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Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear
Review by Cynthia Ward

Ink and SteelChristofer Marley has been treacherously slain.  It appears that he died in some sordid brawl, but the murder is in fact the hidden act of one faction of the divided Prometheans, secret conspirators who serve Queen Elizabeth I.  Marley’s death leaves no writer to pen the magically potent plays that keep the queen on England’s throne.  But his co-conspirators hope to use another playwright:  a promising young talent named Will Shakespeare.

     Unbeknownst to mortals, Marley’s life was saved by a queen of Faerie.  He seeks his killers and aids Shakespeare in spywork and play-magic.  But when Shakespeare is drawn into Faerie, the playwrights’ relationship changes.  And a higher power than even Faerie takes a dark interest in the pair.

     Ink and Steel is the new novel in Elizabeth Bear’s fantasy series, “The Promethean Age.”  Ink and Steel is also the first volume of “The Stratford Man,” a duology whose second and concluding volume is Heaven and Earth.

     With its beautiful prose, superior characterizations, intricate conspiracy, and deep historical, literary, and folkloric research, Ink and Steel demonstrates why Bear has received the Hugo, Campbell, Locus, and Sturgeon Awards.

     However, the novel also has a pair of significant weaknesses.  The first is that, when William Shakespeare’s feelings for his friend and colleague Christofer Marley (a.k.a. Christopher Marlowe) shift from platonic to romantic, readers are given no glimpse of Shakespeare’s thoughts during his bisexual awakening.  This absence makes the change difficult to believe, given that Ink and Steel initially presents Shakespeare as a heterosexual repulsed by homosexuality.

     The novel’s second weakness is its restless focus.  The main plotline follows Shakespeare’s development, with Marley’s help, as a magician-playwright/conspirator/spy.  But this plotline essentially vanishes as Bear explores Shakespeare and Marley’s altered relationship in depth.  Then, both relationship and conspiracy take a back seat as Faerie’s tithe to Hell is paid, and Bear shifts her focus to the nature of damnation.  By the end, Ink and Steel feels like three books under one cover.

     This problem may result from Ink and Steel being half a novel.  Rumor has it the book is the first part of a single novel published in two volumes, the second of which is Hell and Earth:  The Stratford Man, Volume II.  Certainly, when you read Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth back-to-back in that order, the restless focus resolves into a logical structure.

     Reading the two volumes as one never quite makes Shakespeare’s conversion to bisexuality convincing.  But, if you put that aside and take the books as a single novel‑-as a whole‑-they work wonderfully.

Cynthia Ward (http://www.cynthiaward.com) has sold stories to Sword & Sorceress 24 (Norilana Books, http://norilana.com/), Asimov’s SF Magazine (http://www.asimovs.com/), and other magazines and anthologies. Her reviews appear regularly in Kobold Quarterly (http://www.koboldquarterly.com/) and Sci Fi Wire (http://scifiwire.com/index.php), and irregularly elsewhere. She publishes the monthly Market Maven e’newsletter (http://www.cynthiaward.com/maven.html), which covers market news in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror fields. She is working on her first novel, a futuristic mystery tentatively titled The Stone Rain. With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored the writing manual Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press, http://www.aqueductpress.com/conversation-pieces.html#Vol8), which is based on their fiction diversity writing workshop, Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction (http://www.writingtheother.com/).

Henry Kuttner's <i>The Dark World</i>

Henry Kuttner's The Dark World

Jared over at Troll in the Corner has just posted an excellent review of the Planet Stories edition of Henry Kuttner’s science-fantasy classic The Dark World. In doing so he manages to encapsulate the entire point of the reprints in the Planet Stories line so far:

Books like The Dark World remind me why I love fantasy/sci-fi so much in the first place. Here I’ve spent the better part of two decades reading every great author I can get my hands on, and not only are there new ones coming out constantly, there are still gems from years ago I have yet to read.

Major chain bookstores took a pretty paltry order for The Dark World, I’m sorry to say, so if you haven’t had a chance to pick up this recent release yet, I suggest ordering directly from the source at Paizo.com.

Thanks for the review, Jared! And thanks to all of you who have given Henry Kuttner a shot, either in our earlier releases such as Elak of Atlantis or in our brand new release, Robots Have No Tails.

Last weekend Pierce Watters and I hit the trail to promote Planet Stories (and other Paizo books) at Book Expo America, the largest book trade show in the country. After an ill-fated move to Los Angeles last year, the Expo has returned to its home at New York’s Javitt’s Center, where it will reside for the next several years. We arrived in New York on Wednesday and set up the Paizo booth on Thursday in anticipation of a Friday morning opening. Once again we were in the Diamond “Alley,” which is to say a row of several booths organized by our American book trade distributor, Diamond Book Distributors (or DBD, if you prefer).

