Sunday, November 5, 2017

Volkhavaar by Tanith Lee

By now, to the villagers, also in actual fact, Kernik and Takerna were virtually synonymous, and not only in their names.  Each was a symbiote, the black stone and the yellow boy, and neither could exist without the other.  The god needed Kernik to spark its dark power.  Kernik needed the god to spark the dark power in himself.  So their aims and desires were as one.  
My scanner is in a box in another state,
so we're making do with some
very bad photography today
I love shopping at Half-Price Books, but my experience of selling books there has always felt more like I was donating the books and getting a partial reimbursement for the gasoline I expended travelling to the store.  As part of the downsizing attendant on our recent move from Columbus, Ohio to the Baltimore-D.C. Axis, I brought to HPB two boxes of old cookbooks, South Park DVDs and videocassettes of Godzilla and Gamera movies.  Fully half the shekels this transaction yielded were invested in the purchase of a single burger at Steak 'n Shake and a bedraggled copy of DAW No. 251, Tanith Lee's Volkhavaar.  My copy of the 1977 novel is, I think, from the first printing, and has a Michael Whelan cover and an interior illustration by Jack Gaughan which lead me to wonder if the novel is the tale of a hot chick's war against a race of evil giants.  Let's see if Lee, one of MPorcius Fiction Log's favorites, delivers the evil giant action or if these illustrations are just metaphorical.

Volkhavaar is a novel of 192 pages split into four parts. In Part One we meet Shaina, a beautiful young woman in her late teens who was captured by raiders as a six-year-old and taken across the sea to the cold mountainous country of Korkeem, where she was sold into slavery and resold to a succession of different masters; currently she is owned by a couple living in a small farming village. Having seen more of the world than her owners and with the blood of a proud race flowing through her veins, she is bold and confident, despite her position. One evening a weird gang of entertainers led by a bizarre magician by the name of Kernik comes to the village, and Shaina falls in love with the troupe’s handsome lead actor, Dasyel, even though she never speaks to him and even spots a clue that suggests Dasyel may be a demon or monster. The troupe vanishes in the early morning hours, and lovestruck Shaina goes into the mountains to ask the aid of a vampiric witch, Barbayat, the Grey Lady of Cold Crag. In return for some of her invigorating virgin blood, Barbayat teaches Shaina how to astrally project her soul out of her body so she can find Dasyel!

In Part Two the focus shifts, and we learn the histories of Kernick and Dasyel.  Kernik’s mother, an impoverished traveler from a land over the mountains with exotic yellow (“saffron”) skin, black (“almost dark green”) hair and black (“another kind of black that was almost red”) eyes, gave birth to Kernik in a small village soon after arriving in Korkeem.  She then took up work as a prostitute, and when the local women drove her and little Kernik out of the village into the wilderness, Mom was eaten by a bear!  Young Kernik, driven by a towering will, learned how to survive on his own, eating lizards and berries. Eventually the yellow boy was taken in by a childless woman of yet another Korkeem village, one whose inhabitants lackadaisically worshiped the mountaintop idol of a nearly forgotten god, Takerna.  Amoral, ruthless, totally uninterested in sex but animated by a lust to dominate others and a deep streak of sadism, teenaged Kernik murdered the village priest and assumed his position, reviving Black Takerna, Lord of Night and Shadowed Places, and winning from the god tremendous magical powers. Kernik made himself tyrant of the village, but when he went too far a rebellion ejected him, separating him from the idol and limiting his power. The yellow-skinned sadist joined a band of thieves and enjoyed a career of murder and robbery for five years, then found himself a prisoner in a dungeon and then a slave in a quarry.  After years of captivity and degradation, he discovered another idol to Takerna, and this time the Black God fused his divine soul with Kernick’s mortal body and indomitable will, this fusion giving birth to the wizard Volk Volkhavaar!

