Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (Philip Jose Farmer; DAW, 1973/Titan Books, 2012)

Hello again readers, I hope those of you in the US had a lovely holiday and didn't trample or get trampled by anybody on Black Friday (I did a tiny bit of online shopping, and went to the movies in the evening, and that was enough human interaction for me).  Myself, I ate far too much and went back and forth with my uncles with ribald jokes, so I'm chalking it up as a success.  I had to work Friday, and on my lunch break I finished up my current reading - Philip Jose Farmer's novel The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, which I received as a gift from Win Scott Eckert, to whom I'm much obliged.  Let's dive in, shall we?

The Other Log is an account of the "true" story behind Verne's famous novel Around the World in 80 Days.  I'll admit, I read Around the World as a kid and remember not being impressed with it - largely because it wasn't "science fiction" the way 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or From The Earth to the Moon were.  Farmer "rectifies" this by recasting Phileas Fogg as an agent of the Eridanean race - a group of long-lived extraterrestrials, stranded on Earth in the 1600s.  The Eridaneans are locked in a generational struggle with a similar group of stranded aliens, the Capellans.  Both sides, as their numbers dwindled due to attrition or natural causes, recruited human allies through promises of fantastic technology and a form of near-immortality.

When a Capellan agent goes rogue with one of the last surviving "Distorters," a teleportation device, Fogg is dispatched under cover of his famous wager to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days to retrieve the device.  Unfortunately, he is pursued by Fix, a Capellan agent under cover as a British police detective, as well as Fix's master - the mysterious Capellan known as "Captain Nemo," seeking the Distorter to further his own goals.

I feel like The Other Log did a lot to rehabilitate Phileas Fogg in my memory, and now I'm curious to revisit Verne's original novel.  Before I can do so, however, Meteor House was kind enough to send me an authorized sequel to The Other Log, Phileas Fogg and the War of Shadows, by Josh Reynolds, to which I'm eager to turn my attention next.

To be perfectly honest, The Other Log took a little warming up to for me; initially I was put off, in the first chapter or two, by how stingy Farmer seemed to be regarding the Eridaneans and Capellans, but I quickly realized that that was the point - the reader is allowed to know no more about these mysterious aliens than the characters are; we're meant to puzzle out who they are alongside the characters, and once this dawned on me I found myself enjoying the novel significantly more, especially once we began getting sequences from Fix's perspective.

The novel moves at a pretty good clip, and Farmer glosses over the less eventful parts of the journey (I think because, as I recall, Verne doesn't) so the eighty day journey goes by very quickly, allowing Farmer to focus on more exciting things - a side trip to the deck of the Mary Celeste, for example, or an extended siege of Fogg's Savile Row home.

We also get an addendum in the form of the essay "A Submersible Subterfuge, or Proof Impositive" by H.W. Starr, detailing the inconsistencies between depictions of Nemo in 20,000 Leagues and The Mysterious Island, and drawing some conclusions regarding Nemos' "true" identity.  I won't name any names to preserve the mystery for those inspired to read the book based on this review, but suffice to say his arguments are compelling.

The Titan Books edition concludes with an afterward from Win Scott Eckert exploring the autobiographical aspects of Farmer's fiction, including his hints in The Other Log that "Phil Farmer" might be an alias for "Phileas Fogg," and finally a timeline of Wold Newton events as they relate to The Other Log.

All in all, The Other Log of Phileas Fogg gets my recommendation, for anyone who's a fan of alternate histories, Jules Verne, or adventure novels with a dash of science fiction thrown in.  It can be purchased from Amazon here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Shadows of the Empire (Steve Perry, Bantam Books, 1996)

Well, readers, here's something a little different for us here at Paperback Perils.  I've mentioned in the past that my girlfriend Gina reads a lot of Star Wars novels, and I've given her a few tentative nudges into the realm of the Star Wars books I was reading as a kid - before the release of the prequel trilogy and all that.  Her main area of interest in the Star Wars universe is the formation of the Old Republic, the rise of the Jedi Order, and then the history of the Sith and the Dark Side of the Force.  My main interest in the Star Wars universe is what comes after RETURN OF THE JEDI and the various side-stories of characters you see for two seconds in the movies.  So among the books I've bought her to show her my side of the Force, besides the anthologies detailing the stories of the bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and the stories of the hangers-on at Jabba the Hutt's palace, is this one, a novel set between EMPIRE and JEDI.

