Monthly Archives: November 2010

Review of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

This afternoon, TCM aired The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973, directed by Gordon Hessler). The film is the second of Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad Trilogy (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger round out the other two). I have heard that many viewers see Golden Voyage as the best of the three. And I personally am torn between this film and 7th Voyage as being my favorites.

The film stars John Phillip Law as Sinbad. Sinbad joins forces with the Vizier of Marabia (in effect the King) to prevent the evil sorcerer Prince Koura (Tom Baker) from using the tablet puzzle to achieve absolute power in Marabia. After a sea chase and several clashes in the lost continent of Lemuria, Sinbad and Koura face off to see who will be the man who destiny smiles on.

The film is rather beautiful if you ask me. Despite the lack of sophistication in special effects (this is the early seventies here and you really don’t need computers), Harryhausen’s skill in creating his effects is just amazing. I especially loved the city and the lost continent.

The acting was decent, not spectacular save for Tom Baker’s Koura. While playing an evil and power hungry sorcerer, Baker manages to humanize Koura to such an extent that it is at times hard not to sympathize with him. The relationship between Koura and Ahmed, his servant, is surprisingly caring. Ahmed clearly cares for his master, always worrying over his over use of his sorceries. And Koura seems to be unwilling to risk people’s lives if he doesn’t have to. I mean, he does not try to force the captain of the ship he hires to follow Sinbad into the trap, he has them remain on the ship, gives them wine, and sends Ahmed back to the ship before the finale (although Ahmed is with him during his near sacrifice). Part of this could be Koura’s arrogance in his sorcery. He does say that he has all the protection they need, but there is a clear caring about his servant.

This does raise some questions for me about the plot. For one thing, is Koura actually “evil”? I ask this question because the audience does not see him do despicable or evil acts save aiding the Centaur in killing the Gryphon. Beyond that, his actions are the actions of any man who wishes to achieve power. It seems to be expected that one would just follow the command to assume Koura is evil because he is the antagonist.

Another issue I have is with Marigana. That she has the mark of the Centaur does not make sense. Is it a birthmark or a tattoo. If the later, who marked her and how did she get to where she is and not on Lemuria before Sinbad?

Any way, a very good movie all around. I highly recommend it. A classic of fantasy and adventure film. The really don’t make them like this anymore.

Three Reviews: The Walking Dead, The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, and X

For Thanksgiving, I have three reviews that I want to do. In ascending order, I’ll review my least favorite and finally my favorite. So that means I’ll review AMC’s The Walking Dead, Robert E. Howard’s The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, and X.

After watching the first four episodes of AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, I am pleased to declare it my favorite new show of the year (keeping in mind that I do not watch a lot of television).

Taking place in a near present in which something, some virus, has caused the infected to rise again as decaying zombies. The series is amazing with its realistic depiction of the horror of a zombie inspired apocalypse, the struggles of survival, and the conflict of hope and despair.

The acting is superb with even minor characters having wonderful scenes. My only real complaint is that it seems too short.

I know, I know, I said I would not do another Robert E. Howard post for a while, but this is a review and I can’t control when my local library will have a title I want available. Anyway, reading The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane were a joy. Robert E. Howard is a master of the short adventure and fantasy short story. I found myself enjoying all of the tales, although some engrossed me more than others. “The Moon of Skulls,” “The Hills of the Dead,” and “Wings of the Night” were all amazing and enthralling. The pacing, the plot, the characterization, all of it. Reading these short stories reaffirmed my faith in Howard’s work.

But there is a problem. If you are sensitive to racial issues, the Solomon Kane tales may not be for you. While racism plays a part in the Conan tales, it is no where near as prevalent as in the Solomon Kane tales. Kane is a racist character (although one can argue that the events of “The Hills of the Dead” force Kane to reevaluate his opinions of Africans and wizards due to the heroic actions of N’Longa- indeed N’Longa is the real hero of that story).  There is a lot of racist imagery in the stories set in Africa, so keep that in mind.

