Thursday, June 12, 2014

Richard Blade #3: Jewel Of Tharn

Richard Blade #3: Jewel Of Tharn, by Jeffrey Lord
August, 1973  Pinnacle Books
(Original publication 1969)

I’ve read one volume of the Richard Blade series a year, which seems about right; I figure you could easily achieve burnout if you read these books back-to-back, given their overly repetitive nature. But if you take a break, the formula seems a little more fresh, and sometimes, as in the case with this third volume, you can be pleasantly surprised, as Manning Lee Stokes delivers the best volume yet with Jewel Of Tharn

This particular installment is pretty involved; it takes all of the plotting and counterplotting of the previous two volumes and triples it. Not only that, but the world Richard Blade ventures to is pretty complicated, and Stokes again tosses us in so we’re just as befuddled as Blade himself. Before we get there, though, we must have the mandatory opening sequence in which Richard Blade, in 1970 London, is breaking up with his girlfriend – thankfully then there’ll be no more of the “domesticated Blade” I feared might become a reality in the previous volume. From there Blade happily reports to superiors J and Lord Deighton, strapping into their dimension-hopping computer gizmo and looking forward to getting away from his life.

He finds himself in Tharn, which we learn at great length is controlled by Amazon women, aka THEY (in all caps throughout, which is annoying). Meanwhile Blade, whose awesome masculinity is thoroughly mentioned and described as per normal, meets up with mutant-like eunuchs who apparently manage Tharnian affairs. The few men here are called Lordsmen, and when Blade finally sees them they are of course less than men, in all regards, especially when compared to godlike Blade himself. After a few adventures Blade hooks up with Honcho, a mid-level eunuch of Tharn, who immediately makes use of this interloper Blade.

Millennia ago there was a war in Urcit, capitol city of Tharn, and all the men were kicked out, save for a few kept in cages for breeding purposes. The city is now composed of regal Amazons, all of them apparently caucasian and with kick-ass bods they like to show off in miniskirts and breastplated bikini tops. They worship phalli, with phallic statues and paintings all over the place, sort of like ancient Rome. Meanwhile the men who were kicked out formed their own empire; they are now called the Pethcines, whom Stokes describes as “Mongoloid.” This is strange, given that Stokes later mentions the Pethcines were descendants of the WASP-ish Tharnian men; Stokes says that over the millennia their genes were “perverted,” which is par for the course in these pre-PC books.

Anyway, one god is worshipped by these people – Mazda, who as expected is prophesized to one day return. And Mazda you won’t be surprised to know is supposedly a studly, well-endowed guy…just like Blade! So Honcho, who like any other eunuch lusts for power, comes up with a plan for Blade to pose as Mazda. First he presents him to King Og and Princess Totha, rulers of the Pethcines; in the now-obligatory sequence that ensues Blade must prove himself against the Pethcines’s greatest fighter. Meanwhile Totha, who actually rules the kingdom, has instant lust for Blade, and after his victory she can’t wait to perform “phallic worship” upon him! A regular nympho, Totha proceeds to screw Blade as often and frequently as she wishes – and she wishes to all of the time.

Interestingly enough, neither Org nor Totha believe in Mazda, and thus know Blade is faking it. This despite the fact that he has freed the Excalibur-type sacred sword which for eons has rested in a rock here in the Pethcine kingdom, with Blade the only man ever able to free it. This angle of leaders not believing in gods while the people do is repeated later when Blade makes his entrance in Urcit as Mazda. Honcho’s scheme is for Blade, posing as Mazda, to storm into Urcit, announce his presence, and destroy the city’s force field so the Pethcines can overtake the city. (This particular novel by the way melds fantasy and sci-fi, with Tharn combining the swords-and-sorcery motif of the former with the computers, force fields, and teleportation devices of the latter.)

Around a hundred pages in Blade gets a glimpse of Urcit. I should mention first though that, despite rampant bangings of Totha, Blade’s still managed to fall in (sort of) love with Zulekia, a “Maiduke” (ie handmaiden) slave-gal who has been condemned to death for having broken the ban on celibacy and had sex with one of the Lordsmen…Blade gets a gander of her jawdropping beauty and body and has her brought up to his place for some fairly explicit sexual shenanigans. In a scene Stokes will repeat in his later novel Valley Of Vultures, Zulekia visits Blade and insinuates strongly that she has a message for him…hidden in a certain part of her anatomy. Blade gets to root it out. Later we learn Zulekia is actually a spy, the message being a cylindrical icon with a message on it for Sutha, her superior.

