Once Upon a Time X

Once Upon a Time X is over!

I signed up for the Quest the First for five books and completed that. In fact, I ended up reading eleven books:

Anne Lyle: Merchant of Dreams (historical fantasy)
Anne Lyle: The Prince of Lies (historical fantasy)
Patricia C. Wrede: Snow White and Rose Red (fairy tale)
Catherynne M. Valente: the Folded World (fantastical history)
Jordanna Max Brodsky: The Immortals (urban fantay)

Sebastien de Castell: Traitor’s Blade (fantasy)
Joanna M. Harris: The Gospel of Loki (Norse fantasy)
Aliette de Bodard: Harbinger of the Storm (Aztec fantasy)
Aliette de Bodard: Master of the House of Darts (Aztec fantasy)
Tim Powers: The Drawing of the Dark (historical fantasy)

Fritz Leiber: The Swords of Lankhmar (sword and sorcery)

I also read seven collected editions of the Prince Valiant comic but reviewed only the first two. I also read a collection of fairy tale comics:
Prince Valiant vol. 1: 1937-1938
Prince Valiant vol. 2: 1939-1940
Fairy Tale Comics: Classic Tales Told by Extraordinary Cartoonists edited by Chris Duffy

I also read two short story collections:
Laura Resnick: Maybe You’ve Heard of Me?
Leslie Anderson ed.: Steampunk Fairy Tales

And one non-fiction about myths:
Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber: When they severed Earth from the sky: How the human mind shapes myth

Most of the books were good, some of them great, and I had a blast with the Prince Valiant comics.

Publication year: 2004
Format: print
Page count: 290 (including Bibliography and index)
Publisher: Princeton University Press

In this book the authors claim that myths aren’t meant to be literally true but neither are they fiction, in the modern sense. Instead they’re a way of transmitting important information in the next generation in societies which haven’t invented written word yet. Such as volcano eruptions or floods. Also, travelers needed knowledge about stars and constellations to navigate even before anything about them was written down. Modern, western people have taken to literacy so well that we’ve forgotten how to “view” myths from the point-of-view of pre-literate societies so we can’t decode them anymore.

The Barbers compare and contrast myths, such as Loki and Prometheus. They have six “Myth Principles” (and lots more sub principles) which explain the main things that the pre-literate people saw from their point-of-view, how people chose to believe such myths, etc. For example, the Principle of Silence states that the storyteller would not repeat information which the audience already knew, and indeed if he had repeated it, the story would have been less memorable and less likely to be repeated over the years. Unfortunately, this makes myths hard to understand by people who don’t know what’s missing.

Everyone’s memory is limited. That’s why myths have to be memorable and yet carry relevant information to the people telling them. Of course, it also means that people have to select which info to remember.

This is a fascinating book. It’s easy read and has examples from all over the world. Most of the myths come from Greek, Roman, Native American, and Norse cultures, but some others are included as well. I found their arguments persuasive but I doubt that all myths come from natural disasters. Some readers might be disappointed that even dragons have natural origins; although they’re different in different cultures. For example, Smaug-type German dragons who live underground and horde treasure might come from thieves (or heroes) braving into burial mounds and “fighting” with toxic gasses to get the burial goods.

Interestingly enough the writers point out how this mythical thinking can be applied to modern myths as well, such as ufos and other urban legends.

This is a collection of seven retold fairy tales in steampunk settings. I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors before.

Publication year: 2016
Format: ebook
Page count: around 100

The Clockwork People by Angela Castillo: Mr. Streusel builds toys whom all the children love. He lovingly crafts a clockwork boy and calls it Pieter. Then Pieter starts to move in his own.

Perfection by Chris Champe: Mary used to be a wonderful pianist but she had an accident which left her weak and unable to play. Her husband builds automatons which move like humans but much of his time goes to support Mary. One day, Mary realizes that her piano has been taken away and she searches the labyrinthine house for it.

The Mech Oni and the Three-Inch Tinkerer by Leslie and David T. Allen: Issun Boshi was born to an elderly couple. He was wanted but he was also tiny, only three inches tall. When he’s sixteen, he leaves his parents to become a samurai.

The Copper Eyes by Allison Latzko: Oliver is the youngest son of his inventor mother. Unfortunately, his mother has lost her mind: she has built Oliver’s brothers into her inventions. Oliver has no choice but to run away.

