Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A few quick updates

Happy Thanksgiving!  A day early (there's no way I'm logging in tomorrow to make updates.)  I finished two books, and thought I'd comment quickly on the two of them.

First, I read the third and final Conan compilation.  Some of the stories it had were ones that I haven't read in a long time (over twenty years) and I'm not 100% sure that I've even read all of them before.  Now I have; I've read every single Conan story, and much of the Conan ephemera, that Bob Howard ever wrote.  I still have two other REH compilations: the Kull and the Solomon Kane ones, but I'm not going to get to them immediately.

A few impressions of the Conan canon--despite it's place as one of the pillars of the modern fantasy genre, and the origin of a lot of the tropes and conventions that still ring clearly throughout it, I didn't find the Conan stories were necessarily all that great.  Conan as a character was very one-, or at best, two-dimensional, and the fact that he was a superman, always supremely capable, always better than anyone else he encountered, got fairly tiring after a while.  I think it's important to remember that when these were first published, nobody was reading Conan story after Conan story back to back.  Even at its fastest, you'd read them once a month as they were published.  This would actually improve them; cramming them together made their weaknesses all too apparent, and their flaws stand out in stark relief.  I often found that while reading an individual story, I moved along at a pretty good clip, I often stalled between stories, struggling to find motivation to start the next one and finish the book.

At the end of the day, that's just one of the hazards of being first, I guess.  In the ninety or so odd years since Conan was first published, the fantasy genre has come a long way.  While it hasn't necessarily always improved, there's been a lot of guys who've done a lot of really interesting things with the genre.  Guys who were, frankly, more skilled writers than Howard.  A lot of others have been mediocre, or even less skilled, but over time, the really good ones are remembered and the poorer ones tend to be forgotten.  Howard's work reads like a pioneering work; innovative, fresh, blazing new trails, but by necessity fairly rough around the edges.

Also, I found the constant theme of barbarism vs. civilization, and Howard's frankly kind of bizarre take on the inevitability of barbarism a bit hard to swallow.  Not to mention repetitive after a time.  Also, I often hear complaints about "racism" in Howard's work, and I think those complaints are vastly overstated.  Sure, there's some moments of political incorrectness.  But those who think Howard's portrayal of the black kindgoms south of Stygia, or the Hyrkanian or Turanian peoples, or whatever are insulting and offensive should take a step back and consider Howard's portrayal of the Hyborians--his equivalents to Western Europeans, basically.  Arrogant, decadent, corrupt, useless, and grossly ineffective, these are the guys who take the most abuse from Howard.  And arguably, they were his own people, to a great extent.  I think those who are offended by racial portrayals by Howard are those who are going out of their way to be offended.  I tend not to have much sympathy for that kind of entitlement and victimization mentality.

American Indians, on the other hand, I think might have a legitimate complaint.  The Picts, who are very clearly based on them (for reasons that don't make a lot of sense, since the Picts were most likely a Celtic offshoot in real life) are very frequently installed as the bad guys, and portrayed as irredeemably savage and nearly bestial.  But even then, I'd nod a bit in acknowledgement and then advise them to get over themselves.  Although frankly, at this point we're starting to wander a bit astray from talking about any merits of Howard and more into talking about my impatience with whiners and crybabies... i.e, this is more about me than him.  So time to move on to another topic.

I also read Proven Guilty, which I bought since I last read it (checked out from the library) and reviewed it here on this blog.  I still say that it's a rather sloppily constructed Dresden Files book--it leaves some open questions, you're not clear who the villain really is (still, several books later) and it feels more like a grab bag of things that needed to get done to set the books up for the remainder of the series than a tightly plotted novel in its own right.  Still, this time around, I found myself feeling more charitable towards the book and I enjoyed it more than the last time I read it.  I also read it quite a bit faster than last time; within about 36 hours (including two work days) I had finished it and refiled it on my shelf.  It was nice to knock a few books off my to-read list, and frankly, reading Proven Guilty kinda made me feel motivated to quickly get on to White Night which starts a great run of about four or five books in the series that are all just absolutely supurb.  It's actually a bit unfortunate in that I think Ghost Story kinda dropped the ball a bit and set the series back a ways.  It felt, again, like it was too strong on high concept, and too keen on advancing the status quo to something else and less like a tightly written novel in its own right.  But White Night, Small Favor, Turn Coat and Changes--and even Side Jobs there too--are all very high quality works.  Rather than feeling somewhat deflated after reading Proven Guilty I find myself further motivated.  Not bad.  I wonder if my own low expectations of the experience helped it to be better.  Could be.

Despite my motivation, I won't be immediately reading any of those stories.  I've got two books--books 1 and 2 of a three book series--checked out from the library right now, and book 3 will be released within weeks... maybe even within days; I can't remember the release date, although apparently it's already available in the UK... and the library has already ordered a copy with my name on it.  So I need to keep moving on these books while I can.  The series is the Ancient Blades trilogy, a trilogy by first time fantasy author (but apparently relatively experienced horror writer under another nom de plume) David Chandler.  I've also heard from many early reviewers that the series has a strong, old skool sword & sorcery vibe to it.  About fifty pages into the first book, I'm not sure if I can confirm or deny that yet, but I do find it curious that it's yet another book of urban intrigue in a fantasy version of a wretched hive of scum and villainy with a main character who's a thief and a member of a fantasy version of the Mafia.  With titles like Den of Thieves, A Thief in the Night, and finally Honor Among Thieves, you can see how this slots nicely into my tastes as they've developed lately.  In fact, with such eerily similar titles, I'm very curious to eventually compare the series to the recently read Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick.  I may have to do just a bit of a compare and contrast exercise, like we used to do back in school.  Just for fun.

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