Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis: The Spawn of Dagon

"The Spawn of Dagon"
from Elak of Atlantis
Henry Kuttner
Planet Stories - Paizo Publishing
Trade Paperback, $12.95, 2007

In my first post about Kuttner's Elak, I stated that the Paizo volume was to my knowledge the first time all the stories had been collected under one set of covers.  I have since discovered that they were collected in 1985 along with the Prince Raynor tales in a volume titled, what else, Elak of Atlantis, with illustrations by none other than Brad Foster.  Unfortunately the link doesn't have much in the way of publisher information.

This second installment in the Elak series, "The Spawn of Dagon," is a completely different tale than the first story, "Thunder in the Dawn."  For one thing, it's much shorter than Thunder.  In fact, this is the shortest of the Elak stories, although the remaining two aren't much longer.

For another, this is a straight action adventure tale with none of the otherwordliness of interdimensional travel we saw in the first installment.  The story opens with Elak and Lycon making a grisly bet over the body of a man they've just killed in a bar fight to determine who gets his purse.  When they have to flee from the guards summoned by the innkeeper, they are rescued by a man calling Gesti, who enlists Elak's aid in killing the evil sorcerer Zend, who has been controlling the ruler of the city.  Elak sneaks into his tower, Lycon having passed out from too much drink, and proceeds to discover that some bargains are best left unmade, especially if they involve getting in the middle of a battle between evil wizards..

Needless to say, Gesti has secrets he's keeping.  Elak, who is rejoined by Lycon, manages to get out of the fix and rescue a beautiful girl from being sacrificed in the process.  Unlike Velia from Thunder, who isn't mentioned, this girl is merely the obligatory cheesecake, with virtually no character development.  Of course nothing in the story states that its events take place following those of Thunder.  We have no idea where in Elak's lifetime this story takes place other than after he was banished and began hanging around with Lycon.

In fact, Lycon spends most of his time passed out somewhere.  What little characterization there is centers on Elak, who is presented in, shall we say, a less than heroic light.  Certainly his motives and actions are less noble in this story than they were in Thunder.  This story is much more imitative of Robert E. Howard's Conan, only without the Cimmerian's inherent nobility and code of honor.  Sort of a Conan Lite.

Negatives aside, there are some positive things about this second Elak tale.  The prose is more polished and flows more smoothly than in Thunder.  One of the best things about it to my mind is that Dagon contains none of the glaring anachronisms of Thunder.

One last thing must be mentioned.  This story has a Lovecraftian feel to it.  Dagon, in addition to being the principal deity of the Philistines in the Old Testament, is also one of the Elder Gods H. P. Lovecraft included in his Mythos stories, one of the earliest in fact.  Kuttner, while not a major player like Howard or Smith, was one of the Lovecraft Circle, a group of writers who borrowed  from each other and added to each other's mythologies.  "The Spawn of Dagon" was considered to be lovecraftian enough to be included in The Book of Iod, a now out of print collection of Kuttner's Mythos stories, and the only Elak story in the book.  While I've never really gotten into the whole Lovecraft and Cthulhu thing, Kuttner handles it well.  The influence is clearly present, yet it doesn't overpower the sword and sorcery aspects of the story.  While some will certainly see that as a shortcoming, I think it's a good thing.

So, in conclusion.  While the characters aren't as developed or as honorable as they were in Thunder, the story moves well, has better prose, and lacks the annoying tendency to try to connect Atlantis to known history.  Overall, an enjoyable adventure story worth reading.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Birth of the Moghul Empire

Raiders from the North:  Empire of the Moghul
Alex Rutherford
St. Martin's, 436 pgs., $24.95

The cover was what first attracted me to this book.  I mean, a big axe about to fall against a backdrop of a marching army, with the "O" in the word "North" a shield.  What's not to love?  But many a book has failed to live up to the promises inherent in its cover, so what about the contents?

I'm delighted to say that, while not quite what I was hoping for, this book was well worth the price.  The book is a biographical novel about Babur, founder of the Moghul dynasty in India, and the first in a series called Empire of the Moghul.  This is not a period of history with which I have much familiarity.  Must have been absent when the football coach history teacher covered that unit in school. The term Moghul is the Persian word for Mongol, given to Babur by Shah Ismail as an insult.  Of course Babur adopts it with pride.

The book opens with Babur's father, king of Ferghana, in what is now Uzbekistan, telling him about his destiny to uphold his heritage.  Babur was descended from Timur, known as Tamerlaine in the West, on his father's side and from Genghis Kahn on his mother's side.  This speech, while sounding a bit contrived, sets the tone of the rest of the novel.  Following his words to his son, Babur's father goes to his dovecote on the side of the palace wall, which breaks off and falls to the bottom of a ravine, killinng him and most of the doves.  Thus at twelve, Babur becomes a king.

