More Thomas Burnett Swann – Day of the Minotaur

day of the minotaur

Clockwise from Center: Eunostos the Minotaur, some random Panisci, probably Amber the Bee Queen, Thea the half-beast Cretan princess, a blue monkey, and either Chiron or Moschus.

I recently snatched up a stray Swann paperback at the library’s overstock outlet store / art cafe and got around to reading it this week.

I’ve ranted at length about how much I enjoy Swann, particularly Cry Silver Bells, another of his minotaur stories.

Day of the Minotaur is another cozy fantasy romance set on Crete; the island faces Achaean invasion, leading to the half-beast children of the king being forced into exile in the wilds of the island’s interior. All of Swann’s hallmarks are there, though some of the characters come across as a little thin [Cry Silver Bells, a prequel to Day of the Minotaur, fleshes out characters like Zoe and Moschus more, so reading this after having read CSB everyone came off a little strange].

But we’re given our share of monster boys and monster girls, touching romance and bromance, and the tragedy of the ever-retreating magic from the world.

One thing I’ve noticed about a lot Swann’s books is that Ace’s packaging for them are, well, odd and sometimes promise things that aren’t exactly there or might disappoint someone unfamiliar with the sort of stories Swann actually writes.

The tagline “They fought at Time’s dawn for the world of today”? I… I don’t even know what that means, but it takes very loosey-goosey interpretation to arrive at anything close to that from the story therein.

Another thing is the forced Tolkien comparison on the back of the book.

It’s interesting that for how hard Ace pushed Swann as “like Tolkien”, not only are his books very un-Tolkienian in most known senses, but he apparently had not read much Tolkien. In fact, in the one interview published, Swann claims to have only ever read The Hobbit.

Where they are similar, however, is the whimsical portrayal of the pastoral; Tolkien’s Shire and Swann’s pagan realms of fae share a magic that is made more precious by their inevitable decline and disappearance in the face of modernity.

Of course, no one thinks of that as being “Tolkienian” these days. Tolkienian means big sprawling worlds, huge battles, wars against darklords, etc. None of which you’ll find in Swann–a common complaint against him–as he wrote cozy pastoral romances

With the everpresent question of “just how influential was Tolkien really” on fantasy, it’s worth noting that it was being referred to as Tolkienian (or rather ‘like Tolkien/in the vein of Tolkien’) at a time before what was understood to be “Tolkienian” had taken shape. Even before “Tolkienian” fantasy took hold, Tolkien was becoming a marketing buzz-word in the 60s paperback world. Similarly Zebra slapped Tolkien’s name on Adrian Cole’s Sword & Planet stories in the early 70s. While Tolkien’s writing influence may not have been all over SFF in the 60s and early 70s, his name had huge market weight in the wake of the illicit LOTR paperbacks.

The fantasy of Swann is more like that of Dunsany, though this is incidental in that they were both drawing from a common mythical well (Swann’s writing and narrative styles are not particularly Dunsanian, though the theme of magic’s retreat is found in much of both writers’ works).

Finally, I’ll add that for those of our friends who have expressed that while they like stuff like Monster Musume in theory, they’re not actually into lewd stuff and bad oppai jokes: y’all need to be reading Swann. He’s got you covered in the monster girl department. Harpies, Sphinxes, Dryads, Tritons, goat-girls, bear-girls, bee-girls, dolphin-girls….

Also, knowing that A.A. Milne is one of Swann’s favorite authors and influences makes the snacky bear-girl in this that much more pureTM.

 

Sexy Minotaur Best Friend – Index Card D&D Character Class

Hit Dice: 1d12 + 8 HP at 1st Level

AC:10 or by armor

Dmg: 1d8 or by weapon

Ability: May block any hit on another PC

Level Up: Blocks number of hits x current level that would otherwise kill the intended target.

