Old Friends

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I think most of us go through periods were we do relatively little reading, and so you fall behind on books and authors you like. As I’ve been moving back into a period where I’m doing a lot more reading again, I’m not only discovering new writers like Patrick Rothfuss (review coming soon) and established writers I never got around to reading for some reason (like Michael Stackpole), I’m also taking the time to go back and spend check out new works (at least, new to me) of some of the authors I’ve enjoyed many times over the years.

So if you will indulge me a bit, today is all about saying hi to some old friends.

My first visit is with Michael Moorcock, who’s been writing fiction almost as long as I’ve been alive, and I’ve been reading his work almost as long as I’ve been able to read. There are three authors that I grew up reading that have defined the classic sword and sorcery style of epic fantasy, and Moorcock is one of them (the other two are Tolkien and Fritz Leiber, who I’m sure I’ll talk about some other day). Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone.

Elric is the last Emperor of Melnibone, a sorceror and an albino. He is the owner of — and owned by — a demon in the shape of a Sword, Stormbringer. If there’s a common theme in the Elric stories, it’s that whatever else happens, “lives happily ever after” is not likely, and not sustained. Elric is far from a noble being and the world around him is dark and bleak, but I don’t believe he’s an evil person. More properly, he’s a survivor in a world that is evil around him.

Del Rey has recently come out with new editions of some of his work, with two collections of his earlier short stories, Elric: The Stealer of Souls and Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn. There’s a third volume, Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress which I haven’t read yet, but which is on my todo list for sometime soon. The universe Elric lives in is rich and complex, Moorcock’s language is powerful — and the imagery he builds in these stories is dark and frequently somewhat disturbing. I find I can only read so much of his work at a time, and then I have to stop before it depresses me too much; it leaves me with a bit of a desire for something light and fluffy for a while to counterbalance it. Any time an author affects me that strongly it’s a good thing, but at the same time, I do suggest if you find yourself reacting that way as well, you might want to take your time and read these volumes in bits and pieces.

But read them you should, and if you haven’t discovered Moorcock yet, you’re in for a treat.

Another flavor of fantasy I love is urban fantasy, where the themes and memes of the fantasy world get interwoven with today’s reality in a way that makes you feel that perhaps you’ll cross the street and find yourself slipping into Faerie by chance. There’s no author who does that better than Charles de Lint and one of his better books at exploring this intersection is The Onion Girl. His characters live in a typical city, and then the walls into the Faerie world start breaking down, and much of the story involves them coming to grips with this as their world turns upside down.

In the Onion Girl, Jill Coppercorn is an artist who has long painted a fantasy land that doesn’t exist, the dark and the shadow that hides within the city. When she’s hit by a car and facing a long recovery while unable to paint, she falls into depression and disappears down into her dreams to escape her reality. Her friends face the challenge of helping her through this time — but when things start happening in this reality that seem tied to the land she visits in the dreams, de Lint calls into question reality in general.

I love de Lints’ characters and how he tells their stories. Their stories are rarely fun — but this isn’t the bleak desolation of Elric, but more the sadness of desperation and isolation. His intertwinining of the real world and the faerie world is fascinating and complex, and he seems to love playing with the concept of which is “the real world” by challenging our assumptions that what is comfortable and familiar is what is real.  He’s another author that if you haven’t discovered you will find a treat. Other works of his I’ll happily recommend include Svaha, Forests of the Heart, and Jack of Kinrowan.

I seem to be on a darkish fantasy kick this week, so let’s continue with one more. Peter David has been in the field for a long time as a writer of comic books and Star Trek novels, and also has a strong set of original fiction works as well. He’s written science fiction and fantasy, light work, dark work. I have to admit that Laurie and once named a pair of bad guys in a story we published after him — and he retaliated by making me the sound effect of one of his superheroes being run over by a tank in one of his comic books. I was honored.

Tigerheart is one of my favorite books that he’s written. It is a retelling of a classic victorian tale that we will all find familiar but which won’t get him in any legal trouble with the J.M Barrie’s estate. It’s the story of The Boy, and Gwenny, and the Bully Boys, and a little fairy that cusses a lot more than she did in the Disney movie.

To the degree that Peter Pan is darkish and without happy endings, so is this. But it’s a lot of fun and a rip-roaring read, and a lot of fun. Unlike Peter Maguire’s Wicked (which I love, but I love the stage play even more — but the play is a much different telling than the book of the same story. But I digress), where Wicked puts the story into another character’s viewpoint and turns it on its ear, David tells the same story, but tells it very differently. Both retellings have an adult sensibility to them, so don’t plan on using them to read your kid to bed.

One final book for this week, one final old friend to share. I’ve been reading Larry Niven since high school. His classic work Ringworld defines the hard SF genre for many of us, and his Ringworld universe is one I’ve visited many times. But today, let me introduce you The Draco Tavern. It’s a bar —  but it’s a bar that caters to all of the known sentient species with all of their known foibles and vices.

Okay, remember when I was talking about Elric and saying that after a while, I felt like I neede something light and fluffy to read? Well, this is it. Larry Niven gets to invent interesting and weird species and have them walk into the bar (or slither, or fly, or teleport, or…) and then entertainment ensues. They’re fun stories. They’re engaging stories. They are not going to make you rethinking the core of your philosophy, but they’ll leave you with a smile, and like everything Niven writes, they’re well done. Mostly? They’re fun. and sometimes, I don’t know about you, but i don’t want deep, earth shaking fiction, I want to turn off my brain and enjoy myself. And Draco’s Tavern is a wonderful place to do so.

In many ways, Draco’s Tavern is Niven channeling James White’s Sector General, which is the same style and type of stories, only set in a hospital designed to take care of the sick of any species known in the universe (and capable of figuring out ones that get discovered). If you’ve read White, you know what Draco’s Tavern is about. If you haven’t, then when you’re done with this book, go grab a copy of Hospital Station. This stuff is classic mind candy — but sometimes, what you need is mind candy. And these are well worth an evening on the couch.

Until next week, enjoy….

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