Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year!

The year of our lord 2016 saw just four books discussed in these posts, and they ran the gamut.  From far-flung sci-fi to whimsical fairy tales, from full blown epics to short story collections, and from long established old masters to brand spanking new authors, we've already done more in one quarter of a year than most book clubs do in a lifetime.  No doubt 2017 will expand our horizons ever further.

While the year is destined to start off by looking back to one of the all time great futures, where the Book Club goes from there is anyone's guess.  For those of you who have discovered the Book Club only recently, you can read a primer on how we operate by clicking on the "About" tab above.  It's a great place to start to help ease you into the new year.

There's still plenty of room for more Contributors.  If you've enjoyed following our antics, and have the drive to commit to a few posts a month, you can enter the list to select a work that you're dying to discuss.  Or just drop a few names in the comments section, and maybe one of our Contributors will throw you a bone.  It's a brand new year - anything could happen!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Green Knight's Squire

Originally, Swan Knight's Son was the first third of a completed book, Green Knight's Squire.  However, during the editing process, it was decided to split it up into the three books of Swan Knight's Son, Feast of the Elfs, and Swan Knight's Sword because of the length.  Together, the three books are longer than previous Puppy pick Nethereal.  While this is a good-sized book for an adult, catering to the Young Adult market made a case for splitting up Green Knight's Squire into smaller bites.

Splitting the books did have an effect on the story.  The endings of Swan Knight's Son and Feast of Elfs are both interruptions instead of conclusions, and "commercial breaks" instead of cliffhangers. The questions Jon raised about Gil's imprisonment at the end of Chapter 11 of Swan Knight's Son are immediately answered in Chapter 1 of Feast of Elfs as though both chapters are part of the same episode.  This has happened elsewhere in Wright's bibliography, as The Hermetic Millenia and The Judge of Ages are likewise one book published in multiple volumes.  In both cases, I recommend that immediately upon the conclusion of the first book, a reader should begin the next.

(Needless to say, spoilers for the next two books are coming.  I will minimize them as much as I can)

Swan Knight's Son: Chapter Eleven

The final chapter of Swan Knight's Son is little more than a denouement.  Gil returns the kidnapped baby to its mother and earn his the earthly rewards. 

That he so misjudged how his actions would be seen by the 'normies' of the town is unsurprising given the wisdom he had shown moments earlier when dealing with the Erlkoenig, the Winter King.  Either Wright dropped the ball here, or Gil is still learning and hasn't quite figured out how to slide through the Twilight.  We'll give Wright and Gil both a break.  It's Gil's day on the job, so he can be forgiven for making a few minor mistakes. 

And that, dear reader, closes out The Swan Knight's Son. 

Thank you for reading along with us.  We'll see you next year when we start off 2017 with a bang by reading Shambleau.  My exposure to C.L. Moore has been limited, maliciously if Jeffro is to be believed, so I'm looking forward to reading a work by this undeservedly forgotten old master.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Swan Knight's Son: Chapter Ten

This is it, folks, the moment we've all been waiting for.  Gil has done the training montage.  He has seen the elephant by beating an honest-to-fey elf with a stick.  He has earned the right to wear his father's armor and carry his father's sword.  Though he has no liege to serve, and does not yet wear the spurs of full knighthood, he stands strong and proud.

At long last we get to see him in all his knightly glory as he fights against not one, but three trolls in a knock-down drag-out fight set in a large Christmas tree.  A really big Christmas tree, and one with very strong branches even way up near the top.  The fight is a long and brutal one, but I found it hard to follow.  It was a little too swashbuckley in contrast to the grounded fights we'd seen earlier.

Gil is aided in his fight by, of all things, a cardinal.  Again we see Wright's strength as a writer, as the Cardinal has a voice unlike any other.  Even unlike those of birds encountered earlier.

He is also aided by the tree itself, who gives up its life to save that of Gil and the child that he seeks to rescue from the snowtrolls.  As the cardinal says, "Christmas trees are not like other trees."  That's a great touch that shows Gil is not alone in his fight against creatures from the elfin side of the universe.  Even the trees, part of God's creation, will stand to fight against evil if given half a chance.

In addition to Gil's first real test as a knight, this marks his first chance for vengeance against members of the Cobweb family, and against the creature who kidnapped his mother and killed his father.  In this chapter we meet the Winter King, and though he recognizes the Swan Knight's armor and sword, he cannot determine who wears the blue and white.  Though powerful, he is not all-knowing.

And now we see Gil come into a bit of wisdom.  Naming himself the Son of the Swan Knight would spare him combat against the three invulnerable trolls, but would earn him the ire of far more dangerous foes.  Instead of taking the expedient route, he maintains his anonymity.  It's a small thing, but not a minor thing.  Gil's physical growth, and his increasing knowledge, are matched by increasing wisdom.  He shows this trait once more when he spares the life of the troll that tortured his mother so long ago in exchange for the life of the kidnapped baby that sucked him into this fight.

It's a gesture both wise and compassionate, and he is rewarded for his efforts with several superpowers related to the beasts slain.  Tasting the blood of the slain earns him the gifts of hearing true, seeing true, and speaking true - of the last, it affects others more than him.  They will hear the truth in his words.  All very appropriate rewards and powers of a chivalric knight.

Of course, he is not perfect, as we see in the final chapter...

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Wishing You A Puppy Filled Merry Christmas

A weary world rejoices in the thrill of hope caused by the birth of the savior.  Here's hoping all is calm and all is bright in your little corner of the world.  May you and yours sleep in heavenly peace after a long and boisterous celebration marked by good food, good friends, and good books.

What every Book Club member wants to
find under the tree this year!


A Tale of Moth & Cobweb: Pale Realms of Shade

While John C. Wright is better known for his epic science fiction and imaginative fantasy, his short stories are no less ambitious.  One collection, The Book of Feasts & Seasons, links a series of ten fantasy short stories to the days of the Catholic liturgical calendar.  Of interest to fans of Gil's Moth and Cobweb adventures is the Easter Sunday selection, "Pale Realms of Shade", which takes place in the same universe.  Presented on this Christmas day, since Christmas looks towards Easter, is a preview of Mr. Wright's short story and a link to where the full story is hosted on his website.


It was not the being dead that I minded, it was the hours.
No one ever calls me up during the day, and most people decide to wait until after midnight, for some reason.  I am a morning person, or was, so meetings in the still, dark hours lost between midnight and the dawn make me crabby.
This time, it was not some comfortable séance room or picturesque graveyard with moss-covered stone angels. I came to the surface of mortal time on a street corner of some American city, mid-Twentieth to early Twenty-First Century. You can tell from the height of the buildings that it is American, and from the fact that the road names are written on signs rather than walls. And Twenty-Second Century streets are not lit up at night, of course.
The main road was called Saint Street. The small alley was called Peter Way. Great. I was crossed by Saint and Peter.
I smelled her perfume before I saw her. I turned. There she was, outlined against the streetlamp beyond. I could not mistake her silhouette: slender, alluring, like a she-panther as she walked.
“Matthias,” she breathed in her low whisper. Her voice was throbbing music to me, despite everything that had happened. “You look well — ah — considering.”
“Lorelei,” I grunted. She was just wearing a blouse and skirt and a knee-length gray coat, but on her the outfit could have made the cover of a fashion magazine. Or a girly magazine. Her wild mass of gold-red hair was like a waterfall of bright fire tumbling past her shoulders to the small of her back. Atop, like a cherry on strawberry ice-cream, was perched brimless cap. My arms ached with the desire to take her and hold her. But I could never touch her, or, for that matter, anyone ever again.
She sighed and rolled her enormous emerald-green eyes. “Sweetheart, this time, you have to tell me if you were murdered. You have to!”
I took a puff of an imaginary cigarette, and watched the smoke, equally imaginary, drift off in a plume more solid than I was. “I ain’t saying.”
“But you must! I cannot rest until I know!”
("Pale Realms of Shade" continues at John C. Wright's website, scifiwright.com)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Swan Knight's Son: Chapter Nine

Last time out, I pretty much skipped over the second half of Chapter Eight.  I lost sight of it from the top of my soapbox.  Suffice it to say, Gil's mother spills the beans on the two worlds of man and elf, and the twilight world that straddles the line between them. 