The schemes, intrigues, and hatching of plots begins immediately.  Aided by the commander of his army, Wazir Kahn, and his wiley grandmother, Esan Dawlat, Babur manages to survive and prosper, at least when he isn't hiding in the hills from his enemies.

Alex Rutherford is the pen name of Michael and Diana Preston, a husband and wife writing team, and they drew heavily from Babur's diaries, known as the Baburnama.  The diaries contain gaps, possibly because Babur didn't always write in them or possibly because some volumes were lost during or shortly after Babur's life.  For example, there is an eleven year gap between parts 3 and 4 of the novel.  In a brief afterward, the Prestons mention that they condensed some portions of Babur's life as well as combined characters in the diary into single individuals.  These characters include Wazir Kahn and Baburi, a market boy Babur befirends who becomes his most trusted companion.  A quick internet search revealed that much of Babur's reign in Kabul and conquest of India were condensed or omitted.

This being a historical novel, there is none of the neatness of plot one would expect to find in a work of pure fiction set in an imaginary world.  Major characters come and go with little or no warning.  Acts of villainy, and there are plenty, often go unavenged, at least by Babur.  Because the authors chose to stick to the main outline of Babur's life, they were compelled to follow to the basic facts rather than tie things up neatly.  This strengthens the novel rather than weakens it.  The speech Babur's father gives him in the open pages sets the theme for the rest of the book, Babur's destiny as a descendant of Timur.  After he has lost both his home kingdom of Ferghana and the city of Samarkand (long coveted by his father and held by his uncle until Babur captures it) and is being pursued by an army of Uzbek raiders, Babur never loses sight of his goal and gives up, even when wallowing in the depths of self-pity.  Indeed there are several exchanges between Babur and Baburi over this notion of destiny.  Baburi at times serves as a foil for Babur, contrasting the freedom of a street urchin with the bonds on a ruler.

Where the book least met my initial expectations were the battle scenes.  While the authors don't shy away from details at times, the details are used sparingly. This makes the specifics more powerful, such as when Babur and his men come upon a small village pillaged by the Uzbeks.  This is probably one of the more graphic scenes in the book and is one of the most effective.  Whereas a writer such as Robert E. Howard would have given detailed accounts of the battles, bringing the reader into the scene with his use of details (which is what I was expecting when I bought the book), the Prestons paint the canvas of the battlefield in broad sweeps, using enough detail to convey the ebb and flow of the armies, but on a less personal scale.  Very little details are given about individual combat except when Babur is directly involved in the attack (or retreat). 

Instead the book focuses on Babur's rising and falling in his attempts to fulfill his destiny and reclaim lands once belonging to Timur.  Character is the emphasis here, not carnage, although there is enough of that to whet the appetite of most fans of action adventure.  Babur grows from an inexperienced, and soft-hearted, young king to a harsh, and at times merciless, emperor.  While I thought the last few years of his life were given short shrift, overall the picture painted is a complete one, with Babur spending the last years of his rule trying to groom his sons to succeed him.

The book closes with Babur's death in his late 40s.  The second volume, Brothers at War, was published this past June in Britain.  I'm looking forward to reading it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Kuttner's Thunder in the Dawn: A Review

"Thunder in the Dawn"
from Elak of Atlantis
Henry Kuttner
Planet Stories - Paizo Publishing
Trade Paperback, $12.95, 2007

Following Robert E. Howard's death in 1936, a number of other writers tried to follow in his footsteps by creating heroic fantasy characters for Weird Tales.  One of these writers was the young Henry Kuttner.  Kuttner created two sword and sorcery series.  The first was Elak of Atlantis, who had four adventures published between 1938 and 1941.  The second was Prince Raynor, published in Strange Stories in 1939, and the subject of a later post on this blog.  All the stories of these two characters are included in this volume from Planet Stories, an imprint of Paizo Publishing.

"Thunder in the Dawn" is the longest of the Elak tales.  The story opens with three men eyeing each other in a tavern in the city of Poseidonis on the southeast coast of the continent of Atlantis.  A fight ensues between Lycon and an unnamed stranger.  Lycon, a habitual drunk who has been waiting on Elak to show up for an appointment, holds his own at first.  When the bartender tries to intervene on behalf of the stranger, Elak shows up just in time to save him.  The stranger calls Elak by name, tells him to wait, then reaches into his tunic and throws a winged snake.  The third stranger gets involved at this point, Dalan, a druid, who saves Elak's life.  He tells Elak, who we learn is really Prince Zeulas, that his home kingdom of Cyrena has been overrun by Vikings and his brother Orander taken captive by the evil wizard named Elf. 