+1 ATT, +1HD per level

cry silver bells

This character class was inspired by the title character of Thomas Burnett Swann’s novel Cry Silver Bells. Everyone loves Silver Bells and would do anything for him because they know that he would do anything for them. In Cry Silver Bells, a thief and a courtesan have fled from Egypt to Crete after their parents had been killed by Sphinxes; when the thief is caught stealing, they’re exiled from the Cretan port and have to cross the island’s wilderness, where they’re set upon by vicious Panisci girls; Silver Bells and his dryad friend Zoe save them, but the centaur king Chiron banishes the humans as well. As the thief and courtesan set out from shore, they’re immediately attacked by Tritons-Silver Bells tries to help them, but is captured, too. The three are sold to Cretans for use in their bull games; Zoe takes Silver Bells’ nephew and a cadre of monster girls to Phaistos to rescue them.

 

My Current Distraction: Zelda

I’m trying to squeeze some reading of my massive stack-o-books in between the short fiction I’m reading for the Cirsova mag and have returned to Thomas Burnett Swann with Green Phoenix. Man, any book that begins with “Aeneas must die!” is bound to be pretty solid. It’s a bit rapey-er than the other books of his that I’ve read, but so far it’s done to frame Aeneas’ son as a villaintagonist who is sympathetic from his own perspective but may be a villain from the perspective of the fey. Whether or not Aeneas can convince Ascanius to chill out and not rape fairy women so he can fulfill his destiny remains to be seen; having just accidentally killed the dryad’s best friend(zoned) centaur does not bode well for him.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been distracted by Zelda. I broke down and grabbed a cheap game-cube and the collectors edition a couple weeks ago and have been spending way too much time on it.

Rebeat first quest of the original, and yeah, it totally blows away the ‘women as a prize’ narrative that Sarkeesian tried to attach to it. I lost my magic shield to like-likes 5 times, had nearly 90 continues and Link doesn’t even get a kiss. Link’s quest to restore Zelda is more of an affirmation of the myth of feminine power (that is magic power, not girl power); only the mystic maiden has the power and magic to restore the balance and order to world. Link only has the power to pave the way for her. Sure, he could defeat Ganon, but Hyrule is still screwed without its queen. Zelda and her connection to the triforce of wisdom makes her an obvious analog for Sophia for whom the esoteric seeker must search, because without her, there is only darkness.

But enough about that. I am probably just an old curmudgeon, but I am kind of hating Ocarina of Time. It’s soooo sloooow! And everything is so damn unintuitive. Even though it’s way less sandbox than any of the other Zelda games I’ve played, I can never figure out where I’m supposed to go or do without ages of dicking around and wishing I could carry more than 99 rupees. It took me over an hour to find the sword!? Adventure of Link is probably the best Zelda if for no other reason that it’s the one Zelda game (out of at least the first five) that you don’t have to find a sword; you leave the castle and immediately begin stabbing thing and having epic sword fights. No rounding up chickens, that’s for sure.

Yes, I’m that guy who thinks that Zelda 2 was the best Zelda, with Link’s Awakening as a close second.  Why?  For one thing, great sword fights.  The battles with Darknuts were hard as crap but super rewarding when you finally killed one.  I also liked that it clearly showed that the entire 1st game took place in relatively tiny corner of Hyrule.  And hey, in Z2, Link actually gets a kiss if he saves the world!

But I was trying to look some things up, and man, I miss the old-canon that has since been retconned to oblivion.  Apparently now, Z2 takes place in the distance past, before even Z1!  Old-canon was a pretty simple order of “Link to the Past as prequel to 1, 1, 2, then Link’s Awakening”.  Bah, it’s neither here nor there.  Head-canon is the only tru-canon anyway.

Also, Angry Video Game nerd is totally doing Death Mountain wrong. You ALWAYS cast shield on yourself when you’re about to fight one of those Axe dudes.

The Weirwoods, Thomas Burnett Swann

I’m continuing to be impressed by what I’ve read from Thomas Burnett Swann. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a fan of mythological stories from antiquity. While Swann’s stories and techniques are the familiar fare that one will find in his contemporary writers of fantasy, he draws from the wells of Ovid and Herodotus to create his tales. I can say with some confidence that Swann has probably written more stories about the Etruscans than any other modern fantasist. I mentioned once that he reminded me of Frank G. Slaughter, but the only other 20th century fantasy writer that I could compare him to is Dunsany.

