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.
The SFFaudio Podcast #218 – Jesse, Luke Burrage, and David Stifel and John Feaster discuss the audiobook of The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs (narrated by David Stifel) – you can get the free podcast of the audiobook HERE.
Talked about on today’s show:
This Burroughs Guy, The Caspak Series, Irwin Borges biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Blue Book magazine, The Lost U-Boat, the 1975 movie (The Land That Time Forgot), The People That Time Forgot, weird science ideas, evolution, this is how evolution works here (maybe?), tadpoles, the irony, Tarzan Of The Apes, dead baby ape, “And now this creature of my brain and hand had turned Frankenstein, bent upon pursuing me to my death.”, WWI Germans, The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Journey To The Center Of The Earth by Jules Verne, navigating an underground river with a u-boat, Yellowstone Park, lost continent, high tech, necessary irony, a classic story, Jurassic Park, a UNIX system, “Californians, as a rule are familiar with jiu-jitsu.”, casual racism, Japs vs. J.A.P.s, the Huns (the Bosch), the rape of Belgium, trouble with Germans in the 1920s, Tarzan The Untamed, “full German racism”, Greenland, “imaginative idiots”, the frame story, John Carter of Mars, the tides took a thermos from the Antarctic Indian Ocean to Greenland in the space of a year, very outlandish stories, sardonic humour, Luke on framing stories, werewolves, vampires, zombies, The Player, meta self-referential recursive, we never learn the protagonist’s name until the last chapter, Bowen, the Lafayette Escadrille, Earnest Hemingway, he’s no Tarzan, a techno-geek, a romantic flop, Crown Prince Nobbler aka Nobs (an Airedale), Tintin and Snowy, was Tintin gay?, strange lands, X-Men #10, The Savage Land (of Ka-Zar), fewer dinosaurs, Plesiosaur soup, Pterodactyls, Allosaurus attack, the farther north you go the farther you go in evolution, Ahm, Cro-Magnon man, Out Of Time’s Abyss, embryology, “we’ve all got gills at that point”, flowers, “it’s always below the surface”, “we are more developed from them <- is wrong", whaddya mean kinda racist??, "the black people are below the white people on this chart", H.P. Lovecraft, one could call it evil (but fun adventure), something else, action adventure story, refining your own oil, the hero must always find a dog and a girl and exactly what he needs, the damsel in distress is a bit wet, the movie commander is sympathetic, ape like monsters, Michael Moorcock, volcanic eruptions, Baron Friedrich von Schoenvorts, shelling the fort on the way, evil bastards, shelling the lifeboats is wholly malice, soooo propaganda, Prussian honor, who was the bad guy in WWI?, proposed German peace terms if they had won WWI, domino theory, communism, let's head for Caspak, The Temple by H.P. Lovecraft, an incident blown out of proportion?, terror attacks vs. gun accidents, war crimes?, water-boarding, Otto Skorzeny, bombing dykes and dams (not a war-crime because we did it too), conducting operations while in enemy uniforms, Harry Turtledove’s alternate history, Benito Mussolini, real-life James Bond (was Austrian), Skorzeny’s smite, more Burroughs, The Mucker by Edgar Rice Burroughs, “socially relevant fiction”, yellow peril looking dudes, quite adventurey but with interesting ideas, the pre-Socratics philosophers on spontaneous generation of life, spontaneous or parallel development, again with the weird women birthing practices, Marvel Comics, The Savage Land, Tarzana’s racial segregation, white supremacy, Glenn Beck’s planned community, racists believe in races, socially constructed, genetic racism?, the monkeysphere, H.G. Wells’ work, The War Of The Worlds, Burroughs’ heroic heroes vs. Wells’ horrible people, the sympathy is in us not the book, the artilleryman, a bit of a loon, the Zulu, the Martini rifle, one day one day!, Japan’s aspirations, we need some warships, we’ve got to control our own shit, navel vs. naval, it happened to Germany too, “too cold and full of penguin’s let’s take Poland instead”, The People That Time Forgot, Out Of Time’s Abyss, more Tarzan, how long does it take?, Tarzan And The Jewels Of Opar, the Venus series, Jerry Schneider, Pirates Of Venus, invalid copyright renewals, more Mars please, Mastermind Of Mars, permission requires money, the bigger gorilla, Audible.com, Burroughsguy.com, re-writing for less racism, a blow by blow comparison, lynching, The Lost Continent by Edgar Rice Burroughs (aka Beyond Thirty), perfidy, the lost continent is Europe, a black super-state!, 30 Longitude West, prejudices, vilontely pro-capitalist in the Ayn Rand sense, Burroughs loathed the labour movement, the Industrial Workers of the World are the real bad-guy, “women don’t really want to be equal to men”?, deep down atheists really believe in God?, the mystery will be unveiled.