Strawberry Sins by Heather White: Dr. Samuel Wolfe and Dr. Fermin have been working together to make a formula which will change a man to something else and back again. Unfortunately, the formula which is supposed to turn Wolfe back to a man didn’t work and he despairs. He feels his mind is starting to deteriorate. But then Fermin’s daughter appears and starts to help him.

The Yellow Butterfly by Ashley Capes: Takashi works in a factory for a cruel and demanding boss, Mr. Nishimura. But when Nishimura closes the factory, the former workers have to move or starve. Nishimura’s daughter tries to help the men but she might make things worse.

Aubrey in the World Above by Daniel Lind: Aubrey lives in a world where thieves are sent to the World Above and forced to serve the people there. Her mother has just been condemned and her cruel father forces her to witness how the giant beanstalk springs up and spirits her mother away.

I didn’t recognize all of these stories as familiar fairy tales but I did enjoy them even though none of them were exceptional. The most recognizable ones have interesting steampunk twists. Two of them are based on Japanese fairy tales which I’m not familiar with. Interestingly enough, I thought that Strawberry Sins was based on quite another story until I got the end of the book where each writer reveals the fairy tale his or her story is based on. The book has excerpts from some of the writers’ other books.

Most of these stories are pretty dark, but I guess that’s appropriate for stories with “punk” in them. A couple of them have actually a gothic horror feeling. They have cruel family members and mad scientists. Yet, they all have hope in them, too. “The Clockwork People” and “The Mech Oni and the Three-Inch Tinkerer” are the least grim and “The Copper Eyes” even has an amusing twist on the damsel in distress trope.

This short story collection has at least one famous person (or creature) in each story and more than one in most stories. Most of the stories are humorous and the humor comes from putting modern concepts into historical settings and people. In many of the stories the famous person in question, like Pharaoh Ramses or King Arthur, is very concerned about his public image and changing it in very modern ways: putting a different spin on events or outright lies.

All of the stories have been previously published in short story collections. However, I haven’t read Laura Resnick before. I enjoyed this collection quite a lot.

Camelot’s Greatest Hits: Young Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone and Merlin tells the boy that he’s now the destined war leader of Britain. But Arthur is a musician, not a fighter nor a ruler. Eventually Merlin allows him to get a band together and Arthur Pen’s Dragons are a hit!

By Any Other Name: The narrator is attracted to creative men but the relationships never last. So now he’s looking for a sane and stable ordinary guy. When he goes on a blind date with a Latin teacher he thinks he has finally found his guy. But there’s something strange about the way the guy talks.

Under A Sky More Fiercely Blue: Set in Sicily during the Second World War, the narrator is a boy who has lost almost his whole family. Then one of the famous men in the organized crime circles returns to the island offering possible relief to the beleaguered country. The boy has a change to help him and be part of history.

The Lily Maid of Astolat: A retelling of the sad story of Elaine of Astolat and an older Lancelot, as seen through the eyes of Elaine’s younger brother Torre.

The Abominable Snowman: The Yeti is really a misunderstood creature: he’s a vegetarian, reads a lot, and dreams of moving far south from the North Pole.

The Fortunes of Temperance
: Temperance is hoping to start a new job and get a Tarot reading from madam Rabinowitz. One the way, she meets her friend Strength and even flits a little with the Knight of Swords.

Qadishtu: co-written with Kathy Chwedyk: Sirara’s son Lahar has the wasting sickness. Even though Sirara is Inanna’s high priestess in Ur, she can’t heal him. But even the most powerful priests in Ur can’t heal him either so she must get him to Dilmun. But the Festival of the New Year is very close and King Ibbi-Sin forbids Sirara from leaving, on pain of death. But Sirara doesn’t care; she takes her son and a few slaves and heads to Dilmun.

The Adventure of the Missing Coffin: A man comes to Sherlock Holmes looking for help. But this time the client is somewhat stranger than usual: his coffin has been stolen.

Licensed to Reclaim: Once again, the world’s most famous spy finds himself captured by his opponent. However, things go a bit differently than usual this time.

Grievous Wounds: After the battle of Camlan, Arthur lays grievously wounded and reminisces about his life and choices.

Those Rowdy Royals!: The marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Louis VII has been annulled. That and the subsequent events in the English Royal Court lead to juicy gossip on the pages of Medieval Times, The Courtly Chronicle, the Norman Rag, and other publications.

