"Be careful," said the high priestess. "Even when you think you defy the Goddess you do her will."
We all learned in college that we live in a patriarchy, but somehow you'll still sometimes, in the dark corners, encounter men who will complain that women are always manipulating them, be it with their strategically deployed tears, subtle tricks, outrageous lies, ability to "lay a guilt trip on you, man" or sexual wiles. On a less misogynist note, we have the cliche that "behind every great man is a great woman." Kavin's World, by David Mason, a novel published in 1969 (I have the 1972 printing) displays just this sort of attitude, that it is women who really run the show, if subtly. More broadly, the theme of the novel is that we men don't really run our lives, not even the greatest among us, but are instead at the mercy of powers beyond our control, even beyond our comprehension. The protagonist and narrator of Kavin's World, Kavin of House Hostan of the doomed state of Dorada, tries to defy women and defy the fates. Let's see how that works out for him.
Dorada is a small principality in a medievalish fantasy world of wizards and dragons. The Doradan ruling prince is selected from among the Hostan family by the all-female priestly class, who lead the people in worship of the unnamed Great Goddess. Dorada is a seafaring nation, and our hero, young Kavin, is at sea when Dorada is invaded by a barbarian horde. Kavin has bought a hulk of mysterious origin and refurbished it so that it is the fastest ship on the waves. In a secret compartment of the ship he discovered a beautiful white statuette of a woman, the Goddess of Luck, known as Tana. Kevin is a willful freethinking sort (one character addresses him as "You who fight against the will of the gods") and he decides to worship Tana instead of his native deity.
(This turns out to have been a good choice--several times during his perilous adventures Kavin and friends get out of scrapes due entirely to luck.)
When Kavin gets back home to Dorada he finds that the countryside has been ravaged by barbarians and the capital is under siege. The prince has been killed and the priestesses have selected Kavin to take his place. According to tradition the prince is to marry one of the maiden priestesses, in this case gorgeous blonde Samala, upon ascending the throne, but relations between Kavin and the priestesses are strained; in addition to his religious apostasy, Kavin bought a beautiful red-headed slave girl, Isa, while on his sea voyage and she has been sharing his bunk. This offends the priestess's sensibilities (they deplore both slavery and horndoggery) and sets off a love triangle drama. Church-state relations are so bad that Kavin even declares that worship of the Great Goddess is to be suspended and that the new official religion of Dorada is Tana-worship!
To defeat the barbarians Kavin consults the priestess's creepy oracle (a voice that issues from a pool) and with the help of court wizard Thuramon employs horrible magic spells; both operations require dreadful sacrifices. After the barbarians are routed Thuramon tells Kavin all his sacrifices have been in vain, that Dorada is doomed because an invincible army of insect men from another dimension is about to overrun the country. The seven hundred Doradans who survived the barbarian war are forced to disperse throughout the world.
Kavin's World is one of those books which feature a "multiverse," so coexisting with the magic and monsters in this fantasy world are Christian missionaries, chess, and other people and cultural influences that have blundered through magical gates from our own Earth. Even less benign than the Earthling Jesus-freaks and chess fanatics are imperialistic beings from other planes of existence, among them those insect men and the three evil dictators who have sicced the insect men (and the barbarians before them) on poor Dorada. Thuramon tells Kavin that it is his destiny to destroy these three invaders, who seek to conquer and enslave Kavin's world.
Mason just drops the jealousy/love-triangle element of the plot and on this journey Isa and Salama agree to share Kavin, so he has two sexy wives to sleep with! It's good to be the prince after all! One of the problems with Kavin's World is that it is overloaded with characters and elements which Mason introduces at length and then abandons before they have contributed much to the plot. Neither Isa nor Salama is a particularly engaging character, and either of them could have been left out of the book altogether--there are more than enough reasons for Kavin to be in conflict with the priesthood, and if Mason wanted to do a love-triangle subplot, Macha Emrinn supplies the necessary "other woman." Similarly, the inhabitants of the dragon-wizard settlement don't threaten or aid Kavin in any significant way, we never find out why Macha Emrinn stowed away on Kavin's ship, and we never find out where the superior ship came from. Again and again Mason lays the groundwork for some kind of payoff, but never delivers on the payoff part. Did he write this thing as he went along and not take time to go back and revise it?
Kavin, like Aeneas, founds a new country for his people among his new friends, the pygmies. Then he and a handful of his toughest fighters (and Macha Emrinn, who is indispensible when it comes to sneaking around) ride overland to the evil country of the three alien tyrants. This place is a dark valley where dark Satanic mills belch smoke into the sky, slaves work factories and mines, and black clad guards drive locomotives and motorized trucks. The first edition of Kavin's World had a blurb comparing Mason's novel to The Lord of the Rings, and I guess this evil land is reminiscent of Mordor and the famous "Scouring of the Shire" chapter of Tolkein's trilogy, in which the industrialism that has produced all the things that have made our modern lives so comfortable is denounced.
Thanks to Thuramon's necromancy and Macha Emrinn's invisibility, the adventurers sneak into the black fortress in the center of the valley and confront the three aliens: two human sorcerers and a black cloud with an eye who hides in a dark room and is called Ess. Kavin is revealed to be the reincarnation of a great leader who is destined for some unspecified great achievement, and the evil sorcerers offer him a chance to get into one of his old bodies and get back the memories of his previous lives and join their diabolical ruling class. Kavin refuses and in the anticlimactic final confrontation destroys Ess by whipping out a lamp--Ess, a creature from a far future when the stars have burnt out, cannot abide any light.
The covers of all three editions of Kavin's World compare Kavin to Conan, but my image of Conan is as the ultimate rugged individualist who bends the universe to his will and relies solely on his own abilities. Conan fights dozens of enemies by himself, figures his own way out of every problem, and breaks all the rules of society by being a pirate and a bandit and a usurper. Early on Kavin does a little of that defiance stuff, but he is obviously buffeted by the winds of fate rather than charting his own course, and his successes result primarily from help he receives from others. Again and again Tana, Thuramon, and Macha Emrinn pull his fat out of the fire and tell him what to do. Kavin's World has more in common thematically with something by Michael Moorcock, with all that multiverse, Eternal Champion, manipulative deity stuff he does, than with Robert E. Howard's work.
Kavin's World has a few unusual bits here and there, and is not boring or irritatingly bad, but is basically a routine sword and sorcery story which lacks the virtues of the better S&S tales. The style and pacing are a little flat and bland, and none of the characters is really interesting. I think Mason tries to imbue the story with a sense of tragedy, what with Kavin losing his country and then his friends and having his destiny laid out for him by others, but this is undercut by how Kavin gets to happy endings through the efforts of others and through dumb luck. In fact, Mason failed to inspire any feeling in me, be it of excitement, fun or sadness. I'm pronouncing Kavin's World to be "merely adequate."