Posted by Jesse Willis
The SFFaudio Podcast #195 – Polaris by H.P. Lovecraft, read by Jim Moon. This is a complete and unabridged reading of the short story (11 Minutes) followed by a discussion of it by Jesse, Tamahome, Jim Moon.
Talked about on today’s show:
The Philosopher (an amateur magazine), is this a Christmas story?, The Festival, Lord Dunsany, The Necronomicon, Lovecraft’s Christianity, religion vs. Tradition, Lovecraft’s relationship to his characters, WWI, eldritch gibbering, fainting fits, Lovecraft loved his snoozing, reincarnation vs. mind transfer, time travel, alternate realities?, neanderthal in North America?, what is the setting?, The Horror Of The Museum, The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, swamps vs. bogs vs. fens, “Eskimos” vs. “Inutos”, dishonorable dirty fighting, The Shadow Out Of Time, Dagon, The Call of Cthulhu, The Tomb, it’s The Outsider in reverse, Atlantis, Athens, Lemuria, the Land of Lomar, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Hyperborea, King Kull, Mu, the Dream Lands, atavism, The Rats In The Walls, “a penchant for strange foods”, Jack London, Carl Jung, race memory, the evolutionary path, dishonorable yellow hordes, the yellow peril, “line up and die”, startings and endings, repeated phraseology, a dunsany-esque story, the Dunsany mode, Edgar Allan Poe, its like an extended prose poem, Silence: A Fable, Shadow: A Parable, Ligea is labyrinthine, “battered by adjectives”, The Highwayman by Lord Dunsany, poetic stories, accessible Dunsany stories, In The Fields We Live, “sinister, whimsical, and beautifully odd”, Victorian magazines, The King Of Elfland’s Daughter, C.S. Lewis, Michael Moorcock, world-building, a consistency of reality, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, lost epochs, “the wisdom of the Zobnarrian Fathers”, “bubble and blaspheme”, the alien outer gods, Lovecraft’s interest in astronomy, Charles Wain (aka the plow, aka the big dipper), mapping the skies, messages and impressions, Arcturus, Cassiopeia, Aldebaran, Philip K. Dick, “the world is alive”, a leering star, astrological time, if the seeing is good…, Lovecraft’s desire to be an astronomer, Lovecraft’s formal education.
Posted by Jesse Willis
The SFFaudio Podcast #175 – The Outsider by H.P. Lovecraft, read by Wayne June. This is a complete and unabridged reading of the short story (19 minutes) followed by a discussion of it. Participants in the discussion include Jesse, Julie Hoverson and Fred Godsmark of Audio Realms.
