Thursday, October 19, 2017

Swordsmistress Of Chaos (Raven #1)

Swordsmistress Of Chaos, by Richard Kirk
February, 1987  Ace Books
(Original UK edition 1978)

First published in the UK in 1978, Raven ultimately ran for five volumes; “Richard Kirk” was in reality two British writers: Robert Holdstock and Angus Wells. In 1987 the series was brought over to these shores, with awesome covers by Royo (and faithful to titular character Raven’s armor, believe it or not!); the original UK covers had been by Chris Achilleos, and I don’t like them as much, though the cover to this first volume clearly inspired British pop singer Kate Bush.

Raven, the heroine of this fantasy saga, is basically Red Sonja without that pesky “no sex” clause. She is in many ways a Hyborian-age Baroness; not only is she as deadly as hell, but she will screw whatever man (or woman!) she wants. And I’m happy to report these British authors aren’t shy about the juicy details – we’re not talking Baroness-level smut, but the sex in Swordsmistress Of Chaos (incidentally, it’s just “Swordmistress” in the novel itself; ie only one “s”) isn’t just fade to black sort of stuff, either. I’m also happy to report these guys consistently use “around” instead of the British-preferred “round” (ie “She wore a belt around her waist,” etc). However, the lazy bastards at Ace didn’t bother to double up the quotation marks, so we get the British-style single quotes, and Ace also didn’t bother to change the British spellings for the American market (ie the letter “u” shows up in words where it shouldn’t – these colors don’t run, baby!).

Speaking of Red Sonja, the Raven books practically take place in Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria. (Technically Red Sonja was a creation of comics writer Roy Thomas, adapting a medieval-era character of REH’s named “Red Sonya,” whose story appears in the Howard collection Lord Of Samarcand, but you get my drift…) The names of the countries are changed, but this is pretty much the same world that the Howard tales occurred in, a sort of quasi-primeval fantasy world with medieval-era armor. There are no dragons (at least not in this one), but there are various monsters and creatures, not to mention dangerous wizards and the like. A prologue and epilogue hint that Raven’s world, same as Hyboria, is a prehistorical version of our world, one that occurred before the Ice Age.

Raven when we meet her is an 18 year-old runaway from “the slavepens” of Lyand, having been abducted into slavery with her mother and father from their home country of Ishkar. Her parents were killed, and Raven was raped by the cruel Karl ir Donwayne, to whom Raven is to be given as a sex slave. Raven – who is not known as such yet – has escaped this existence, and now the slavehounds are chasing her. She’s captured by another guy and put into yet another slave chain – this one too destined for sexual slavery. A message in a dream tells her she is destined for greatness, not to mention freedom, and a raven seems to have become attached to her.

Raven is freed by the appearance of armored men, one of them a slim but muscled guy in all-black armor with a silver helmet. His name is Spellbinder, and it is he who dubs our heroine “Raven,” given the magical raven that has “chosen” her. Raven, Spellbinder says, is to become the harbinger of chaos that will disrupt this world, chaos being part of the natural scheme of things. So this is sort of like a fantasy take on Aleister Crowley's Horus, maybe? Spellbinder, who has put a spell on Raven without her realizing it, leaves her in the care of warlord Argor, who teaches her all the means of fighting and warfare. The spell makes Raven not question this treatment – not to even wonder why she has been receiving such training, nor even wonder why she was so accepting of Spellbinder just up and leaving her – for a full year.

Cover artist Royo clearly read the book, as he faithfully illustrates the armor Raven has been given – the authors describe it exactly as it appears on the cover painting, even down to the “Ishkarian sleeve-shield” on Raven’s left arm and the studded, thigh-high boots. The “slip” she wears beneath the armor is also suitably revealing, again per the cover – and her sword has that giant emerald or whatever it is on the pommel. Raven learns swordfighting, handfighting, the works, even how to use “Xandrone throwing stars,” with which she becomes quite efficient. That’s right, folks, our blonde mega-babe swordmistress also uses throwing stars.

Raven is consumed with vengeance, wanting to kill her rapist, Karl ir Donwayne, whom she learns has become a sort of general for the country of Lyand. When Spellbinder returns, finding Raven an accomplished warrior (we are informed she has fought and killed in the frequent outlaw activities of Argor’s band of fighters), the reader expects that these two will be heading out to handle the sating of said vengeance. Instead, Swordsmistress Of Chaos becomes more of a quest, taking an unexpected (and narrative-consuming) detour before finally getting back to the revenge angle…in the final pages.

But before even the questing, Raven and Spellbinder take care of another little matter – namely, the looks of burnin’ yearnin’ they’ve been throwing each other. The authors don’t get too explicit in the sex scene, along the lines of stuff like, “[Raven] cried out as he entered her,” but at least it’s there. But Spellbinder makes it clear: Raven is not “his” woman; she is free to choose (and take) any man (or woman!) she pleases. Next Raven gets to prove herself in another manner: a trial by fire. Argor and his men raid an Ishkarian merchant ship, and here we see Raven in action, hacking and slashing with her sword, dagger, and throwing stars, even using the bladed edge of her sleeve-shield. The violence isn’t too gory, but it is fairly bloody – again, these two particular British pulp authors aren’t as shy about the juicy details as some others I’ve read.

