Monday, April 6, 2015

Fantasy Authors and Books A - Z (H)

And we come to the H's, time is rushing on. Mixed bag today. One created a sub genre, one is criminally underrated and one is better known as part of a writing duo.

It's rare that fantasy fans mention the name Tracy Hickman, without also saying the name of his writing partner for many years and plenty of books, Margaret Weis. Tracy Hickman is the one on the left, by the way.

After working the usual assortment of jobs that authors seem to have before they're discovered, Tracy Hickman found himself working for game company TSR along with his wife, Laura. On the way from Utah (where he was born and based) to Wisconsin to join TSR, he had the idea that would eventually become Dragonlance, and that led to his association with Margaret Weis. The Dragonlance Chronicles began in 1984, and by 1987 had sold 2 million books and half a million adventure game modules. By the time Hickman left TSR, he had collaborated on more than 30 novels with Margaret Weis.

Tracy Hickman has written plenty of fiction and developed games on his own and with his wife, Laura, but never achieved the same sort of success in the field as his collaboration with Margaret Weis, a successful novelist in her own right.

His last novel project, an online serialisation, written with his wife, started in 2010, and the series as a whole was contracted for general publication by Shadow Mountain Publishing in 2012. As of 2013 he began an association with Richard Garriott, and has worked on Shroud of the Avatar, which has been described as the spiritual successor to Ultima.

Hickman and Weis are best known for the Dragonlance work, and also the Darksword trilogy and Deathgate Cycle, but my favourite of what they did was the rather Arabian Nights flavoured Rose of the Prophet trilogy. I'm a bit of a sucker for Arabian Nights type stuff, and that's probably why Rose of the Prophet sticks in my mind. The idea was a little different from their other work. It centres around a pantheon of 20 gods who are each a facet of one central god, but their squabbles have caused them to run away from the central god and this puts everything in danger of falling apart. Only one god, the wandering Akhran sees what is happening and tries to put things to right by uniting two of his warlike nomadic desert tribes through marriage. The immortals, earthy servants of the gods were fun, Akhran uses djinns, but other more westernised type gods use angels. It's rather like the way Dave Duncan gave his races in his A Man of His Word series their origins in the myths connected to them. It had a lightness and a sense of fun and wonder that was only fleetingly present in their other work. The two writers have always done comic relief quite well, it was provided by the kender (usually Tasslehoff Burrfoot) in Dragonlance and Simpkin in Darksword. In Rose of the Prophet most of it came from the djinn and their rather combative relationships, despite working for the same god.

Further and related reading: as well as Rose of the Prophet there are the other series that Tracy Hickman worked on with Margaret Weis for TSR, and then themselves (Darksword and Deathgate). His other novels, both solo, and with wife Laura, tend to be similar to Dragonlance and are often connected with games, as Dragonlance was. There have also been a couple of science fiction projects, but they don't seem to have endured in the way his fantasy concepts have. 

The Arabian Nights setting had a brief resurgence at about the same time Rose of the Prophet came out, and that may have been what prompted Hickman and Weis to try their hands at it. Examples are Stephen Goldin's Parsina Saga and Esther Friesner's Chronicle of the Twelve Kingdoms series, beginning with Mustapha and His Wise Dog (which I think is just a wonderful title for a book). Dave Duncan wrote two volumes featuring his itinerant storyteller Omar (The Reaver Road and The Hunters Haunt) which always put me in mind of the Arabian Nights in feel. Quite recently Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon had that feel, and was even nominated for a Hugo in 2013 and a Nebula in 2012. Of course you could also pick up a retelling of 1001 Arabian Nights. You could alternatively look at 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham, which is a graphic novelisation of 1001 Arabian Nights Fables style.

Robert E. Howard - June 22, 1906 - June 11, 1936. No, that's correct, the photo is not of Al Capone or one of his contemporaries, it is in fact Robert E. Howard. Yes, that Robert E. Howard, the guy who created Conan the Barbarian. I kind of debated about putting Howard in here to be honest, because sword and sorcery is not my favourite genre, but credit where credit is due. In a very short space of time (Howard committed suicide at the age of 30) he made an indelible mark on the world of fantasy fiction, by almost singlehandedly creating a sub genre.

Despite being fairly bookish and always wanting to be a writer, Robert E. Howard, was also quite taken by boxing and body building, and even took up pugilism for a brief period, although he never boxed professionally.

He was never published in book form during his lifetime. There were plans to publish Conan in book form in 1934, but it never came to anything. Most of his stories appeared in Weird Tales. He wrote across genres, whatever sold to the pulps. He never made a fortune out of writing, but it is estimated that his writing made him more than anyone else in his small home town of Cross Plains, Texas, during the Depression. 

In 1932 he created Conan the Barbarian and put his idea of the Hypborian Age around it.  The character first appeared in Weird Tales December of that year. He placed 17 more Conan stories in the magazine between 1933 and 1936. While it appears that Howard himself fell out of love with the character in 1934, and preferred to write westerns, he had inspired plenty of other writers, and the Conan stories combined with others about characters like Kull had started a new type of fantasy fiction, it would later be called sword and sorcery by Fritz Leiber in response to a letter from Michael Moorcock to the fanzine Amra, requesting a name for the type of fiction written by Robert E. Howard.

