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.
Alternate World Recordings was a record company releasing spoken word vinyl LP albums and cassettes, featuring SFF authors reading (or interpreting) mostly their own works. Here’s a magazine ad from a mag published in late 1977 (Unearth, Winter 1978):
Posted by Jesse Willis
The SFFaudio Podcast #228 – Jesse and Jenny talk about the Last And First Men by Olaf Stapledon.
Talked about on today’s show:
the near and far future, not a novel, an imagined planetary history, the scope, Penguin Books, philosophy, the introduction, The Iron Heel by Jack London, a future history, human civilizations, two thousand million years (two billion years), universes => galaxy, man is a small part of the universe, Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon, Doctor Who, 2001: A Space Odyssey, what the plot would look like if there was one, the eighteen periods of man, evolution and construction, it’s set in 1930, is there ever an end to humanity?, Last Men In London by Olaf Stapledon, Last And First Men was popular in its day, Stapledon served in the ambulance service in WWI, plotlessness, period themes, the flying theme, the depletion of fossil fuels, The Mote In God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Venus, Mars, Neptune, the Martians, the Venusians, the genocide on Venus, Luke Burrage (the Science Fiction Book Review Podcast), racism, a Science Fiction mythology, the poetic musical ending, deep time, to the end of the Earth and beyond, Stapledon as an historian, civilizations always fall, there’s no one thing that ends civilizations, humanity as a symphony, the returns to savagery, establishing the pattern, Arthur C. Clarke, The House On The Borderlands by William Hope Hodgson, The Night Lands, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft and cosmicism, the Wikipedia entry for Last And First Men, Fritz Leiber, Forrest Ackerman, scientificion, matchless poignancy, S. Fowler Wright, Lovecraft’s love of the stars (astronomy), one of the species of man is a monkey, another a rabbit, no jokes but perhaps humour, a cosmic joke, monkeys have made human their slaves, Planet Of The Apes, an ability to hear at the subatomic level, intelligence, a fourteen foot brain supported by ferroconcrete, obsession with gold, obsession with diamonds, pulping people, it’s written like a history textbook or essays, the Patagonia explosion, the upstart volcanoes, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, chiseling knowledge into granite, Olaf loved coming up with different sexual relationships, the 20 year pregnancy, suicide, euthanasia, an unparalleled imagination, groupthink, telepathy, oversimplification, we must press on, the baboon-like submen, the seal-like Submen, the divergence of man into other ecological niches, the number of ants in New York, ecosystems, nuclear weapons, robots are missing, where is the robot man?, the over-emphasis on fossil fuels as the only source of energy, if you could see us now, post-humans, ultimately a love letter to humanity, not aww but awwww!, Starmaker as a masterpiece, Sirius, uplifting a dog, a fantasy of love and discord, dog existentialism, who am I and where is my bone?, Olaf Stapledon in the PUBLIC DOMAIN, influential vs. famous, a very different read.
Posted by Jesse Willis
Beginning it seems in the mid-1970s Dudley Knight, a U.C. Irvine professor of drama, voiced a series called The Graveyard Shift on KPFK, Los Angeles. The purpose was to tell stories of the macabre. His broadcasts aired weekly with shows of variable length (between half and hour and two and a half hours).
Here is a list of broadcast stories, with links to audio when available:
Jan. ??, 1974- The Room In The Tower by E.F. Benson (34 min.)
May. ??, 1977 – Upon The Dull Earth by Philip K. Dick (55 min.)
Jun. 08, 1977 – I See A Man Sitting On A Chair And The Chair Is Biting His Leg by Harlan Ellison and Robert Sheckley (57 min.)
Jun. 22, 1977 – It by Theodore Sturgeon (57 min.)
Jun. ??, 1977 – Count Magnus by M.R. James (35 min.)
Jul. 06, 1977 – Children Of The Corn by Stephen King (71 min.)
Aug. 03, 1977 – Compulsory Games by Robert Aickman (56 min.)
Aug. 17, 1977 – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (37 min.)
Aug. 31, 1977 – Silent Snow, Secret Snow by Conrad Aiken (46 min.)
Sep. 21, 1977 – The Empty House by Algernon Blackwood (42 min.)
Oct. 19, 1977 – Armaja Das by Joe Haldeman (44 min.)
Nov. 08, 1977 – It Only Comes Out At Night by Dennis Etchison (33 min.)
Dec. 14, 1977 – Couching At The Door by D.K. Broster (59 min.)
Dec. ??, 1977 – The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges (35 min.)
Jan. 18, 1978 – Suspicion by Dorothy L. Sayers (38 min.)
Jan. ??, 1978 – I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison (41 min.)
Feb. 01, 1978 – The Gentleman From America by Michael Arlen (48 min.)
Feb. 08, 1978 – Bulkhead by Theodore Sturgeon (75 min.)
Feb. 22, 1978 – Gonna Roll The Bones by Fritz Leiber (60 min.)
Mar. 22, 1978 – Sometimes They Come Back by Stephen King (58 min.)
Apr. 05, 1978 – Three Miles Up by Elizabeth Jane Howard (42 min.)
Apr. 19, 1978 – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Fredric Brown (49 min.)
