Tag Archives: fantasy

The Physiognomy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Physiognomy [Amazon, Bookshop, Abebooks, Local Library] by Jeffrey Ford, book 1 of the The Well-Built City Trilogy.

Ford The Physiognomy

The Physiognomy is a book about terrible violence: physical, emotional, and social; and yet the whole mood is dreamy and vaporous, with many moments of real cheer. The protagonist Cley is a Physiognomist First Class — a ranking agent of the totalitarian Well-Built City — and the novel is the story of his gradual redemption from his own vicious participation in a society of exploitation and control.

The closest comparison I could make to characterize the setting of this book would be to the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil. It is a fantasy, in a world that differs from ours cosmetically, but includes 19th- and 20th-century levels of gadgetry as well as decidedly modern forms of social organization. Features include clockwork zombies, exotic drugs, and the oppressive canon of stigmatization that is the physiognomy itself. Cley serves as the narrator, and he is often uncertain about the boundaries between his dreams, his drug-addled hallucinations, and the possibly supernatural events that overtake him. And yet for all that, and the anguish involved in the story, the prose style is remarkably limpid.

The NYT review characterized this book as an allegory, and it could easily be read as one. The names are all numinous and provocative: Cley himself is mortal and malleable “clay,” as well as the “key” (clef) to the story. Still, the story holds up as a fantasy adventure in its own right, and it doesn’t stagger under any didactic burden. In this case (contrast Lewis’ Narnia, for example) the allegorical dimension enriches the narrative rather than deflating it.

Although The Physiognomy is the first volume of a trilogy, it definitely stands as a complete work on its own. I would caution readers against the “Introduction to the New Edition” set at the beginning of the Golden Gryphon reissue: it is mostly the author’s retrospective on his writing process, and would be better read after the novel, rather than before.

The Shadow Kingdom

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Kull, Volume 1: The Shadow Kingdom [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Arvid Nelson, Will Conrad, José Villarrubia, & al, foreword Mark Finn.

Nelson Conrad Villarrubia Howard Kull of Atlantis The Shadow Kingdom

Arvid Nelson returns to the original Robert E. Howard stories to build a 21st-century Kull comic that far outshines its 1970s Marvel predecessor. Certainly, Will Conrad’s art benefits from the improvements in comics production: full-process color and finer printing throughout, with compositions planned for glossy white pages instead of newsprint. But writer Nelson does an altogether better job of adapting the seminal REH piece “The Shadow Kingdom.” A few examples: Nelson adds an artful scene in the Room of Kings in the Tower of Splendor, both to provide background for the later appearance of King Eallal’s ghost, and to serve as a setting to articulate the “Kull … the fool!” mutterings which are here ambiguously attributable to Kull’s animated conscience (as in the REH original) or to lurking serpent priests. Also, where the Marvel writers chose to interpret the REH statement that Kull “had never known … the love of women” by simply avoiding any attention to Kull’s sexual consciousness, Nelson chooses the more sophisticated approach of representing the king in a frosty political marriage. Finally, this newer version returns to Kull’s companion Brule a critical pronouncement during the climactic confrontation with a mass of monsters disguised as the king’s councilors.

The distinctive facial scar that characterized the Marvel Kull is abandoned here, but several panels show Kull’s massively scarred back — no doubt a legacy of his widely-rumored time as a galley slave. The Pict warrior Brule really looks fierce in these comics, while he often looked somewhat silly in the old Marvel numbers. Likewise, Conrad captures the joviality of the Pictish ambassador Ka-nu much better than the Severins ever did. The Serpent Men are altogether more inhuman and menacing, and Valusia itself seems more monumental and ancient than it did in the rather medieval Marvel vision. There is plenty of gore, in keeping with the spirit of the REH original, and an appropriately dark tone pervades the stories. 

The new version of “The Shadow Kingdom” forms the central bulk of this volume, complemented by a warm-up “The Iron Fortress” and the epilogue “The Eye of Terror.” My only complaint about the adaptation was that the very last panel of “The Shadow Kingdom” proper (less than an eighth of the page at the lower right) was a mildly humorous undercutting of the heavy finish of this somber tale. Even so, it did “work” narratively in the larger plot frame that Nelson had constructed in order to expand on Howard’s original.

REH scholar Mark Finn provides a foreword here, as he does for the Dark Horse reprint of the early Marvel Kull stories. But where he focuses on the comics in the Marvel case, this essay is really trained on Howard and the genesis of the Kull character. Likewise, a concluding essay by Nelson reflects on the character and his relationship to the better-known and more “successful” Conan, explaining distinctions between them and his preference for the former.

The Magic Order

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Magic Order, Book One [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Hoopla, Local Library] by Mark Millar, Olivier Coipel, & al., volume 1 of The Magic Order series.

Millar Coipel The Magic Order Book One

I borrowed this comics collection from the public library, having heard nothing of it previously. Apparently, the second volume has appeared in individual floppies, and the once-cancelled (during pandemic gyrations) Netflix series is back in active development. It’s ultra-violent and and not especially clever about supernatural magic or stage magic, both of which are central to the story. Thaumaturgy is hereditary, and the “Order” is a family concern.

