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Food for thought … can the old pulp heroes of yesterday work in a contemporary setting?

tarzan_ely

Ron Ely was the Tarzan of my youth. I didn’t  learn about Elmo Lincoln, Johnny Weissmuller, and, best of all, Edgar Rice Burroughs, until much later.

My love for the old pulp heroes — characters like Tarzan, Doc Savage, Professor Challenger, and the Shadow — came early, and when it took hold, it never let go. First loves are like that.

It started, like so many of my early loves, on Saturday morning.

I was watching TV with my dad — the Tarzan adventures with Ron Ely. Back in those days, there used to be shows, like, say, The Six Million Dollar Man, that Dad and I could could watch together, and both enjoy.

Dad explained that Ron Ely wasn’t the real Tarzan; that was Johnny Weissmuller. (And Clayton Moore was the real Lone Ranger.) I didn’t know if Dad was right or wrong, but I didn’t care. Ron Ely’s Tarzan delighted me.

After that, Dad led me to The Phantom in the newspaper comics, and told me about The Shadow and Doc Savage, characters I would discover for myself in later years. When I was a bit older, he introduced me to James Bond.

These characters were the first superheroes … they came before Superman and Batman and their legions of followers. They fought without costumes or superpowers (well, arguably a few like the Shadow and Mandrake the Magician might have had what you could call powers, but even they weren’t exactly leaping tall buildings with a single bound)  … just extraordinary skill. They were the peak, the very best ordinary men and women could become.

As you’ve probably heard, Superman owes much of his mythos to Doc Savage — the Man of Bronze and the Man of Steel, Clark Savage and Clark Kent, the Fortress of Solitude and the, uh, Fortress of Solitude … you get the idea.

The superpowered crowd, with their bright capes and primary-colored, skin-tight costumes, might have driven their predecessors, with their fedoras, loincloths, and ripped shirts into relative obscurity, but they’ve never quite gone away. Superman, after all, had been flying for years when I watched Ron Ely’s Tarzan with Dad. There’s a new Tarzan film out now. I haven’t seen it yet, but despite some decidedly mixed reviews, I intend to. Like I said, those early loves go deep.

Shane Black, one of the most interesting filmmakers working, is bringing Doc Savage back to the screens, and Sam Raimi was working on a new version of The Shadow, although (alas!) that seems to have vanished into development hell. Sherlock Holmes is everywhere these days — and yes, I consider Sherlock Holmes a pulp character. To me, the golden age of the pulps begins with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his Holmes and Challenger characters, and ends with Ian Fleming and his famous creation, James Bond.

Most pulp adaptations, successful or otherwise, share one thing in common — they are period pieces. This year’s The Legend of Tarzan film, for example, is set after the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885. The 1994 film version of The Shadow was set shortly after the first World War.

tarzan-in-manhattan

Attempts to modernize the pulps usually come across as, well, ludicrous. Tarzan in Manhattan, I’m looking at you.

Frankly, I think that’s a key part of the charm of the old pulp hero stories. They are relics of a time past. Something about that very inaccessibility makes suspension of disbelief easier somehow. You can kind of believe, almost, that Tarzan was raised my jungle apes, or that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger could find dinosaurs in a mysterious lost world in South America … when those stories are set in decades long past.

In the days of Google Earth, we know, all too well, that there are no more hidden plateaus or lost cities of gold in the deepest jungles. We live in a world where mysteries are vanishing.

Indeed, attempts to modernize the pulps never really seem to work. Moving Tarzan from the jungles of the late 1800s to, say, modern Manhattan, usually comes across as downright silly.

Sure, there are exceptions. There are two modern takes on Sherlock Holmes that are working beautifully … although I have a hard time imagining that Professor Challenger would have the same luck.

doc-wilde-and-the-mad-skull

Tim Byrd has written a very modern take on the pulps.

My pal Tim Byrd has written a series of wonderful middle grade/young adult novels called Doc Wilde, a not-even-thinly-disguised homage to Doc Savage. Tim’s stories are set in modern times, but his Doc Wilde isn’t the Doc Savage we know and love … it’s his son, and the main characters include the first Doc’s grandchildren. So while Tim’s stories are decidedly modern, they have deep roots in the past.

 

But these seem to be the rare exceptions that prove the rule. By and large, pulp adventures seem to work best as period pieces.

