Monday, January 29, 2018

Web of the Spider by Andrew Offutt and Richard Lyon

His laugh was part irony, part true amusement.  That Tiana woman was a magnificent fool.  He had explained to her the hopelessness of the odds against them...and she remained arrogantly confident.  The fire-haired beauty was certain that her wit, strength and skill would bring her out victorious!  If vanity and confidence were gold, he mused, it's she who'd be the owner of the world!
It is time to finish Andrew Offutt and Richard Lyon's War of the Wizards trilogy--here is the third volume, 1981's Web of the Spider.  Web of the Spider was part of Pocket's Timescape line; "Timescape," we see on the publication page, is a trademark owned by Gregory Benford.  (That's a little SF trivia for you.) 

Like Part Two of War of the Wizards, The Eyes of Sarsis, Part Three has a cover by Rowena Morrill.  I think this is one of Morrill's better paintings--the flying woman's pose seems more balanced and less static, and her face has more life than the people in many of Morrill's other covers.  I am apparently not alone in thinking this an above average sample of Morrill's work--this painting was the cover for 1983's collection of Morrill's work, The Fantastic Art of Rowena.

This third volume of Offutt and Lyon's trilogy is an elaborate production, with 24 pages of glossary and gazetteer in the back, and a two-page map of Tiana's world in the front.  (A look at the map and gazetteer reveals that some of the geographical names are homages to Edgar Rice Burroughs.)  Preceding the main text, there's even a (terrible) poem about Tiana, Pyre and Ekron!  War of the Wizards is a labor of love, and Offutt and Lyon put real effort into it, which you can see in the text, and which is a welcome contrast to things like Ken Bulmer's Kandar, which feel like they were just thrown together haphazardly to meet a deadline.

Back in 2015, when I read Andrew Offutt's The Iron Lords, I reported that Offutt used repetition to give that novel a poetic and epic feel, and in the brief "Prolog" to Web of the Spider, in which we gain insight into the character of antagonist Ekron, the wizard, we see him employing these devices again.  For example, in just three short pages Ekron is described numerous as he whose "soul was that of a toad and whose god was the Spider."

The beginning of the main text feels like a mash up of elements from the earlier Tiana books.  We find our heroine a captive of King Hartes of Thesia, and it isn't long before the Thesian High Magistrate is pressuring Tiana to go on some dangerous mission--the same sort of thing happened to Tiana, and to other pirate captains, in The Eyes of Sarsis.  The High Magistrate knows a way Tiana can fake her death and escape being burned alive in the execution scheduled for her--quite reminiscent of the aristocrat in The Demon in the Mirror who knew a way Tiana could play possum and be buried alive in order to sneak into the royal tomb she wanted to loot.

(In case you are wondering, that is Tiana on the cover in the costume she was given to wear for her theatrical execution ceremony, in which she is to portray a bird in a gilded cage set over a fire.  As crazy as this may sound, there is evidence that the Romans would dress condemned criminals up and force them to play some theatrical role as they were executed; check out this blogpost and the scholarly article upon which it is based.)

Tiana escapes her execution, in the process immolating the entire Thesian ruling class, and then discovers a magical artifact, a skull in a box, in the tunnels under Thesia's capital city.  While she is making her way back to the port, dealing with soldiers hunting for the artifact as well as a dangerous witch as she goes, her foster father Caranga and the crew of her ship, Vixen, are making themselves the new rulers of Thesia.  Shortly after Tiana and Caranga are reunited, while they are trying to consolidate their rule over the kingdom, an international naval task force arrives to restore their idea of order by overthrowing the new pirate government.  Tiana and company escape by sailing the Vixen down some river rapids no ship has ever successfully navigated before.

Tiana is informed by the intelligence apparatus of her native country that the magical skull is somehow connected with the secret ruler of the world whom those in the know call "the Owner."  The Owner lives on a distant island and periodically requires tribute from the mortal kings of the world in the form of particular magical items and shiploads of attractive women, four hundred women a year!  (The fact that Tiana and Caranga, who spend all their time at sea and in ports talking to other sailors, haven't heard of this guy, who receives shipments of esoteric valuables and female slaves from all corners of the globe multiple times a year, and who has destroyed "vast armadas" sent to bring him to justice, is something of a plot hole.)  The Owner sends a heavily armored dragon to burn up the Vixen, but Caranga spots a vulnerable patch on its belly and, Bard-the-Bowman-style, kills it with a thrown harpoon.  Then Tiana contrives to have herself captured by the Owner's mysterious henchmen, the "Moonstalkers," and added to the cargo of comely women aboard one of his mysterious black ships, bound for his secret island HQ.

The character of Tiana presents a problem to the authors (and to readers.)  She is the best at swordfighting, the best archer, the best at detecting poison, the best at picking locks, the best at climbing, a skilled surgeon, and able to beguile any man she meets with her body, so she is never in any kind of physical danger.  Tiana is also never in any kind of psychological danger.  She lacks any kind of strong motivation or goal that might be frustrated (she just seems to care about stealing stuff and selling it and only gets involved in all these crazy missions because wizards manipulate her) and she doesn't feel any need to prove anything to others or to herself--the authors actually make a joke out of her boundless self-confidence and self-esteem.  Tiana has convinced herself that she never feels any fear, she has absolutely no doubt that all the killing and stealing she does is fully justified, and she is constantly complimenting herself on her looks.  It is hard for readers to care about or identify with such a character, and it is hard for the authors to generate any tension in a narrative about such an invulnerable character's adventures.  This might not be much of a problem in a short and brisk piece of fiction, or a piece of fiction meant primarily as a comedy, but in total War of the Wizards is like 600 pages and (I believe) is trying to provide "thrills and chills."

Offutt and Lyon solve this problem by surrounding Tiana with, and devoting large portions of the books to, characters who are more psychologically complex and more fallible than their lead character.  Pyre, Bardon and Caranga all face serious psychological challenges, so I could put my feet in their shoes, and I was never sure they would have happy endings, so I was genuinely curious as to how their stories would work out.

Interspersed with the chapters about Tiana's adventures are chapters about the adventures of another of these memorable secondary characters, a knight.  In a little homage to medieval literature, the authors describe this dude as "dolorous," and well they might!  Pyre, one of the world's greatest wizards and inveterate foe of Ekron, manipulates the knight in such a way that he guides him to his castle, and then erases his memory.  The knight doesn't know his name or nationality or anything!  Pyre even puts an enchantment on him that makes it impossible for anyone to see his face, including he himself--when he looks at a mirror or other reflective surface, he just sees a blur!  Pyre teleports the Grey Knight (as he takes to calling himself) across the continent, putting him in charge of an attack force of Northerners (Viking-type guys) and sending him off to the nation of Naroka, where Ekron is based.  In The Eyes of Sarsis Pyre equipped Bardon with a magical devices, and the sorcerer similarly provides the Grey Knight with a box of goodies that will help him in his dangerous mission.  The knight uses these goodies to infiltrate the court of the king of Naroka, as well Ekron's own forbidding castle, to gather valuable information, and then to sneak aboard the black ship upon which Tiana is held captive. 

The black ship is crewed by the living dead, and the women aboard are confined to tiny filthy cells where they eat maggoty rations; Matrix-style, these beauties suffer the illusion that they are inhabiting luxurious apartments and supplied with gourmet meals!  Of course Tiana is able to see through the illusion and sets about hijacking the ship, a task she accomplishes with the aid of the Grey Knight.  (War of the Wizards is full of the undead and full of illusions, and it is not just evil magicians using such sorcery to bedevil Tiana--a friendly wizard like Voomundo used animated corpses to aid Tiana, and much of the magic provided by Pyre that smooths the Grey Knight's way consists of illusions.)

