A Discourse in Steel
By Paul S. Kemp; Read by Nick Podehl
10 hours 11 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Angry Robot on Brilliance Audio
Themes: / sword and sorcery / magic / adventure / fantasy city
My first encounter with the sword-and-sorcery genre came when I discovered Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, neatly packaged into audiobooks at Audible with introductions from no less a figure than Neil Gaiman. How could I refuse? While Leiber’s world-building was top-notch, though, I found fault with his lack of any real character development. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Seth, characters in a sword-and-sorcery novel aren’t supposed to be developed! While I agree in principle that the genre is supposed to thrive on antiheroes like Michael Moorcock’s Elric, there’s a vast difference between making an intentional authorial decision not to develop characters, or to develop them in an unconventional way, and simply neglecting the care and feeding of a protagonist. Of this I found Leiber guilty. So I set the genre aside in hopes of finding a specimen more suited to my predilections.
Enter Paul S. Kemp’s Nix and Egil series. The eponymous heroes (it’s almost impossible to call them antiheroes) are, respectively, a sprightly little man of craft and cunning from the slums of Dur Follin, and a hulking, hammer-wielding priest of Ebenor, the momentary God. At first glance, you would be forgiven for mistaking this pair for Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, or, perhaps if you squint, Terry Pratchett’s Bravd and the Weasel. But where Leiber’s adventurers are often gray as the Mouser’s name, Kemp’s likable rogues flash and sparkle like a colored prism, reflecting and refracting their personae as the wheel of the story turns. And speaking of the city of Dur Follin, its twisting alleys, Low Bazaar, taverns, and guild houses are every bit as well-realized as Leiber’s Lankhmar.
I rediscovered fantasy in my teens through reading David and Leigh Eddings’s mammoth epics. While I now recognize that much of their work was middling at best, I still admire their capacity to write charming, amusing, and at times poignant dialogue. Kemp has honed this particular skill to a keen edge. The playful, good-natured banter between the two unlikely companions will have you laughing out loud one moment and pondering the mysteries of life itself the next. Their friendship is deep and genuine in the way that so many fictitious friendships simply aren’t. Nix and Egil each have their own past, present, and (it is to be hoped) future. Their hopes, fears, and regrets are writ large in the story’s pages, and this emotional element propels A Discourse in Steel beyond the mark of mere adventure into territory that far too fantasy novels explore.
You’ll notice I’ve said nothing of the plot. This is partly because I cordially dislike plot regurgitations in reviews, but also because the plot is, in a sense, unimportant. I don’t mean to suggest the plot is bad. In fact, it’s well-paced, intricate for a novel of this length, and not without its little surprises. But one comes away from reading this book with a sense that the plot served mostly as a backdrop for exploring these two remarkable characters, like set decorations in a theater performance. Of course, if all this emotional and philosophical discussion makes your eyes glaze over, and you just want to read fun stories of swashbuckling adventure, fear not, A Discourse in Steel has them in spades, or hammers. As you can probably tell by now, I am more captivated by the character development, and sometimes felt the plot barged in on a real moment of heart, but I confess that most readers will find the novel’s plot and pacing perfectly measured.
The novel isn’t without its faults. Nix and Egil are masterfully developed, but the book’s other dramatic personae, with a couple no notable exceptions, lack that same fit and finish. The villains, in particular, come across as fairly one-dimensional, even though they get a lot of stage time. Rusilla and Merelda, the tale’s damsels in distress, fare slightly better, especially towards the end, but as the series title suggests, this is the Nix and Egil show. The novel also flags a bit once the plot maneuvers the characters out of the stress of Dur Follin, which as a city is complex enough to be a character in its own right. To paraphrase one of the characters, Nix and Egil seem to belong in Dur Follin, and watching them out of their element, like fish out of water, takes a moment’s adjustment. The book’s last fault, if you could call it that, is that it ends too soon, leaving several key questions unanswered, questions about Egil and Nix, questions about the city of Dur Follin, and questions about the wider world beyond.
The audiobook is narrated by Nick Podehl, who, to me at least, has become synonymous with epic fantasy in audio, thanks in no small part to his narration of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. His bag of vocal tricks just seem to be a natural fit for the genre. He is able to glide smoothly between Egil’s rumbling curses and Nix’s falchion-sharp witticisms, and during the action sequences his sense of timing is impeccable. Podehl is the narrator equivalent of what’s called in Hollywood a character actor. He lacks the star power and name recognition of a Simon Vance or a William Dufris, but if you’ve listened to many audiobooks recently, you’ve probably heard his voice. He certainly does justice to Kemp’s work.
A Discourse in Steel is the second Nix and Egil adventure, but it can be read on its own, though its predecessor, The Hammer and the Blade, is nearly as good. I’m grateful to the efforts of Paul S. Kemp and his creations Nix and Egil for showing me that the sword and sorcery genre can embody both style and substance. Maybe it’s time I revisit Leiber and the other S&S greats; maybe I’ll find they’re not as soulless as I thought.
