The Black Gondolier is a collection of horror stories by Fritz Leiber. I love Leiber’s LANKHMAR stories — they’re some of my very favorites in fantasy literature — and I’ve enjoyed several of Leiber’s short stories and one of his horror novellas, so I figured I might enjoy The Black Gondolier.
I found The Black Gondolier to be, as we so often say when reviewing a story collection, “a mixed bag.” I love Leiber’s style in all of these stories — he’s got a great ear and I love the way he uses language. But I found that many of the stories in The Black Gondolier managed to push one of my buttons, either as a feminist or a psychologist, and usually both. These stories are full of dumb blondes with big boobs and heaps of Freudian psychobabble. So much of the old SFF is like that, I know, and Fritz Leiber is one of the worst culprits, at least in my experience, but I usually love his style and plot so much that I can overlook the sexism and bad psychology. I was only partially successful with that in this collection.
Here are the stories in The Black Gondolier:
“The Black Gondolier” — Our narrator’s strange new friend thinks oil is sentient and that it has plans for humankind. This story is set inVenice,Californiaand Leiber brings that region’s geography, geology, politics, and culture to life. As many of the stories in this volume do,
“The Black Gondolier” features a paranoid man who seeks psychoanalysis to determine if his dreams may be subconscious foreshadowings of some horrid event.
“The Dreams of Albert Moreland” — Similar to the previous story, our narrator has befriended a man who has strange recurrent dreams. This man, a professional chess player, is so smart and educated that our narrator decides he can’t be psychotic. The dreams must be his subconscious mind trying to tell him something. “The Dreams of Albert Moreland” is essentially the same story as “The Black Gondolier” except with a different setting and a different hero and villain.
“Game for Motel Room” — A man who has a tryst in a hotel room with a married alien woman ends up saving the world. This story is short and amusing.
“The Phantom Slayer” — A man inherits his uncle’s apartment and discovers a murder mystery. This one isn’t as creepy as it was supposed to be, probably because, again, it’s relying on subconscious nightmares, a theme that, frankly, I’m bored of. Also, I knew almost from the beginning how it was going to turn out.
“Lie Still, Snow White” — This one ought to have been titled “Confessions of an Murderous Incestuous Necrophiliac.” I have to admire the writing and the imagery in this story, but it’s so disturbing that I didn’t enjoy it until the end. It’s all about sexual repression and taboos. It’s so filled with Freud that I found it painful to read. However, it’s inventive and original and I loved the ending.
“Mr. Bower and the Atoms” — A paranoid man thinks he’s a human atomic bomb. More paranoia. Mildly entertaining.
“In the X-ray” — A young woman who has a sudden swelling around her ankle visits her doctor and gets an X-ray. The doctor is freaked out by what he sees on the X-ray and questions her about her life history. This one is really creepy even though I knew how it was going to end.
“SpiderMansion” — A couple visit an acquaintance who used to be a midget. Now the midget is a giant and his wife and servants are terrified by something in the house that they won’t talk about. This was one of the few truly scary stories and I liked it.
“The Secret Songs“ — A couple of mentally ill drug abusers get married. This one was painfully bad, but blessedly short.
“The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity” — This story is a lot like “The Black Gondolier.” Instead of oil, it’s electricity. A man talks to electricity and is disturbed when he finds out that it isn’t as friendly as he thought. I kind of knew where this was going.
“The Dead Man” — A scientist has figured out how to change people’s health, for better or worse, through hypnotic suggestion. As his test subject, he’s using the man who’s having an affair with his wife. I liked the plot of this story a lot, even though it featured another dumb woman and a man with Mother Issues.
“The 13th Step” — A young alcoholic woman, who thinks she’s being stalked by the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, tells her story and gets heckled at an AA meeting. There’s not much to this story. It’s short (fortunately) and the ending is obvious.
“The Repair People” — Ann’s new job involves repairing clay people. All I want to say about this one is thank God it’s really short. I didn’t get it and didn’t like it enough to spend time thinking about it.
“Black Has Its Charms” — A rude and nasty woman tries to provoke her husband into murdering her. I hated this story and wished I could have murdered her myself. I admired the audio narration for this one, though.
“Schizo Jimmy” — Our narrator, who considers himself a witch hunter, kills his friend who is an immune carrier of insanity. I knew from the beginning what was going on here, but I still enjoyed this story about false perceptions.