I still vividly remember when this book came out, because there was a huge multimedia campaign - the book, video games, action figures, model kits, trading cards, etc., all promoting this story.  I had a couple of the action figures in the "Shadows of the Empire" line, and I remember building the model kit of the ship Virago.  She hasn't read it yet, and I decided it'd make an interesting change of pace to go back and re-read it after almost 20 years.

The novel focuses on the power struggle between Darth Vader, who should need no further introduction, and Prince Xizor, the head of the Black Sun criminal syndicate and Vader's sole rival for the favor of the Emperor.  Xizor has an additional, personal stake in the game, in that he blames Vader for his family's deaths about a decade prior to the events depicted here.  Xizor desires to supplant Vader at the Emperor's side, and ultimately usurp the power of the Emperor himself.  Learning that the Emperor wants Luke Skywalker alive or dead, and determining that Vader wants the boy alive, Xizor sets to work having Skywalker captured, with the intent of delivering his corpse to the Emperor.

Meanwhile, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian -- I feel like I really shouldn't have to introduce anybody, right? -- are working to find and rescue Han Solo, frozen in Carbonite and on his way to Jabba the Hutt's palace.  Aiding them is Dash Rendar, a smuggler and hot-shot pilot, who's just in it for the credits - a line we've heard before from another smuggler and hot-shot pilot.

Xizor quickly sets his sights on Leia not only as bait to capture Luke with, but as a personal conquest as well, a feat within his grasp due to his alien pheromones.  But will his immediate, physical desires interfere with the long game he's playing for galactic power?

Books like this, and revisiting the "Tales of the Bounty Hunters" and "Tales from Jabba's Palace" collections make me lament what the Star Wars universe has become in recent years.  There's a richness here, and an incredible degree of continuity maintained for years by a dozen authors or more interconnecting their works with each other.  And now a lot of that is being swept under the rug and filed away as "nope, doesn't count."

I like the Vader we get here, when we're treated to scenes from his perspective, much more than the Vader that developed over the course of the prequel trilogy.  The Vader on display here is much more in keeping with the now-outmoded "samurai" interpretation of the Jedi, a man of honor who lives by a code, albeit one fueled by rage and despair.  He's given hopes and goals that make sense within the context of his character, and a clear path he's taking to accomplish those goals.  This is the Vader who ultimately tossed the Emperor into a reactor core, and this novel develops the path that led him to that act in a way that's fully believable.

This review is not meant to be Lucas-bashing; I recognize that he has his ideas for where the story of Star Wars should go, as is his right as creator, and I also recognize that much of my preference for the Expanded Universe provided in fiction written prior to 1999 can be chalked up to nostalgia.  This is the Vader I had first, so I cherish it more.

I really liked the political thriller aspect of Shadows, the emphasis on the "game" Vader and Xizor are playing as they compete for the Emperor's favor, believing that their subterfuge goes under the Emperor's radar, when he is in fact encouraging them against one another to ensure he winds up with the strongest and shrewdest second-in-command.  The contrast between Xizor's breezy self-assuredness and Vader's secret self-doubts makes their contest that much more compelling, and I at least found myself rooting for Vader against the decadent criminal.

Even more rewarding is watching Xizor's arrogant conviction of his own superiority set the dominoes in motion for his eventual downfall.  Just following him through minor miscalculations or making advances off assumptions that ultimately snowball out beyond his ability to return from.

On the side of the heroes, we're treated to very vulnerable versions of the characters we know and love from the original trilogy: Luke is struggling to master his connection to the Force and wondering if he has what it takes to become a Jedi Knight, while Leia is striving to find a balance between her personal feelings towards Han (and Luke, whom she does not yet know is her brother) and her need to serve the greater good of the Rebellion.  Lando is working to regain Leia and Chewbacca's trust after being forced by Vader to betray them.  They're all profoundly vulnerable in a way that makes their accomplishments over the course of the novel that much more rewarding.

