Archives for posts with tag: Gay Literature

Does no-one have fun in Fantasy fiction any more? I ask because so many of the Fantasy novels I’ve read recently are about tortured souls having a horrible time in invented countries that no-one would choose to live in. I wish I could tell you that this week’s recommendation – `The Copper Promise’ by Jen Williams – was completely different but that wouldn’t be true. In many ways this novel is a throwback to the Sword and Sorcery romps of the mid 20th century but with added gloom and gore. Thankfully, it still manages to be an entertaining read. `The Copper Promise’, which came out in 2014, is easily available in paperback or as an ebook and there is already a sequel called `The Iron Ghost’.

Young Lord Frith of Blackwood needs knowledge and power if he is to carry out his plan to avenge his murdered family. He begins by hiring two of the most famous sell-swords in all Ede – Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven and her huge friend Sebastian, who was once a Knight of Ynnsmouth. Their first task is is to help him search the haunted Citadel of Krete, which is said to have `a thousand grisly ways to kill you, each more unpleasant than the last’. Wydrin and Sebastian’s companion, Gallo, has already disappeared inside the Citadel while treasure-hunting, so they are keen to find him. Frith is only interested in a legend that powerful mages, from the era when gods and goddesses walked the earth, still inhabit the labyrinth below the Citadel.

The labyrinth proves to be every bit as dangerous as expected and the reunion with Gallo is not a happy one. The adventurers are warned that the mages imprisoned Y’Ruen`a creature of unspeakable evil’ under the Citadel and that she is awake and breeding an army. When they refuse to turn back, they unleash a monster on the world.  Wounded Sebastian finds that he has a blood-link to the goddess Y’Ruen’s army of ferocious daughters while Frith gains magical powers that he does not know how to use.

Transported by magic to Blackwood, the adventurers have a perilous encounter with Fane, the man who tortured Frith and murdered his family. With help from a Secret Keeper, Frith is able to take the hidden path to the treasure vault that Fane was searching for. Its contents send Frith on another quest for knowledge – a quest that takes him to a mysterious island. Meanwhile, Wydrin does things she regrets and embarks on a desperate voyage to save her brother, while Sebastian feels so guilty about the death and destruction caused by Y’Ruen’s army that he makes a terrible bargain. Can Frith, Wydrin and Sebastian act together to confront a goddess and save their world?

Chapter 5 of `The Copper Promise’ ends with the words – `The haunted Citadel awaits’. Could you resist reading on? I certainly couldn’t. No-one enjoys a haunted citadel more than I do so I was rather miffed when this one was totally destroyed a few chapters later. Fortunately the book still has plenty of the other ingredients you need for a rip-roaring Sword and Sorcery adventure – including killer bears, twin villains with demonic powers, an invisible bridge, a deity in disguise, a magical suit of armour, a pirate ship versus dragon combat, an eerie mountaintop Rookery with monstrous guardians and, as Wydrin remarks in the sequel, plenty of `sneaking about…and old fashioned beating people up’. None of this is particularly original but the thrills and chills come thick and fast.

For Fantasy buffs like me, the interest lies in seeing how Williams has updated the Sword and Sorcery genre for 21st century readers. `The Copper Promise’ has no pseudo-medieval dialogue; all the characters speak in a modern idiom whether they are knights or priestesses, mystics or demons. This is probably wise but Williams is no great stylist and I do miss the rich and subtle language of Sword and Sorcery masters such as Jack Vance (see my June 2013 post on `The Dying Earth’) or Fritz Leiber. The violence in `The Copper Promise’ is described in much more graphic detail than it would have been in older novels. You could argue that this makes the book more honest about the brutal consequences of wielding a sword, whether you’re a hero or a villain. The passages written from the viewpoint of Y’Ruen’s murderous daughters as they massacre everyone they meet almost tip the story into the Horror genre, yet they also show some of the daughters gradually developing individuality and human feelings. Williams is a writer with emotional intelligence and her main characters have more capacity to change and deepen than most of the iconic characters from the golden age of Sword and Sorcery.

