Thursday, January 11, 2018

Kothar and the Wizard Slayer by Gardner F. Fox

"Free me," she whispered to the lich of the dead magician.  "Free me, so I may help those of our wizard brotherhood left alive."
My copy, front
In 1969 and 1970 five books by comic book legend Gardner Fox about Kothar, the barbarian swordsman, were published.  A copy of the fifth of these volumes, Kothar and the Wizard Slayer, is in the MPorcius library here in suburban Maryland; I purchased this 1974 edition, put out by "Modern Promotions, A Unisystem Company," because of the Jeff Jones cover, even though that cover is terribly marred by an ancient retailer's hideous yellow price stickers.  isfdb indicates that it was our friends at Belmont who originally published Kothar and the Wizard Slayer in 1970--the Belmont edition seems to have been almost identical to this later Unibooks edition.  Fox was a big enough wheel that Kothar and the Wizard Slayer appeared in Portuguese, Dutch, German and Italian translations!  In the 21st century, multiple electronic editions have been made available--there is no excuse for your ignorance of Kothar's final adventure!

Back in 2015 I read Lori Flanagan's copy of Fox's Escape Across the Cosmos and gave it the old thumbs down, but I'm willing to give Fox a second chance.  (That same year I read another Unibook, Day of the Beasts, and was pretty critical of it as well, so I guess I am also giving the Modern Promotions people a second chance.  Don't listen to my relatives--I'm actually a very forgiving guy!)

...and back
In the first chapter of Kothar and the Wizard Slayer we witness two wizards murdered by undead assassins (Fox calls each of these killers a "lich.")  Then we meet Red Lori, a sorceress whom Kothar imprisoned in the tomb of the wizard Kalikalides in an earlier Kothar adventure.  Somehow in this world without cable news Lori knows about the serial killer who is thinning the ranks of the wizard population, and wants to do something to preserve those of her fellow thaumaturgists still drawing breath.  In a dream she talks to the ghost of Kalikalides (whom Fox also calls a "lich,"), and he obligingly teaches her a spell that allows her to project her astral form outside of the tomb, even if her actual body is still imprisoned.  (I hear this is what Luke Skywalker does now in Star Wars movies instead of just shooting people and dropping bombs on their space stations like he did in the Star Wars of my youth.  We were all so innocent back then!)

In Chapter Two we find Kothar, the blond barbarian mercenary, in the desert.  He spends a few chapters, with a companion adventurer, fighting bandits and looting an ancient king's tomb (this book has plenty of liches and tombs).  Red Lori, in her astral form, joins them, and even has sex with Kothar (her "astral" form can touch and affect material objects just like her normal body.)  It seems that, even though Lori and Kothar were trying to murder or imprison each other in earlier books, that they have a kind of love-hate relationship.  Besides, Lori needs the help of Kothar's strong arm and magic sword in her mission to stop the wizard killer.  To secure Kothar's aid, Lori not only shares her body with him, but promises to lift a curse with which he was afflicted by the spirit of the long-dead wizard Afgorkon; if neither of those inducements can get the job done, she just resorts to hypnotizing him.  Nothing stands in this chick's way!

In the middle section of the novel, Lori leads Kothar by the nose to a coastal city, where she hires a ship and guides its captain to the middle of the ocean, to the site of a city that was submerged 50,000 years ago--the very city that Afgorkon himself called home five hundred centuries in the past!  The witch makes Kothar dive to retrieve the famous wizard's airtight chest of scrolls, and the statue which houses Afgorkon's very soul!  When, in the midst of this death-defying dive, a kraken tries to make a meal out of Kothar, Afgorkon's spirit gifts the blonde barbarian the strength he needs to triumph over the super-sized cephalopod!

With these recovered artifacts of Afgorkon's at her disposal, Lori has the power to summon demons to aid her and to teleport Kothar around the world and through time so he can rescue various wizards from undead assailants.  Lori assembles an alliance of magicians, and they, protected from various foes by sword-swinging and arrow-shooting Kothar, travel to the oldest city on the planet, the city where magic was first employed!  There they discover the identity of the guy murdering all the wizards, a wizard called Antor Nemillus, and sic Kothar on him.  Kothar's scheme to murder Antor Nemillus fails, and Kothar, Lori, and the rest of Lori's party are about to be subjected to a horrible death when Afgorkon intervenes and pulls all their bacon out of the fire.  After disposing of  Antor Nemillus, Afgorken does Kothar another solid--he erases Lori's memory, so she goes from being an evil genius who sees nothing wrong with seducing barbarians and sacrificing young women to demons in pursuit of her goals to being a helpless and innocent naif.  The natural order of the universe is restored as Lori, who once dominated and manipulated Kothar, is now totally dependent on Kothar, and we readers are led to believe that in the future Kothar will carve out a kingdom of his own and will live happily ever after with the defanged Lori as his queen.

I'm of mixed mind about Kothar and the Wizard Slayer.  Obviously it is a trifle, but I have nothing against a trifling entertainment if it is actually entertaining.  I liked the basic plot, with its raw material of wizards both living and undead and the hapless fighting men they work like puppets looting tombs and lost cities and trying to murder each other, and I liked that the real protagonist of the story was a conniving and merciless witch who wrapped everybody around her finger (Kothar himself is a pretty boring character, to be honest.)  Fox could have done a better job with the characters' motivations--if the author provided any insight into why Antor Nemillus was trying to kill his fellow wizards and why the selfish Red Lori wanted to help them, I must have missed it.

Fox's style is not very good, though I guess it would be exaggerating to call it bad.  Unpolished is perhaps a good description.  Fox definitely makes some odd word choices.  He uses "cantraip" instead of the more common "cantrip."  He uses "kak" for saddle, which I have to admit I don't think I've ever seen before (I suspect the term is used primarily by American cowboys, and thus is a little out of place in one of these fantasies with a setting that is supposed to remind you of the ancient Mediterranean and medieval Europe.)  When the wizards complain that they can't work their best magic because all their sorcerous apparatus is back home, Fox has them refer to their absent equipment with such not-quite-appropriate terms as "impedimenta" and "palimpsests."  No doubt Fox uses these words because of how they sound, but I find his willingness to ignore their precise meanings a little irritating.  I also don't like his using "fired an arrow" instead of "shot an arrow," and I don't like the use of "shaft" for a sword's hilt or grip, either.  Maybe it sounds like I am nitpicking, but little things like this are distracting and make the work feel sloppy, shoddy.  If the text isn't going to be beautiful or evocative, at the very least it should be smooth, and these imprecisions and idiosyncrasies of Fox's are like potholes.

I'll judge Kothar and the Wizard Slayer as acceptable...barely acceptable.  I think I might have really liked it if Fox or his editor had taken the time to polish up the language and add a little dimension to the characters.  But I guess if you are putting out five books in two years you don't really have that time.

More crazy sword and sorcery shenanigans in our next episode!


I know I'm not the only one who finds not only the texts and illustrations of these old books fascinating, but even the advertising!  My 1974 Unibooks edition of Kothar and the Wizard Slayer included, bound between pages 80 and 81, a color ad which an earlier owner tore out.

At the end of the novel is an interesting ad for a catalog of overstock paperbacks available at warehouse prices.  It would be fun to leaf through such a catalog!



  1. I've had the same experience with Gardner F. Fox fantasies. He was much more successful plotting comic book stories.

  2. I always liked these Jeff Jones covers. Many times I bought the book just for the cover artwork.