As mothers do, Ygraine forbids her son from becoming a knight.  She fears for his life and for his soul, and ending a seventeen year streak of hiding from the Dark Folk isn't a thing one does overnight.  As mothers do, she also relents after a few months of wheeling from her son. 

Which puts Gil out and about looking for some errantry to go all knightly on.  This would seem pointless, had we not repeatedly seen Gil spot some night walkers from the bad side of the multiverse traipsing around through the town and woods, and sure enough with the help of his trusty sidekick Ruff, he happens upon a fey-style kidnapping.  He gives chase and catches himself an honest to badness Leprechaun red handed.  Redcapped, too, come to think of it.

Here again we see the power of Christmas, as the little kidnapper stumbles into a Christmas tree thinking it a Kwanzaa tree.  In the questioning, the little man gives the name 'Thornstab' which, you'll have to help me here dear reader, rings some big brass bells in my mind, though I can't quite place where. In another of my favorite lines from the story, the little man gives away an even bigger game than kidnapping:
Wherever elfs and imps have sway, holy trees are outlawed out and done away.
How very appropriate (source):
Officials in an Indiana town removed a cross atop the town's Christmas tree because they said they could not win what was expected to be a costly lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
I'm starting to wonder just how fictional this book really is...

On this Christmas Eve, take a few moments to remember that the lights we shine in the night are but pale imitations of the light of the world, whose birthday we celebrate on the morrow.  In this time of sharing, let me take a moment to express my own gratitude towards you for sharing these few great books with me.  This blog has been a pleasure only made possible by the generous donations of time and brainpower of my fellow contributors Nate and Frisky, and by the knowledge that you are out there reading along and enjoying my own clumsy additions to the Book Club.

Mele Kalikmaka!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Swan Knight's Son: Chapter Eight

Gil finally gets to open the magic door that has pursued him around the country.  No surprise if you've seen the cover of the book, it leads to an attic that contains a wardrobe that itself contains the armor and weapons of Gil's father - the Swan Knight himself.

Hints are dropped that the world outside this attic-that-should-not-be are either the real world or a fantasy elsewhere, with particular attention paid to one castle.  This suggests we will revisit that castle in later chapters in Gil's story, but if so, it doesn't happen in this first book.

The description of the armor and weapons takes up the swan's share of this chapter, and verges on the obsessive, but it works.  For a knight, his armor and sword aren't just the means of saving his life, they are his life.  They are his identifier, and when Gil sallies forth as a knight errant, it will be in this get-up. 

In this case, Gil's new sword being magical, extra time must be taken to establish that it is no ordinary sword.  Attention is paid to the look of the sword, how it acts in battle, and what it may be capable of.

Naturally, Gil's mother catches him in the act of trying on Dad's clothes and faints.  Once revived, she gives Gil the first real pointers on knight-hood that he's ever had from a knowledgeable source.  She reiterates that Gil's sword is everything to him now and cautions him to keep it always near.  They head for a church where one she speaks one of my favorite passages in the book:
The Church Militant is and always has been an armed ark in an ocean of deadly monsters seeking to sink her and drown the world in darkness.
She goes on to explain to Gil that knights serve the Church, and in a way follow the footsteps of the Redeemer by placing their own lives forfeit in order to save others.  That's a key point that's been buried by the Enlightment charlatans and their modern day heirs who prefer to paint knights as uncouth bullies who hide behind the cross in order to justify their wanton evil acts.  It's a bit of feel good pablum designed to quiet the consciences of those for whom the bleach-white hatted good guys serve as a reminder of their own failures. 

Don't get me wrong, characters like this remind me of my failures, too.  The difference is that my response to the shame felt in comparison to characters like Gil who champion of truth, justice, and the Holy Church is not to shut my eyes and ears and accuse knights of being what they are not.  My response is to accept my failures and move on, to try to do better.

It's for that reason that works like Swan Knight's Son are so very important.  They remind us of the evil that lurks in the shadows, and they remind us that, despite our weaknesses, we are stronger than the dark.  They remind us to push against the dark in the small ways, that we may be strong enough to push back against it in the big ways when the times come.

It's also why the Puppy-kickers must fight to ignore, mock, de-platform, and silence voices like John C. Wright's.  As servants of a world-view that would make rapists and thugs of knights, they cannot abide the light of truth.

And that is why this book makes for such an appropriate December read.  This darkest month of the year, when our homes shine brighter than ever in defiance of the long cold winter nights, it is fitting to take the time to read about a young man who does the same.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Swan Knight's Son: The Conversation

Swan Knight's Son is the youngest Puppy pick so far, having only been published for four months as of the date this post was written.  Like with last month's Thune's Vision, hunting down review links has been a challenge.  However, we found the following takes on Swan Knight's Son, each providing a different viewpoint and voice in the conversation.

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John C. Wright discusses how he created his elfs, as well as the perceived conflict between fantasy's magic and religion:
I had noticed for some time that there was many a younger reader whose mental picture of the elves (those inhabitants of the Perilous Realm, the Otherworld, whose ways are not our ways) was formed entirely by JRR Tolkien and his imitators. Tolkien elves are basically prelapsarian men: like us in stature and passions, but nobler, older, and not suffering our post-Edenic divorce from the natural world. This is not alien to the older themes and material on which Tolkien drew, but there is alongside this an older and darker version.
This darker version is one which Tolkien did not draw upon, except, perhaps, in the scene in THE HOBBIT when the starving dwarves come upon the elves of Mirkwood feasting. When they step forward, the campfirelight vanishes, the elves disappear, and the dwarves are thrown into an enchanted sleep. That is the kind of trick Puck might play on mortal fools. 
But there is mischief worse than these, kidnapping and killings and cradle-robbing, which the older tales retell.
Russell Newquist, upon prereading the first 22 chapters of an early draft of Green Knight's Squire, said:
The manuscript that Mr. Wright sent me this Christmas will be placed next to George Washington’s Rules on Civility, the Fear is the Mindkiller poem, and the “What every boy needs to know about being a man speech” as, well, the lessons I give my boys in what they need to know about manhood. More than that, this story made me face up to my own shortcomings as a man and double down on attempts to do better in the years to come.
Jeffro Johnson, whose work on Appendix N inspired the portrayal of the elfs in Moth & Cobweb, wrote:
Yeah, you hear a lot of people complaining about how chivalry is dead over the past few years. What you don’t see is much depiction of chivalrous people being awesome. That’s here in spades. And again, maybe I missed it, but I can’t remember the last time I saw knightly knights bashing the heck out of each other like this. Maybe it’s the complete absence of snark or irony that makes so unbelievably fun, I don’t know. It is insanely fun, though. 
Rob Walker had this to say about Swan Knight's Sword, which holds true throughout the trilogy:
In this setting, Gil seeks to become a knight, escape the malign designs of the elfs, and protect his mother so she does not have to protect him any longer.
It nicely mixes in Arthurian mythology – King Arthur & Excalibur, the Green Knight and the Green Chapel, the Swan Knight, the Tower Dolorous, the Fisher King, and numerous other elements.
Finally, the talking animals are a nice touch. It’s often hard to right talking animals without being twee about it, but the talking animals in trilogy all have their own distinct personalities and traits. On a related note, the books are funny – some of the earnest Gil’s interactions with the elfs and the talking animals border on hilarious, especially when one of the animals, who usually talk in high medieval style, suddenly drop into modern 21st century slang. 
Finally, the Castalia House blog collected their own roundup of reviews earlier this year, including this gem from Eric L. Norman's Amazon review:
Who else can you turn to for properly eerie elfs, mythical monsters that actually menace and predate in a manner befitting their vile slobbering fangs and soul-less scheming hearts, young men who find themselves answering the call of honor and chivalry and have to deal with the consequences, and worlds stranger and yet more real than our own? Where the lines between good and evil fall not merely into black and white, but slip through the veil of twilight into a realm of shades so rich with nuance and perilous nobility that one can see the sort of twisted creature that will steal a sleeping babe, yet fight an honorable challenge and hold its word sacrosanct. This is the kind of tale the Men of the West might have regaled their sons with, and if the dark tide is turned, may yet again.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Swan Knight's Son: Chapter Seven

