Monday, September 24, 2018

The Alien

Emblematic of the late 70s era when major publishers like Fawcett were looking for a piece of that Sword & Sorcery action comes The Alien by Victor Besaw – a writer unknown then and still largely unknown now. Besaw does not appear to have been a pseudonym and there’s not much information about him to be found. The Alien, in 1979, was his second published book, after his debut novel The Sword of Shandar the year before, and as near as I can tell it was his last. I always see this one in used book stores, so Fawcett must have printed a bunch of them, maybe they just didn’t sell.

It would be understandable, because The Alien is not really what anyone would call “good”. It’s a very short novel, clocking in at barely over 50,000 words, and is a quick, breezy, undemanding read. In truth it reads more like the recounting of someone’s D&D adventures than anything that could be said to have themes or subtext – things it does not even aspire to. This is entertainment, and avowedly not literature.

The Alien recounts the first-person life of a character named Godranec. Found wandering as a small child, he is a member of a nonhuman race called the Nyarlethu – essentially a dwarf with small horns. Raised as a pet by a human noble lady, he grows up and she no longer finds him cute, so he is cast out to live with the other “thralls”, or slaves. The human society is depicted as unrelentingly callous and cruel, with virtually everyone being a slave of one kind or another, and with brutal and gruesome punishments for breaking the rules.

Godranec grows up to be short but tremendously strong and fast, and he works in the smithy where he learns to forge steel and covertly makes his own weapons. Throughout the book Godranec is the beneficiary of a lot of helpful coincidences, and the first and biggest one is that he gets ahold of an enchanted spearhead that the smithy is supposed to destroy, and he instead steals it and copies the runes etched on it onto the other weapons he makes, so they are supernaturally sharp and strong.

When he is prepared enough, Godranec escapes and heads north through the “weirwoods” where he knows the humans will fear to pursue him. He is searching for the home of his people, said to be far away to the north, and the book is just the tale of his journey. Along the way he fights beasts and monsters that range from giant wolves to immense trapdoor spiders to subhuman cavemen and a dozen others. Besaw will just detail these battles and then leave them behind, and most of them never lead to anything else, they are just events along the way. Godranec hacks his way through, finds his people, learns he is the long-lost prince, and lives happily ever after.

There’s not much to it. The style is crude and scattered with modern vernacular, thus failing to really evoke a different world. It’s written in first person, so we see the world through the eyes of a protagonist who does not have much education and knows very little about the world he is in. It allows the narrative to fill us in on details as he sees them, and not bother with larger questions of worldbuilding or meaning. It’s also rather limited, and would make this seem almost like a children’s story were it not for the gruesome and brutal violence.

And yet I maintain a certain affection for this book. Godranec is a likeable hero – humble, practical, and clever, and the book breezes along, refusing to bog down in anything time-consuming or tedious. It skips easily from one adventure to the next in an episodic fashion that is all tied together by the simple expedient of the character’s journey to his dimly-remembered home. It remains highly readable, and it’s short enough that the lack of sophistication does not have time to wear on you. The Alien is not a good book, but it moves fast and does not ask much out of you as a reader. If we are discussing S&S as junk food, then this is one of the prime examples. It’s not filling or good for you, but it tastes good enough that you eat it anyway.

Monday, September 17, 2018


Summer bloomed across dead lands, and the greening of the grass hid away burn scars and the places where bones lay fallow on the earth. Untouched fields gave forth wildflowers and flooded with weeds, and the rains came soft and turned the forests to gold. Sun cut through the low clouds and fell on burned halls and broken barns, over the fields where cattle roamed and grazed, untroubled by man.

Valura came to the place where the king’s hall had stood, and she leaned on her long-handled axe and looked at the shattered roof and blackened beams. The tall grass was thicker where the slain had fallen, and she walked among unhallowed graves as she passed down the slope where Haldr had fought his last battle. This was a land with no king, and no lords. Now beasts ran wild over the paths and broken walls, and dark things walked the forests in the night.

She was leaner, now, than she had been. Two years she had lived as a beast herself, sleeping in the snow, hunting and fishing with her hands, living from fire to fire. She had not been here when Hror came to extinguish the king’s hall, and now she came at last, a final moment as a penance of kinds for what she had not done.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Birds of Prey

I wanted to review a David Drake book, and I meant to do The Dragon Lord, but I couldn’t find it, so it will have to wait. Instead I picked up this one, and by the time I found out it was really SF and not fantasy, it was too late to read anything else, so here we go.

Drake has done a good bit of alternate history, and his interest in the late Roman empire has fueled more than one book. This one starts out rather messy, then pops a good premise and some well-drawn characters, meanders around, and has a pretty good climax, so let’s run through it.

The book follows Aulus Perennius, an agent of the Roman government during the reign of Emperor Gallienus, who had the misfortune to rule during the economic catastrophe known as the Crisis of the Third Century. The book does not concern itself much with the larger political situation, but the setting is important as it evokes a sense of collapse and decay running through the Roman culture. Aulus is an agent of the fictional Bureau of Imperial Affairs, which is a kind of Roman-era CIA tasked with addressing threats to the empire in a covert fashion.

