Galaxy_by_Inwe1Another summer means another “reading season” for me. This is the time of year when I’m not teaching so I’m free to dig into the pile of books I’ve accumulated over the last twelve months.

Yep, I buy books all year long—can’t get enough of ’em. Yet my reading proceeds at a crawl because of my busy schedule until summer hits. It’s kind of a tradition for me to blog here about what I read each summer, so let’s get to it:

The-Light-is-the-DarknessTHE LIGHT IS THE DARKNESS by Laird Barron
I’ve greatly enjoyed reading Barron’s many story collections and his terrific first novel THE CRONING. LIGHT is something between a novella and a novel—call it a short novel if you will—and it actually came out before THE CRONING. It has everything that Barron’s fans have come to expect from him: Hard-boiled protagonists, creeping evil from beyond space/time, and a two-fisted plunge into cosmic phantasmagoria.

Barron’s protagonist is Conrad Navarro, reigning champion of a global underground gladitorial fighting ring. He’s a modern-day Beowulf or Conan, although he might remind readers more of Frank Miller’s Marv (from SIN CITY). Barron channels his crime-noir skills here as Conrad’s journey into mystery takes him behind the veil of consensual reality, where he discovers the horrible truth about himself and the nefarious forces that killed his brother and stole his sister.

It’s dark, slick, mysterious, and brutal. It’s Laird Barron, a one-of-a-kind talent, at his most uninhibited. If THE CRONING was a cerebral descent into cosmic terror, then THE LIGHT IS THE DARKNESS is a blood-soaked roller coaster ride through a world of decadent horrors. Along with the incredible “Hand of Glory”, this is one of Laird’s best stories, hands down.

by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley

Next up: COMICS! It’s the Summer of SLAINE for me. Pat Mills created this Celtic hero in the pages of 2000AD, where he chronicled the character’s adventures for many years. The very height of those adventures came when a young Simon Bisley came onboard to illustrate a new series of Slaine installments beginning in 1989.

The result was THE HORNED GOD a 3-book magnum opus that helped make Bisley an art legend. It also gave Mills the chance to bring Slaine’s world to life in a deeper way than ever before. Bisley’s fully painted panels are breathtaking, and often he changes techniques in the middle of scenes to evoke emotion or contrast.

HornedGod2The story of Slaine doesn’t begin in THE HORNED GOD, but it serves as a great introduction to the character for anybody new to Slaine’s world. Ukko the Dwarf, Slaine’s longtime companion (the Sancho Panza to his Don Quijote, if you will) is scribing the story in the remote future, so we get a story within a story, often with Ukko’s skewed and humorous viewpoint.

Mills uses Slaine to explore and expound on Celtic mythology in ironic and unexpected ways. Bisley’s art is equal parts Frank Frazetta and Richard Corben, with a bit of Bill Sienkiewicz. In short, it’s absolutely gorgeous, and perfect for such a mythic story.

HornedGod4Sea demons, undead monsters, phantom dragons, and marauding hordes of men and beasts come to life in the weird world of pre-history that Mills envisions. The Celtic women are strong and gorgeous, often mighter and more deadly than their male counterparts.

Slaine isn’t your typical “musclebound barbarian,” he’s a complex character in a savage world of magic and brutality. He’s a servant of the Earth Goddess, a slayer of dragons, a “warp-spasm” warrior, and a man determined to save his long-suffering people from diabolic forces. Rarely have story and art blended so perfectly into the construction of an illustrated fantasy. THE HORNED GOD is a must for any fantasy fan’s graphic novel library.

808708COMPANIONS ON THE ROAD by Tanith Lee
This is actually two unrelated fantasy novellas packaged into a single slim paperback originally released in 1975. This was the same year Lee was nominated for a Nebula Award for her debut novel (THE BIRTHGRAVE). The first novella is “Companions on the Road,” the story of a cursed goblet and two soldiers who steal it from a burning castle after a seige. It becomes a “road story” of haunting spirits and deadly curses, but the magic is underplayed in favor of rising menace.

The second half of COMPANIONS ON THE ROAD provides great contrast, as the sorcery factor is amped way up. “The Winter Players” is a tale of feuding sorcerers where Lee lets the magic fly. The young sorceress protagonist discovers the depth of her power as she pursues a thief who stole a holy relic from her seaside shrine. The tale builds in depth and complexity, delivering a stunning and clever conclusion.

I liked the second novella (“The Winter Players”) better than the first, but both are superb works from one of Lee’s most prolific periods (i.e. the 70s)—which also happened to be the Golden Age of Sword-and-Sorcery. No coincidence there…