Even the venerable James Bond series, at least until the “reboot” that came with Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, seemed a little … out of place when divorced from the cold war era. In fact, I remember reading that the producers actually considered, at least briefly, making Craig’s adventures period pieces and returning them to their cold war roots.

So my question is this … can a modern pulp series work in a contemporary setting? Could Indiana Jones have gone after the Ark of the Covenant in the 1980s, or was the World War II setting necessary?

Are the pulps doomed to be just quaint relics of a vanished age?

I ran into this problem a few years ago, when my pal Bob Robinson and I were thinking about developing a pulp pastiche for television. I wanted to make a period piece, but Bob wisely pointed out that budget and audience demand made that idea impractical at best. So my task was to come up with a modern take on the pulps, without losing the charm and adventure. After all, we still have a need for wonder … we need modern myths for the information age.

Bob and I never worked together on that project, but I never let it go.

C_sketch_rev copy

Early concept art for Challengers by my pal, John Bridges

The idea became Challengers, a TV pilot and bible I wrote. It’s spent years in Hollywood development hell (that’s frustrating, but despite what you hear, the process made the story at least a thousand times better). The TV version is still kicking.

 

Just this year, though, I turned the first episodes into a series of novels. My literary manager, super agent Peter Miller, has meetings in New York literally even as I type this to shop the first book, The Secret of the Serpent’s Eye.

So how did I solve the period problem? Glad you asked. Challengers tells the story of the great grandchildren of the pulp heroes. Their great grandparents could have those amazing adventures because … the world really was different then.

Something has changed.

The nature of that change is the secret history of the world.

The lead character is a 25-year old billionaire and adventurer named Tom Reilly. Twenty years ago, Tom’s parents learned a secret no one alive should ever know. They were found murdered. Only one thing was missing — a leather bound journal belonging to Tom’s great-grandfather, the founder of the Challengers, Professor Phineas J. Reilly himself.

In this first adventure, Tom recovers the journal. Desperate to learn the secret it contains, Tom gathers his diverse team, a magician, a shaman, a daredevil pilot, an inventor, a spy, and an assassin (also the great-grandchildren of pulp-era adventurers), and begins a journey that will take them to a lost temple, where they find a key that seems to alter the nature of reality itself.

One of the producers who worked with me on the television version of this story, called Challengers Edgar Rice Burroughs meets Joss Whedon as introduced by Grant Morrison, which thrilled me to no end.

As I say on my Web site, in the era of Google-earth, when we know all too well that there are no more undiscovered dinosaur plateaus in South America and no last enchanted forests waiting, still, to be found, we live in a world bereft of wonder. And perhaps more than ever, we’re hungry for the sacred stories that, like Ariadne’s thread, show us the way out of life’s dark labyrinths.

So like Tim Byrd, my stories have deep roots in a mythic past to create new archetypes in a world starved for wonders.

So what do y’all think? Can the pulps, or pulp-inspired characters, work in a modern setting? Would you want to see an Indiana Jones or Doc Savage remake set in 2016?

 

 

Did y’all know I have another blog, too?

Hey, did y’all know I have another blog, too? It’s about stories, writing, fantasy, mythology, and Renaissance festivals.

You can find it here: http://blackthornefaire.net

The most recent post is about Renaissance fairs, and the feeling of falling into a story. There’s a lot there about communities, too. I hope those of you who follow this blog will take a look at that one, too. I’d be grateful.

Thanks and huzzah!

IK

Book Review: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

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Read City of Dark Magic: A Novel

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

If I didn’t travel, I probably wouldn’t have discovered City of Dark Magic, a lovely little gem of a novel that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box, or rather it seems to fit into several of them at once. It’s part historical mystery, part conspiracy thriller, part spy novel, and part, jeez, contemporary fantasy or magic realism, I guess, all wrapped up in a candy shell of romanic comedy. Unfortunately, that makes it kind of to browse for in a bookstore. If I hadn’t noticed it in an airport newsstand, I surely would have missed it. That would have been a shame.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I'd love to visit. I'd glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I’d love to visit. I’d glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city steeped in legends of magic, a history of blood, and a legacy of secrets. It has been home to geniuses and eccentrics. It is also a city of secrets as music student Sarah Weston discovers. Sarah has come to the Prague Castle for the summer with a team of colorful academics to restore the Lubkowicz Palace to its former glory and turn it into a museum filled with centuries old treasures. There, she finds clues that might finally unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s famous immortal beloved. What follows is a tale of mystery, politics, furtive sex, music, alchemy, murder, a time traveling prince, a centuries-old dwarf, and even a portal to hell or two. Yes, and its a romantic comedy. This isn’t a book that follows genre conventions, it lays them out like toys and plays with them.