BEA 2009: The Planet Stories Booth

BEA 2009: The Planet Stories Booth


Unlike in previous years, this time Paizo was Diamond’s only non-comic publisher at the show. We were joined by such luminaries as Marvel Comics, Dark Horse, IDW, and a passel of smaller comic, graphic novel, and manga publishers. Traffic was noticeably down this year (the economy and the impending collapse of Borders has really hurt the publishing industry as a whole), with many giant publishers scaling down their booths or electing not to display at the show at all. Just about everyone I spoke to was peeved about this, but there was more than enough stuff to see and do without them. To me, the giant multi-imprint booths are always pretty difficult to navigate. As a tiny booth in the Diamond Alley we often have as much or more of a noticeable presence than, say, Tor or Ace or Del Rey, who are often nearly impossible to find since they are all owned by huge publishing houses with gigantic booths.

As usual, we had piles and piles of free books on hand to give away to buyers, librarians, and the assorted book lovers who come to the show. We managed to give away about 400 books, including 80 copies of our newest Planet Stories release, Robots Have No Tails, by Henry Kuttner.

Reaction to the new look for Planet Stories was almost uniformly positive, with many buyers and attendees congratulating us on the pulpy look of the new books. The covers for both Robots and The Ship of Ishtar received a lot of kudos, and I think the new look will help the books find a bigger market than they have managed to date. We ran a huge library promotion at the show, and though I don’t know if any of the many buyers I spoke to about it will bite, but I remain hopeful.

Now that we’ve been displaying our line for three consecutive BEAs, we’re starting to develop a bit of a reputation. For the first time many retailers attending the show knew about Planet Stories and talked about stocking them in their stores. It’s nice to shift from “here’s our deal” to “nice to talk to you again,” and I see it as part of the ongoing process of making Planet Stories a sustainable, profitable business venture. Very few people (relatively speaking) open our books expecting to see comics, and it seemed like a near-majority of booth visitors were at least familiar with our company (though I heard some VERY interesting pronunciations of “Paizo”). Overall I feel like we’re getting a bigger and better reputation each year, and we’re becoming a more and more important part of Diamond’s overall operation, which is nice.

I finished two Planet Storiesesque books on the planes to and from New York: Judgment Night, by C. L. Moore, and A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ll have full reviews soon on my sister blog, Paperback Flash, as soon as I get back from my current trip to Minnesota and have some time to scan up the covers. The upshot is that Judgment Night is a really excellent book filled with the lush description common in Black God’s Kiss and Northwest of Earth, but with a much more active protagonist who prefers taking control of her own destiny rather than passively watching as interesting things happen around her. The opening chapters on a pleasure-moon are particularly noteworthy, as is the later destruction of that world in the final chapters of the book. Fun stuff, and very much in the vein of other material we’ve published.

There’s not much to say about A Princess of Mars that hasn’t already been said. It’s a far, far better book than I expected (I last read it years and years ago and had forgotten almost every detail), especially given that it was originally published in 1912. You can see how it inspired dozens of imitators, and reading John Carter’s first voyage to Mars is like seeing the blueprint for countless hacky ripoffs that have followed in the century since its original publication. There are flaws. The narrative relies WAY too much on coincidence, and by the time Carter randomly crash lands his airship at the feet of his old buddy Tars Tarkas near the end of the book, I’d just about hit my limit. Happily, the book was over very shortly thereafter, and I moved immediately on to The Gods of Mars, which I’m still working on.

More about all of this stuff as I scrape together some additional free time to blog about it.

Until then, subscribers should keep their eyes on their mailboxes and readers everywhere should keep their eyes on the local bookstores. Robots Have No Tails is on its way!

PZO8005-Cover.inddWe’ve just implemented some changes to the Planet Stories imprint and to Planet Stories subscriptions that we believe will significantly increase the quality of the books in general and enhance the value of your subscription.

Starting with June’s Robots Have No Tails, by Henry Kuttner, Planet Stories subscribers will enjoy a 30% discount on new Planet Stories volumes (up from 20%). Additionally, subscribers will be able to order older Planet Stories books at a substantial 15% discount off the cover price as an added benefit of subscribing. We hope this new discount structure makes it easier for collectors to pick up volumes they may have missed from earlier in our series.

PZO8021TOC_90Also in June, Planet Stories will shift to a roughly bimonthly publication schedule, with six volumes scheduled per year into the future. We’re worried we may be producing Planet Stories books faster than subscribers are able to read them, so we want to slow things down a bit and give each book a chance to make a strong impact on the marketplace and in the minds of our faithful readers. We hope to increase the frequency in the future, but doing so will require significantly more subscribers than we have now and better penetration into local and national bookstores. We believe these changes will come with time, and reducing the frequency in the meantime gives us an opportunity to ensure that Planet Stories has the best possible foundation in the years to come during a very challenging period for the book publishing industry.

