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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Steven Brust: Learning From the Master

While I’ve already shared with you why I love Steven Brust’s fiction, and how his work spurs on my writing, I thought I’d share this example of his prose.  It stood out to me, and I thought you might enjoy reading it.

“I’d been to Northport a few years before, and I’d been hanging around the edges these last few days, but that next morning was really the first time I’d seen it.  It’s a funny town—sort of a miniature Adrilankha, the way it’s built in the center of those three hills the way Adrilankha is built between the cliffs, and both of them jutting up against the sea.  Northport has its own personality, though.  One gets the impression, looking at the three-story inns and the five-story Lumber Exchange Building and the streets that start out wide and straight and end up narrow and twisting, that someone wanted it to be a big city but it never made it.  The first section I came to was one of the new parts, with a lot of wood houses where tradesmen lived and had shops, but as I got closer to the docks the buildings got smaller and older, and were made of good, solid stonework.  And the people of Northport seem to have this attitude—I’m sure you’ve noticed it, too—that wants to convince you what a great place they’re living in.  They spend so much time talking about how easygoing everyone is that it gets on your nerves pretty quickly.  They talk so much about how it’s only around Northport that you can find the redfin or the fatfish that you end up not wanting to taste them just to spite the populace, you know what I mean?”
--from Orca, Chapter 2, by Steven Brust

This may seem loosely written, but consider all that Brust accomplishes in this paragraph.  His protagonist Vlad is describing to Kiera--a legendary thief--the town he’s currently visiting.  He does this by comparing it with his former home, the great city of Adrilankha.  He quickly sketches the outlines of Northport, draws in its major industries, darkens and shades the town with suggestions as to its history, and finally colors it with his initial impressions of its inhabitants.  In this way, Vlad reveals some of his own attitudes, we learn about him through the types of things he notices (as well as all that he doesn’t), and the manner in which he relates his experiences to his friends.  It’s a great paragraph, and I don’t know about you, but reading it makes me smile.

Now, consider the structure of the novel.  The Prologue for Orca takes the form of a letter in which Kiera responds to a letter from Vlad’s former wife Cawti.  Even though they’re estranged, Cawti still cares for him.  Kiera thus promises to tell her a little about her recent adventure with Vlad, but no more than she thinks Cawti should know, or Vlad would wish her to.  Chapter 1 transports us back into the past, as Kiera tells us how she met Vlad in Northport, relates how they reconnect after a year apart, and describes the mission Vlad then sends her on.  After she completes this task, she asks Vlad why he sent her on it, and so, in Chapter 2, he relates the experiences that led him to Northport, and why he then felt the need to call on her.  At the end of Chapter 2, Brust gives us a short Interlude in which Kiera and Cawti drink tea in a restaurant in Adrilankha, and the master-thief is relating some (but not all) of what occurred during her adventure with Vlad.  

My description in the paragraph above may sound complicated, but from the snippet of Orca you can sense how Brust bundles everything into an intriguing narrative that keeps you turning the pages, and wondering what will happen next.  Take into account further that this is a mid-series novel, and over the course of the books Vlad continually undergoes character maturation and transformation.  By the end of Orca, Brust will wrap up the novel’s plot, while stunning long-time readers with a major revelation about a particular character, which will explain…well, I hadn’t questioned that particular situation before, but suddenly, everything about Vlad’s life is undergirded with an additional layer of meaning! 

Needless to say, all this goes far beyond the ordinary.  If, by now, I haven’t convinced you that you need to run out to your local bookstore and buy a novel by Steven Brust, that only demonstrates my deficiencies as a storyteller, and how much I still need to learn from the master.

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Norman Clegg's TV House

When Andrew, one of my "Last of the Summer Wine" friends, told me that Norman Clegg's house was for sale, we knew we had to check it out.  So last Saturday, we took a taxi to the new Matter Transport Station in downtown San Diego, and beamed over to the MT Station in Manchester, England.  From there, we rented a cute Mini Cooper, and drove out to Holmfirth.

We found Simon, the agent handling the sale, as charming as the town in which he lives.  He drove us out to the house, and allowed us to walk through every room, and peer into (nearly) every closet and cupboard. Since the TV series ended in 2010, Norman Clegg has used his royalties to carry out some renovation work, and the house really looks lovely.  His garden shows equal attention to detail, and exhibits a delightful quirkiness.  We could imagine sitting out there for hours, even in the cold and rain, and gazing at all the points of interest he's created. And when it snowed, or we just needed to warm up, we could go upstairs and gaze out of the third-story windows upon a stunning, hillside vista.