“The Creature from the Cleveland Depths” — Gunderson, a Clevelandauthor of “insanity novels,” can’t remember to turn on his favorite TV show. When his friend creates a device called a Tickler to help people remember the things they want to do, Gunderson refuses to try it. He admits that he’s afraid of machines that think. It turns out that he has a very good reason to be afraid. I liked this story. It was so much like something Philip K. Dick would have written that I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading Fritz Leiber.
“The Casket Demon” — A Hollywood movie star lives under a curse: Every day that she isn’t in the newspapers, she loses some of her mass. Funny premise, average story.
“Mr. Adams’ Garden to Evil” — The manager of a girlie magazine grows girls in his garden with his aunt’s secret biological technique. This was the best story of all and at least there’s a smart woman in it (the dead aunt). Also very much like PKD.
So, in my opinion, a mixed bag of stories, but essential reading for any Fritz Leiber fan. Since I consider myself a fan, I’m glad I read The Black Gondolier. I got to know Fritz Leiber better and there were several stories that I truly enjoyed. I listened to Audible Frontiers’ version which was just released and is narrated by Marc Vietor, L.J. Ganzer, David Marantz, and Jefferson Slinkard. I thought each of these narrators did an excellent job. If you’re planning to read The Black Gondolier, which you should if you’re a Leiber fan, try the audio version.
Originally posted at FanLit
Fritz Leiber’s The Ghost Light, recently produced in audio format by Audible Frontiers, is a collection of nine short stories and novelettes and an autobiographical essay by Fritz Leiber. Only the first novelette, “The Ghost Light,” and the essay, “Not so Much Disorder and Not so Early Sex: an Autobiographical Essay,” are original to this collection. Most of the previously printed stories were nominated for, or won, major SFF awards. Here’s what you’ll find in The Ghost Light:
“The Ghost Light” — Young Tommy and his parents are visiting Cassius, his estranged grandfather, in California. There’s something creepy about the painting of Tommy’s dead grandmother that hangs in the living room and Tommy knows the bluish green nightlight in his bedroom has something to do with it. This is a spooky tale that I mostly enjoyed, even though it (not surprisingly) features a dirty old man lusting after his young female family members. “The Ghost Story” is original to this collection.
“Coming Attraction” — A British man visits post-WWIII Manhattan where radiation levels are high and society has completely changed. After he saves a masked woman from being hit by car, she invites him out and begs him to take her back to England so she can escape her abusive boyfriend. This story was bleak and depressing, but I will never forget the opening line: “The coupe with the fishhooks welded to the fender shouldered up over the curb like the nose of a nightmare.” “Coming Attraction” was originally published in 1950 in Galaxy Science Fiction and was nominated for a Retro Hugo Award in 2001.
“A Deskful of Girls” — A man manages to get an evening invitation to visit the lab of a famous psychologist and to see his work in the field of the psychophysiology of sex. This story is brimming with the blatant sexism and bad psychology of 1950s pulp magazines, but the excellent twist at the end appeased me. Unfortunately, I’ll never be able to listen to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker with happy innocence again. “A Deskful of Girls” was originally published in 1958 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
“Space-Time For Springers” — This delightful story, written from the perspective of a kitten named Gummitch, was my favorite. Kitty has some funny ideas about the world, and he’s got data to back them up. This adorable story was first published in 1958 in Frederik Poul’s Star Science Fiction Stories No. 4 and has been reprinted many times since then. A must-read for all cat lovers.
“Four Ghosts in Hamlet” — The ladies in a company of Shakespearean actors start playing with a Ouija board backstage and then notice there are too many ghosts in their production of Hamlet. This is a good story with plenty of humor and suspense. This 1965 novelette, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, was nominated for a Nebula Award.
“Gonna Roll the Bones” — Joe Slattermill is a poor miner who would rather spend his evenings drinking, gambling, and whoring than sitting at home listening to his domineering wife and mother. But when he goes out this night, he finds a new gambling parlor and ends up dicing with Death. This folksy story is an unusual style for Leiber and though I’m not sure I got all the symbolism and allegory, I appreciated the imagery and atmosphere. “Gonna Roll the Bones” was originally published in Harlan Ellison’s highly decorated anthology Dangerous Visions in 1967. It won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette.
