I began the day with a sense of intellectual terror—I didn’t know what to write about for this week’s Fantasy Author’s Handbook post. I want to recommend Jane Yolen’s exemplary Take Joy, but don’t have my copy of it on hand. I wanted to run the deleted section from The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction on writing for role-playing games, but first I need to run it by at least one person I interviewed on the subject. I even thought about a list of my ten favorite horror novels. And there are interviews for the book to be expanded on, but I need time to get back in touch with the interviewees. . . . I was at a loss.

Then I discovered a magazine waiting for me at my desk, and started thumbing through it. When I happened upon Richard A Lupoff’s column “Locus Looks at Books,” in the April 2010 issue of Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field (Issue 591, Volume 64, Number 4) I broke one of my cardinal rules. I read a review.

Lupoff was examining three anthologies from Haffner Press that collect the work of seminal space opera author Edmund Hamilton: The Collected Works of Edmund Hamilton, Volume One: The Metal Giants and Others, and Volume Two: The Star Stealers: The Complete Tales of the Interstellar Patrol, and The Collected Stories of Captain Future. Follow this link to Amazon, and they’ll sell you all three.

I love classic pulp-era space opera with a huge gurgling passion. In fact, at home I have a framed poster of one of the old Captain Future covers on my wall. The poster cost me $20, and I paid almost $200 to frame it. It delights me every single day. This is what it looks like:

Now it’s delighting you, too.

And for the record, I bought and framed that before The Big Bang Theory, which features a similar poster on the wall of Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment. Great minds. . . .

Lupoff’s review of the Hamilton collections was positive, so please don’t think this is just a review of a review, jumping on a guy who doesn’t like what I like. I only do that in private.

What struck me about the review wasn’t that Lupoff liked the books (he even contributed an introduction to the Captain Future volume), but his generally apologetic tone. It’s as though he likes it and kinda wants to admit it, but then is also afraid what people might think of him for liking it.

His review begins with this sentence:

“It seems to this reviewer that science fiction has been fighting a civil war for as long as there has been such a recognized form as science fiction, longer, in fact, between those writers (and readers) who regard the form as a medium of pure entertainment, grand and colorful adventure tales, and those who see it as something more serious.”

Just to start off, and at risk of sounding like a critic myself, I’d like to submit the following rewrite for your consideration:

“It seems to this reviewer that a small group of science fiction book critics have been fighting a one-sided war for as long as there has been such a recognized form as science fiction, longer, in fact, against those writers (and readers) who regard science fiction and fantasy as a medium of pure entertainment, grand and colorful adventure tales, and those who desire the realization of the triumph of form over substance and the end of narrative storytelling.”

Maybe a little strident, even for me.

Lupoff continues: “The stories were of course repetitious, involving scoundrelly villains, nefarious plots, dire peril, breathtaking chases and captures and rescues and escapes. The good guys were good and the bad guys were bad, the settings were exotic and the action was fast-paced. The philosophy, if there was any, was pretty simple.

“All right, this is hero pulp, what did you expect, Thomas Mann?”

I couldn’t help but wonder what it was he was actually complaining about here.

Another rewrite?

“I just got out of the hospital and found the experience pretty repetitious, involving helpful nurses, well-trained and experienced doctors, a complex but effective surgery to cure an otherwise terminal condition, a total cessation of years of chronic pain, with an outcome that has added years to my life. The food was a little salty.

“All right, this is a hospital, what did you expect Le Cirque?”

Come on man, you just told us that these stories succeed on every important level then tell us it’s that and not this? Okay, good, it’s not Thomas Mann. If I wanted to read Thomas Mann, I’m free to read Thomas Mann. It is not a bad thing that Edmund Hamilton isn’t Thomas Mann. He doesn’t have to be, and doesn’t have to apologize for it, and neither do his readers, Including Richard A. Lupoff.

And really, wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where Edmund Hamilton’s autobiography appeared on

So there’s that, then immediately after reading that Locus review, I was directed to John Ottinger from the SF/fantasy blog Grasping for the Wind (April 20, 2010), who reviewed the Forgotten Realms novel The God Catcher by Erin M. Evans:

“Evans also adds something to the Realms that is sometimes lacking in a shared world that often centers on action and swordplay,” writes Mr. Ottinger. “Although The God Catcher is action-packed to be sure, Evans’s plot focus is really on the relationship between Tennora and Nestrix—the spellscarred woman. These two are an unlikely combo of friends, and Evans giftedly develops their relationship slowly over the course of the novel, from antagonists, to partners, to true and enduring friends. That depth of character, while it happens occasionally in the Forgotten Realms, is not something you really expect, and Evans does it better than most.”

Fully engulfed in bias as I surely am in this case, and with a sensible reticence to look a gift review in the mouth, let’s take a look at the chompers on this one.

There has never been a Forgotten Realms novel written not just in my almost fifteen-year tenure with TSR and Wizards of the Coasts’s book publishing teams that wasn’t primarily focused on characters. I would submit that it’s impossible to write sword & sorcery-style fantasy adventure novels without them, and you certainly don’t maintain decades-long franchises like The Legend of Drizzt and Dragonlance without them. I’m delighted that Ottinger liked Erin’s book, but jeez, people, maybe just once a review that doesn’t feel the knee-jerk requirement of that qualifier. This stuff is crap, generally, as we all know, but yet here’s one that’s surprisingly good. Can’t The God Catcher just be good, on its own considerable merits?

That’s the criteria that the overwhelming majority of our readers apply.

Ottinger goes on to say: “In essence, The God Catcher is a character-driven tale in a series of novels more known for its sword and sorcery action. Like its predecessor in the series, City of the Dead, The God Catcher is more than its context would imply.”

If its context is sword & sorcery, doesn’t that include enduring classics like Conan and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser?

It does, actually, and that’s exemplary company that no one should feel the need to apologize for being seen with, not authors, not readers, and not even critics.

—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. First off, thank you for reading my review and commenting on it.

    I do however, think you are taking my comments somewhat out of context. You see, I am on your side. I KNOW that FR and its contemporaries are more than sword and sorcery, but I am fighting what often seems like a losing battle against those who disagree with me and you it seems. I KNOW that FR is character driven story. I KNOW that the sword and sorcery part of it are just elements for exploration of many and varied themes. But I also KNOW that there are many who need to be convinced of that fact, which hopefully my review has done.

    So while your points are well-taken, when I wrote the review I was writing to my audience, which is – in some cases – populated by those who wouldn’t even read fantasy, much less a shared world novel.

    However, I do agree that you are right in commenting that my review come off as saying negative things about all the other books in the FR universe, and so I will be much more careful in my wording next time.

    My intent was to tell everyone that the characterizations FR gets is unjustified and LOOK! here is a recent example but a total unknown. Go forth and read good fiction!

    But I obviously failed or at least missed the mark. It is good to get such feedback on reviews as it is a rare and wondrous thing for online reviewers like myself. So thank you for that and your insightful comments.

  2. And I’ll admit I came off more snarky than I should have!
    I guess I’m really trying to encourage you, and Richard Lupoff, and everybody else who’ll listen (and THANK YOU for listening!) not to bother writing to an audience’s pre-conceived notions!

  3. That is what I came away with, and I’ll take your advice to heart. Though is there ever a time a reviewer should address perceived notions?

  4. Pingback: In Which One of My Positive Reviews is (Justifiably) Ripped to Shreds – Grasping for the Wind

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