Compo and Foggy no longer live nearby, but I'm sure we would find other laid back folks to hang out with.  Each evening, we could also wander down to the White Horse Tavern for a swift half, and take the pulse of local life.  

Sadly, after discussing the particulars with Simon back at his office, we realized that purchasing Norman Clegg's former house doesn't make sense right now.  First we'd have to petition for an extended stay visa, and the British government doesn't hand those out every day.  Plus, even after they build the proposed Matter Transport Station in Holmfirth, there's the fact that England is eight hours ahead of us.  So by the time we clocked off work, and could beam over, we'd get there in the wee hours of the morning.  And when we woke up to beam back to San Diego, it'd be early evening in England, which means that in the winter, we'd only see the sun on the weekends, and that would mean constantly adjusting our sleep schedules.  But, as Simon said, the MT Station won't be built in Holmfirth for a few years, and we couldn't handle driving between Manchester and Holmfirth every day.

Disconsolate, we bade Simon farewell, and wandered down into Holmfirth for a last tour of the town before we drove back to Manchester. We paid our respects to Compo and Nora Batty's houses, then stopped in at Sid's Cafe for some Yorkshire Tea and a sandwich.  As we ate, my wife pointed out one final barrier to purchasing Norman Clegg's House, an important factor that we had previously overlooked.  There's only one bathroom in his former home, right next to the bedroom.  Imagine having to troop up two flights of stairs every time you wanted know, use the facilities.  

I felt a little better about the whole situation after she pointed this out.  I mean, if you want something bad enough, you'll find a way to work around most of the problems that stand in your way.  But then there are others, like this last one, that make the whole situation just plain impossible!

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
Catching a Glimpse of Norman Clegg's House

Related Internet Links
Norman Clegg's House Listing

Monday, July 29, 2013

Drinking Tea with Inspector Lewis

On our visit last year to Yorkshire, we fell in love with Yorkshire Tea.  It had a nice flavor, and like the region of England from which it takes its name, seems more substantial than some other brands.  Since returning home, we've found it in several local stores, and thus look forward to our weekends together, when we can make a pot of tea and enjoy our breakfast together.  After savoring its rich flavor, we can then venture out upon our weekend adventures together.

In "Reputation", the first "Inspector Lewis" mystery, Lewis arrives at Heathrow Airport after working for two years in the British Virgin Islands. His new assistant, Detective Sergeant Hathaway, picks him up, but before they get back to the station they are called out to investigate a homicide.  That evening, jet-lagged and world-weary, Lewis arrives home.  His house is empty, his cupboards bare.  He empties his shopping bag of the few items he picked up at the grocery store.  And among those staples, those necessities of life, is a box of tea.

In a country as rich in history as England, regional distinctions often prove important.  People celebrate their local heritage, and support locally made products.  While Oxford is just outside London, Yorkshire (inhabited by "Northerners") seems a world away.  Yet Inspector Lewis doesn't reach for a tea made near London or Oxford.  He knows that, among the staples he needs to restart his life in England, he must have the rich taste and sustaining flavor found only in Yorkshire Tea.  

If it helps Inspector Lewis unravel the most perplexing mysteries (and helps Dragon Dave kickstart his weekends), you can rely on Yorkshire Tea to help you meet anything life demands of you.  

Well, at least nearly everything.  I mean, this is only a hot drink we're talking about, right? Oh, wow, I just heard thunder outside.  That's strange.  I wasn't expecting a storm today...

Dragon Dave

Friday, July 26, 2013

Of Daleks & Hammers

Supreme Dalek: I must say, the Master's scales are sounding good.
Pinky: Yes, once I got him past D Major, he's really taking off.  He's mastered A Major, E Major, and he's not even phased by B Major, even though it's got five sharps.
Supreme Dalek: He seems to be getting the hang of Muzio Clementi's Sonatina Op. 36, No. 4 rather quickly, too.
Pinky: Yes, I think it helps that he finds the Rondo section similar to the second part of No. 1.  
Supreme Dalek: You see what a little gentle persuasion can accomplish?  It told you...what was that?
Pinky: I don't know.  It sounded like a terrific impact of some kind.  Say, who's this guy that's coming along?

