new master, plays dangerous games with the patrons of an otherworldly inn.

In summary, this is one of the weaker editions of the ‘Year’s Best’ compilations. To be fair, this was a reflection of the rather limited availability of print outlets in the late 1970s, wherein one could find worthy short fiction pieces devoted to the genre. 

But it’s also clear that Carter was becoming increasingly uninspired in executing his editorial duties for this particular anthology. With 'Year's Best' No. 5, he was getting by on his status as a well-known fantasy enthusiast, rather than putting real effort into ferreting out above-average entries suitable for consideration.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

'The Bus' by Paul Kirchner

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Skull and Crossbones by Caza

'Skull and Crossbones' by Caza
from the December 1981 issue of Heavy Metal

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

As Though They Were Living by Corben

'As Though They Were Living' by Richard Corben
from Vampirella No. 30, January 1974

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: The Last Magicians

Book Review: 'The Last Magicians' by John Jakes

3 / 5 Stars
‘The Last Magicians’ (190 pp) was published by Signet books in September 1969; the cover artwork is uncredited.

Cham is one of the last Red Magicians not sworn to the service of the godhead of evil, the ‘Unborn’, and his Arch Mage, the sorcerer Imm. While much of the world is in the grip of a destructive war between Imm and the upstart college of the Blue Magicians, Cham simply wants passage from the northern town of Lumina to Seastrand, his home across the ocean.

Unfortunately, despite his brooding and dangerous appearance, people have a habit of messing with Cham, and while in Lumina, he runs afoul of the local cut-throats.

What starts as some back-alley bladework quickly escalates into a forced alliance with King Balsto, who recognizes that a Red Magician is an asset when gathering an expedition designed to cross the ocean, to confront Imm and his forces of darkness. 

But things get complicated when Cham meets the King’s stunning bride, Debra….and events take a turn that sends Cham into perils both natural and supernatural….

‘The Last Magicians’ is competent sword and sorcery from Jakes, who is better known for his ‘Brak the Barbarian’ character. Cham, unlike Brak, is less of a straightforward hack-and-slasher, although he does carry the soul-drinking sword ‘Red Slut’, in homage to Michael Moorcock’s ‘Stormbringer’.

Cham is  a bit more cerebral than Brak, and a little more deliberate, which is helpful when spell-casting becomes the more important form of combat.

‘The Last Magicians’ has a darker tone to it than most sword and sorcery fiction of its era, incorporating some particularly loathsome monsters, a quasi-invincible army of zombies, and a debauched city flush with orgies and human sacrifice.

‘Magicians’ is worth searching out by sword-and-sorcery fans of the ‘Brak’ and ‘Conan’ novels.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

'Heavy Metal' magazine, December 1981

It's December 1981, and the nights come earlier and the weather turns colder. 

On the 14th, Hall and Oates release a single off their album Private Eyes titled 'I Can't Go for That (No Can Do).'

By the end of the month, this song is ubiquitous on the radio airwaves and MTV, and by the end of January the song goes to No. 1 on both the Billboard pop and R & B charts - quite an achievement.

The December issue of 'Heavy Metal' magazine is on the stands. The cover illustration is a photograph (taken by Chris Stein) of 'Blondie' lead singer Debby Harry, in makeup and costume designed by the artist H. R. Giger. The back cover is 'Weekends Are Made for Balibob' by Thomas Warkentin.

The feature article for the December issue, written by Harry and her boyfriend and band-mate Stein, is a photo essay about their adventures with Giger, who provided the cover artwork for Harry's solo album KooKoo, released in July 1981.

Indeed, more cynical readers could get the feeling that the December issue is a thinly veiled advertisement for KooKoo. However, as it turned out, 1981 was the high-water mark for both Harry and Blondie; the following year the band would go through a rancorous break up, and would not re-form until 1997.

Elsewhere in the December issue are ongoing installments of Segrelle's 'The Mercenary', Corben's 'Den II', Findlay's 'Tex Arcana', 'At the Middle of Cymbiola' by Schuiten and Renard, and the final episode of Bilal's 'The Immortal's Fete'.

There are two outstanding one-shot pieces in this issue: a fine comic from Caza titled 'Skull and Crossbones', and 'Mirror of Dreams' by Paul Kirchner, which I've posted below.

