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Attack of the Leather Diapers

The Agony Column for May 2, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


I've been the beneficiary of someone whom I do not know and am not likely to meet. I can't believe that I'm actually thanking someone for helping me find Sword and Sorcery books, but that's the case. Someone in my hometown of Santa Cruz County, California manages to sell British trade paperbacks and hardcovers to the local bookstore. The Mystery Bookseller has made my life better -- by selling some pretty damn cheesy looking UK Sword and Sorcery novels.

A typical bit of leather diaper action from a very popular novelist. Yeah, it's an easy target, but am I not usually really nice to everybody?

Too many of the books that litter the shelves of the "science fiction" section of the MegaSmega Bookstore near you are probably festooned with Frazetta-esque hero types bearing big ol' swords and wearing leather diapers. They sell like hotcakes, probably even more so with the deserved success of the filmed version of the 'Lord of the Rings' movies. Given the mind-staggering imagination of Hollowood, it's certain that we should brace ourselves for an invasion of men in leather diapers. As usual, it's a bad day to stop sniffing glue.

This wonderful book blew me away 20 years ago and gave me hope for fantasy, which was subsequently washed away in a tide of airbrushed muscle-men.

It's probably not a big surprise that I'm not enamored of typical Sword and Sorcery. But it's not as if I don't know the basics. I have done my time here. I've read 'The Lord of the Rings' and Fritz Leiber's delightful Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser novels of Lankhmar. I've read all of Robert E. Howard's Conan novels. I've read Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith. I read 'Gormenghast' repeatedly. I even baked a frivolous cake. I read Peter S. Beagle's 'The Last Unicorn' ("Would you like a taco?" is the line that always stuck in my mind) and all the Burroughs Mars and Venus books. I still have my original Bantam paperback editions of Ursula K. Leguin's sublime Earthsea books. I even found a copy of the treasured 'Kingdoms of Elfin' by New Yorker -- yes you read that right, fantasy stories were once published in The New Yorker -- author Sylvia Townsend Warner. Now these are all categorizable as "formative reading" for the most part done in the past. I do have all the books but for the Liebers and the Howards still hanging about. I might add that I enjoyed the heck out of each and every one of these books. There might be others I forgot. Someone remind me. Those I don't currently own will eventually be replaced, probably at some humongous cost.

But I also read two series by Stephen R. Donaldson that I won't be repurchasing. Since then I've generally done everything I can to avoid modern fantasy. The packaging is a major obstacle. It's gone beyond self-satire into some weird kind of fetish. Picking those books up at the bookstore, I feel like Peter Graves in 'Airplane', asking "Do you like Gladiator movies?" Now I know these types of books have a lot of fans, and I'm certain they're fine if you like that sort of thing. Alas, I don't like that sort of thing; I like something similar to it, but a bit weirder. And that's not even considering what was done in Conan the TV series. From this source came the description titling this commentary.

I've enjoyed the other books I've read by George R. R. Martin. Frankly, when these first came out I thought that they were by another author because the cover art was so similar.

If you have Steve Erikson's 'Gardens of the Moon' and want to sell it, please email me. When this book first came out, I thought it had been written by famed cross-genre literary author Steve Erickson. They're different writers.

As a result, I now know that I've missed out on some works that I believe I'd enjoy. Eventually, I plan on getting round to the George R. R. Martin 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series. A trusted reading partner assures me that they're worthy. Likewise, I get a very good vibe about Steve Erikson's Malazan books. Alas, they are really damned hard to find now. I recently went out on and turned up zippo. That's unusual. There is almost always someone out there with a huge gouging tool, ready to dip into your bank account. (I just checked and one of my favorite vendors does have a couple of them in stock now, and I'll likely pick them up.) And I'll be damned if Erikson isn't putting out a novella for PS Publishing sometime this year, certainly a good sign.

I haven't missed out on China Mieville. Clued in by a friend on a private mailing list, I picked up 'Perdido Street Station' as soon as it came out, and thereafter, 'King Rat'. I'm about two-thirds of the way through 'The Scar' even as I write this essay, but I'm going to wait until I'm done to review it and discuss Mieville. It's not like there are many folks out there who would like him but haven't heard of him. Suffice it to say that those who liked 'Perdido Street Station' will like 'The Scar'. But more on in another rant^H^H^H^H column. .