Howard took his own life in 1936 upon being told that his mother was not expected to come out of the coma she had fallen into. He died from a gunshot wound to the head on June 11, 1936 and his mother passed away the following day.

As Conan was never published in book form during his creator's life time, it's hard to pick a specific story as a favourite. The most complete collections seem to have been published by Wandering Star Books, a UK publisher. Republished in the US by the Del Rey imprint of Ballantine Books. The books are known as Conan of Cimmeria: Volume One, Two and Three (the US editions are known as The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, The Bloody Crown of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan). The stories tend to be fairly formulaic and follow Howard's mightily thewed hero as he makes his way through the world, doing whatever it takes to succeed and keep himself alive. Conan himself has left an indelible imprint on the world of fiction, often put up there with other fictional immortals like Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes. The character has conquered the world of the written word and been successfully transitioned into other media such as comics and films. Even now the character is a byword for the sub genre that was built on his broad shoulders.

Further and related reading: a lot of Robert E. Howard's pulp work hasn't survived into the present day, but a lot has. It's not all just Conan either. The same author also created the characters of Kull the Conqueror (also transitioned into comics and films, although less successfully than Conan) and Solomon Kane. The flame haired female warrior in the chain mail bikini, Red Sonja, was not created by Robert E. Howard, she was a character invented by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith for the Marvel Comics version of Conan. In related reading there's a lot to choose from, an entire sub genre's worth. Robert E. Howard and Conan inspired an entire generation of writers, and it still endures today. L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, John Jakes, Andre Norton, Michael Moorcock and even Robert Jordan, have all written sword and sorcery. Many of these authors have written Conan stories after the original creator's death, and even now other writers are authorised to write new Conan material and books. The early issues of Cerebus the Aardvark by Dave Sim are highly recommended, because Cerebus is really just Conan in aardvark form, and Sim himself was a huge Barry Windsor-Smith fan and started the graphic novel in part as a homage to the artist. John Norman's Gor books, especially the early ones, were clearly inspired by the sword and sorcery genre, and Jack L. Chalker said that his River of the Dancing Gods series was in part inspired in reaction to the genre seeming to not having progressed past the Hypborian Age in over 30 years.

Barry Hughart is, in my opinion, criminally under recognised as an author of fantasy these days. He came to fiction via an unusual path. Following high school he was diagnosed with schizophrenia (which was actually depression, but they didn't have another word for it back then) and treated at a psychiatric hospital. He obtained a bachelor's degree from Columbia University. He joined the airforce following graduation and found himself laying land mines in the DMZ in Korea. It was during this period that his interest in China and the idea of creating an ancient China that never was developed.

In the 1980's he brought this idea to fruition by writing the first of the Master Li and Number Ten Ox Chronicles: Bridge of Birds. The book was successful on one level in that it won the World Fantasy Award in 1985 as well as the Mythopoeic. He had issues with his publishers (I've heard one report that they didn't even tell him about at least one of the award wins). This resulted in it becoming financially impossible for him to continue writing the books, and the series was cut short after 3 novels (The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentleman followed Bridge of Birds). I believe Hughart had other books planned, so it was a shame that they never eventuated. He did say in 2008 that he felt he had taken it as far as he could and that he didn't want to repeat himself, so not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the publishers.

No other novels have come out since Eight Skilled Gentlemen in 1990 and at the age of 81, I think we can safely say that Barry Hughart has retired from actively writing.

Although there are 3 Master Li and Number Ten Ox books, and they are all delightful, I always classify Bridge of Birds as my favourite. Not only is it my favourite of that particular series, it's one of my favourite fantasy books of all time. It's about an ancient China that never was, but should have been. When all the children Number Ten Ox's village fall sick to a mysterious illness, he goes seeking a wise man to find the cure. What he finds is Master Li, a wily old scholar with a slight flaw in his character. He never says what the flaw is, but the word liar often springs to mind. Number Ten Ox and his self appointed master, muddle through and get into and out of various situations, eventually finding their way through the curious case of the comatose children and unravelling the mysteries behind the bridge of birds, restoring the children to health and creating a new legend in the process as well as a lifelong association, although because Master Li is already ancient when they meet, the association may not last that long.

I always love reading Bridge of Birds, and it's wonderful faux oriental style. It's so lyrical and poetically written, and the hair raising situations that the two heroes find themselves in are worthy of any action film one could care to name.

Further and related reading: Hughart wrote two sequels: The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen, and they're both worth reading, although you'll lament when you get to the end of Eight Skilled Gentlemen that there are no others. The 3 books are his only published novels, although he did the dialogue for a handful of films between 1968 and 1986. Despite ancient China being a wonderful setting for fantasy, it's not one that has been explored much, in fact a lot of Asia in general is still wide open for people. The traditional story of Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en, better known as the basis for the 1980's TV show Monkey, and was also translated into English by Arthur Waley as Monkey - A Folk Tale of China, is quite good, and may have provided Hughart with some inspiration. The fairy tale feel of Bridge of Birds, and the whole tongue in cheek feel of it put me in mind of The Princess Bride by William Goldman at times. One other Asian themed fantasy, although it has nothing in common with Bridge of Birds, being set in a fictional Japan, and about the game of houses, is Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori.

So, we're through the H's. There aren't many authors beginning with I, but I have found one, although it does stretch the boundaries of the genre.

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