Another small grouping, this time of authors with a single fantasy work I wish to review -- and that one off the beaten track. Of the three, the Chambers is the only 'classic'. The others are personal picks of books that made a brief appearance and then sank.
"The Sword Smith" (***+) is a relatively recent novel (1978) by Eleanor Arnason. It's my favorite of her books, and the hardest to find. (She is also the author of "A Woman of the Iron People" (***+), a science fiction novel which has received better press, the uninspired "To the Ressurection Station" (**-), and the new "Ring of Swords", which I haven't read.) "The Sword Smith" is one of the most *understated* fantasies I've read. We've come to expect a certain flamboyance from a novel which features heroes and dragons and sorcerers and trolls and gods, and this one doesn't provide it. Limper, the sword smith of the title, is making his way through a world in which heroes and dragons and sorcerers and trolls are dying breeds, and (with the possible exception of the trolls) are inclined to be reasonable. It's a dangerous enough world, and nobody goes out of his way to make it more dangerous than it has to be, through unnecessary heroics.
Limper himself is a reasonable character, at least by his own lights.He's also a superb blacksmith, and when he gets fed up with working for the king, and quits, the king want him back. He flees, accompanied by a pint-sized dragon. (People's typical reaction upon meeting her is not "Eek! A dragon!", but more along the lines of "Gee, I've never seen a dragon before. I thought they were bigger.") It's a world in which even heroes put their pants on one leg at a time, and the combination of the props of heroic fantasy without its excesses makes for a pleasant change.
"Excalibur" (***), by Sanders Anne Laubenthal, is also fairly recent (1973), and works a similarly refreshing change on the Arthurian mythos. Many of the expected Arthurian props are in place -- Arthur's heirs and Morgan le Fay racing to find Excalibur, with the odd Elf and Holy Grail thrown in -- but the context is modern. Which is what you might expect, if you accept the premise that Excalibur has lain hidden in Alabama all these years. The book starts clumsily, with a lot of poorly-disguised exposition thrown at the reader, but it gathers strength as it tells its undramatic story of a modern Pendragon, a surprisingly sympathetic Morgan, and a scholarly pair of women in search of the Sword. "Excalibur" is what people like to call "a strong first novel": It's fun, but I'd like to have seen what Laubenthal could do as a more mature author.
"The King in Yellow" (***), by Robert W. Chambers, is an anthology which first appeared in 1895. The book takes its title from a forbidden book (of which we only see or hear snippets) which links the first four stories in the collection. A best-seller in its day, this anthology has lost much of its power, and is significant largely because of its influence on later authors.
The first four stories in the collection feature a book (a play, apparently) which leaves madness and horror in its wake. To read it is to end badly. The first story, "The Repairer of Reputations" is set in the 'future' (1920s?). In that story, the book is a manuscript titled "Imperial Dynasty of America", and through those who have read it, we first hear of the King in Yellow, the Pallid Mask, and the Yellow Sign, of Hastur and Aldones, of Hali and the mystery of the Hyades. (For a relatively lengthy pastiche of the play, see "More Light", by James Blish. It can be found in McCaffrey's anthology "Alchemy and Academe".) In subsequent stories, the book itself is explicitly referred to as "The King in Yellow".
I'm not sure why Chambers's horror stories have lost so much of their power over the years. Perhaps it's because they were written for an audience for whom plague and madness were the prominent horrors. (Do modern readers associate the color yellow with plague?) Perhaps the Victorian melodrama is overdone for our tastes. In any case, I commend this book to you primarily as an historically important curiosity.
Dani Zweig email@example.com