Reviewed by Seth Wilson.
Protecting Project Pulp No. 76 – In Destiny’s Clutch
By Rafael Sabatini; Read by Samuel Campbell
1 |MP3| – Approx. 44 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Podcaster: Protecting Project Pulp
Podcast: January 20, 2014
“Ordinarily Dragut-Reis—who was dubbed by the Faithful ‘The Drawn Sword of Islam’—loved Christians as the fox loves geese.” First published in Top-Notch Magazine, May 21, 1915.
Posted by Jesse Willis
Talked about on today’s show: [Note: references to the novel are in bold, while references to the eponymous country are not.] “Lost utopian novel”; first appeared in book form in 1979 as part of an effort to rediscover works by female authors; was it suppressed by patriarchy?; the novel launches with action; features Heinlein-esque; the story feels very alien despite transpiring on Earth, takes place in an unnamed jungle region presumed to be either South America or Africa; Herland grouped as part of a trilogy along with an unrelated novel Moving the Mountain and the direct sequel With Her in Ourland; the book originally appeared in serialized form in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s own magazine; grounded in “utopian” and “lost race” tradition of the period which pick apart aspects of society; Heinlein’s and Gilman’s sexism compared and contrasted; “virgin impregnation” compared with conception of Christ; foundation of Herland as a Roman-style slave revolt; “what a world of slaves it was” Goslings quote echoed in Herland; utopian ecology (plants, animals); Jesse calls it “Mother Knows Best totalitarianism”; “intentional Darwinism”; eugenics foreshadowing World War II; Bryan brings up The King in Yellow again; protagonists give threefold approach to women; punishment in Herland more akin to child-rearing foregoing execution; Leviticus does advocate execution; both the male protagonists and the Herland women are archetypical; The Yellow Wallpaper; utopia or dystopia; unreliable narrator and narrative; Jesse argues that there’s “no drama in a perfect society” and the book has a terrible plot; eighteenth-century feminist utopia Millennium Hall; Jenny says the sequel’s plot is even worse; immortality and living in Heaven; no dogs in Herland, only cats; subservience of aesthetics to productivity; “their country was as neat as a Dutch kitchen”; childhood Jesse conflated cats and dogs; cats and dogs emblematic of gender relations in Herland; Herland is a baby-proof world; more about narrator bias in the novel; Gilman projecting her own views on mental disorder into the book; 1984 parallels; The Mysterious Doctor Fu Manchu; comparison to Goslings; why does Herland want to integrate men?; sexual dynamics in marriage; Castle Waiting by Linda Medley, a medieval utopia about bearded women; Y: The Last Man series by Brian K. Vaughan; female politicians behaving like men e.g. Margaret Thatcher; Barbara W. Tuchman and the “fallen tower” of World War I era society; utopian societies lack practical advice for the here-and-now; Origin of Species debated as source of eugenics; education in Finland; education as driving force in Herland; “only our best become teachers”; Montesori; No Child Left Behind; the perils of individualism in a utopia; “fashion and women go together” says Jesse; Jenny shares insights on potential contributions from women in the sequel; a debate on why Herland never took off; patriotism and its linguistic roots; more on the novel’s World War I context; Willa Cather’s WWI novel One of Ours; “trilogy” of novels packaged as e-book.
Posted by Jesse Willis
First published serially from January to December 1915 in The ForeRunner, this UNABRIDGED AUDIOBOOK (7 Hours 2 Minutes) comes to us courtesy of Tantor Media and their collection of “Unabridged Classics”.
Three American young men discover a country inhabited solely by women.
Come back for our next episode (SFFaudio Podcast #243) to hear our discussion of Herland.
Posted by Jesse Willis
The SFFaudio Podcast #237 – Jesse, Tamahome, Julie Davis, Seth, and Jimmy Rogers talk about podcasts.