In the last hundred pages or so of Web of the Spider things take an apocalyptic turn.  For one thing, Tiana, who has been fending off men unworthy of her throughout the trilogy, falls in love with the nameless and faceless Grey Knight and the two are joined in a rough and ready impromptu wedding ceremony.  Equally revolutionary, on the Owner's island the newlyweds--and the Grey Knight's father-in-law Caranga, who arrives in the Vixen, bearing that magic skull, not far behind the black ship--precipitate a cosmic battle between good and evil of world-shattering proportions.  In a perhaps shopworn bit of imagery, the battle is manifested as an enthroned white-clad and white-haired man seated across from a throne inhabited by a shadowy blackness, between them a chess-like game board with pieces in the shape of Caranga and other pivotal individuals and objects.  Should the darkness win the game, the world will be enslaved, but, because all humans carry within them at least some small proportion of evil, in the event that the figure representing pure Goodness triumphs, all human life will be extinguished!

(I wonder if all this imagery and cosmology owes anything to Michael Moorcock's Law and Chaos and Balance themes, seen in his many Eternal Champion stories.  Also, there is a scene in which Tiana explains to another character how to correctly pronounce her name, which reminded me of the scene in Fritz Leiber's Nebula-award-winning 1970 story "Ill Met in Lankhmar" in which Fafhrd explains to the Gray Mouser how to pronounce his name.)

Fortunately, our heroes figure out how to assure the battle is a stalemate, and then, when Ekron launches his final attack, Tiana, with her detective brain solves the mystery of who the Grey Knight really is and with her quick wits tricks Ekron into destroying himself.  The status quo of the world and the human race is preserved, and our heroes get a happy ending.

The apocalyptic ending goes on a little too long (the final battle in The Eyes of Sarsis was better), but I enjoyed Web of the Spider and the entire War of the Wizards trilogy.  The magic is interesting, most of the action scenes are entertaining, and the three books feel like the work of people who put some serious effort into writing them derived some pleasure from their work.  One telling piece of evidence is the minor characters: Offutt and Lyon make them, all the many monarchs and aristocrats and lesser witches and magicians whom Tiana exterminates as well as her friends and supporters, interesting by providing each with some memorable personality quirk or motivation or relationship with some other character.  I recommend Web of the Spider as well as its predecessors to sword and sorcery fans as a fun read.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Eyes of Sarsis by Andrew Offutt and Richard Lyon

Tiana looked at the broken body of the bear.  It was true.  What had seemed a sighted eye now appeared to be a large diamond, the same stone she had seen on Kathis's throat.  The sight triggered an avalanche of realization in Tiana's mind.  There had been too many mysterious happenings; at last she understood them.
Here it is, the sequel to The Demon in the Mirror, Part Two of Andrew Offutt and Richard Lyon's War of the Wizards trilogy, The Eyes of Sarsis.  While The Demon in the Mirror had four distinct editions, today's subject appears to have been published only once, in 1980.  Not a hopeful sign!  My copy was previously owned by a Landon.

What can we say about the cover by Rowena Morrill?  Morrill's work, to me at least, often feels very static, even when she is trying to convey motion, and I feel that way about this one.  Tiana, the voluptuous red-haired pirate captain, certainly has a strange pose here, with her left arm foreshortened and her right leg up in the air for some unknown reason, while the male figure is standing inert like a statue, not even looking at Tiana, even though Tiana's contortions suggest she is responding to some sudden move by him.  And what is up with that gem in the guy's throat?  (We can all draw our own conclusions about the placement of Tiana's right hand.)  I like the chameleon on the boat's bowsprit (hmmm, this boat doesn't have a mast or any it propelled by magic?) and hope he is a character in the book--maybe a wizard's familiar or the vessel for a wizard's soul while his human body is incapacitated?  Well, let's read The Eyes of Sarsis and see if the mysteries of Rowena's cover painting are solved to our satisfaction.

You may recall that I thought the ending of The Demon in the Mirror had some of the feeling of a detective story, with the authors tying together various plot threads and Tiana, the heroine, adding up all the clues she had collected over the course of the novel and resolving the conflict with that knowledge.  Well, Book I of The Eyes of Sarsis (the novel's 200 pages of text are divided into three "books") has even more in common with such a tale of sleuthing.  The plot is quite convoluted from the start, involving sorcery that animates the dead and compels said zombies to deliver encoded messages that Tiana and Caranga have to decipher, a series of bizarre murders committed by a house cat with a diamond necklace who can hypnotize people (it makes its victims slit their own throats so it can lap up their blood), the discovery of a strange artifact--the Left Eye of Sarsis--and the kidnapping by a wizard based in the Orient, Ekron, of Princess Jiltha, the daughter of King Hower of Ilan (Tiana's home country).  Holonbad, the Duke of Reme (Tiana's hometown), and Hower have Tiana and her crew, including her black foster father, master pirate Caranga, arrested, shanghaiing them into the Jalitha recovery force.  You see, Hower tried to ransom Jiltha, offering Ekron the Left Eye of Sarsis for his daughter, but the ship carrying the Eye east and the ship carrying Jiltha west have both disappeared in the middle of the ocean!  Who better suited to find these valuables than the two best pirates in Reme?

Fellow sword and sorcery fan
Landon, we salute you!
At the end of Book I, Tiana and Caranga, having wiped out a cult of demon-worshipers, saved Duke Holonbad's life, and figured out who sent them via zombie courier an encoded map to the Kroll Isles, current location of Jiltha and the Left Eye (their benefactor was Voomundo, "a mighty ju-ju man" from the Dark Continent and a hero in the "shadow war" of mankind against the serpentine race who once ruled the world and would rule it again), set sail from Reme.  In the first chapter of Book II our point of view is directed to some of our villains: Ekron, the wizard you looks like "a yellow toad," and Hartes, the King of Thesia.  In the same way that the Ilan nobles took Tiana and Caranga into custody in order to hire them to search for Jiltha, the Thesian king and the anuran sorcerer have seized a blonde barbarian, Bjaine, a pirate captain from the frigid far North, in order to impress his services--he also sets out to the Kroll Isles to retrieve Jiltha and the Left Eye.

The Kroll Isles are a den of pirates ruled by ace pirate Storgavar.  (These Tiana books are full of ace pirates!  To support such an elevated population of nautical thieves, this world must have a tremendous volume of legitimate international trade, but Offutt and Lyon never introduce us to any honest sailors or respectable businesspeople.)  Storgavar has Jiltha and the Left Eye locked up in his castle, but the hypnotic powers of the vampire cat, which stowed away on Tiana's ship, the Vixen, throw his corsair fiefdom into total confusion and the pirate king is deposed.  The forces of Tiana, Storgavar, Bjaine, and the diamond-bearing cat all fight each other, and then the three pirates make common cause against the vampiric beast.  The monster shifts form, first taking over one of King Hower's best soldiers, Kathis--hey, that's the guy on the cover!-- and then a huge bear.

When Kathis turns on Tiana she finds he has the diamond embedded in his neck, and when the bear appears the jewel is set in its forehead--Tiana realizes that the diamond is the Right Eye of Sarsis, a malevolent living thing!  Storgavar is killed, and Tiana, Bjaine, and Princess Jalitha are all taken captive by the Right Eye, who has taken command of Storgavar's pirate fleet via hypnotism.  The Right Eye takes his captives to a barren island where lightning storms are endemic--this natural source of electricity will enable it to awaken the Left Eye.  Our heroes escape, and in the ensuing desperate battle Bjaine refuses to accept Tiana's orders and even tells her that fighting is a man's work and she should go cook him something!

