Monday, February 12, 2018

Appendix N Review: Three Hearts and Three Lions

Where, oh where, to begin with this one? There's so much packed into Poul Anderson's 1961 novel Three Hearts and Three Lions that a thorough review would go deep into spoiler territory. And its only about 200 pages.

Okay. First, the plot. Holger Carlsen is a Danish-born engineer and former college athlete living in Pre-WWII America. When the war breaks out, he returns to Denmark and hooks up with the Danish Resistance and during a desperate mission to extract a scientist to Sweden, a bullet grazes his head and he passes out.

Waking up, he discovers himself naked in a forest with a horse waiting nearby with a set of clothes, weapons and armor. As you do.

The horse's name is Papillon (French for “butterfly”) and with the stallion, he rides to a cottage and gets advice from an old witch who sets him up with a dwarf guide named Hugi. Holger wants to know two things: How to get home, and who is this famous knight with a shield with three hearts and three lions that he's supposed to be.

He encounters a young swanmay named Alianora. She's a human girl who was gifted a cloak that allows her to change into a swan. She, like most of the other people in this world, speak in a stylized dialect meant to sound archaic that takes some getting used to on the page.

After barely evading entrapment by the Elven King Alfric of Faerie, Holger has a run-in with Morgan Le Fay, who knows him from his forgotten past, and he and Alianora begin to fall in love, though his desire to return to the Earth that he knows prevents him from acting on his feelings for her.

Holger finds himself swept up in a grander cosmic conflict as a champion of Law against the fickle and deadly Faerie armies of Chaos. Werewolves! Magic Swords! Dragons! Riddling Giants! Trolls! Heroic Saracens! Comic Relief Wizards! Throwing an Elf into another Elf! True Love!

Much has already been said about how much this story in particular has had an influence on the development of Dungeons & Dragons. Law and Chaos are foundational for the alignment system. The rapidly regenerating troll at the end that can only be permanently harmed by fire is translated directly into the Monster Manual instead of the traditional Scandinavian rock troll (though the fight with this troll is far more hardcore than anything I've seen presented in other stories). Swanmays, Nixies, Unicorns, all have their folkloric predecessors, but again, they are translated almost directly into D&D creatures from this book.

The Paladin, though, is one of the most famous/infamous D&D classes, and it comes from this book. Everything the Paladin class does in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is done in this story. Detect Evil? Yep. Character is bonded to a special mount? Yes. Immune to fear? Yes (though in Holger's case, much of it comes from being a man of action and an engineer trying to figure out practical reasons for why magic is happening around him) Laying hands on the sick to heal them? Symbolically, yes. Losing certain protections and bonuses when he begins to have impure thoughts? Yes.

Its all there. This book is the bridge between Charlemagne's heroic knightly warriors and Gygax's knights in heavenly armor. I knew that going in, and it still blew my mind to see it in action. (Incidentally, I recommend reading The Song of Roland, where Charlemagne's paladin Roland gets his famous last stand. Badass action and Charlemagne pulling on his beard in grief abounds)

The key to Holger's powers is faith. True faith. Cold Iron, the Cross, and sincere invocations of Jesus Christ all cause physical harm to the forces of Faerie, who are frequently described as having no souls. The tangible power of faith on this strange world shifts Holger from being a modern agnostic to someone who converts to Catholicism by the end (Anderson himself was apparently agnostic with a favorable attitude toward Christianity)

The book features a lot of lighthearted comedy. Holger's no idiot, but he can be a blockhead, especially around pretty ladies. The book takes frequent pauses to think up scientific reasonings for things, like how a dragon would work, or the principles behind a dagger that can be lit on fire. These excursions never get too long, but occasionally they get close.

Then, when the book gets serious, it fully commits. When Holger is presented with the challenge of identifying a werewolf that is terrorizing a town, he gets put into an emotionally difficult situation. Without spoiling it, he has to choose between two grim options, and in true Paladin form, chooses a third.