Throughout the story Kuttner uses a lot of names from history, apparently to lend a sense of verisimilitude to the story.  Unfortunately for me, it mostly shatters the suspension of disbelief.  I'll discuss this more later.

Since Elak has kept his past life secret from Lycon, Dalan informs Lycon that Elak had to leave Cyrena after he killed his stepfather in a fight.  Orander became king, and one of the things he did was to forbid Elf from practicing his black arts and human sacrifice.  Elf has sought revenge by forming a treaty with the Vikings to overrun Cyrenia, to be followed by the rest of the Atlantean kingdoms.  He has imprisoned Orander and begun to prepare for the next phase of his plans.  The only people standing in his way are Dalan and Elak.

Elak and Lycon agree to help Dalan rescue Orander, defeat Elf, and free Cyrena.  Dalan wants to leave immediately, but first Elak wants to say goodbye to Velia, the young wife of Duke Granicor, with whom he has been having an affair.  Of course, the Duke is waiting for Elak.  After a brief scuffle, Elak flees with Velia.  She isn't taken as a hostage, but instead insists on going along of her own free will.  Her father had sold her to the Duke, and Velia hates him. 

The geography of Atlantis comes into play in the next part of the story.  A river from a central lake flows to an inland sea and then to the northern ocean, passing through Cyrena.  Dalan has a boat ready, but as they make their way north, Elf uses magic to slow them down and allow Duke Granicor to catch up with them.  Elak is washed overboard in the ensuing battle, and when he awakens, he discovers he is the prisoner of the Pikts, who inhabit an island in the inland sea.  Dalan locates Elak through his crystal ball.  While Dalan, Lycon, and Velia organize the oarsmen for a rescue, Elak has his hands full.  Managing to free himself from his bonds, Elak has to jump into a pool to escape a shadow being worshipped by the Pikts.  What he discovers is a doorway into a shadow dimension.  While there he meets a fawn-like creature named Solonala, who is part deer, part human, and with feline facial features.  She is from a third dimension and was exiled to the shadow world by Elf when he conquered her kingdom.  Pursued by the shadow creature, who is a pawn of Elf, Elak manages to escape with the magical help of Dalan and the physical help of Solonala, but not before she sacrifices herself so he can continue the fight against Elf.

The journey continues with more action and fights, on large and small scales, including a return of Duke Granicor.  The final defeat of Elf takes place in still yet another dimension.  Throughout the story is the action is swift, and the pace relentless. 

Kuttner was trying to branch out at this point in his career.  Up until this time he had mostly written in the vein of Lovecraft for Weird Tales as well as a number of tales for the weird menace and spicy pulps.  (Collected in the forthcoming Terror in the House from Haffner Press.)  It would be easy to dismiss this story as a cheap imitation of Howard.  But further consideration is warranted.  Kuttner was a versatile writer, at least as versatile as Howard.  Whereas Howard wrote fantasy and horror, boxing stories, humorous and serious westerns, and historical adventure, Kuttner expanded his skills in different directions.  Mystery, humorous fantasy, and humorous as well as serious science fiction would be what Kuttner would eventually be known for. 

Also, Howard's most famous fantasy characters were created after he was well established in his career.  Howard sold his first story, "Spear and Fang", to Weird Tales in 1924.  Solomon Kane and Kull were created in 1927, Bran Mak Morn at about the same time, and Conan's first adventure was penned in 1932.  Time from acceptance to publication in those days was on the order of a year.  So if Kuttner' first story was published in 1936, then he had probably been writing professionally (defined as selling on a regular basis) for about two years when he wrote "Thunder in the Dawn".  While both men never stopped learning their craft, Kuttner was not as far along when this story was written has Howard was when he introduced his more famous heroes, especially Conan.  That Kuttner eventually became one of the best writers of his day is evidenced by the stories that would eventually make his reputation, "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," "The Twonky," "A Gnome There Was," and Fury, just to name a few.  The first was these was still half a decade in the future when "Thunder in the Dawn" saw print. 

Does the first of the Elak stories have flaws?  Certainly.  The anachronistic use of historical names, like I said earlier, jarred me out to the story a number of times.  Howard certainly used historical names in his fiction, but most of the time he altered the names slightly, such as changing India to Vendya, to give a familiar yet exotic flavor to his work.  The prose is a bit purple in places and lacks the power of Howard's best work.  But to compare Kuttner's apprentice work to Howard's best seems, to me at least, a bit unfair.  Kuttner was learning.  A reading of his work in chronological order showed he wasn't afraid to take chances and grow any more than Howard was.  Kuttner grew to be one of the most highly regard writers of his day and a master of his field.  It's just that whereas Howard is best remembered for his sword and sorcery, Kuttner made his mark on science fiction.

