Sunday, 24 July 2022

July Miscellany and Noisy Sheep Shearing

It is unlikely to have skipped the attention of readers of this blog, but PDFs of In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard Issue One are now available. Do take a look!


Following the suggestion of at least three people, I have made a recording of my recent blogpost Eight Pious Arachnids.  



Regular readers will know that I have written about or around images of fictional Mars (and the other planets). Well, Marat of Red Berries for the Red Planet - occasional commentator on this blog - has put together a pocket bestiary of his own more specifically Martian setting. You'll find Hic Svnt Myrmeleones on DriveThruRPG here, currently at Pay What You Want.

The cover.

Anyway, this isn't just a signal boost from me. Time to put on the reviewing hat. Hic Svnt Myrmeleones (hereafter HSM) is quite a pleasant read. It's doing the decrepit, magic-ridden, faintly-Byzantine empire thing. Now, this is perhaps quite a stock setting by this point - A Princess of Mars is hardly new, and neither are the various Dying Earth properties (see also the perennial Aesthetics of Ruin). But like the young, vigorous, wild, vaguely-Viking setting (see below!) there's an obvious pleasure in seeing it done well. I believe, for instance, that Gus L's Fallen Empire posts are still loved

Time for some particulars. The Thin Desert is laced with strange beasts. The titular antlions are only part of this. Of particular joy are the Spellridden Jackals, Melachilisks and Road Elementals. These make the desert feel like a land that has been worked and used over and over - not just in terms of infrastructure, but in terms of magics, ideas and philosophies. A feeling I have tried (and more-or-less failed) to approach well in The Estates Immaculate.  

The main point I want to make is that I want a bit more of this. A series of bestiaries for the Red Planet. Get HSM and say good things about it on the internet.


I found a copy of The Taheiki in a secondhand book stall, in a translation by Helen Craig McCullough. Its a Japanese chronicle detailing a period of civil strife (not quite the more famous Senjoku jidai, but not far off). Can't really review such a thing, obviously (or it would feel bloody odd to do so).

Still, it's good to see Medieval Japan write about Medieval Japan - rather than a Kurosawa film or an Occidental comic strip or what have you. I mean, it has much of what you might expect: all the battles, Buddhist sects, poetry, Confucian anecdotes and colourful armour (Cf. this [Thanks, HCK!] - not quite beyond some of the written descriptions in the Taheiki) you could want - and more ritual suicides than I strictly speaking care for. Is it rather exaggerated? Indeed, but if you've done a bit of primary source reading before you'll pick up on it. The occasional footnote helps. 

Not one for everyone, I suppose. Still, this is probably easier to get into that Sei Shonogon, and while a familiarity with the Analects of Confucius and Po Chu-I will help, you can get by.


Robertson Davies was a Canadian academic and writer, perhaps best known for some of his trilogies - The Salterton, Deptford and Cornish trilogies. Lots of scholars from Ontario and a bit of Jung. These are not purely comedies, but frequently comic. Good reads: I possess the Penguin UK collected editions, with the older still-life style covers.

He was the founding Master of Massey College in the University of Toronto (site of a Chapel Royal!). He was an established writer by this time, and thus took up the habit of telling a Ghost Story each Christmas. This was self-conscoiusly in the manner of MR James and so there's a heavy element of pastiche in it - as Davies admits in his introduction. It was also for a specific audience and in a specific place: the modernist architecture of Massey College filled with mid-century Canadians. Davies is the narrator of all the stories, and finds himself drawn into such supernatural encounters as may befit a Master of a College. 

It's more comic than scary, and Davies is not immune to a few puns. Some of the more precise elements of the time and setting will have flown over my (British) head, even if I already knew who Sir John MacDonald and Pierre Trudeau were, or about Mackenzie King's Spiritualism. But I still enjoyed digesting these, one a night. Some as the 'Refuge of Insulted Saints' have a bit of Saki about them; some are a little like the tales of Max Beerbohm in Seven Men and Two Others. There's a little good comic malice or grotesquery in here - see 'The Kiss of Khrushchev' or the last story 'Offer of Immortality'.

