Thursday, January 22, 2009

Seething Seesaw--A review of Nathan Long's "Elfslayer"

"Elfslayer" opens in Felix Jaeger's father's Altdorf mansion. After twenty years, Felix and Gotrek have returned to their starting point chronicled in William King's short story, "Geheimnisnacht."

Jaeger's father has a mission for his errant son. The old man is being blackmailed by a Marienburg pirate named Hans Euler and he wants his son to retrieve the incriminating papers. Felix balks at the assignment but he finally agrees to help his father. Meanwhile, Gotrek is down in the dumps, literally, drinking himself into a torpor. As we know from the previous novel "Manslayer," Gotrek missed the evil invasion of Archaon and his chance to face a daemon.

Long quickly alerts us that this novel will be a return to old haunts and a reunion with missing friends, allies, and enemies. It is also a novel replete with Longian themes--drowning, shipwrecks, imprisonment, feckless women, jealousy, bravery, and deception.

Before Felix and Gotrek leave Altdorf, they are attacked by unknown assailants. We soon learn that an old enemy has decided to seek revenge. With the assault, Gotrek begins to awaken from his stupor and the action begins. The two travel to Marienburg pursued by assassins to meet Euler. Felix discovers another enemy in Euler and the plot, as they say, thickens. Before Felix can resolve the problem with Euler, old allies arrive. The wizard Max Schreiber, accompanied by a sorceress and an Elf, offer Gotrek the opportunity to face his glorious end. Felix is torn between serving his father or honoring his oath to Gotrek to be present at his death. He, of course, chooses to stand with Gotrek and they set set off on a quest to save the Empire with Schreiber.

The relic they seek is also being sought by Dark Elves. The action then turns to the sea. From this point, Long engages in what I can only call a melange of Jules Verne steampunk and Sabatini swordplay. He brilliantly describes an underwater city, the Black Ark of the Dark Elves, and the horrors of Dark Elf magic and ritual.

Long has concocted a nightmarish stew of villains and seamlessly presented them to us in a Sabatini-like thriller. He is one of the best writers at the Black Library and I challenge you to find a clunky sentence in the 412 pages of the novel. He ties up all of the plot threads nicely by the end but, of course, he leaves enough plot hanging that we anticipate and yearn for the next chapter of the novel.

Without giving too much away, Long convincingly presents dwarves, skaven, and dark elves. Additionally, never before have we seen a black ark described in such sinister detail.

As you might guess I highly recommend the novel. Not only is it an exciting book but I would postulate that it takes the Gotrek franchise in a new direction. Although Long is a student of William King he is refining King's themes and characters. This observation brings me to the explanation of my title for this review.

The figure in the carpet, as Henry James would say, in this novel is the seesaw. When Felix is up, Gotrek is down and when Gotrek is up, Felix is down, literally. The only time Gotrek is animated is when the likelihood of death and mayhem is near; Felix appreciates the tranquil moments, which in a Gotrek & Felix novel, are very brief indeed. However, Gotrek is the dark submerged animator of the series. It is his strength and resolve that drives the action. Long is aware of this and he consciously builds on it and structures the plot around the "humors" of the two characters in a clear and convincing way.

Finally, if you like this novel, I would suggest Gav Thorpe's "Malekith," Graham McNeill's "Guardian of Ulthuan," William King's "Trollslayer" and "Skavenslayer," and Long's Blackheart Trilogy.

I might also add, that the novels of Sabatini--"Captain Blood" in particular--might also interest you.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Philosophe Blanc

Roasted in winter
the blanched peanuts
attract the philosophe blanc,
a convivial recluse
who hunts book-trolls
and wolf-words.
His search is endless;
his trophies legion.
Each primordial word
trapped in his brass trap
provides flesh
of wet clay
to the silent god,
who becomes conscious
only in the white light
of the wolf-word's howl
or the book-troll's grunt.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Crane's Funeral and Wallace Stevens

Stephen Crane died on June 5, 1900, in Badenweiler, Germany at the age of twenty-eight. His body was then transported to New York, where it was buried on June 28, 1900. At the time of his death, Crane's reputation had waned and few people attended the funeral. One, who did attend, however, was the young Wallace Stevens. The cursory funeral and memorial appalled him and he wrote in his journal that "the whole thing was frightful."

The funeral made a great impression on Stevens. At the time he was struggling with whether he should become a poet full time or work as a journalist. The struggle for Stevens arose from the doing (Hebraism)--making a living, material success, security--verses "falling off the edge"(Hellenism)--reading, studying and writing poetry. In his mind there was something unmanly about writing poetry. A man needed to do things--i.e. have a job and make money.

Crane's end scared Stevens. Here was a man, who he idolized, dead and without fame or fortune. Crane's renown would come later, like other American poets of the 19th century; however, Stevens was unprepared to write posthumously and consequently he acquiesced to his father's demands and took up first journalism and then the law. Doing conquered not-doing; order overcame chaos.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Failure of Magic

I wrote a fantasy novel a couple of years ago entitled Okeanus, which I sent out to some agents. Unfortunately, they were uninterested. I am now re-writing the book to submit to a novel contest. As I was writing the novel several questions arose concerning magic. Primarily, how do fantasy writers describe the magic? Is it logical? Where does it come from? How is it used? How is it described? To answer the question I began to read with an eye on the magical systems. Once I began to dwell on these questions, I realized most fantasy writers do not deal with it very well. After awhile, I decided that most fantasy writers simply present their magic--their personal fantasies of power--on the plate like a dead fish. Magic for them is a fait accompli, without much explanation. More often than not, their magic arises from a genetic gift or power of the gods or the daemons. I then turned to non-fiction and the biographies of mages, shamans, witches. This study produced better results but ultimately it was not much help. Finally, I decided to base my magical system on learned spells. In other words, words spoken poetically create the power the speaker wields. My archetypal magician is Aaron, Moses' brother. Remember Moses stuttered and depended on Aaron's verbal facility. Also, remember that Aaron performs magic and battles the Pharoah's magicians and that all creation in the Bible springs from the word. Magic in Okeanus then depends upon learning, recitation, repetition and manifestation. Magic is created and imbued with human spirit and human emotion. And, as we all know, heightened emotion is enervating and erratic, spontaneous, and dangerous. Magic should also contain these attributes.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Matthew Arnold's Great Essay

When the doing fails and the Hebraic command
goes unheeded, my right hand quakes
and shivers from fear and I turn toward the other--
the Hellenic release, the sinister side--
and seek solace in the unreal.
The poem contains the not-doing
while alluding to the doing. The script,
a liquid sculpture, stains the page.
Arnold engineered the seesaw;
he saw the necessity in structure
balanced among the ancients. Stevens
picked it up like a fumbled ball
and ran with it, speaking its division
over and over in one guise or another.
He found release in the up and down strokes;
and threaded the needle with its theme
like James and Carlyle before him,
the great Peripatetics.

Monday, January 05, 2009

La Ronde

From the fire comes the shadow.
From the shadow comes the silhouette.
From the silhouette comes the story.
From the story comes the tale.
From the tale comes the myth.
From the myth comes the gods.
From the gods comes man.
From man comes the fire.