Now that Gil has seen the elephant, so to speak, the set-ups of the first half of the book start to pay off.  He hocks a gift from Nerea and we meet a human wise in the ways of the fairy tale realms that surround him.  A mysterious stranger gives him the key to the mysterious disappearing and re-appearing door that has followed him around all his life.  But the bulk of the chapter revolves around Gil finally confronting his mother about his training, his heritage, and his goals.

Earlier in the book the wolf Krasny Volk Odinskyy referred to Gil's mother as Ygraine of the Riddles.  Here we see why.  Even as she grants Gil small hints and clues about his heritage and the danger he now faces, she grabs whole bushels full of information from him.  She uses his desire for answers as a carrot that allows her to draw from him the full story of his apprenticeship to Bruno the bear and his night on Brown Mountain. 

She also forbids him from becoming a knight.  For all his gifts, Gil's greatest is that he possesses the patience of Job.  She won't tell him exactly why, only that there are rules that must be followed, and no she can't tell him what those rules are.  All she can tell him is that he is in danger from powerful things, and no she can't tell him exactly what the threat is, but boy howdy is it serious.  Ygraine might know a lot about building suspense, but she is clearly understand the first thing about how to help people protect themselves from danger.

Francis, the handy neighborhood Church repairman comes up again, and Ygraine mentions that his is the hand of providence.  It's not blatant, but it's a small acknowledgement of the deeply Christian background to this story.  We haven't talked much about it yet, but the folklore of this book owes much to biblical truths.  In this chapter, for example, we get confirmation by way of Ygraine mentioning the three knights Gil fought with back in Chapter Six are descended from the sister of Joseph of Arimethea, who brought the Holy Grail to England.  She also mentions that their proximity to Gil's home is passing strange, but as is her way, won't say why.

To close things out, Gil uses the magic key given by the black clad stranger to open the magic door.  Since the key was given to the stranger by Gil's father, and the cover of the book gives the game away a bit, we can see where this is going.  But that will have to wait for another chapter...

Now I feel like Ygraine myself.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Swan Knight's Son: Chapter Six

Bahr wrasslin’ll put a little haihr on yer chest.  Gil trains hard in the art of bear-style kung-fu for the next four months and comes out the other end so ripped he tears his shirt sleeves off, Hulk Hogan style.  On the down side, he had no more contact with the two-legged and swimsuit clad mermaid Nerea.  Lammas Eve Arrives and it’s time to set off for the dropping of some eaves.  Lammas Eve is July 31, a fall harvest festival.

Before Gil and his cousin set off, Bruno informs Gil that his apprenticeship is over.  Bruno consulted with a man named Francis who informed him that once Gil goes to see the elfs his training is complete.  Francis, Bruno informs us, “was born a son of Adam but now serves a better father.  The beasts of the wild are in his charge.”  That sounds an awful lot like Saint Francis, and given the overwhelming references to the Christian faith in the book so far that seems a safe assumption, but this is a book where the whole point is that nothing is as it seems, so let’s stick a pin in that thought for a few more chapters. 
Of more import to Gil, Francis is a rebuilder of broken churches.  We’ve met Francis.  Back in Chapter Two, he’s the robed man who allowed Gil into the broken Anglican Church during the thirteenth hour of night to avoid detection by the elfs on parade. 
Nerea takes Gil up the river to the local national forest where they spy on a tournament of the elfs, and for the first time we see them in all their terrible majesty.  A long parade of elfish knights in full regalia crawl out of a hole in the ground to meet on the field of battle.  The WinterKing and the King of the Summer Country both desire that their power hold sway over the earth in the coming months, but both have malicious results in mind for humankind.  Which makes Lammas Day the perfect day to fight this tournament - this will decide how fierce the winter will be.
The tournament itself rages over the hillside, and Gil finally learns what it means to be a knight.  Contrary to the descriptions of knights by modern day historians – that knights were loutish brutes who took what they could from the weak – these knights follow a strict code of honor.  They meet in fair battle, and how one wins is as important as the victory itself.  Better an honorable death than an ignoble victory.  This is Gil’s training for knightly behavior on the field of battle, and it quickly becomes a ‘sink or swim’ lesson when one knight discovers Gil hiding in the bushes.
Nerea exercises the better part of valor, and Gil stands his ground to give her time to escape.  He acquits himself well, thanks to his bearish lessons, and this wins him no friends on either side of the tournament.  We see first-hand the contempt the elves have for mankind as they refer to Gil as a, “ruck of common clay,” and a “son of the dirt”.  Despite making several attempts on his life, Gil out-knights the lot of them both in manners both martial and chivalrous.
The only thing that saves Gil’s life is the King of Summer himself.  After a bit of banter in which Gil holds his own, shows his silver hair, and confuses them by his half-human blood, the high king commands his knights to allow Gil to leave in peace.  This towering power commands goes by many names, the one most familiar to us would be Oberon, but for the remainder of the book, he is referred to as Alberec.

This chapter pays off the first five chapters of set-up.  We get our first naked view of the elfs.  No more shadows, no more mists, they are portrayed in all their terrible might and beauty.  Everything about the elfs is almost-but-not-quite human.  They look a bit like humans, but not quite.  They talk a bit like humans, but not quite.  They clearly inhabit a world similar to humans, but not quite.

In short, they are alien creatures.  They live within the uncanny valley, and with all the pageantry and beauty they possess, they maintain a haughty and deservedly arrogant attitude toward mere mortals.  While Gil holds his own in the events depicted, it is clear that his escape with his life was miraculous and largely the result of the rules of the tournament itself.  It's clear from this chapter that Gil has powerful enemies, and now we begin to understand exactly why his mother kept him hidden for so long.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

January's Puppy of the Month: Shambleau, by Catherine "C. L." Moore


As part of the six stories in this short story anthology, a roguish smuggler saves a mysterious girl from a lynch mob on Mars and a defeated warrior queen is driven by hatred to descend into Hell to find the one weapon able to defeat her captor. When Weird Tales published these two stories in 1933 and 1934, they announced the arrival of Catherine "C. L." Moore to the genres of planetary romance and sword and sorcery.