Dasyel, for his part, was an aristocrat's fifth son who joined a troupe of actors and traveled the countryside, putting on performances and winning the hearts of women everywhere. When the troupe caught the attention of Volkhavaar, the evil wizard descended from his tower and, at a performance at the local governor’s palace, murdered the troupe’s leader and made a zombie out of Dasyel and some of the other actors, using them as the nucleus of his own travelling company of performers.

In Part Three we return to the narrative present, as Shaina’s soul leaves her body and she pursues her beloved to the large city of Arkev, where a festival is being held.  Part of the festival is a competition of visiting acting troupes, presided over by the bickering Duke and Duchess and their innocent and plain daughter, Woana, whose only friend is her pet cat.  With his magic and his cunning, Volkhavaar makes sure his troupe, which showcases handsome Dasyel, wins all the prizes and the acclaim of the city mob--this acclaim will be the springboard for his effort to take over the city!  Shaina, entranced by Dasyel’s beauty, overstays her astral visit to Arkev as she watches the theatrical competition so that back in the village her inert body with its vampiric wounds is discovered.  A visiting priest, fearing that poor Shaina could be the Typhoid Mary of a potential plague of vampires, has Shaina’s mortal form decapitated and buried!

In Part Four Barbayat of Cold Crag returns to the narrative, helping Shaina implant her bodiless soul in the brain of the pet cat of the heir to the throne of Arkev!  Sharing the feline body with the native consciousness of the cat itself, Shaina has a front row seat to the Volkhavaar take over of Arkev, highlights of which include the murder of the Duke and Duchess, orgies which feature bestiality, and the obscuration of the sun, inaugurating a policy of 24 hours of night a day!  Through the cat's eyes Shaina also becomes familiar with the layout of the palace and city, which comes in handy when Barbayat mends the girl's body and she finds herself back in her human form, as she immediately returns to Arkev to try to overthrow Volkhavaar's regime, rescue zombie Dasyel, and put shy Woana (now the rightful Duchess) on the throne!

Volkhavaar is an entertaining fantasy that, instead of focusing on sword-swinging knights, barbarians and thieves, as do so many fantasy stories, instead focuses on priests, witches, wizards, gods and their cruel machinations; in some ways it has more in common with a macabre or decadent fairy tale than a 20th-century adventure story.  The novel's plot features a number of things I always enjoy, like people's consciousnesses being moved around and people being forced to share a body, and characters driven by all-consuming loves or hatreds, by overweening ambitions or desires for revenge--I found the principal characters, Shaina and Kernik/Volkhavaar, compelling, and Shaina's scenes in the cat's body and Kernik's early career particularly entertaining.  Lee also does a good job with the numerous minor characters; they are all interesting and have believable motivations and act in a believable manner--none of them feels like a cog in the machinery of the plot just doing what has to be done to make sure the author gets her story from point A to point B.  The weakest character is probably Dasyel, who sort of plays the kind of McGuffin role that a sexy princess might play in a more male-oriented story—Shaina desires him because of his looks and tries to rescue him from the villain the way some guy on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom or in Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age might try to rescue a hot chick.  

The portrayal of Dasyel--the only sketchily defined attractive character for whom the protagonist braves terrible perils--suggests that in Volkhavaar we have a sort of gender-bending or perhaps feminist reimagining of traditional adventure fantasy plot and character elements.  After all, the "good guys" of Volkhavaar are all women--Shaina, Barbayat, and the Duke's daughter.  Lee doesn't throw this feminist stuff in your face, doesn't let it overwhelm her exciting story, but lets the reader discover it on his or her own; the theme rises out of the very logical plot, the plot doesn't feel like a piece of propaganda constructed in order to hammer home a tendentious theme.  There are no feminist speeches from the narrator or the characters; Barbayat and Woana are not feminist paragons but rounded and flawed characters who deserve the reader's skepticism; there are several unlikable female characters (like the Duchess and wife of the farmer who owns Shaina); and the female heroes don't resolve the plot by unconvincingly acting in stereotypically male ways, like strapping on swords and chopping legions of enemies to pieces. 