Sarah is a delightful character to spend time with, and the Prague created in these pages is one I’d love to visit. Even minor characters are vivid and often fascinating. The mystery is intriguing, the danger feels real and immediate, and the comedy is wicked and delicious. The plot twists in the most delightfully labyrinthine manner.

It’s not a perfect novel. There are flaws; for example: the enigmatic prince’s secret, which drives much of the plot, is revealed in an off-hand way that does more to set up a sequel than to resolve tension. Sarah and the novel’s primary villain, an ambitious politician with a shadowy past, never spend much time together. None of the flaws diminish the absolute fun of City of Dark Magic. It’s smart, exciting, sexy, and laugh-out-loud funny. If you like a little dark mystery, magic, and romantic adventure (spiced liberally with cleverness and loads of charm) in your summer read, this is the book for you.

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Book Review: “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman

Read The Magician King: A Novel by Lev Grossman

I don’t usually review sequels. That’s not a bias, mind. I have nothing against sequels, especially when they continue a story I enjoyed. There are exceptions, of course. I reviewed the brilliant The Angel’s Game, for example. Although that doesn’t really count; it’s not so much a sequel as a related novel set in the same basic milleu. Besides, it really is a special read. I reviewed Robert V. S. Redick’s The Ruling Sea, the second in a series. I didn’t review the third book, despite the fact that I rather liked it—mostly because readers of the first two were already likely to pick it up, and those who haven’t aren’t going to want to start in the middle. As with most sequels, generally speaking, I didn’t have much to say that I hadn’t already said about the first book. (If you haven’t read Redick’s series, it’s worth checking out. It’s a light, fast-paced, fun read with characters that remind me of those created by the late, great Lloyd Alexander. But I digress.)

If you read my review of Lev Grossman’s previous novel, The Magicians, you’ll recall that (spoiler alert!) I liked it a great deal. On the surface, it’s a sort of Narnia/Harry Potter book for adults, with familiar archetypes viewed through the lens of modern literary fiction, with all of the cynical irony you’d expect in the post Bright Lights, Big City era. But it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s a powerful and moving novel about what happens when wishes come true, about power, about love, yes, and even about responsibility. It’s also a heck of a fun read, albeit a heartbreaking one at times, one that my love of the source material (Narnia, Harry Potter, The Once and Future King, etc.) made especially poignant. It’s exciting, it’s funny, and, frankly, it’s darned insightful. I was excited to learn that a sequel was in the works.

I went to hear Mr. Grossman speak when his author tour brought him to Atlanta, and while I found his talk and reading delightful, I didn’t think The Magician King was a book I’d be reviewing. Largely because, when someone asked about a third book, Mr. Grossman joked about writing as many as his agent thought he could sell. Great, I thought. This isn’t a book. It’s an episode. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I've got to say, the Brits got a much cooler cover than we did here in America. Of course, you can't judge it that way.

While The Magician King assumes familiarity with the first book (although it does a fine job of reminding you of the hight points if it’s been a while since you read it), this is a sequel with it’s own beginning, middle, and very definite end. It’s not a product. It’s a novel. And darned if it’s not an out an out better book.

More, Quentin Coldwater (how great is that name?), the main character, grows and changes in this book. Sure, he’s (at times) the same whiny git he was in The Magicians, and you’ll want to slap him more than once. But there’s something in him that longs for more, and that something makes us long right along with him. If the first book was (at least ostensibly) about Quentin becoming a Magician, learning to harness, if not live up to, the power within, the sequel is about Quentin learning what it means to be a hero.

The first book had nods to all sorts of fantasy classics, and the sequel has them, too, with all sorts of delicious Easter eggs for fans of the genre (from the obvious—a winking reference to mischief managed—to the almost achanely obscure—Free Trader Beowulf). The structure of the main story is drawn primarily from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of my favorite of the Narnia tales, but The Magician King is far more than a mere homage or pastiche.