Finally, X, the anime adaptation of CLAMP’s manga X/ 1999. Over the past few months, I have watched the English dub on Hulu. And I have loved every minute of it. I want this series. I want to buy it. The characters are amazing. The plot is enthralling. All around, I love it. From the visuals to the music, wow.

X is the story of Kamui, a high school student who discovers that in his hands lie the destiny of the world. Will he be a Dragon of Heaven, seeking to preserve the world as it is by leading the other Dragons of Heaven in protecting the barriers of Tokyo? Or will he be a Dragon of Earth, seeking to destroy humanity and bring a revolution to the Earth? It is this tragic choice that provides the impetus for the events to follow as Komui makes new friends and loses his childhood friends to both his and their own destinies.

Komui is initially an unlikeable protagonist, concerned more with getting the Divine Sword than in his duty either as an (initially unwilling) Komui or reconnecting with his friends. But when his destiny can no longer be ignored and he must chose, he steps up and becomes more approachable. But it is not Komui who is the sole focus of the series. The other Dragons of Heaven, and the Dragons of Earth, all have their own moments to shine. All in all, a great and highly recommended series.

Conan’s Wizards Finale: Xaltotun of Python

I had planned to get this written and posted later this week, but I decided to tackle this first before getting down to revisions for my short story. But I also plan of hitting The Hour of the Wolf and my review of X towards the end of the week or during the weekend.

This is it. The final wizard of my Conan’s Wizards project. And for this final installment, we have Howard’s strongest, most powerful sorcerer: Xaltotun of Python.

Xaltotun appears in the only Howard written Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon. Here, Xaltotun is resurrected by a conspiracy of four men who would see King Conan overthrown and Valerius, a relative of the deposed king, installed in his place. Haven’t we seen this before? To further their plans, they resurrect the ancient and mummified sorcerer Xaltotun using the Heart of Ahriman. After his resurrection, Xaltotun aids the conspiracy until he is strong enough to implement his own plan, the restoration of Acheron itself.

I asked, though, if we have seen this before. And we have. The Hour of the Dragon is the product of cannibalizing “The Phoenix on the Sword,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” and “Black Colossus.” Indeed, Xaltotun is a merger of Thoth-Amon, Tsotha-lanti, and Thugra Khotan. While combining all three sorcerers, there are a few things all his own.

Xaltotun is as feared as Thoth-Amon (and as unreliable an ally), the true power behind his erstwhile “masters” (like Tsotha-lanti), and is undead (like Thugra Khotan). But he is much more powerful than all of them. He was centuries old at his original death, and he had the power (or knowledge) to allegedly turn back time.

Xaltotun is of Acheron. Now if you know anything about the Hyborian Age, you should know Acheron. Acheron is the millenia fallen empire of wizards that dominated the lands that are (in Conan’s time) inhabited by Hyborians. The elite (if not the entire population) were wizards. The sole magocracy in Howard’s constructed pseudo-history (that I know of). And Xaltotun was the greatest of them, though he reigned at the very moment of Acheron’s fall.

I am certain that a case could be made that Xaltotun was infact the King of Acheron. While he is described as a great sorcerer and a high priest, those exalted positions likely position him as a noble. And likely a king given his image on ancient coinage. Beyond that, he know little of him save his greatest weakness is the Heart of Ahriman.

Xaltotun is clearly powerful. He easily bested Conan on their first encounter, he brings down a cliff, summons a flood (which failed), and planned to use a giant blood sacrifice to restore Acheron itself to life. He is clearly very powerful and does not seem to rely on a magical object to increase his powers (like Thoth-Amon). I am therefore tempted to say that Xaltotun may very well be of a similar status as Tsotha-lanti’s alleged parentage. He comes from a race of wizards, so who knows how much demonic genes are present?