Jun. 07, 1978 – The Ash Tree by M.R. James (36 min.)
Jul. 26, 1978 – The Squaw by Bram Stoker (35 min.)
Aug. 30, 1978 – Batard by Jack London (39 min.)
Sep. 06, 1978 – The Game Of Rat And Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (37 min.)
Oct. 17, 1978 – The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson (49 min.) |MP3|
Nov. 21, 1978 – The Other Celia by Theodore Sturgeon (48 min.)
Dec. 06, 1978 – Benlian by Oliver Onions (44 min.)
Jan. 03, 1979 – Before Eden by Arthur C. Clarke (32 min.)
Jan. 31, 1979 – The Haunters and the haunted by Edward Bulwer Lytton (106 min.)
Feb. 23, 1979 – Space Rats Of The CCC by Harry Harrison (37 min.)
Apr. 03, 1979 – Breakfast At Twilight by Philip K. Dick (41 min.)
Apr. 17, 1979 – Thurnley Abby by Perceval Landon (43 min.)
???. ??, ???? – The Whisperer In Darkness by H.P. Lovecraft
Posted by Jesse Willis
Bryan Baugh‘s illustration of The Dreams In The Witch House is fabulous.
It captures everything I love about this novelette. In a stating his inspiration for the illustration Baugh explains his own experiences, of not being able to appreciate The Dreams In The Witch House, until he had matured. But he also goes on to call it “[an] insane little epic” one “which offers a mind boggling blend of old fashioned haunted-house horror with sci-fi quantum physics and alternate dimensions.
In The Nyarlathotep Cycle, a collection of related stories by various authors, editor R.M. Price wrote this for the introduction to The Dreams In The Witch House:
“Fritz Leiber was right: Lovecraft effected a Copernican revolution in horror by using the fearsome implications of modern science as the subtext for Gothic horror.”
Julie Hoverson, a Seattleite polymath and sometime guest on the SFFaudio Podcast, narrates it for us. A Lovecraft expert herself, Julie has adapted several of his short stories as audio dramas for her 19 Nocturne Boulevard series.
And me? I’m just glad that the twisting non-Euclidean angles of the actual real life witch house, as seen in the Masters Of Horror adaptation of this story, allow me to live within driving distance of Caprica City (where I attended university), the Tomb of Athena (where I went hiking), and Kobol (where I go dog walking).
The Dreams In The Witch House
By H.P. Lovecraft; Read by Julie Hoverson
1 |MP3| – Approx. 1 Hour 42 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Provider: Julie Hoverson
Provided: April 2013
Walter Gilman, a student of mathematics and folklore at Miskatonic University, rents a local rooming house. First published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales.
Posted by Jesse Willis
The SFFaudio Podcast #193 – Jesse, Tamahome, and Jenny, talk about audiobooks, the RECENT ARRIVALS and the NEW RELEASES.
Talked about on today’s show:
the last new releases episode was in October, Amazing Spider-Man #700 (final) is creepy, Spider-Man writer gets death threats, The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond is paleo, Jenny’s research paper on music from birdsong and waterfalls, Jon Catler’s microtonal Birdhouse album, Unnatural Acts by Kevin J. Anderson (Zombie P.I.), necro-maniac what’s that?, the next one has Tam’s name all over it, Chicks Kick Butt by Caine and Hughes, butt not ass?, Jenny is not Harriet Klausner, Jenny’s term “speed dating books”, The Merchant of Dreams by Anne Lyle, the ‘skrayling’ creature, Area 51 Nightstalkers by Bob Mayer, are we worried about Area 51?, Scoundrels: Star Wars by Timothy Zahn (author of the Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy), sounds like Oceans Eleven, “create suspense through problems not death”, Fantastic Imaginings edited by Stefan Rudnicki |OUR POST|, from Guy de Maupassant to Arthur C. Clarke, (22 hours), Fritz Leiber writes science fiction?, and now New Releases, Audible’s Rip-Off! project uses famous first lines from stories, which stories were the inspirations?, The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, Jenny’s review from her blog, “don’t have sex or you’ll die!”, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, Beautiful People by Charles Beaumont |PDF| (Number 12 Looks Just Like You on The Twilight Zone), Liking What You See by Ted Chiang, we are beauty experts, Bloodchild by Octavia Butler (dramatized on 2000X), Kindred by Octavia Butler (audiodrama links here), Jenny brings up The Cleansed apocalyptic audiodrama without our prompting |OUR DISCUSSION WITH THE CREATOR|, be a prepper, we explain Forgotten Realms to Jenny, kinder means children in German, Brilliance is Audible, R.A. Salvatore was a bouncer, The Wheel Of Time by Brandon Sanderson is the last book, A World Out Of Time by Larry Niven (we’ll do a READLONG of it with Scott on 1/20/13), sounds like Spider-Man, Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton, Toby Longworth blogs about narrating Great North Road, like the movie The Hidden, Tam asks for a new world federation of e-media, Neil Gaiman to give up book tours, Tim Ferriss doesn’t book tour, there’s a ton of new Mike Resnick, his Kirinyaga has African culture
Posted by Tamahome