“Bazaar of the Bizarre” — I loved this novelette when I read it in Leiber’s Lankhmar collection Swords Against Death. In this story, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are sent by their patron gods to destroy a magic bazaar where customers are enchanted into believing that the trash for sale is valuable. When the Gray Mouser gets there first and falls under its spell, Fafhrd must save him while still carrying out the gods’ commands. This story has been in many collections but was first printed in 1963 in Fantastic Stories of Imagination.
“Midnight by the Morphy Watch” — Fritz Leiber loved to play chess, so it’s not surprising that he’d write a ghost story about what happened to chess champion Paul Morphy’s famous missing watch. Chess enthusiasts will enjoy this novelette. It was first published in Jim Baen’s Worlds of If in 1974 and was nominated for a Hugo Award.
“Black Glass” — First published in Peter Weston’s Andromeda 3 in 1978, this story begins as a man is walking through Manhattan musing that the black glass being used to construct the new sky scrapers could symbolize the doom of New York City as it experiences rising levels of violence and crime, filth and pollution, drugs and porn, and even union strikes and junk food. As he continues walking, he seems to travel to the future and discovers that things will be much worse than he imagined. The climax of this story occurs in the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which makes this story even sadder than Leiber intended.
“Not so Much Disorder and Not so Early Sex: an Autobiographical Essay” — This is a long (5.5 hours on audio) autobiographical piece written when Leiber was 71 years old. He begins by talking a little about his German ancestors and describing his parents’ work (his father owned a traveling Shakespearean theater) and his upbringing with his aunts in Chicago. He goes on to talk about his studies at the University of Chicago, his short careers as an actor and then a priest, his writing, his love of chess, his marriage to Jonquil, their cat (the real Gummitch), and his trouble with alcoholism. Throughout the essay he describes his boyhood fascination with women’s breasts, his long-lasting naiveté about female anatomy and the sex act, and his obsession with understanding what nobody would talk about in an era of sexual repression and lack of sex education. He’s quite candid about this hang-up and he explains how this issue, along with his experiences in the theater and with chess and cats, give a lot of context to the stories in The Ghost Light. “Not so Much Disorder and Not so Early Sex: an Autobiographical Essay” is original to The Ghost Light and was later reprinted in his autobiography Fafhrd & Me and in his novel Conjure Wife.
I listened to the audio version of The Ghost Light which was produced by Audible Frontiers and is read by a team of excellent narrators. The print version has some interior art (each story features an illustration by a different artist) and personal photographs which I missed, but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed the narration so much.
Originally posted (with links) at FanLit.
Audio readers, rejoice! Finally, Steven Brust’s VLAD TALTOS novels have been produced in audio by Audible Frontiers. For years I’ve been planning to read this long series and have only been waiting for this moment.
The VLAD TALTOS novels follow Vlad Taltos, a well-known and highly successful human assassin living on the planet Dragaera. The native species, the Dragaerans, are a tall long-lived race created by sorcerers who cross-bred humans and certain animals. The characteristics of the animals give each clan, or “House,” its name, physical features, and personality traits. The exception is the house of Jhereg (named after a small dragon-like creature) which is a low-class conglomerate of outcasts from other clans and also any true humans who can buy their way in, which is what Vlad Taltos’ father did. Each of Brusts’ novels in this series is named after one of the Dragaeran houses.
In this first installment, Jhereg, we meet Vlad Taltos and his familiar, Loiosh, the jhereg who can communicate with him through mind-speech. Vlad has been hired to kill a councilman named Mellar who has embezzled a huge sum of money from the Jhereg council. When Vlad catches up with Mellar, he discovers him hiding out in Castle Black, the floating mansion of Vlad’s friend, the Dragonlord Morrolan. Castle Black’s rule of hospitality is that anyone who has been invited to stay at the castle cannot be touched and nobody wants to violate this law because it would ignite another Dragon-Jhereg war. The last war devastated both houses. Vlad and Loiosh must flush out Mellar without offending a Dragonlord or starting a war. This is not an easy task and Vlad will need to solve a mystery and get a little help from his friends.
