Monday, August 26, 2019

Richard Blade #9: Kingdom Of Royth

Richard Blade #9: Kingdom Of Royth, by Jeffrey Lord
March, 1974  Pinnacle Books

This was the first volume of Richard Blade written by Roland Green, whose name I’ve always associated with Conan; when I was a kid and new Conan novels populated the bookstore shelves, Green’s name was on the majority of the covers. It appears then that he cut his teeth writing this pseudo-Conan series for book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, who must’ve liked Green’s work, as the dude wrote the series until it ended ten years later. (Ended in the US, at least; I think Blade’s still having adventures in France.)

Given this I was under the impression that Kindgdom Of Royth would at least be entertaining. Unfortunately, it was such a damn beating that it took me months to read it; I kept putting it down and swearing I was done with it before a sense of duty pulled me back. This was a “contract read” in its purest sense, as I felt it was my obligation to see it through and report back so that no one else would make the mistake I did: reading the damn thing. But it was hard going, folks. I mean I could’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow in the time it took me to get through Kingdom Of Royth.

There’s no pickup from the previous volume, but it’s clear Green has a passing familiarity with the earlier books, which of course were written by Manning Lee Stokes. However Green chooses to ignore all of the subtext and thematic material Stokes brought to each of his installments – they might’ve been belabored and ponderous but it was damned clear Stokes was invested in them, something which cannot be said for Green. In fact Green goes out of his way to dismiss Stokes’s earlier work; when Blade reports for duty in this volume, ready for the latest zap into Dimension X, Green writes, “This time, of course, [Blade] was not running away from a broken love affair or running toward some place he hoped might cure an inexplicable and maddening impotence. No, it was just a case of going out once more to do what he did well and, when you got right down to it, enjoyed doing.” One can almost envision Green airily waving away all the subtextual material Stokes invested his novels with.

Which would be fine…if Green offered anything else. Sadly, Kingdom Of Royth is truly awful. If you were under the impression that a new author would bring fresh ideas and vigor to the series, you would be sadly disappointed, perhaps as disappointed as I was. The banality of the plot is mind-numbing; Blade goes to a new dimension which follows the fantasy world template of previous volumes, only with a “pirate” overlay, and he basically jumps from one group to another, displaying absolutely zero of the macho mystique of the Stokes installments.

Indeed, Kindgom Of Royth features a neutered, emasculated Richard Blade, one who constantly doubts himself or waits for another person to make the first move. As we’ll recall, “bluff or brawn” was the central tenet of Manning Lee Stokes’s Richard Blade; in fact it was the central tenet of Stokes’s entire oeveure. The macho mystique component of a man bluffing or beating his way into a position of dominance. You won’t find that here. Here you will find a shell of what Richard Blade once was. And here you will find a shell of what the series itself once was.

He might’ve dropped all the deeper stuff, but Green stays true to the basic repetitive nature of the Stokes plots: Blade goes to a new dimension, meets a dude who will become his loyal ally, bangs a few willing babes, and eventually gets involved in some court intrique, climaxing with a big battle scene. So all that holds true, it’s just a pale reflection of what came before. The pirate angle gets to be overbearing after a while, with long, long stretches comprised of Blade at the deck of some new ship, voyaging through choppy waters. It’s not helped that the characters he encounters, save for one, are cipher-thin forgettable – so forgettable that Blade’s first female conquest, Alixa, promptly disappears from the narrative…even though she stays with Blade for the duration of the book.

Well anyway Blade lands in the middle of an ocean when entering this dimension – Green doesn’t get near as psychedelic with the interdimensional travel, either – and fights off some pirates, saving the crew of a ship. It’s captained by Brora, who will become Blade’s loyal comrade per the template. Then these guys hook up with another ship, this one captained by some dude headed for the empire of Royth – this dimension’s worls is one big land mass with a massive ocean in the center or something, and pirates operate out of a sort of pirate utopia there called Neral. So Blade’s eager to go to Royth because he’s figured it’s the biggest nation on this world and he might get something useful there – Green, even more than Stokes, seems uncertain how to factor in Blade’s H Dimension interests with his Dimension X exploits. Actually he comes up with something at the very end, but it’s ridiculous.

More importantly the lovely Alixa is on this new ship, and she makes her sexy interest known…and comes to Blade one night. Here we get the first of our infrequent sex scenes: “She rolled toward him and he rolled toward her and entered. At the first moment he knew he had been right in his guess; this was no virgin. She accepted him smoothly and sheathed him snugly, milking him with muscles at first delicately controlled, then wilder and wilder in their motions as she was swept away by her own rising tide.” So on the average, about as risque as the material Stokes delivered, with the caveat that Stokes at least brought his female characters to life. Alixa disappears after this, even though she remains in Blade’s entourage for the rest of the novel; Green merely makes passing references to her, reminding us that she’s still around.

On the way to Royth this latest ship is also attacked, by a larger pirate force, and Blade ends up beating them and taking charge of the pirates. All of it very much indebted to the Conan pirate yarns. Blade is even sworn in as a pirate and must head back to the pirate utopia of Neral, thus throwing off the trip to Royth. Not that Blade’s much concerned. He’s very much in a “manana time” mindset here…there is absolutely no impetus for his trip to Dimension X, no dramatic thrust.