In Issue #2 of Cirsova, Kristine Kathryn Rusch called C. L. Moore "perhaps the most influential woman to write science fiction and fantasy in the early period." Moore corresponded with R. E. Howard of Conan fame, married and co-wrote seamlessly with Henry Kuttner, and influenced a generation of writers that included Ray Bradbury, previous Puppy pick Roger Zelazney, and Leigh Brackett. That list features three Appendix N authors and two of science fiction's all time masters.

But what really matters is her stories. And these come recommended by fans such as Daddy Warpig, Puppy writers like John C. Wright, and Puppy critics including Jeffro Johnson. Johnson has even written in Cirsova #3 that "C. L. Moore wrote some of the best science fiction and fantasy ever penned." Han Solo and Malcom Reynolds owe much to Moore's roguish Northwest Smith, and Jirel of Joiry is not only one of the few heroines of the sword and sorcery genre, she is also among the best heroes of the same. Fans of adventure, noir romance, and exotic settings will find much in Moore's stories to enjoy, while her mastery of mood is something to savor.

It is a pleasure to announce Shambleau by C. L. Moore as the January Puppy of the Month.  As always, readers are invited to read the book and comment, or write your own post if you feel adventurous or have something to say!

***

From the Publisher: 

"Shambleau": Passing through the streets of Lakkdarol, the newest human colony on Mars, Northwest Smith witnesses a bizarre sight: a young woman, clad in scarlet, being chased by a mob chanting “Shambleau! Shambleau!” As beautiful as she is frightened, Northwest shields her from death at the hands of the mob, but alone in his quarters, she reveals how she intends to thank him and what lies inside the closely wrapped turban on her head... 

"Black God's Kiss": With her red hair flowing, her yellow eyes glinting like embers, and her face streaked with blood, Jirel is strong, fearless, and driven by honor. Her legendary debut begins as her castle, Joiry, is overrun by invaders, but knowing that this is one battle she cannot fight, she summons her courage and cunning and descends into the castle’s hidden reaches, where she crosses through a doorway into Hell itself… 

***

Shambleau can be purchased at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Swans, Knights, and Mermaids

Over the course of a career, it is common for a writer to revisit themes and imagery.  It is no surprise that the legends and images of the Swan Knight and his mermaid crush found in the books of Green Knight's Squire appear elsewhere in the body of Wright's fiction.  So too do woses, cynocephali, elfs, and kitsune Fox Maidens.  Over eighteen novels and close to 40 shorter worker, Wright has developed a common library of images that have become familiar to his readers.  At the risk of reading like TV Tropes, let's take a look at how three important emblems in Swan Knight's Son have been used elsewhere in Wright's work: Swans, Knights, and Mermaids.

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Swans:
“Eh? So what do they call you?”
“Serene,” [Rania] said, showing her dimples. “Her Serene Highness. Isn’t that sweet of them?”
 - Count to a Trillion, by John C. Wright


Typically an exemplar of a human virtue, swan characters are beautiful, wise, fiercely independent, solitary, and prone to pride.  Their romantic relationships are marked by melancholy and separation.  Wisdom always comes with a price...

***

In The Golden Agethe agents of the Silent Oecumene, humanity's lost interstellar colony at war with the Solar System, are called Swans after the constellation Cygnus, where their home lies.

Additionally, one of the Houses governing the Alternative neuroforms common throughout the Golden Oecumene of the Solar System is known as House Swan.  The idea that wise Swans think differently from the masses of humanity occurs from the first of Wright's series and continues to this day.

The most prominent of Swan characters in the Count to the Eschaton sequence is Princess Rania Grimaldi of Monaco, the Swan Princess. Rania embodies the idea of the swan representing the highest ideal of a people. She is the only one of her kind, as she is the only human capable of sight-reading the alien writing of the Monument. Like many Swan relationships, her marriage to Menelaus Montrose is marked by separation. Instead of death, Rania's 33,900 light year pilgrimage to M3 keeps her away from her husband. Her return from the M3 globular cluster has elements of the swan maiden/tennyo (celestial maiden) myths, chiefly the robe that lets a swan maiden fly.

Created through genetic manipulation long after Rania's departure, the Second Humans are known as the Swans.  Before the introduction of pantropy to human civilization, a mesh of biological radio antennae gave them wings. Representing the love of individuality and wisdom, these Second Humans live in a mental internet similar to Asimov's Gaia, with neural structures and intelligence as far beyond present day humanity's as humans are above fish.  Unfortunately, their love for individual independence creates a drive towards hermit-like solitude that undermines any attempt at civilization.

Throughout the Moth and Cobweb series, the legends of the Knight of the Swan and the swan maidens provide the framework for Swan Knight's Son and its sequels.

Iron Chamber of Memory has another instance of the Swan Knight of legend, whose horn can shatter all witchcraft and will wake the knights sleeping under the mountain until King Arthur's return.

Lady Swan appears in the backstory of Wright's ongoing pulp serial, Superluminary.  Her characterization is yet unknown.

***

Knights:
Light, brilliant and white, poured out from underfoot, and in the light were motes of gold that fled upward like snow, if snow were made of fire, and if, instead of falling to earth from heaven, snow was received into heaven from Earth. These snowy motes came from lances held in the hands of the knights, who rose to the surface on platforms, coming suddenly into view.

The Hospitaliers were risen.
- Judge of Ages. by John C. Wright


As mentioned elsewhere, the central dilemma to many of Wright's works is how a man of chivalry and honor should act in unchivalrous modern times.  Between that and the many medieval legends he uses in his worldbuilding, knights are common throughout his works, even appearing in his harder science fiction stories.

Often hot-blooded, the knight's honor code and courtly manners restrains his aggression.  However, when honor is insulted or a wrong needs redressed, you will not find a more formidable opponent. He might owe fealty to a king or the church, although there might be times where he will be a knight-errant, wandering between lords.

Notice that there are no female knights; Wright's characters hold in common a belief that the ritualized violence and death of the duel has a negative effect on women.  (Watching a duel will not send one of Wright's women to the fainting couch, rather it sends them in hatred to the weapons of an assassin.  The female of the species is more deadly than the male...)

In addition to their feats of arms on the battlefield and the duels of manners in court, Wright's knights also excel in the arts of romance.  Excel might be too strong a word, for they are not seducers or troubadours that turn a maiden's head with song and poetry.  Instead, their strength of arms, will, and character draws at first admiration, then flirtation. Knights rescue swan maidens from captivity, defend the honor of Fox Maidens from their near-divine accusers, tempt the wayward Nymphs into holy matrimony, and ride forth into battle on behalf of their mermaid loves.  In fact, the one thing more spectacular than a knight is his lady wife.

***

In The Golden Age, all martial responsibility and skill resides in one mind: Atkins.  He is The Knight and Soldier for the Golden Oecumene.  His romance can be found in "The Far End of History", complete with the melancholy characteristic of Swan romances.