Xaltotun is cool, but I also have a problem with him. When it is clear that he is now in charge of Nemedia and Aquilonia, why not press his advantage? Why does he go along with their attempt to crush Conan? Mind you, he did not know that he lacked the one thing that could defeat him. Or that Conan had it.

But that is my real complaint. I wanted to see the attempt to restore Acheron. After Orastes reveals Xaltotun’s objective, nothing more is said. It is dropped. And I feel that the Heart of Ahriman is a sort of Deus ex Machina in that it provides a too simple way of getting rid of a powerful sorcerer after an obligatory quest.

In this, my final comment on Howard’s wizards, I am a little disappointed. I don’t think Howard took his sorcerers as far as he could. But, it does lay the foundations for some great inspiration.

 

 

The Wizards of Conan: Thoth-Amon

There are only two wizards left to do for my Wizards of Conan series. This post will target Thoth- Amon, I am aware that Thoth Amon has an extended life outside of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories. Thoth Amon is not the only character who has gotten this treatment (I remember Valeria [from “Red Nails”] being Conan’s love interest in Conan and the Gods of the Mountain [I think]). Thoth Amon has been expanded from a powerful antagonal ally in “The Phoenix on the Sword” to being King Conan’s archenemy. I have not read any of those. So I will limit myself to solely talking about Thoth Amon from “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The God in the Bowl.”

We do not know much about Thoth- Amon’s background. All we know is that he was a long term member of the Black Ring of Stygia. The Black Ring seems to be an organization of sorcerers and wizards affiliated with (if not entirely composed of) the priesthood of Set. This is a bit nebulous, although given the theocratic nature of Stygia I would not be surprised if the sorcerous priesthood of Set is not active in politics. Thoth- Amon was both the most powerful and likely the “leader” or the organization. Mind you, the Black Ring looks to have been loose and rather fractious. Compared to the Black Seers of Yimsha, the Black Ring is very anarchic and filled with sorcerers looking to enhance their own positions by eliminating their competition with in the organization.

This leads to a secondary plot involving Thoth- Amon in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” By the time of the narrative, Thoth Amon has been rendered powerless and enslaved because his enemies had successfully stolen the source of his power- the Serpent’s Ring. Without it, Thoth Amon is powerless.

Seeking his ring, he becomes enslaved and endures as the slave of Ascalante after the later’s band of outlaws raid the caravan he was traveling in. Becoming a sort of aid and adviser to his master, Thoth-Amon endures the humiliation of his fall with dignity. Until he gets his ring back.

Once that happens, he has his powers back. Now what do we mean by this? Clearly, Thoth-Amon’s power is solely granted by the Serpent’s Ring. I don’t know if Thoth-Amon was a brilliant scholar and insanely brave to face whatever horrors undoubtedly guarded the ring, but his only sorcerous strength comes from the Ring. The Serpent’s Ring is, therefore, a very powerful and potent goetic artifact. It is with this object that Thoth-Amon is the unquestioned power in Stygian sorcery circles.

While Thoth-Amon is most prominently featured in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” he is mentioned in “The God in the Bowl” and The Hour of the Dragon. In “The God in the Bowl,” he is the mastermind of a failed assassination plot in which a giant snake in a bowl- sarcophagus is meant to kill a rival priest in Nemedia and instead kills a crooked collector. As far The Hour of the Dragon is concerned, Thoth-Amon has returned to power in Stygia and is not free of attempts against him as Thutmekri hopes to use the Heart of Ahriman to destroy his foe. And, of course, Conan saves him.

This brings into question Thoth-Amon’s chronology. We know that Thoth-Amon must still have been in power during Conan’s youth (he is in his late teens during “The God in the Bowl”). So he must have been overthrown at some point between “God” and “Phoenix.” And he is back in his original position by the time of Hour.

So let’s now focus on his powers. Using the power of the Ring, Thoth-Amon summons a demon to kill his master and his allies.