This book is nothing like the deconstructionist cynicism clogging modern bookshelves. Over and over and over, Holger Carlsen proves himself to be a true-blue White Hat style hero without ever becoming boring. Human and flawed, Holger's a dope with the ladies and a hearty drinker, but at every turn he tries to do good, and in return, becomes a better person and betters the world around him. This is the kind of heroism I've been starved for, and here it is, fully realized by a Grandmaster of Science Fiction.

I can't recommend this book enough. Read it, if for no other reason than to understand how Paladin characters are meant to be played.

Gorgeous Darrell K. Sweet cover for the Baen edition

And some say he waits in timeless Avalon until France the fair is in danger, and some say he sleeps beneath Kronborg Castle and wakens in the hour of Denmark's need, but none remember that he is and has always been a man, with the humble needs and loves of a man; to all, he is merely the Defender.

He rode out on the wold, and it was as if dawn rode with him.”

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Appendix N Review: The Scarlet Citadel

The Phoenix on the Sword was published in December of 1932, and was an immediate success for Robert E. Howard. The following month, January 1933, Weird Tales would publish the next Conan story: The Scarlet Citadel.

Conan, King of Aquilonia, is having a very bad day. His army was drawn into a trap and he himself is captured by a band of would-be usurpers: the traitorous ally Amalrus, the king of Koth, Strabonus, and Kothian sorcerer Tsotha-lanti. The first two want to kill him and be done with it, but Tostha wants to play with him before killing him because that's what evil sorcerers do.

Conan refuses an offer to let him abdicate, and Tsotha has him thrown into the dungeon of his bright red fortress (a scarlet citadel, if you will). Chained to a wall and facing down a giant snake, Conan escapes partly by luck, and wanders the dark recesses of the dungeon, encountering one of the sorcerer's horrific experiments after another.

Eventually he rescues another prisoner from a giant plant monster. The grateful man recovers and reveals himself as another sorcerer: Pelias, and old rival of Tsotha-lanti's who was imprisoned for a decade.

Conan, knowing that Aquilonia would be thrown into chaos, needs to get back in a hurry, but has no way of getting there. Pelias has a solution. He magics up a strange flying beast and tells Conan not to think too hard about where it came from. Conan reluctantly does, and it flies him back to his capital where the beatings commence.

The story segues into the chaos engulfing Aquilonia and how Conan's loyal retainers tried and failed to maintain order against a group of grasping nobles, and then a would-be usurper named Prince Arpello, who turns out to be an instant tyrant. Conan drops down onto a roof ready to go and after a very brief fight, grabs Arpello and throws him off the roof with a mighty heave, causing the usurper to smash on the stones below “like a mangled beetle.”

Sort of like A Song of Ice and Fire, only actually satisfying and not wasting your time with pages and pages of awkward sex and food descriptions.

But we're not done yet. We're going into SPOILER territory because the ending is really worth discussing.

Conan rallies his army for a pitched battle that deals with the mortal usurpers, and he runs down Tsotha-lanti on horseback and beheads the wizard.

Being a sorcerer, this doesn't stop him from trying to re-attach his body, but suddenly an eagle swoops down and carries the head off, laughing with Pelias' voice. The headless body takes off after it, and Conan is left wondering what the hell is wrong with wizards and their feuds and he just wants a drink.

Both here and in The Phoenix on the Sword, there are moments of dark comedy, and Howard delivers them exceptionally well. After the high tension of the entire story and the catharsis of the battles, dipping into screwball comedy doesn't hurt. It has to be deliberate comedy, since Conan's deadpan “I hate wizards” reaction is completely in character with a man used to dealing in concrete situations.

That said, The Scarlet Citadel features a similar plot to Conan's debut: King Conan has to deal with a plot to overthrow him. The solution involves stabbing many men. The execution is different. The fighting is larger scale and the Weirdness factor is ramped up dramatically. Tsotha-lanti's dungeon is a carnival of horrors, from plant monsters, invisible creepy things, a bloated monstrosity that weeps with a woman's voice, and deep pit leading down that feels wrong. The giant snake is mundane by comparison.