In the Count to the Eschaton sequence, His Excellency Grandmaster Emeritus Guiden von Hompesch zu Bolheim of the Knights Hospitalier and his order owe fealty to the Judge of Ages, protecting from graverobbers the Judge and his guests as they sleep in cryo-suspension.  This is a take on the Slovak version of the King in the Mountain tale, where a legion of knights sleeps, waiting for their time. Unlike the Knights of Sitno, though, when a Hospitalier asks "Is it time?", it's a warning that knights and horses in powered armor are about to ride out for battle against you. During one of his quests on the surface of the Earth, Sir Guy tamed the wild heart of a Nymph

Speaking of the Judge of Ages, Menelaus Montrose, gunslinger and lawyer, acts as knight-errant in the cause of freedom while his wife, the Swan Princess Rania, is in transit to M3.  In his youth, he was a Texan lawyer at a time where the Texas legal tradition that there are more men needing killing than cattle needing stealing turned into trial by combat.  While not a formal knight, he embodies the legal responsibilities of knighthood, including redressing wrongs, helping the helpless, and trial by combat - may God prove the right.  He is a formidable duelist, and the wounds he received in his last case spark an interest in improving cryo-suspension techniques.  Perfectly content to sleep away the aeons until Rania's return, events on Earth constantly wake him from his slumber.  While many of the knights in Wright's work duel for personal honor, Menelaus has also dueled to redress wrongs, avenge family, and free peoples from slavery to the forces of history.  When his glass pistols fire, kings die and civilizations fall. Nolite Vexare Texam.

Not only is the legend of the Knight of the Swan featured in Gil Moth's adventures in the Moth and Cobweb series, so are the knights of Arthur, Charlemagne, and the Grail.  Chief of the last is the Green Knight, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

In Iron Chamber of Memory, Arthur appears again, as do many of the same knights and myths used in the Moth and Cobweb series

Knights also appear in The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. Although Rachel's Roanoke Academy adventures are written by L. Jagi Lamplighter, the Arthur revering hero, Siegfried Smith, who might just be Gil Moth's dimension-separated twin in personality, was not only Wright's PC in the Roanoke RPG, but has his dialogue occasionally written by Wright.

***

Mermaids:
She raised one eyebrow like Spock, and for a moment, she did not look like the unearthly walking mermaid, and she was just Penny again, the girl from the newspapers.
-Somewhither, by John C. Wright


When used for more than seasoning a setting with a taste of the exotic, mermaids in Wright's work follow two legends.  The legend of Muirgen, the Christian mermaid and saint, is featured throughout Wright's stories, even in tales written when he was an atheist.  Mermaids also follow the example of the lay of Sir Lanval and entice knights to their fate.  In the lays, this is to destruction, but in Wright's work, the mermaids instead tempt them into matrimony.

***

In Orphans of Chaos, Miss Daw, one of Amelia's guardians at the school, is a mermaid baptized as a Christian because Brendan the Navigator had preached to an ancestor.

In Somewither, the alluring Penny Dreadful is a mermaid, complete with a cap like Nerea's that allows her to breathe underwater.  Unlike many of Wright's works, Penny is human, but because certain miracles did not happen on her home dimension's Earth, her people live as merfolk.  Also present is a retelling of Muirgen's salvation.

In the Moth and Cobweb books, Nerea Moth is cut from similar cloth as Penny, complete with a mermaid cap and humanity.  However, her mermaid heritage comes from the Moth family intermarrying with many cryptids and magical folk.   Mermaids are also mentioned in the short story "Pale Realms of Shade".

The story of Sir Lanval and his mermaid bride appears in Iron Chamber of Memory.  This is yet another of Wright's stories in which the idea that mermaids have souls appears.  But where the Muirgen stories insist that mermaids have souls, the mermaid bride is ensouled by her love.

In the Count to the Eschaton sequence, the Nicor and other aquatic pantropic races of man add to the exotic nature of its future history.  Instead, the forest race of Nymphs, a mix of elf and anime bishoujo girl in appearance, serve in the classic role of temptresses.

Methane breathing mermaids frolic through the atmosphere of Saturn in Superluminary.

In addition to mermaids proper, there are repeated mentions of their conceptual cousins, the Melusine,   These water nymphs are often depicted as two-tailed mermaids.  Wright tends to portray them as a separate and even more exotic race from mermaids.  Mentions of the Melusine are found in Moth and Cobweb as well as Somewither.  In  the Count to the Eschaton sequence, however, the Melusine are an aquatic race consisting of "individuals", each one a pod of five humans and/or uplifted whales (of various mixtures of species and sexes) networked together by electromagnetic telepathy into one consciousness - and servitude.  The Swans are descended from these Melusine.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Swan Knight's Son: A general analysis

As one of our previous puppies, Nine Princess in Amber, The Swan Knight's Son and its sequels are books that were written as one (or so I have read.) Still, the first book in the trilogy can be read as it is, and it presents you with an enjoyable introduction to the world John C. Wright has created.

The first thing that should be mentioned is that the Swan Knight's Son is a young adult novel. It can also be enjoyed by er... senior readers, though, and, in fact, some of the references and themes the book touches may fly over the head of almost any teenager. Nevertheless, it is something that should be mentioned as it is a book that was clearly written with a type of reader in mind, and its style and form reflect that choice. Ultimately, it is an adventure tale, and you will not find many "adult passions" even if they are mentioned or hinted. Sex (or sexual passion) is more or less inexistent, and evil and good appear as functions of a metaphysical reality, not just material necessity or your average human tragedy. As most of the characters are not human (e.g. talking animals) or may not even exist in our reality (e.g. elfs,) their needs and goals are not always relatable even if they all are part of a human-centric cosmology.

Thematically, this is a coming-of-age story set in our world (contemporary America, in fact.) However, this reality is surrounded (besieged?) by another reality that constantly toys with humanity. That other world is pretty much a fairyland-like world, but one bound by the imperatives of a Christian and Biblical cosmology. The elfs, pixies, and other creatures that come from that dimension are not your average D&Dified races (in other words, just humans with pointy ears) but almost demonic entities thirsty for human souls.

To say that the book has christian symbolism would be an understatement. The Lord of the Rings may have a christian subtext, but in the Swan Knight's Son those elements are the story, and although you can ignore them, they cannot be removed from it. The Fall of Man, its redemption by Christ, and the Final Judgment are explicitly mentioned, and they are not mere fluff (although you may choose to read it as such.) 

The elfs and other creatures that appear in this book are not merely evil because they are nasty, egotist, enjoy the occasional human snack, or are evil in any human/material scale but because they represent a metaphysical evil. It is pretty much implied they are fallen angels of some kind or, at the very least, servants of the Devil. Their wickedness is a function of that cosmology, and like the actors in a big play, they have a role to play, and their destiny is also preordained:

"They were born before Man with fish and fowl, on the second-to-last day of Creation and they shall descend into Hell on the first day of the second creation, when heaven and Earth are remade. [...] all will perish on the world's last day and be eternally damned. There is no redemption for them. They have no souls than can be saved,"

These are not mere orcs or other brutes that may appear in any other book. These are child-snatching, shapeshifting, transdimensional beings whose existential imperative seems to be to make things miserable for humans and damn their souls while at it if they can. And I use the word imperative because, as is common in many myths and legends, it does not seem like they have any choice in the matter (not that they would choose otherwise, though.) To put it into human terms: they do not do the things they do because they have interests, needs*1, or material temptations but because they MUST, not unlike a tornado MUST destroy. The weather analogy is not that far-fetched as in one chapter we discover that the elfs serve the Winter and Summer Kings, and their battles and contests will determine when the next winter will come (and none of the parts involved has the best interests of mankind in mind.) Also, most of the paranormal events and the creatures and their behavior seem to be somewhat tied to astronomical events, implying some of their behavior is more like a cosmic dance than actual volitional acts.