Beyond that, there is not much more to tell about Thoth-Amon. I like Thoth-Amon, but he really only has a ghost presence in Robert E. Howard’s stories.

 

I’m planning on working on Xaltotun this week. I’m also going to post a review of X and some thoughts on the future of Hour of the Wolf. But all of that is contingent on revisions of a short story I wrote.

 

The Witches of Conan

I had a lot of trouble with this post. Originally, this was to talk solely of Salome, the antagonist of “A Witch Shall be Born.” However, I was unsatisfied with my thoughts on her and waited until I had reread “Red Nails” and thought more of it’s antagonist, Tascela. Part of my problem with trying to worm my way into a decent analysis of both characters is the sexism involved (though subverted or challenged by Valeria).

Here’s the thing. Both characters are female. Both are witches trained by wizards. Both gain positions of power. And both seem determined to ruin what they have power over for their own desires. In a number of ways, this conforms to a nasty, sexist stereotype of overly sexualized queens and witches. In both stories, Howard is drawing parallels between a good woman (Queen Taramis and Valeria) and an evil woman (Salome and Tascela). Along with “Slithering Shadow,” the audience is treated to a binary of good/ evil often with evil representing arcane knowledge, decadent desires, and “obscene” sexualization (at least for the time period).

Beginning with Salome of “A Witch Shall be Born,” I think that it is interesting to question what exactly she was after. We know that she was exposed shortly after birth and raised by a wizard from Khitai. We further know (from Salome) that she was expelled from his company because she wanted immediate and more earthly power and pleasures. She lacked the patience to learn as her master had. This could just be teenage rebellion or perhaps an aspect of the witches in the family that force them to act in certain ways. Irrespective of what happened or what drove her to her actions. It seems that she clearly intended to ruin the kingdom of Khauran to the point of no return. Much like Valerius in Hour of the Dragon, I think that Salome was embittered and filled with an intense hatred for her family and her homeland that she intended to completely destroy them through her gluttonous and psychopathic rule.

This explains, for me, elements of Salome’s plan for capturing the throne. If she had been smart, she could have just eliminated Taramis and ruled in her stead with no one obviously the wiser. But with throwing her lot in with the Shemitish mercenaries, she clearly intends to damn her sister’s memory and to rampage through her kingdom.

So the question is, what made her do it? Was it the family curse (which I think is likely) or her upbringing by the wizard of Khitai? I would go with the former. We do not know much about the wizard, but I suspect his plans were rather similar to the Stygian priest in regards to Tascela. That means that I think the wizard wanted her more as a lover rather than as a student. But I could be wrong and he genuinely wanted her as a protege with little sexual elements. Who knows?

But we do know that was the Stygian’s intention for the beautiful Tascela. The Stygian taught her the secret of immortality. And she promptly began a career of ruining the men who vied for her love. I don’t remember what happened to the priest, but the only one who seems to have come out of it unscathed is which ever Stygian king wanted her. Clearly, the three men of Xuchotil came out of it far worse off. What then, of her intentions?

I would argue that Tascela used her position to maintain power over her group to ensure her own eternal youth. Yes, she contended with the wizards of the other faction. But she is clearly interested in only her own existence and beauty.

But we still haven’t reached conclusions about the why? I think that we have a pretty good handle on Salome’s motivations but not Tascela’s. Perhaps the madness that destroys the people of Xuchotil afflicted her most of all. Or, perhaps the decay was a reflection on her own personality. Very curious.

Now, onto the magic comparison! I would argue that Salome, though being significantly younger than Tascela, is the stronger witch. While I am sure that Tascela has more in her arsenal than sucking the soul out of beautiful women, we do not see it in text, and she seemed not overly inclined to deal with the other side’s magical attacks. Perhaps she lost the drive or just did not have the power. But Salome does display her powers. Given her head start (raised by a wizard), she summoned Thog, uses a crystal ball, and has fire powder.