The Scarlet Citadel expands the scope of the Hyborean Age in every direction. Conflict is bigger, magic is stranger, and there's a bit of continuity discussing the “Mad Bard” Rinaldo from the first story.

Come for the badass fighting, stay for the weird magic. Its Robert E. Howard. Its Conan. Its a good time.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

What Killed Urban Fantasy?

I like Urban Fantasy as a genre quite a lot. I like the blending of fantasy elements with modern trappings. I like the deep diving for weird monsters from around the world. It was booming a decade ago, and now nobody really talks about it. Why?

My introduction was Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Great book. Probably his best that isn't Good Omens. But its a standalone. It doesn't need a sequel or a series. American Gods was okay, but the ideas it played around with were better than the text itself, which tended to wander aimlessly in the heartland for chapters on end. I remember finding Anansi Boys to be much more entertaining, but oddly enough, more forgettable. Still, I wanted more.

From there I moved on to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. It kicks ass. Can't recommend it enough.

I wish most of the rest of the genre wasn't garbage. Something From the Nightside was pretty terrible (Sorry, Mike!) but that's for another day. Suffice it to say, I drifted away from the genre because it turned into a boom of clones sitting on shelves that all have the same covers of a man or a woman standing in a generic static pose, possibly holding a weapon. If there's a background, its a street at night. I started to write my own (which turned into a trilogy that's not quite ready for prime time, but Soon™)

Today I discovered an essay written in 2008 by Lilith Saintcrow, who's a leading name in that genre. I have not read any of her works, but her name is familiar, and she's a prolific working author with a cool name. I respect that. I've also found out that I'm blocked by her on Twitter without ever having interacted with her, so...I don't feel too bad about critiquing a decade old essay on Urban Fantasy by someone who might be using a blockbot.

This is the essay

There are some things I agree with in the essay. Notably that UF carries a lot of heritage from old pulp detective fiction. I agree that the “Literature” and “Mainstream Fiction” genres get too much respectability from people who tell you their opinion on literature is important.

That's kind of it, though.

I disagree that “lowbrow” is something negative. I disagree that Paranormal Romance is considered lowbrow and trashy because it its female. Its considered lowbrow and trashy because it doesn't try to be anything more than simple entertainment. Sci-Fi and Fantasy are usually considered trashy and lowbrow for that same reason. So are old comic books. So are old detective novels. I've come to respect works of fiction that get a reputation for being “trashy and lowbrow” because that's become an accurate code for “doesn't shove the author's message down your throat.”

I have never heard of anyone referring to Tom Clancy novels as “serious” literature before this essay, because the last time I checked, thrillers were in the same “trashy and lowbrow” ghetto with the rest of the fun books. Its all explosions, action and technology porn, which is fine for the audience that consumes it. Just like masturbatory fantasies about humping sexy vampire lords is fine for the audience that consumes it. My mother read a LOT of Harlequin Regency Romance books while I was growing up. The covers and back of the book blurbs were all effectively identical. My mom knew they were simple entertainment that wasn't going to change the world. They served an audience that loved them and kept buying them, respectability be damned.

Respectable Literature” is a trap for anyone who pursues it.

Its also insulting to female writers and characters of the past that to say Urban Fantasy is socially groundbreaking for making female action leads the protagonists. C. L. Moore's (a female author who absolutely outclasses most modern male authors) Jirel of Joiry armored up and went into Hell so she could take revenge on someone who conquered her kingdom in 1934. Dejah Thoris has been kicking ass and taking names since BEFORE WORLD WAR I.

They keystone of the essay though, and the part that I disagree with the most is that the key to the success of Urban Fantasy back in its 2008-era boom, was Moral Ambiguity.

What does respectable literature have by the bushel? Moral Ambiguity. What does post-modernist thought have in copious amounts? Moral Ambiguity. What does pink slime fantasy and science fiction shove down the throats of people who showed up for magic and spaceships? Moral. Ambiguity.

