The Silverleaf Chronicles by Vincent Trigili

Silver

One of the many blogs and newsletters I read had a low cost offering for this book and that is something I can never resist. I would give a shout out to where I found it but I don’t recall at this moment (Might have been Tor). I had never encountered Trigili but looking at his page on Amazon he has been writing for quite some time.

I enjoyed The Silverleaf Chronicles (The Dragon Masters Book 1) and it was a fast read, but I thought that it had a number of flaws (or perceived flaws) that annoyed me. I should mention that what bothers me in one book I often do not notice in another so all complaints should be taken with a grain of salt.

The book follows a man named Silverleaf, who comes from one of the clans of the Forest People. They look just like humans but some of them are born to control dragons. However dragons went extinct centuries before and so the potential dragon masters slowly go insane. However when they go insane they also become frightening efficient killing machines as well. Silverleaf is a dragonmaster and has fled his home so that he does not inflict harm on those he loves.

As he wanders he reaches a small town and sets up work as a smithy to earn some money. While repairing a rare ax the town is invaded by a foreign army. The one strange thing about the foe is that they have armored, android like troops that have the ability to fire destructive beams from their arms and are mind controlled by humans. Much like the army in the classic bad movie Krull. In many ways the movie had an interesting cast with both Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane in supporting roles-I kid you not.

krull
Sadly no dragons

Silverleaf manages to fight his way out, accompanied by Kaylissa, the serving girl from the inn where he was taking his meals. He discovers that she is also from the Forest Clans and returns her to the clans, and then departs again.

The book chronicles their relationship as she follows and reunites with him and his battle with the madness. This is the strongest part of the book, but even here I think there is a problem. Silverleaf has been living as an almost feral animal, and was part of a wolf pack for a time. He no longer remembers his past and seems barely human. One quick battle and he is now a thoughtful teacher, helping Kaylissa on her way to beating the madness. Wow that was fast.

The world building is almost non-existent. No maps or sense of distance. You are told that once a vast civilization existed in that area yet no one seems to ever encounter ruins, aside from one impregnable fortress. Aside from this there are forests, a few isolated villages and a rumor of cities to the south.

That fortress, Drac’nor, is where all of the clans of the Forest People retreat at the first onset of the foreign army. The scenario where they decide to go does not ring true. Silverleaf meets the ruler of one of the clans. The leader asks what they should do. Silverleaf says retreat to the fortress. “Ok stranger that we have never met, we will follow your instructions and off they go with nary a word raised about abandoning their ancestral homeland.  It seems that many decisions in the book are made this way. No arguments raised. Also where do they get the food and other supplies when they are in the fortress? Once in the fort, they seem unconcerned about what the enemy is doing away from its borders.

Another odd item is that when Silverleaf comes out of berserker (madness) mode he is ravenous. Nothing odd about that, but it is that he says he needs simple sugars then roots and insects (basically carbs) before he goes on to proteins. All that was missing was a complaint against trans fats.

I did enjoy the writing and the portrayal of the main two characters. The book ends with a lot of unanswered questions and I am interested to see how the author resolves them. There are a number of interesting twists in The Silverleaf Chronicle and so I would expect there to be more in future books. I think that in hindsight the book was probably more targeted at a YA audience, which might explain some of my perceived shortcomings in the book.

Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

jack

I was a huge Zelazny fan when I was younger and read a great deal of his work. I even went so far as to stand in line at the old Recycle Books in San Jose to get an autographed copy of Nine Princes in Amber. He crossed genres easily and I felt then and now that much of his work was way ahead of its time. So when I came across a copy of Jack of Shadows at a garage sale I snapped it up.

I had read the book decades ago but only had a faint memory of it, and a vague feeling of uneasiness about it. I could not put my finger on why prior to reading it and am still not sure why afterwards but I believe I have a better idea why now.

The world that it is set in is an earth that basically does not rotate. Half is always in sunlight and half in darkness. In the light section there is science and a mechanical world. In the dark there are ruling powers that have powerful magic at their command. The dark side keeps a shield in the sky that keeps the world as it is with magic while the daysiders have a mechanical shield. The people in the sun have souls and the people in the dark are immortal and will be reborn if killed. At the edge of these two areas is Shadow, an area that the titular figure inhabits, and where his power comes from. The world had a Dying Earth feel to it, but it is obvious that Jack Vance’s books were not an inspiration. You also get hints (in hindsight) of the powers and characters that will his Amber series, especially Corwin.