The Weirwoods is, at its core, a fairy-tale. An Etruscan lord captures a water-sprite because he thinks it would make a nice slave for his daughter; the daughter wants to free the sprite and return him to his lake and his people; she does so with the help of a travelling minstrel and a water-sprite sorceress. Of course to describe it as such seriously undersells what Swann is doing with this story.

3274094

Not really how the water sprite is described, but the artist got the one-eyed bear with an eye-patch down. Did I mention the hero’s best friend is a one-eyed bear?

Swann explicitly uses the uncanny nature of Fey as part of his “realism”; while the cover depicts the sorceress Vegoia as blue-green and obviously some kind of inhuman fish-person, the sprites in the weirwoods look more or less human except for the look in their eyes, fins at their temples, and their webbed feet which slosh and squish whenever they walk.  This, of course, in contrast with all of the historical (and pseudohistorical) details Swann fills his world with.

Though they’re not “bad”, Fey are certainly inhuman, particularly in their reasoning and in their passions. Notions of love and gratitude as we understand them are alien.  Their behavior cannot be predicted by the standards that one would apply to their fellow man, and that makes them dangerous.

Being busy with the zine and staying on top of my other reading has pushed this off longer than I’d intended and my comments on it are far more shallow than I’d planned, but I still wanted to highlight this, even if I didn’t end up talking about the juxtaposition between Urban vs. the Rustic, Vel the sprite-boy vs. Arnth the minstrel, Tanaquil the good Etruscan girl vs. Vegoia the fey sorceress, love vs. pleasure, freedom vs. bondage, so on and so forth.  I’ll just leave it at saying Swann has me hooked.

Fortress Europa & Quick Update

Fortress Europa may not have been the best game to pick if I was hoping for my Dad to finally break his losing streak. Once the initial invasion starts to break through, the German offense is done for the game. Now it’s just a matter of his putting just enough pieces in my way that I won’t steam-roll all the way to the German border. Rather than follow the historical Allied strategy of invading the south of France from Africa, I sent in my secondary invasion force into the western coast of France. Now it’ll just be a matter of getting the rest of my auxiliary forces on shore behind the spearheads of Americans pressing southeast into the French heartlands and British about to push east across the northern coastlines.

I was going to talk about Swann’s The Weirwoods, but there’s a lot to unpack in that one, so I’ll probably finish that later this week.

In the meantime, here’s some stuff:

A pretty worthwhile vid from Liana Kerzner talking about the latest Sarkeesian video.

If you have a LOT of time to kill, Sargon’s Tropes vs. Shitlords stream was pretty entertaining.

Greyhawk Grognard weighs in on the latest OBS BS.

The Dolphin and the Deep, Thomas Burnett Swann

I’m really digging Thomas Burnett Swann. So far I’ve read the first two and a half novellas/novelettes collected in The Dolphin and the Deep. If you’re looking for a writer to read to help step up your game if you’re into mythical earth historical settings, Swann is your guy. Right now, I’ll focus on the title story in this collection, because not only was it excellent, it’s the sort of piece that you can easily take stuff from to bring to your table.

Swann writes I refer to as Mythical Realism; it’s kind of like Magical Realism, but the Magical aspect is the mythological element. While the stories take place more or less on the earth we know, in this version of earth, all of the myths are true. Herodotus wrote without exaggeration, Ovid’s Metamorphosis is a history, and while mythic creatures aren’t like demi-humans in post-genre D&D making up 10%-30% of the populations of urban centers, one might have the rare fortune of catching an acrobat act that makes use of a centaur. The kind of story you end up with is something in between Frank G Slaughter’s ‘He-Man Historical Adventures of Manly Men in Ancient History’ and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.

The title story “The Dolphin and the Deep” can best be described as a retelling of the Little Mermaid from the perspective of the Prince, who in this version is an Etruscan noble. The hero, a Triton, a pair of Scandanavian lads, an Etruscan sailor and a dolphin set out for adventure, escaping slavers, hunting a Phoenix, fighting Harpies, evading elephants, and eluding Pygmies while on a quest to seek out Circe. They learn about love and the importance of friendship, and why didn’t Don Bluth make this into a movie?