Anyway, Urcit is a strange place, with half-nude women of stupendous beauty walking around and worshipping dicks, even though there are no men and the women are only allowed to have sex once a year – and they have to fight for it, at that. This is during the festival of Sacer, in which the Lordsmen are trooped into an arena and the women rush down, fight savagely for one of them, and then the victorious women proceed to screw their bounty, right there on the sand, the woman always taking the dominant position as she rides her man! After this the Lordsmen have to fight each other to the death, with the lone victor getting like a year’s subscription to Sports Illustrated or something.

But, having watched all this invisibly due to Honcho’s teleportation device, Blade is zapped into the arena in the flesh and, posing again as Mazda, raises the sacred sword and announces himself. And to really sell the whole “I’m god” image, he has to kill the poor Lordsman victor and hack off his genitals, tossing them into a fire! Blade is now acknowledged as Mazda by the panting Tharnian hordes, who as we’re reminded have never seen a real man before…but continuing with the theme above, Blade is soon informed by chief neuter Sutha that the two ruling Tharnian sisters – Astar the God-Queen and Isma the Ruler Priestess – somehow know Mazda doesn’t exist, and thus know Blade is an imposter.

Sutha, old and wizened, hears out Blade’s tale, of the land he’s from and even of Honcho’s scheme. Since the Tharnian women have accepted Blade as Mazda, now Sutha and the ruling sisters must go fully with it – Blade has to conquer the ruling pair of women in a swordfight and then take them both in front of the watching throngs! So we have another arena scene, where Blade first deduces that Astar is drugged and useless (Sutha having informed Blade the girl was born mentally retarded and is only there for show), and that Isma is really trying to kill him. It should go without saying that both women are phenominally gorgeous and super-stacked.

Stokes pulls out the stops in this sequence, with Blade of course conquering the women (including the memorable image of him dragging Isma along by her hair) and then mounting them. When he enters Astar, she orgasms immediately and dies! Blade chalks this up to some drug-based subterfuge on Isma’s account, as she’s apparently long wanted to rule solo. After more fighting he succeeds in slamming Isma as well, with the poor girl eventually screaming for mercy, acknowledging Blade as her lord after multiple climaxes. Whew! Of all the “man’s conquest” scenes I’ve yet read of Stokes’s, this sequence comes the closest to being the pinnacle – well, this and the “love medicine” bit in The Brain Scavengers.

But then, what’s strange about Stokes is he sets up these bizarre, lurid worlds, but eventually starts to focus on the non-lurid stuff. Rather than more weird and kinky stuff, Stokes now concentrates on the coming Pethcine attack. Scheming with Sutha, Blade has the “magveils” which surround Tharn removed, so there’s no longer a force field to impede the Pethcine army. Knowing he has a few days until they arrive, Blade goes about marshalling the forces, teaching the women how to fight and the eunuchs how to be men, etc, Blade now acknowledged as Mazda in the flesh and co-ruler, alongside Isma, of Tharn. Oh, and he bangs Isma a whole lot, but he’s still sort-of in love with handmaiden Zulekia, whom Honcho’s still using as bait to get Blade to do his bidding.

The climactic battle takes up around forty or so pages, and proves to be the finale of the novel. It’s competently told, but at the same time seems too much like the finales of the previous two novels, with Blade marshalling forces against a larger opponent. There’s lots of hacking and slashing and a merciless Blade using the Lordsmen as “cannon fodder” (when the Lordsmen say they don’t know what cannon fodder is, Blade tells them they’ll soon find out!). Long-simmer tension and suspense is quickly dealt with here in this sequence, which comes off a little anticlimactic. Even the confrontation with Honcho is a dud, with the neuter escaping with Zulekia and Blade storming off in pursuit as Tharn collapses behind them, Sutha having activated the city’s mysterious self-destruct gizmo.