PZO8021p50-51_180The biggest change to the line will become apparent when we send out Robots Have No Tails in the upcoming weeks: We’ve completely revised the Planet Stories format to pack in more story for your buck and to include illustrations that harken back to the pulp era from which many of our stories are drawn. In the case of this summer’s The Ship of Ishtar, by A. Merritt, we’ve even negotiated rights to publish illustrations by noted pulp illustrator (and the best man at the wedding of C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner) VIRGIL FINLAY!

Those of you familiar with Finlay’s marvelous work will no doubt be jumping up and down with excitement. Those of you who have not encountered his work are in for a real treat. Other Planet Stories volumes will contain interior illustrations (many original to the Planet Stories line) as well, and we hope to set a new standard of design excellence with the series. We’ve posted sample page layouts on the Robots Have No Tails product page to give you a taste of what’s in store in the very near future.

PZO8005-Cover.inddThe very best way that you can help to ensure a bright future for Planet Stories is to subscribe, and to evangelize the line to your science fiction and fantasy-reading friends. We hope to double the number of Planet Stories subscribers in the next year, and we’re going to need all the help you can provide in order to achieve that goal.

We’re more excited about the Planet Stories line than we’ve ever been. In many ways, we’re finally publishing these stories in a format that does them justice and best matches our original plans for the line. We hope you love what’s in store, and that you continue to support Planet Stories.

It means the (strange adventures on other) worlds to us.

Sincerely,

Erik Mona
Publisher
Paizo Publishing, LLC

Planet Stories Update

While the “next week” big announcement for Planet Stories looks like it’s going to get shoved off another week until we can get the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game out the door, I did want to drop by with a number of updates regarding recent Planet Stories happenings that will interest readers of this blog.

Cover illustration by Andrew Hou

Cover illustration by Andrew Hou

1. I am very pleased to announce that the Planet Stories edition of Gary Gygax’s Infernal Sorcress has been nominated for the “Best Fiction” Origins Award. The nominees are decided upon by the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design (read: game designers and publishers) and retailers attending the recent GAMA Trade Show. The winners will be decided by the attendees of the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio in late June.

The Origins Awards are the longest-running awards in the game industry, and it is an honor to be nominated.

Infernal Sorceress came out last August, and got pretty good penetration into chain bookstores, but I’ve noticed that most stores have stopped restocking the book. If you have yet to read this epic fantasy novel—the very last written by D&D creator Gary Gygax—you can still pick it up from the Paizo.com online store.

paizod20_bigger2. We’ve been pulled into the Twitterverse! After resisting what seemed like a pointless service for months and months, we finally broke down and set up new Twitter accounts at @paizo (for mostly game-related postings) and @planetstoriesTM (for Planet Stories-related posts). Both accounts have already drawn an impressive number of followers, and we urge you to join in the conversation!

3. Senior Editor Pierce Watters is in his homeland of Texas this week. In between sales calls, he managed to have lunch with Michael Moorcock to discuss future Planet Stories projects. What could possibly come of that? Stay tuned for some unbelievably cool news on that front, true believers!

Original cover to 1952 Gnome Press edition.

Original cover to 1952 Gnome Press edition.

4. Henry Kuttner’s Robots Have No Tails went to the printer yesterday, and I predict that many jaws will hit the floor when readers finally get a look at this new edition of what may be some of Kuttner’s very finest work. Let’s just say that there are significant differences in presentation with this book when compared to previous Planet Stories editions. The “next week” announcement will cover these changes, so please do keep in touch.

Cover of 1948 Fantastic Novels edition.

Cover of 1948 Fantastic Novels edition.

With that book on the press, the editorial staff has moved on to A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar, which will feature a fabulous new cover from artist Kieran Yanner and interior art by an artist near and dear to most fans of fantasy from the pulp era. I can’t be more specific until a certain contract has been signed, but let’s just say that A. Merritt’s fiction is at its best when accompanied by the work of a particular artist, and we will continue in that proud tradition with our new edition!

cimmerian_banner

5. Speaking of A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar, many thanks to the superlative Robert E. Howard-focused blog The Cimmerian for giving a shout-out to the forthcoming release of this pivotal work in the field of sword & sorcery. Of all the authors I’ve “discovered” since setting out to publish the best out-of-print fantasy in Planet Stories, Merritt is perhaps my favorite. His influence on the writing style of H. P. Lovecraft and C. L. Moore in particular is undeniable, and it is a shame that modern readers are not more familiar with his work. I’m trying to do something about that, and with the help of allies like The Cimmerian, I think there’s a good chance that old Abraham Merritt might just find a new audience.

Oh, and once we announce the interior art details, the folks at The Cimmerian will no doubt feel very self-assured with their declaration of the Planet Stories edition as “the best edition of The Ship of Ishtar between two covers ever“.