Jhereg is appealing for several reasons. Vlad Taltos is a great character — the sort of honorable criminal that you can’t help but like. It helps that in Brust’s world, an assassination isn’t necessarily permanent. People can be revivified if their body is still mostly intact and they haven’t had their soul destroyed by a Morganti weapon (somewhat like Elric’s sword). Vlad is clever and must use his brain, not just his weapons or witchcraft, to solve his dilemma (though I thought he solved the convoluted mystery a little too easily). Vlad’s friends are also likeable, especially Loiosh the familiar, Vlad’s wife (who he met when she tried to kill him), and a female Dragonlord. Brust’s female characters are strong, smart, and competent.
Steven Brust’s writing style, sense of humor, and dialogue are also pleasant, and the story moves quickly. There’s a lot to learn in the first novel of a huge epic, but Brust does this so well. We learn a little about Vlad’s childhood, the planet of Dragaera, the origin and structure of the houses (this was fascinating), and anything else we need to know. Brust gives us just enough extra to make us curious about his world, but not enough to make the plot slow down while we learn the entire history of Dragaera and its residents. (Yet, Brust’s world is so complex and detailed that some readers may wish for an online resource such as this helpful Wikipedia entry, and several fan-made Dragaera sites that you can easily find with a Google search.)
Audible Frontiers’ version was narrated by Bernard Setaro Clark. He was terrific, speaking with a lively manner and giving each character a pleasant and distinct voice. As usual, I had to speed up the narration a bit (I’m beginning to suspect that Audible has purposely slowed down their narrators). I’m pleased to see that Bernard Setaro Clark has also narrated the sequels and I’ll be picking up book 2, Yendi, which is actually a prequel to Jhereg, very soon. I look forward to spending more time with Vlad Taltos.
Originally posted at FanLit
Nazhuret was an ugly half-breed orphan when he started life at an exclusive military school, but now he’s someone important. So important, in fact, that the king has asked him to write his autobiography. Who is this man who has fascinated a king, what is he now, and how did he come so far in the world?
Lens of the World, published in 1990, is the first book in R.A. MacAvoy’s LENS OF THE WORLD trilogy. It’s a coming-of-age story which reminds me of several fantasy epics I’ve read, especially Ursula K. Le Guin’s EARTHSEA series, Robin Hobb’s FARSEER saga and, more recently, Patrick Rothfuss’s KINGKILLER CHRONICLE.
Those are some big names I’ve used as comparison. Can MacAvoy really stand up to that? Mostly yes. Nazhuret is not quite as likable as FitzChivalry Farseer and not quite as interesting as Kvothe, but he’s an appealing hero, as are a couple of the other main characters such as Nazhuret’s enigmatic teacher, Powl, who lives in a strange round building and teaches Nazhuret to sit still, think, speak several languages, dance, fight, and appreciate optics, linguistics and other academic subjects. Then there’s a girl named Charlin who Nazhuret thinks he loves, though he’s not sure. (Sexuality is confusing to Nazhuret since he was raped by his schoolmasters when he was a boy.) And finally there’s Arlen, a thief who remembers Nazhuret from his school days, and the red-headed King whom Nazhuret meets later in the story and to whom we assume he’s writing.
Plot-wise, Nazhuret’s story is always interesting and I often found it absorbing, but I wouldn’t say that it quite reaches the level of “exciting.” For nearly half of the book he’s being educated before he sets off on his own and works odd jobs such as farm hand, janitor, and bouncer. He encounters bar fights, murderers, a wedding, a werewolf, a dragon, and makes friends with a dog. All this time, of course, we’re aware that he’s casually addressing the king as he writes his autobiography, so this makes us realize with anticipation that something important is going to happen. Toward the end we find out why his teacher is so interested in him, and learn that perhaps Nazhuret has a destiny. Other revelations about Powl and Arlen made me want to read on.
This doesn’t sound too much different from many other coming-of-age fantasy novels I’ve read, but what makes Lens of the World stand out is R.A. MacAvoy’s style, and this is why I’ve compared her to Hobb and Le Guin. Like those authors, MacAvoy’s prose is both beautiful and succinct — something that I truly admire but rarely experience.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s audio version of Lens of the World which was narrated by Jeremy Arthur, who did a perfect job with voices and cadence. It was the lovely thoughtful prose and the excellent narration that really carried me through this story, letting me just sit back and enjoy a beautifully told tale. I’m looking forward to the next book, King of the Dead.