Guess what rising genre bubble crashed less than a decade after its big boom?

Moral ambiguity drives audiences away, male or female. What makes Harry Dresden work is that he is a flawed but fundamentally good man trying to save people and punish evildoers at great personal cost. The reason I tossed Something from the Nightside aside after reading it was because John Taylor is a smug, selfish, unlikable asshole antihero.

That's what happens when you take an antihero, give them special powers, and then unleash them on a morally ambiguous setting. You have assholes on power trips who don't have to answer to anybody.

Villains, really.

I'm honestly surprised that an essay that lauds Raymond Chandler as an influence would sing the praises of moral ambiguity. Chandler's fiction is set in a dark, gritty urban environment, true, but Philip Marlowe is himself a rigidly moral hero. Not anti-hero. Hero. Sure he drinks and smokes and occasionally sleeps with women, but these are minor flaws. Like his spiritual grandson Harry Dresden, Marlowe is working class hero who's operating in slums he really doesn't belong in, but he crawls through the crime and muck helping people who probably don't deserve it and bringing justice to villains who absolutely do.

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” 

Chandler wrote that sentence in his essential essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” Its the core of the noir hero's appeal. Take a dark setting and throw an unflinchingly moral hero into the mix like a grenade.

What killed Urban Fantasy? Moral Ambiguity.

Addendum: Eagle-eyed readers will notice a lot of words in that essay from 2008 that sound awfully familiar in [Current Year]. Make of them what you will.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Appendix N Review: The Phoenix on the Sword

In December of 1932, Weird Tales Magazine, arguably the premier supernatural horror pulp of the 30s, published a story from a young but regular contributor to the magazine named Robert Ervin Howard. Howard had been appearing in Weird Tales since 1925, contributing a wide variety action stories, from the stern-faced Puritan hero Solomon Kane to more straightforward horror that was part of fellow Weird Tales contributor H. P. Lovecraft's mythos.

This story was Phoenix on the Sword, and it introduced the world to Conan of Cimmeria, barbarian conqueror, king, and indelible archetype.

Set in an ancient, antediluvian age before recorded history, a conspiracy to assassinate the new king of Aquilonia festers in the kingdom's heart. Ascalante, a disgraced noble and outlaw, has banded together a group of powerful men to topple the crown. Most unique among them is Thoth-Amon, a black-skinned exile from Stygia, formerly a powerful sorcerer, now enslaved by Ascalante as a henchman.

The new king, Conan, is miserable. He's a fighting man, a wanderer and adventurer now saddled with the responsibilities of rule. Despite his inconvenience, he is a fair ruler. He's lowered taxes, ensured that the people of Aquilonia aren't enslaved, and generally leaves people alone. But despite his benevolence, people like the bard Rinaldo sow discontent among the people. Conan's advisors have urged him to execute the rebellious poet, but Conan has resisted. He genuinely likes Rinaldo's skill, and is aware that killing him would make a martyr of him.

Meanwhile, Ascalante moves ahead. Conan's guards will be drawn away from his bedchamber at midnight, and the conspirators (including Rinaldo) will attack. He sends one of them, the fat rich fool Dion to his estate to prepare to become the new king, with Thoth-Amon to keep watch over him.

This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book, where the Stygian tells the noble his history, how he had a ring that gave him phenomenal magic powers and what kind of status he enjoyed as a worshipper of Set. Dion, in his self-absorption, hasn't heard a word of it, only perking up when Thoth-Amon mentions his ring. By coincidence, it happens to be THE ring Thoth-Amon lost years ago. Comedic interlude over, the Stygian murders the hapless idiot, reclaims his treasure, and summons a demonic monster to murder Ascalante and anyone around him.

In the meantime, Conan dreams of a black stone temple and the tomb of the ancient sage Epemitreus, dead for several thousand years, but even in death an enemy of the dark god Set. The sage marks Conan's sword with a phoenix marking, a holy symbol of Aquilonia's patron god Mitra, and warns him that Set's power is still active in the world.