I liked Olivier Coipel’s art very much. His compositions are dynamic, and the characters are expressive. The art benefits from the masterful colors by Dave Stewart, of course.

The book was just barely good enough that I’ll read Volume Two if I can borrow it from the library, and I’ll give the tv series a shot if it ever manifests.

An Oath to Mida

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews An Oath to Mida [Amazon, Local Library] by Sharon Green, book 2 in the Jalav/Amazon Warrior series.

Green An Oath to Mida

I read this a couple of months ago, and held off on reviewing it — because, honestly, I’m embarrassed to have read the whole thing. I was looking for something trashy, but this was really awful. The story is told from the perspective of the amazon savage “war leader” Jalav, in a constructed idiom (and rather unconventional English syntax) to emphasize her alienation from the relatively medieval society in which she is sojourning. Her language alienated me too. Although she learned to read in the course of this novel, Jalav still called chairs, tables, and beds “platforms,” and lanterns were “boxes with lights in them.” Men and women were always and only “males” and “females.” The words ‘day’ and ‘night’ were eliminated, to be replaced with “feyd” and “darkness.” 

The plot is terribly slow, and Jalav is a captive for most of the book. She gets raped and beaten many times, and the “oath” of the title is her coerced swearing by her goddess Mida that she will obey a certain man, who subsequently domesticates her and passes her around to his pals. There’s plenty of psychological and cultural justification for the sequence of events. Then, at the end, the pace picks up considerably, culminating in Jalav’s ultimate rape by a demon-god, with the apparent connivance of Mida. 

It seems that this book (the second in a series of five) is intended to establish a set of affections and enmities that will motivate the remainder of a saga. But, ugh.

Evil does not sleep, Elrond. It waits. And in the moment of our complacency, it blinds us.

John D Payne and Patrick McKay, The Rings of Power, s01e01, “A Shadow of the Past”

 Hermetic quote Payne McKay The Rings of Power s01e01 A Shadow of the Past evil does not sleep waits moment complacency blinds us

The Bridge of Lost Desire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Bridge of Lost Desire [Amazon, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany.

Delany The Bridge of Lost Desire

I have now completed my read of Samuel R. Delany’s Nevèrÿon series in their first mass market paperback editions, which fostered an illusion for a couple of years that they were a “fantasy trilogy” in the publishing straight-jacket of the day. The fourth and actually final book was The Bridge of Lost Desire–later re-titled Return to Nevèrÿon, which is also a name for the whole series. Like the previous volume Flight from Nevèrÿon, it is structured as three stories and a pseudo-scholarly appendix, but without the fictional/factual ambivalence of the third story in Flight.

The first and longest story is “The Game of Time and Pain,” and among other things it sets forth a sort of supplementary origin tale for the series’ axial character Gorgik the Liberator, whose early years were charted in the very first story of the whole series. Once himself a slave, Gorgik is now an accomplished minister of state who has attained his goal of the abolition of slavery, and most of this story is taken up with his reminiscences of his time as a slave in early adulthood, juxtaposed with his disorientation at returning to the scene of that slavery.

The second story “The Game of Rumor and Desire” is also structured around biographical reflection, although not in the voice of its central character. Despite a few references to people and places introduced earlier in the series, the immediate tale is concerned with an inconsequential and unsympathetic ruffian who has appeared nowhere else in the texts. The title is accurate, and the novella-length piece gives attention to the development of sexual fetishes and the navigation of affectional currents.

The final story of the entire decade-long Return to Nevèrÿon authorial project is the first story. It actually reprints in its unaltered entirety “The Tale of Gorgik” from the first volume Tales of Nevèrÿon. This fourth book would have been long enough without these sixty-two pages, so they are not mere “padding.” Reading the first story again at the end supplies an assurance that the concerns and motifs of the larger series were present in it from its start, as passages take on an altered luster in light of the subsequent tales. Gorgik is described with many details that seem cribbed from Robert E. Howard’s Conan, but at the last Delany is careful to point out that Gorgik is “a civilized man.”

The appendix carries the fictional byline of scholar Leslie K. Steiner, and allows Delany to confess his authorial sources and intentions and to play with readings of his own texts in the form of friendly criticism from an imagined third party. A preliminary author’s note in this volume suggests that for those “interested in the series as such” this appendix might be read at the beginning, and also expresses an intention for it to be set as a preface to the entire series. (I suppose it was in the later reissue.)

The period in which these books were written concludes during my own time as a college undergraduate, and their themes, theoretical preoccupations, and even textual allusions are largely ones that I first considered then. The nostalgic sense of “return” involved with heroic fantasy generally (“endlessly repeated pornographies of action and passion that, for all their violences, still manage to pander to an astonishingly untroubled acceptance of the personal and political status quo,” 305) was thus doubly effective for me. As “Steiner” admonishes in the words of Ernst Bloch, “You can never go home, only go home again” (307).

The Sandman: Overture

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sandman: Overture [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Neil Gaiman, J H Williams III, and Dave Stewart, with Todd Klein and Dave McKean.

