Books: The Hammer and the Blade

In Brief:  Paul S. Kemp’s The Hammer and the Blade is old-school Sword and Sorcery with contemporary sensibilities.  Kemp pays homage to Leiber and Gygax, and sets up a pair of of likable characters for serial-style adventures.

Pros:  The lead characters, Egil and Nix, are familiar tomb-raiding adventurers straight out of the AD&D Player’s Handbook.  They are also fleshed out pretty well as the author introduces his magical world and keeps the plot moving.  Kemp obviously knows his Sword and Sorcery, and you feel as if you might bump into The Gray Mouser or Conan or Kull at any moment.

Cons:  The Hammer and the Blade is a self-contained adventure focused squarely on Egil and Nix.  It’s not an epic continent and kingdom spanning tale.  Some may prefer a grander scope.  The setting and styling are also very familiar fantasy staples, a potential drawback for those seeking less familiar worlds.

Review:  The book opens with Egil and Nix in the final stages of a dungeon crawl.  They are professional tomb raiders who’ve been at it for awhile, as quickly established by the author’s rapid quip-filled dialogue.  This is Riggs and Murtagh with swords and warhammers.  In the tomb of an ancient wizard king, they avoid traps and finally face off with a hellspawn guardian.

The author sets the scene and handles the introductions with smooth efficiency and we almost immediately like these two characters.  Egil is a warrior-priest of Ebenor – a deity who was only a god for a brief moment before being destroyed.  Egil is also apparently the only priest of Ebenor (not much use worshiping a dead god who can’t answer your devotion after all), with a philosophy tied to recognizing and venerating the moment.  Nix Fall, aka Nix the Quick, is a thief with a bit of magical training (he takes pride in the fact that he was expelled from the Magician’s Academy), who pulled himself out of the slums with his wits and skill.   Continue reading

Books: Shogun

As a boy, I remember this book sitting on the coffee table and end-tables around the house for something like a year.  Dad and Mom both took a turn.  I remember the ominous-looking katana on the battered cover and Clavell’s name in big bold font.  Later I remember the mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain – but only a little.  Since it came on at eight, I got to watch about an hour before bedtime.  It all seemed very dangerous and exotic and interesting.

So when I decided I wanted to read a book about pre-modern Japan – something with samurai, sacrifice, and yes, ninjas – it didn’t take long for Shogun to pop into my head.  A little google research will tell you this book sold tens of millions of copies, set the stage for a series of other Asia-themed novels, and made Clavell a truckload of money.  I was hoping it would stand to the decades and provide some well-researched historical action.  And that’s just what the book delivered.

Shogun recounts the fictional arrival of a Dutch trader in 17th Century Japan.  The Portuguese (and a few Spaniards) have been in the country for about 50 years, inserting themselves as the middlemen in the lucrative silk trade with China and converting hundreds of thousands to Catholicism.  Aboard the Dutch ship is John Blackthorne, an English pilot, leader of men, and our surrogate guide to Japan.  Blackthorne is a big, strong, handsome, smart, stubborn westerner – your classic leading man.  He soon becomes known as the Anjin-san, which means ‘pilot’.

No doubt Blackthorne is in some respects a metaphor for Clavell’s own attempts to learn about and function within Japanese and Asian culture.  And in the first few hundred pages, as Blackthorne becomes Anjin-san, he progresses from haughty, incredulous, and disgusted to curious, respectful and accepting.  This progression, both in terms of characterization and as a device for learning about pre-modern Japan, is one the more enjoyable aspects of the books.  It’s especially effective for someone who knows very little about Japanese history (like me). Continue reading

Books: The Stormcaller

…by Tom Llloyd.  In The Stormcaller, a book set amidst a traditional medieval background of nobles and prophets, sorcerors and heroes, the reader quickly meets a series of powerful characters having portentous dreams and visions.  As is often the case with this particular convention, these visions are confusing and grim with their foreshadowing, though thankfully not too long.

At the center of the story and these visions we have Isak, the son of a poor oxcart drover, who also happens to be a white-eye.  In Lloyd’s world, white-eyes are gods-touched people with enhanced strength, speed, longevity, and magical ability.  They’re sort of a cross between Olympian heroes (think Perseus, Jason, etc.) and comic book mutants (they develop their abilities in earnest after puberty, have to learn to control them, etc.).  They also have terrible tempers.  These white-eyes tend to become soldiers or powerful leaders, but are usually feared and held at arms’ length to the rest of human society.  Some become avatar-like representatives of the world’s pantheon of gods.  Isak, we quickly learn, is one of these. Continue reading