Monday, December 28, 2009

Happy Birthday Stan Lee!

Today is the 87th Birthday of Stan Lee, a man without whom, the history of comics would be a heck of a lot shorter. He helped to revitalize a sinking industry and redefined the way we look at super heroes. So a very Happy Birthday to Stan the Man. Excelsior!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

8:50 Christmas morning. I slept to almost 7:30 which is late for me. Supposed to have brunch at my brother's house at 10:00 so I'm just having a very light breakfast snack. (Coffee and a Christmas cookie.)
This will be my fourth Christmas get together in as many days, so I've certainly had my share of Holiday celebration. I'm hoping for a quiet afternoon to perhaps watch a couple of Christmas movies. So far the only Christmas themed show I've had time for was last year's Doctor Who Christmas episode The Next Doctor. Cybermen loose in Victorian England, a giant steam-punk robot, and a scenery chewing villainess. That's my kind of Christmas show. Still I'd like to work in a couple of more traditional holiday films before the day is out.
Otherwise it's been a nice Christmas season. I've received some very nifty gifts and folks have seemed genuinely pleased with my selections for them, so that aspect of the Holiday has gone well. Theoretically I'm off until Jan. 4th, but I am on call at work this Monday through Wednesday. Hopefully nothing will come up that requires my attention.
Anyway, I'd like to wish all of you out there a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Game Speak

Someone asked me the other day how my online gaming was going and I related an anecdote about a recent encounter, and somewhere in the middle I realized my listener's eyes were glazing over as I spewed out something like,

"So it was Nav, Brie, Tryll, and me in this instance and we had to take down this troll boss and a bunch of adds. The troll had major morale and we knew our best chance was to burn him down fast. Tryll was tanking so he grabbed the boss's aggro. Brie tried to fear one of the adds but he resisted, so I went after the adds while Nav helped Tryll. Both Nav and I had major DPS so Nav was dealing damage while Tryll held the aggro and I was getting the adds down before the Boss's morale hit a certain point because we knew he had a damage buff that kicked in after that. We were getting too many adds so Brie managed to mez one of them while I tried to pull the others into a tight group so I could AOE like mad. I was taking too much damage in fervor so I had to switch to ardor, but I still went down, but Brie was close enough for a rez, so I got back in the fight quick but she couldn't remove dread while I was aggroed so..."

I'm suddenly reminded of Curly in the Three Stooges episode, Disorder in the Court. Curly is going on in jazz club "jive" talk and the judge tells him to drop the vernacular. Curly looks at his hat and says, "Vernacular? It's a derby!"

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Reading

After knocking out Under the Dome I finished Anne Perry's A Christmas Beginning. I've already given a synopsis a couple of posts earlier so I'll just say that the mystery held up to the end and the book had as happy an ending as a book about murder can have. As always I was impressed with Perry's seemingly effortless conjuring of the Victorian era. She never hits you over the head with her historical research. All the details you need are dropped in as you need them. Not an easy trick. I understand that next year Perry has a mystery coming out set in thirteenth century Byzantium. Have to check that out.
Not really sure what I'll read next. May be time to re-read Dickens' A Christmas Carol yet again. Watching the movies is fun but there's nothing to compare with reading the book. Plus, I have a nifty annotated edition with lots of information and cool illustrations to explain any of the obscure references and outmoded words and expressions. Very handy indeed.
I'll probably dig out some of my Christmas comic book trades. I have several collections of Disney, Archie, and Superhero Christmas comics. I enjoy reading those during the Holidays.
Think I've got some collections or Christmas mysteries around somewhere too, and there's always Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes Christmas tale, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.
Of course I have Christmas get togethers to attend Tuesday and Wednesday evenings so there won't be much time to read before Christmas Eve, and I have a family dinner that night too, so we'll see what I can work in.

