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.

1 comment:

  1. I've had the same problem with Kenneth Bulmer: he's a very uneven writer. I much prefer E.C. Tubb who is much more consistent. I haven't read Bulmer's "best" work, the Dray Perscott series that he wrote under the "Alan Burt Akers" pseudonym.