Talked about on today’s show:
Jimmy’s Synthetic Voices, Jenny’s Forgotten Classics and A Good Story is Hard to Find, podcasts are a house of mirrors, we have reached the podcast singularity, Julie’s podcast highlight feature, Edgar Allan Poecast, Dickens and Hawthorn podcasts on Julie’s wishlist, Jimmy’s podcast group meetup, Washington Science Fiction Association, Jimmy’s segment on StarShipSofa, the value of curated podcasts about podcasts, Luke Burrage’s geek Venn diagram (see below), Julie on the intimate nature of podcast listening, Jesse on the rarity of finding people who speak like they write, podcasts invite listeners into the conversation, “Tam listens to all podcasts”, SFSignal, Sword & Laser, mainstream podcasts, Security Now, ABC News, Agony Column, Jesse wants to hit Margaret Atwood again, 99% Invisible funded by KickStarter, Julie scans the new releases section in iTunes, KCRW’s DnA and Martini Shot, Inside the New York Times Book Review Podcast, NPR’s Car Talk, Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!, Nature podcast, Science Update, Encounters, 60 Minutes is tightly edited (and that’s how it is!), Vice podcast (HBO show tie-in) and Dennis Rodman, Freakonomics, Day 6, Dan Carlin’s Common Sense and Hardcore History, CBC embraces podcasters, Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac makes Seth sound smart, audio drama, the Lovecraftian Welcome to Night Vale, Nerdist podcasts, Twin Peaks, Wormwood, Decoder Ring Theatre‘s shows, Julie Hoverson’s 19 Nocturne Boulevard, Leviathan Chronicles, podiobooks, Scott Sigler‘s BloodCast and Rookie series, J.C. Hutchins, Mur Lafferty‘s Heaven series, We’re Alive zombie podcast, Julie educates us on the Texas definition of “fine”, The Monster Hunters is zany UK comedy (not related to Larry Correia‘s Monster Hunters International), Plants vs. Zombies, HG World (not related to H.G. Wells), Ace Galaksi features Douglas Adams humour, meritocracy in podcast recommendations, “podcasting makes anyone a celebrity”, so does blogging (Julie’s Happy Catholic blog), Seth is the new intern (but can’t afford the Night Vale intern shirt), CromCast discusses Robert E. Howard whilst eating Chinese food, the nature of an author’s writing informs the nature of podcasts about them, H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, Philip K. Dick Philosophical Podcast (not just on Facebook anymore), the importance of a well-researched podcast, Mr Jim Moon’s Hypnogoria, Peter Kushing, Chop Bard Shakespeare podcast, Julie challenges Jesse to do a podcast on The Tempest, SFFAudio’s Odyssey podcast series, Julie’s Genesis podcast series (based on Robert Alter‘s translation and commentary), Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Born Yesterday history podcast featuring an objective history of the gay bar, History According to Bob, British History Podcast, History of Philosophy without any gaps, Mike Duncan‘s History of Rome and Revolutions podcasts, When Diplomacy Fails, alternative iOS podcast apps, Stitcher, Swell Radio is Pandora for podcasts, Downcast ($0.99) is chock full of functionality, Huffduffer creates custom podcast feeds, if you don’t have RSS it’s not a podcast!, Free MP3 Downloader, fiction podcasts, Escape Artists Network (Escape Pod for SF, PodCastle for fantasy, and PseudoPod for horror), StarShipSofa’s Tales to Terrify, Clarkesworld Magazine, John Joseph Adams’s Lightspeed Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, DrabbleCast, different approaches to horror narration, Night of the Living Dead, don’t listen to horror before bed, Journey Into podcast, Seeing Ear Theatre on archive.org, Jimmy and Tam like to support creators of new content (but, asks Jesse, is new necessarily better?), CraftLit is way more than just knitting, podcasts about writing (Jesse hates them), Mur Lafferty’s I Should be Writing, Writing Excuses (Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal), NaNoWriMo, Neil Gaiman on writer’s block, writing podcasts offer writers a sense of community, Adeventures in Science Fiction Publishing, Terry Pratchett “just makes things up”, the importance of writers reading classic works, Jimmy argues that ‘short stories offer writers more opportunity to extemporize and gives readers a sense of immediacy’, writing for deadline, Adventure magazine, Lord of the Rings, Tolkien Professor Podcast, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, the Budweiser frogs, advertising as a source of drama, commercialization and ownership of brands, Jimmy on how podcasts build community, an intense debate about layering spoken word audio over music, This Week at NASA, DribbleCast is a fan spin-off of DrabbleCast, The NoSleep Podcast just won Parsec Award for Best New Podcast, Classic Tales Podcast (links are ephemeral), we all love podcasts–surprise!, Warrior Queen of Mars by Alexander Blade, if Doctor Who were a podcast the audience could request an episode with tribbles, Rappuccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens, podcast production has left overhead than traditional media offering greater flexibility and responsiveness.
Posted by Seth Wilson
Also known as “Stand Up And Slug” this humourous boxing story is told in the first person. Narrator Jim Philips does a great job characterizing the wharfies, boxers, and floozies that populate its seedy Honolulu docklands.
“I do not believe in too much thinking; it gives a fighter the headache.”
Protecting Project Pulp No. 30 – Waterfront Fists
By Robert E. Howard; Read by Jim Philips
1 |MP3| – Approx. 1 Hour 4 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Podcaster: Protecting Project Pulp
Podcast: February 5, 2013
Trouble never troubled Steve Costigan, for trouble meant action with a capital A—and action was what Steve craved. This time it was Honolulu, waterfront cabarets, and—guess what—a beautiful girl! First published in Fight Stories, September 1930.
Posted by Jesse Willis