The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) is a really funny fantasy dictionary/atlas with a playful meta structure. Jones builds her work as if fantasy quests, or, more meta-fictionally, every fantasy story ever, is a tour arranged by Management.

Each entry (including such topics as DARK LORD, THIEVES’ GUILD, or WARRIOR WOMEN) is a  brilliant cataloguing of generic fantasy tropes and clichés that she provides a logical and often hilarious explanation for.

There are dozens and dozens of references and in-jokes towards popular works of fantasy, as well as the scores of hackwork that fester in the field. (Especially seems to be poking fun at the ’80s publishing landscape.)

Tough Guide is a brilliant idea and well executed. The visual design is well-done, as well, from the cover to the map to the little icons on the margins of each definition. I especially am in awe of her how her concept allows her the privilege of not necessarily having a hard joke every time – the definitions that aren’t funny are just accurate – thus you never feel cheated or bored.

It’s like a fantasy The Devil’s Dictionary or a proto-TV Tropes and, much like any humorous compendium of disparate entries, best enjoyed slowly.

The House of Souls by Arthur Machen

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The House of Souls (1906) is a collection of four near novellas of the supernatural by the Welsh fantasist and sometimes horror writer Arthur Machen. These stories are set in an England beset by hidden worlds and pagan cultists and gently mad upper-class scientists.

“A Fragment of Life” – More like A Fragment of Novel. By that, I mean, it very much reads like a novel Machen was trying to write but more or less gave up on. It pretty much stops out of nowhere, reaching only the most generous reader’s definition of any kind of conclusion. However, what is here is a really intriguing mix of naturalism and mystic yearning in this tale of a tender married couple and the emotional and spiritual journey of the husband who hears the call of a far off land.

“The White People” – A very weird fantasy, playing on fairy tales and witch myth and paganism, that is not quite a horror story although there are several horrific elements. An unreliable narrator writes of an almost psychedelic dark fantasy. In some ways it feels like another novel cast-off like “A Fragment of Life” but this one exists much more satisfactorily as a short story.

“The Great God Pan” – The first true horror story in the book. It plays with many of the same elements as the previous two: ancient paganism and hidden worlds and such but takes a decidedly more sinister approach. A story of stories within stories and discovered documents in the grand turn of the century horror fiction tradition. An experiment reaps bad. Machen describes a monster here that is mostly off-screen yet terrifying. Ends with a burst of vivid body horror. The only downside is how driven by coincidence this story seems. Machen is very good but his stories are somewhat haphazard and seemingly cobbled together – – – there is nothing tight here plot-wise. It’s all in the mood and hints and flourish of the prose.

“The Inmost Light” A final tale of esoteric knowledge and upper-class occultists, with an even more vivid off screen monster. There’s a very mysterious circle of pagan conspirators who dance at the corners of this tale but much of their purpose is left obscured. The little brother of “Great God Pan”, especially with its rogue scientist and female test subject.

The House of Souls is throughout very interesting, and pleasant to read, if rarely actually horror, as Machen’s reputation seemed to me. Line by line, Machen moves with a beautiful eye for landscape, a fine attention to characterization, and a throbbing heart of wild weirdness.

The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander

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The Kestrel is the second novel in the Westmark trilogy, and, like many good sequels, it deepens the themes and muddies the morality from the first book. Theo, the printer’s devil and main protagonist of the series, has been exploring the kingdom to get an honest feel for the people and the land when an assassination attempt is made on his life. Meanwhile, a faction of Westmark noblemen and military officers conspire with the king of neighboring Regia to invade Westmark and force Queen Augusta, the Beggar Queen, from the throne.

War breaks out and it’s a nasty, tough business – even if this is more or less a children’s fantasy novel. Things get truly dark as Theo joins with the partisan troops of the democratically-minded Florian. Alexander doesn’t flinch from the sins of the soldiers, even the “good” characters, the ones whose aims we sympathize with. There is a toll to the violence and a growing amorality as tough decisions are made and callousness in the name of their cause prevails.

