Book Review: The Desert of Souls

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones is the story of Asim, captain of the guard of a powerful nobleman in Bagdad in the 8th century. He is also the narrator of the tale, reporting of his adventure with the sage Dabir some indeterminate number of years later. I am usually not a fan of historic fiction or first person narration, but here it turned out to be surprisingly fun. When their master had been sad about the death of his favorite parrot, Asim took him to a trip to the market to distract him and cheer him up, with Dabir getting roped in against his will. On their trip they met a fortune teller who told them that an opportunity for great adventure was waiting for them right outside her door, but if they prefer to go back to their ordinary lives all they would have to do is stay inside her house a few minutes longer and it would simple pass by. But of course they didn’t.

Even though set in a historic setting, the book is clearly a fantasy story. But even the two heroes are very sceptical that anything supernatural is going on for quite some time. And while miracles and supernatural beings are accepted facts of their culture, the ideas of sorcerers and undead monsters in the middle of Bagdad just seems too unbelievable to everyone. It’s a very “classic” adventure tale and I’ve seen Jones write frequently about his love for Robert Howard and Harold Lamb. And it shows. I think as historic settings go, this is as close to the spirit of Sword & Sorcery as it gets. I am also reminded of Indiana Jones and Tarzan, so you probably might get an impession of what kind of adventure this is.

Asim’s narration works very well for the book. Overall I think the characters are not very complex, but both Asim and Dabir have clear personalties and it shows through not only in their dialogues but especially in the way that Asim describes the events and adds his own thoughts on them. He is somewhat of a simple man and while apparently being able to do a good job at protecting the house of his master and his family, all the praise for him is generally about his loyalty, honesty, and bravery. But he really isn’t the sharpest knive in the drawer at any stretch. The language he uses to tell his tale is simple and he often glosses over the details of the more arcane and ocult things that are going on, admitting that he didn’t really understand what the sages and sorcerers had been talking about. At the same time you also learn a lot about him from the little and seemingly irrelevant details he does mention because they seem to be important to him. It’s frequently mentioned in passing that they took a short break for prayer or that they washed hands before sitting down to eat, and while you almost never see him mentioning the turbans people are wearing, there are numerous cases where he points out that a person did not wear a turban. I don’t know the cultural dress code of that place and period, but simply by mentioning it it becomes obvious that Asim considers them improperly dressed and that to him that tells quite a bit about their character. While somewhat simple minded and a warrior, his honesty and integrity are without doubt and he is very conscious of his manners and proper behavior. Or at least as he sees it.

I sprang off my left foot, caught the roof ledge with my fingers, and pulled myself up. Dabir urged care; I do not think he heard my response, as I was too busy not falling to answer clearly, and my words do not bear repeating.

As far as knowledge of history and culture goes, the Arab world is not one I am particularly familiar with, but throughout the book it is always very apparent that Jones does. At least once or twice every chapter there is something mentioned that makes me stop and think “Oh yes, I think I heard about that somewhere before. Interesting to see it included in this story.” I mentioned the regular breaks for prayer and the washing of hands, as well as the absence or loss of turbans, but there’s always a lot more of this kind everywhere. At one point early in the book there is a mention of Turks, and that seemed somewhat dubious to me so that I looked it up. And as it turns out, the Turks had already been muslims in the 8th century, even though it was only many centuries later that they migrated from modern Kazhakstan to Turkey. And not only are there muslims in Bagdad, but also Zoroastrians and as they travel down the Tigris there are scenes involving “Marsh Arabs”, an ancient ethnic minority probably very few people in the western world have ever heard of. All this makes it feel that this story takes place in the real Abbasid Caliphate and not just some Arab-themed fantasy world that has some well known place names thrown in. What always intrigued me most was the use of the term “Greek”. In the tale as told by Asim, it’s always simply “the Greeks” without any additional commentary, and given the way he narrates the story it feels very appropriate. Asim knows what he means by Greeks and assumes that all his listeners do as well. But at this time in history, any “Greek” ambassadors or spies would be from Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. And most of eastern and northern Europe was not christian yet, so to Arabs in the 700s the word Greek might even be seen as synonymous with Christian. I really liked that the Greek sorcerer in the story is a necromancer. Resurrection of the dead is a purely Christian concept and the whole idea of Hell was adopted from ancient Greek mythology. I don’t know of Jones took any liberties there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were rumors circulating in the muslim world about Christians creating undead monsters in secret. The Romans had rumors about Christians being canibals and practicing child sacrifice some centuries earlier, so it doesn’t seem unlikely. And after all, even the word necromancy is Greek. In contrast to that, the Zoroastrian priests use fire magic, which also seems like something that the people of Bagdad probably would not have found too difficult to believe.