Young Damiano Delstrego is now the head of his house after his father, a witch, was killed when a spell went horribly wrong. Damiano is also a musician, an alchemist, and a witch, but he’s a good Christian, too, and he tries to use his powers only for good. That’s why he refused to help the army who came to take over his town, though they offered him riches. Instead, Damiano decides to follow the townsfolk who’ve fled for the hills. He wants to warn them that the army plans to find and plunder them. He’s particularly worried about Carla, the girl he has a crush on. He also wants to seek the aid of a powerful sorceress.
So, with an Italian medieval village behind him and the towering Alps ahead, Damiano sets off in the snow with his lute and his beloved talking dog, Macchiata. Along the way, Damiano has a few mishaps, witnesses brutal deeds done by Roman soldiers, gets some inspiration from the archangel Rafael, finds out some uncomfortable facts about his father, and is offered a deal by the devil. He also learns that there’s more to life than his dog, his lute, and Carla.
Damiano is the first volume of R.A. MacAvoy’s DAMIANO trilogy, a historical fantasy set in Renaissance Italy. MacAvoy’s prose is lovely and she makes the most of her setting, with allusions to real historical people, events, religious beliefs, literature, and art. The story takes place in winter and all the brutal events that Damiano witnesses seem especially vile when set against the whiteness of the winter alpine landscape.
I didn’t love the plot as much as I loved the writing and the setting, but this is more of a personal preference rather than any problem with the plot itself. Though it depicts some ugly events, Damiano, his talking dog, and the beautiful angel were a little too sweetly innocent for me. The main focus is Damiano’s struggle with his desire to use his powers for good and his discovery that sometimes it’s hard to know what’s right and wrong. He’s also worried about his soul because Satan has informed him that, since he’s a witch, he’s automatically damned. I didn’t find this to be riveting subject matter, but I thought the excellent writing made up for it.
Though the DAMIANO books were marketed to adults, I think this coming of age story will be appealing to teenagers, and it’s certainly written more beautifully than most YA fantasy is. It’s so lovely, in fact, that I plan to try the second book, Damiano’s Lute. This story has plenty of potential. I’m listening to Audible Frontiers’ version and am very pleased with Nicholas Tecosky’s narration.
Originally posted at FanLit. 3.5 stars.
The Paths of the Dead is the first book in Steven Brust’s THE VISCOUNT OF ADRILANKHA trilogy, which is a sequel to The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years. Each of these books is an installment in Brust’s KHAAVREN ROMANCES and they’re all related to his VLAD TALTOS books which, at this moment, consist of 13 novels. All of these books have just been released in audio format by Audible Frontiers. I picked up The Paths of the Dead after reading that it can stand alone. You might wonder why I started here and, honestly, it’s because we already had reviews for some of the VLAD TALTOS novels and for The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years but none for any of THE VISCOUNT OF ADRILANKHA books. I now realize that it would have been better to start with the first VLAD TALTOS novel, Jhereg. Our omniscient and intrusive narrator assures us that no history is required to enjoy The Paths of the Dead, but I found that I wished I had the background to more thoroughly relate to our heroes. They’re descendants of the characters in Brust’s previous novels and they’re associated with “houses” which are known by their particular personality traits. While relevant information is occasionally briefly explained in The Paths of the Dead, I felt like I was missing the rich history that would have increased my enjoyment. Nevertheless, I can talk about the plot and the style of this novel.
This is the story of how Zerika, with a little help from her adventurous friends, went to the Paths of the Dead to obtain the Orb which would restore the empire to its former glory — a story referred to in the other Brust books. Most of The Paths of the Dead is set-up for this event which takes relatively few pages at the end. There is also some history on Morrolan and a few other characters that Brust fans are familiar with.
