Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lord of Nightmares by Adrian Cole

"Know you this, that the hand of doom is upon this Black City.  Armageddon is come to Karkesh!"

In our last episode we followed Galad Sarian, heir to one of the three seats on the Dream Lord triumvirate, from the capitol of the nine-planet Empire, planet Zurjah, to planet Gargan, where he had been banished because he had seen through some of the Dream Lords' many lies to the Zurjahn people.  On Gargan, Galad committed himself to the cause of the barbarians of planet Ur, victims of the Dream Lords' oppression, and foiled a plot of the rebellious Warden of Ur, Daras Vorta, who sought to extend his control to Gargan.  But in the course of saving Gargan, Galad was captured and put on a spaceship bound for Ur.

I purchased Volume 1 of Adrian Cole's Dream Lords trilogy largely because I loved the wraparound cover depicting four dark horsemen, the leader of whom wore a skull mask.  The cover of the second volume, Lord of Nightmares, produced by Zebra in 1975, is not nearly so impressive.  Not only is the painting in a wholly different style (isfdb has no attribution, but it is apparently by Jack Gaughan), but the cover text (appealing to the prurient reader) coveys the wholly inaccurate idea that the book is all about torture, and also includes a spoiler, spilling the beans that Ur is the Earth, a fact not baldly stated until the middle of this second volume.  Figuring out that the Empire of nine planets is our own solar system in the future is not exactly a brain-busting riddle, but the spoiler on the cover denies the reader the pleasure of figuring this puzzle out for himself.

While I'm carping about elements of the book beyond Cole's actual writing, I might as well also express my unhappiness with the sans serif font used for the body of Lord of Nightmares' text; it is a font better suited for titles or footnotes than the main text, and I found reading 220 pages of it a little irritating.

Back to our story.  In the first few pages of the novel Galad is lead off the slave ship in chains into Karkesh, the "black city of a million sighs," and introduced to Daras Vorta. Vorta turns out to be a monstrously obese decadent--while he wields mental powers quite like those of the Dream Lords, he has contempt for the Dream Lords' characteristic asceticism, and customarily indulges in the grossest of physical pleasures.  After his little convo with the main villain of the book, Galad is tossed in a dungeon where he meets a bunch of Ur barbarians who welcome him as the Chosen One who will liberate them from Zurjahn tyranny.  (How many times have we seen this Chosen One gag in genre fiction?)  Galad and his new friends are tossed in the gladiatorial arena to fight the colossal monster depicted on the book cover for the pleasure of the massed audience of the Zurjhn colonizers of Ur.  (How many times have we seen people getting tossed into the gladiatorial arena in genre fiction?)  In the resulting carnage (dozens of spectators get killed along with the monster and all but one of the barbarians), Galad and the sole barbarian survivor, General Thuran of the barbarian army, escape the city.  They travel across the weird landscape of Ur, which, thanks to a (presumably nuclear/biological) war in the distant past, is replete with poisonous bodies of water, forests of carnivorous plants, and bands of ghoulish mutants.

Thuran presents Galad to the leader of the barbarian guerrilla resistance to Zurjahn rule, Annulian the Lion, and lots of other members of barbarian society.  Here we get some not-exactly-thrilling descriptions of barbarian villages and cities (the people of Ur are not really that barbaric, they are just called that by the Zurjahns), and not-exactly-engrossing conversations between Galad and the many barbarians he meets. There is a lot of unnecessary rigmarole because Galad tries to keep his status as Chosen One a secret from each bunch of people he meets, so we get multiple melodramatic scenes of people learning who he is and gushing all over him.

A 1977 edition with a Barber cover
and a typo for the volume number
King Annulian is served by a cadre of priests who own an ancient tattered copy of the Bible--the Book of Revelation has them convinced that four horsemen will lead the army that liberates Ur from the Zurjahns, and that Galad is one of the four, the rider of the pale horse who is known as Death! Annulian even gives Galad a cool skull helmet! Annulian and Thuran are two of the other horsemen, but in a move that reminded me of the stories of Achilles and Patroclus and of King David and Uriah the Hittite, Annulian gives Thuran his own royal armor, including lion-faced helmet and monarchical crown, to wear into battle. Annulian, you see, has heard a prophecy that a king will die during the coming battles, and so has volunteered his old chum Thuran to sort of take his place during this crucial time!

(The fourth horseman is Chungsar, ruler of a barbarian horde from the east who has slanted eyes, spiked armor, and very little screen time or dialogue.)

