Friday, August 29, 2014

The Wicked and the Witless by Hugh Cook

"Towards noon, Sarazin passed a gross grey skull, so huge that half a dozen trees sprouted from holes in its dome.  It gave him such a shock that he thereafter suspected the forest of evil intent, and scanned each thicket for ambush by werewolf or worse."

My copy, front and back covers

As a kid I borrowed Wizard War (1986) by Hugh Cook from the library.  It's a pretty long book (447 pages) and I didn't finish it, but a few aspects of the book stuck with me. Particularly, I never forgot the disgusting worms in the novel; in one scene a worm actually crawls into a guy's urethra!  Another worm, the size of an anaconda, bursts from the carcass of a dead dragon.

As an adult I purchased a used copy of Wizard War, and then it sat on shelves and in storage for years.  I finally read it last year.  I loved it, and quickly ordered several more books from Cook's ten volume series, Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, of which Wizard War (British title, The Wizards and the Warriors) is the first.  I read volumes two, three and four, and then took a long break.  This week I read volume five, The Wicked and the Witless (1989).

In general, these novels are long adventure stories, in which people travel around, encountering monsters and wizards and exploring ruins in the wilderness, and in towns getting involved in wars, court intrigues, feuds, love affairs, etc.  The setting is a fantasy world, with magic spells, dragons, demons, and plenty of sword fighting, but thousands of years in the past this was a world of high technology, and ancient science-fiction style artifacts will turn up and play a role in the plot.  This post-apocalyptic setting also allows Cook, and the characters, to use words and concepts like "democracy," "anarchism" and "terrorism" without it feeling jarringly anachronistic.  Wicked and the Witless even includes a minor character who is a gentle parody of Ayn Rand; she engages in a spirited debate on laissez-faire economics with a loyal adherent of King Tor, an ogre.

For my taste, Cook includes in the books just the right amount of sex, violence, suspense, and humor, and strikes a perfect balance between plot and description; the places and characters are always well-defined in my mind, but the story is always moving, something is always happening.  The Chronicles of an Age of Darkness are some of the most entertaining books I have ever read, all of them quite long, but never feeling long; I am always eager to find out what will happen on the next page.

One of the clever things about Chronicles of an Age of Darkness is that most of the books take place during the same time period, and include many of the same characters.  In different books we see the same events from different points of view, or follow a character we recognize from earlier books during a different period of his life.  The Wicked and the Witless stars Watashi, who was a minor character in earlier volumes, a bloodthirsty 25 year old cavalry commander.  Watashi has just turned 22 when we meet him in The Wicked and the Witless, and he is more interested in a poetry career than a military career.  He is still going by the his birth name, Sarazin.

Inside cover and first page
Sarazin's mother, Farfalla, is the chief executive of a powerful country, The Harvest Plains, and Sarazin has spent his youth as a hostage at the court of a neighboring nation, the Rice Empire.  At 22 Serazin returns home, and we follow several years of his madcap military and political career, which takes place during a time of upheaval in the world; as we have seen in the earlier volumes of the series, the nations surrounding The Harvest Plains and Rice Empire are wracked by invasions and revolutions, and then the sorcerous defenses to the south which have kept the monstrous Swarm at bay for centuries collapse, leading to a cataclysm.  Amidst this chaos Serazin strives to achieve greatness, wins the name Watashi, and receives an education from various relatives, tutors, and mentors, and from innumerable horrible experiences.

A theme of Wicked and the Witless is free will and fate.  Serazin has been taught that people are responsible for their own lives, that successful people deserve their success and that failures and the poor equally deserve whatever happens to them.  At the same time, Serazin is obsessed with prophecies and the fates, visiting soothsayers and poring over a prophetic book, and the events of his own life, which is rife with political manipulations and secret conspiracies, strongly suggest that people are at the mercy of powers beyond their control, perhaps beyond comprehension.

I thought The Wicked and the Witless was a lot of fun, but I'm sure it is not for everybody.  It goes on and on, 457 pages of incident after incident, and doesn't really follow a traditional adventure story structure; there isn't a big action climax or a sharp resolution, the novel ending in the middle of a war at the point at which all of Sarazin's teachers have been incapacitated or killed or have abandoned him, and for the first time he has to stand on his own two feet. The novel is also, as the kids say, "politically incorrect;" topics like rape, incest, torture, and child abuse are prevalent and often played for laughs.  Numerous jokes revolve around the fact that Serazin is tricked into having sex with obese and/or old women.  Cook expresses considerable cynicism about lawyers, politicians, and religion.

So, not for everybody, but I found it a solid piece of entertainment.

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