Supreme Dalek: Excuse me, stranger, but who are you, and are you supposed to be here?
Thor: Well might you call me stranger, for I hail from Asgard, and my father Odin has cast me down to this unknown realm.  
Pinky: Then you're not from around here?
Thor: Aye, sweet pink Dalek, that is correct.  My name is Thor, and I'm certain my half-brother Loki must have something to do with my exile.  If only I could perform some noble deed to reclaim my honor!  Surely then my father--good King Odin--would forget his wrath, and welcome me back to my native realm.
Supreme Dalek: I'm sure we can find a task to which you are best suited.  There's always honor in a job well done.
Thor: Well said, good Dalek, but first I must find what belongs to me.  Have either of you seen my hammer?
Pinky: Well, I haven't seen a hammer per se, but when our Master plays the keys, he's actually using hammers to pound strings.   
Supreme Dalek: He's the source of the music you hear.
Thor: I cannot be hearing aright.  Do you mean to say that your master uses more than one hammer at once?
Pinky: Oh yes.  Through playing his piano, I mean.
Thor: Exactly how many hammers does your great master wield simultaneously?
Pinky: Uh, eighty-eight, I believe.
Thor: I must see this powerful god you serve.  Perhaps he can deliver me from this terrible plight.  Farewell, good Daleks.

Supreme Dalek: Is it just me, or is this place getting weird?
Pinky: I wonder what he's doing Friday night?

Supreme, Pinky & Thor Daleks

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Exploring Oxford with Inspector Lewis

Oxford may seem impossibly old, yet it beats with fervor and vitality.  Its university attracts the smartest and brightest from all over the globe, and tourists flood the museums or gape from air-conditioned tour buses.  

Yet it’s also home to murder, which is why Inspector Lewis patrols its streets, inspecting crime scenes and questioning witnesses.

The TV series serves as a love letter to the city, as the camera slowly pans past historic buildings, or grants us entry to fabulous mansions.  It makes us feel like we could instantly connect with Oxford, if we spent but a few hours exploring the literary stomping grounds of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Colin Dexter.  

Yet so many people visit the town each year that the colleges are barred, and the gates only open to key cards, those fortunate enough to know someone who belongs there, and of course, police detectives such as Inspector Lewis.

A few hours spent walking the public paths, and seeing so much history crammed into so small a place, only makes one hunger for a second visit, one planned with more forethought.  To walk her less traveled paths, to peer deeper into Oxford's beating heart.

For Oxford is full of many mysteries, and not all of those involve murder.

Alas, another time…

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Robert E. Howard's King Kull in Comics

Having found several issues of Marvel Comics' “King Kull” from the 1970s, I wanted to see how he started off.  So I ordered The Chronicles of Kull Volume 1 from Barnes & Noble, and dived in when it arrived. 

The volume contains twelve stories, nine from the "King Kull" run, and three shorter ones that originally featured in other titles.  While Roy Thomas guided the series, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, and John Jakes helped out with the writing.  The latter surprised me, as I was mainly aware of John Jakes from his Kent Family Chronicles.  This was a series of historical novels published in the 1970s, which began with the American Revolution, and traced the growth of the United States through eight novels.  (They made TV mini-series based on the first three).  As it happens, John Jakes wrote Science Fiction and Fantasy before he moved to Historical Fiction, including five books about a character called Brak The Barbarian. 

These talented writers pay homage to Kull’s creator, Robert E. Howard.  Six stories are adaptations of original King Kull stories, and a seventh is adapted from a series of Horror stories (the De Montour series) that Howard wrote.  They even throw in a King Kull poem by Howard called “The King and the Oak,” and it’s arguably the most atmospheric of all, as Kull travels through a forest, and the trees begin to move of their own accord.  It was nice to see that, in the beginning of the series, the writers endeavored to preserve the spirit of Howard’s writing, while working equally hard to appeal to contemporary comic book readers.  

In comparison with The Chronicles of Conan, this volume contains the original artwork.  Although I liked the modern colorized versions of Conan, it was nice to read these old stories in their original form.  This seems especially important for Kull, as Gerry Conway has said that he collaborated heavily with colorist Marie Severin, and much of the pacing and structure of those stories was due to her input.  Marie and her brother John, who did the penciling, gave the stories a Middle Ages feel, more like a Prince Valiant story than one set in Conan's Hyborian Age. 

Oh, and they also did some great monsters.

Out of curiosity, I checked the online reviews for The Chronicles of Kull, expecting to find readers heaping praise on the volume for publishing the original artwork.  Strangely, many reviewers complained “Why couldn’t they have digitally recolored it?”  This is the reverse of The Chronicles of Conan, in which most reviewers cried, “Why couldn’t they have given us the original artwork?  This modern recoloring is terrible!” 

As comic book author Brian Michael Bendis has said, you can never make everyone happy.  But I loved reading The Chronicles of Kull Volume 1, and wish I could recommend it to you.  Unfortunately, one problem again reared its head.  

