Mike’s Prattle


Edward Whittemore – Sinai Tapestry, Conan (game), Clark Ashton Smith – Tales of Zothique

Posted by Mike on August 26, 2009

Edward Whittemore’s Quin’s Shanghai Circus is a stone classic in my book, one of the tightest, most profound books I’ve ever read. It’s rare in that it not only has a totally compelling plot and middle but the opening sequence is amazing (hooked almost instantly) and the ending is truly one of the most cosmic, deeply and emotionally affecting conclusions to a book. And I hate endings usually, I rarely find any book’s finale so perfect. So it was with some trepidation that I started Sinai Tapestry, which is the first of a quartet and also the first of Whittemore’s last five books. Which is why it has been a couple years since I read Quin’s, I’m almost afraid to run out of Whittemore.

Unsurprisingly Sinai Tapestry isn’t as good or as whole of a book as Quin’s, but I’ll suggest that’s partially because it doesn’t have a comparable ending to its beginning and middle, in fact I’d say that the last 30 or 40 pages wasn’t nearly as strong as the rest of the book, which indeed was on par with his first book. Whittemore’s one of the most cosmic, evocative writers I can think of, he manages to evoke so much energy and mysticism with only a smattering of words, as if he’s a master of the duality of complexity and simplicity, each revolving round and round as one elucidates the other. He’s also a master of creating almost extraordinarily large characters, memorable people who arise out of bizarre conditions and excruciating pasts. In Sinai Tapestry you meet a gigantic deaf man who’s a product of a bizarre and wealthy English heritage who becomes a botanist. Another is a monk whose discovery of a vastly different original bible (an alternate Codex Sinaiticus) causes him to go to extreme ends to forge a different document and bury the original whose discovery would otherwise change the world, which causes him to go completely insane. And an Irish freedom fighter who takes on the English army by himself before he’s almost tracked down, leaving to Israel disguised as a nun, later befriending an old man wearing the mask of a Crusader who claims to have lived for millenia, defending Jerusalem from all its usurpers. These people and the generations after, are woven together in a tapestry that at its heart shows great compassion, not only in the aftermath of short and sweet romances that fall apart to the suffering of all, but in their greater ideals, to see a city and region riven by centuries of war finally heal itself. There seems to be an almost unwritten idea that there is little difference between the idea of an overall guiding hand causing synchronicities and the randomness of humanity as it struggles with its animal/divine dualistic nature and this is where Whittemore always succeeds greatly, his people not only are larger than life in many ways but they’re real human beings at heart.

Overall, the climax is different yet similar to the massive tragedy at the heart of Quin’s Shanghai Circus, but while that book wraps up its entirely with one of the best, most cosmic climaxes in literature, Sinai Tapestry seems a bit more rushed, and overall somewhat unfinished. But fortunately there are three more books to come with characters in this book crossing over into the next. And from what I’ve read, the second, Jerusalem Poker, appears to be the pinnacle of his work, so I can hardly wait, even if I still have that urge to stretch Whittemore’s five books as long as I can.

Conan, the XBox 360 game, at least to me seems a bit closer to the original Robert E. Howard milieu and character than the movies although I still think they’re going too much brute and too little finesse with the use of Ron Perlman as voice, who seems particularly unenthusiastic in his voice acting during this story. In Howard’s original mythos, you’re always reminded that while Conan is barbarian, he’s also instinctively intelligent in a way that later incarnations never seem to get quite right.

But of course this is an Xbox 360 hack and slash game for the most part, although it does provide some puzzles to solve, most of which are pretty easy with a bit of thought. You’re third person and are given the option of two weapon, weapon and shield and two handed weapon styles of fighting, all of which have role playing like improvement scales, which come in a bewildering variety of button pushing sequences, many of which were often difficult for an aging guy like me to remember (not to mention I got through almost the entire game without even using parry very often). Once you get the hang of the controls, it turns out to be a lot of fun as you fend of hordes of enemies, punctuated with level ending boss fights, of which these are both the most fun and frustrating parts of the games.

First up in the frustrating category, however, are the jump sequences. I found that for most of the precarious jumps, your leaping point was actually graphically a millimeter after the precipice you were jumping from, playing havoc with timing and causing me, in parts, to spend dozens of times just trying to get through a sequence. Second, in the climaxes of many of the boss fights, you spend a lot of time trying to hack the boss up in the right manner only to be sent into a sequence of split second, multi four-button pushes that were easily missed, only to be knocked apart and sent back to fighting the boss. These were particularly frustrating in the latter stages of the game. Perhaps slightly less frustrating was these button pushes show up during some pretty breathtaking cut scene like sequences that I would have enjoyed getting a better look at, in fact the great joy of the boss battles where that they were multipart and epic with all kinds of gigantic moves that were a lot of fun to witness. And I’ll give it to the game, only rarely were the save sequences or restarts inconvenient, which is nice as repeating long difficult segments are one of the most irritating parts of most poorly realized games.

Graphics were pretty great overall and certainly they brought to life Cimmeria and, later, Stygia in equal measure, with scenarios from pirate isles, to a very cool fight with a giant squid like creature on board a ship, to lost cities and big temples. For a game that was really cheap when I ended up buying it (the benefits of getting an Xbox 360 3 years after it was originally released is you can lay back and wait for $55 games to drop into the $10-$20 range) I found this a good buy with the challenges all in the reasonable category. I felt even with difficult boss fights that repeats helped to learn better strategy; in the end only the button presses, which I finally got right of course, were a pain. But yes, this is definitely early 20th century, misogynist sort of fantasy as one gets bonus points from rescuing robot-like topless maidens, but hey at least that’s true to Howard, right?

And remotely in the same sort of feel is Clark Ashton Smith’s Tales of Zothique. I kind of started reading this collection of stories because the fourth volume of collected Smith stories from Night Shade was due out and not only that but late (I just barely held back from posting a diatribe on this company’s rather poor customer service and communication here) and I was ready for another Smith fix after reading Necronomicon Press’s Hyperborea collection years ago. Zothique’s often considered his best cycle and it’s easy to see why. Smith brings a poetic beauty to what is a dark and horrible dying earth milieu where corrupt kings and necromancers conjure up dreadful and pandimensional evils. Each one of his stories bespeaks of the doom of the protagonists, often common soldiers or unwary lovers deigning to rescue their beloved drawn into the vast, uncaring netherworld of uncaring royalty who live lavish and greedy lives and who snuff out lives at barely a whim. In other stories the royalty also gets their penance by crossing their own or other powerful sorcerers. The spectre of early Lord Dunsany reigns pretty heavy over this milieu in both its cosmic size and epic nature, but Dunsany was never so brutal and chilling and despite the Hyperborea cycle having much more overtly in common with Lovecraft’s Cthulhy mythos, this too is riddled with eldritch horror, black curses and an uncaring cosmos. While I think the typical criticisms applied to Lovecraft also apply to Smith, such as cipher characters and an overreliance on drippy adjectives, at the same length so much fantasy today could use such a sense of depth and poetic description, as well as creepiness, as much as we can do without primitive racial stereotypes. But overall I think this is the well, at least in part, where great writers like Jack Vance, not to mention video game designers like those who worked on Conan, got their amazing visual evocativeness from.


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