When the hero finally finds Circe, Circe offers him her love if he will forsake his friends. The hero refuses, and Circe reveals that if he had, she would have cursed him just as she had done all the other men who’d come before him. Instead, she turns the dolphin into a woman and gives the Triton boy human legs, so they can all live happily ever after as a big loving family. It was the cutest story I’ve read in ages.

Now, I said that this brings stuff to the gaming table. Well, for one thing, it was a perfectly set-up example of a party-related quest adventure. The party is gathered after the adventure hook, sequential encounters of increasing danger must be overcome leading up to the final trial and the payoff. But more importantly, I think, is the use of meta-knowledge: while the characters haven’t seen the mythical things that they’re encountering, they certainly know about them, either from hearsay, songs or bestiaries. The reaction to when they see the Phoenix is one of familiar wonder: Oh, hey, I’ve heard of this thing! Look how awesome it is that we’ve found it. That’s the same sort of feeling that your players have when you throw things against them that they may have heard of but haven’t encountered. That outside player knowledge is NOT a bad thing. Some DMs will fret if players are familiar with certain exotic monsters and their abilities and worry that somehow this outside player knowledge will somehow ruin the encounter. The opposite is true. Outside player knowledge of monsters is similar to these adventurers’ knowledge of the Phoenix, the Harpies or the Pygmies: even though they haven’t experienced these things first-hand, they are well aware of them. Just like in Swann’s stories, D&D takes place in a world where all the myths may be true. Your character may not have seen this or that monster before, but there’s a decent chance they may have heard of it. And knowing about it doesn’t make the wonder of seeing it any less. In fact, it may increase it!

Players will feel rewarded by either having their expectations met or even subverted. In a recent AD&D game, the party was pitted against a Cockatrice that had been plaguing an encampment of elves. We’re all pretty familiar with Cockatrices from mythology, so we had our expectations: we were going to get our shit ruined! Once we fought it, though, we felt that the Cockatrice wasn’t much more than an angry chicken. “Feared Cockatrice? This is what plagued you? Ha!” We felt awesome! Did our outside knowledge ‘ruin’ the encounter? On the contrary, I think it made it better.

Going back to the story, The Dolphin and the Deep is all about expectations and subversion or affirmation of those expectations. Outside knowledge is not the be-all end-all, because sometimes it is twisted, half-remembered or flat-out wrong. Even Circe herself asks if she was what the hero was expecting. Everyone has their “idea” of what the goal of an adventure is and what the trials along the way will be. So it’s better to try to play with those “ideas” and expectations than try to shut out the notion of expectations at all, because THAT is how you create a rewarding adventure experience.  Next time you game, throw in a few strange beasties that your players have heard of, maybe talk about a lot, but never actually fought.  They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how much.

Short Reviews – A Delightful Comedic Premise, Barry Malzberg (+ some new books!)

A Delightful Comedic Premise appeared in the February 1974 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

A Delightful Comedic Premise is something of an inside joke between Barry Malzberg and Edward Ferman (the editor of F&SF) that I don’t quite feel let in on, not having read any of Malzberg’s other work.

This piece is written as a series of exchanges between Ferman, who is offering to commission a story, and Malzberg, who is pitching various ideas. The joke is that Ferman wants something lighthearted and humorous, while Malzberg’s sense of humor doesn’t jibe with what Ferman wants. Malzberg keeps pitching ideas for cynical satirical pieces, and Ferman rejects them. This goes on through three different pitches until Ferman gives up on asking Malzberg for a piece and Malzberg has a breakdown.

Some of the ideas that Malzberg pitches might have made for really neat stories; I would’ve much rather read those. As such, I’ll give Malzberg another chance.

***

I just can’t help myself when it comes to picking up strange looking old sci-fi paperbacks. A few weeks ago, I saw this on Goodshowsir.

minikinsofyam

I realized I recognized the name: there was a stack of books by Swann in the same pile I’d got those Andrew J. Offutt books from at the store near where I work. Minikins wasn’t among them, but I got 5 books with equally wild and strange covers for 10 bucks. This bit from his wiki page was enough to convince me he was worth checking out: “…the painter Hieronymus Bosch is abducted by hideous aliens and forced to paint them…”

First, though, I need to finish the Complete Kull.