*1A snowmen mentions their kind needs to kidnap human women to reproduce, though.

That is the cosmological and moral background of the novel, and although you can choose to ignore it, it is always there. Therefore, the antagonist, the monsters, and the Evil our hero fights are not "creatures" as much as a principle or even a "force." This is what gives the elfs and the other creatures that fairy-tale, poetic, or mythical (or even alien*2) aura which makes them seem human (because they speak and think) and inhuman at the same time. Humans create a purpose by existing, doing, and choosing between options (or, at least, that is how we see it from our perspective) but these strange beings are a purpose which, again, it is dependent on the bigger cosmology already mentioned. 

*2Literally. In fact, there is a subset of heretics in the already quite wacky camp of ufologists that claims fairytale creatures and alien "visitors" are essentially the same beings but under different masks.

In a more formal aspect, the book is easy to read, somewhat short, and meant to be a page-turning. In fact, it seems to have been designed to accomplish exactly that as the book is divided into a great number (62, if I am not mistaken) of mini-chapters. As I have not read anything else from John C. Wright, I do not know if that is the usual arrangement for his books, although I speculate it could be a consequence of how he meticulously plans his books ( he does not look like someone who writes by the seat of his pants.) Personally, I would have preferred the broader classification with just ten chapters, as some of the mini-chapters where too short and occasionally the action seemed to jump from one place (or time) to the other when a smoother transition would have been better.

I recommend reading this with your preferred encyclopedia nearby. Every time you find a peculiar name, if you google it, you will find it is a reference to one legend or another. Nathan Housley has already linked to bigger and more detailed analyses of such influences and references, so it would be pointless to say more about it.

Plot-wise, this book is an introduction that follows the protagonist (Gilberec Parzival Moth, or just Gil) trying to make sense of his weird life, his mysterious ancestry, and his desire to become a knight. That desire would have been Quixotic in any other setting (and, to be fair, it still is a bit of that in this one) but the windmills are real this time and, well, the world always needs a few knights. 

It is the "discovery & training" book, if you will, where Gil finally understands (as much as these things can be understood) the nature of the strange reality that surrounds him, trains and gets stronger (thanks to a hardcore routine of bear-wrestling,) and finally finds a worthy challenge to test his skills and his mettle. Notwithstanding all that bear-hugging and the magic weapons he later finds, the guy seems a bit overpowered for a teenager, and I do not know where he learned to use a sword. I mean, in one occasion he beats a few elfs (while wielding an improvised club,) transdimensional and almost immortal half-demonic beings with centuries of experience. I think that moment weakened the aura of fear and preternatural power surrounding the elfs that Wright had managed to craft in the previous chapters.

Still, he is a half-human of sorts and, besides, this a young adult novel, and their protagonists are usually of the Chosen One variety. In any event, and comparing it with other books, I liked that the protagonist had to pass a grueling and brutal training regime, which somewhat justifies his later exploits. Also, those training chapters and the other ones where he talks to animals were my favorites.

I cannot finish this short analysis without mentioning against what this book was written. All books have a purpose of sorts, even if it is just the evocation of a complex emotional experience, but it is also not uncommon that they have an "enemy." I do not think I am assuming too much if I say The Swan Knight's Son was written against some of the modern trends in fantasy and fiction. It is also an obvious jab at secularism and its anti-Christian ethos. Although I would not go as far as to say this is a "message fiction" book, it does have a few things to say. Inevitably so, of course, considering my previous comments about its cosmology. I do not know about other people, but I smiled at the implication that elfs and supernatural forces were behind secularism, and the image of immortal elfs conspiring to remove Christmass trees and replace them with Kwanza trees was quite hilarious.

The lack of religious substance in contemporary fiction has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time, especially when in most fantasy settings it SHOULD be there. Even if, personally, I find some elements of Wright's cosmology a bit constraining, as they seem to reduce the supernatural antagonists almost to the level of objects or symbols, it is a welcome difference nonetheless. I think the next book in the series deals with the elfs in more detail, so some of those issues may disappear.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Swan Knight's Son: Chapter Five

Not the right kind of mermaid for this book, I know.
More training, punctuated by a meeting with the mermaid.  In a move that strongly parallels the writing of John C. Wright himself, she doesn’t just come right out and give her name, Nerea, but launches into a long prelude detailing her ancestry and it is only through patience that Gil draws forth her name.  Everything about this books is a slow burn.  The background, setting, plot, and characters, none of them are introduced plainly and clearly, but always slowly, one layer at a time.  With this ‘drinking from a firehose’ approach, it can be hard to know what bits of information are important, and which are just window-dressing.

That’s not necessarily a complaint.  A rich and detailed background that is also consistent lends the book a pseudo-historical feel and staves off any feeling that the reader knows where the author is going next.  It just means that the reader should adopt a more passive attitude of going with the flow.  As Gil learns, good things come to those who wait, and this is true for the reader, too.  Watching Wright set up the dominoes adds to the anticipation of the coming climax.  When he flicks that first domino over, you know that the results will be spectacular.
Even Nerea’s explanation of half of Gil’s lineage serves as a set-up.  Her admission that she sought out Gil, and they they are cousins draws back the curtains on the background a little more, but somehow still manages to leave most of the stage in shadow.  At last, after a number of hints, we learn that Gil a member of an extended family known as the Moths.  Collectively, they are part of the Twilight crowd.  Not the sparkly vampire Twilight crowd, but the not-quite-human and not-quite-faerie crowd.  Within the Twilight population are several families, of which the Moths are the most numerous, just ahead of the Cobweb family.

The symbolism here is obvious.  The Moths are drawn to light, the Cobwebs to dark.  Several lesser families get name-checked, providing a useful classification schema that is at once more organic and more easily understood than the most obvious comparison, J.K. Rowling’s houses of Hogwart’s.
More dominoes are set-up when Nerea agrees to take Gil to observe a tournament between the two most powerful elf kings in the world come Lammas Day.  We also learn that Nerea considers Ruff to be a pooka, and that she doesn’t want Gil to mention to Ruff that they had spoken.

It is these moments of doubt by Gil that make him such a sympathetic character.  This is a little thing, don’t tell a friend we talked, but as a lie of omission it still leaves Gil with a bad taste in his mouth.  It’s hard not to like a character with strong of a sense of honor and loyalty to his friends, even in the little things.  Because as all men of honor and loyalty know, if you take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.
Of course, even as Wright gives us more reason to like Gil, he also leaves us with another mystery.  What is it about Ruff that Nerea finds so troubling?

Looking to the sum of all knowledge, Infogalactic tells us that a pooka is an Irish spirit that brings good and bad fortune. The connotations between dogs and coyotes, and the parallel development between the Irish and the Native American tribes (at least those who considered Coyote to be a trickster God) is interesting, but doesn't really answer the question.  For that, we'll just have to remain patient a little longer.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Swan Knight’s Son: Chapter Four

Gil finds his Obi-Wan, but in keeping with his gift of animal gab, Gil’s mentor turns out to be a one-eyed bear named Bruno.  Finally, Gil has somebody to provide formal martial training. 
This is a rather short chapter, consisting of little more than a training montage containing more Chekov’s guns than Chekov’s own armory.  Gil learns how to escape a horseman while on foot.  He learns were weak point on an opponent lie.  He learns how to let his body fight instinctively while his brain continues to work and strategize against his foe.  He even learns how to fight when severely distracted, as a mermaid who lives in the nearby pond watches his training with evidence mirth.