A related subplot, about another of Annulian's shortcomings, has the Lion jealous of his position and less than eager to hand power over to Galad the Chosen One.  Spicing up this subplot is the fact that Annulian's beautiful young fiancĂ© is not attracted to the war-obsessed king and throws herself at exotic Galad; Galad has a girlfriend back on Zurjah, but is unable to resist the barbarian girl's charms.

Leaving behind all that guerilla stuff now that the Chosen One is on board, the four horsemen, each at the head of his own army of cavalry, lead a direct assault on Karkesh, each attacking from a different direction.  Because Zurjah makes sure there are few aircraft or energy weapons on Ur this war is fought primarily with swords, spears and archery.  Annulian has an edge, his secret weapon: kegs of gunpowder, used to undermine fortifications and as a devastating trap when he's on the defensive.

The advertising text on the covers of early editions of both Lord of Nightmares and its predecessor, Plague of Nightmares, compare Cole's trilogy to the vastly popular work of J. R. R. Tolkien.  I didn't see much resemblance to Tolkien in the first Dream Lords volume, but I think the war between the barbarians of Ur and Doras Volta's Zurjahns presents some superficial similarities to The Lord of the Rings.  There's all those meetings between our hero and the leaders of his allies in idyllic forest and city locations; the way Vorta searches the land for Galad with his psychic powers (reminiscent of the eye of Sauron); the use of gunpowder to breach fortifications; and the disputes over who is the rightful ruler of a kingdom.

The attack on Karkesh is a bit tedious, page after page of Galad and his men advancing through the city, killing Imperial Guards.  Cole tries to add variety with various bizarre and horrible images, like a guy who fights with a shard of glass from a mirror, cutting his own hand as he strikes the enemy, and a guy who fights with a length of chain (Galad liberates the many prisoners from the Karkesh dungeons, and these guys join the fray wielding such improvised weapons.)  There's lots of talk about blood and the piles of corpses clogging the city streets and tunnels.  Galad and his barbarian comrades succeed in taking Karkesh and practically exterminating the Zurjahns, but, as those of us who have read Plague of Nightmares are not surprised to learn, every single barbarian fighting under Galad's command is killed.  Luckily Annulian, Thuran and Chungsar manage to keep some of their subordinates alive.

What did surprise me was that there is no final showdown between Galad and Vorta, even though one was foreshadowed--Galad even makes Annulian pledge to leave Galad to him.  Instead, Annulian just reports to Galad that he killed Vorta while Galad was resting in another part of the city.  Could Vorta still be alive, in hiding someplace so he can play the heel in Bane of Nightmares, the final volume of this trilogy?

There are two other final showdowns, however.  Annulian, unwilling to accept the authority of Galad and to negotiate with Zurjah (since Vorta was plotting rebellion against the Dream Lords, Galad is sure he can justify destruction of Karkesh make peace with the Dream Lords) duels Galad one-on-one in the ruins of Karkesh for rulership of Earth, then realizes the errors of his ways and commits suicide in dramatic fashion.  Galad then crowns Thuran King of the Earth.

Then the Zurjahn space fleet arrives for the negotiations with the new Earth regime. This force is led by Galad's old buddy Gundar, so things go smoothly--that is until Ravas Tarak appears and tries to murder Galad!  (I'm sure you'll remember that Ravas, Galad's cousin, was scheduled to be put on the Dream Lord triumvirate in Galad's place, via the machinations of Vorta, after Vorta had killed Galad.)  Ravas, one of those effeminate decadents Vorta surrounds himself with, had time to put on lipstick, mascara and perfume before escaping custody on one of Gundar's ships, so he looks and smells his best when Galad blinds him at the end of the novel.

Lord of Nightmares has a lot of problems with plot and pacing and emphasis, as I think I have chronicled.  (Instead of a small number of deep compelling characters, a few interesting settings and a small number of tense scenes of high-stakes violence, we get an abundance of shallow, repetitive and forgettable people, places and fights.) Cole's style is also weak.  Sometimes he uses words in ways that made me wonder if he knew what they really meant.  (If you are scoring at home I will point you specifically to the use of "reprisals" on page 60 and of "unprecedented" on page 70.)

Most importantly, while Cole failed to elicit much feeling from me (I didn't care who lived or died), he did succeed in sparking my curiosity with his surprising artistic choices and occasional gruesome images.  So, I have already purchased a copy of Dream Lords Volume 3: Bane of Nightmares, which we will be talking about in our next episode.  But I can't recommend Lord of Nightmares to anybody beyond those with a particular interest in these kinds of sword and sorcery shenanigans.


  1. I am glad you're reading these so I don't have to ;)

    1. I have an enduring interest in this sort of material, but, yeah, we're not talking Nebula contenders here.