One thing these authors have in common with their pulp British kin is a tendency to word paint, sometimes to excessive lengths; the novel is rife with locales and settings which the author strive to bring to life, over the course of dense descriptive paragraphs. This unfortunately serves to work as a headwind against the initial rush of the narrative. Raven’s trained and ready for warfare within a few chapters and we’re ready for some awesome fantasy stuff, but instead we hopscotch around this fantasy world with Spellbinder. First up is a trip to a cryptic temple in which a sort of meteor is worshipped; here another disembodied voice tells Raven she has been chosen for greatness. Also here we see flashforwards of what her world will someday become, with more intimations that this is in fact our world, eons ago.

The “Stone” tells Raven that if she is to get vengeance on Karl ir Donwayne, she will first need to make an impression on the Altan of Lyand, as Karl is favored by the Altan and won’t be an easy target. To gain the Altan’s favor, the Stone recommends Raven deliver the mytic Skull of Quez, which turns out to be a magical artefact: the skull of an ages-ago Lyand ruler who ventured to the mysterious Ghostly Isles of Kharwhan (from whence Spellbinder might hail, though he isn’t telling) and died, his skull saved, imbued with magical powers. Its current whereabouts are unknown. Spellbinder grabs a boat and off the two head for Kharwhan, only for the sea to wage “war” upon them as they reach the Ghostly Isles; they are shipwrecked, and are saved by Viking-like raiders who were drawn by the raven that follows Spellbinder and our heroine.

Led by the awesomely-named Gondar Lifebane, these Vikings hail from Kragg. Gondar is a big blond bastard, and Raven thinks he’s one of the best-looking dudes she’s ever met. He wants some hot sex with her asap, claiming her as his “battle right,” having found her – he and his men were waging war on Kharwhan, only to be assailed by that sea-storm, of which Raven and Spellbinder were unwitting casualties. Raven doesn’t give it up so easily, and tells Gondar he’ll have to fight her for the honor…which basically is Red Sonja’s schtick, but so what. Gondar likes her moxie.

The narrative detours from the revenge angle. Instead we head to Kragg, stronghold of Gondar and his vikings, where Spellbinder runs afoul of Gondar’s wizard, Belthis, and where Raven fends off (sort of) Gondar’s demands for sex. They swordfight over it, and though it comes to a draw, Raven decides to do Gondar anyway – more pretty-explicit stuff here, ie “[Gondar’s] manhood filled her, near choking her” as Raven shows off her oral skills for the big lug. Gondar knows that the Skull of Quez is in the jungles of Ishkar, and he and a shipfull of men take Raven and Spellbinder there, having pledged themselves to the quest. This sequence has a Tolkein flavor as the group is attacked by Beastmen, Orc-like creatures descended from various animals. There’s also more gore here in the frequent battles, and it’s all nicely done.

The authors pull some unusual narrative stuff…like when Spellbinder engages the Beastman ruler in magical combat for possession of the Skull, and they render the entire friggin’ sequence off-page. But he gets it, and after bidding goodbye to Gondar and his men our heroes finally go to Lyand, where we get back on-track with the revenge angle that started the book. Spellbinder is imprisoned due to magic courtesy Belthis, the ousted wizard from Kragg; Belthis puts a spell on the Altan (a foppish sort) and the Altana (the Altan’s co-ruling sister, a mega-babe sort) to make them think Spellbinder is evil.

For whatever reason, Belthis leaves Raven alone…and meanwhile Raven can’t help but notice the hot looks the Altan’s sister is throwing her. Her name is Kyra, and she makes her interests known – and Raven decides to take advantage of said interests so as to free Spellbinder, what the hell. The ensuing sex scene is the most explicit of all: “[Raven] lapped with a hunger she had not known she owned at the sweet, thrusting core of Kyra’s being.” The Swordsmistress of Chaos, baby! The two dine at the Y all night long, and into the morning as well, and the fact that Raven’s entire reason for engaging in this sapphic tryst is brushed under the narrative carpet is something we’ll just overlook; for as it is, the Altana doesn’t even do much to help Raven.

Rapist Karl ir Donwayne is finally given his comeuppance, and it’s pretty anticlimactic; Donwayne barely even appears in the novel. Raven guts him and literally emasculates him with her fancy swordfighting and star-throwing skills. The end is pretty damn rushed, in fact; like how we’re informed in passing that Raven screws the guy who guards the gates to the city, so he’ll watch over her horses and armor. Even more oddly, we’re informed that Raven, our heroine, threatens the lives of this guy’s wife and kids if he blabs on her! But this isn’t even the messiest part; when Raven and Spellbinder make their escape, using the powers of the Quez Skull for distraction, the authors already have them in their armor – even though, just a page or so earlier, we’ve been expressly informed that Raven is not wearing armor. So clearly the book suffered from this dual-author writing, as it would appear these guys didn’t check each other’s work.

