Archives for August 2013

Radio Archives

I got into pulp in my teens by way of Sword and Sorcery and the great Weird Tales authors; Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft. This was back in the early 70’s when there was very definitely a pulp renaissance under way. I am not entirely sure why that was. I suspect that there was probably a generation of people working in publishing who were as nostalgic for the comfort reading of their youths as I now am for the comfort reading of mine.

It probably didn’t do any harm that there were vast stocks of pulp writing just waiting to be reprinted. The 20s and 30s were in many ways the golden age of popular fiction magazines, an age before television had superseded print as the medium for popular entertainment. Close at hand, lay Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, all of the strange story cycles of Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea, Zothique and Averoigne, the complete Cthulhu mythos. And that’s just to mention the work of the three titans of thirties weird. 

Shortly after I had this formative encounter, a second wave of pulp revival hit the shores of Scotland, possibly a little later than it hit the rest of the world. It consisted of reprints of Doc Savage and the Shadow, the two demigods of pulp adventure. I was big into Marvel comics back then and these were proto-super-heroes of the first order. In many ways Clark Savage Junior was the prototype of all those bright philanthropic ubermensch such as Superman, and the Shadow seemed  the forerunner of aggressive outsider vigilantes such as Batman.

The second wave of pulps ran its course much faster where I lived and there were never too many samples available but I grabbed those I could find and consumed them the way I consumed everything back then, as quickly as possible. I’ve picked up one or two when I’ve seen them but it’s not been often enough. They became something of a secondary interest for me, and I tapped into them often enough back when I used to run role-playing games such as Justice Inc  and Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes. 

Anyway, I was reading James Reasoner’s blog recently and I came across a review of a release by Radio Archives of the old Operator 5 series. This sent me scurrying across to the Radio Archives site and there I found an absolute treasure trove of pulp. Ebook versions of many of the great pulp series such as the Spider, facsimiles of 30s magazines, print omnibuses of the Shadow books even audiobook and CDs of the old radio shows. This was just an awesome archive of the sort of pulp I had never got a chance to get my hands on back in my youth. Take a look at those cover reprints!

I skipped over to Amazon and discovered to my delight that the ebooks were available there so I picked up the omnibus edition of the first four issues of The Spider, Master of Men. This was excellent value, containing ( as far as I can tell) the complete contents of the original magazines as well as an introduction by Will Murray. No doubt a review of this purchase will follow at some point. 

This is one of the joys of the age of ebooks for me. I can suddenly get my hands on all of this stuff, easily and instantly and at a very reasonable price. If you’ve any interest in this sort of thing, you should take a look. There’s everything from detectives stories to range-land romances. 

 

The Return of Thraxas

“One whole venison pie feeds a family of four,” comments Makri, passing with a tray.
“Not if I get there first,” I say, moving on to the pork and apple pastries.Thraxas

There are many re-releases I have been waiting for with baited breath this year. Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books are due from Centipede Press. Michael Moorcock’s entire back catalogue of fantasy and SF is slowly (come on Gollancz, get the finger out!) making its way into ebook format. The re-release of Martin Scott’s Thraxas books though came as a completely unexpected and very pleasant surprise. I stumbled across them by accident when looking for something else on Amazon.co.uk.

The first book in the series won the World Fantasy Award against very strong competition back in 1999 (I seem to remember) and the series so far has extended to nine books. Distribution always seemed a bit patchy, at least in the parts of the world I have lived in, and now the author has taken it upon himself to indie publish the books. I, for one, am very glad he has done so. Suffering from DVD box set effect I read the entire series in quick succession on my recent holiday.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Thraxas is a great swordsman when sober, a very minor mage who dropped out of magician’s school as a youth, a former world-wandering mercenary. These days he is an overweight, alcoholic, middle-aged investigator who stalks the mean streets of Turai, a decadent and depraved minor city state in an un-named fantasy world. He dwells in two rooms above The Avenging Axe, a tavern owned by his former mercenary colleague, the barbarian Gurd.

So far, so cliched, you are thinking. I mean we’ve all seen this before— the embittered loner detective with authority issues, a problem with local law enforcement and a serious, ongoing battle with the bottle. But no, I can assure you, you’ve not seen anything quite like Thraxas before. For one thing Thraxas has a joi de vivre unusual among embittered loner heroes— he’s a man who knows how to grab a beer with each hand, stack up the venison pies and recover from his latest encounter on the mean streets of Twelve Seas.