But all of those folks get upstaged by the real main character in The Paths of the Dead: the narrator. If you’ve read the previous KHAAVREN ROMANCES, you know that Brust is parodying Alexandre Dumas. His narrator, a historian named Paarfi, is pompous and wordy, constantly interjecting information, opinions, and explanations about his writing style in his pretentious tone. This is often very funny and I chuckled frequently, especially at the beginning of the story when it was all new to me. However, after a while, it becomes repetitive and tedious. For example, while Paarfi regularly insists that he’s being brief and sparing us unnecessary details, he actually does the opposite which, of course, is meant to be humorously ironic. But it gets irritating when he records numerous conversations that go something like this:
The new emperor in Sarantium has a lot to atone for, so he’s building a grand chapel to his god and calling the most famous artisans in the surrounding regions to come work for him. Crispin, a mosaicist from a neighboring country, is one of these. Unhappy since his wife and children died, Crispin doesn’t think he has much to live for anymore, and he doesn’t want to go to Sarantium. But when his young queen, who sits her throne precariously, asks Crispin to carry a secret proposal to the already-married emperor of Sarantium, Crispin is duty-bound. Now he is “sailing to Sarantium,” which means that he’s leaving everything behind to start a promising new life. Along the way, he befriends an alchemist with strange powers, a young woman who’s about to be sacrificed to a god, and a foul-mouthed army officer who loves to watch the chariot races. When Crispin gets to Sarantium, he finds that decorating the biggest dome in the world isn’t the hardest part of his job — it’s navigating Sarantium court politics.
Sailing to Sarantium, the first book in Guy Gavriel Kay’s duology THE SARANTINE MOSAIC, is a historical fantasy loosely based on the Byzantine Empire. It’s a well-written slow-moving character-driven novel that’s full of the violence, sex, political intrigue, passion, and beauty we expect from Kay. If you’re a fan, you’re bound to enjoy this story. I particularly admired the focus on the art of mosaic — both the technique and the way Crispin and his fellow artisans love beauty and are attuned to the play of light, shadow, and color in their environment. I also loved the alchemist’s craft of creating birds of leather and metal and instilling them with personalities (there’s more to it, and it’s cool, but it’d be spoilery to explain further). This was not only a beautiful idea, but it added a nice touch of humor. I also loved the chariot races.
There are several likeable characters in Sailing to Sarantium but they spend more time thinking than doing and they’re really hard to believe in. Like most (maybe all) of Kay’s lead males, Crispin is brilliant, strong, brave, blunt and uncompromising (even when he knows he might be killed for it). The women are even more unbelievable. We’re told that they’re powerful, clever and dangerous, but mostly they go around looking beautiful and haughty, teasing men and speaking in arch tones, and using sex as a weapon. Almost every woman we meet in Sailing to Sarantium, other than Crispin’s mother, tries to seduce Crispin as soon as she meets him, though I’m not sure why.
The political intrigue is a bit over the top, too. As soon as Crispin arrives in Sarantium, he’s somehow unwittingly in the middle of all the maneuvering, with all the important people wanting to talk to him privately, seduce him, or murder him. We are repeatedly told how clever, subtle, and nuanced all these people are, but I’m not convinced. It’s not clear why they are scheming. Most of the interesting intrigue seems to have happened in the past and we never feel the immediate significance of it all, which just makes it feel overdramatized.
Overall, Sailing to Sarantium is a pleasant story if you’re willing to believe in the characters and the significance of the plot. This was hard for me, but I like Crispin and some of the other characters (e.g., the army officer, the famous chef and his apprentice, and the charioteer) and I’m interested in the mosaic and the birds, so I’m going to move on to the second SARANTINE MOSAIC novel, Lord of Emperors, and hope for a bigger pay-off.
I’m listening to Berny Clark narrate Audible Frontier’s recent production of THE SARANTINE MOSAIC. He has an agreeable voice and his dialogue is truly excellent, but some of his narration is slow and lacks inflection. I actually didn’t mind this because I thought it served to tone down the drama, but readers who’ve enjoyed other audio productions of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, which have had more dynamic readers, may feel differently. I suggest listening to a sample.
Originally posted at FanLit.
In the turbulent region that used to be the stable empire of Al-Rassan, petty kings vie for power. Each of these rulers is ambitions and clever, but none of them has been able to acquire his position without the help of others — crafty advisors, brave army commanders, brilliantly inventive doctors, devoted wives and children — and sometimes the same people who have served them well are the same ones who may later cause their downfall.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is the story of a few of these people, how they worked for (and sometimes against) the rulers they pledged to serve, and how they brought about the rise and fall of nations. The infamous Ammar ibn Khairan — King Almalik’s soldier, advisor, assassin, and poet — is known as the man who assassinated the last Khalif of al-Rassan. The notorious Rodrigo Belmonte — King Ramiro’s best commander — is the most feared soldier in the region. Jehane bet Ishak, a woman who’s ahead of her time, is the stubborn but brilliant daughter of a famous physician. These three, who share different religious beliefs but the same uncompromising personal standards, will have a profound effect on each other and the fate of an empire — not just because of what they do, but also because of their influence on the people they meet along the way.