The stage is set for one hell of a battle.

As always, Howard has a genius for describing action sequences. There is a choreography that flows beautifully even as blood and brain matter are splattered across the walls. The characters are lightly sketched out, but Conan is immediately likable as a wise, experienced adventurer with a wry sense of humor. Thoth-Amon himself stands out as a great villain, even though he doesn't ever interact with Conan nor really act against him. He gets his ring back, begins his vengeance against Ascalante, and disappears from Howard's Conan stories. He would appear again in later pastiches by other authors, but here he's an intelligent, strong, admirable (well, for a villain at least), nuanced, clearly Black character who demands respect from the reader. In 1932.

*Disclaimer: I'm friends with the guy who edited the above edition of Phoenix on the Sword. He's a good guy. The cover artist is cool too.

The story itself is straightforward, almost simple in places, and was itself a re-work of a Kull the Conqueror story that didn't sell (Howard's other, less successful, Barbarian Hero). Yet the blueprint is right there: a heroic loner pitted against the hazards of civilization and eldritch sorcery.

It works, and it works well. Absolutely recommended.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Shelf Stagnation Part 3

On a lark, I decided to check up on the two local Barnes & Nobles and see what the state of the SFF sections are like. I was also looking for some film noir in a reasonable price range. No such luck there. One Music & Movies section was almost completely swallowed by Funko Pop figures and their dead-eyed stares.

The second one had a small Buy One Get One stand and look what I found:

It was the only copy I saw in the store, too

The first one was in a tiny suburb with a surrounding population that was of the “Upper Middle Class and Above” class of Liberal. I don't say this as a knock against DA LIBRULS, but to give context. It has a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's within a quarter mile of each other. Bernie Sanders would love it.

The context is important, because I noticed a subtle but significant shift in SFF shelves. A lot more Witcher novels than before. Way more than I'd ever seen in one place. The Jim Butcher section was bigger. Frank Herbert's Dune series took up half a section and wasn't just the first book anymore. Robert Heinlein's area grew. There's a small patch of Michael Moorcock books. The big, fat Chronicles of Amber omnibus (that I already own) was back in stock. C. J. Cherryh had a big section all to herself. Edgar Rice Burroughs had staked out a little corner with the B&N editions of Tarzan and The Martian Tales Trilogy collection. The Weiss & Hickman Dragonlance Chronicles was on the shelves in a new-er edition. Friggin' Dragons of Autumn Twilight and everything.

Sure, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series took up an inordinately large section by itself. That's to be expected since the HBO show is still a big deal. But aside from Martin & Gaiman, the only real TradPub big names I was able to recognize were Scalzi and Jemisin. I didn't even see Wendig aside from his Star Wars books.

Here's the kicker: Military Sci-Fi, especially Baen books, had a much bigger presence. In a very politically liberal section of town.

Crazy, right?

Today I checked out the other one, in a more regular middle class outer ring suburb. Its more rural than the other one and has a wider political demographic.

Similar story. MilSF had a strong presence. Larry Correia had a strong presence. Heinlein's section was bigger. Mercedes Lackey had a big section. John Ringo had a big section/ Warhammer 40K had grown big enough to take up its own shelf. Shelf space that, if you took away the big promotional displays for Star Wars thanks to The Last Jedi, dwarfs the actual Star Wars section of the SFF aisle.

This isn't to say that boring LitFic SFF wasn't there. It is, but in comparison to almost a year ago?

There is variety again.

Its no secret that Barnes & Noble is struggling to stay alive. Selling books keeps it alive. You know what has dedicated, loyal fanbases who buy books? MilSF readers. Tolkien pastiche readers. 40K readers.

While the variety has gotten better than its been in a couple years, early, early SFF still doesn't have much going. The only Pulps are Lovecraft, Howard & Burroughs (arguably the Big Three Pulpsters, but still, I'd lose my mind if I saw Merritt on a B&N shelf).