I really enjoyed the reread but I could clearly see why I had the unease when I was younger. When you are introduced to Jack, he is a cool character, just a master thief planning a job. When the plan goes off the rails he ends up struggling to survive (after being executed) and vows vengeance on all that have wronged him. And he brings off the vengeance with a flourish. At this time he becomes an unlikable character. His mistakes and arrogance start compounding problems and he has to take drastic measures to try and salvage the situation.

I think what had upset me was that when I read this, back when it was originally published, all of the heroes in books that I followed were basically good. Even a character like Conan, who off the pages looted, robbed and raped, was a chivalrous, almost do-gooder in the stories. Jack somewhat redeems himself, but not really. I think I was unprepared for a character like this at the time, and to a degree I still find it unsettling. Not that he did not reform but rather because I still somewhat liked him.

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I think that since I really enjoy Zelazny’s writing style and the imagery that he presents it is time to revisit other books that he has written. I think that Lord of Light, which won the Hugo in 1968, will be on my need to read soon list.

Fables of Ismeddin by E.Hoffman Price

ismed

 

I have a friend who is a huge fan of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle of writers and after discussing recent books we had read I recommended Karl Wagner to him and his counter recommendation was Edgar Hoffman Price, who had cowritten a story with Lovecraft.

Another Golden Age writer I have never heard of and one that seemed very prolific. I looked at a number of his offerings online and decided on the Fables of Ismeddin MEGAPACK from Amazon. I was a bit worried that the stories might have a strong racist tinge to them as some of Lovecraft’s do. I did not find that to be so. In many of the stories there are no real ‘heros’ in that there is some evil in all, but often it is the westerner that is the worst, such as in Well of the Angels.

There are a number of reoccurring characters and story styles, starting with the title character Ismeddin, a Kurdish holy man that is called a Darvish, an alternate spelling for dervish. Ismeddin is only in about half of the tales but is an interesting character.

dervish

Crafty, devout, wise, versed in ancient lore and an apparent practitioner of magic he is an interesting contradiction. He is also at times a caravan raider, horse thief, guide, advisor to travelers and Amirs as well as a man that deals with the devil. While looking down on the ruling class he often helps them maintain their thrones even when they are obviously cruel and corrupt.

Another reoccurring character is Bint el Hereth or Bint el Kafir, the daughter of Satan, a immortal seductress who entices men to their doom in a way that many men might be willing to follow. You will have to judge for yourself if she is evil or not.

There are a few historical fiction tales and several that does not feature Ismeddin and have westerners as their main focus. At first I was disappointed in this but a number of them are good tales.

I really enjoyed the stories and believe that they aged very well. A couple that stood out for me were Ismeddin and the Holy Carpet and the Girl from Samarcand, for very different reasons. The first shows the cleverness and resourcefulness of Ismeddin, and how quickly he can adjust to unexpected circumstances. The other, almost a ghost story, has a lot to say about day dreaming as well as the importance of hearing an entire conversation.

The stories reminded me in a way of a number of Robert E. Howard’s short stories set in the same area but there are major differences. The first is simply the era. Howard’s tales are mostly around the Crusades while Hoffman’s are primarily around the start of the 20th Century. Another major issue is that the hero in Howard’s stories are all European, while Hoffman’s are Kurds, Persians, Afgans and others from the nations around the Levant.

Hoffman wrote in a number of genres and there is both a Fantasy & Science Fiction as well as a Two Fisted Detective MEGAPACKS available that I will probably invest a buck on in the future. I wonder if his stories in those genres holds up as well?

Darkness Weaves by Karl Edward Wagner

darkness

Since my buddy had dropped off a couple of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books and I wanted to make sure I returned them in a timely manner (unusual for me) so I read a second one, Darkness Weaves over the weekend. I have seen this book listed as one of five that Wagner wrote, and also as book #7 in the Kane Series, so not really sure which.