The conflict between monarchy and the rights of commoners – a burgeoning democratic spirit – deepen, as well. This is a story with a lost princess reclaiming her throne that did not end there but instead asks if she even deserves a throne in the first place. I’ve never seen this element in a fantasy series before and I admire it greatly. Alexander is asking some tough ethical questions here in the frame of a children’s story and he doesn’t force feed any trite answers down our throats.

The Kestrel may be a darker sequel but it still has plenty moments of fun and is entertaining throughout. If Westmark is to Star Wars then The Kestrel is to The Empire Strikes Back. It remains to be seen whether The Beggar Queen is this trilogy’s Return of the Jedi. P.S.: this is a secondary world fantasy series without one ounce of magic! It’s truly doing its own thing.

The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard

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The Hour of the Dragon (1936) is the only Conan novel Conan creator Robert E. Howard wrote, as well as the only novel of any kind that he ever finished. It is set late in Conan’s chronology, where his adventuring and opportunity has crowned him King of Aquilonia.

A group of conspirators resurrect the ancient wizard Xaltotun through the mystic jewel called the Heart of Ahriman and enlist the undead warlock in their scheme to seize the throne from King Conan. The warlock helps one of the conspirators assume power in neighboring Nemedia and then crushes Conan’s army through his magicks.

Then the barbarian begins a quest to reclaim his kingdom, through the aid of his still loyal subjects, an old witch woman, and a secretive order of priests allied to his cause. Along the way he retraces the steps of his life in a race to find the Heart of Ahriman so that he can use its untold power to topple Xaltotun and his evil allies.

The Hour of the Dragon is a fantastic sword and sorcery novel, and a fittingly epic (near) conclusion to the Conan Saga. After Conan’s throne is stripped from him, we watch him pass through the various phases of his career (and previous stories): we see him stealthy and rogue-like (“The Tower of the Elephant” or “Rogues in the House”), watch him don the guise of a mercenary-for-hire (as he was for much of his life), and witness his capture and take over a slave ship in a return to his pirate past (ala “Queen of the Black Coast”).

In many ways, this novel is a remix of all the previous stories. Major plot elements are borrowed wholesale from “The Scarlet Citadel”, where Conan’s throne was also seized and he was also captured. Even beyond that, the barbarian’s adventure takes him through a series of episodes reminiscent of his hard but lusty life. He fights hellish ghouls and giant snakes and sinister wizards and (more negatively) there’s all the requisite damsel-in-distress and racism I’ve come to expect from Mr. Howard.

In the powerful and satisfactory end, Hour of the Dragon feels like a fitting finale to the entire cycle, although it wasn’t the last Conan story published in the author’s lifetime – that’s “Red Nails”. This is a fantastic story, well told. I’d recommend any fan of fantasy read it but I’d further recommend them to first read the previous Conan stories by Howard. For the fullest effect.

Westmark by Lloyd Alexander

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Westmark is a flintlock, mid-18th century style young adult fantasy novel about a printing press printer’s assistant who ends up on the wrong side of a tyrant councilor’s law and falls in with a charlatan snake oil salesman and his dwarf assistant.

Theo, the printer boy, is roped into Las Bombas’ deceits and swindling despite his moral objections to it. Las Bombas and company soon pick up a street urchin named Mickle who is more than she appears to be. (No kidding?)

There is also a good court doctor waging a battle of will and influence with the corrupt councilor for the grief-stricken king’s soul, a bohemian circle of resistance fighters who are not only anti-tyrant but also anti-monarchy in general, and lots of sincere questioning of morality in regards to both violence and truth.

I loved Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain as a kid and am happy to find, as an adult, that he’s still a really good writer. Westmark is a very entertaining read, with a nice, spare but witty prose style, and convincing sparks of action.

The book is short and I read it fast but the characters still stood out and the twists worked. The setting itself is a tremendous plus, being a kind of alternate version of Europe circa late 18th century or so, with no real magic to speak of, but with guns.

There are a few trite elements, including the half-cliché evil councilor, interesting only in his distinct lack of outward mustache twirling and austerity, and a twist in the back half that I will not spoil (but your common sense might). However, these flaws are outweighed by the overall quality of storytelling.

There are two more books in the Westmark trilogy and I definitely want to read them soon. I expect to enjoy them, especially if they can delve more into the democracy vs. monarchy angle. I haven’t quite seen that before in a fantasy series.