The Eyes of Sardis's dedication

In my last blog post I made passing mention of the issue of gender roles in The Demon in the MirrorThe Eyes of Sarsis addresses what we might call women's issues or feminism more directly.  In Book I, Tiana directly upbraids King Hower for his patriarchal verbiage:
"I sinned in disturbing the Sacred Grove.  I do not want that sin compounded into black disaster for all humanity.  Save my daughter if you can, but do what is best for all men."
"And women," Tiana asked innocently, "lord King?"
"Figure of speech," Hower grumped, giving her a look.
In Bjaine, who is obviously intended as a sort of male parallel to Tiana (he has a career similar to hers and got mixed up in this Jiltha/Eyes of Sarsis caper in exactly the same way) we have a character who is an unreconstructed male chauvinist; he gives speeches in which he asserts the subordinate role of women and even beats young ladies who disobey his commands!  In the chapter in which we first meet Bjaine, King Hartes describes the transgressions that provided him a pretext to arrest the Northern barbarian:
"You claim that what truly happened was that you ordered the royal princess to fetch you wine.  When she naturally did not obey, you beat her!  That shocked my court and council, Bjaine--naturally.  Then you proceeded to discourse at length on the natural superiority of men over women, whose place it is to serve man, while every man has the right and duty to beat any woman to teach her her place."
Tiana, of course, proves to be a smarter person and better warrior than Bjaine, and she humiliates him when he tries to discipline her.  Bjaine contributes little to the effort to save mankind (er, humankind.)

Offutt and Lyon do a good job of leading the reader to believe that, with the help of Lightning Island's native population of non-carbon-based lifeforms, our heroes have buried both Eyes under an avalanche--then the authors craftily let on that this victory was one of the Eyes' illusions and our heroes were in fact defeated!

Recaptured by the reanimated but decaying corpse of the dead bear, which now has both Eyes of Sarsis in its fleshless skull, Tiana, Jiltha and Bjaine are taken to yet another island to be sacrificed in the kind of ceremony that is very common in these sword and sorcery tales and all sorts of genre fiction.  Should this ceremony come off, the planet will become as warm as it was eons ago and the cold-blooded snake people will again rule the world!

In Book III, Caranga, accompanied and directed by one of the world's greatest wizards and the human race's foremost leader in the Shadow War, Pyre, sails to the aid of Tiana.  Pyre's first step is to overthrow the ancient reptilian overlords of a town where pampered humans are bred as cattle with the help of Bardon, one of Tiana's lieutenants, whom the wizard provides a powerful magic sword.  This adventure gives Pyre (and the authors) the occasion to wax philosophical, musing on the topic of whether a life of freedom and self-responsibility is worth the trouble, or if a life as a coddled pet or spoiled child is to be preferred.  Then comes the climactic battle in which Pyre's sorcery, Caranga's swordsmanship and Tiana's wits foil the plans of the Eyes of Sarsis and the serpentine ancients.

I thought The Demon in the Mirror felt a little like a bunch of short stories as Tiana and Caranga traveled around the world, collecting plot coupons, but The Eyes of Sarsis does not suffer this problem at all, instead feeling like a coherent and carefully plotted-out novel.  I liked many of the minor characters, in particular Pyre, the philosophical wizard, and Bardon, the heir of a decayed noble family who lacks confidence and became a pirate in hopes of winning enough money to restore his once elite family's fortunes.  The Eyes of Sarsis also is more comedic than its predecessor, and I felt Book I had perhaps too many jokes, but Offutt and Lyon dial it back in the later books and avoid letting the humor overwhelm the drama.  The many depictions of magic are all good, and the fight scenes and scenes involving climbing walls and mountains and crawling through tunnels and creeping through secret passages are fun.  Thumbs up for The Eyes of Sarsis!  

I think I enjoyed The Eyes of Sarsis a little more than I did the first volume of Offutt and Lyon's War of the Wizards, even though my hopes of seeing a chameleon in a starring role were disappointed.  I am looking forward to the concluding volume of the trilogy, Web of the Spider.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Demon in the Mirror by Andrew Offutt & Richard Lyon

Tiana's long career as a pirate asea coupled with her certain knowledge of her own bastardy, had given her an ever-fierce thrust for independence and a will that was passing strong.  Both drove her now.  Her being flashed with scarlet anger.  Every ounce of her strength channeled into the arm that strove to drive her sword into this monster in human form.
I purchased my copy of the 1980 edition of 1978's The Demon in the Mirror because of my interest in Andrew J. Offutt's odd career.  I had no idea who Richard Lyon was.  A little googling indicates that Richard K. Lyon was a successful research chemist and a SF fan who, inspired by Robert E. Howard and by his own wife, wrote The Demon in the Mirror but found himself unable to sell it.  He shared the manuscript with Offutt, who revised or rewrote it and succeeded in selling it to Pocket Books.  (Lyon tells the tale of The Demon in the Mirror's genesis and talks about his career as a scientist at the website Bewildering Stories, a sort of web magazine devoted to speculative writing.)  The Demon in the Mirror is Part One of a trilogy entitled War of the Wizards; I own all three volumes of the trilogy, and if I like this first book, I'll read all three, one after the other.  If I can trust Andre Norton and Jerry Pournelle, whose gushing blurbs (Norton likens Lyon and Offutt's work to that of sword and sorcery icons Howard, Fritz Leiber and C. L. Moore, while Pournelle suggests Offutt and Lyon have contributed something innovative to the field) adorn the back cover of my copy of the novel, I can be certain I am going to love it!

Tiana is a beautiful lady pirate ship captain!  She fights with a rapier and wears a tight shirt so her boobs will distract the people she is trying to murder in the course of her profession!  She and the crew of her ship, the Vixen (sexy!), have just captured a heavily armed merchant ship and exterminated its crew.  While her men are drunkenly celebrating their victory, Tiana explores the prize, overcoming hideous monsters and deadly traps to get her mitts on the treasure the vessel was transporting--books of magic and a mummified hand.  The hand, as all readers were no doubt hoping, is still alive!

Squint or click to read the
ecstatic praise for The Demon in
from Andre Norton and
Jerry Pournelle
After the exciting opening chapter we learn our heroine's backstory, and as authors of popular fiction so often do, we find Offutt and Lyon trying to give their protagonist the cachet of both a rebel and an outlaw and an aristocratic establishment figure in order to appeal to people's democratic and elitist prejudices.  (Tarzan lives like an animal in the jungle but is also an English nobleman, Conan is not only a barbarian and a thief but also becomes a wise king, Elric is an emperor who becomes a wanderer and destroys his own society, and on and on.  Isn't that Harry Potter brat people are always talking about raised by evil stepparents in a slum but, in reality, the chosen one whose veins pulse with the blood of the grand dragon of the wizard church or something?)  Tiana is the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Reme, who was killed during an abortive coup while she was a child; her half-brother Bealost (oy, the names!) was the rightful lord of the Duchy of Reme, but presumed dead.  Tiana was adopted and raised by a black pirate and reformed cannibal, Caranga; this aged seawolf now serves as Vixen's first mate.

Back ashore, Tiana sells the magic books to a mysterious and sinister wizard going by the name of Lamarred; the sorcerer explains that the living dead hand is that of the wizard Derramal.  (Oh, boy.)  Some time ago, Derramal was chopped into pieces and the pieces scattered about the globe, but he can be brought back to life if all the pieces are assembled.  Why should Tiana put back together this human jigsaw puzzle?  Because Lamarred te;lls her Bealost is alive, but only Derramal knows where he is!