A big part of Jewel Of Tharn’s theme is how Blade makes these people wake up to the stagnant nature of their society and cause change, even if it isn’t for the better. Sutha’s destruction of Tharn is the biggest instance of this, and Blade’s already deciding to recreate the place in his image; another recurring theme of the series in general is that Blade, the longer he’s on some planet, starts to forget he’s from Earth. Oh and meanwhile Honcho’s disposed of himself, and a happy Blade reunites with Zulekia – who informs Blade she’s pregnant with his child! This is the second time in as many volumes that Blade has knocked up a local gal. Zulekia, unlike the previous gal, is however still alive by novel’s end, so there’s perhaps a chance that someday Blade will return to Tharn and meet his child.

But anyway Blade’s pulled back to Earth conveniently enough just as he’s won the war and reunited with Zulekia, and in the quick wrapup in 1970 London he just goes on with his earth life, taking a vacation at J’s behest and already scoring with some girl who will take his mind off of his ex-fiance – you know, the girl Blade broke up with before going to Tharn for a month or so and knocking up some woman there. To say Richard Blade comes off like a blank slate would be an understatement. This series is perhaps the most formulaic of all, and the opening and closing chapters, of Blade in “present day” London, don’t help matters; they make Blade look like some idiot with no short-term memory, like those old Saturday Night Live skits with Tom Hanks.

The other big focus of the series is the “man’s conquest” theme, which Stokes continued in the later John Eagle Expeditor series, with the male protagonist vanquishing all challengers, particularly women, with his macho mystique. While it would of course be easy to poke fun at the theme, I have to admit it’s kind of refreshing in today’s world, where at least here in the US male characters are increasingly emasculated and neutered in popular entertainment, with female characters taking the roles the men would’ve previously held. For example, the now-obligatory “tough chick” character has far exceeded the realm of cliché, with practically every action movie or TV show featuring a woman who outshoots, outfights, and is of course smarter than all of the male characters. (But then this cliché, at least so far as the combat part goes, doesn’t seem to hold much weight in the real world; check out this article on female Marines.)

I didn’t intend to go off on this topic, but still, it’s there. Could one say the Richard Blade series is a balm against male emasculation? Probably not, but I’d rather read stories featuring overly-confident characters like Richard Blade than today’s typical male protagonist: the 90-pound weakling with just the right amount of scruffle on his face who wants to talk about “feelings” and goes around with one of those baby carriers strapped across his chest.


Johny Malone said...

I very much agree with your last considerations

FreeLiverFree said...

It always seems that it's one way or the other. Either the woman's completely useless or it's the man. The idea of them both having strengths and weaknesses doesn't seem one people can grasp.

englishteacherx said...

Well, I mean, characters like John Rain and Jack Reacher, as well as detective series characters like Lucas Davenport, still carry on the traditions of the men's adventure genre albeit in slightly more mainstream form.

Maybe they're a bit more sensitive than some, but they'll still whup the bad guys, and bang your sister.

Gary R. Peterson said...

I loved your last line, which helped overcome the 2016-era political correctness you were slipping into earlier re all-Caucasian women and Mongoloid Pethcines with perverted genes. You can't retcon today's sensitivities onto a 1970 pulp novel.

I just finished reading and enjoying The Jewel of Tharn, working my way through the series with a book every couple months. They are formulaic, but a lot of fun, well written, and fast moving. The protracted descriptions of battles did drag this one down a little, but the strangeness of jagged chunks of the plastic-like teksin being catapulted into the oncoming army--with vivid descriptions of the impacts--did keep it from ever getting dull.

One thing in the novel that intrigued me was all the characters "making slaveface." What exactly did that look like? This third book was longer and more sexually explicit than the first couple, though never raunchy. Stokes has a way with euphemism. I suspected Zulekia was taken from Zuleika Dobson, a once well-known Max Beerbohm novel from 1911.

I also wondered whether John Boorman had read this novel since I kept seeing similarities to his movie ZARDOZ. Thanks for your thorough review, which added considerably to my appreciation of the book.

Todd Pence said...

"there’s perhaps a chance that someday Blade will return to Tharn and meet his child."

He did. Read volume 19 in the series, "Looters of Tharn".