Talked about on today’s show:
the greatest audiobook narrator of H.P. Lovecraft stories ever (Wayne June), you fall in love with this story in high school, it blew Julie’s mind, Fred read The Outsider early, Algernon Blackwood, horror, re-read or re-listen, Julie’s oblique audio drama adaptation, is the main character female?, we’re all outsiders, filming The Outsider, The View From Within, The Lovecraft Five (includes Richard Pickman and C. Auguste Dupin), born and raised in a tomb, zombie or revenant or disfigured person, he’s a rotty person in need of love, Edgar Allan Poe, how could you film it?, The Sixth Sense, the wonderful ambiguity, The Temple by H.P. Lovecraft, “Castle Arrgh”, The Dark Worlds Of H.P. Lovecraft, Volume 3, The Horror At Red Hook, Herbert West: Re-Animator, The Statement Of Randolph Carter, the comedic musical stage play of Herbert West: Re-Animator, Evil Dead: The Musical, Evil Dead 2, Wayne June is a treasure, Michael Moorcock, Blood Memories, Gene Simmons, The Dunwich Horror and The Call Of Cthulhu, Johnny Winter, Ghoul by Brian Keene, AudioRealms.com, Castaways, The Rising, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Gathering Of Crows, Roanoke, “CROATOAN”, the incredibly reader Jenny Colvin, long staircases in The Outsider go up and the The Rats In The Walls they go down, a metaphorical reading, The Crawling Chaos, The Evil Clergyman (aka The Wicked Clergyman), engagement with the imagination, T.E.D. Klein, S.T. Joshi, we’re not in the know, 4 track recorder, Fred fell into the audio business, amateur vs. professional, reverb diaper pail, toilet echo, spoken word LPs, Caedmon, David McCallum, growing up vs. growing old, YouTube is incredible, Julie’s adaptation of The Temple, paranormal romance, The Dunwich Horror, Dean Stockwell, Lavinia’s not crazy, fathering the child of an elder god may or may not drive you crazy, “oh no I’ve discovered I’m related to fish-men”, The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Robert E. Howard, Lair Of The White Worm by Bram Stoker, The Dark Worlds Of H.P. Lovecraft, Volume 1 is a consistent best seller, The Double Shadow by Clark Ashton Smith, The Empty House, The Whisperer In Darkness, August Derleth, People Of The Dark, The Haunter Of The Ring, DarkRealmsAudio.com, Twitter, an hour per minute of finished audio, recording in your living-room, Dracula, Donald Pickering, Jack London, adding hiss, room tone, put noise in?, The Yellow Wallpaper.
Posted by Jesse Willis
The first time I read Philip K. Dick’s The Skull, it took me a couple of attempts to really get into it. But with PKD you out to give it a couple of good attempts. So I kept trying. Reading along with the text helped, and after about 150 words or so I could manage the story without the extra textual assistance. I guess this is one of those stories that doesn’t translate to audio that well. That said, once I did get into it it I did find it worthwhile. The Skull is a time travel story that makes a nice companion piece to Michael Moorcock’s Behold The Man. It’s about a future criminal who goes on a mission to kill a religious revolutionary from the 1960s.
By Philip K. Dick; Read by Gregg Margarite
1 |MP3| – Approx. 50 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Published: November 01, 2009
Conger agreed to kill a stranger he had never seen. But he would make no mistakes because he had the stranger’s skull under his arm. From If Worlds of Science Fiction, September 1952.
Recently a friend pointed out a 1962 French short film, done in photomontage style, called La Jetée. It’s nicely comparable and totally French:
Posted by Jesse Willis
The SFFaudio Podcast #166 – TOPIC: SFF FORMS (Short Story, Novella, Novellete, Novel, Fix-up, Trilogy, World)
Science Fiction Forms: Short Story, Novella, Fix-Up, Novel, Trilogy, and World. Respectively, they might be exemplified thus: Short Story (“Mars Is Heaven!“), Novella (“Flowers for Algernon“), Fix-Up (The Martian Chronicles, which contains a revised version of “Mars Is Heaven!” or The Seedling Stars, Accelerando, and Beggars In Spain, all of which began as novellas), Novel (originals, like 1984, and derivatives like Flowers for Algernon or Varley’s novel Millennium coming from his short story “Air Raid“), Trilogy (original Foundation series), World (the ultimate Foundation world or Heinlein’s Future History [shared with others] or Banks’s Culture or LeGuin’s Hainish series [created just for the authors, but let's not forget about fan fiction]). What are the special challenges and rewards in reading and writing in these diverse forms? What special challenges or rewards attend on reusing material in another form? Is the formal plasticity of SF unique among literary genres?