It is clear that Williams has been strongly influenced by two of these iconic character – Fritz Leiber’s treasure-hunting, sword-fighting duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (see my July 2014 post on `Swords and Deviltry’). In this updated version, huge but smart northern barbarian Fafhrd becomes massive, mountain-god worshipping barbarian Sebastian and small, crafty but impulsive Mouser becomes diminutive dagger-fighter Wydrin, nicknamed the Copper Cat. In a further contemporary twist, sensitive Sebastian has been thrown out of a religious order of Knights for being gay while Wydrin is a woman who likes to drink, gamble and take stupid risks. This pairing works wells. Sebastian and Wydrin’s friendship is oddly convincing but I never believed in them as carefree rogues. They have too much emotional baggage and they lack Fafhrd and Mouser’s zest for adventure and mischief. There is less humour in `The Copper Promise’ than I was expecting because the plot rapidly takes several grim turns.

The standard treasure-hunting quest is expanded by many other plot-lines because Williams wants to explore the lives and choices of her leading characters. Several past and potential love stories are treated with surprising delicacy and it isn’t easy to predict whether the duo will become a trio again. Can anything be done to reverse Gallo’s alarming condition and will arrogant aristocrat, Frith (literally a tortured soul) go from client to companion? If you are a reader in search of gay heroes in Fantasy, `The Copper Promise’ could be the book for you. Honourable, guilt-ridden Sebastian is an immediately sympathetic figure, which makes the dark path he eventually chooses to take all the more unnerving.

Wydrin is less interesting and her (mainly self-inflicted) personal problems don’t seem as well integrated with the main plotline as Sebastian’s do. However, Williams does have fun with Frith’s (and so many male authors and cover-artists’) fantasy of what the Copper Cat might be like, `a tall, curvaceous woman, with hair as red as blood tumbling unbidden to her waist, a pair of green eyes as playful and cruel as a cat’s, and armour that perhaps did not leave much to the imagination. In truth the Copper Cat was a young woman of average height with short, carroty hair, freckles across her nose and almost every inch of her covered in boiled leather armour.’ This passage alone is enough to show that `The Copper Promise’ is traditional Fantasy with a modern slant. If you are up for high adventure in good company, this is a series worth trying. Until next time…





I’ve recently seen `The Selfish Giant’, a British film about excluded children by Clio Barnard. Set in a junkyard, this grim but moving film is very loosely based on a short story by the brilliant Anglo-Irish author, Oscar Wilde. He may now be most famous for the tragic end to his dazzling career but Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (to give him his splendid full name) remains a very entertaining writer. This week I’m recommending his distinctive fairy tales. Wilde published two short collections of these `The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ , which came out in 1888, and `A House of Pomegranates’ which followed in 1891. Inexpensive editions of `The Happy Prince’, with pretty illustrations by Charles Robinson, are quite easy to find. `A House of Pomegranates’ is much more scarce and some editions cost thousands of pounds, but don’t worry, you can download all the stories for free via Project Gutenberg or get them in a cheap ebook or POD paperback called `The Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde’. Alternatively, go for `The Complete Short Stories of Oscar Wilde’ published by Oxford World Classics, which has the bonus of including his charming ghost-story `The Canterville Ghost’.

Wilde’s fairy tales are sometimes referred to as his `children’s stories’ but that only applies to the first of the two collections, and even then the cynical humour of some of the these pieces is more likely to appeal to adults than children. `The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ contains five stories. The best known are `The Happy Prince’ and `The Selfish Giant’ which both deal with that quality which is sometimes translated as Charity and sometimes as Love. In `The Happy Prince’, a ghost trapped in a golden statue weeps for `all the ugliness and all the misery’ he can now see in the city he once ruled. `The Selfish Giant’ is a about a giant who only finds happiness when he shares his beautiful garden with children and it is the most overtly Christian of all Wilde’s stories. `The Devoted Friend’, which is told by a Linnet to a selfish Water-Rat, is almost a negative version of `The Selfish Giant’. It describes a rich miller who cruelly exploits a poor friend and fails to mend his means ways. The Water-Rat is outraged to learn that this story has a moral which he is expected to apply to his own life. `Well, really,’ he says, “I think you should have told me that before you began. If you had done so, I certainly would not have listened to you.” `The Remarkable Rocket’ features a firework who has the unshakable delusion that the whole world revolves around him, while `The Nightingale and the Rose’ tells of a bird who chooses to make a terrible sacrifice to help a young lover.