We also get a few scenes setting up things we see later in RETURN OF THE JEDI: Luke constructing a new lightsaber, Leia acquiring the disguise and thermal detonator she uses to bluff her way into Jabba's palace.  It's a nice couple nods to the film without being overpowering.

The only real weak point is Dash Rendar - he's very clearly a temporary surrogate for Han Solo, and so never really feels like a full character in his own right.  He's Han Solo with the cockiness cranked up to the point where it grates.  I think the novel would have been stronger if he didn't feel so much like a straight clone of Han Solo; I liked the back story he was given, that his family was banished from Coruscant and he was kicked out of the Imperial Navy after a brother accidentally crashed a freighter into a building owned by the Emperor.  I also liked the arc he got after he believed he'd failed to stop a missile from destroying a ship full of Bothan allies; but the character overall felt too much like Han Solo for my tastes.

Overall, revisiting this novel nineteen years after first reading it was very enjoyable; being older and, I like to think, wiser now, I feel like there was a lot more nuance that I picked up on this time around.  It wasn't perfect, like I said I thought the character of Dash Rendar weakened much of the book, but the intrigue between Xizor, Vader and the Emperor was excellent and I found it enriching to the cinematic material surrounding the novel.  There's some suggestions that a sequel was being set up, as neither Xizor nor his assistant Guri die on-screen, and there are a couple passages that suggest their was some intent to bring them back at a later date to seek revenge on Skywalker.  While this does not appear to have happened to date, I've read enough pulp literature to know you can't keep a good villain down.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Hadon, King of Opar (Christopher Paul Carey, Meteor House, 2015)

That anguished wailing you may have heard on Friday, readers, was me coming to the end of Hadon, King of Opar, and realizing that the next book in the series will not be out until summer 2016.  This novella, released at Pulpfest 2015 (where I bought my copy) by Christopher Paul Carey, picks up the story of Opar sixteen years after the events of Flight to Opar.

In the intervening decade-and-a-half since the Cataclysm that wiped most of Khokarsan civilization off the map, Hadon has striven to rule fairly and justly by the side of his wife, Queen Lalila, while rebuilding Opar and adjusting to the rewritten political and physical climate in central Africa - the inland seas continue to shrink, and the Cataclysm has seem to have left only tiny pockets of survivors where other great cities once stood; Opar is now alone, the infrastructure of empire no longer in place to support it.

Unfortunately for Hadon, something is rotten in the state of Opar, and old enemies emerge after sixteen years of watching and planning to settle old scores with Hadon in a last-ditch continuation of the civil war that may have caused the destruction of Khokarsa.  Fortunately, Hadon is not alone; he is aided against his foes by his stalwart son Kohr, his brilliant daughter La, and the Kwaklem - the Sons of Kwasin, literally, an entire tribe of giant, axe-swinging barbarians sired by the insatiable Kwasin during his exile.

As much as the Khokarsa series - Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar, and Song of Kwasin - can comfortably stand alone as a trilogy, not needing any expansion, I'm really enjoying Christopher Carey's expansions in both directions, with Hadon, King of Opar continuing the story forward, while Exiles of Kho traces the events that ultimately set the Khokarsa series in motion.

Here we're treated to Opar's struggle against the inevitable decline into senescence; without the Empire, and with the population decimated by the still-recent civil war, every day in Opar is a desperate bid for continued survival, and the likelihood of bouncing back into true prosperity is not great.  Still, Hadon pushes forward as best he can, because there's nothing else he can do.  As king, his duty is to his people.

It's bittersweet, because we know from the Tarzan books what Opar becomes in 12,000 years, but that's the story Carey is telling here and in subsequent books - the Tragedy of Opar, how the once-great city of gold, ivory and apes sank into savagery.  It's not going to be a happy ending, but the journey will be fascinating.

Carey's writing is richly evocative, a worthy successor to Farmer who makes the characters his own.  Carey's Hadon is older and wiser, carrying the weight of the city on his shoulders but still standing tall - and for what it's worth, I found the scenes of Hadon interacting with his children to be even better than the scenes of him bringing his two-handed broadsword to bear against vile foes.