A German edition
Lee does lots of interesting things with the plot and characters besides this subtle feminist angle.  The monstrous and evil Kernik and sympathetic and loving Shaina are parallel characters, for example.  Both are aliens to Korkeem (which, I guess, is sort of like Northern Europe or Scandinavia, while Kernick is from the equivalent of China or the mysterious East more generally, and Shaina is from some warmer part of Europe, like maybe Mediterranean France or Italy) who feel superior to the natives, both suffer captivity and slavery, both are driven by powerful passions, both get creepy magical powers from creepy figures who want blood as payment, and both find themselves sharing a body with another consciousness. 

Another interesting theme: deities are the images of the people who worship them.  Shaina doesn't liberate the people of Arkev and her beloved Daysel by killing Kernik or blowing up a statue of Takerna or something, she does so by herself worshiping Takerna.  Takerna was the Black God of the Shadows and all that because the man who revived him through worship and sacrifice was Kernik, an evil man driven by a lust to dominate and harm people, and when compassionate Shaina, who is driven by love, worships him, Takerna becomes a White God of the Day.

One more theme: illusion and performance.  Much of Kernik/Volkhavaar's magic is in the creation of illusions, and the novel is full of descriptions of plays and their attendant special effects, and of performances facilitated by costumes or disguises.  Even the idea that worshipers determine the character of their gods fits into this theme: we create the world in which we live in part by how we choose to view it, and how we choose to present it and ourselves to others.

A lot of fiction is easy to predict, so I was happy to be surprised more than once by Lee here.  For example, I was surprised when Shaina's head was chopped off, I did not see the implantation of her soul into the cat's body coming, and I was again surprised that Shaina and Dasyel didn't become lovers.  When at the end of the novel Shaina and Dasyel finally speak, Shaina sees that Dasyel does not love her as she loves him, and so she returns to Cold Crag to live with Barbayat and study to become a great witch.  These are the best kind of surprises, surprises which are foreshadowed and so do not feel like a trick the author is playing on the reader.                 

The plot and characters are very good, and Lee's style in Volkhavaar is also superior.  Some of Lee’s novels can feel long and diffuse, with too many descriptions or too much going on or a plot that is very convoluted and features some unbelievable twists, but Volkhavaar is smooth and well-paced.  Individual sentences are very good. Lee uses lots of metaphors--on every page we hear that love is like a beast or a cold sword of iron that impales the heart or that some joker's cloak is like black wings and his gems are like drops of red blood or a cat's green eyes--and these similes and metaphors are always appropriate and never feel showy or pretentious. They make Lee’s images more vivid or her characters’ emotions more moving to the reader, or, serve as clever and cynical aphorisms about the sadness of our lives:
The sight was terrible, more terrible than words convey, for words are cowards as men are, and hide things as men do.
(Is this another subtle feminist note?  Is Lee just using "men" here to mean "people," or intentionally leaving the reader space to think she could be referring specifically to members of the male sex?)  

Cover of an Italian edition, illo by Allison, one of
Joachim Boaz's faves
Obviously I think this book is great and the more I think about it the better I like it.  But now comes the paragraph of the blog post in which I remind the people of 2017 that this book was written forty years ago in a world with very different prejudices and priorities and so may offend the easily offended.  The only non-white characters in the novel are a Fu Manchu-type with long pointy fingernails who hypnotizes and otherwise beguiles people, and his mother, a yellow whore.  Lee repeatedly uses the words white and black to mean good and evil, and, in passages describing Kernik/Volkhavaar's crimes, there are passing references to suicide, incest, bestiality, and maybe some other horrible things I am forgetting.  While Volkhavaar is ultimately a story about the power of love, it is also a story about evil and is full of human and inhuman cruelty and tragedy.   

Volkhavaar is a great mix of stuff I already am crazy about and stuff that is different and surprising, it is well-structured and well-paced, entertaining and thought-provoking and written in a engaging, even beautiful, style.  Strongly recommended. 

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoyed Tanith Lee's work. I have about a dozen of her novels that I'm reading at the rate of about one per make them last. When I read the last one, it will be a sad day.