The Spin Wizard: The Theban Times and the Elephantine Express are writing about Ramses the Mediocre and not in a flattering way. Fortunately, Imhotep’s spirit knows just what the Pharaoh should do to clean up his image.

Curren’s Song: Curren is a young man who sees and hears things that other people can’t. The people in his village fear and shun him but a newcomer is fomenting outright hatred towards him. One of Curran’s problems is that he doesn’t know if which things only he sees or hears. One of those things is a group of lizardlike creatures in the nearby loch.

The Quin Quart: Do you think that Guinevere is the mostly bland character in Camelot? Perhaps that notion is the fault of the Quin Quartet. In this story, we find out that Guinevere is actually a well-read woman who fights just as much as the knights, if not more. But her subjects couldn’t stomach a woman like that, much less a queen, and she was so unpopular that Arthur and Merlin had to turn to the sons of Lot who remade her into the most popular lady in Medieval times, just as they made Beowulf a famous hero.

Avant Vanguard: Robin Hood is already famous for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, and he does his best to give troubadours new material. But then he meets the rich Earl Vanguard on the road and robs him. The Earl protests that Robin will make him destitute.

The fifth book in the series is an actual book and not a collection of short stories as the other book have been.

Publication year: 1968 (1997 reprint)
Format: print
Page count: 278
Publisher: White Wolf Publishing

The short swordsman and sorcerer The Grey Mouser and the giant Northerner swordsman Fafhrd have just returned to Lankhmar when they’re attacked by a collection of brigands, hired wizards, and people to whom they owe money. However, the duo manages to drive the brawlers off, solidifying their own reputation, and immediately they’re escorted to the presence of the city’s Overlord, Glipkerio Kistomerces. The Overloard needs exceptional guards for his grain fleet going to Movarl. The duo agrees.

However, the Overlord failed to mention that two other grain fleets have already gone missing. The men are on alert and waiting for a disaster. But the Mouser and Fafhrd have their hands full entertaining the enchanting and lovely Demoiselle Hisvet. The young woman is part of the fleet; she has twelve trained white rats, which are also going to the king of Movarl, and she’s the daughter of a wealthy and influential merchant. She’s also proud and fickle, toying with both swordsmen. Her maid Frix is always at her side.

Of course, things so shortly wrong. Or right, for the POV of the reader. This book might be the weirdest one of the series to date. It has a man traveling between worlds and rats wielding weapons. This time we see a part of Lankhmar which hasn’t been explored before.

The Swords of Lankhmar focuses on the Mouser; during most of the first half of the book Fafhrd is drugged and around halfway the two men part ways. So the camaraderie between them is missing and the friendly rivalry is only seen in the beginning. It’s certain a change of pace, though. (Not a complaint, just an observation.) They’re also older than in the previous tales but still more than willing to let a beautiful face makes fools of them.

The villains are devious and despicable, as usual, and the maids and slaves naked and whipped. Sexual sadism has been part of the series before, too, but it’s more pronounced here, perhaps because of the length of the book.

Still, this another very entertaining book in the series.

A stand-alone historical fantasy book set in Vienna 1529.

Publication year: 1979 (1999 reprint)
Format: print
Page count: 323
Publisher: Del Rey

Brian Duffy is a mercenary who has ended up in Venice after traveling around the world for years. After an unfortunate encounter with the Doge’s grandsons, he meets a strange old man Aurelianus who offers him a job in Vienna as a bouncer for Aurelianus’ tavern. Duffy has been in Vienna before and agrees, even though he finds it a bit strange that Aurelianus wants him.

Duffy buys a horse and starts the lengthy journey. But on the way, he sees and experiences strange things. Unknown people attack him and then in the Julian Alps he rides among weird creatures which, nevertheless, don’t harm him. Also, other strange, flying things attack his former traveling companions.

Finally in Vienna, he has to confront his past because after many years he again sees the woman whom he loved but who married another man. But more trouble comes when when Suleiman the Magnificent leads his army against the Christendom. His army marches to Vienna.

The setting is the siege of Vienna which turns out the be somewhat different than history books tell us. Quite a few mythological people and critters make an appearance in the book.

Brian Duffy has been traveling and fighting almost his whole life. He is also something of a drunk. He has a healthy suspicion of people and he’s afraid of anything supernatural. So, when he starts to see strange things, his first instinct is sheer terror and then denial. In fact, he’s so deep in denial that at first it was funny but then frustrating when I had already figured out most of what was going on.