There's still the problem with boring cover art, but I did find one book that stood out visually. Legacy of the Demon by Diana Rowland, whom I've never heard of before. Its apparently the 8th book in a series, but just look at that cover. A ruined tank in the background, a big angry demon that's been shot a few times, and a lady about to stab a giant cattle prod in its big, dumb demon face. Action! Monsters! Pretty ladies kicking ass! I almost bought it on the strength of a cover with stuff happening on it alone, but the rest of the series has a lot of the standard “Protagonist standing and looking at something intently” that's endemic to the field.

No idea if the series is any good, but bravo, good cover.

Now, I don't think that this is some kind of sea change. I'm not sure if anything can save B&N in the long term aside from big changes in the big publishers, and I don't see that happening.

What makes me consider this as a trend worth noticing, is that in the second store, there was an entire (small) shelf dedicated to Westerns. Westerns. I can't recall ever seeing a Zane Grey book in a Barnes & Noble before. Mark my words, Westerns are quietly creeping back to life.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Appendix N Review: The Gods of Mars

After the events of A Princess of Mars, John Carter returned to Earth and spent ten long years trying to find a way back. In our world, Edgar Rice Burroughs produced the sequel, The Gods of Mars, in 1913, a year after Under the Moons of Mars was serialized. Like its predecessor (and Tarzan of the Apes, which he published in 1912 also), The Gods of Mars was serialized in the All-Story Magazine incarnation of Argosy. It would be published in novel form in 1918.

John Carter returns to Mars in a way similar to how he first got there: by astral projection/wishing really hard. Again, the “How” he gets there isn't important, its just a means to an end. He arrives on Barsoom the same way as the first time: bare-ass naked.

Only this time, he's in a scenic forest in a river valley.

Populated by white apes and carnivorous tree-men that want to kill and eat anyone who arrives.

Welcome to Martian Heaven: The Valley Dor, endpoint of the sacred River Iss. Leaving the valley is considered blasphemy and cause for execution. 

Martian Heaven sucks.

On arriving, John sees some Green Martians attacked and killed by the local fauna, and rushes to the aid of the lone survivor, who happens to be Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark and Carter's best friend on Mars not named Woola.

The two fight their way out of the forest and into the cliffs of the valley, where they find the Holy Therns, white skinned Martians who claim to be the gods of Mars and control the creatures of the valley, enslaving anyone who survives them. They also wear cute little blonde Prince Valiant wigs because they're bald and vain.

John kills one of their priests, takes his wig and costume as a disguise, rescues a Red Martian woman named Thuvia, and the three rampage their way through the Thern fortress, reaching the top only to find it attacked by sky pirates. John sends Thuvia and Tars Tarkas off and boards one of their airships, killing the crew save one, Xodar, a prince of the Black Martians, the self-proclaimed First Born of Mars, and incidentally, a people also claiming to be gods. He also rescues a White Martian girl, Phaidor, who falls in love with John, but John is faithful to his wife Dejah Thoris, and is also disturbed by Phaidor's casual cruelty.

Xodar has some tricks up his sleeve, and John & Phaidor are captured by reinforcements, and taken to Omean, an underground sea where the Black Martians make their home. The First Born are ruled by the cruel (self-proclaimed again) goddess Issus, and like the Therns, they enslave the other Martian races to serve them and fight in their arenas.

Hmm: long-lived, beautifully-featured, ebony-skinned, underground raiders who worship a cruel goddess and love to party at the expense of others.

It really activates the almonds.

Anyway, Phaidor is taken to be a handmaiden of Issus. John is sent to the arena. Xodar is sent as well, since he lost in combat to John, and must serve him. Naturally, the two become best buds working to escape from their virtual death sentence. In prison, they find a pale young Red Martian youth who is obviously John Carter's son Carthoris, but the book plays coy with it for a while until the two are able to have a moment's rest.