The Sons of Kwasin were a treat - having seen the havoc that one Kwasin could wreak, bringing sixteen Kwasin Juniors to a battle could be considered the Pleistocene equivalent of bringing an ICBM to a knife fight.  Their reverence to their father's memory (having never met Kwasin) is entirely fitting, giving the larger-than-legendary status of their Herculean father (and as I said in describing the series to my father on the phone the other day, with his thick beard, lion-skin kilt and brass-bound club, it's hard not to see the mythological Hercules as having been born from stories of Kwasin transmitted down through thousands of years of oral tradition), and their wild, violence-prone ways are balanced well against an underlying nobility of character.

Even more interesting, however, is Hadon's daughter La, the original La of Opar, who though only sixteen is a shrewd, calculating politician who has advanced through the ranks of the priestess-hood by leaps and bounds through cunning manipulations.  She doesn't read as a sixteen year old through her dialogue (of course, my memories of being sixteen and being surrounded by sixteen year old peers are more than a decade in the past now, and northeastern suburbia is a far cry, as far as natal environments go, from a war-torn city in the jungle), and I had to keep reminding myself that she wasn't in her 20s.  I'm eager to see more of her in forthcoming books, and to trace her line down through the ages to the La of the early 20th century.

Hadon, King of Opar, like the rest of Meteor House's Khokarsa books, is available through their website and is an attractive volume with still more beautiful cover art and a frontispiece by Bob Eggleton.  Believe me when I say it belongs on your shelves, readers.

And I think, as I wait for Blood of Opar, I'm going to take a week or two to read something different; I have a couple more books from Meteor House that I'll be addressing soon, but first maybe some Robert E. Howard or similar to break things up.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Song of Kwasin (Philip Jose Farmer and Christopher Paul Carey, Meteor House 2015)

We have a very special treat today, readers, in that Mike Croteau of Meteor House was kind enough to send me a digital advance reader copy of this book, the next in the Khokarsa series, for review before the book goes to the printer.  Having finished The Evil in Pemberley House and not having committed to anything else just yet, what else could I do but immediately dive deeply once more into the inland seas of prehistoric Africa?

The Song of Kwasin takes place concurrently with the events of Flight to Opar, following the bellowing man-mountain Kwasin, cousin of Hadon, as he makes his own escape from the dungeons of King Minruth the Mad and decides to return to his home city of Dythbeth, intent on finding out if the oracle there will lift his exile and allow him to return to life as a Khokarsan citizen.  He finds the city besieged by one of Minruth's armies and fights his way to the king of Dythbeth's side, standing proudly in defense of his city.

Once within Dythbeth's walls, Kwasin is given a reserved hero's welcome by those who remember his past misdeeds, and then is hurled headlong into events he is in no way prepared for - being forced to help organize the city's defenses, worry about food shortages, becoming king of Dythbeth once the old king is slain by traitors, becoming a symbol of the resistance against Minruth's blasphemous rule...

For my money (and you better believe that I'm putting my money where my mouth is - next paycheck I'm preordering a copy of this book!) The Song of Kwasin is the best book yet in the Khokarsa series.  If I had a time machine and a few million dollars, I'd go back and pay Farmer to drop everything and produce a Hero With a Thousand Faces that isn't unreadable and doesn't twist myth and legend to suit the author's hypothesis. The entire Khokarsa series echoes with mythic resonance, and nowhere is that more clearly on display than in The Song of Kwasin, rich with allusions to Biblical events and Hellenistic myth-cycles that give a sense of timeless grandeur to the proceedings, as if we're seeing the curtain drawn back and revealing the truth behind stories of Hercules, Samson, the Tower of Babel, and more.  Learning that Farmer had a background in anthropology from the introduction to this volume, the richness of his vanished cultures is explained; just as Tolkien built Middle-Earth from his background as a linguist, so too has Farmer translated his educational background into literary fantasy.

In his appearances in Hadon of Ancient Opar, Kwasin came across as a thundering, muscle-bound clown, a figure to be ridiculed for his inability to control his passions.  Truth be told, he reminded me greatly of a guy I went to college with, who on one hand was an EMT, and on the other was a thundering drunkard with no concept of his own size or strength in relation to other people.  I had thought that knowing this guy gave me a handle on Kwasin.  Farmer and Carey gleefully prove me wrong with this book, however, treating me to a Kwasin with a rich internal life - yes, he's a lover of drink, red meat, battle and women, but he's dealing with a whole host of issues on the inside, not least of which being the conflict between his powerful faith in the goddess Kho and his fury at being ordered around and treated like a meat-head by Kho's priestesses.  Farmer and Carey have turned a character that could have very easily been the Incredible Hulk with an erection into a nuanced and somber character whose great mirths are equaled by his great melancholies.