The meat of the book that follows, as Tiana and foster father Caranga split up to gather up all these dismembered wizard parts, is episodic, almost like a series of short stories, in each of which a fragment of Derramal's body is recovered.  Tiana retrieves Derramal's other hand from a cult of vampire women who worship a giant bat, and then a burglar called Bandari the Cat helps her defeat a tribe of barbarians and get to the top of an unscalable mountain, the burial site of Derramal's right arm.  The ascent is achieved by what amounts to parasailing on the updrafts generated by a thunderstorm--Bandari's  people call this "highriding."  This whole highriding bit was like something out of a SF story, as it is entirely based on chemistry and physics, not magic or supernatural powers.  To get down the mountain Tiana and Bandari slide down an ice field, a scene I suspect is an homage to a similar scene in Leiber's memorable Fafhrd and Grey Mouser tale "The Seven Black Priests."  Derramal's left arm is in some royal family's catacombs, and to spirit herself into and out of the closely guarded subterranean vault Tiana must outsmart doublecrossing aristocrats, torturers and guards; within the catacombs she has to contend with the resident ghouls before she can retrieve the grisly object of her quest. 

Meanwhile, Caranga, hunting for Derramal's legs, sails Vixen to an island where he and the crew outwit an evil alchemist and battle an army of spider-women who have the power to cloud the human mind with illusions.  Later, in this world's equivalent of Africa, they battle invisible monsters in the abandoned city where rest Derramal's feet.  In an interesting change of pace from the rest of the book's third-person narration, Caranga's adventures are related in the first person by Caranga himself.

Later editions of the novel crop Boris
Vallejo's painting, I guess to make it
uniform with other books
in the "Timescape" line 
Like so many of these swordfighting adventure heroes, e.g., John Carter, Conan, the Grey Mouser, etc., Tiana is the best swordswinger in her milieu.  The authors, however, don't just have her swordfight her way through every obstacle; instead Tiana uses a variety of strategies to defeat her enemies and accomplish her goals, ranging from negotiations and laying pitfalls to disguises and the aforementioned highriding.  Offutt and Lyon add variety and interest to the book by portraying Tiana not as a static character but as a person engaged in a continual process of learning; Caranga taught her to be a pirate, for example, while Bandari teaches her woodcraft and how to highride.  To secure the last part of Derramal, his head, Tiana has to break a siege of the town in which it lies; she accomplishes this by highriding into a thundercloud, where she bombards the besiegers with lightning bolts by seeding the cloud as  Bandari the Cat taught her.

In the last few chapters of the novel, by adding up clues she has collected along with Derramal's body parts, Tiana figures out the tragic truth of Bealost's fate and the horrifying relationship of Derramal to Lamarred.  (The ending of the book actually has some of the feeling of the climax of a detective story in which the protagonist explains how he or she figured everything out and exposes how earlier events held a significance the reader may not have realized at the time.)  By stitching together the body of Derramal (did I mention that Tiana is also a skilled surgeon?), Tiana precipitates the inevitable world-threatening showdown with a Lovecraftian alien entity that the world's most powerful wizards had been cowardly postponing, and via detective work and trickery she neutralizes this extradimensional menace and saves the world.

At 180 pages, The Demon in the Mirror may be too long, and the tomb-raiding episodes that make up much of the middle section of the book may be a little too similar; too many of them seem to involve Tiana or Caranga spotting a structural weakness in the temple or tomb they are raiding and taking advantage of this Achilles's heel to demolish the structure.  On the other hand, each individual episode is entertaining, and at the end Lyon and Offutt make an effort to neatly tie the whole novel and all its threads and incidents together with a bow, so that even if, as you were reading it, the book felt a bit like a series of self-contained stories, when you are finished it does feel more or less like a coherent whole in which early events and lines of dialogue were laying the groundwork for some kind of pay off later on.  I'd judge The Demon in the Mirror moderately good, and definitely more polished and better structured than the two sword fighting capers we recently read, Kandar by Ken Bulmer and Kothar and the Wizard Slayer by Gardner Fox; Offutt and Lyon's book feels like something the authors put some serious time and effort into.

What to make of our heroes, Tiana and Caranga?  The fact that The Demon in the Mirror's protagonist is a take-charge woman raises the question of to what extent we should see the novel as some kind of feminist work, and to what extent merely one that uses a female character to titillate male readers.  Obviously there is a lot of room for individual readers to decide this for themselves, but I will note that the text repeatedly draws attention to Tiana's "jiggle and bounce," to her "rounded thighs crowding her snug short breeks," her "large firm breasts" and on and on, and that the threat of nonconsensual sex is an oft-recurring theme, especially the danger of Tiana being raped but also the possibility of men being seduced by monsters that look like human women.  Also noteworthy is the significant number of female villains, and Tiana's repeated use of her sexuality to manipulate men.

Similarly, should we laud the authors for striking a blow against racism with their portrayal of Caranga as a brave adventurer, able leader, and wise and loving father, or cringe at their depiction of him as an oversexed and booze-loving former cannibal who provides much of the book's comic relief?  Is his relationship with Tiana a hopeful vision of amity between the races, or yet another instance of a "magical negro" selflessly guiding white people to success and glory?

Well, we'll see what Offutt and Lyon do with Tiana and Caranga in the second part of the War of the Wizards trilogy, The Eyes of Sarsis.


My copy of The Demon in the Mirror has three pages of ads in the back, presenting to the SF community Pocket Books' line of fantasy and science fiction paperbacks.  Among the promoted books we see Michael Bishop's Eyes of Fire, a 1980 revision or "complete rewrite" of Bishop's 1975 novel A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire.  Since June 2015 I have owned a 1975 Ballantine printing of the original novel under the Funeral title, but have not read it yet.  Joachim Boaz considers the 1975 version "a masterpiece."

Advertised on the same page as Eyes of Fire we see Richard Cowper's Road to Corlay, which tarbandu wrote about in 2012, and Kate Wilhem's Juniper Time, which Joachim wrote about in 2014.  Also promoted is a one-volume edition of F. M. Busby's The Demu Trilogy from 1980; I read a 1974 edition of the first Demu book, Cage A Man, and liked it.

Listed on a page devoted to "science fantasy" (one which I've actually already written about, back in 2014), are the first two Dying Earth books by Grandmaster Jack Vance, the original collection of stories, which I feel is a bit overrated, and the first Cugel book, Eyes of the Overworld, which I adore and strongly recommend as a brilliant entertainment.  On the top of the "science fantasy" page is Cecilia Holland's Floating Worlds.  I don't own a copy of Floating Worlds, but I plan on reading it someday; a few years ago I read something about it someplace that made it sound weird, controversial and challenging.

If you have anything to say about any of the books advertised on these pages, don't hesitate to get it off your chest in the comments!

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!


Sunday, January 7, 2018

Kandar by Ken Bulmer

Quantoch chuckled his evil chuckle again.  "Not so, O my valiant Prince Kandar, Lion of Akkar, last scion of Dreaming Ferranoz!  We have all the time in the world, for nothing will age in Ferranoz while we are gone!"
Let’s take a look at the MPorcius scorecard for Ken Bulmer. In 2013 I liked Behold the Stars, but in 2014 I didn’t like Cycle of Nemesis. In 2015 I found The Diamond Contessa bewildering, but not exactly bad. I’ve been ignoring Bulmer for a couple of years, but on my shelf is a copy of Kandar, a 1969 “science-fantasy” from Paperback Library which I purchased because of its Jeff Jones cover. The cover reminds me of Joust, one of my favorite video games, though Joust lacked anything like the gorgeous babe we see accompanying the bird rider on this cover. The crew at Paperback Library really went all out with this publication--the back cover includes a fun illustration totally distinct from that on the front. Let’s see if Bulmer, in producing the text, met the high standards of Jones and the other people responsible for the cover.