Jones has written quite a bit about the Sword & Sorcery genre over the years, among them some of the most interesting and insightful articles I’ve seen about it. He really does know the genre and how it works, and this shows very much in this book. It’s really a lot of fun. There’s almost always something happening and the narrator is always giving his own thoughts and perspective on the events in a way that is very enjoyable. (The first boat ride was the only point where I thought it should hurry up and get back to the action.) There are frequent fight scenes, but they are generally kept brief enough to not bog down and keep the action moving. Things tend to happen in interesting locations and there are lots of turns that give the whole thing a certain pulpy quality. Calling the book formulaic would be doing it a great disservice and create the wrong impression. It’s not a heap of cliches in any way and feels very original. But I think overall it could have much more of a spark and been much more audacious. Jones manages to avoid the story getting campy or pretentious, which is always a real risk with this genre, but I think it could have used a good amout of more fire. Structurally I think it’s an excelent adventure tale, but I got the impression of it being a bit too careful and slightly stiff. Aside from Asim, who being the narrator is always present throughout the entire tale, the supporting characters all seem somewhat underused. From what glimpses we get of them, Sabirah, Hamil, Farouz and even Diomedes seem like really interesting characters, but they actually do and say only very little throughout the entire story. Ali could have been a villain you would love to hate simply based on all the times he showed up to ruin someone’s day, but sadly we don’t really ever learn anything about him. He’s just the knife guy.

But even considering that, I think this book is really pretty great. It doesn’t read like a book by a seasoned career author, which it isn’t, but it’s one of the books I had the most fun reading in quite some time. That’s really one of the things I’ve been missing from many books I’ve recently been reading. As well written as many of them are, they are not fun. There’s a second book with Asim and Dabir, which I am sure I’ll be reading eventually. And if Jones adds a bit more fire and audacity to his tales, I think he could be really outstandingly good.

Book Review: Kull: Exile of Atlantis

While most people know of Conan, only few have ever heard of Kull. Kull was, to my knowledge, the first serious attempt of Robert Howard to write heroic fantasy, but he had only very little commercial success with the series and I believe only managed to sell a single story to a magazine. It was only much later when he had already become famous with Conan that people really took interest in his earlier stories about Kull. This collection appears to include everything Howard ever wrote about Kull and I think even goes a bit overboard with it. Not only does it included several full stories (which admitedly would have made for a pretty thin book), but also earlier drafts for some of them and a number of fragments that were never completed and sometimes only conist of a few pages. If you only look at the actual full stories, this book is a lot shorter than it looks.

Kull does have his fans and many of them are sometimes quite vocal in asserting that Kull is not simply a proto-Conan. And while it’s true that Kull is not just that, he still is very clearly a proto-Conan. Kull is a barbarian from Atlantis who had a turbulent career as a slave, gladiator, and soldier, until he led a rebellion against the king of Valusia and strangled him with his bare hands, taking the throne for himself. Not only is that pretty much exactly what we’re told about Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel, but The Phoenix on the Sword is 80% identical to the Kull story By This Axe I Rule. Conan did not come from nowhere or out of nothing. Conan was Robert Howard’s attempt to take Kull and make the stories more action-packed with more monsters and grander villains. And as we now know, it worked.

While I’ve heard some people say that they actually like Kull more than Conan, I’m really not feeling that way. As a character, yes, perhaps Kull might be a bit more interesting. But when it comes to the actual stories and what is on the page, Conan is playing in a completely different league. The stories of Kull are not bad and clearly the work of a writer with a fascinating imagination. But as the craftsmanship goes I do find them rather lacking. There are good ideas, but as pacing and tension goes they are mostly pretty weak. And I don’t really feel surprised that Howard was not able to sell them to a magazine for publication. Even the completed stories still feel like drafts, and often like first drafts at that. As completed stories they aren’t just that good and I think reading Kull at his best is comparable to seeing Conan at his weakest.

