Now if you're anything like me, the thought of some mucking about with a magic sword, crossing words with greybeard wizards and ducking blasts of dragon-fire holds a deep and long-lasting appeal. Yes, we've all set off with Frodo and Sam many a time now, shadowed Conan as he pillages the Tower of the Elephant on more than one occasion, can sing along with the daemonic howls of Stormbringer, and know the streets of Lankhmar and Anhk-Morpork by heart. Furthermore, I'm also guessing that I'm not the only one who has spent a great many hours exploring perilous dungeons, tumbling through the shady streets of thieves' dens, looting forgotten temples and walloping assorting monsters with a variety of medieval weapons, either through the arcane rituals of miniatures and dice or the weaving of code and pixel.
However here's the rub, I'm also guessing that despite devouring the collected works of luminaries such as Tolkien, Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock, you generally give the heaving fantasy shelves in your local book-store a miss, at least until the next volume of George RR Martin's modern classic A Song of Ice and Fire comes along. And why is this? Well, because we've all been burned too often in the past by bloated fantasy epics, titanic series of books that go steadily downhill and yet insist on adding trilogy after trilogy to the sequence until A) carrying the complete collection would give a Frost Giant a hernia and B) you'd happily side with the Dark Evil Overlord just to stomp that stupid green and pleasant kingdom flat.
Yes, it's a regrettable legacy of Tolkien, that so many fantasy authors seem to think that not only it is mandatory to pen a trilogy but try to trump old JRR and churn out something five times longer. And this has always struck me as somewhat odd, for the other great heroes of fantasy, Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser have flourished in sequences of shorter self-contained works like novellas and short stories. And indeed for fantastic and weird fiction of all flavours, the days when short stories and novellas were served up by a host of magazines and periodicals, from the Victorian penny dreadfuls to the pulps through to cheap paperback boom of the mid 20th century, were a golden age when many of the classics of fantasy, horror, and scifi were penned.
Of course, partly the current state of affairs is to do with the mechanics of modern publishing; novels sell but the market for short stories is a shadow of its former self, and as Stephen King remarked in his afterword to Different Seasons, the novella is deeply unpopular all publishers of all stripes. However the exciting digital frontier of publishing is breaking down this status quo dictated by the logistics of print and paper, and once again a story can be only as long as it need to be. But hopefully that's not the only revival that will be brought by the rise of the ebook, for I'm hoping for a return of short form weird fiction, an age of digital pulps if you will, where a host of new talents can spin us tales of heroes, spacemen, and monsters...
...And the good news is it has already begun! For all of you who fancy a rip-roaring adventure in magical lands, where beneath benighted ruins ancient sorceries and dire beasts guard long lost treasures, I present to you, The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel, a deliciously old school fantasy novella from the pen of Jennifer Williams.
Just released for the Kindle, and any electrickery such as your PC or phone that can pretend it's a Kindle, The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel is the perfect antidote to all those tedious multi-book less-than-epics. There's no pages of greybeards waffling on, no garrulous wizards who spend all their time yapping rather hurling spells, and no reams of charts, genealogies and glossaries you need to flip through every five minutes just in order to work out whose doing something to someone else some where else. Instead we have a proper fantasy adventure, packed with action and wit, where a motley crew embark on an extremely hazardous bout of dungeoneering in the edifice of the title.
It's a proudly pulp caper, and I mean that as a high compliment - a tightly crafted tale that effortlessly carries you away to a land that never was where arcane adventures dwell, delivering the kind of fantastic thrills that so many of the elephantine endless tomes of modern fantasy are so sorely lacking. It's exciting and well paced, steering well clear of both the ponderous and the twee, serving up a slice of gritty and dynamic questing And it's not just on the action front where this story has the edge on its thousand paged brothers.
To begin with we have characters who talk naturally rather than sounding like a bunch of hams who didn't get into the Royal Shakespeare company. And unlike the massed ranks of fantasy ciphers who are always po-facedly pouting thees and thous, this bunch banter and bicker, even cracking a joke or two and ribbing each other, lightening the dangerous darkness they are descending into in a very human fashion.
But also our lead characters in The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel aren't the usual virtually super-powered fantasy heroes; much like Mr Fritz Leiber's heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser of his Lankhmar stories, our not-so merry band come across as real people rather than pumped up stereotypes, complete with quirks, flaws and their own individual reasons for adventuring into the dangerous depths of the labyrinthine ruins of the Citadel.
Furthermore this fascinating band inhabit a concisely sketched but believable fantasy world. The world of The Copper Promise isn't the usual tired old pleasant lands menaced by dodgy monstrous foreigners from over the nearby mountains. Instead we have a medieval world of city states and kingdoms caught up in a more realistic march of history i.e. just getting on business of developing their civilisations. And most refreshingly these newly imagined lands that names like Creos and Crosshaven, that sound geographically authentic, rather than the usual failed attempts at exotica that read like random selections from a Scrabble bag. We don't get to see much of this world in this particular story, but there are hints and tantalizing details aplenty to build landscapes in the mind.
Finally it has to be said that The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel is beautifully written. Again Williams agilely steps over the usual fantasy pitfall of writing in a mock archaic idiom, and keeps her prose tight but evocative, and sporting an very distinctive and entertaining turn of phrase. But don't take my word for it, check out this illustrative excerpt -
The passageway was narrow, the steps uneven, the walls damp. Gallo brushed his free hand against the stones and his fingers came away covered in a thin green slime. Ahead there was a darkness as deep and complete as anything he had ever seen; it was like a solid thing, so that he almost feared to go too quickly lest he hit his head on it.
As you have probably gathered, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this little novella. And I'm certainly looking forward to a second adventure in the world of The Copper Promise; indeed the tale ends not quite on a cliff-hanger but at point where it's clear there is more to come. For this is but the first in a quartet of novellas that will link together, with the second instalment coming in February all going well.
The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel scratched a fantasy itch I've had for a long time - to read a tale of high adventure and sword and sorcery in the classic pulp vein, a story free of the usual cut-and-paste borrowings from Tolkien and D&D. Hence there are no Dark Lords with the clichéd hordes of goblin analogues and no bloody elves waving twigs and crystals about like medieval New Agers. Instead we have split blood and death in the shadows, treachery and torture, thrills and spills, and more than a twist or two along the way. It simply packed with all the fun, excitement and intrigue you want from an old school fantasy adventure.
And the wonderful thing is that thanks to the marvels of this age of digital downloads and electronic-librariums, this fine tale will only set you back a mere £2.99 - around the same price as a cup of franchise coffee or a chain pub pint! Seriously how can you resist! In a couple of clicks time, you too could be venturing into the perilous dark...
Buy The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel here
You read a preview extract of The Copper Promise here
And check out Jennifer's blog here
JIM MOON, 27th December 2011