There’s a parallel story as well, one that shows us what happened to another character, Quentin’s friend Julia, while he was away at the Brakebills college of magic in the first book. Her story is a harsher one than Quentin’s, and in some ways a more interesting one, but it provides a delicious counter melody. What Quentin was essentially given in The Magicians, Julia has to fight for. Hers is a gripping and, at times, even difficult story to read. If you’ve ever wondered about the characters left behind, the unchosen, so to speak—think of Dudley in the Harry Potter stories, or Susan in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle—Julia’s story will fascinate you. Julia is the one who wasn’t granted access to Brakebills, the one to whom magic is denied. But unlike cartoonish Dudley, Julia is a character of mighty intellect and grit. And also, alas, a toxic sadness. A sea of depression that seems sure to drown her. She pays a terrible price, but she gets what she wants. But in Grossman’s books, magic and irony come wrapped together, like a bitter center in a sweet chocolate.

The stories intertwine, and their parallel resolutions, which come with sacrifice (from both), reward (for one), and loss (for the other) are elegant and unexpected—although, in retrospect, inevitable. It’s got an ending that absolutely threw me for a loop, but by Heaven, Grossman earned it. As Quentin learns, the hero isn’t the one who gains the reward; the hero pays the price.

At the end of the story, Quentin is a man who has accomplished his quest and become a hero. But in many ways, both literal and metaphoric, he’s lost everything he holds dear. But oddly, he’s left in a good place, or as close to it as a flawed hero like Quentin might hope. There’s a sort of optimism wrapped in his too-familiar despair, a core of cheerful nihilism. A journey has ended, sure, with victory and heartbreak. But I for one can’t wait to see where the next one takes him. When the next book is released, I’ll be first in line.

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Book Review: Jo Walton’s amazing “Among Others”

Read Jo Walton’s Among Others

I readily confess: I am not above occasional flights of hyperbole. Nonetheless, I don’t think I am indulging in it even in the slightest when I say, Jo Walton’s lovely, startling Among Others is more than amazing. It’s a book that’s going to save someone’s life some day.

On the surface, Among Others sounds like a typical genre book. An almost too-smart, too-precocious, too-isolated teen girl, suffering the loss of her twin sister, must find the strength to confront her-own half-mad (at least) witch mother. That kind of synopsis is more than inadequate. It’s almost unspeakably unfair. It doesn’t scratch the surface of the subtle way the story is told, and how we’re not always sure what is literally “real,” and what is the product of a lonely girl’s desperate imagination. (The book provides clear answers, don’t worry, but it manages to do so without sacrificing any of its delicious ambiguity.) The writing is spare and lovely, and the story is certainly engaging. Although honestly, the story is almost incidental. Here, character is what matters. And the lead character, Morwenna Phelps is fascinating. And for, I think, more than a few of us, the bookish types, she’s a little too familiar.

Morwenna narrates her own story through a series of journal entries. Ostensibly, she’s telling us about her encounters with magic, here something more akin to the subtle marvels that Isabel Allende, Alice Hoffman, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez might describe, rather than the bombastic miracles that Harry Potter encounters. More importantly, she’s talking about growing up in a world (here, an English boarding school) that she is in but not a part of. With subtle and and times devastating cleverness, Jo Walton lets Morwenna show us the loneliness of growing up surrounded by others who simply can’t — or don’t care to — understand her, and so respond either by tormenting or simply ignoring her. It describes her escape into the world of books — mostly science fiction and fantasy — that provide her only real company, as well as (for better or worse) her framework for understanding the challenges and complexity of her world.

That latter part, the escaping into the beloved worlds of Tolkien, Zelazny, Heinlein, Silverberg, and the like, hit a little too close to home for me. Like Morwenna, I was a child of the late 70s, and those very same books were my own solace and escape. Morwenna’s reading list is my own biography. Now, I was one of the lucky ones. I found friends like Chris, Jay, Big Squat, Beth, Terri, Lashayne, Patty, Jim, Doug, DJ, Greg, Celine, Laura, Paul … and others that I’ll kick myself later for not mentioning … that pulled me out of my dusty covers and showed me the world of music, parties, March of Dimes Haunted Houses, theatre, baseball, astronomy, beer, and, yeah, girls. And even other authors (like Dickens and Bradbury … thanks one more time, dear Matt) that I hadn’t found on my own. You can’t, after all, live your life in the isolation of fiction. You learn its lessons, and then you have to live out here, Among Others. The others I found, they made it worth while. I’ll love them forever for that.