For another thing, the books are extraordinarily funny. They play with the cliches of hard-boiled detective stories, Dungeons and Dragons, sword and sorcery and kung fu movies (among other things) in a way that makes me laugh out loud.

There’s real verbal dexterity to Thraxas’s wit, but the humour arises naturally too from the characters. The most powerful wizard in Turai, Lisistratis, Mistress of the Sky, war-hero and dragonslayer, is now a total stoner who spends a great deal of her time and power finding ways to accelerate the growth and potency of her favourite drug. The government of Turai’s corrupt attempts to get her elected head of the international wizard’s guild in Thraxas and the Sorcerers is a masterpiece of very dark comedy.

Makri, haf-orc, half-elf, half-human (wait a minute!) barbarian is a former gladiator whose escape from the orcish slave pits resulted in such legendary carnage that the orcs still speak of it with awe. She is also an idealistic young woman in pursuit of higher education in a corrupt and sexist city which enthusiastically despises education (or any other form of right) for women. She earns her living as a waitress at the Avenging Axe clad in a chainmail bikini for the encouragement of tips, surely the most sensible use of that particular cliche in the whole of sword and sorcery.

Gurd, mighty barbarian warrior, has spent the past decade trying to find a way to confess his unrequited love for Tanrose, cook at the Avenging Axe and maker of the best venison pie in the city. The books bubble over with a horde of minor characters just as memorable and engaging and a web of relationships joins all the characters that is often unexpectedly touching.

Turai is as much a character as anyone else in the books, a very decadent place, a mixture of Lankhmar, Rome and every D&D city you ever played a game in. It’s a place under constant threat of Orcish invasion, where schools of warrior monks fight secret wars, the chariot races are fixed using magic and there’s no end of crime, drug and magic-related and otherwise. It’s a fine place to visit as a reader but you would not want to live there.

The comedy does not get in the way of a good story either. The adventures of Thraxas and Makri as they attempt to clear their clients, in the face of determined opposition from monsters, assassins, politicians, orcish spies, mages, one or both of the two local thieves guilds make riveting reads.

All nine of the Thraxas books are available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk and I urge you to take a look at them. You wont regret it if you have any interest at all in comedy, fantasy or sword and sorcery.


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In the Czech Paradise

I admit it– I have been slacking off with the blog recently. In part it’s laziness, in part it’s because it’s the holiday season and in part it’s because of astounding global warming type heat. We arrived back from Norway in the middle of a heatwave– 37 degrees centigrade/98.6 Fahrenheit– this in a European city and an apartment without air conditioning. I hail from Scotland. In such temperatures the only thing Scotsmen do is melt or turn a bright shade of sunburnt pink and lie on their backs whining (manfully) about heat. Combine hot nights and a sleepless toddler and you have a recipe for lethargy.

This week we escaped into the Cesky Raj (Czech Paradise), which really is lovely and I say this as a man who has just returned from the fjords of Norway. It’s wild land with lots of razor-edged cliffs and huge rock formations, a perfect setting for a fantasy novel and one which I will no doubt use at some point in the future.  It’s the sort of landscape in which it is very easy to imagine being ambushed by orcs or encountering elves. I would show you some pictures but I haven’t transferred them from my phone yet so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

We’re staying in Mala Skala, which sounds like a town from one of David Gemmell’s Drenai novels and which it’s not too difficult to envision Druss strolling the streets of. I am writing this outside a wooden cafe that could double as a Warhammer tavern. I have spent a large part of the last few days walking through woods and along ridgetops, occasionally wearing an Osprey baby-carrier with a baby in it, mostly admiring my wife’s fortitude as she does the heavy lifting. She lacks my considerable body mass which helps with these things.

Today we were walking around Kost castle and in encountered some medieval jousters. I kid you not. I am talking about armoured men on caparisoned horses, looking as if they had just stepped out of Game of Thrones. (In case you were wondering, they were part of some sort of jousting display.) It reminded me that in the unlikely event of me ever having to face a mounted knight I am much more likely to be scared of the horse than the man. Those things are big. As it happened the only injury I faced was a mosquito bite and I showed that bloodsucker who was boss. 

Anyway, that’s enough of what I did on my holidays for the moment. Hopefully normal service will be resumed next week.