As with The Chronicles of Conan Volume 1, this book also wanted to fall apart on me as I read it.  Although the good folks at again provided me with another copy (completely free of charge), the second one likewise fell apart as I read it.  Hopefully, Dark Horse Books will get its act together soon, for I’d love to read further volumes in the series.  King Kull may be a barbarian, but he shows great wisdom and compassion in ruling his subjects. He never hesitates to risk his own life in defense of his kingdom of Valusia, and successfully fights off foreign invaders, hellish creatures, and of course the evil Thulsa Doom, a wizard so powerful that director John Milius decided to cast him as the villain in his 1982 movie “Conan The Barbarian.” 

By Valka, I swear that if King Kull was in charge, he'd cut the deficit, stop the gridlock in Washington, and secure our borders.  Perhaps if we (and the good folks at Dark Horse Books) paid him greater respect, he might even run for President.  Long live King Kull!  All hail King Kull!

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Kevin J. Anderson in the Mos Eisley Cantina

In the past few years, I’ve been yearning to revisit Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, a Star Wars book I haven’t read since it came out in the mid '90s.  This inclination was strengthened when I recently found Star Wars Tales, a hardcover compilation of the three books in the series, which also includes Tales of the Bounty Hunters and Tales from Jabba’s Palace.  I can’t tell you exactly why I’ve wanted to revisit that first volume, as I don’t remember being overly impressed by the stories the first time around.  But for some reason, I decided to return to that noisy and crowded cantina on George Lucas’ desert world of Tatooine. 

Although I’m only a third of the way through Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, the first thing I noticed was that these were really good stories.  Some of them resonated with me more powerfully than others, but I found most of them really satisfying.  The authors took the time to invest themselves in these aliens that a movie costumer or production designer threw together based on Lucas’ sparse description of what he wanted—basically, a bar full of exotic looking creatures—and imbued them with rich histories, involving plots, and interesting ideas.  Take for example the character of the “Hammerhead.”  From Dave Wolverton’s story, we learn that his name is Momaw Nadon, that he’s a master botanist who has developed farming ventures on hundreds of worlds, and that he was exiled from his home planet for protecting a species of sentient trees whose gestalt consciousness expands as the number of trees increase. 

The second thing I noticed was that these are far more than a collection of isolated stories.  Instead, they are interlinked, and one naturally follows another.  Sometimes, Kevin’s editing skills demonstrate this overtly, as the story by Kathy Tyers, “We Don’t Do Weddings: The Band’s Tale," ends with the sentences, “And every time we tune up, I check the crowd.  Just now, I spotted Jabba’s swivel-eared green Rodian…Greedo.  He’s not bright, but he’s armed.  I’m watching him.”  Her story is followed by “A Hunter’s Fate: Greedo’s Tale,” by Tom and Martha Vietch (the latter the one story that’s stuck with me over the years).  At other times, Kevin’s intentions are more subtle.  For example, “Play It Again, Figrin D’an: The Tale of Muftak and Kabe,” by A. C. Crispin, introduces us to the Yeti-like character of Muftak.  This story is placed directly before “The Sand Tender: The Hammerhead’s Tale,” wherein Muftak and Momah meet in the cantina.  Over drinks, Muftak tells his friend about something that occurred in Crispin's story, and this kicks Momaw Nadon’s (and Wolverton's) story into high gear.

The third thought that hit me was how Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina came about in the first place.  Kevin was doing another job for Lucasfilm, a much shorter and simpler writing assignment, when it struck him what a great idea it would be to delve into the history and lives of all these colorful characters.  Most of us get great ideas every day, but for whatever reason, we fail to act on them.  Unlike us, Kevin didn’t think about how busy he was, or how many story ideas of his own he wanted to flesh out, and decide to bank the idea for a while.  Instead, he immediately pitched it to Lucasfilm, and assured the staff that he could hand them a completed manuscript with no organizing effort on their part.  And thus, a new book was born, one that not only spawned a series, but (according to what I’ve been told) would go on to become the bestselling original paperback anthology of its time. 

"Star Wars" was the first movie I saw in a cinema, and it functioned as the key to unlock my love not just for movies, but also for Fantasy and Science Fiction literature.  Unlike most things in life, instead of dwindling in importance as I age (and hopefully, grow in knowledge and wisdom), Star Wars becomes increasingly important to me.  Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina reminds me how George Lucas’ simple story continues to spur on all of our imaginations.  It alerts me to talented authors I’ll have to take another look at.  And it underlines how important Kevin J. Anderson is the Science Fiction and Fantasy community.  I’ve long been impressed by the quantity and quality of Kevin's stories, and admired him for his business acumen.  But I didn’t know that he was also a great editor, which this anthology clearly demonstrates. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll duck back into the cantina again. Wuher the bartender just went inside, presumably to begin his shift, and I can't wait to learn more about him.    

Dragon Dave