Like Guy Gavriel Kay’s other works, The Lions of Al-Rassan is well-researched historical fiction (this one hardly counts as fantasy). The setting is similar to the Reconquista and the Crusades of Moorish Spain, though the religions Kay uses are not actually based on Christianity, Judaism and Islam (even though the character and place names sound like they are). Also like Kay’s other stories, The Lions of Al-Rassan is full of political intrigue, romance, poetry and lots of passion. The setting is epic, the characters are epic, and the conflict is epic, but rather than focusing on the grand picture with its galloping armies and bloody battles, Kay has us view a series of small significant moments in which the acts of our three heroes, who learn to love each other despite their differences, influence the big events.
If you’ve read any GGK at all, you know that he loves to create vivid characters that are worthy of the grand settings they find themselves in. His villains are ambitious, brutal, and ruthless. His heroes are brilliant, clever, subtle, witty, dangerous, ahead of their time, and multi-talented (e.g., Ammar ibn Khairan is an excellent fighter, diplomat, advisor, scholar, poet, and lover). Nobody wants to read about dull characters, but Kay’s characters are so impressive that they stretch the bounds of belief. They’re also incredibly introspective and philosophical. They regularly spend pages at a time talking to themselves in their own heads — considering their feelings, reflecting on their past successes and failures, analyzing the motives and behaviors of others, and contemplating the future.
As much as I admire Kay’s characters, sometimes I wish they would stop thinking and just get a move on. The Lions of Al-Rassan could have used a little more action; much of the conflict resolution actually occurs off-screen between the last chapter and the epilogue. Kay elevates the tension and drama by using cliffhangers, intentionally withholding information, and even playing a trick on the reader in the epilogue. While I’ve read most of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, I haven’t been able to completely embrace his style which is somewhat melodramatic and manipulative and, therefore, intrudes into the story as if it were a character in its own right.
If you’re a fan of Kay’s work, The Lions of Al-Rassan will almost certainly please you — Kay uses the same formula here, just in a different setting with a different plot. His characters are bold and full of life, and they live and love in a tumultuous world.
The audio version of The Lions of Al-Rassan, recently produced by Audible Frontiers, is outstanding. Euan Morton, who also read A Song for Arbonne, has the required strong masculine voice, yet reads the female roles well, too. His voice is suitably dramatic (yet not overly so) and his pace and cadence are flawless. This was a great production and highly recommended. I do suggest having a list of character names to view, however, because many of them sound similar at first.
Originally posted at FanLit.
"To have an enemy worthy of one’s respect… that is a prize beyond measure. What is a lover’s touch compared to such a thing? Love is but weakness shared, trials halved for being met in tandem. While a skilled enemy provides stimulation, challenge, and ultimately growth for all those who test their strength against his".
I didn’t think that C.S. Friedman’s wonderful space epic In Conquest Born needed a sequel, but here it is, nonetheless. The Wilding can stand alone, but In Conquest Born is a better book, so I’d suggest reading it first.
It’s a couple of generations after Zatar the Braxin and Anzha the Azean lived, but their legacies remain. The inbred Braxin society is still in danger of becoming extinct and they desperately need some new but acceptable genetic material. Their leader, the Pri’tiera, who has a genetic fault he hides by secluding himself, is unable to find a mate who doesn’t quickly commit suicide. The Azean psychics, meanwhile, went mad and may actually be extinct, though many people think they’re hiding somewhere in space.
Conflict between the two races again comes to a head with the stories of three characters. Psychic twins Zara and Rho were separated at birth; Rho was raised as a psychic while Zara was not aware of her genetic potential. When Zara starts to get premonitions, she goes looking for answers and discovers her heritage and her special powers.
Tathas is a political traitor who has been sentenced to death by the Braxins. Encouraged by his lover K’Teva (who may not be trustworthy), he invokes the right of the Wilding in which he goes into exile but may return if he can find a suitable mate (or just some good genetic material) for the Pri’tiera. While on their individual quests, Talthas and Zara meet and find some common ground, and they discover that both of their races want to understand the genetics behind psychic powers so they can crush their enemies.
