Continuing this trend I've recently taken up of reviewing books, audio and otherwise, today I'm going to go over Thune's Vision by Schuyler Hernstrom.
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Thune's Vision is a short story collection by Mr. Hernstrom, featuring a novella at the end called The Saga of Adalwolf. Mr. Hernstrom's work has also been featured in Cirsova Magazine, which was my first experience with his writing. Immensely enjoying his contribution to this neo-pulp SFF mag, I bought his book, and I can say that the stories are of the same caliber. Which is to say, fucking awesome. And I mean 'awesome' in the classic sense of 'inspiring awe.'
Anyone who's been following my podcast for any real length of time knows that one of my problems with modern SFF; and even modern horror; is that the writing is very preachy. They are trying to advance some agenda, get across some kind of message, make a commentary on a political issue, or something of that like, and the medium they've chosen to do that is through fiction. Now as a radical free speech advocate who think that anyone should be able to write, think, say, etc., whatever they want, I don't object to this in theory. In practice, however, this kind of writing has come to dominate modern SFFH literature, and a quick survey of the various podcasts whose job it is to bring contemporary writing in these genres to the awaiting ears of their listeners will illustrate exactly what I'm talking about. The reasons for this are manifold and beyond the scope of this review, but suffice to say that the glut of SFFH literature on the market currently has a message, and that message is usually delivered in as ham-fisted and condescending a manner as possible.
It seems like a trial to find modern SFFH literature that doesn't abide by this paradigm that has been so pervasive as to shut out authors who deviate and simply write stories to have fun and for the enjoyment of their readers. Given this stifling environment nowadays it is very refreshing to run across a writer who doesn't give one single fuck what anyone thinks about their work, and very clearly wrote their stories because they enjoyed them and published them because they wanted to share them with other people who might enjoy them as well. Schuyler Hernstrom is exactly that type of writer.
I know that it's a bit cliche to bring up the bugbear of 'political correctness,' but that type of mentality is exactly what is strangling modern SFFH literature, and is exactly what Mr. Hernstrom dashes in this book. I won't say the stories aren't complex, because they are. They simply deal with a different kind of complexity than most modern tripe. Rather than trying to comment on some issue, these stories create sprawling, mythic worlds that we only see in miniature, through the view of one story written in them. The heroes, if Mr. Hernstrom's creations can truly be called that, are sometimes deep, and sometimes shallow. Regardless of what depths they plunge to, they all share a lust for battle, and every story features some good old fashioned blood and guts. Whether it is a tragic champion who is undermined by his own success as shown in The Challenger's Garland, or a mighty warrior whose hubris is his downfall as in The Saga of Adalwolf, battle features heavily in all but one of these stories.
But the curious and endearing thing about Hernstrom's writing is that his stories read more like oral histories than a modern fantasy tale. The way things are described makes the reader feel as if they are listening to an orator of old regaling them with these tales beside the fire, rather than reading them in a book at the laundromat. The prose sweeps along, not giving a single fuck if you're able to keep up with it, and some of these stories roll at an almost frenzied pace, seeming desperate to reach their conclusion before they run out of breath.
This is one of the most refreshing things about Hernstrom's writing. He does not waste time, and he does not mince words. All of the stories in this collection could very well have been expanded upon and turned into epic novellas to rival The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in length, but they didn't need to be and Hernstrom understood that. So he put these tales down in quickly galloping prose that ties a rope around the reader's throat and drags them along behind it. So not only is the book fairly short in its own right, but it accomplishes the feat of keeping you glued to the pages, wanting to find out what happens next.
Hernstrom's heroes are another point of praise for the book. Well, protagonists would probably be a better word. Few of the main characters of the stories in Thune's Vision are what we would call 'heroic.' Far from a Drizzt Do'Urden, who is a scion of good in a world full of evil, and not even reaching the bar of Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser, who are devious rogues with hearts of gold, the protagonists of Thune's Vision range from vengeance-seeking warriors to warlords whose explicit goal is to bring down peaceful civilizations that existed for thousands of years. The main character of The Champion's Garland is a Dread Knight in service to the King of Death, for fuck's sake. Their motives vary, but mostly they fall under 'self-aggrandizement,' rather than some noble ideal or quest to save the world.
Hernstrom also shows us that epic fantasy doesn't have to be so high-stakes as most modern fantasy. It seems that quite a bit of fantasy has forgotten what stories like the short stories in The Witcher series, the tales in Cirsova, and collections like Thune's Vision remind us is possible. Not everything has to be of earth-shattering, world-saving importance. Sometimes your story can be about an evil wizard trying to find his way into the world of faeries. It can be no greater in scope than a fight between a defending knight and a challenger. Now this is not to say that the implications of these stories for the worlds in which they take place are not vast. They are. But the story itself goes no further, and leaves what happens next up to the readers imagination. Even the novella-length Saga of Adalwolf reveals precious little about the world it takes place in. You get just enough clues to come to your own conclusions, but unless Hernstrom has spoken speculation into law, one person's interpretation is as good as any others.
Ultimately, Thune's Vision is a quite refreshing return to fantasy roots. Going through the Appendix N novels; which are a good survey of those roots; starting with the Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser stories, I can't think of a single contemporary fantasy novel or collection that I've read in recent memory that gets back to basics so well and makes it so fun as this book does. This is a definite buy, and you will not regret the money you spend. The kindle version is .99 cents, the paperback is $5, and for that price you'll get more adventure, honorable combat, blood and guts, and legendary heroes and villains than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately this collection doesn't have an audio adaptation yet, so reading is all you're left with. If Mr. Hernstrom happens to read this, I'm an audiobook producer myself, and I'd absolutely love to bring these stories to life. But until such a time as he hires a producer, you should absolutely buy and read either the paperback or ebook versions.
Music is ZigZag by Kevin Macleod: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?collection=11&Search=Search
ZigZag Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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