Not perhaps a proper entry into the work of Robertson Davies, but fun all the same. Wikipedia informs me that this was reviewed in a 1984 edition of White Dwarf - how's that for a gaming connection?


To continue within academic pursuits, I chanced upon two essays on John Milton by TS Eliot. Naturally, I had to compare it with CS Lewis's Preface to Paradise Lost (also seen here). Lewis wrote in 1942, Eliot in 1936 and 1947. Both writers refer to one another in the respective texts: Lewis is not enamoured of Eliot - who had a chance to respond in 1947 and update his 1936 observations. 

Front inside cover of the Eliot.

Both refer to similar writers other than Milton: Samual Johnson and John Dryden among others, along with their contemporary Denis Saurat - a scholar that Dr Jeffrey Shoulson (currently of the University of Connecticut, I think) apparently identifies as at the heart of mid-twentith century discussions of Milton.

If you want to know what Eliot thinks about poetry, read his Two Studies. If you want to know about Paradise Lost, read Lewis's Preface. Given that the one was a professional poet (if there is such a thing) and the other an academic (yes, among other things) this should not be a surprise. Moving on.


An impulse purchase netted me a copy of Michael Scott Rohan's The Anvil of Ice, as reprinted by Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks. This is, I suppose, a sort of fantasy I haven't read in a while, in which a young man gets drawn to his destiny in a far-off land and develops magical powers. It even has the X of Y style of title, in which X = An Object and Y = An Elemental-style Force.

[The Blade of Wind. The Axe of Flame. The Ship of Death. The Robe of Night. The Book of Shadow. The Coins of Malice. The Fork of Balance. The Harp of Tranquility. The Horn of Winter. The Ace of Love. The Plough of Iron. The Lance of Bone. The Guns of the Dawn. The Throne of Blood. The Sword of Honour. The Glass of BlessingsThe Red Badge of Courage. The Elements of Style......]

Fine, a brief end to humour. ("Did it ever begin?") I don't tend to mention or discuss things I think worthless or unpleasant on these Miscellanies, so I suppose you'll have guessed that I appreciated Anvil of Ice. As last paragraph indicates, it's very easy to imagine a pretty uninspiring version of this sort of story. Even mentioning some of the features of the book - barely veiled references to Norse myth, an Appendix detailing 'the Old Chronicles' - make it sound like Tolkien pastiche.

What can one say? It works, like HSM above. The smithing elements are used to good effect: magic is not shown as performed by an instinctive point-and-click or Vancian meticulous preparation, but as a matter of craft. Rather like Tolkien's elves, not that I should make the comparison. The titular ice is not some mystical power; the anvil is not some magical device - the book is set during an encroaching ice age (quite possibly The Ice Age). The glaciers are over there, and even if they are baleful and malevolent, they don't need to be magic to be so (even if they are). 

The barely-veilled Norse references aside (A chap on a horse referred to as Raven? Huh.) there's the suggestion that this is taking place on the Pacific coast of North America. See the map below; note the avian-form compass, reminiscent to me of Tlingit art. References to Thunderbirds also help.  I'm not quite sure how well-versed on the region Micheal Scott Rohan was: he was born and lived in Britain and died in 2018, and his website gives little mention of his studies. Still, it does help steer Anvil of Ice away from the generic. I'm glad not every fantasy is like this, but I'm glad I read this.

Mythic Maps on Twitter: "The Anvil of Ice - Michael Scott Rohan" / Twitter

(Incidentally, I note from the brief Anvil of Ice Wikipedia page that this also was reviewed by White Dwarf in the 1980s. By the same chap who wrote the High Spirits review. Hmmmm....)


EDIT: HCK over at Grand Commodore is running a Play-by-Email game based on city states - including my own Saxherm. Take a look!

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