Oh, yes.

Much more to come!

Northwest of EarthAuthor and noted sf critic Paul Kincaid has just posted a very thoughtful review of C. L. Moore’s Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith, one of the most popular Planet Stories releases to date, to SFSite.com. Northwest of Earth collects all of Moore’s seminal Northwest Smith stories together in one volume for the very first time, from the debut story that launched Moore’s career in 1933 (“Shambleau”) to her final story featuring the outlaw of the spaceways in 1957 (“Song in a Minor Key”).

Kincaid summarizes Northwest Smith this way: “His natural habitat is the cheap bars, grungy hotels and dangerous alleyways of port towns on Mars and Venus. But this futuristic backwoods is only the stepping-off point for wild journeys of the imagination into exotic and erotic realms that always somehow open out from our base reality. From such dark and dusty starting points, the stories explode into colour; everything in these other realms is in scarlet or blue, purple or gold. Always bold primary colours, there are no tints, shades or pastels to be seen, for these are bold primary adventures.”

I was particularly struck by Kincaid’s observation regarding the use of doorways and passages in the Northwest Smith stories. Indeed, when we first meet the character he is standing in a dusty Martian doorway, and many of his adventures take place in otherworldly realms accessed through portals of various kinds. In this way Smith shares many similarities with Moore’s other prominent character, the Dark Ages swordswoman Jirel of Joiry, whose seductive fantasies are collected in the Planet Stories edition Black God’s Kiss.

Unlike Jirel, who can be read as perhaps the first feminist sword & sorcery protagonist, Northwest Smith has a somewhat more complicated approach to sexual politics. The women he encounters are usually tied up with danger and even death, and while the Smith stories represent some of the most sensually described tales of the pulp era, there is a complex morality play going on that makes Moore’s stories more fascinating because they were written by a woman.

As Kincaid puts it, “Sex, itself a ‘nameless’ subject in the popular literature of the relatively straitlaced 1930s, was a fairly common subtext of those encounters with the mysterious that were related in the typical weird tale, and a suggestion of the erotic must have been a selling point in colourful popular magazines. But the sexual aspect of Moore’s Northwest Smith stories is hardly a subtext, the imagery is too potent, too central, too omnipresent for that. These are stories in which sex is death, beauty is a commodity independent of the person, and women are a danger and must be killed.”

 

Illustration by Jean-Claude Forest.

Illustration by Jean-Claude Forest.

I think the latter observation is layering it on a bit thick, but a certain sensuality and sense of sexual danger pervades the Northwest Smith stories, which for me makes them all the more fascinating. Plus there’s heat guns and ruined cities and monsters and stuff, threads of pulp adventure that give the stories life and excitement beyond their considerable subtext.

 

You can learn more about reviewer Paul Kincaid by visiting his website. Copies of Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith are available direct from the publisher at paizo.com.

 

PZO8005-Cover.inddLeigh Brackett wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back and worked with William Faulkner on The Big Sleep, but her greatest contribution to science fiction was a series of tales set on a fantastic Mars. Brackett’s Red Planet was a place of ancient cities perched on the crumbling cliffs of dry canals and the windswept seabeds of ancient oceans, a world of adventurers and confidence men and swordsmen and thieves. The latest Planet Stories release, The Sword of Rhiannon is a perfect introduction to Leigh Brackett’s best-loved stories, and a great place to sample Paizo’s Planet Stories line.

Brackett’s Mars draws great inspiration from the “Barsoom” stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who invented the “sword & planet” genre with his tales of interplanetary adventure. Most of Leigh Brackett’s Martian stories, likeThe Secret of Sinharat, take place in a similar world many hundreds of years in the future, where colonization by Earth is a foregone conclusion. The Martians of this world are furtive, reclusive folk, largely resigned to the imminent demise of their once proud culture. The Sword of Rhiannon thrusts crooked archeologist Matt Carse into the glorious past of Mars, producing the most Burroughs-influenced and swashbuckling of Brackett’s Martian tales.

The Mars of Rhiannon is a place of glittering oceans and majestic cities, of fantastic ships oared by galley slaves, of Sea Kings and living gods and magic blades. This is the Red Planet at the height of its culture and decadence, allowing Brackett to craft a marvelous tale of adventure that stands among her very finest

If you’ve been curious about Planet Stories but haven’t been sure where to start, wonder no longer. The Sword of Rhiannon is exactly the sort of book we had in mind when we set out to publish the finest tales in the history of fantasy, and lovers of swordplay, gloriously imagined locales, and pulse-pounding excitement will find much to excite their interest in this latest release.

But fair warning. Reading Leigh Brackett can lead to a powerful literary addiction. Happily, Planet Stories is ready and able to keep you comfortable throughout your recovery.