A final note on the role of women in the story.  Sword and sorcery and similar heroic fiction are often accused by their detractors of using women as little more than sex objects or objects to be rescued by the hero.  While neither Velia nor Solonala are fleshed out to any great depth, they are far from being fragile flowers or screaming women.  Both take active, martial roles in the story.  Kuttner develops their characters about as much as he does any of the male characters.  Elak is only successful in his attempt to defeat Elf because of the assistance the ladies give him at various points in the story, up to and including saving his life.  Howard also wrote his share of strong women.  If Elak was an imitation of Conan, well, this is one area where the imitation should be applauded.

So, while Elak isn't Conan, and Kuttner wasn't writing at the level of Howard at this point in his career, the story is still worth reading.  It moves well, has good action scenes, and the descriptions of the other dimensions are truly eerie in places.  Even if it isn't a major work, "Thunder in the Dawn" is an important story in development of modern sword and sorcery as well as the growth of one of the most versatile writers of fantastic fiction in the mid-twentieth century.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time all the Elak stories have been included in one volume, although they've all been reprinted at least once in various anthologies.  In the next installment, I'll look at the second in the series. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

FYI - Historical Fiction

It seems I may have been a bit premature in my remarks last week about not finding what I was looking for after the Cimmerian blog shut down.  One of the main things I had in mind was a lack of posts about historical events, people, and fiction.  Well, over at REHupa, Morgan Holmes has posted three items relating to historical fiction (plus an announcement of a collection of about Robert E. Howard as well as a post two weeks ago about a collection of tales from the pulp Adventure), while this morning at Black Gate, Bill Ward posted a review of Robert Low's The White Raven.  Undaunted, I intend to blog on.  There is enough heroic fiction and fantastic adventures out there that haven't been blogged about that I'm sure I can find something to discuss.  And who says I can't review an item someone else has already looked at.  Isn't this sort of dialogue and interchange of ideas and opinions what fandom is all about?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When It Rains It Pours

Well, I had intended to have at least one other post by this time (a week after starting this blog), but an out of town trip, a deadline on a personal writing project, and assorted acts of dayjobbery have conspired to keep me from finishing the story I'm going to review.  I should have it done within a couple of days, once the deadlines have passed.  After that, I'll probably review Raiders from the North by Alex Rutherford.  No promises, though.  While I will review that book, if something else comes up I find more urgent, I'll tackle it first.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Opening Salvo

Hello...hello...(tap, tap)...Is this thing on?

Ahem.  If anyone is out there, I'm starting this blog, Adventures Fantastic.  The focus will be on, well, just what the title suggests.  Adventures of a fantastic nature.  Mostly fictional, but with an occasional factual post thrown in.  I know, I know, you're probably thinking there are already a number of websites and blogs out there that have a similar focus.  Why another one?

That's a very perceptive question, and I'm glad you asked it.  It's true there are a number of other places you could go on the web to get a fix for this kind of thing, such as Black Gate, REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, or REHupa.  And you should.  But ever since the Cimmerian shut down, I haven't found exactly what I've been looking for.  That blog was one of the few I'm aware of that regularly mixed posts about heroic fantasy with articles on history and historical adventure.  Few, in this case, being defined as "only."  Maybe that last sentence just shows my ignorance, I don't know.  Anyway, someone once said, and I think I've seen the quote attributed to George Orwell, that writers write what they can't find on library shelves.  The same holds true in this case.

While hubris may be high on my list of personal characterics, I'm under no delusion that this blog will approach the high water mark of The Cimmerian anytime soon, if ever.  For one thing, The Cimmerian was a group effort, while this is going to be strictly solo, at least for now.  For another, I'm taking a slightly broader definition of "fantastic" than what is usually meant when someone talks about fantastic fiction.  I'm speaking of fantastic not simply in the context of supernatural or science-fictional elements, but anything that is out of the ordinary for most people.  The majority of Americans, it seems to me, live their lives in such a way that any adventure they experience has an element of the fantastic to it simply by its very novelty.  This could include, but is not limited to, other cultures and historical periods or experiences and narratives of an adventurous nature.  Using such a broad definition would include historical fiction, historical essays, and even the occasional thriller or detective yarn as appropriate things to blog about.  In other words, the pulp content on this blog is going to be high.

I think that's a good thing.

I'm new to the blogging scene, so I'll be starting out slow.  There  won't be a lot of bells and whistles at first, but I'll be adding some flash as we go along.  What you can expect are book reviews, essays, factual articles, links to other websites, and anything else I find cool or interesting that I might feel like writing about.  One thing I've never seen, and I was surprised one of the bloggers on The Cimmerian didn't do this, is a series of articles on Henry Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis stories.  Look for the first of those in the next few weeks.