Under the Dome

Steven King has always been something of an uneven author for me. I've read the majority of his books and I've liked the majority of what I've read, but the ones I didn't like, I usually didn't like at all. The latter seemed to be more prevalent than the former in King's more recent novels. I thought Cell was particularly bad and in fact didn't finish it. But then came Duma Key which I thought a great book and now there is Under the Dome. I didn't like Dome as much as I liked Duma, but I did like it a lot.
The basic concept is that a force field appears without warning or explanation around the small town of Chester's Mill in rural in Maine. Very little can get in or out. A little air and a little water pass through and that's about it. No solid objects at all. And the air and water won't be sufficient to keep everyone alive if the dome stays in place for too long and it shows no signs of going away, so things look grim.
The "hero" of the book is ex-soldier Dale Barbara, now working as a fry cook at the town's main restaurant. As the books opens, Barbara is on his way out of town after a fight with the son of the local 'big wig', town selectman Jim Rennie. Rennie, like many of King's antagonists, is a power hungry big fish in a small pond who takes advantage of the strange events to try and carve out a bigger chunk of power for himself. Barbara is unfortunate enough to just miss leaving town before the barrier slams shut, killing a lot of animals and people in colorful detail. The big conflict in the book is between Rennie's followers and the more free thinking citizens of Chester's Mill who line up with Barbara. Most of the good guys are misfits, another King staple. Oh and big Jim is of course, deeply religious. Fundamentalists, from Carrie's mom on up, are always dangerous in the land of King.
This is a pedal to the metal thriller which, amazingly, seldom lets up on the narrative force for all of its nearly eleven hundred pages. Its a long long thrill ride and I spent most of Friday evening and early Saturday finishing it up because it was just that compelling. It has all of King's strong points, Deep characterization. memorable characters. Elements that may or may not be supernatural. Psychological suspense. And that amazing story telling voice that King wields like a surgeon, drawing you in and then letting you have it between the eyes when he knows you are the most enthralled.
Of course on the flip side it has all of King's faults. A plot that rambles for all its force and too many characters to keep up with. The ending, which reveals the secret of the dome, is weak and like many of King's endings, feels rushed. But ultimately none of that matters. With King it's the journey more than the destination. You'll have a fine time on the ride. I know I did.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Birthday Michael Moorcock!

It's Mike's 70th birthday today and he's still going strong. He's got any number of projects in the works from new Elric stories to a Doctor Who novel for the BBC to a biography/memoir of his friend Mervyn Peake. Even after all these years and all the books, his curiosity, creativity, enthusiasm, and imagination remain boundless. And he still has time for the occasional game of Mornington Crescent with his readers. So Happy Birthday, Pard. Hope there are many more to come.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Original She-Devil

Okay, pop-quiz. She has hair of flaming red, is clad in mail, and few men can equal her in swordplay. She appeared in the 1930s Pulp magazines right alongside Conan the Cimmerian. Who is she?

If you said Red Sonja, turn in your fanboy (or fangirl) badge. Red Sonja didn't show up until the 1970s and she never appeared in any pulps. There was another character named Red Sonya (with a Y) who did appear in one pulp, but it wasn't Weird Tales and that's another story which I've already covered. No, we're talking about C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry, the original red haired she-devil with a sword who first appeared in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales in the story 'Black God's Kiss.' That same issue contained part of the serialized Conan tale, People of the Black Circle. It's a landmark issue for fans of sword & sorcery.
Jirel is pretty much the mother of all female sword & sorcery heroes. After REH got things rolling, other authors, such as Clifford Ball tried mining the same heroic fantasy territory with varying degrees of success. Moore was different, in more ways than one. Not only was the protagonist of the Jirel stories a female but so was the author. The C in C.L. Moore stands for Catherine.
Moore had already made a splash in the world of weird fiction with her dark 1933 SF/Fantasy story 'Shambleau'. This story, the first in her other series, the adventures of spaceman soldier of fortune Northwest Smith, contains some creepy sexual undertones that were very daring for the day.
Jirel came along soon after, earning the cover slot in Weird Tales with Black God's Kiss. Moore's sword & sorcery is a little hard to explain and unlike that of anyone else. It has violence and swordplay and sorcery, but it's written in a lush. moody, prose that reminds me more of Clark Ashton Smith than Robert E. Howard. The Jirel stories have a dreamlike quality and are filled with strange, almost hallucinatory images. Several of them, (And this is true of the Northwest Smith stories too) take place in other dimensions or weird pocket worlds that operate by their own rules and often contain their own small gods. My favorite of the six Jirel stories is probably Jirel Meets Magic. There's a lot of sorcerous goings on in that one that aren't like anything I've ever read elsewhere.
Unlike Conan, who adventures in a time before recorded history, Jirel's adventures take place in a sort of mythical Medieval France. In fact I often think of Jirel as Joan of Arc with a really really bad temper. Jirel is not to be messed with, as many of the male antagonists learn, much to their sorrow. Her blade is as quick as her temper and her wits. Moore, herself a redhead, had grown up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and other such authors and she crashed the boys club of rockem sockem pulp tales and took no prisoners. And yet, Jirel is never portrayed as a Conan in a skirt. She remains a believable female character throughout her sanguinary exploits. Moore's stories carry considerably more characterization and emotional depth than the average pulp tale.
There are five "classic" Jirel stories and one rather odd one that teams Jirel with Northwest Smith. You'll have to read Quest of the Star Stone (written by Moore in collaboration with her husband, SF writer Henry Kuttner) to find out how a medieval warrior-woman met up with a futuristic space cowboy. All six of these tales were recently reprinted by Paizo Publishing in their trade paperback collection, Black God's Kiss. Well worth seeking out.