'Mirror' features Kirchner's meticulous, clean-lined draftsmanship melded with a well-researched depiction of Japanese landscape, architecture, and cultural themes.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Book Review: Daystar and Shadow

Book Review: 'Daystar and Shadow' by James B. Johnson

 3 / 5 Stars

 ‘Daystar and Shadow’ is DAW Book No. 427 (206 pp.), released in March 1981; the cover art is by Ken W. Kelly.

Its title is rather corny, and lends itself better to a romance novel than sci-fi, but ‘Daystar’ is actually a pretty good adventure novel. 

It’s set several centuries after WWIII has devastated America. Most of the central region of the nation is a desert wasteland, inhabited by venemous, sand- burrowing ‘fireworms’ that apparently are of extraterrestrial origin. 

Pockets  of civilization survive at El Paso, Taos, Santa Fe, San Diego, and other locales in the Southwest.

The first-person narrator is Robin, aka Daystar, abandoned as an infant in the desert by his family due to his autism. Far from being devoured by the fireworms, Robin is able to establish a telepathic link with them, and not only survives his ordeal, but becomes an accomplished dowser and all-around desert survival specialist. 

Early in his wanderings he encounters Daystar, an autistic girl, and together they become colleagues in identifying underground water sources for exploitation by thirsty cities.

As they progress in their wanderings, Daystar and Shadow grow increasingly aware that the religious sect ruling postapocalyptic America, the New Christian Church, has a particular animus against autistics. There are gruesome public executions of Blasphemers, rumors of abductions, and tales of secret redoubts in the depths of the wastelands. 

What are the New Christians hiding ? What is the reason for their crusade against the autistic segment of the population ? When Daystar and Shadow embark on a  quest to answer these questions, they uncover a conspiracy that involves the fate of the planet…..

Author James R. Johnson writes with a clear, easy style and keeps his chapters short and filled with action. At the same time, ‘Daystar’ has a more imaginative tenor to its narrative than the usual postapocalyptic adventures stories featuring ‘Radioactive Rambos’ (‘The Survivalist’, ‘Endworld’, ‘Death Lands’, etc.). 

Readers who liked classics like ‘Damnation Alley’ or ‘The Postman’ may want to give ‘Daystar and Shadow’ a try.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Welcome to Cityville by Caza

'Welcome to Cityville' by Caza
from the December 1979 issue of Heavy Metal

a downbeat tale for the start of the Winter season......

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review: Death in Silver

Book Review: 'Death in Silver' by Kenneth Robeson

3 / 5 Stars

‘Death in Silver’ originally appeared in the October, 1934 issue of Doc Savage magazine; the author was Lester Dent. Bantam re-issued ‘Silver’ as series paperback No. 26  in July 1968.

‘Silver’ is the very first Doc Savage book I ever saw, back in the late 60s when I was 9 or 10 years old, on the shelves in the small library in the upstate New York town where I lived. The great cover artwork by James Bama was of course eye-catching, and has remained in my memory for those 40+ years. 

‘Silver’ deals with the depredations of the Silver Death’s-Heads Gang, who commit crimes clad in unusual garments of silver fabric, with headgear that obscures their faces save for skull-like openings for the eyes, nose, and mouth.

As the novel opens a shipping magnate named Paine Winthrop discovers he has earned the wrath of the Death’s- Heads. A tremendous explosion in the skyscraper housing Winthrop’s offices draws the attention of Monk and Ham, and in due course, Doc Savage himself. 

There are some bloody encounters with members of the Deaths-Heads as Doc and his team struggle to learn why Winthrop was targeted. The activities of the gang are difficult to unravel, but seem to be centered among the slum warehouses on the city waterfront. 

It transpires that the Deaths-Heads are led by a sinister genius named Ull, and he and the Deaths-Heads aren’t too pleased to discover that they have earned the scrutiny of the Man of Bronze. Ull decides that they have to eliminate Doc Savage and his team as soon as possible- and if the deed requires excessive violence, Ull is happy to oblige…

Lester Dent was in pretty good form with ‘Death in Silver’. The action moves at a brisk pace, and Ull is a worthy adversary in terms of his ability to counter Doc’s scientific wizardry.  As with many of the early Savage novels, there are some red herrings introduced early in the plot, and the revelation of the identity of the criminal mastermind is withheld until the last few pages.

‘Death in Silver’ is one of the better Savage novels of the 30s and if you spot a reasonably priced copy on the used bookshelves, it may be worth picking up.