When it comes to rating this book, it really is much easier than I’d like to: Nay! I do not think this is a good book. I can not recommend it to people looking for something fun to read. It’s still worth reading if your interest in Kull is an academic one. This is where Sword & Sorcery really started and where it took the shape we now know. And this is Robert Howard when he was starting out writing fantasy, which is also really fascinating to examine for a fan. But I don’t think it is offering much when you’re looking for entertainment.

Awesome future novel idea #3: Pirates of the Baltic and Kraken!

George Martin described his Song of Ice and Fire series as being basically the War of the Roses with dragons. So when I was checking some facts on the 14th century German pirate Klaus Störtebeker, I very soon realized that someone should write a fantasy series inspired by the whole regional situation in which he lived and was active. I always considered the Baltic Sea a region where nothing really ever happened after the times of the Vikings was gone. A rather boring and insignificant part of the world. There was the time when Sweden send troops into Germany during the 30 Years War and that time when the Fins repelled two huge Soviet Invasion during World War 2, but that appeared to have been pretty much it.

But, oh boy… At least for the last decades of the 14th century, shit was getting seriously real around here. The king of Sweden and Norway had split his kingdom between his two sons and the new king of Norway married the daughter of the king of Denmark. After the deaths of the kings of Denmark and Norway, the Danish princess manages to get the nobles to elect her son as successor of both her father and her husband. This angered her sister, whose own son had been meant to become king of Denmark, but that had been overruled by the Hanseatic League. If you’re not familiar with them, think East India Trading Company. But probably even more powerful by quite a bit. These super wealthy merchants ruled over several of their own independent city states. The prince who had been denied the throne of Denmark was also the Duke of Mecklenburg in Germany and now understandibly upset with the League.

 

The Swedish nobles saw an opportunity to get rid of their king by making an alliance with Denmark-Norway and start a kind of civil war. Since Denmark had the Support of the Hanseatic League, the Duke of Mecklenburg joined in on the side of the Swedish king. This lead to the creation of a serious force of mercenaries/privateers/pirates who are lead by impoverished nobles from Mecklenburg and came to aid the besieged Swedish capital Stockholm. These pirates quickly became a serious disruption of sea trade and so the Hanseatic League send its own troops to fight them and eventually occupied Stockholm. The pirate army gained control of the island Gotland, which is the largest island in the entire region after Great Britain and Ireland and sits right in the center of all the Baltic Sea trade routes. This annoyed the knights of the Teutonic Order, who originally were crusaders in Palestine but then went on another crusade against pagan Slavs on the Baltic coast and established their own independent country in Lithuania a hundred years earlier and was regularly at war with Poland. So the Teutonic Knights invaded Gotland, which forced the remaining pirate leaders to flee the Baltic Sea entirely. And they ended up in East Frisia, a region that previously had been an egalitarian anarchy but after several desasters fell under the control of several warlords. From there the situation gradually calms down as Sweden gets integrated with Denmark and Norway into the Kalmar Union and the remaining pirates are eventually hunted down and executed. There’s no big finale or ultimate showdown to the real story.

But, damn! This is wonderful stuff for a big fantasy novel! It got everything. Various kingdoms, succession conflicts, dynastic struggles, merchant lords, exiled nobles, pirates, warrior monks, island fortresses, barbarian chiefs, sea battles, sieges, public mass beheadings of known outlaws. Instand awesome, just add magic. And probably the best part: You got two sisters who both fight over whose infant son will become the ruler of the whole region.

The one thing with my Sword & Sorcery setting that I was always a bit unhappy about is that it developed into something that really wasn’t suited to have a lot of Baltic Sea culture integraded into it. But this would be a perfect opportunity. And many of the key locations are right where I grew up. Lübeck, Hamburg, Mecklenburg, Denmark. That’s right outside our front door. (And I am currently planning to return back North later this year after several years in Southern Germany.) 14th century is a bit late when it comes to my personal taste to fantasy aesthetics, but transfered into a fantasy world the basic political situation should also work quite well in something that looks a bit older. Can’t really have a super powerful alliance of merchant lords in a true dark ages setting, but there’s plenty of room to wriggle. But then, I think the world as shown in the Witcher games seems very much inspired by pretty much the same peroid and region and I enjoy that quite a lot.

Though I really have no idea yet how to turn that into a story. Because I am actually not a fan of these huge epic series with millions of words. But it feels to me like an idea that I should seriously keep in mind if I one day feel the need to take a break from my Ancient Lands stuff.