"Once I lived, even, in rancid caves. Before that, I was born in the swirl of flames and gases of a world. I have only vague knowledge of my own beginnings, but I am old and mighty; and yet I am always young and vulnerable as well. That is because I am Woman. It is my mission to give; but I must take as well."Novelets of Science Fiction and how I admired their bombastic and misleading ad copy ("BOOK OF THE YEAR!")? Well, by gracing it with an evocative Jeff Jones cover and the declaration that it is "FANTASY ADVENTURE AT ITS FINEST," Belmont has made me fall all in love all over again, this time with Quest of the Dark Lady by Quinn Reade, published in 1969.
When a new love enters your life, you are always beset by questions, and this love is no different. Is it by mere coincidence or clever design that the cover image and book title of Quest of the Dark Lady remind prospective readers of the oeuvre of the Swan of Avon? Is there any chance the actual novel, by prolific writer of Westerns, sex novels, and books on racism in the American South, Ben Haas, using one of his many pseudonyms, will be as fun as the cover? Let's read the book and see what answers we can find!
Quest of the Dark Lady appears to be set on the Earth of the future, 500 years after a nuclear war that nearly exterminated mankind. The human race, reduced to a medieval technological level, is organized into the Empire of the Iron Lands and besieged by armies of hideous mutants. Only the tireless leadership of the strongest and cleverest man on Earth, Emperor Langax, keeps humanity from collapsing into anarchy or being overrun by the giant slugs known as the Slimy Ones, the taloned Gibberers, and the shapeless Soft Creatures. But now Langax has lost the will to live and retired to bed to waste away! This is no doubt the work of sorcery!
Our three heroes cross a tangled forest and a scorching desert to meet the Dark Lady. Who is this Dark Lady, anyway? Delius tells his comrades (and us) that she is "a sorceress, unimaginably ancient, yet always new and beautiful...." Her magic power is dormant until she is "mated with a King....a woman's magic is different from a man's; that's why she needs the marriage to a King to activate hers." He quotes Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" more than once in describing her. It seems that the reason King-Emperor Langax is sick is that the Dark Lady has married some evil king who is trying to use the monsters to conquer Langax's Empire of Iron. (The Iron Lands are not the last colony of humanity after all.) The only hope for the Iron Lands is that Wulf, Reen and Delius get that marriage annulled and get the Dark Lady wed to Langax tout suite!
Wulf and company are captured and dragged before the evil King and his queen, the mesmerizingly beautiful Dark Lady. Reen is raped, Delius is tortured, and Wulf is forced to fight a duel at a banquet against the best swordsman in this evil kingdom, who happens to be Reen's rapist! Having won the duel, Wulf is taken into the evil king's service and provided a harem that includes Reen. But Wulf puts Reen on the shelf when the Dark Lady, amoral and fickle, sneaks into Wulf's bed and he has the best sex of his life!
|A 1976 printing with a |
different Jeff Jones cover
When I bought Quest of the Dark Lady I expected it to be weak; it was a novel by a writer I had never even heard of before, after all. But I was wrong--Quest of the Dark Lady works quite well as a fast-paced sword and sorcery adventure story, and I really enjoyed it. The descriptions of weird settings, unusual monsters (Haas wisely eschews the traditional goblins, trolls, dragons, giant snakes and giant spiders), magic spells and hand-to-hand combats are all well done.
The novel also benefits from its main themes: love, marriage and sex, how difficult sexual relationships can be and how love and lust can make us act crazy. Here is a compelling topic that most of us can identify with in one way or another, and Haas really pours it on--we have a woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate and betray men, a man who betrays a woman who loves him, men sexually abusing women, and men and women who can only achieve their true potential through marriage. Haas means the Dark Lady to be the ultimate femme fatale, the archetypal irresistibly sexy woman, and matches her with the ultimate man, the brave and honorable nobleman Wulf. Wulf struggles to choose between the black-haired queen, that conscienceless manipulator and sex goddess, and blonde Reen, who sincerely loves him and with whom he can have a healthy relationship based on mutual background, experiences and interests.
The book is suffused with sex, though the actual sex scenes are not terribly explicit (no "throbbing members" or anything like that.) The numerous instances of characters expressing, demonstrating and satisfying their physical desire for each other are supplemented by many mentions of the "erotic statues" that decorate Langax's castle and the legions of half-naked concubines that serve the inhabitants of both Langax's and the evil king's castle, generating a lascivious atmosphere that permeated the book.
An ably-written, solid adventure story with elements of sexploitation literature and characters representing all the stereotypical gender roles we are not supposed to believe in anymore--I'd definitely recommend it to sword and sorcery fans, aficionados of odd vintage paperbacks, and those studying gender in speculative fiction. Haas wrote two more sword and sorcery capers, those under the pen name Richard Meade, and after experiencing Quest of the Dark Lady, I am definitely interested in reading them.
My copy of Quest of the Dark Lady has four pages of terrific ads in the back, including one for what appears to be an operatic account of the troubles faced by America's own royalty, those expert navigators of boats, automobiles, skis, aircraft, and young ladies, the Kennedys!
Edmond Hamilton ("One man against the universe"), Mack Reynolds ("His unearthly power could destroy the world"), Murray Leinster ("all that's curious and terrifying"), James Schmitz ("men without souls join forces with living machines") or Frank Belknap Long ("a top-rated author"???)
An entire page is devoted to "Gothic Suspense Novels," which I guess are those 20th-century women's romance novels which have some kind of stylistic connection to those classic 18th and 19th century Gothic novels like Castle of Otranto (which I thought was lame when I read it back in the '90s), Frankenstein and Dracula (which I think are great) and Jane Eyre (which I have not read.) Another covers Sword and Sorcery novels, mostly by the mediocre writer but important editor Lin Carter.
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