The walled capital city of Ferranoz, seat of the God-Emperor Pandin Heliodotus, lies at the heart of the Akkarian empire.  As Bulmer's novel begins, the city is subjected to a sneak attack by mysterious enemies whose flying warships bypass all the empire's defenses; soon Ferranoz is overrun by pitiless half-man, half-wolf soldiers.  The Empire's greatest wizard, Quantoch, and the God-Emperor's son, Prince Kandar, are away conducting experiments, and by the time they arrive on the scene, Ferranoz is in flames and the wolfmen have overwhelmed the imperial soldiery and are carting away the women, including Kandar's fiance Elthalee!  Quantoch tries to use his magic to save the city, but the unknown enemy has a wizard of exactly equal power--as a result, their magic cancels each other out and Ferranoz is frozen in time.  In subsequent skirmishes outside the city walls Elthalee and Quantoch are severely wounded, so Kandar puts them within the city; in suspended animation like the rest of the metropolis, so they won't bleed to death.

Kandar then searches the world for the secret of the mysterious enemies who have attacked his home town and the magic spells required to unfreeze the city.   He makes friends, meets wizards, fights monsters, has sex with various young women, finally gets the magic he needs to summon a higher being (an immortal callipygian woman who rides a dragon) to intercede with still higher powers to liberate Ferranoz and annihilate the wolfmen.  In exchange for their help, he has to pledge 21 years service to the higher powers, and in the end of the book flies off on the back of the dragon with the voluptuous angel; it is strongly implied he will be having sex with this zaftig divinity.

This novel is not very good.  The writing and editing are sloppy, Bulmer using words and phrases in odd ways and using words I've never encountered before.  Here's an example from pages 39 and 40:

This is one bad sentence!  I've never heard "bunched out" before--does it mean "bunched up" or "spread out?"  And why not write the sentence in such a way that you need only use the word "swung" once?  Annoying!

Here's another short para from page 40:

I don't like "poised" here, I don't like "sent the shaft to bury," I think "sheared" should be used for the action of a blade, not the action of a point, and I don't know what the hell "like a hop pocket" means; is that a typo?  Is "hop pocket" British lingo for a guy who is blind drunk?   

The fight scenes are silly, confusing, and difficult to visualize.  When he is charged by two lancers, Kandar grabs their lances and lifts himself up on them like they are parallel bars in a gym--all the time, it seems, still holding his own sword.  He breaks the end off of one of the lances, stabs a foe with the point, and then kills another enemy with his sword, which is said to "gnaw" into the victim's neck.  Using a word that suggests slowness like "gnaw" in a scene all about quick thinking and galloping horses is unforgivably dissonant.

Bulmer's plot is poorly constructed, full of repetition, dead ends and subplots that go nowhere.  After Elthalee is wounded and put in the city for safe keeping, Quantoch and Kandar decide to study their magic books right there on the battlefield instead of going to their secret laboratory; Kandar thinks the crews of the flying machines overhead won't realize they are alive if they sit still.  When the two bookworms are attacked, Quantoch gets hurt and Kandar has to go put him in the city.  This kind of repetition is irritating; Bulmer should have just had both of these minor characters wounded in the same fight and deposited in the town at the same time.

When we first meet Kandar he is conducting electrical experiments, and numerous times in the novel he laments that he has to use magic to overcome an obstacle, when he would prefer to use science.  Despite all this foreshadowing, he never ever uses science to accomplish anything.  Similarly, we never learn anything about the mysterious entities who built the flying machines and sent the wolfmen to Ferranoz; these evil higher powers have no speaking part and never appear "on screen."  We never even meet one of their intermediaries, like we meet the sexy angel who is an intermediary to the good higher powers.  In a well-thought out adventure story, Kandar would have discovered the attackers were scientists, and he would have used his own science knowledge to counter the flying machines; maybe even had a debate with them over whether science should be used to liberate or control the common masses.  Maybe Bulmer was planning on doing such a thing and just ran out of time or pages?  This novel certainly feels like it was written without an outline and without revision, like Bulmer was desperate to meet a deadline.

In a later scene Kandar (who learns to be a passable wizard after spending an hour or two reading a book) is able to preserve the souls of two good men he killed due to the machinations of an evil wizard and a beautiful woman.  At first the spell works, and Kandar hears the voices of the men in his head--he has preserved their souls in his own body.  But then the spell fails, and the voices fade away--we are even told that the spell failed because Kandar forgot some elements of the spell.  Then a few pages later he hears the voices again; the spell worked after all!  Why does Bulmer go through this rigmarole of the spell working and then not working?  And why does he include this element at all?  The voices, as far as I can tell, don't provide Kandar any actual help, don't help move along the plot; I think they are just comic relief.

If my withering criticism hasn't
discouraged you, you can get an
electronic version of Kandar from
the good people at Gateway
Bulmer does periodically try to enliven his novel with lame jokes and juvenile wordplay, but the gags are never funny.  Sample joke:  A barbarian who yells out oaths like: "By the supple hips of sweet Vashtilulu the Buxom!"  Sample wordplay: "Quivering, quaking, querulous, Quantoch screamed and fell back." 

These anemic attempts at comedy, and a few sword and sorcery cliches (like demon worshipers trying to sacrifice somebody and that somebody being rescued in a nick of time) make me wonder if perhaps Kandar is meant to be a (in the event a not at all funny) parody of sword and sorcery stories.  The novel includes what feel like references to the work of Michael Moorcock and E. C. Tubb, Bulmer's (more talented) comrades in the trenches of the British sword-fighting adventure story industry.  Like Bulmer's Ferranoz, Imrryr, the capital city of Moorcock's famous empire of sorcerers, Melnibone, is called "The Dreaming City,"and like Prince Elric, Prince Kandar accidentally stabs his fiance.  E. C. Tubb's most famous character is Earl Dumarest, and Bulmer gives the name of "Dumarest" to one species of fantastic creature in Kandar.

Perhaps even more egregious than Bulmer's poor style and sloppy plot is the fact that the book is full of printing errors; on numerous pages we find lines printed in the wrong order, or lines printed multiple times.  Irritating!

A shoddy piece of work.  I have to give Kandar a thumbs down.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Whom The Gods Would Slay by "Ivar Jorgensen"

"And what say the stars, old crone?"
"They speak of evil--of dark and dreadful things; of a voyage across the void from star to star; of an evil ten thousand years in the making; a devil's nightmare now about to bloom."
It's time to explore another production of our friends at Belmont, the little publisher that gifted the world with so many beautiful paperback SF books in the 1960s (and in the 1970s as Belmont Tower.)  Today's subject, the 1968 printing of Ivar Jorgensen's Whom the Gods Would Slay, has a cover by the great Jeffrey Catherine Jones highlighting a muscleman's ass, a wickedly curved sword and what I suppose is a flying machine that is reminding me of a beluga whale and maybe a woman's boob.  This impressive image is the main reason I bought the book back in July while in South Carolina.

If you are like me, you drink lots of Ovaltine, have been playing Space Hulk: Ascension, and have no idea who Ivar Jorgensen is.  Fortunately for people like us, there is isfdb, which tells us that "Ivar Jorgensen" is a pseudonym used by such famous authors as Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Randall Garrett, and Henry Slesar, as well as a few others.  Those others include Paul W. Fairman, who edited Amazing Stories and Fantastic in the period 1956-8, as well as penning numerous SF stories and novels between 1950 and 1973 (including the novelization of a TV series starring the eminently likable Sally Field!)  Whom the Gods Would Slay was one of Fairman's earliest sales, appearing as the cover story of the June 1951 issue of Fantastic.  (Attention, cheapos!  Click here to read the magazine version for free at the internet archive.  While you are there, check out the fan letter from Terry Carr in which he assesses the ability of Virgil Finlay to illustrate horror stories and passes judgement on a bunch of artists and writers I never heard of!)

