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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Real Bluebeard. The Life of Gilles De Rais. Jean Benedetti. Sutton Publishing. (1971)

On October 26 1440 Gilles De Rais was executed and the legend of Bluebeard began, while Bluebeard killed his wives, Gilles De Rais was a sadistic child abuser and killer. Jean Benedetti traces the extraordinary arc of his life from being one of the richest men in France, if not Europe, a respected and successful soldier to a tasty morsel for ruthless and ambitious men who used his crimes as the cover to to gain what was left of his lands.
Gilles De Rais was born to be the solution to a knotty problem of inheritance, he was the heir to three very significant fortunes and the resolution to to struggle over their future. The most significant figure in Gilles De Rais' early life was his grandfather, Jean de Craon, the man who engineered the complex transactions that lead to Gilles being the final heir to three fortunes. Gill raised by his grandfather after the death of his parents, as a typical French aristocrat. The Hundred's Year war was raging between France and England and France was not a nation in any meaningful sense, it was a collection of frequently feuding regions with no effective centre.
Gilles De Rais fought with Joan of Arc at Orleans, he was an ardent follower of her at the time, they both favoured aggressive action against the English. He did not pursue a career as a soldier or political leader, rather he retreated into a secret life that revolved around kidnapping, abusing and killing children.This gradually consumed his life and his fortune until his erratic actions provided the excuse needed to arrest him and seize his remaining lands. Gilles made a detailed confession at his trial and was hanged and his body burned.
Jean Benedetti places the life and actions of Gilles De Rais into the context of his times and does so in a gripping and very thoughtful way. Gilles was born into power and privilege and never had anyone seriously challenge his right to do whatever he wanted. he was alive, his grandfather was a limit on him,mostly to prevent Gilles spending the fortune Jean de Craon had so painstakingly created. With his death the last effective restraint on Gilles was removed. His child abusing and killing was not his greatest crime for his fellows, it was the reckless way he reduced his fortune and betrayed the requirements of inheritance.
This book is written with confidence and a sharp turn of phrase, the section on Joan of Arc is thoughtful and happily considers her in the political context of the time and gives her the full due of erratic importance she deserves. The spiral into obsession and debt that marked the second half of Gilles De Rais life is traced and assessed with care. Jean Benedetti is clearly intrigued by Gilles De Rais but never overwhelmed by him. This is a vivid and very enjoyable book about a dreadful man, thoughtful and never sympathetic it tries to explain but never excuse. A great read.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Nifft the Lean .Michael Shea. Panther Books ( 1985)

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Open Road Media are doing an Sword and Sorcery Genre Spotlight and the following links are well worth checking out.
A brand new mini documentary on Sword and Sorcery and Brak the Barbarian featuring amazing footage from old films. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqA_ydQhWSs.
A short story to read for free! http://www.scribd.com/doc/98228262/The-Girl-in-the-Gem-by-John-Jakes 
Vintage photos of the books that included cigarette ads! httpp://openroadmedia.tumblr.com/post/26724295135/can-you-imagine-this-happening-today-cigarette 
Tons of new infographics: http://openroadmedia.tumblr.com/swordandsorcery that explain what the genre is and who would like it
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This is a great set of stories about an adventurous thief. As benefits a master thief none of the exploits are simple smash and grabs or easy burglaries,they are involved and intricate.They require nerves of steel and a willingness to go to hell and back, literally, to achieve the goal. Michael Shea has created a wonderful world, full of sharp action with an forceful cast that grab the reader and do not let go.
The first story,Come Then,  Mortal - We Will Seek Her Soul is a blistering introduction and shows the strength of the book from the start. Nifft and his companion Haldar accept the task of bringing a living man to the Underworld in return for the key to a fabulous hoard.The details of the Underworld are smart and nasty and the conclusion very satisfying. The Pearls of the Vampire Queen is much more straightforward, a carefully wrought caper story. The Fishing of the Demon-Sea is a very smart story, set in the realm of demons, it has force and weight as well as a very black sting of humour. The final story The Goddess in Glass takes a slightly different approach and shows how greed has consequences, even if they are long delayed they can be brutal.
Michael Shaea takes a very typical swords & sorcery cliche, the master thief, and gives him force and personality within a beautifully crafted context. The world that Nifft moves in is fabulous and dangerous, it rings true at every touch. In particular the two other worlds that Nifft moves through, the underworld of the dead and the demon world are created with a telling detail and breath of invention that are a pleasure to read. Both are greatly aided by Michael Shea's restraint, he does not go for the grand phrase nor the purple prose so common in the genre. He is much quieter and more forceful and this gives his stories a sharper edge.
Nifft himself is a great character,indeed the entire cast are a full of energy and determination. One of the great pleasures of the book is Nifft's competence and capacity,he is a master thief and he proves how he is so by his actions. He is willing to take a risk for a reward as well as to think and plan to avoid stupid mistakes as well. This gives a different flavour to the stories, they are really semi-heroic fantasy where a sharp mind is as important as a sharp sword. This book is very well written, great fun and a happy reminder of the breath and depth of the genre.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