I purposefully echo Robert E. Howard with that line, because The Song of Kwasin feels as inspired by his works as by Edgar Rice Burroughs and classical lore.  Kwasin's kingship reminds me very much of that of Howard's Kull of Atlantis, who at one point notes that being king is simply being a slave bound by heavier chains.  King Kwasin would undoubtedly agree on that point, and I would not be shocked to learn that this was Farmer's intent.

The battle scenes, likewise, have a raw energy that is rarely equaled by any but Howard, and written with a degree of visceral fervor that the editors of Weird Tales would not have let Howard get away with.  You can practically smell the corpses and feel the splash of hot blood against your face, and the inky, toxic smoke of the Khowot almost rises from the pages.

Where Farmer and Carey showed restraint is even more impressive; there are references early on to a giant serpent captured and penned in the base of the Tower of Kho and Resu, and later in the book Kwasin sees it briefly, as a rustling glimmer of scaled reflection in his torchlight.  He does not engage in an epic, life-or-death struggle with the reptile - but smelling its musky, crocodilian odor as he approaches its lair, and seeing that brief reflection, lends the beast an ominousness unmatched by any other literary dragon I can think of.

The cover by Bob Eggleton is a masterpiece, showcasing the giant Kwasin dwarfed by forces both natural (in the form of the volcano Khowot) and political (the rising ziggurat known as the Tower of Kho and Resu) that he must nevertheless struggle against.  Can I get a tryptich of Bob's Khokarsa cover paintings for my wall? Flight to Opar, this and Hadon, King of Opar all have such beautiful covers, and I've been a fan of Bob's work for over a decade now.  For my money, forget Thomas Kinkaid.  No one understands painting with light the way Bob Eggleton does.  Likewise, Bob did a frontispiece depicting Kwasin with the meteoric Ax of Victory, a companion-piece to the image of Hadon in Flight to Opar.

As with Flight to Opar, The Song of Kwasin is packed with extra material, including maps of the Khokarsan Empire, Farmer's notes on the plants of Khokarsa, their calendar system, and overall series notes, two different outlines for what would eventually become The Song of Kwasin, Christopher Paul Carey's guide to Khokarsa, and previously-unpublished correspondence between Farmer and Frank J. Brueckel and John Harwood, whose essay "Heritage of the Flaming God" set Farmer on the road to creating the Khokarsa series.  While much of this will not be of interest to the layperson, it does provide an invaluable look behind the curtain and showcases just how much thought and care went into the series.

The biggest treat among the bonus material, for me at least, is the novella Kwasin and the Bear God, completed by Carey from notes left behind by Farmer.  The story can either be read on its own or placed between chapters 1 and 2 of The Song of Kwasin, and gives us another glimpse into Kwasin's psyche and a deeper understanding of his motivations and emotional drives, along with a couple rousing good fight scenes and one of the possibly most supernatural sequences in the entire saga.  Personally, I prefer it as a stand-alone piece, rather than inserting it into Song -- I think it breaks the rhythm of Song and provides a long side-quest too early in the novel to really work for my tastes.

All in all, The Song of Kwasin is a triumph, a work of literary achievement that stands above your average fantasy novel or adventure tale, delivering a story that feels, if not true, then at least real.  Khokarsa is alive in the way Middle-Earth and Westeros are not, with a richness and fullness that extends beyond being backdrop to heroic escapades, and the fact that Christopher Paul Carey has been able to expand upon Farmer's original work and extend the legacy of Khokarsa is a treat not to be missed.  I'll be upfront with you, readers, I began reading this book Saturday afternoon, and finished it today, Monday afternoon, staying up extra late on Saturday and Sunday night because I could not bring myself to put this book down.  Meteor House is accepting pre-orders now, with an unlimited paperback edition and a limited-edition hardcover signed by Carey being made available.  As I said, I'll be ordering myself a physical copy as soon as I get paid this week.