Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

July 7, 2009

William Morris – The Well at the World’s End

I’ve had one or the other volume of this sitting on my bedside table for the last six months, since it’s slow, dense reading. Last night before bed, I finished it off, and after that much time spent on it I’m damn well going to write about it.

Morris wrote this in the early 1890s, and it was published by the Kelmscott Press in the year of his death in 1896. It’s an expression of his lifelong love of the mediaeval and of the Matter of Britain, though this text is closer in feel to the numerous accretions than to the “core” Arthurian tales. Fundamentally, it’s fanfic – the devoted craft of someone who can’t accept that there isn’t any more of their obsession, and damn well writes it themselves.

A lot of what I can say about this involves “despite” – it is, overall, good and fresh despite the pseudo-mediaeval style (there’s enough cod in there to restock half the Atlantic) and the interminable dullness of every scene wherein someone shows love or affection to someone else.

I think it has that freshness for two reasons. First, it has a strongly English sense of place about it – Morris may have been unreasoningly in love with the form of the mediaeval epics, but he still understood their matter. When Ralph leaves Upmeads, he goes through Wulstead, the Abbey of St Mary at Higham[1], Bourton Abbas, and the Wood Perilous. Those are all good English place names where today you might find stockbrokers and real ale; and meseems that in the Wood Perilous might one
venture at cheap and hope to behold squirrels, ramblers, and suchlike woodland beasts.

Secondly, it’s mostly free of tired fantasy conventions. Well, technically Lord of the Rings is free of tired fantasy conventions, since it was the wellspring of most of them, but The Well at the World’s End has the added advantage that it didn’t inspire legions of imitators. I’ve a soft spot for books with no non-human characters or antagonists, too.

As for where the breadcrumbs lead next – I’ve some more of Morris’s work on the same shelf, and the next literary heritor on is JRR Tolkien. Large swathes of The Hobbit were inspired by Morris’s depictions of early Germanic life, and in his 20s he wrote self-consciously in the style of Morris. He got better though.

The other apparent followup is early Sheri S. Tepper – her True Game books et seq – though those owe as much to Dunsany as to Morris.

[1] The story is set very much in the far-off reaches of this world – the early pages make mention of “a house of good canons, who knew not the way to Rome”.

July 6, 2009

Jonathan Green – Unnatural History

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 9:31 pm

With this, Abaddon[1] Press’s first in the Pax Britannia[2] series, another patchwork cadaver gets unceremoniously slung on the creaking, lurching bandwagon of steampunk.

I had this pressed upon me as a free gift at Eastercon LX, and I have no hesitation in saying it was worth more than I paid for it. I got at least 25p worth of entertainment from writing this review, after all.

There’s a half-decent novella in there, maybe a hundred pages of sparkling wit and madcap action; but it’s encumbered by four things.

The first is the author’s tin ear for dialogue, and inability to separate narrative voice from character; the second is the unoriginality of each tired set-piece scene, from the confrontation with Scotland Yard at the Scene of the Crime to the life-or-death struggle atop a speeding train and the hero’s unorthodox entry to a zeppelin in flight[3]; the third is the glutinous web of what we’ll charitably refer to as plot that binds those scenes together; and the fourth is the excess two hundred pages of leadenly prolix padding that surrounds it all.

It’s written very much in the style of a Strand part-work, and each chapter takes care to recap large parts of the one before. To add to this weight of unnecessary verbiage, there’s also rather a lot of infodump exposition; it appears that Green had simultaneously been writing the roleplaying game sourcebook of the world, and by some budgetary exigence had been forced to combine the two projects into one.

The characters appear to have been ordered from a catalogue, possibly quite cheaply. I suspect that that would be because the millionaire playboy secret agent explorer[4], the ex-prizefighter butler, the ruthless femme fatale villain, the incompetent police inspector, the amoral scientist, and the machiavellian politician would quite happily all roll up and fit in one cardboard tube.

About all I can say about the book’s ending is that it has one, and that the plot strand (there is only one) is resolved, and that in the proper style some of the enemies have escaped for the sequel. If we are lucky, there will not be a sequel.

As far as further detail goes, either I have blotted it from my mind in the last ten minutes or I found myself incapable of reading it with any attention due to the sheer horror of both the prose and the internal logic of the proceedings.

It reads as though the Good Doktor Frankenstein, despite his medical degree, had been unable to tell fresh corpse parts from the sundered limbs of Action Man, and instead of pulling the lever to surge life-giving electricity into his creation had instead attached strings and made it dance the Funky Chicken.

[1] What a name. I suppose at least it has the merit of keeping their books to their intended audiences.
[2] Oh, look, unnecessary Latin. Now there’s a surprise. The text refers to “Magna Britannia” and “Londinium Maximum”, and at one point Our Protagonist gets into a fist fight with something “the academics would give the name homo lizardus or perhaps lizardus sapiens“. And that’s narrative text, not reported speech…
[3] It’s both pseudo-Victorian steampunk and alternate history. Of course it has to have zeppelins. It would have been really quite surprising if it didn’t.
[4] One Ulysses Quicksilver, and the protagonist of this novel. The only distinguishing features that have stuck in my mind are that he learnt generic Eastern martial arts in a generic Eastern monastery, and that he wears a chartreuse and crimson waistcoat. I would really rather not have known these things.

July 4, 2009

Lord Dunsany – Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:24 am

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea.

Like all of Lord Dunsany’s work, this is a beautiful and strange story. The full text is available online here. It’s about the same unconquerable, barely expressible yearning for the Sea that Legolas experiences in The Lord of the Rings, and which seems to be an interesting characteristic of elves-done-properly generally. (Not that the characters in this story are elves, or even elvish; people are quite strange enough for Dunsany as it is.)

It’s hardly an exclusively fantasy, theme, however – Kipling and Masefield both expressed it perfectly.

For some reason I cannot articulate, this story reminds me of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. It may be mere coincidence.

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