It is one of the two full length Kane novels that Wagner wrote, the other being Bloodstones. It is centered on Efrel, a princess from Pellin, one of the many kingdoms that comprise the extensive Thovnosian island empire (think hundreds of islands) and who is plotting a revolt against the ruler.

The story follows Kane as he flees to Pellin, where Efrel is believed to be dead after being tortured by the emperor. She is a sorceress and consorts with dark powers and elder beings who are believed to be gone or not remembered. Kane has a past history with the empire, including evil actions that led to its formation.

The books has what you would expect, magic, warfare, betrayal, naval and land combat, insanity, strange animals, occult rites, elder races, submarines and lasers. Well I really did not expect the last two but they were present. It has touches of a Lovecraft feel but seems to miss the dread and darkness that Lovecraft has in his stories, and Wagner has in later tales

From the start there is an air of inevitability to the story. Kane is hiding out due to some unmentioned evil, but he escapes. He flees by ship followed by faster ships, but escapes. He faces far superior odds in battles and prevails. He betrays his employer and escapes. There are also a few unexplained items that I wish were clearer. A god appears very briefly, makes a few comments and disappears for the rest of the book. Kane is pursued by authorities of the Lartroxian Combine, it would have been nice to know what he did to have it so dedicated to his capture- all of the roads have been blocked for months and it sent two of its biggest and fastest ships in pursuit.

I found it to be nowhere as inventive or original as the short stories but it seems that it is the first book that he wrote on Kane and it is pretty good. It moves smoothly and the characters are well defined and believable. Arabas the Assassin, Imel, Kane, Efrel and others all have real motives for their actions, which I like.

Going forward I will probably move away from Sword and Sorcery for a bit, a term I found that Wagner hated, but seems to have been coined specifically for his writing and revival of Robert E Howard. I do expect to read the others in this series at some time to see how they progress.

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Night Winds by Karl Edward Wagner

Frak

 

One of the first genres I became interested in was Sword and Sorcery inspired primarily by  Robert E. Howard’s Conan (with literary assists from Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp) and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books, with plenty of help from other authors. I think in part what attracted me was the covers of the Conan books. Done by Frank Frazetta they featured muscle bound warriors with weapons and voluptuous women with veils and in the days prior to video games what could be more appealing to a 14 year old boy?

Decades later I rarely visit that subset of the fantasy genre, but a friend asked me if I had ever read Wagner’s Kane: The Mystic Swordsman books. I had to be honest and admitted that I had not even heard of them and wondered if he was confusing Howards Solomon Kane stories. After a look that implied I was an idiot he went on to patiently explain about the books and offered to lend me one.

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So that is how I ended up reading Night Winds, a series of short stories about Kane. Kane is based somewhat on the biblical character who has been cursed with immortality after murdering his brother. In parts a wizard and a mighty warrior, he has seen it all and done it all, if all is evil.

In doing a bit of research I found that most everybody compares Kane to an evil Conan. While I could see the similarities I think that is simply trying to shoehorn one character into another’s space. I found him to be very different.  Kane is a much more complex character to start with, willing to argue philosophy with giants and poetry with poets. He is very much the antihero however. His word is not his bond. He murders, rapes and rains ruin on lands as he sees fit. While a mighty wizard, magic in this series is not something that can be quickly or easily used and so when faced with otherworldly foes he often has no recourse but to face them, and then it is luck, not skill that enables him to escape.

Wagner had a close understanding of Howards work, and apparently even wrote in that universe on occasion, but these stories were not just imitations. The first story in the book “Undertow” was much closer to something Jack Vance would have written in his Dying Earth series. Others in the book had a much more horror story bent, leaning towards Lovecraft and that type of story, exemplified by “Sing a Last Song of Valdese” and “Dark Muse.” In both of these Kane is as much an onlooker as a player.

The stories are usually two stories intertwined, and as could be guessed with an immortal character one story is often in the past, but not always. There are very interesting twists in many of the stories and for the most part I enjoyed the writing as well, however at times he seemed a little over the top with purple prose.

I really enjoyed the book, even with the main character such an evil person, with little to redeem him. I am looking forward to reading more and after looking at the high price the books sell for I hope my friend has the complete collection!