Green’s lurid imagination also pales in comparison to Stokes’s. While in Neral Blade drops off Brora and Alixa – his only two surviving companions at this point – and checks out the island kingdom. A baccanal is going on, and Green tries to make it seem sleazy and outrageous, but it’s yawnsville after the previous eight books. There’s a room with “colored smoke” that makes everyone high (Blade literally runs from it) and an orgy room where everyone gets busy en masse (Blade runs from this one as well). Further evidence that a lesser author is now “Jeffrey Lord:” Blade is sickened by all this, and vows to escape Neral posthaste.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because at this point Blade has become the mate of a feisty female pirate who is quickly becoming a major force in Neral: Cayla, a blonde beauty who is a priestess in the long-suppressed Serpent Cult. She basically steals the show, and is the only memorable character. Having caught a glimpse of Blade as his ship entered Neral’s port, she’s made it clear he will be hers…and this could be bad news for Alixa, Blade is warned, however nothing comes of it. Alixa is so buried under the narrative carpet that she only exists so that people will occasionally have something to threaten Blade with. Oh yeah and I forgot another stupid thing – everyone pronounces his name “Blahyd” throughout the book, as apparently the word “blade” doesn’t exist in this dimension. Even though every single damn weapon is bladed. That’s how stupid the book is.

Well, Cayla wants to bring back the Serpent Cult, and she wants Blade to join her in the effort so they’d made a regular power couple. Blade, expectedly, goes along with it, displaying no initiative or backbone of his own. Green does incorporate supernatural elements in his version of the series; during the most memorable part of an altogether forgettable book, Cayla and Blade launch an assault, and we learn that Cayla’s intents are twofold, given that the ancestors of the people who rule this city were one of the chief suppressors of the Serpent Cult. The villainous babe calls forth an actual sea serpent in her attack, and further she gets her own sword bloody, diving into the ocean and slipping out of it to stab people in the back, slit throats, and etc.

But Blade is horrified still and thus makes plans to escape Cayla as soon as possible. That’s our Blade, folks! Or at least, that’s our new Blade. Stokes’s Blade would’ve tamed Cayla within a few pages. Instead, Blade, Brora, and Alixa manage to escape, leading to more egregious sea voyage stuff, then they’re shipwrecked again and end up in Royth, a vast empire run by ineffectual rulers. Here we are in for the long haul, though Blade again manages to get lucky thanks to a hotstuff countess. It goes on and on, made worse by Green’s periodic attempts to recap everything that’s happened so far:

It occurred to Blade that there were now no less than five different plots all focusing on the Kingdom of Royth. There was Indhios’s scheme. There was that of the Council of Captains and the Neralers generally. There was Cayla’s monstrous notion of a revival of the Serpent Cult. There was the ambitious and ruthless little countess. Each of these four would cheerfully sell any or all of the others to the devil to get them out of the way. And there was his own comparatively simple plan, to save Royth from the pirates. But was this decadent and ancient land worth the effort? And even if it was worth the effort, would he live long enough to carry his efforts through?

Perhaps that gives an indication of the sort of shit you endure throughout Kingdom Of Royth. It’s almost William Johnstone-esque in a way; Green is one step away from ending every other chapter with, “What might happen next?” But the thing is – who cares?? It’s all so relentlessly turgid and boring. But perhaps you noticed the line “to save Royth from the pirates.” Yes, folks, this turns out to be Richard Blade’s new m.o., as revealed at the end of the novel – going forward, his mission won’t be so much to exploit each new dimension for H Dimension benefit, but to help the people of that dimension. That’s right, folks – Richard Blade is now going to become a hero of the interdimensional people. This is so far removed from the previous version of Richard Blade that it made me laugh. 

Well, the thing gradually wears to a close with a big battle scene, which is by far better than any that came before, mostly because it has some dramatic content. Blade and Cayla have their final confrontation as she attacks Royth, but Blade’s too busy chopping off the heads of her pet sea serpent to handle the pirate queen herself – Brora, disappointingly, takes care of that. At this point Blade is finally zapped home…and it seems like he’s been in this dimension for years. Seriously, months and months pass for Blade in this dimension, almost a full year, but at novel’s end J and Lord Leighton marvel over the fact that Blade was “only” gone for four months. Which to tell the truth is about how long it took me to read this damn book.

As mentioned, Green went on to write many more installments, so I can only assume Lyle Kenyon Engel saw some promise in his work and Green improved. But to paraphrase John Lennon, “He couldn’t get much worse.”


Johny Malone said...

Wandor's adventures written by Green were better?

andydecker said...

The French edition of Blade ran from 1976 to 2012, ending with No 206. Quite impressionable run. Most or all of French pulp bit the dust in the last years. I always wondered how much the new writers changed the concept. According to the blurbs not too much. Still Blade, other Dimensions, Lord Leighton and so on. Many alternative worlds, though.

Green's Conan always got terrible reviews on Conan blogs. I have read a few and forgotten all about them, except that they didn't merit a re-read.

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks for your yeoman service in sussing out the change in BLADE authors. i'm not very invested in the history of Blade himself, but I didn't read very many of the novels, and even then probably not in order of occurrence. Still, I like reading overviews about how established characters get rendered by different authors, so this was interesting even though I barely remember the character. (I do miss the days when one could find a lot of good macho fantasy on paperback racks, though.)