The book opens is a lumpy fashion, setting up some action that turns out not to matter and introducing political strife that’s historical, but amounts to background noise to make the book seem more accurate. Drake has obviously done his homework, and he fills the descriptions with carefully-researched period details that add texture, but too often obscure what is going on. Filling traveling music with little flourishes is fine, stopping the action to do it is not.

Aulus gets involved with a mysterious Roman noble Calvus, who enlists his aid to stamp out what is described as a cult, but turns out to be led by aliens. I think Drake missed a step here by making the aliens more strange than menacing. Their electric weaponry is flashy, but as described does not sound super-effective, and he seems to have gone for the exotic effect rather than a more realistically imagined technology. The aliens themselves are more bizarre than anything else, seeming to be awkward and rather weak.

The center of this alien-led cult is in Cilicia (Turkey), which is a long journey from Rome, and the bulk of the book is taken up with the trip. A cast of secondary characters is assembled, most of them with FODDER stamped on their heads, and off they go. The great mistake of the plot is that at least the middle third is taken up by a sea-chase with Gaulish pirates and a battle. The whole thing is well-done and vivid action, but it has nothing to do with the main plot, and by the time chapter after chapter of it is over you are like “oh, right, aliens.” Drake got carried away with the sea battle and forgot he was writing a book about something else.

It’s made more annoying by the fact that after the harrowing sea chase they end up captured by the pirates anyway, so the whole middle third of the book is essentially spinning its wheels. Then we have an unpleasant and unfortunately rather graphic gang-rape scene that derails the tone, and it takes a while to recover from that – in some ways it never really does, since all of it is so unnecessary. Even by the standards of 1984, the rape scene is gratuitous and ugly.

After squandering reader goodwill we finally get to the rather gripping finale, when the group is heading down into an underground cavern pursued by an Allosaurus. One of the more interesting side-plots is that the aliens are from Earth’s future – as is Calvus – fighting to prevent the aliens from essentially destroying the entirety of Mediterranean civilization in a bid to wreck human social and technological development. Calvus is actually an android of some kind, sent back to prevent this. The time-jumping has caused rifts that allow other time slippage to take place. The inference is that the time-travel technology is not well-tested, and has unforeseen side effects. It’s an interesting idea that would warrant a longer book.

But at the end, the aliens are rather handily defeated, and Calvus explodes to destroy all the remnants of their technology. The relationship between Aulus and Calvus is one of mutual respect and is well-drawn, so the end has a bittersweet quality.

So how is this like Sword & Sorcery, and what makes it not? The violence is graphic and bloody, and the main character is definitely morally ambiguous. Aulus has a code and a devotion to the cause of the empire, but he doesn’t much care how he accomplishes his goals. The SF elements are so muffled they might as well be fantasy, but the stakes of the game are far too high for a usual S&S tale. The fate of the world – in fact all of human history – is in the balance, and this kind of world-saving quest is not what S&S is about.

The good aspects are that Drake is a solid prose technician, and his action scenes especially really zip along. That said, he does get hung up on details a lot, and loses track of his pacing when he is caught up in the action. The violence is swift, bloody, and brutal, and the characterizations are good. Interestingly, Drake opts for a very vernacular, modern style of description and dialogue, making this seem like a very modern story despite the avowedly historical setting.

The problems are mostly that the book spends way too much time following plot threads and side characters that go nowhere, and sidelines its own main plot for like 60% of the novel. The lack of a real antagonist is another lack, and the aliens spend so much time offscreen and are so poorly described that they have no personality. There were a lot of interesting elements that never got the depth I would have liked, and there are too many unanswered questions by the end. Drake has his strong points, but this is far from his best work.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Stones Mark the Tread of Giants

The first storm of spring broke across the northlands, and the rain poured down across the hillsides and swelled the streams. The ice broke and sheared away and was washed from brooks and rivers, and lightning raged across the hillsides and scourged the stones that stood in circles, leaving seared marks like runes. The wind lashed the dead grass and the evergreen trees, and it blew across the moors with a voice like howling.

Deep in the dark of his hall, Hror woke from his deathless sleep and clawed to his feet, hand reaching for his cursed sword. The voice of the wind was like speech, like a voice from some hidden mouth, and it was not the dark whisper he had come to know, it was something else. A golden war-cry from beyond the edge of the world. He stood pale in the darkness, feeling the cold inside him that was always there now, at the heart of him. He closed his eyes and he saw a light as from far away, a golden-bladed spear that glowed like fire.

Thunder smashed and echoed against the walls of the hall men named Irongard. It was like a tomb, now, where men lay still through the cold nights, and they kindled no fires and ate nothing but raw flesh. Hror was a cold king, and his hearth lay dark and lifeless. His men like hounds scoured the land for those who still stood to oppose him. They burned spear-halls and slaughtered any who tried to stop them. Once fed upon his blood, they knew nothing but a hunger for killing.

Now the king went among them, and his voice was like breaking ice as he called them from their rest. He struck his sword upon the bare tables and called like a raven. He beat a cadence on wood and stone, and he called those who followed him to wake. An enemy was coming, and he did not need any secret whisper of dark knowledge to tell him. He felt it in his blood, coming nearer. In his mind the hills were alive with fire, and he heard the tread of armies in the dark.