Talked about on today’s show:
Eric’s suggestion, literature with a capital “L”, The Dead by James Joyce, The Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Luke’s Science Fiction Book Review Podcast, the format, the themes, the variability of short story form, the feghoot, Day Million by Frederik Pohl, Accelerando, Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang, The Tower Of Babel, stripped away vs. embellished to the nth degree, Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Understand by Ted Chiang, The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat, fantasy, the unexplicit story, valid reactions, the etymology of “text”, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, a persuasive existential journey, The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, San Fransisco, short stories as objects of frivolity or training, the brilliance of an idea is not always enough, a novel can act as a community to an individual, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury vs. The Fireman by Ray Bradbury, is the novel inherently more participatory than a short story?, the failure of technology vs. the power of nature, The Masque Of The Red Death, teaching Science Fiction with short stories and novels, The Science Fiction Hall Of Fame (Volume 1), the composite novel, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, A.E. van Vogt, the fix-up, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Accelerando by Charles Stross, Lobsters by Charles Stross, the cat changes function, “an intellectual framework”, Robert A. Heinlein’s future history, the composite novel, Isaac Asimov, future history vs. psychohistory, Michael Moorcock, I, Robot, Robbie, the three laws, Stephen Byerly and Susan Calvin, unAsimovian assumptions, the full dose of SF, Reason, The Evitable Conflict, is Stephen Byerly a robot or a man?, the Mérode Altarpiece (a medieval iconographic trope), art history, Luke doesn’t think Asimov is that clever, R. Daneel Olivaw, the three laws are fairytale laws, positronic brains are positive, the three laws are for people (not just robots), The Bicentennial Man, Asimov’s powers, Asimov’s business acumen, Brandon Sanderson, shared worlds, gods, Mormonism, Daniel Clowes, The Death Ray, Elantris, “The Alexandria Quartet” by Lawrence Durrell, reading The Martian Chronicles backwards, Luke’s fiction, Alastair Reynolds, Sherlock Holmes, Baker Street Irregulars, whodunit ain’t the attraction, The Adventure Of The Speckled Band, a matter of cutting, A Clockwork Orange, it’s better without the extra chapter, the commercial effect (or the effect of commercialism), popular literature, the flabby novel, Robert J. Sawyer, Hominids, Calculating God, William Shakespeare, The Royal Ontario Museum, horse evolution, God needs a starship!?, where to find a paleontologist, “a hundred pages of nothing happening”, a circular argument, writing to the story’s demands, Kevin J. Anderson, commercial constraints shouldn’t be points of pride, the thickness of books, The Lord Of The Rings, does more succinct = more better?, novellas are novels with threads missing?, The Hobbit, the ambition of the author, Luke is rejecting the basic premise, The Stand by Stephen King, is it a better story short or long?, changes and updates and additional material, don’t let Asimov near a typewriter unless you want something written, Against The Fall Of Night by Arthur C. Clarke, The City And The Stars, expanding everything, Monster Story, “it came to me in a dream”, Minding Tomorrow, Nightfall (the short story) vs. Nightfall (the novel), “it’s a lot like a perfectly nice novel that eventually becomes a masterpiece”, The Lion of Comarre, it’s not a commercial podcast, a civil rowdiness, Eric’s Coursera course: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, rechunking, forums, essays, 18,000 registered students, University of Michigan, only the competitors are qualified to judge the competitors, a history of the U.S. Civil War, Luke’s kitchen, grades, “there is no absolute abstract grade for anything”, Science Fiction and Politics (Courtney Brown), the governor of a steam engine, Luke confuses two professors, “yes, by golly, that was a very good thing of it’s kind”, The Odyssey by Homer, a foundational classic, The Bible, the Benjamin Franklin bible, there should be an SFBRP review of The Odyssey, Luke’s Matthew Mark Luke Skywalker, Star Wars, Joseph Campbell, time for coffee!
Posted by Jesse Willis