What I liked most about In Conquest Born was its extensive world building, exciting action, and its exploration of some fascinating moral and scientific issues. The focus on psychology and genetics is still here in The Wilding (and Friedman gets her science right), but because it’s a sequel, the world-building has already been done and is no longer an emphasis here.
The plot of The Wilding doesn’t quite make up for this loss. It’s missing the intense action that made In Conquest Born so exciting. But what The Wilding is missing most is appealing characters. None of the characters, except for perhaps K’Teva, are particularly interesting or admirable. This was a problem with In Conquest Born, too, but that book made up for it by introducing us to a fascinating new world and having a tight plot with plenty of action. And its main characters were interesting, even if they weren’t likable.
I didn’t dislike The Wilding, but I didn’t like it as well as I liked In Conquest Born and I don’t think it added anything necessary to the story. However, if you’re a fan of In Conquest Born and just want to spend more time in Friedman’s world, you’ll enjoy The Wilding. It’s still written in Friedman’s smooth intellectual style.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s production which was read by Marc Vietor. As usual, it was very well done. Vietor has a nice voice and a pleasant pace, and he emits just the right amount of enthusiasm when he reads. I can confidently recommend Audible’s version.
If you like epic space opera with imaginatively detailed world-building and a focus on characters rather than gadgets, try In Conquest Born, C.S. Friedman’s extremely impressive first novel. This complex, sprawling story begins with the births of two enemies-to-be from two different worlds that have been fighting each other for generations:
Zatar, a Braxin, is bred for beauty and aggression because those are the qualities his brutal, elitist, and misogynist culture admires. Ruthless, clever, and perfectly poised, he is preparing himself and his world for his ascendancy to a throne that does not yet exist in his oligarchic government. Part of making himself most qualified for this potential position involves manipulating, discrediting, or simply getting rid of any man who might stand in his way. (Women are no threat in Braxa… or are they?)
Anzha is an outsider in her Azean society because of her red hair — it’s an indication of foreign blood somewhere in her lineage. Nonetheless, her psychic powers, which are revered in Azea, are strong and that, along with her unrelenting drive to prepare herself for revenge against the Braxin man who killed her parents, causes her to rise up in the Azean military ranks. When Zatar and Anzha finally meet, they each know they have met their match, and they immediately set out to destroy each other.
C.S. Friedman began building her worlds while she was in high school and continued developing them for years before submitting In Conquest Born to DAW. It shows. The world-building is excellent — both the Braxin and Azean societies (and others) are deeply explored from multiple perspectives. Among other things, each has its own art forms, attitudes toward women, sexual preferences, inherited strengths and weaknesses, and ideas about genetic manipulation and psychic abilities.
Friedman explains on her website that In Conquest Born originally began as “a collection of interconnected stories” which she developed into a novel which was partly re-written when her editor encouraged her to make the tale less “fragmented.” Still, the story feels somewhat disjointed because it covers a huge span of time (it’s a long time before Zatar and Anzha actually meet) and each chapter is a vignette told from one of several perspectives. This technique is advantageous in that it allows us to thoroughly explore Friedman’s worlds, but has the disadvantage of causing us to spend a lot of time with minor, and often expendable, characters. (But then, Zatar and Anzha are repulsive enough that it’s nice to have a break from them.)
Friedman’s plot is exciting — there’s political intrigue, treason, space battles, torture, planet explosions, and horrible deaths. The compelling plot is made even more readable by Friedman’s pleasantly sophisticated writing style which contains just a touch of black humor. She gives us lots to think about, too — nature vs. nurture, free will, parallel evolution, genetic modification. If I had liked her characters better and had been effortlessly carried along by a more cohesive plot, I’d have surely given In Conquest Born my highest recommendation. I have no doubt that C.S. Friedman has the skill to write a perfect novel and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s version of In Conquest Born which was read by Joe Barrett. He gives a very nice reading which is not overly dramatic. His female voices sound much like his male voices, so a couple of times I assumed a newly-introduced female character was male until I was corrected by the text. Once I knew not to expect Mr. Barrett to use a feminine-sounding voice, I had no problem with his reading.
In Conquest Born, first published in 1986, was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award. A sequel, The Wilding, takes place generations later.
Report Inappropriate Content
If you find this review inappropriate and think it should be removed from our site, let us know. This report will be reviewed by Audible and we will take appropriate action.