Aurelianus is a strange old man. He smokes lizards, not pipe. He doesn’t bother to explain anything unless Duffy asks him directly and even then he tends to talk around the question. Both of these characters were fun at first but when the end approached, I was somewhat frustrated with both of them.

The plot is somewhat meandering; sometimes several months go by between chapters. But this is an enjoyable read for anyone wanting “secret history”; the happenings that history books don’t tell us. This isn’t the best Powers book I’ve read (that would be Anubis gates, still) but I’m left wanting to read more Powers.

This is a collection of 17 fairy tales, some of them classics like Rumplestiltskin and Little Red Riding Hood.

However, surprisingly many of them were new to me which was great. For example, I’ve never heard of “Sweet Porridge” or “Rabbit Will Not Help”. Also, I’ve encountered Baba Yaga in various other fantasy tales, such as in the Fables and Hellboy comics, but I’ve never actually read that original fairy tale. However, some of these tales have been changed to suit children and shortened.

The art style is quite simple, compared to the superhero comics I’m mostly used to.

This was a charming and eclectic collection. Highly recommended for those interested in fairy tales.

Sweet Porridge! by Bobby London
The 12 Dancing Princesses by Emily Carroll
Hansel and Gretel by Gilbert Hernandez
Puss in Boots by Vanessa Davis
Little Red Riding Hood by Gigi D. G.
The Prince and the Tortoise by Ramona Fradon and Chris Duffy
Snow White by Jaime Hernandez
The Boy who Drew Cats by Luke Pearson
Rumpelstiltskin by Brett Helquist
Rabbit Will Not Help by Joseph Lambert
Rapunzel by Raina Telgemeier
The Small-Tooth Dog by Chairse Mericle Harper
Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Graham Annable
Baba Yaga by Jillian Tamaki
Bremen Town by Karl Kerschl
Give Me the Shudders by David Mazzucchelli
Azzolino’s Story Without End by Craig Thompson

The third book in her epic Aztec fantasy series.

Publication year: 2011
Format: print
Page count: 446
Publisher: Angry Robot

The book starts about three months after the end of the previous one. The Mexica Empire has a new ruler, the Revered Speaker, but he hasn’t yet consolidated his rule with the gods. In order to do that, he needs to get lots of war captives and sacrifice them. However, when he gets back from the Coronation War, his warriors have captured only a small amount of enemies and during the welcome ceremony one of the Mexica warriors falls down, dead. Acatl suspects that he died of magic and wants to see Eptli’s body but the new Revered Speaker is a paranoid and arrogant man who seems to care more for ceremony than the health of his warriors.

It turns out that Eptli isn’t well-liked at all and Acatl has more suspects than he really needs. Soon, he finds out that Eptli was indeed slain with a spell. And the magic used is contagious. The city is facing an epidemic. Also, consequences from the decisions done in the previous book comes to haunt Acatl.

Acatl is the same humble man he was in the previous books but he has learned somethings. The rift between him and his former student Teomitl is growing because Teomitl is a royal born warrior who has now taken on the responsibilities of his station. He is also far more liked among the warriors than the current Revered Speaker who doesn’t like that.

This is a great ending to the series. However, the ending leaves possibilities for continuing the series. De Bodard has written some short stories in the same setting.

The second book in her epic Aztec fantasy series.

Publication year: 2011
Format: print
Page count: 416
Publisher: Angry Robot

Acatl-tzin is the High Priest of the Dead, but in the Aztec society where warriors and the glory of warfare is the most valued, he’s not actually in a powerful position. After all, Mitctlantecuhtli governs over people who have not died in battle or as a sacrifice. Even his two fellow high priests look down on Acatl because the Lord of the Dead doesn’t have much influence and Acatl’s parents were peasants. In addition to doing the rites for the dead, Acatl investigates murders.

When the story starts, the ruler of the Mexica empire, the Revered Speaker Axayacatl-tzin, has just died from wounds in battle. The Reverend Speaker is also the representative of his god on Earth which means that his death weakens the magical protections of the capital and in time star-demons can break through to travel to Earth and start killing people.

But the politically (and religiously) powerful people are far more interested in fighting for earthly power than appointing the next ruler before the protections fail. The just dead ruler had been a respected warrior but his chosen heir, his older brother, is a weak man who has wanted the throne his whole life and schemed to get it. Other men desire the throne, too, and poor Acatl is caught in the middle, trying to warn people about the magical consequences if the next ruler isn’t appointed quickly.