Gaiman Williams et al The Sandman Overture

The six-issue Sandman: Overture comics series was the last to be created for the title character. It was published more than fifteen years after the seventy-fifth and last number of the original Sandman title, which had in its day been fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s largest and highest-profile comics work. As “Overture” suggests, this later sequence supplies a story set immediately prior to the main series, anticipating its themes and forms.

Although I was an active comics reader during the heyday of the lauded former serial, and it certainly fit my general tastes, for whatever reason, I haven’t read it–even though it has remained in print in trade paperback collections ever since. It has new currency now with the release of the big-money-small-screen version from Netflix. So when I considered reading some of the comics this summer, I decided to start with Overture. After reading the copious creators’ notes and interviews in this volume, I realize that the intended audience for Overture were really longtime fans and knowledgeable readers of Sandman. Oh, well. I didn’t find it difficult to follow, although I suppose it would have been a richer read if I had been familiar with the other work.

The art in this book is outstanding, with the lines and shades by J.H. Williams III (of Promethea fame) and amazing colors by Dave Stewart. Another key contributor, who doesn’t appear on the cover but still features among the creative personnel interviewed in the end matter, is letterer Todd Klein. Perennial Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean also provided cover art for the series.

Among comics, I was most reminded of the Eternity story arc from 1970s Doctor Strange, although Williams and Gaiman in their remarks refer to Jim Steranko rather than Gene Colan as a visual comics influence. In literature generally, Gaiman’s “Endless” characters reminded me most of Tanith Lee’s “Lords of Darkness” in her Tales from the Flat Earth books. They are not mere personifications of abstract concepts. It might be more accurate to call them hypostases of cosmic principles–but ones that somehow elicit the reader’s human sympathy.

The Dreaming City

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dreaming City [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Julien Blondel, Jean-Luc Cano, and Julien Telo, foreword by Jean-Pierre Dionnet, vol 4 of the Elric series.

Blondel Cano Telo The Dreaming City Elric

This newly-released (in English) fourth volume completes the “first cycle” of Julien Blondel’s bandes dessinées adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories. Blondel takes a lot of liberties with the original texts–something on the level of a typical cinematic adaptation of a novel–but his choices are generally very good and have reportedly met with Moorcock’s own approval. One of the biggest changes was introduced at the end of the third volume and is central to this one. . . . . . . . [hover over to reveal spoilers] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I like the gloomy, shadow-heavy art by Telo in this book, but some of the compositions are hard to “read” in narrative terms, especially during the climactic confrontation among Elric, Cymoril, and Yrkoon. In some panels for example, I didn’t know which of the rune-swords is being shown: is that Stormbringer or Mournblade? These stumbles “work” impressionistically, reflecting Elric’s own confusion, but they are still a little frustrating for the reader.

The foreword by Jean-Pierre Dionnet (co-founder of Métal hurlant, who asks that you read his essay after The Dreaming City to which it is prefaced) is the least of these in the series, but like the others it contains some piquant autobiographical reflections and musings on international culture and the role of fantasy. It does include one amusing double-translation through French: the Moorcock novel “Here’s the Man” (i.e. Behold the Man, which is the biblical ecce homo).

The claim to have finished a cycle of the larger saga is a fair one here. Most of the story threads have been tied off, if not ruthlessly cut and burned, by this point. The issuance of these volumes has been at a pretty leisurely pace, and I hope that they continue without an even longer intermission than the ones before.

The Deadly Grimoire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Deadly Grimoire [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Rosemary Jones, cover Daniel Strange, part of the Arkham Horror: Standalone Novels series.

Jones The Deadly Grimoire

Author Rosemary Jones claims to have written The Deadly Grimoire in response to reader demand for her to continue telling stories in the 1920s Arkham of H. P. Lovecraft and the 21st-century game designers inspired by him. Characters featured here and originating in the Arkham Files games include photo journalist Darrell Simmons and mail carrier Stella Clark.

The story is told by the actress Betsy Baxter (from Jones’ previous Arkham novel Mask of Silver), who forms a friendship with the aviatrix Winifred Habbamock, the latter making her first appearance in Arkham literature outside of the games, as far as I know. Both of these protagonists are lady entrepreneurs of a sort, and the war-of-the-sexes framing from Mask of Silver is, if anything, intensified here, with an emphasis on “what the women know and the men forget” (226). There are some sympathetic male characters, including bookseller Tom Sweets.

Daniel Strange’s cover art accurately suggests that this tale will lean into the “pulp adventure” flavor more than cosmic horror, and the narrative tone is often more comedic than horrific. I thought that Jones had cultivated a good sense of sustained menace in Mask of Silver, albeit perhaps more effectively for readers familiar with the jauniste horror of Robert W. Chambers. But that angle is pretty much dropped in this sequel, which instead orients to a feud between two Innsmouth families with some supernatural backstory. The more fortunate and less introspective narrator Betsy certainly gives this book a lighter tone than its predecessor.

In the appended acknowledgments Jones gives a shout out to Mildred Benson, and indeed, this book reads more like a Nancy Drew mystery adventure than it does pulp era weird horror, Lovecraftian trappings notwithstanding.