Any way, this concludes my Witches of Conan post. I plan on hitting Xaltotun and Thoth Amon in a few days. And then I’ll be done with Howard for a while.

 

My Return and a Rant Stemming from Realms of Fantasy End

Last week, Brian Murphy over at Black Gate posted a blog explaining his reasoning over the demise of Realms of Fantasy (here after RoF). At my last look at the comments of the post, there were fifteen. So I won’t be commenting on any after that fifteen. Yesterday, the writer of Wendigomountain blog had a very interesting take on RoF’s demise that touches on Murphy’s arguments. This post is mostly about Murphy’s post and the comments that ensued. I won’t really be touching on Wendigo’s very interesting argument that RoF was tagged over certain covers and then attacked relentlessly by the blogosphere like hyenas meeting a zebra because I largely agree with him.

I also agree to a large extent with Murphy. I will admit that I have never picked up a copy of RoF in large part because I did not like the covers. To me, they are quite hideous, but I can see why some people would describe them as among the best cover art. Those covers hinted at a more “literary” quality to the short fiction depicted, but as I have also mentioned, I am not fond with the mainstream of fantasy literature. I largely loathe Tolkein derivatives, am rather sick of medievalism, annoyed at urban fantasy, etc. I am also not a huge fan of psuedo-literary fantasy. Give me Mieville, Duncan, Valente, etc. But I don’t want something that (if you take out the fantasy) could be at home in The New Yorker or The Antioch Review. So I had no interest in actually reading it.

To Murphy’s main point of there is too much in the genre to read also has merit. While I am always on the lookout for new writers, there are so many older works that call ones attention. But I really did not have an issue with Murphy’s case. My problem is with the comments. Especially those who argue that Fantasy (and Sword and Sorcery in particular) are threatened by “political correctness.”

First, what the hell do you mean by “political correctness?” If you seem to mean what Greengestalt seems to mean, then that is rascism. But I discount Greengestalt because his comment reminds me of paranoid conspiracy theories. No, no, no. There is no conspiracy to take Conan’s mighty sword. It is just the evolution of the genre. You can’t expect any genre to stay the same. Hell, it changes with each book published.

This then brings me to Theo, who came off as a little abusive to Daniel (I can’t remember his last name). The argument that Tolkein or Lewis would not have been published today because of their politics is laughable. Beyond the fact that there is no guarantee that either The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia would be the same works published today as they were fifty plus years ago. Would Tolkein still have been strongly Catholic? Would he have been more conscious of race? Would Lewis be an Anglican or an Atheist today?

But of course, that is not what Theo is arguing. He is assuming if LoTR and Narnia where pulled from the past, not published, and submitted today. He argues that neither one would have been published due to the politics of the authors. This would be unprovable because so many great narratives are never published and a lot of crap is. However, we can look to his usage of China Mieville on Tolkein.

Yes, Mieville has called Tolkein reactionary and the equivalent of a pimple on the ass of fantasy. But that was years ago. His views of the artistic merits of LotR seems to have changed a bit. If one looks at the interviews and other promotional stuff he did around the release of The City and the City, you will notice that he has changed his tune. I think it was on I09 that he gave ten reasons why Tolkein is great. And Jim Freund got him to admit that his mind had changed during an interview on Hour of the Wolf. And would Mieville even have Tolkein banned or censored? No.

So what, then, is the problem? I think Cat Valente is right. Some readers are upset that their precious genre is changing and scream “political correctness is responsible!”. This is just baloney. Besides that, the only people who argue that Orcs are human too are academics and who really reads them (looks at self in the mirror).

 

Here endeth my rant. I’m going to post my final two pieces on Conan’s Wizards next week (to be honest, I had to rework my Salome post to include Telasca and I haven’t even started on Xaltotun yet). I am also going to be distancing myself from being so much of an analyst/ reviewer and work more as a writer in my own right. With some residual thoughts and comments, but not nearly so polished.