John Carter of Mars, Volume One. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Disney Editions (2012)

A classic of romantic science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars novels are feast to read. This collection includes the first three books in the series, A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars which are effectively one extended story. John Carter, a ex-Confederate soldier from Virginia finds himself transported to Mars after a weird encounter in an Arizona cave. Mars, Barsoom as its natives call it, is a dying planet filled with different races all constantly fighting each other for the scarce resources of the planet. John Carter finds that the lighter gravity of Mars gives him exceptional agility and strength, which would be useless if not backed up by his sheer joy in combat. Carter finds himself caught up at first in the unceasing wars of the Martians, then falling in love with Dejah Thoris, a princess of the  human like Red Martians starts to take a more active role. He find himself shunted back to Earth and then returned to Mars which has become his true home.
The engine of the story is the efforts by John Carter to rescue Dejah Thoris from danger as she is kidnapped by his enemies. The heart of the story is the progression he makes across the red planet, fighting a wonderfully vivid series of opponents to get Dejah Thoris back and enjoy the rush of battle.
The construction of the books is simple and extremely effective, John Carter find himself moving from one dangerous situation to another with little rest or respite. This could easily become repetitive and contrived , that it is neither is a glowing tribute to the energy and inventiveness of Edgar Rice Burroughs writing. One of the striking aspects to the stories is the solid context that Edgar Rice Burroughs creates with Barsoom. He uses the fact that the planet is dying to create the basic conflict that underlies the series, everyone on Mars is in direct competition with everyone else all the time for resources of life. This is translated into the constant conflict between all the races of Barsoom and within them as well. In this conflict John Carter shines like a star, with his extra agility and love of fighting he fits in very naturally into the context.
Using this as a springboard  Edgar Rice Burroughs introduces continually inventive new situations which add new twists to the conflicts. In particular the second book, The Gods of Mars, has a very clever structure of predators that John Carter must battle to regain his bride. 
One of the great pleasures of the series is that there are no easy victories, every step is a struggle, John Carter has to use his brains and his sword arm to win through and victory is as likely to be snatched away at the last moment as not. The compelling vigour and breakneck pacing of the action pushes the reader along nicely past the occasional  clunky piece of exposition or dangling plot thread. Reading the three stories back to back makes the short cuts used a bit more obvious, they are very minor flaws in a great flood of superbly realised action.
This is muscular, romantic science fiction at its most pulpy glorious and it is an enduring treasure and a joy.

Shatter the Bones. Stuart MacBride. Harper (2012)

A brutally compelling and engrossing thriller. Plunging into the story right from the opening down to the flinty and unforgiving conclusion this story never slows down. A mother and daughter, rising stars of a televised talent show, are kidnapped and the ransom demand is posted on the internet. The police are left with no clues and increasing public and professional pressure. Detective Sergeant Logan McRae and his colleagues are facing a very public and dangerous failure. As the the pressure mounts McRae find that the results of a botched drugs raid are becoming very nasty. The story, laced with the blackest gallows humour, moves at speed, the reveals are cunningly staged and the the truth is always much worse that it it appears at first. The plot leaves no-one unscathed and the innocent pay the greatest price.
The bleak plot is  gripping, it is still less of an attraction than the vigorous and fantastic cast that boil with energy, frustration and the unmistakable pulse of life. Logan McRae has to work very hard to keep up with the rest of the cast, most particularly the specular DI Steel, who bursts off the pages with a foul mouthed glory. The whole cast of police officers, with a single sorry exception, are satisfyingly diverse and free from genre cliches. They feel like a team under fierce pressure and responding badly while trying to do the job properly. The exception is a surprisingly false note struck by an ambitious and frankly stupid officer from an outside agency. He is a straw man constructed for no clear reason other that to give a face to the bureaucratic pressure the team are under.It is a serious flaw in the book that is written with subtly and care for all the cast no matter how small their role. The walking cliché trips up the reader and throws the reader out of the flow of the story. 
Happily the overall force of the book is so great that it is possible to get back into the swing and enjoy the very savage world that Stuart MacBride has created. The clever manipulation of the easily roused public, entranced by the drama of the kidnapping and enjoying the participation invited by the kidnappers is not heavy handed. The temptation to preach about televised talent shows and the manufacturing of  stars is avoided, the opportunities it presents for brutal exploitation are well presented. The villains are well organised and suitably ruthless, they make the plot work because they are never easy prey. A sub-plot about a the fall out from a drugs raid gives Stuart MacBride plenty of room to create a very memorable cast of shattered and desperate people who are gripping without ever being sympathetic. Using humour to undercut despair this is a superb thriller.