SKULLDUGGERY (A Free, Serialized Novel by Tim Byrd)

Drogarth.

The name alone conjures dark images of spilling blood, of blackest magiks, of lawlessness and chaos. Throughout the kingdom children hear stories of this evil city and are told they must never go there — and they wish with all their hearts that one day they will. For children are the custodians of wishes, of dreams; they know in their hearts, in their souls, that only in the darkest of pits can the brightest adventures be found…

Years and years ago, when I had a bit more spring in my step and fewer callouses on my heart, I got out of a misguided stint in the U.S. Army and plopped down at a cheap portable typewriter to begin living the life I always intended to live, that of a dashing and prolific novelist.

I was living on savings, shacking up in Kassel, West Germany (there was still an East Germany then) with a wonderful girlfriend named Rike (whom I’d met the very day I’d arrived at my Army post), who was deep in her own university studies while I took the time to write.

It was a happy year. It was the most productive year of my life, too.

First, I wrote a short fantasy adventure novel called The Road to Adventure. It was sort of stock fantasy — knights and elves and hot pagan priestesses — mixed with sheer swashbuckling and quite a bit of eldritch horror. Took me just over a month to write, and I got it in the mail and started the next project.

The Road to Adventure damn near got published too. A senior editor at one of the big science fiction/fantasy publishers took a liking to it and went to bat for it with the editorial board. See, getting a book published isn’t just a matter of getting a “yes,” it’s a matter of getting a series of “yeses,” and if you get a “no” in that series, you’re screwed. According to the editor, I had the majority of folks wanting the book, but got two key noes; I was screwed. But hey, pretty good for the first shot.

Of course, that resolution took a while, during which I wrote my second book. This took a lot longer than a month. Whereas I’d written Road with a detailed outline, I started this one with a setting, a couple of character ideas, and the notion that I was gonna write a “hardboiled fantasy,” mixing standard sword and sorcery tropes with gritty crime fiction. And I had the title:

Skullduggery. A Tale of Thieves. Continue reading

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Pulp Reading Group (Mar 2009): Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser

Over on Goodreads (www.goodreads.com), I recently joined a great reading group called “Pulp Magazine Authors and Literature Fans.” The group discusses, as you might figure, pulp fiction, and every month chooses a book to read and talk about in the forum. Last month’s choice was Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which I didn’t have time to get to (but read many years back, and remember enjoying it).

This month, the choice is Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar, the only novel-length tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

lankhmar1
(That’s not the cover of The Swords of Lankhmar, but is the great Mike “Hellboy” Mignola’s cover to another collection of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories).

Fritz Leiber (along with Robert E. Howard and a few others) was instrumental in the actual creation of the fantasy genre known as “sword and sorcery.” Leiber, in fact, was the man who coined the term. His stories are sardonic and bawdy and full of wit, full of action and invention, comic and tragic, sometimes damn near Shakespearean…If your notion of heroic fantasy literature is based on the yards and yards of Tolkien ripoffs and D&D novels (themselves, ultimately, Tolkien ripoffs for the most part), Leiber will prove a true literary treat.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are two of the greatest characters in fantasy, a pair of good-hearted rogues of flexible ethics and decidedly Dionysian morality, as adept with their wits as they are with their blades. Fafhrd is a towering red-bearded barbarian from frosty northern lands, the Mouser a slight trickster from the urban sprawl who dabbles a bit in the arcane (with often questionable results). They adventure through the world of Nehwon (read it backwards), which is full of corruption and vile magics and things to do. And the adventures are so well written, they tickle the mind:

…Then [Fafhrd] shrugged and said loudly, “What’s so special about these rats? Do they do tricks?”

“Aye,” Slinoor said distastefully. “They play at being men. They’ve been trained by Hisvet to dance to music, to drink from cups, hold tiny spears and swords, even fence. I’ve not seen it–nor would care to.”

The picture struck the Mouser’s fancy. He envisioned himself small as a rat, dueling with rats who wore lace at their throats and wrists, slipping through the mazy tunnels of their underground cities, becoming a great connoisseur of cheese and smoked meats, perchance wooing a slim rat-queen and being surprised by her rat-king husband and having to dagger-fight him in the dark. Then he noted one of the white rats looking at him intently through the silver bars with a cold inhuman blue eye and suddenly his idea didn’t seem amusing at all…

Simply put, there is no finer writer than Leiber in fantasy, and he’s a damn sight better than most in any genre:

The Demoiselle Hisvet stood as tall as the Mouser, but judging by her face, wrists, and ankles was considerably slenderer. Her face was delicate and taper-chinned with small mouth and pouty upper lip that lifted just enough to show a double dash of pearly tooth. Her complexion was creamy pale except for two spots of color high on her cheeks. Her straight fine hair, which grew low on her forehead, was pure white touched with silver and all drawn back through a silver ring behind her neck, whence it hung unbraided like a unicorn’s tail. Her eyes had china whites but darkly pink irises around the large black pupils. Her body was enveloped and hidden by a loose robe of violet silk except when the wind briefly molded a flat curve of her girlish anatomy…

If you’re a completist, the first book in the series is Swords And Deviltry, but The Swords of Lankhmar is the only novel in the cycle, and there’s nothing particularly spoilery or incomprehensible about reading it without reading the other books. Hop over to Goodreads and join the group, join the discussion. Or just read Leiber on your own, as a gift to yourself.

Raisin’ Kane

Wow.

I used to have a friend, a big red-bearded Carolinian name of Karl Edward Wagner, who was one of the absolute best dark fantasy writers I’ve ever read. He was, in my eyes, one of the three best sword & sorcery writers of the 20th Century, the other two being Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, and his horror fiction blew most of his peers out of the water. In other words, he was a master. His stories won awards, he was a gifted anthologist, and he was a great guy to go on a bender with at a SF convention.

Karl died in 1994. A nice tribute can be found here.

Karl created a dark sword & sorcery hero who should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Conan of Cimmeria, but unfortunately recognition of Karl’s work never filtered far outside the envelope of genre. That hero was Kane, an immortal warrior cursed by “a mad god” to wander the world for some long forgotten sin, perhaps the first murder. Kane was a true anti-hero, just as likely to be up to no good as he was to be helping someone, and was a fascinating character with a lot of depth.

And Karl wrote like John L. Sullivan threw fists.

Well, perhaps the day will come that Kane is better known to the masses. Tonic Films, which is owned by one of the producers of the recent horror flick Cabin Fever (itself contending for an Independent Spirit Award for Outstanding Achievement), has acquired the rights to Karl’s book Death Angel’s Shadow, a book of three Kane tales, and are planning to film the first story, “Reflections for the Winter of My Soul,” with the possibility of filming the other two if that one does well.

Here’s hoping they do Kane even a quarter as well as Karl did…