`A House of Pomegranates’ , which Wilde dedicated to his long-suffering wife, Constance, consists of four longer tales written in a lush and poetic style. In an impressive piece of name-dropping each individual story has a dedication to a particular royal or aristocratic lady. I’d like to know what the Ranee of Sarawak made of the story of `The Young King’, in which a ruler on the eve of his coronation learns about the true cost of the royal treasures he adores. `The Birthday of the Infanta’ is like a Velasquez picture come to life and centres on an ugly court dwarf who falls in love with a princess. It is one of the saddest stories ever written. `The Fisherman and his Soul’ is about a young fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid and is willing to give up everything to be with her, while `The Star Child’ is the story of a beautiful boy who cruelly rejects his true mother but eventually redeems himself.

Wilde’s melancholy tales have a lot in common with the haunting fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (see my January 2013 post on `The Snow Queen’).  Both authors turn animals, plants and even objects into memorable speaking characters and both rarely give their stories conventional happy endings. In `The Star Child’ for example, the hopeful mood is shattered in the last sentence. Wilde is  less influenced by traditional folk-tales than Andersen and his prose is more polished. As you would expect from the author of comic masterpieces such as `The Importance of Being Earnest’, there is a lot of sharp humour in Wilde’s fairy tales, which saves them from being too sentimental for modern readers. Then there are his gorgeous evocative descriptions, whether he is writing about palaces or forests (see `The Birthday of the Infanta). In `The Happy Prince’, Wilde satirizes the selfish and heartless behaviour of the ruling classes in short snatches of dialogue, which contrast with the long lyrical speeches of the little swallow who is the Prince’s companion as he describes his winter-home in Egypt – `In Egypt the sun is warm on the green palm-trees, and the crocodiles look lazily about  them. My companions are building a nest in the Temple of Baalbec, and the pink and white doves are watching them…’ The Prince believes that the marvels of Egypt are as nothing compared to the mystery of human suffering and sends the swallow out into the cruel city where he sees `the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets’. `The Happy Prince’ is a story I loved as a child and I still can’t read it without crying – I know because I was in tears last night when I re-read it before writing this post.

One of the most appealing things about Wilde is that he had the mind of a cynic and the heart of romantic. He was a famous admirer of beauty in art but his social conscience made him deeply uneasy about the exploitation of the workers who created beautiful objects for the rich. These contradictions in his nature come out clearly in his fairy tales. Most of the tales are about beauty or love but Wilde knew from bitter experience that beauty and goodness don’t always go together and that people with loving hearts don’t always find happiness in this world. You don’t have to know anything about Wilde’s life to appreciate his writing, but if you do it gives the stories an extra layer of meaning. It becomes hard not to see `The Fisherman and his Soul’ as a plea for tolerance of `forbidden love’. Within the story, the forbidden love is between the Christian and human fisherman and what his priest calls one of `the vile and pagan things God suffers to wander through His world’. The fisherman gives up his soul to be with his mermaid. Then, in a reversal of normal roles, it is the soul who tries to tempt the fisherman from the path of true love with offers of worldly riches and power. If, like Wilde’s Water-Rat, you can’t stand a story with a moral, ignore this aspect and just enjoy the exotic cities which the soul visits during its wanderings, with their gates of red bronze carved with sea-dragons, bazaars strung with paper lanterns that flutter like butterflies and gardens of tulip-trees where peacocks spread their tails to the sun. Wilde’s is an imaginative world worth lingering in. Until next week…