Since I've thawed quite a bit in my one-time dislike of science fiction, I've also thought that maybe I should reconsider my position on fantasy. Poking about entirely without guidance I found two authors worth reading, writing stuff that at least has a lot of elements of traditional Sword and Sorcery fantasy, down to the 'Do you like Gladiator Magazines?' cover art. And as much as I love to judge books by their covers, I do actually read the damn things. Having done so, I have to say I've found some new additions to the auto-buy list. And where does they show up? At my local used bookshop, courtesy the Mystery Bookseller. The Mystery Bookseller is in part responsible for my interest in fantasy. For they have brought near fine condition trade paperback in copies of both books I'm reviewing here to the local used bookstore. I picked them both up for a song.

When I first saw this cover I was frightened to buy the book. But upon buying and actually reading it -- that is moving beyond judging by the cover, I found it to be rather good.

By all rights, I should never have bought any James Barclay books. If the covers didn't put me right off, mentions of elves and mages and barbarians should have sent me packing. But Victor Gollancz is pretty solid publisher, especially in their Trade Paperback originals. Oh, I'll confess -- David Langford is a Name We Can Trust, and his positive spin on eventually pushed me into buying them. But I waited until the second book came out. By then, it was damn near impossible to get the first one in an easy-on-the-eyes TPB edition. Local Bookseller stepped in to save the day, and my eyes. James Barclay did his part in providing a tense and violent little spin on the guys, gals and dragons schtick.

'Dawnthief' opens the series, which got my vote as soon as Barclay killed off a major character, which was breathtakingly quick. He followed through with the right admixture of horror and humor. The swords kept swinging. The spells were thrown. Yes -- even the quest for various magical and other artifacts was on. But the vibe was gritty. Characters you got to know were tortured. Some of them died. There's a distinct lack of smarminess.

Then there are the dragons. They're old, fearful, sentient monsters. They're also scheming, political creatures with a rather complex society, which eventually comes to light. The interaction between the dragons and the member of The Raven sets up some interesting riffs. Instead of leaving his characters alone and letting them just be guys in leather diapers, Barclay mucks with them in unexpected ways. It's not world shattering (or deal breaking, if you just happen to like books about guys in leather diapers running around swinging swords), but there's a pleasantly off-kilter feel to the proceedings. Things seem a little bit more frantic, and little more real. Things start to get complex. And there's the rub.

If you were one of those who bought the first novel expecting things to get finished, you'd have been sorely disappointed. The first two books are really halves of a longer story, and you'll want to have the second on hand when you finish the first. I'm warning you now.

Well, this isn't quite so embarrassing. Those dragons (you can't see 'em in this picture) should be in the foreground, they play a major and interesting part in the novel.

'Noonshade' (are you getting the title theme yet?) takes up about 15 seconds after 'Dawnthief' ends. As a reader, I might have been [prepared to put down the series after this novel, if all it did was to follow up the first and wrap things up over 484 pages. And while it does wrap things up, it also spends more than a fair amount of time with my favorite characters from the first novel -- the dragons. They're big players in this book, and the politics of their complex society comes to light here. I'm a sucker for a good, intelligent monster, and the dragons in this novel deliver. It also pretty much wraps up the story started in the first novel, and finishes up in a manner that leaves the reader satisfied enough to suggest the third book is worth the time it will take to read. It's interesting to see Barclay playing with his main characters, and there's always the tension of knowing he won't hesitate to knock one of them off if they happen to stand in front of a canon. The series has done it's growing up, delivered an entertaining world, and you've spent enough time in the sun to get a good suntan.

Barclay's willingness to slaughter major characters and torture others, plus his relentless pace give his books an edge.

The forthcoming book from James Barclay. He's a busy guy writing these, you know?

'Nightchild' (you are getting the title theme, aren't you?) once again puts our heroes in a pickle. It's the kind of thing that involves some a very heinous fate for a rather large number of characters we know and a more heinous fate for legions of red-shirts. Barclay keeps the pace up, the prose clean and his characters faced with ugly decisions. I'll be there for the fourth novel, even though the very title is terrifying and sends shivers through my book-buying bones: 'Elfsorrow'. It does, at least, break that title theme. I guess 'Elfteatime' just doesn't have the same ring.

