Here are a few reviews of either genuine classics of the fantasy field or from books featuring characters who have become classics of the fantasy culture.
The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
When I was in ninth grade, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club and got a five-book-for-a-dollar deal as part of the introductory offer. I picked The Chronicles of Amber because it had a cool cover and the two volume set counted as one book. At the time I had never heard of Roger Zelazny, but after racing through the two-volume set, I would try and get my hands on everything he’d ever written. Yet even as I devoured his other works, I kept coming back to Amber. I’ve read the books a dozen times, listened to the audio version narrated by Zelazny, himself, played the RPG both in person and in an extended email version, composed my own stories imagining what would come next, and finally happily bought the e-book versions so I can continue to enjoy them again and again. This is one of the greatest adventure stories in science fiction and fantasy and if you haven’t yet read it you should stop reading this review right now and go get yourself a copy.
Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Amber is really one novel broken into many parts, but unlike Tolkien’s masterpiece, Roger Zelazny took advantage of the publisher’s decision to present the work as five separate books to tell five different types of stories. Nine Princes in Amber is a Who Am I? tale. The Guns of Avalon is a straight adventure piece. The Sign of the Unicorn is about politics and intrigue. The Hand of Oberon is a story of manipulation. And finally The Courts of Chaos wraps up the adventure with a great journey which completes the hero’s growth while simultaneously providing an exciting and highly satisfying ending.
So take a visit to Amber, or, if you’ve already read it, return as if you’re seeking out an old friend. I’ve read it enough times to know that there’s something you’ve forgotten or missed that makes each reread make the whole work feel fresh.
Khaled by Francis Marion Crawford
This was one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read. Khaled is a genie who is also an adherent to the Muslim faith who strives always to live by Allah’s dictates. He goes astray, however, when he intervenes in human affairs and kills a non-Muslim prince from India who has lied about his willingness to genuinely convert to Islam in order to gain the hand in marriage of a Muslim princess named Zehowah. As punishment (or possibly as reward) for killing the prince Allah decrees that Khalid will become a human man and if he can win Zehowah’s love, he will gain a soul and have the chance that every human has to achieve paradise.
This is a truly beautiful tale. Khaled knows
little of women and Zehowah believes she knows nothing of love and is incapable
of feeling it. So they have great discussions about the nature of love and the
ways in which men and women should interact. Khaled tries various strategies to
win Zehowah’s love, becoming increasingly frustrated with each failure. Yet, he
never loses his faith in Allah and his desire to act rightly in accordance to
Allah’s plan no matter what the consequence to himself. For her part, Zehowah
has a genuine desire to be a good wife, but just doesn’t have the sort of
feelings that Khaled needs from her. This is a tense and intriguing masterpiece
from an author I’d never encountered before, but will definitely read again.
Swords and Deviltry by Fritz LieberFafhrd and the Gray Mouser are legends of fantasy literature and it was a genuine joy to stumble across this volume which opened their adventures even if I came away from the experience somewhat disappointed. The book is divided into three novellas. The first tells how Fafhrd left the icy north, the second how the Gray Mouser got his start, and the third how the two met in Lankhmar. The first novella was too long by far, but still gives a good account of the young barbarian hero. The second held my interest much better and made the Gray Mouser by far the more interesting character to me. But it’s not until the third that Lieber hits his stride and shows the beginning of the duo’s feud with the Thieves’ Guild. There’s a lot of action, but it’s their swords against the deviltry of the Guild’s warlock that really shows their grit. Over all, it’s a fun adventure, but a little long and not nearly as great as I remembered.
Skull Island by Will Murray
It’s been about fifteen years since I borrowed a bunch of Doc Savage novels from my brother-in-law and read all about the Man of Bronze’s exploits. Since then I’ve also seen him in the comics but while I’ve always found the character interesting, I haven’t felt inspired to pick up any more of his novels—until now. The idea of putting Doc Savage and King Kong together intrigued me and I found myself happily reading Skull Island but with increasingly mixed reaction.
First the good: the basic idea, Doc Savage coming on to the scene right after King Kong had been shot down off the Empire State Building was great. Learning that the Man of Bronze had encountered Kong on Skull Island was even better. I was quite ready for the story. Having a tale of Doc Savage as a young man before he has fully become Doc Savage was also fascinating. I thought Murray dealt with him pretty well and I liked the jungle scenes and the slow building tension to Kong’s arrival and the great climatic conclusion worked well too. In addition, the chance to learn about Savage’s parents and grandfather also went well with me. But all of this wasn’t enough to fully overcome the weaknesses of the tale.
So now the bad: The first third of the novel is three times longer than it should have been. The sea journey is interminable and I wanted to give up reading. The only reason I didn’t give up was I wanted to see Kong. Add to that that I thoroughly disliked the depiction of Savage’s father (whom I had never encountered before) and hated every moment the character appeared on the page. He was a major distraction from the good things happening in the story. Calling him a horse’s rear end is being too kind, but I kept getting the impression that the author thought he was both cool and all around wonderful. (I could be wrong, but that was my impression.) Finally, the opening scenes indicate that Savage is going to take Kong’s body home to Skull Island, so when the story ends well before that happens, I felt disappointed. Murray could easily have cut a hundred pages from the earlier part of the story and brought the reader back for Kong’s “funeral” for want of a better word. And I think that also would have been the point to give the reader some reason to believe that Kong wasn’t actually the last of his kind, or that he could, in fact be revived in some way back in his native home. The whiff of hope would have made for a happier ending and promised future stories.
So in sum, I’m glad I read the book. There are lots of good characters and a problem worthy of Doc Savage’s and King Kong’s peculiar skill sets. But with some quality editing this could easily have been a far better novel.