There's already so much going on that going through the plot would take pages and pages. John Carter escapes. We get back to Helium and Red Martian intrigue. A reunion with cool dude Kantos Kan. Dejah Thoris went to the Valley Dor to look for her husband and son. John Carter wants to go after her. More intrigue. A titanic air battle between the fleets of three navies, and John Carter cutting down any bastard that stands between him and Dejah Thoris.

And then it ends on a massive cliffhanger because by this point Burroughs knew he had his audience hooked.

While some of the twists are blatantly telegraphed and a lot of convenient coincidences take place that stretch belief, the book hits the ground running and never lets up on the adventure.

The section that stands out the most to me is where John is taken to the arena and sees a group of female slaves inspected by the hideous Issus and a few are selected and taken away. John learns that the ones taken away were to be eaten by Issus and her court, while the rest would be torn apart by animals in the arena.

In a modern story, John would feel bad as he watched the innocent women get slaughtered for the entertainment of the First Born, then do some arena fighting, then plot his escape, then try and fail to escape, then mope a lot, then try again, then maybe succeed and that would take up half of the book and whoever was helping him escape would die and he'd feel extra bad about it.

Not here. This is Pulp! As soon as John learns that the women are going to be killed, the red mist descends over his eyes and he punches his way out of his cage (because Earthmen have super strength on Barsoom, remember?) and begins butchering everything between him and the throne of Issus. Not only does Carthoris join him in this, but every single slave in the arena, man and woman, join his uprising and John Carter nearly succeeds in reaching Issus, if not for the ancient hag queen's trickery. And this is only about halfway into the book!

Burroughs is awesome. John Carter is awesome. The Gods of Mars is awesome. Read the Barsoom books. That's an order.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Legends Never Die: Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon

Published in late 1983, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon, was the second in the Lando trilogy.

Following the Rafa adventure, Lando, now with moustache, finds himself with a hold full of valuable life crystals, but finds himself unsuited to the life of an honest merchant. Forms, fees, pirate attacks, repairs and unfavorable prices have depleted his wealth. Plus, someone is very clearly trying to kill him with sabotage, so he turns back to his primary moneymaking skill: gambling.

He arrives in the Oseon system, which is made of two things: mining asteroids and pleasure asteroids. After a successful night at the Sabacc tables, he's attacked by a strange old man and kills him in self-defense (Lando's first kill in the trilogy). The local governor is sympathetic to the self-defense claim, but Oseon has a strict no guns policy among civilians, and the penalty is death. He offers a deal: Lando will ferry a local police officer (no nonsense cop Bassi Vobah) and an Imperial narcotics agent (the flustered avian Waywa Fybot) to an asteroid of “the single richest being in the galaxy” Bohhuah Mutdah. Mutdah has apparently been buying the highly illegal drug lesai and having it shipped during the Flamewind, a regular seasonal flare of solar radiation that drew millions to the system to see the pretty lights but also made navigation almost impossible.

Fortunately, Lando and Vuffi Raa are able to get through (the little starfish-shaped droid turns out to be an excellent flight instructor), and the following string of betrayals and deceptions leads to the revelation that the architect of it all was the Sorcerer of Tund, Rokur Gepta, who is really, really mad at Lando for fouling up his plans in the last book.

This is probably the most Libertarian book in the series. Lando's distaste for government and law enforcement shines through, so much that Lando never once entertains the idea of charming Bassi, the local cop sent with him. Even the sympathetic governor is presented as well-meaning but largely impotent compared to his orders. Waywa Fybot, the Imperial Narc, is treated as a joke at first, seeing as he's a two and a half meter tall yellow birdman.

Sabacc remains important, but takes a back seat to the intrigue. Lando and Vuffi Raa's relationship has settled into an amiable partnership, with “And don't call me master” becoming Lando's de facto catchphrase of the trilogy.

The jokes keep flying fast, including the mention of a constellation called the Silly Rabbit, but its gets serious when it needs to, and the climax shows just how petty and dangerous Rokur Gepta can be.

Probably my personal favorite of the Lando Calrissian Adventures, I definitely recommend it for fans of smooth-talking gamblers who keep ending up in bizarre situations.