Friday 8 February 2008

Valleys of the Past #2 - Fighting Fantasy

Tonight the Euro Millions lottery prize stands at 95 million - the largest total in the history of the lottery. And I can't buy a freakin' ticket because every god-damned man and his dog have all had the same idea, and the website has crashed. Great. So, to banish the thoughts of what I would have done with 95 million, I thought I'd write a bit more about how I got into fantasy (a poor substitute, I concede, but probably more relevant to this blog).

I mentioned before how Tim and the Hidden People had sparked an interest in all things mystical and magical. After I devoured all the Hidden People books I could find, I returned to reading 'normal' kids' books. But the fantasy spark was always there, even if it lay dormant.
The defining moment came when I was about 11 years old. At school we had this scheme called the Puffin Book Club. You got handed a little pamphlet with pictures and descriptions of books. You chose what you wanted, returned a slip with the money and then later the books would be delivered to school.
On one issue of the pamphlet, they had a book called Return to Firetop Mountain. Here is the original cover in all its glory.

To this day I have no idea why I wanted that book, but I did. When it arrived, I found out it was the 50th book in a series called Fighting Fantasy. These books were like other adventure books on the market, in that you were given a choice of action (fight, flee, use a magic item, etc) and then skipped to the appropriate paragraph to continue the story. It enabled you to actually dictate the story and chose how it worked out, and that to me was pretty cool. It still is.

The main difference with Fighting Fantasy was that most of the books were set in a fantasy world, full of the usual elves, dwarves, dragons and wizards. This probably sounds totally generic, but for an 11-year-old who had never experienced this sort of thing before, it was almost a spiritual experience. I got hopelessly sucked in and picked up more of the books. While the combat system was basic, to just be part of these adventures and play an active role was hugely rewarding.
I spent many, many happy hours exploring Allansia, the Old World and Khul. I trekked through the desolate Moonstone Hills, braved the shadowy streets of Port Blacksand and traversed the dangerous paths of Darkwood Forest, to name but a few locations. I fought monsters, haggled with merchants, dabbled with magic and saved the world several dozen times over (naturally). Fighting Fantasy books were an escape for me for many years. Naturally, the series eventually grew to a halt as its popularity waned due to the growth of video games and petty vandalism. Around the same time, I 'graduated' onto grown-up fantasy and the die was cast.
My love for the Fighting Fantasy series never left me though. Later, in my university days my interest was rekindled and I decided that I had unfinished business with the series. Despite my love for them, I never actually collected all the Fighting Fantasy books. Not even close. I decided that this was a wrong that I needed to put right, and could do so thanks to the wonder that is ebay. Over the next two years, I managed to collect all 59 books. It wasn't easy. As the series had wound down, fewer copies had been published. This made the later books far more difficult to get hold off, as there were less of them. To complete my collection, I had to import books from Australia and the States as some were simply not available in the UK. Some of the rarer books (55 onwards) were rather expensive too, regularly going for £40 ($80) a book. Still, I got there in the end and am now the proud (and super-geeky) owner of the entire collection, plus all 4 books of the Sorcery! sub-series, the Out of the Pit bestiary and Titan, the world-guide. I also have two of the novels, but somehow never got the third. That will have to be rectified.

I would take a picture of my collection, but sadly my camera goes through batteries quicker than a beggar in a bakery, and so such a picture will have to wait.
There was fresh excitement on the Fighting Fantasy front a few years ago when Wizard books picked up the rights and re-printed the early gamebooks with brand new covers. After a shaky start (and some slightly iffy covers) they managed to successfully re-market the series. Here's the front cover to Talisman of Death:

What was even more exciting was that Wizard published a brand-new adventure called Eye of the Dragon by Ian Livingstone, one of the co-founders of the series. On top of that, they published Bloodbones - the semi-legendary 60th gamebook that was shelved many years before and existed only in rumour-form for a decade on internet fansites. Come to think of it, I've not got a copy of it. Hmm. That will have to be rectified as well.
So, there you have it. I owe my love of fantasy to Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. In a parallel universe, I never ordered Return to Firetop Mountain from that Puffin Book Club leaflet, and instead today read high-brow 'literary' gobshite. Maybe.
For more info on Fighting Fantasy, check out these sites. May your dice roll high! (fan site with all original covers)


Anonymous said...

I love nostalgia fantasy stuff... My guilty pleasure is the Red Sonja comic book series, which is so hilarious to read at some points, not to mention watching this woman slay demons in a chainmail bikini--brilliant!

James said...

Ah, the old chainmail bikini...definitely one of the better parts of fantasy nostalgia!

Todd Newton said...

Man, I love that cover art for the new Talisman of Death. If I have a say in it, I really hope I can have Martin McKenna do my cover art. I might like his stuff (on a whole) better than Michael Whelan (his cover art is a huge reason why I read the Coldfire Trilogy which was MY big introduction to fantasy).

James said...

Yeah, I love the cover for Talisman of Death. Type in 'Bloodbones' into google image search. That's another awesome McKenna cover.

His best artwork though is in the interior art, particularly the illustrations that appear in Return to Firetop Mountain and Dead of Night. Very atmospheric.