Again we see Wright playing to one of his many strengths.  Bruno walks, talks, and thinks in a way vastly different from Ruff.  He is bigger, slower, and more methodical.  In contrast to Ruff’s peppy attitude and upbeat manner of speech – which never fades, even when Ruff is confronted with the large and intimidating bear – Bruno’s every word carries with it a ponderous meaning, and unlike Ruff’s constant certainty, Bruno often pauses to think long and hard before coming to a decision.
Generally, I like to let the author explain what's important and what isn't.  As a result, I rarely reach for Infogalactic to look up obscure references.  If I really need to know, the author will let me in on the secret.  When Bruno calls Ruff a "Son of Old Hemp", I made an exemption.  Turn out Old Hemp is no legend or mythical reference - he was an actual dog that lived back in the late 1800s and who is widely recognized as the father of the border collie breed.  Live and learn.  Ruff was earlier described as half border collie and half everything else under the sun, so this was just one way of Bruno to reference Ruff without using his proper name.  It's also worth mentioning here that Ruff and Gil are both half-breeds, and this might account for their easy companionship.  They both straddle genetic lineages.
Ever since the Puppy of the Month Book Club took an in-depth look at Nine Princes in Amber, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to what makes a character likable.  In that book, I took it on faith that we should be rooting for the point of view character – I hesitate to call him a protagonist now that Hooc Ott and other reviewers pointed out his callousness to the people of the shadow realms (like me).  So what is it about Gil that we find so appealing?

For one thing, Wright pulls the old “at least one parent dead or missing trick”.  This is a vulnerable young man with much to learn.  We men of the west tend to root for underdogs, but there’s more to it.  A lot more.  Even though Gil has no real moral guide before we meet him, he has an innate sense of justice that requires him to stand up for the little guy, to always tell the truth, and to right any wrongs he sees.  Though just a boy, and though the scale of his actions is commensurate with the scale of a playground, Gil is already a hero.  Add to that his kindness and empathy, and you get a character that’s hard not to like.
This chapter also includes one of my favorite quotes from the book:
Rabbits will always say what other rabbits say because they are afraid to disagree, but they will never check to see if they are telling the truth.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Write Like a Puppy

At this point in the Puppy of the Month Book Club, the Wright family has been the unseen pillar behind the works selected.  L. Jagi Lamplighter edited Nethereal, and it was her comparison of Brian Niemeier to Roger Zelazney on Twitter that led to the selection of Nine Princes in Amber. Of course, John C. Wright wrote this month's Swan Knight's Son.  And in last month's interview with Schuyler Hernstrom, Jon discovered how Wright influenced Hernstrom:


When I was 19 I took a creative writing course and it was a bit of a disaster. I don’t want to harp on this because everyone is different but I have gotten nothing out of any formal instruction or written advice anywhere with the exception of one article, a piece written by John C. Wright that had a few paragraphs and explained why they worked. The article was short, I got it for free somehow, and it was gold. Pure gold. With all the how-to books and everything no one had actually explained the sleight of hand, the actual craft, right there, right in front of your face. I found I was doing it, but reading the explanation made sure that I could continue doing it, and do it better.
After reading through Wright's blog at scifiwright.com, I confirmed with Schuyler Hernstrom that the article was "John C. Wright's Patented One Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction", also found in his Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth anthology. Rather than mar the excellent instruction with an amateur's thoughts, I will instead suggest that readers with an interest in the craft of writing follow the links to Wright's article.  

For those of our readers more interested in good books rather than how they were made, Jon's chapter by chapter read-through of Swan Knight's Son continues tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Swan Knight’s Son: Chapter Three

Being kicked out of your house in the most loving way by a mother trying to protect you may seem a is hardly the most heroic hero’s call to appear in fiction, but it’s perfectly in keeping with the tale of Gil’s life to date.  Sadly, there just isn’t much call for knights in the modern world, nor is there much call for teenage boys whose entire skill set consists of knight errantry.  And so we see Wright’s whimsy at its finest as Gil turns his back on the world of man and instead looks to the world of animals.  In what may be one of my favorite passages in the book, he asks the rabbits for guidance:
Another rabbit emerged from the grass just then. "Sire, I could not but overhear the conversation. Knighthood is one of those theories whose days are past! Rabbits are forward-looking! It is not for nothing that we have such ears, to hear of all the latest trends in the newest thought! Running away is the new fashion!
Other rabbit voices now came from the grasses. "Quite so! Everyone agrees," said one, and another said, "Always listen to rabbits! We have the more recent and most profound ideas on all matters! and a third, "A consensus has been reached, the debate is over!" 
That passage contains a tremendous amount of subtext to anyone familiar with the r/K political theories put for by the Anonymous Conservative.  Suffice it to say, if you see it, you don't need it pointed out to you.  If you don't see it, you might not ever understand.

At this point we deviate from our survey of Swan Knight’s Son and turn our eyes towards the internet.  Reading this book, I kept stumbling over memorable passages that I had already read.  The above was the first to jog my memory, but there are a dozen others scattered through the book.  While the overall narrative of the book strikes this reader as an exercise in world-building and straight narrative dumps, the exposition heavy narrative the runs like a thread through much of the book is largely softened by these frequent passages of pure whimsy.  Ruff in particular is a gold mine of fun little vignettes and amusing glimpses into what the world looks like to a dog.

This chapter also lays much of the groundwork for the rest of the book.  Gil’s search for a job runs parallel to his search for the truth of his patrimony as every time he asks an animal about potential work in the woods, he winds up talking to them about his lineage – to varying effects on both counts.
The rabbits and birds and the wolf all mention the terrible reputation that elfs have in the mundane world.  Gil asks everyone about them, but no one will give him straight answers out of fear of retribution.  They will only tell him that the elfs put mists into the eyes of men to make them forget, and that they have spies everywhere.  They also set up Gil’s later meeting with the mermaid of the falls, a cousin of Gil’s who will prove to be one of his better guides through (and literally into) the world of the elfs.

Interestingly enough, the most talkative of the animals Gil meets is a wolf.  Although he demands payment first, the wolf spells out that Gil is half-human and half-elf, and as such is a member of the Moth family.  I like to think that the lone wolf Krasny treated fairly with Gil because he recognized a fellow traveler.  They are both outcasts not truly welcomed by their own kind.
We also get a peek into yet another world, or perhaps a peek into one of those thin places where multiple worlds meet.  In this chapter multiple animals tie Native American myths into the same cosmology as the European myths.  The Cherokee habit of sending men to their deaths over a raging water fall and the ghost dance both make an appearance.  These little touches, hints at a wider world, are always welcome in fantasy takes that rewrite history and myth to its own accord.

In the end, Gil is a little closer to both work and his true heritage, but the reader has been primed for bigger and better chapters down the road.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Elfen as Alien

I'm not sure Swan Knight's Son is a work of fiction.