I know others that weren’t so blessed. For them, high school was four or five years of hell made remotely tolerable only by rare escapes into the fleeting heavens of Narnia, Middle-eath, and Amber. For them, I think, Among Others is going to read a little like a love note, one they might wish they could send back to the child they used to be, that says, things are going to get better. Really. You are going to meet people that are like you and who will understand you. You are going to meet people you will like, and who will like you back. You’ll even love some of them, and that love will prove stronger than years and miles. It’s worth the wait. I promise.

When a book can do that, it’s more than a book to read. It’s a book to cherish and share.

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Belated Book Review: “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke

Read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

if there was ever a book I truly don’t know what to say about, it’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Don’t get me wrong—I adored it. I’ve recommended it to dozens of my friends. But not all of them. I don’t even recommend it to all of my friends who like fantasy, or mythic fiction, or British drawing room comedies of manners.

It’s a massive book, something like 400,000 thousand words (that’s a guess; I haven’t actually counted them). Nonetheless, I found myself enchanted from page one. Magic and sly witticisms were so thick I had to swat them away like flies, and the oh-so-English narrative delighted me. The characters are engaging and well-drawn, and the period voice, complete with obsolete spellings and elaborate, fanciful footnotes (don’t dare skip them!) delighted me. All the same, when I was nearly halfway through, I found myself still wondering when the actual story was going to get started. It had been going all along, but Ms. Clarke, like any good magician, had distracted my attention. Tricky rascal.

Clarke has crossed a fantasy mythology as complex as those of Tolkien himself, or very nearly so, and coupled it with the gaslit, fog-shrouded Britain of Dickens or Jane Austin. It’s a book-lover’s book, not something for the causal beach reader. Mr. Norrell, magician, is out to restore magic to Britain in the age of Napoleon. In Clarke’s Britain, gentlemen scholars pore over the magical history of their island, following tantalizing hints dominated by the mysterious Raven King, who long ago mastered enchantments from the lands of Faerie.

The study of the gentlemen scholars is only theoretical, of course—until Mr. Norrell reveals that he is capable of producing actual magic and becomes the toast of London society. Meanwhile, one Jonathan Strange, an impetuous young aristocrat, decides that he, too, will follow the practical study, and finds surprising success quickly.The two magicians irritate one another equally, but Strange becomes Mr. Norrell’s first student. Soon enough, the British government shows interest in their budding work. Mr. Strange, in fact, serves with Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars, but after finds himself unable to accept Mr. Norrell’s rather restrictive views on magic’s proper place. And all of that is almost incidental to the main story, teeming just below the surface. Still with me?

The copy i have to give away has this nifty white cover.

In Susanna Clarke’s England, magic is a believably complex and almost tedious labor. Her England is a strange (no pun intended) land of omens and miracles, where every incident or object may harbor secret meaning. Through it all, signs indicate that the Raven King may return, and more than one character is more than what they seem. It’s a dense, slow, fascinating read. In many ways, it’s like rich food. It’s delicious, but you don’t want too much at once. It’s a feast to savor slowly. It’s not for everyone. All the same, it’s a book that absolutely deserves a wider audience. There are wonders here. We need more books like this.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not a new book. I’m reviewing now not because I’ve just reread it (although I due, as soon as my to-be-read stack grows slightly less ponderous) or anything like that, but because I have recently found myself in possession of an extra hardcover first edition that needs a good home. Atlanta friends, I’ll trade it to you for a beer. Or heck, you can have it free for nothin’. Just let me know.

In the meantime, please use one of the links to help spread the word? I’d appreciate it.

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Two books (that aren’t quite) within other books

Alice Hoffman’s novel The Third Angel, reviewed here, features a book written by one of the characters. The text of that novel, The Heron’s Wife, isn’t given. But happily, Ms. Hoffman has released it on her blog. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Likewise, Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest (reviewed here) mentions a book within a book called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of her Own Making. Again, the text of that tantalizing title isn’t given. But happily, it is available online, here, in return for whatever donation you feel is appropriate. It’s a wonderful, charming read.

It’s a joy to discover, after the last page of a good book is turned, that there is still more content to discover. Especially when the storytellers have the talent and grace of Alice Hoffman and Catherynne Valente. This kind of expanded “book within a book” content is a trend I applaud enthusiastically. I hope we’ll see more.