Saturday, January 17, 2015

Path of the Hero by Dave Wolverton

"All the Pwi, they are already enslaved by love and fear, and since they were born slaves, we do no wrong when we put chains on them."

At the end of Dave Wolverton's 1991 Serpent Catch we learned that not only were the Slave Lords about to conquer the last of the free people of the moon Anee, but that the ecology of the world was so out of whack that the bio-mechanical Creators were going to exterminate everybody and start over!  Tull, the half-Neanderthal, half-human hero, and his friends, foremost among them the thousand-year old blue-skinned superhuman, have their work cut out for them!  The sequel, Path of the Hero, relates their world-shattering struggle to save their world and open up the stars.

It appears that in 2014 Wolverton heavily revised the Serpent Catch-Path of the Hero sequence, turning it into four books, none of which is titled Path of the Hero.  But, as I did twenty years ago, this week I read the original paperback of Path of the Hero, published in 1993, the year of the World Trade Center bombing, "Black Hawk down!," Colin Ferguson, and (finally some good news!) the release of my beloved Doom.

Path of the Hero isn't as lavish a production as Serpent Catch was.  Besides the raised metallic lettering on its cover, Serpent Catch had a cool silhouette decoration by Derek Hegstead on the first page of each chapter, and a nice map.  Somehow, the sequel lacks all these features.  So, in honor of Mr. Hegstead, and to adorn this blog post, I have jumped into the breach and produced some two-tone decorations of my own!

T-Rex hunting hadrosaur (Chapter 1)
Path of the Hero picks up where Serpent Catch left off.  Back home in the fishing town of Smilodon Bay, Tull marries Fava, a Neanderthal (AKA "Pwi") woman, and on their honeymoon they rescue a runaway slave from his pursuers.  The refugee galvanizes Smilodon Bay to begin preparations for a final showdown with the ever-expanding slave empire.

Tull is a bone of contention between Chaa, Tull's father-in-law and the town's greatest Spirit Walker, and the blue man.  Chaa begins training Tull to be a Spirit Walker, while the blue man wants Tull to embrace his human heritage and study science and technology, so one day humanity can return to outer space.  The blue man also fears that Tull, who is very bitter about the Slave Lords, lacks the emotional maturity to become a Spirit Walker--the powers of a Spirit Walker are not to be used as a weapon!  (They always say this kind of thing in Star Wars about the Force and in martial arts movies about karate, even though we only watch those movies to see the hero use his powers to beat the hell out of the villain and massacre his countless minions.)  A few hundred years ago a Pwi with spirit potential like Tull's, a friend of the blue man's, lead a revolution against the slavers but instead of liberating everybody he made himself the dictator of the world, and the blue man doesn't want to go through that again!

Before Smilodon Bay can get ready and Tull can complete his Jedi--I mean Spirit Walker--training, the Slave Lord army attacks and the whole town is burned to the ground.  Most of the population, including Tull, is enslaved.  I was again reminded of Star Wars when the Slave Lords, instead of summarily executing Tull when they realize he's the world's best fighter and has unlimited potential as a Spirit Walker, try to convince him to join their evil army.  

In tried and true adventure fiction tradition, Tull fights in the arena.  The blue man leads an assault on the capitol of the slave empire which fails and he is captured.  Both Tull and the blue man, like so many other divine figures in our culture (e.g., Jesus, Gandalf, and Spock) die and come back to life with the aid of Pwi spirit power and human super technology.  Chaa and Fava rescue Tull and the blue man, and the novel climaxes with the blue man setting off a volcanic eruption that destroys the Creators and Tull achieving psychic communion with every intelligent being on the moon and in orbit around it.  This brief period of collective consciousness leads to the abolition of slavery and the lifting of the alien blockade of the moon: the people of Anee are liberated!  

Ironclad slave ship sails through the night (Chapter 7)
In Serpent Catch it wasn't hard to think of all the Spirit Walking stuff as just psychic phenomena and barbarians' superstition, so that the novel was still solidly science fiction.  But Path of the Hero dials up the supernatural quotient all the way to 13. There are long scenes in which Tull and others travel through the spirit world either to "connect" with each other via "fronds" or fight each other with "tentacles."  The Spirit Walkers can see everybody's soul, which has a good component (lightning) and an evil component (a "hollow.")  After a bungled spirit walk the inexperienced Tull, back in the material world, is attacked by a poltergeist which throws him against the ceiling, brings a bearskin rug to life, and destroys his father-in-law's hovel.  Good mystics and evil sorcerers routinely hold conversations with the souls of the dead and enlist their aid in battling their enemies.

For me, the scenes in the spirit world were too long and too detailed; this stuff is more believable (and less tedious) if it is kept mysterious and vague.  Also, all the earlier spirit world scenes weaken the novelty of the final climactic one.

Struggle in the spirit world (Chapter 8)
As in Serpent Catch, in this novel we witness stabbings, beatings, shootings, tortures, and executions galore, plus a healthy(?) dose of S&M-flavored sex:
Chulata smiled at him.  "You will undress me and give me my bath," she said, her voice cold, commanding.  "You will do it gently, as if I were your lover."
In Serpent Catch the female characters were mostly sex objects and villains, so people who like to see assertive female characters in their novels will be pleased to find that in Path of the Hero Tull's wife and a human girl who writes love poetry enjoy opportunities equal to the men's to put on disguises and murder slavers in their sleep or stab them in the back, and that Fava and the versifier play pivotal roles in saving the world.

Another difference from its predecessor, and I think a real improvement, is how in Path of the Hero we get a view of what life is like for soldiers of the slave empire. Several Neanderthals high in the ranks of the Slave Lords' armies are characters, and we listen in on their internal monologues and get to hear their point of view. Wolverton's Neanderthals are very emotional and sentimental--we are told that Neanderthals think with their hearts, while humans think with their heads.  (This is because, Wolverton tells us, a Neanderthal's hypothalamus is three times the size of a human's.)  To survive in the merciless slave empire's bureaucracy, the Neanderthal army officers and sorcerers who serve the Slave Lords have to painfully stifle their natural inclinations to express love and experience fear.  I actually thought these tormented characters were more interesting than the goody-two-shoes women from Smilodon Bay.

The Tomb of Theron Major (Chapter 10)
All in all, this is a good adventure story with well-developed characters that touches on topics that readers are likely to find interesting or appealing.  Sure, there's all kinds of violence and sex, but Wolverton also presents such elements as a stone-age matriarchal vegetarian tribe.  In the Pwi he seems to be trying to evoke the history and culture of Native Americans and African-Americans.  Wolverton also uses this long story of cataclysmic war as a way to talk about philosophical questions like "What kind of ambitions should an individual, and a society, pursue?  What sort of life is worth living?"

I'm happy to recommend Path of the Hero.


Reading Path of the Hero, I couldn't help but wonder what changes Wolverton made to it for the 2014 "repackaging" which appears under his "David Farland" pseudonym.  There are some oddities, like giving an old man in Path of the Hero the same name as a young woman who appears in Serpent Catch, that it would make sense to eliminate, but I'm mostly curious if the new version is more or less gory, salacious, and/or mystical.


On the last page of my Bantam Spectra edition of Path of the Hero is an ad for the oeuvre of Sherri Tepper, about whom I know nothing. 


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