Hangra was a little gypsy girl born in medieval Europe who, when someone spotted her special talents, was sent to India to study ancient secret knowledge under a guru!  Today she is in an old crone who lives in the Scandinavian mountains, occasionally hired by the local Vikings to make potions.  When she senses that a spaceship carrying evil passengers is approaching the Earth, she manipulates the neighboring Norsemen into becoming Earth's defense force against the aliens! Guided by Hangra's eerie magic, four heroes set out from the Viking village: Rolf of the Golden Horn, a Viking chief who terrorized Christian France and Italy but is now sick of war, his lieutenant Lars, their stolid but dimwitted comrade Jorgen, and one of their galley slaves, a Nubian named Tazor, a man of wisdom who has learned five languages over the course of a life of being bought and sold from one end of the world to the other.  (Tezor is granted his freedom when he volunteers for this mission.)

Whom the Gods Would Slay's 140 pages are split into three "books," and when Book II starts our point of view switches to Mars, the Red Planet!  There we meet Lall, the most beautiful woman on Mars, a woman with an insatiable sexual appetite!  Thanks to centuries of eugenics laws designed to foster intelligence, all healthy Martians are short and spindly stoic pacifists with oversized heads, but Lall is a freak with a body like a Playboy Playmate and a brain feverish with passion!  But hold your horses, horndogs--Lall is the product of an experiment that mixed human and insect DNA, and after sex she lays eggs which hatch voracious five-inch-long ants!  Driven by sadism and a lust for revenge born of the fact that only a perverted minority of the macrocephalic Martian men have any interest in impregnating her, Lall (with the help of her five husbands, the five least cerebral men on Mars) has given birth to a horde of monster ants that has devoured all life on Mars!  Now she and her man-harem are piling into their space ship to leave the barren waste that is post-ant-attack Mars and conquer the Earth!

In Book II we also meet Rollo, a former associate of Rolf's, a Viking who fell in love with a Christian woman and turned his back on his career of marauding to embrace the teachings of Jesus Christ!  So dedicated did he become that the Church made him a bishop!  He receives a mental message from Hangra, and sets out to meet Lall.  Along the way Rollo preaches the Gospel to the poor and battles the Vandals who oppress them.  At the same time, Rolf and company must deal with a company of Mongols.

Whom the Gods Would Slay is a fun melodrama that takes Christianity and sex as its themes (we learn all about Rolf and Rollo's conventional love lives as well as about all that Martian perversity.)  Fairman focuses on the psychology and motivations of the many characters, which I appreciated.  I also liked the character's histrionic speeches, though some readers may find them over the top.  The novel's science is obviously pretty sketchy (not only does Fairman expect us to believe that one woman could give birth to an army big enough to eat all life on Mars, but he seems to think that in space the sun is invisible because there is "nothing against which it could shine; nothing to refract its rays") but this is a story about human drama, not science, anyway.

Unfortunately, the ending feels a little contrived.  In Book III, Rolf, Lars, Jorgen and Teznor arrive at the Martian landing site along a French river.  Lall is so excited to see these four Earthly hunks that she murders her five scrawny Martian husbands, thinking she doesn't need them any more.  Lall tries to seduce Rolf and then Teznor, but the former is faithful to his  wife back north and the latter is too wise to be swayed by Lall's great beauty.  Dull Jorgen, however, succumbs, bedding the Martian femme fatale, and a few days later she unleashes a swarm of ants who are each a full foot-long!  Wracked with guilt, Jorgen commits suicide, allowing his evil progeny to devour him, and the rest of our heroes are surrounded by the formican hordes.  As if she thinks she's in a Star Wars movie, Lall tries to convince them to become her new and improved man-harem and rule the solar system at her side.  When all looks lost, Bishop Rollo arrives, carrying his giant golden cross, and moments later a plague of locusts descends.  The monstrous ants eat the locusts, but there are so many locusts the ants become bloated and die from overeating.  Lall tries to escape, but it was her Martian husbands who knew how to fly the ship--she crashes it into a mountain, and an avalanche covers all evidence of the Martian invasion.  Wise Teznor converts to Christianity on the spot, and it is implied that Rolf and Lars will eventually do so.

(Skimming over the 1951 magazine version of Whom the Gods Would Slay, I see there is no locust swarm--instead the ants are confused by the "radic emanations" of Rollo's giant gold cross, gold being "the purest metal," and Rollo herds them all into the river to drown.  This resolution, based on chemistry and featuring radiation, actually sounds more like a conventional classic SF ending than the locust plague, though the locusts have a sort of Biblical association that suits the story's pro-Christian theme.)

Fairman is a competent writer, the novel moves at a brisk pace, and it is full of surprises--I hardly expected to find a woman who gives birth to monster insects, an invasion from Mars and an endorsement of Christianity all in the same book.  Thumbs up for Whom the Gods Would Slay.


At the end of my 1968 copy of Whom the Gods Would Slay we find advertisements for Belmont's line of SF (a line suitable for the "connoisseur") and a "special offer:" five books for the price of four!  Among the books advertised is Novelets of Science Fiction, one of my faves, a Belmont Double I own and have read that includes Kris Neville's Special Delivery and Dave van Arnam's Star Gladiator, and another Double featuring The Thief of Thoth by Lin Carter, which I read in a different Belmont edition.  Leo P. Kelly, with whose work I am not familiar, is highlighted, and Mack Reynolds, whose success is somewhat puzzling to me, has two books listed.  Check out the ads below, and if there are any unacknowledged masterpieces listed, let me and your fellow readers know in the comments! 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein

I find I like being female.  But it's different.  Now what shall we wear?
My copy; purchased at a Goodwill in
Indianola, Iowa in 2014
For almost two months I have been occupied by the move of MPorcius HQ from a moldy basement in Ohio to a smelly second-story apartment in Maryland, by holiday travel, and with reading 1970s biographies of Samuel Johnson by John Wain and Christopher Hibbert.*  But today I am back in the science fiction ghetto, dealing with one of that ghetto's most prominent citizens, Robert A. Heinlein, one of the foremost practitioners of the hard SF that promotes science and engineering, the libertarian SF that argues for the primacy of the individual against the government and the collective, and the taboo-challenging SF that depicts new or unconventional sexual and marital relationships.  The topic at hand: 1970's I Will Fear No Evil, which I read over 30 years ago in my youth, and reread in fits and starts over the past few busy weeks of driving cross country, celebrating the holidays with my in-laws, waiting at government offices and lugging my belongings to a storage unit.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith (again with the "Smith!") is one of the world's most successful businessmen, the head of Smith Enterprises Ltd, a vast business empire which includes "sea ranches" where unlucky workers get eaten by sharks, a textbook publishing division and a machine tools division.  A self-made man and World War II veteran, Smith is over ninety and at death's door, monitored by nurses and computers 24-7!  But he is not ready to shuffle off this mortal coil just yet--his mind is still sharp as a tack, and he brags that he can remember yesterday's stock prices and "do logarithmic calculations without tables" (your humble blogger can't remember what he ate yesterday and doesn't know what a logarithmic calculation is!)  Smith's solution: becoming the world's first brain transplant beneficiary!  Smith orders his staff to find a young healthy body whose brain is legally dead and which shares his rare blood type, and through a tragic set of circumstances his brain ends up in the body of his beautiful twenty-something secretary, Eunice Barca!  A woman!  Even more incredibly, Eunice's consciousness has somehow survived death and the operation, and it shares Johann's brain with him!  (Heinlein leaves open the possibility that Eunice's presence is not "real," but a product of brain damage or mental illness, and Johann doesn't tell anyone that he is in constant communication with Eunice's "ghost" for fear he will be immediately diagnosed as insane.)