Took me a little over two weeks to level my Lord of the Rings Online character Kharrn up to the new level cap, 65. And that was without really trying. I just did the quests as they came up, slowly leveling up from 60, the previous cap. I had reached 64 by the end of last weekend. Last night I went in planning to quest some more but ended up helping out some Kinship members who were lower level so I was just killing stuff left and right as they did their quests, watching my experience points mount up and my level slowly rise. Finally, once a bunch of the Windriders were online, Nav suggested that we do a six man Skirmish. We did and somewhere during a pitched battle with mass quantities of enemies, I leveled up to 65. I think it fitting that in the end Kharrn basically killed his way to 65. That's how Conan would have done it.

The Reading Report

Oh hi. Yeah, been like a week since I blogged. Real life and all that. Anyway, doing a good bit of reading lately, so figured I'd log in for a reading report. Over the weekend I read a book that's almost 195 years old. (Not my copy, mind you. It's a facsimile edition.) It's called Barozzi: The Venetian Sorceress, and it's one of the later Gothic novels, published in 1815. As the introduction notes it's pretty much a mishmash of earlier Gothics, primarily Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and George Brewer's The Witch of Ravensworth, leaning particularly hard on the latter. Still it's worth reading for its lively narrative style. The virginal, endangered heroine begins to wear on you after a while because she's so sweet and kind and wonderful and everyone just loves her, and she's constantly bursting into tears and lamenting her fate, but hey that was one of the tropes in that kind of book.
Then I re-read a couple of C.L. Moore's stories about Jirel of Joiry. I noticed the other day that I have neglected to give Jirel an entire post of her own here at Singular points and since she is an important character in the history of sword & sorcery, I need to rectify that soon.
Currently I'm switching back and forth between two books. The first is Stephen King's latest, Under the Dome, which begins as a sort of bloody Twilight Zone episode as an unexplained force field suddenly appears around a small town in Maine. No one can get in or out. King, being King, spends a lot of loving details on the gory after effects of the various cars, trucks,and planes which strike the invisible barrier. The he settles down to the sort of character development we've come to expect from King. I'm about 200 pages in and things are still really getting started, but this monster of a book is almost 1100 pages in hardback so he's got plenty of room to go. So far, I'm enjoying the book quite a bit.
This being the Christmas season though, I wanted to get in a little holiday reading, so I also started Anne Perry's much shorter book, (208 pages) a mystery called A Christmas Beginning. It's become something of a tradition for Perry to write a short novel for every Christmas season. This one actually came out in 2007, but somehow I never got around to reading it. Perry is best known for her two Victorian era mystery series, The Thomas Pitt books which take place in the late Victorian era, and the Monk books, which are set about thirty years earlier in Dickens' time period. A Christmas Beginning features a secondary character from the Monk books, a police inspector named Runcorn in a leading role this time.
Runcorn, a fifty-ish bachelor is taking a holiday on a small island in Wales for Christmas. Having no family he figured he might as well treat himself to a nice trip for the season. His holiday ends abruptly after the town Vicar's spirited young sister is murdered, stabbed to death in the church yard. Runcorn doesn't think the local constables are getting anywhere and he soon steps in to handle the investigation in his own rough hewn fashion. Perry's descriptions of the island are vivid and her period details, as always, impeccable. Back when I was reading whodunits hand over fist, Perry was a favorite. I'm enjoying being back in her company for the holidays.
Anyway, that's the reading report for now. We'll see what else pops up as the Holiday season continues.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Some Thoughts About Robert Jordan's Conan