Also, the same day when the Revered Speaker dies, another man is found dead, brutally torn to pieces, right in the royal palace. Acatl is convinced that it’s the work of the star-demons which means that someone is summoning these enemies of humanity right inside the palace. The summonings weaken the buckling protections so Acatl wants to find the sorcerer as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have political clout or diplomatic skills so questioning the most powerful men in the Empire is rather difficult. However, he has a couple of trusted friend he can rely on. One of them is his student Teomitl, the younger brother of the former Revered Speaker.

This is a setting where the gods are very much alive and sometimes even walk among humans. Almost all of them are cruel and hungry for blood; they require blood sacrifices to work magic. I found the explanation for this (near the end) fascinating.

This time we meet the people at the very top of Aztec society – and they’re not nice men. Pretty much all of them scheme and backstab to their heart’s content. (In fact, I felt rather sorry for Axayacatl who seemed like a decent person and had to deal with this lot on a daily basis. Or maybe he fought in wars so often to get away from them?) Also, magical, religious, and political power is intertwined and inseparable. This is quite a dark society and the storyline is also very dark, punctuated by human and animal sacrifice. The Lord of the Dead doesn’t require human sacrifices, though, but Acatl does have to use his own blood for spells and worship.

The Aztec society in this book has just as strong a division between the worlds of men and women as the Greeks did; women don’t participate in public life. I find this curious because I didn’t see similar division between the male and female deities; all seem equally aggressive, cruel, and bloody. But the book has only three named mortal women and I strongly suspect that only one of them (if any) is going to be seen again.

De Bodard has created a fascinating culture. Interesting enough, the book doesn’t have much violence at all but blood rituals are used often. Unfortunately, the omnibus version I’m reading doesn’t have her notes but her website has some background stuff. The mystery is pretty convoluted and because of the unfamiliar setting I don’t think the reader has a chance to solve it before Acatl.

Acatl is mostly comfortable with his life and his position as a humble priest. But now he’s taken far out of his comfort zone and forced to deal with people he comes to despise and distrust. He’s determined to do what he feels is right and to protect the people near him, and also the whole Empire. Teomitl is another honorable character trying to do the right thing, but he can also be arrogant and overconfident. After all, he is a warrior and also part of the emperor’s family. Most of the other characters have their own agendas but because of their high positions they also tend to be rather arrogant.

This is a great continuation to the series. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger but it’s clear that the solutions are only temporary. I recommend reading the first book, Servant of the Underworld, first because it introduces the characters and the setting.

A retelling of the Norse Edda sagas from Loki’s point of view.

Publication year: 2014
Format: Audio
Running time: 10 hours and 7 minutes
Publisher: Audible
Narrators: Allan Corduner

“Loki, that’s me. Loki, the Light-Bringer, the misunderstood, the elusive, the handsome and modest hero of this particular tissue of lies.”

Apparently, this is a prequel to a YA series which I haven’t read. So it stands alone.

Loki is clearly telling his story to a modern audience because the book is full of modern, USAian sayings which have sometimes been twisted lightly to fit into Loki’s mouth (nobody in Nine Worlds rather than nobody in the world). While the adventures the gods have are from the Eddas, the voice, the motivations, and sometimes the consequences have been changed to a modern view. The stories start with the forming of the world, before Loki’s time, and end with Raknarök.

Some details have been changed, as well. For example, in the Eddas, Loki is the son of a chaos goddess and the god of the frost giants. But here, Loki forms himself from pure chaos and his true form is wildfire. In the Eddas, Loki was married and divorced several times but here he’s married against his will to a goddess he loathes and then he cheats on her repeatedly. The other deities don’t fare much better. Loki insults them as often as he can and goes out of his way to show how stupid they all are. And everything, in the end, is the fault of Loki’s blood brother, Odin.

The voice Harris gives to her Loki is pretty much flawless: arrogant, sly, devious, innocent of almost everything. Wonderful. He thinks of himself as an outsider, a scapegoat for the deities. This makes him feel lonely and justifies his actions, to himself at least.

Some of the stories are very funny, some less so. But our humble narrator is always entertaining.

The reader is also great. He has a conversational style which suits the story very well. Unfortunately, he has the habit of lowering his voice every once in a while which made it sometimes hard to hear those parts when I was driving.

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