As you perhaps know from reading my blog posts about Leigh Brackett's Sword of Rhiannon, Edmond Hamilton's "The Avenger from Atlantis," Tanith Lee's Volkhavaar, and other works, I love any story in which people's brains or souls or consciousnesses are moved from one body to another, and/or in which different consciousnesses inhabit the same body and struggle for control or learn to live in harmony.  No doubt this fascination of mine springs from my fear of death and experience of loneliness and alienation from my fellow man.  But while the aforementioned Brackett, Hamilton and Lee stories are fast-paced adventure capers with horror elements, I Will Fear No Evil is a slow-paced philosophical novel about love and sex with very little dramatic tension.  The topic of a man unexpectedly finding himself in a woman's body could serve as fertile ground for a story of body horror, or a tale of identity crisis, or a feminist satire, but Heinlein does not take any of these tacks.

Instead of finding his new new body repulsive or even disconcerting, Johann embraces womanhood, taking the name "Joan" and immediately demanding cosmetics and nightgowns and an appointment with a hairdresser!  Within days Joan is going on extravagant shopping trips and enthusiastically throwing herself at every man who crosses her path!  In the second half of the novel Joan has sex with Johann's best friend, septuagenarian lawyer Jacob Salomon, her doctor, and various other of her employees, both male and female.  (Like Tiresias, star of Greek mythology and English art rock, Johann/Joan finds that sex is far more enjoyable as a woman than a man.)  With equal gusto Joan makes a beeline to the sperm bank and has herself impregnated with Johann's sperm, so that she becomes, more or less, both father and mother of the child she carries.

The novel briefly touches on legal issues surrounding the need of the courts to figure out if the person with Johann's brain and Eunice's body is legally Johann, Eunice, neither or both, because some of Johann's legal (though not biological) descendants hope to get their hands on his fortune through legal maneuvers, but these ineffectual antagonists never have a chance.  Heinlein devotes far more energy to following Joan's efforts to seduce and then wed Jacob, and to comfort Eunice's many friends and lovers who miss her and might find the presence of her body still walking around (with a ninety-year old dude's brain in it!) unnerving.

The lion's share of the novel's text, which weighs in at 500 pages, consists of conversations between the witty, impeccably decent and supercompetent characters (Johann is the world's greatest businessman, Eunice is the best possible secretary and kindest and most giving of individuals, Jacob is the world's greatest lawyer and great in the sack, the guy who performs the brain transplant is the world's finest surgeon, Eunice's husband Joe is a genius artist and a noble soul who doesn't care about money, etc.) and these conversations consist mostly of these paragons expressing their love for each other but sometimes expressing their (and presumably the author's) opinions.  There are also lots of descriptions of people's, especially women's, attire.  Conflicts or setbacks are few and far between.

One of the ecstatic blurbs on the back cover of my edition of the novel refers to the book's "frightening vision of the future" and the likelihood that it might be come true.  We learn about this "future world" of the early 21st-century in dribs and drabs, in characters' dialogue and in brief satirical segments that describe current events.  The world is overpopulated (overpopulation, Johann asserts, is the wellspring of all the other problems) and polluted, and the government is corrupt and incompetent, a welfare state that hands out generous benefits to the poor but whose efforts to control population (through a eugenics system of licenses that tries to limit who can reproduce) and crime (large swathes of urban landscape are no-go zones called "Abandoned Areas" which the police refuse to enter) and even educate children (many adults are illiterate) are an absolute failure.  Rich people like Johann and Jacob are driven around by thuggish guards in over-sized armored limos equipped with gun turrets, and Eunice's untimely (but opportune!) death is at the hands of a mugger in an elevator.

Sexy!  And patriotic?
Obviously Heinlein is vehemently opposed to all this socialism and laments the mass crime and pollution, but the novel's setting also features developments Heinlein (I presume) would have welcomed, like acceptance of public nudity and a looser attitude about sex--Eunice's marriage was an open one, and I think all the main characters have homosexual affairs.  Johann and Eunice describe to each other their early sex lives, and Heinlein uses Johann's reminiscences to suggest that the Victorians and the people of the early 20th-century were just about as sex-crazed as the college kids of the swinging Sixties, but were less open and more hypocritical about it.  Some readers may look askance at some of the sexual relationships described; for example, Johann was seduced by a thirty-five-year-old married woman when he was fourteen, and when he was twenty he had sex with a sixteen-year-old who would become his first wife.  (If there is any tension in this novel it is the tension between the author's and the reader's beliefs.)

I Will Fear No Evil presents a less than rosy image of what people in 1970 would have considered a traditional marriage: all the marriages in the story are either "open" or failed--all feature enthusiastic "swinging" or surreptitious adultery.  Johann was married four times, and all four of his wives cheated on him and gave birth to children fathered by other men.  Johann has no biological children, and his legal heirs--four granddaughters--are the story's rarely invoked and totally ineffectual villains.  One way of looking at the novel is to see the union of Johann's brain and Eunice's body, which unexpectedly renders their consciousnesses inseparable, as a sort of allegory of a perfect marriage--they are a til-death-do-us-part corporate entity who share their lives in the most direct and intimate way possible, help each other learn and grow and need never again fear loneliness.

I'm scratching my head over the
cover to this British edition
Another way of looking at I Will Fear No Evil is as a novel celebrating self-creation, the fact that you can be who you want to be, you fashion your own identity and need not accept what your parents and society have made you via genetics and culture.  Johann changed his name from Schmidt to Smith when he enlisted in the army in 1941, and the book includes multiple conversations with lawyers about how your legal name in the USA is whatever you say it is.  Johann wasn't born rich, but turned himself into the world's preeminent businessman, while Eunice's husband Joe, the sensitive and honorable artist, came from a family of worthless, dishonest, grasping scum.  The happening young people of the novel's early 21st-century believe there are six sexes, and people in the book decide what "sex" (the word incorporates what we today call "sexual orientation") they are; while today's conventional wisdom is that homosexuals are "born that way," Heinlein in the novel seems to suggest gay sex is a practice any open-minded person might simply opt to indulge in.  Late in the novel, discussing the parentage of the child she bears,  Johann/Joan brags "I did this on my own.  I alone am parent to this child."  It is also perhaps significant that Johann dismisses out of hand behaviorist psychological theories.

While I Will Fear No Evil is a celebration of individualism and tells you that you don't have to respect old taboos or follow in your parents' footsteps or take the authority of the government seriously, it is not a book that advocates being a hermit and ignoring everybody else.  Everybody in the novel is constantly complimenting and hugging and kissing each other, so you never forget that the main point of the book is that we should all love each other and that sex is an expression of love that should not inspire jealousy or be subject to restrictive rules.  The book also shows the deference to the cognitive elite (and contempt for the common masses) that we often see in classic SF; obvious examples are Asimov's Foundation stories and Sturgeon's award-winning "Slow Sculpture," fiction in which the authors advocate that shadowy unaccountable geniuses manipulate human civilization for its own good.  Public-spirited Johann tries to use his wealth to help humanity; most prominent in the novel is his subtle attempt to mold the gene pool by financing a eugenics foundation that collects the sperm of above-average men and uses it impregnate above-average female volunteers.  On the flip side we see the other end of the cognitive and moral spectra in action, as Heinlein depicts how the venal news media whips up riotous mobs with ease with misleading and salacious news reports.

Jack Gaughan goes literal for the magazine edition,
showing ancient Johann's withered mug
and Eunice in one of her boob-baring outfits
(A related theme we see in much of former naval officer Heinlein's work is the need for the crew of a ship to obey their captain without question, and this shows up in I Will Fear No Evil, with Johann demanding similar obedience from his employees.)