Over the weekend I was reading Robert Jordan's Conan the Magnificent, one of seven Conan novels that Jordan wrote before he began his massive fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. As I've mentioned before, I've found WoT to be just about unreadable, primarily because of its slow pace and excessive detail. I know that's the kind of thing a lot of readers want from a doorstop fantasy series, but the appeal eludes me. In some ways it dismays me a bit too. I've read three of Jordan's Conan books and they are fast paced and full of colorful descriptions and lots of action. How a guy could write them and then turn to the ponderous Wheel of Time kind of amazes me.
I did notice, as I was reading Conan the Magnificent, that there were elements that show that Jordan might have already been musing about his upcoming fantasy epic. There's a group of priestesses and acolytes who use a magic that can't be wielded by men, just as the One Power in the WoT books can only be used by the nun like Aes Sedai. Men can channel the power, but it drives them mad. There's also a swordsman in the book who reminds me very much of Lan Mandragoran, an important character in the early WoT books. Lan features prominently in the only WoT novel I actually finished, New Spring.
However, the main thing that makes me think that Jordan was starting to stretch his creative wings is the comparatively small amount of time that the reader actually spends with Conan. Probably half the book is told from the points of view of secondary characters. While the multiple viewpoints are characteristic of modern fantasy novels, most Conan books tend to stick close to the big Cimmerian and only occasionally delve into other povs. I'll have to read the rest of Jordan's Conan novels before I can tell if this is common from the first. I don't recall it being so pronounced in the other two I've read. But you can tell he was beginning to chafe at the limitations of a single hero.
As far as Conan pastiches go, Jordan's are among the better ones. While his version of Conan isn't much like Robert E. Howard's, he did seem to have a good grasp on one element of Conan's personality, that of the savage among civilized men. A lot of pastiche writers miss that one. He also handles the portrayal of sorcery well, keeping it close to necromancy as opposed to the D&D style fireball type magic. When judging this sort of pastiche though, I try to get beyond the "does this sound like Robert E. Howard" mode of thought, because NOBODY can ever write Conan like REH. My basic take on Conan pastiches is pretty much the same as that of Karl Edward Wagner, who wrote one Conan novel himself. Pastiche is fine as long as it doesn't mess with the original writings of Robert E. Howard. I've no real problem with new Conan stories as long as they are kept separate from the 'real' Conan stories. In that sense, pastiches are much like media tie-in novels for TV shows and movies.
What I usually go by is how good a book would it be if it weren't about Conan, but some other barbarian hero like Brak or Thongor. Is it a good story? Does the writing hold up? In other words, is it a good sword & sorcery story regardless of its status as a Conan pastiche? By those standards, Jordan's Conans are near the top of the heap, along with Wagner's and those by John Maddox Roberts and John Hocking.
I noticed a couple of weeks back that two of Jordan's Conans have been brought back into print, probably to capitalize on the release of the new Wheel of Time book, The Gathering Storm. I believe six of the seven are still available in the omnibus collections The Chronicles of Conan Vol I&II as well. Those collections omit Jordan's novelization of the second Conan movie, Conan the Destroyer. Anyway, if you're up for some light weight sword & sorcery with some decent prose, you could do worse than Robert Jordan's Conan.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

My Kind of Town, Mirkwood Is...

Yesterday was the release of 'Siege of Mirkwood', the new expansion for Lord of the Rings Online. I had scheduled the day off over a month ago, so I was home when the servers came back up after the patch and ready for action. And action it was. The idea of the Mirkwood expansion is that the War of the Ring is heating up. Across the river from Lothlorien the dark woods are crawling with orcs, and I do mean crawling. I ran into more orcs yesterday than I'd normally see in a week of playing, and the respawn rate was insane. You'd barely kill one enemy and move onto another before the first one was back and attacking you from behind.
Then their are the new skirmish instances, which put you and some allies in a defensive position where wave after wave of bad guys attack you, making for some very frenetic gameplay. It all made for just the sort of game that a berserker Champion such as myself really enjoyed. Fight fight fight. Less talk. More killing.
Aside from the killing there were some nice additions. You can have an NPC soldier that follows you and helps you fight. You can make them in several classes. Mine's a healer, since when I'm soloing, I need heals more than I need backup. They've changed the mount system, so that you don't have to get off your horse to talk to NPCs or go through portals. That's nice. They upgraded all the legendary weapons so they can be made more powerful.
Anyway, it will be Thursday evening before I can really play much again, but I imagine that this weekend, I'll be spending a lot of time fighting the Siege of Mirkwood.