Mankind has always been beset by aliens. Before the technological revolution kicked into high gear, and little black-eyed, grey skinned men presented an unknowable and unseen threat from ‘beyond’, their role was filled by elfs. These unknowable and unseen threats from ‘beyond’ used their magic to hide in other worlds, just as the gray aliens use their advanced technology to hide among the stars.
Swan Knight’s Son refreshingly presents elfs as an alien threat to humanity, inimical to it in every way. John C. Wright admits as much in a recent interview:
I had noticed that elfs and fairy creatures from the days before Tolkien and Gary Gygax, and indeed from before Shakespeare’s MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, were actually quite spooky and frightening, not the pretty and twee tween girls of Disney’s Tinkerbell cartoons.
I noticed traces of the sulfurous scent of the inferno clinging even to such recent and childish works as DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, a favorite film of mine, based on an older series of books, where the Leprechauns are terrified by the powers of a parish priest, whose blessings and exorcisms can shrivel them. Even in the lighthearted Disney version, as in the original books, the elfs are angelic beings who neither aided Satan during his rebellion, nor fought on the side of Heaven, and so were cast out of paradise, but not all the way to Hell.
I have nothing against the delicate, diminutive elves of Shakespeare nor against the noble immortals of Tolkien, and indeed no father with a daughter should be allowed to dislike Disney’s Tinkerbell. Nonetheless, I am long enough in the tooth to recall fantasy books written before Tolkien, when the mood and atmosphere was different, as in Poul Anderson’s THE BROKEN SWORD, and I wanted to try my hand at portraying it.”
The more I read Appendix N authors, and their heirs like John C. Wright, the more I do have against noble elfs who in the end are just people, but with longer life-spans and a touch of magic about them.
These days the Warcraft-ification of monsters has stripped them of their menace. Orcs are just people. Elves are just people. Dragons are just people. In the official D&D canon these days even demons are just people. They may look different, but they are just people. Sure, these creatures may suffer social backlash from bigots due to their savage nature, living in harmony with nature, magic blood and scaly skin, and their horns and hell-spawned parentage, respectively, but they are all just people like you and me. They want much the same things as you and me and Joe down the street.

Sometimes outsiders really do want nothing from
you but your death.  Hellboy gets it.
The easy observation here is that this humanizing of the inhuman is creatively speaking, very lazy.  The elves that appear in so much of fantasy fiction today look little different than those presented in any Wizard's of the Coast tie-in novel.  Wright's elfs, with their pageantry, chivalry, and complete antipathy to mankind would look very out of place on the streets of Waterdeep or the shores of Azeroth.
 
More pernicious by far, today's common conception of fantasy races loses the threat they pose to mankind. Instead, it is the inhuman's that have much to fear from mankind's insufficient love of diversity as the great evil. It's not outsiders that threaten men, but men who threaten outsiders. This modern desire to humanize the inhuman has cost our culture more than we realize. It clouds our judgement. It erases the magic and wonder and strangeness of our lives only to replace it with a comforting reassurance that there are no monsters – a dangerous thought in a universe that is overwhelmingly inimical to human life.  
 
John C. Wright's Swan Knight's Son is more than just an entertaining read.  It is a reminder that evil exists in the world, that evil is often seductively beautiful, and that evil's first task is to convince us that it doesn't exist. In that last regard, the peddlers of elves as nature loving hippies, but people nonetheless, are much like the elves Gil faces - they seek to blind the world of man to the existence of evil for their own evil purposes.

In the end, a fantasy tale that acknowledges the existence of evil is a more accurate rendering of human experience than a non-fiction tale that denies the existence of evil.
 

Shakespeare and King Arthur

To promote the recent release of Swan Knight's Sword, the third and final adventure of Gil Moth, Castalia House published a recent interview with John C. Wright covering his inspirations and plans for the Moth & Cobweb series.  Readers who are interested in the wide swath of sources John C. Wright draws on will be interested to hear it straight from the self-described Houyhnhnm himself.  Also, to the delight of Wright's fans and Puppies everywhere, the first adventure of Yumiko Moth, Daughter of Danger, has been completed.


While it eliminates the educated guesswork that I normally indulge in, the Castalia House interview also lays bare the expanse of literature informing Wright's stories including legends to Appendix N.  As the resonances to past works of literature often suggest spoilers, I do recommend reading Swan Knight's Son first before searching them out, which is good advice for reading any of Wright's books.  Please also remember that Swan Knight's Son, The Feast of the Elfs, and Swan Knight's Sword were written as one book before Castalia House split it into three, so delving into some resonances might also spoil future books.  Fortunately, the Moth & Cobweb series towers on its own, and does not require knowledge of the legends to prop up the events.  But for those who wish to see how the works of the past can build the stories of today, I wish to draw your attention to two significant influences on Swan Knight's Son: Shakespeare and King Arthur.

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Shakespeare contributes much to the organization fairy world of Moth and Cobweb, as Wright uses the fairy courts of A Midsummer Night's DreamIn the play, two couples and a theater troupe are dragged into the quarrel between fairy King Oberon and his queen, Titania.  At the command of Oberon for Puck, and of Titania for Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, the fairies fill the forest with  pranks that twist and rebound on human and fairy alike until, at the end when the mess is sorted out, lovers are reunited and the spells swept away.  Oberon appears in Swan Knight's Son as Alberec, an earlier form of his name in French.  Titania is also present in the history, mentioned by Ygraine and Nerea, and it is from her four attendants, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, that the families of the Twilight are descended.  However, the second king of the elfs, like the tithe of souls and the cruelty of the elfs, originates elsewhere.

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Arthurian legend was one of the first international blockbusters of literature.  What started as Welsh legend spread into English, French, German, Italian and even Scandinavian literature, with each nation adding its own tales to the growing collection of legends, from Carolingian hero Holger Danske bearing Tristan's sword Cortana to German tales of a Knight of the Swan.  Depending on which set of tales an author uses for inspiration, Arthur and his knights can take on different personalities, from the Red Ravager of the Welsh Triads to the chivalrous knights of de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory.

For Swan Knight's Son and its sequels, Wright used Sir Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and the Welsh Mabinogion.  While elements of the Mabinogion are not readily visible in Swan Knight's Son, the influence of Sir Malory are apparent throughout the book.  Collected from English, French, and German stories, Le Morte d'Arthur serves as a guide for how knights should and should not act.  Gil's adoption of King Arthur as a father figure and his adopted moral code are distilled from this most famous collection of Arthurian legend.  As Gil struggles to apply the values of Arthur's Camelot to his life, Wright grapples yet again with the central dilemma to most of his work.  How does the chivalrous man of honor act in this current age, or, in the case of Phaeton and Menelaus Montrose, the ages to come?

As Gil's beliefs bear the stamp of Sir Malory's Arthur, so does Gil's story.  Gil's mother is Ygraine, who shares the same name - and implications of infidelity - with Arthur's mother.  Gil's middle name is Parzival, a Germanic form of Percival, the original knight who quested for the Holy Grail.  Like most knights, he must leave home for the fosterage of another knight.  It is fitting for the boy who chose as his father King Arthur, the Bear of Britain, to be fostered by an actual bear.  Later, Gil is challenged by and told to reconcile with Sir Dornar and his brothers, named for sons of Pellinore - and the brothers of Percival. Percival is also linked to the Swan Knight through legend, as Percival is the father of the Knight of the Swan.  Finally, in addition to the Swan Knight's sword and armor, Gil in future books will collect more of the accouterments of the Knight of the Swan.