Heinlein's novels often include anti-bigotry messages, messages both explicit (characters deliver speeches denouncing racism, for example) and implicit (such as the inclusion of admirable characters who are not white, not male, and/or not human) and I Will Fear No Evil does the same.  Johann, whose grandparents were immigrants from Catholic southern Germany, grew up in what he calls variously "the Bible Belt" and "the Middle West" is best friends with the Jewish Jacob, and offhand I can recall admirable minor characters who are black, Polish and gay.  Probably most significantly, Heinlein leaves Eunice's ethnicity a mystery; we learn she was born an Iowa farm girl (like my mother-in-law!) but there is never a direct declaration of her racial background and I didn't notice any details about her skin or hair or whatever that might provide a clue to her ethnicity.  Heinlein seems to be telling us that what mattered about Eunice was not her ethnic identity, but that she loved everyone (as one minor character puts it, she treated everyone "like a human being.")

(If we want to nitpick, it is true that these "diverse" characters are perhaps stereotypes: the Jewish lawyer, the religious black man, and the sexy female secretary.)

I think it may also be worth considering what relationship I Will Fear No Evil might have to the famous "New Wave" movement in SF; some of the gushing blurbs on the back of my copy seem to be raising the issue by claiming "Those who have thought of science fiction as only child's play will see how wrong they are" and that the novel is "a sign of the changing nature of science fiction."  Most important in this context is I Will Fear No Evil's subject matter, which includes a minimum of high technology and adventure and instead focuses on gender roles and sex, and to a lesser extent psychology and the aforementioned dystopic society.  Perhaps more remarkable, however, is a passage early in the book, a page-long stream-of-consciousness section full of homophonic wordplay that depicts Johann Smith's state of mind just after his operation; this struck me as "New Wavey" in its technique.  And maybe the prominent role of yoga and meditation in the novel is New Wavey? 

I am in broad sympathy with Heinlein's beliefs and admire much of his work, but I know he has many detractors, and it is easy to see how a hostile reviewer could make hay out of this novel.  Through a feminist lens, Johann is a man exploiting a woman's body, and one might see the process of a man putting one of his organs into a woman's body and thereby gaining control of her as a sort of allegory of rape or symbolic depiction of marriage as a patriarchal institution.  And of course the book suggests that the characteristic role of the woman is to comfort people, give birth to children, and look good, not run businesses or wage wars or create art, as the men in the book do.  Through a Marxist lens, Johann is a member of the upper-middle class, exploiting one of his proletarian employees.  Eunice never expresses any resentment or envy about the treatment of women or the lower classes in the society that Jacob and Johann have fought their way to the top of.  Conservatives might argue that Heinlein's advocacy of free love fails to adequately address the risks and responsibilities of sexual activity--you can perhaps dismiss pregnancy and disease by referring to high tech medicine, but what about the jealousy and possessiveness that characterize most people's sexual feelings?     

To return to the plot, after Joan has comforted all of Eunice's old friends and straightened out Johann's legal affairs, Heinlein wraps up the book with a pair of deaths.  Jacob dies (he's an elderly gent, after all) and somehow his consciousness ends up in Johann's brain along with Eunice's, so their ideal marriage is now a threesome.  This appears, to me, to be conclusive proof that Eunice's presence in Johann's brain is the product of mental illness and not some kind of biological phenomenon resulting from his brain being connected to her body.  With her elderly husband dead, Joan volunteers for the Moon colony--one of the recurring themes of Heinlein's work is that you can leave the oppression and corruption of a decadent civilization by moving to the frontier (we see this in Between Planets, The Rolling Stones, Friday, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, etc.)  Joan dies while giving birth to her child, just after arriving on Luna.

Karel Thole delivers a pleasant and
appropriate cover for this German edition
Heinlein is an important author in the field so if you are interested in the history of SF or the depiction of gender roles or sex changes or brain transplants in SF you should probably read I Will Fear No Evil.  But can I recommend it is a piece of entertainment or literature?  That is a little trickier.  The novel presents many opportunities for thought on various issues, and Heinlein's style is smooth, but these 500 pages can feel long and repetitious, even tedious, and there is almost no conflict--it really can feel like page after page of people saying they love each other and describing their clothes and make up.  As a story about love and sex instead of a story about a dangerous journey, or an episode in a war, or people trying to solve a mystery, we can't expect a bunch of action scenes, but I Will Fear No Evil has none of the tension you find in a compelling love story--there's no fear of rejection, no unrequited desire, no jealousy, no star-crossed lovers kept apart by social mores or family feuds; everybody adores each other and is attracted to each other from the word "go," and they are all libertarians or libertines living in a libidinous society so there are no inhibitions to be overcome.  (Maybe I should also point out that there are no actual sex scenes; this book is by no means titillating or pornographic in the way a Piers Anthony novel might be.)  It is easy to see why fans of Heinlein's earlier work like adventure writer E. C. Tubb, who said in his 1979 interview with Charles Platt that he used to like Heinlein but that Stranger in a Strange Land and Heinlein's later work were no good and even hinted that any positive critical attention they received was somehow dishonest, would be disappointed in this long, slow, rambling testimonial in favor of free love.  I'll say that I Will Fear No Evil is acceptable for the initiated, but it is not the kind of thrill ride or barrel of laughs I can recommend to a wide audience.

*In his introduction to his 1974 biography of the Great Cham of Literature, novelist and poet John Wain tells us that part of his project in writing the book is to make Johnson, famous as a Tory and an essentially Christian and conservative character, palatable to lefties, and Wain does throw around such verbiage as "eternal tug of war between labor and capital" and "plutocracy" that, I guess, will appeal to Marxists.  Wain, however, expends a lot more ink comparing the physically and culturally beautiful England of the 18th century with the industrial and technological England of the late 20th century, which Wain bemoans has become a cultural "ruin" in which every material thing is "hideous."  Wain is also the kind of biographer who makes wild guesses about long dead people's states of mind and reconstructs relationships and conversations based on no evidence whatsoever.  (There are no footnotes in the book, which is based entirely on published sources.)  Wain's book is entertaining, but a veteran reader of Johnsoniana and Boswelliana will probably learn more about the writer of this biography than the subject--Wain fills its 380 pages not only with his emphatic opinions about Johnson's century and his (and my) own, but with extracts from the poetry and criticism of 20th-century figures like T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Seymour Krim, extracts that have nothing to do with Johnson, and anecdotes from his own (Wain's own) life as an academic and a public intellectual.  One assumes Wain feels comfortable including all these digressions because Johnson himself used such scholarly work as the Dictionary and The Lives of the Poets as vehicles for expressing his own opinions and relating little personal anecdotes.

Popular historian Hibbert, in his 1971 biography of Johnson, which is also based on [now] published material and not original research, refrains from making himself and his opinions a central part of his book.  While Wain extols Johnson as a singular hero, denounces the 20th century, and addresses such scholarly topics as Johnson's adherence to the panEuropean culture of neoLatin scholars and resistance to Romanticism, Hibbert serves up the kind of stuff that actually arouses the interest of ordinary people in Johnson.  With a minimum of analysis or editorializing Hibbert showcases Johnson as a big-hearted guy and a pretty good comedian, the oddest and most interesting member of a large circle of odd and interesting characters.  Hibbert's book consists primarily of quoted and paraphrased anecdotes drawn from Boswell, Thrale-Piozzi and other sources, over 300 pages of amusing stories about Johnson's bon mots, idiosyncrasies and interactions with his many memorable friends and acquaintances and moving episodes in which Johnson expresses his love for others, his unhappiness, and his fear of death.