I still don't know what I'm missing with this book. I've hesitated to buy it, vacillating between lackluster searches for first editions and vague consideration of reprints.

I first came across Mary Gentle's work thirteen years ago in Fullerton, California, at a little bookstore called Aladdin books. Nobody that I knew had the wonderful selection of proprietor Don Cannon at that time. It was eclectic, weird and very restricted in ways that I now entirely approve of. I didn't know that then. What I did know was that 'Rats and Gargoyles' was clearly a fantasy, and that a red-blooded reader of such works as David J. Schow's 'The Kill Riff' or Skipp & Spector's 'The Light at the End' was NOT going to read any namby-pamby girly fantasy. Perhaps I should have listened to the bookseller.

This book is an amazing creation, a confection of well-researched medieval reality, brutal swordfights, meta-fiction and science fiction. It's also 1,113 pages long. And it is one novel, just one, got it?

Thus, it took nearly a dozen years before I ended up buying Mary Gentle's 'Ash: A Secret History' when it first came out back in 2000. I don't know why I wasn't put off by any one of a number of things, from the vestigial memory of not buying 'Rats and Gargoyles' to the page count (1,113 pages in hardcover, with a large page size and rather small print), the subject ('Ash is an amazon with attitude!' enthuses an unfortunate blurb) or the cover, which features a Xena-like warrior woman. Occasionally the book radar is right on target, and this case, all systems were go. 'Ash: A Secret History' is an astonishing accomplishment, a book so dense and real that you can actually just go and live there for a couple of weeks. This is a novel as a country, a novel as an entire perfectly detailed reality. Be prepared to bring your patience if you visit.

The US paperback edition of Gentle's monumental work was split into four, count 'em four books, of which this is the first.

The second in the installment version of Gentle's huge novel. Reaction to these novels is mixed between those who love 'em and those find them confusing and boring.

To publish a book at that show-stopping length was a brave act by UK publishers Victor Gollancz. The US Publishers didn't have the heart, and they broke it up into an excessive four installments. Let me tell the readers right now, not to bother with the four books. The UK version isn't divided into four parts -- the book is set forth in 16 parts, and those don't divide easily. Moreover, the ambience of this huge volume is part of the appeal, it's part of the vibe. Note that word in the title -- History. This is a huge History. You want to have a book with this kind of heft when you read this story. You come to appreciate what turns out to be the rather mild cover design of the original hardcover in comparison with the design the four paperbacks. Most importantly, there is more than one story line, and if you read this as four volumes, the proportions could easily annoy and confuse you. And finally, you can buy the single-volume UK version in a hefty trade PB format (which I found for ultra-cheap at my local bookstore, thanks to the Mystery Bookseller) and have it shipped here to the US for less than it will cost you to buy all four books. If you can find it, I'd suggest the hardcover version, because this is that kind of book you really want to own.

The title of number three in the installment plan version of Gentle's novel is something of a spoiler.

The final payment you make if you buy the series this way is to have your attention annihilated by all these different damn books.

'Ash: A Secret History' was purportedly written while Mary Gentle got an MA in "War Studies", and that makes a lot of sense. It is by far the most realistic, the most "puts you there", the most "you can smell it, hear it, feel it and taste it" bit of re-creating the Middle Ages I've ever come across. There are battles here, there is tedium here (that's why you need your patience), and there is absolutely the most convincing Middle-Ages milieu you will ever experience. Reading this book is like traveling to the world that Gentle creates. But there's more, much more. Gentle is just doing a Renaissance fair bit. She literally creates the world, then changes it subtly. It called fiction, writing, and the creative urge. She has it in spades.

If you're looking for a book with lots of action, and a fair amount of grit, then stick with James Barclay. If you're willing to put up with a bit of meta-fictional invention and a novel that does not play by any rules, then Ash is definitely the lady for you. In either case, the Mystery Bookseller is definitely there for me. And I want to thank you very much, for paving the way for the attack of the leather diapers. I'm ready for endless trilogies now. Somebody pass me the glue, please.




Rick Kleffel