I wonder if the authors envisaged this as the start of a series; the novel ends with Belthis still at large and the Quez Skull destroyed. Raven’s vengeance has been sated, which leaves the future an open book for her. She and Spellbinder ponder what to do next. Meanwhile, the epilogue takes us back to that post-Ice Age opening, in which the “old cripple,” who appears to be none other than Spellbinder, bemoans again the nightmare which has become of the world, and how the heroes of the past, like Raven, are long gone. Particularly interesting are his comments about the “last armageddic battle,” which he doesn’t believe Raven survived, though he mentions that Gondar did.

Anyway, Swordsmistress Of Chaos detours from where it initially seems to be headed, but like the old saying goes, the journey is more fun than the destination, so I can’t complain. I got the entire series (in the Ace edition) for a pittance and look forward to continuing it.


DaveM said...

I remember not hating this series, but not loving it either. However, Robert Holdstock was a genius. His Mythago series is just amazing...and deservedly gets credit in the academic circles. Probably not the right genre for here though.

AndyDecker said...

I still like this series after all these years. Yes, the concept is pretty basic, but Raven is well developed as a character, and the writers try to flesh out their world. In which they succeed better than a lot others. Compared to the Red Sonja novels, which I thought boring, these are suspenseful reads. Holdstock shows his talent here already, even if it could be argued that his Berserker series, which he wrote alone, is better. An interesting early take on the Celtic and Norse mythology.

pete doree said...

You guys, and Joe, are much kinder to this series than me, I'm afraid.
As I said on my '70's comic site ( Bronze Age Of Blogs, apologies for the crafty plug ), I really really wanted to like Raven. As a set-up, it could almost have been written for an old Sonja fan like me, but having read the first three books ( I tried, honest! ), I found them an absolute slog to get through, with not an ounce of the excitement the covers promise.
And as for that bit that Joe mentions, where Spellbinder's big battle takes place not only offscreen, but inbetween chapters, I nearly threw the book through the window at that point.#
Reading the review it sounds great, if only the book was as much fun.

Unknown said...

Yes! One of my favorite pulpy sword-n-sorcery series. I remember 14-year-old me reading that girl-girl scene and being like, "Wowzers!" And for some reason the prologue/epilogue really got to me - haunting foreshadowing that suggests maybe everything that happened didn't make a damn bit of difference. Maybe the first time I consciously explored the idea of nihilism, though of course I didn't know the word then. I still love these books 30 some years later...

John Gallagher said...

Actually I always quite liked the Chris Achilleos Raven covers. Particularly the Raven Book 2 A Time of Ghosts one with a bare assed naked Raven locked in combat with a huge swine mutant. I mean... if they made a movie based on this... I’d go and see it.

John said...

Thanks to your review, I have ordered a copy of the book and I am looking forward to reading it.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

DaveM -- I'll look into that series, thanks for mentioning it.

Andy, I actually considered picking up that Berserker series, but passed on it, as it sounded more along the lines of historical fiction (at least with an immortal sort of character). I wanted more of a sword and sorcery thing, with monsters and wizards and etc. But maybe I'll seek it out anyway. Sad to hear those Red Sonja novels are boring; when I picked up these Raven books last month, I got 4 volumes of Red Sonja at the same time, and was happy to find them, as they appear to be pretty rare/overpriced.

Pete, how dare you disagree with my review! I should shut down these comments sections like msn, the Guardian, and did! ("Free speech" is only tolerable as long as you agree with them, of course.) Just kidding. Seriously, I had the opposite experience...I expected little from Swordsmistress of Chaos, and turned out to be mostly entertained. But the authors did pull some weird tricks, and it would've been nice if they had collaborated a bit more -- that stuff about the disappearing/appearing armor at the finale was easily avoided.

Unknown -- I'm with you on the prologue/epilogue, and spent more time than I should've pondering it. Spellbinder tells Raven something to the effect that chaos is part of the natural order, and her presence will usher in chaos....and also Spellbinder himself wasn't privy to all the visions Raven had of the my assumption was, Spellbinder didn't fully grasp how destructive Raven's presence ultimately would be to their current era. Do the other 4 books go into this a bit more? Hopefully.

John G. -- Wow, that's a cover!! I guess I should modify my comment in the review to: I didn't like Achilleos's cover to the first volume as much as Royo's. That Time Of Ghosts cover by Achilleos is something else!

John -- Hope you enjoy the book!

halojones-fan said...

Maybe this is one of those deals where they just bought a piece of Royo art and had some dude (or dudes) write a story to fit that character. That's been a thing in pulp fiction for a long time...