Thursday, July 14, 2016

My Lord Barbarian by Andrew J. Offutt

"Sword-armed men...barbarians indeed!  But all of us, not just we of Branarius, so long called the Barbarian World.  Sword-armed men, Jheru, concerned with their mail-coats, counseled by so-called wise men called Elders--for we are really stupid men indeed--living under ages-old lights and riding from world to world in ships built in the mists of pasts. Ships whose mechanisms we understand not at all."

Followers of my thrilling twitter feed may recall that I have been buying up Andrew J. Offutt paperbacks.  Well, here's one with a title that makes you wonder why Fabio isn't on the cover: My Lord Barbarian, from 1977.  Maybe my copy has suffered sun damage, or maybe it's because I'm sitting under a fluorescent light, but it looks, to me, like our hero has a green face and purple hair.  Maybe he's some kind of human-alien hybrid?  We see those from time to time in our science-fiction wanderings, don't we?

Our tale takes place in the future, in a region of space colonized by Earth in a distant age.  For centuries now the planets here, forming the Empire of Seven Worlds, have been cut off from the rest of the universe, and while the spaceships of the Ancients and a small number of other artifacts still operate, for generations people have been reduced to writing with quill pens, fighting with swords and riding horses around.

As our story begins, Valeron of planet Brasarius has just pacified and united that previously war torn and anarchic world, most primitive of the Seven, making himself King of Brasarius.  The Emperor of the Seven Worlds invites Valeron to the capital planet, Carmeis; he thinks Valeron, a fellow fighting man, would make a great husband for his daughter, Princess Aleysha, and a great heir to the imperial throne. The bookish prime minister, Darcus Cannu, however, begs to differ, and when Valeron arrives at the palace the PM murders the Emperor and has Valeron framed for the crime!

The slender and sexy princess, now Empress (though merely a figurehead under the thumb of Darcus Cannu, who even has the temerity to start planning their wedding!), met barbaric hunk Valeron when she was 13 and has been nursing a crush on that heroic slab of beefcake for the six years he's been away unifying Brasarius by cracking skulls, so she helps Valeron escape the dungeon.  Then Aleysha's curvaceous and sexy slave girl, Jheru, helps sneak Valeron into Aleysha's bedroom (where he relieves Aleysha of the burden of her virginity) and then helps him steal a spaceship and get the hell off Carmeis.  While elegant Aleysha's aid came in the form of her slipping him a dagger through the bars of his cell, lusty Jheru gets her hands dirty in hand-to-hand fights at Valeron's side.

Valeron and Jheru travel to one of the other of the seven planets, where a council of the kings of all the lesser planets is convened.  Our heroes convince the council of Darcus Cannu's guilt, and Valeron and Jheru then lead them and their armies to Carmeis to overthrow and punish Darcus.  All you due process types out there will be happy to know Darcus is afforded a trial before the council, where he gets a chance to use his silver tongue to explain all his good selfless reasons for murdering the Emperor and putting the blame on war hero Valeron.

This is an entertaining adventure story with all the elements we've seen a million times: guys (and Jheru) swordfighting, getting captured, escaping, putting on the uniforms of the enemy to sneak around the palace, plotting sneak attacks and pincer moves, etc.  One way Offutt adds some interest is by introducing some superficial but colorful characters, like the Elders who worship the god "Siense" and try to figure out the lost technology of the Ancients, the hairless savages known as the Sungoli who formerly terrorized Brasarius but now follow Valeron, and the various Kings of the Seven planets, one fat, one a religious fanatic, one a tested fighting man who earned his throne on the battlefield much as Valeron did, etc.  Offutt tries to create the impression of a vast and diverse world with a small number of short strokes.

As the title and cover illustration hint will be the case, and the ad copy on the first page promises (for some reason Del Rey decided to forgo inclusion of glowing blurbs from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times on this page), love and sex ("ROMANCE!") play a prominent part in My Lord Barbarian.  We learn early on that Valeron has had multitudes of women and has left a trail of illegitimate children (fifteen according to rumor) behind him during his campaigns across Brasarius. Offutt expends lots of ink describing Aleyasha's and Jheru's bodies, how their breasts move when they brush their hair and so forth, and while there are no explicit sex scenes, there is a lot of aggressive, flirtatious, S&M-tinged play between Valeron and Jheru; the barbarian warlord smacks her bottom, twists her arm painfully while they act out a kidnapping, and jovially talks about raping her, treatment Jheru seems to relish.  (Could Offutt have been inspired by, or be catering to the fans of, John Norman's Gor series?)  One of the plot's threads is how Valeron is torn by the choice between Empress Alyesha, who represents ultimate power and civilization, and Jheru, who, like him, is boisterous and lusty, and more than willing to slip into a suit of mail, slap on a helmet and fight the Empire's enemies up close and personal.  In the last pages of the book Valeron passes up the chance to marry Aleyasha and become Emperor and instead returns to Bresarius with Jheru as his bride.

The contrast between barbarism and civilization and the uneasy relationship between the barbaric and the civilized are the main themes of the book.  Valeron, like Tarzan, was raised in an alien and savage environment (by the Sungoli), and after mastering that environment left it for a more sophisticated milieu, where he again emerged as a leader, in part because of the skills he learned from his adoptive barbaric culture. Valeron is motivated by a need to prove to sophisticated people, and to himself, that, despite his upbringing among the lowest savages on the most primitive of the seven planets, he is as good as any civilized man.  One of the novel's plot threads concerns the attitude of the Empire's leaders towards Valeron; Darcus Cannu commits the crimes he does because he thinks a barbarian unfit for the role of Emperor, and while Valeron wins over the kings of the five civilized planets and they accept his leadership of the army that overthrows Darcus Cannu, there is always an undercurrent of skepticism and fear about the unsophisticated, almost alien, Valeron, and the other kings are relieved when he declines the Imperial throne.

Paralleling how he contrasts barbarism and civilization is how Offutt presents a contrast between the low technology of the Empire of Seven Worlds and the high technology of their ancestors.  Some of the most memorable scenes of the novel concern Valeron and Darcus Cannu's explorations of the robot- and computer-inhabited elevators and control rooms that lie beneath the palace on Carmeis; they are the first to tread those corridors since the Days of Wrath that led to the collapse of the ancient technological civilization centuries ago.  Offutt paints a mixed picture of high technology; the characters all marvel at it and many covet the advantages of mastering more of the Ancients' knowledge and equipment, but most are aware that it was just this technology that destroyed the Ancient civilization, and when Darcus Cannu attempts to defeat Valeron with advanced weaponry he has found beneath the palace, it backfires on him.  As the novel ends it is clear that under Empress Aleyasha (who seems slated to marry a king who is uniquely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Ancient technology) that the Empire will embark on a campaign of major technological and societal change.

My Lord Barbarian is a diverting sword and planet story I can recommend to fans of the genre.  In his dedication Offutt invokes the names of Poul Anderson (remember when I detected similarities to Anderson's work in Offutt's Chieftain of Andor?), Leigh Brackett and Alfred Coppel.  My Lord Barbarian actually reminded me quite a bit of Philip Jose Farmer's The Green Odyssey: both are "swashbuckling" tales set on planets littered with mysterious high-tech artifacts and both feature capable female characters who save the hero's life as well as themes of sexual dominance.

Finally, I know all of you are wondering about Valeron's hair.  Well, on page 72, Offutt does refer to  Valeron's "mass of long purple-red hair"!  It looks like Boris Vallejo actually read the book!  (I still can't figure out the green face, though.)

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