Saturday, September 17, 2016

Book Review: The Barbarian of World's End

© 1977 by Lin Carter


This is the book I found sequestered (by my father, I presume) in a drawer in the hutch in the dining room, along with four other unrelated novels. I read them all back then, nearly forty years ago, and re-read three of them over the past couple of years. I found this entry in Carter’s “Gondwane” epic cycle a month ago on a used book store’s shelf, and read it quickly in short ten and twenty minute bursts over the past five days.



I confess a love-hate relationship to Carter’s bare-bones-yet-overdriven writing and creating style. Full-blown worlds exposited to the reader with precious little background. Or rationale, for that matter. But on a certain level, a level best frequented by ten-year-old SF and fantasy book buffs, it just kinda almost works. Works better for those ten-year-olds, that is, than a man nearing his sixth decade (Good God, did I just write that?!).

I’ve read a couple of Carter’s books over the past few years, and enjoyed his space opera books over his sword & sorcery tales. Or perhaps I was just in a better frame of mind whilst reading the SF-oriented ones. Dunno, but it’s more than possible. Barbarian at World’s End was re-read strictly for pure nostalgic value, and while some nostalgia pleased me immensely *, overall I found the book lacking. **

Here’s the key reason I searched this out and re-read it:

Way, way back in 1978, sneaking the book and surreptitiously investigating it beneath the dining room table, I was perplexed – and fascinated – by the “anthropological” angle to the book, one I must not have perceived in all the other SF and fantasy novels I was devouring. This manifested itself in Carter’s use of footnotes – footnotes! In a sword & sorcery paperback! – and my young mind did not know how to process this. Footnotes spouting details about the peoples, geography, and monsters of World’s End. Are these peoples / places / monsters real? Were they real? Does Mr. Carter think they were real? How does he know these truths?

I don’t remember if I finished the book or not, but I did read at least half of it, and recall those footnotes most. (Though after reading it a second time four decades later, there were far fewer such notation as I seemed to have recalled.)

Overall, though, this time round I came away unimpressed. Perhaps the story had run out of steam by this, the fourth book in the series. Perhaps Carter’s enthusiasm – probably the driving force behind his writing – waned by this point. The story was episodic with way too much “told and not shown.”

However, there were flashes of brilliance. Take this excerpt, for example:

The city had originally been built by wandering tribes of Ruxmen, fled from their homeland so as to be able to practice their religion unmolested. That religion was the worship of Rux, one of the less popular and more controversial divinities of the old Vemenoid Pantheon.

They had built the city of the red Uskodian granite and decorated it with the rich amber-yellow marbles quarried from the Rlambar foothills. But now everything in the city of Ruxor was of gleaming, sleek, sparkling white stone.

Including the Ruxorians. For they were still there, with their cattle and housepets and windowboxes and walled gardens and tree-lined streets: all transformed to the same white stone in the same mysterious moment.

It had come out of the depths of space, according to the Annals of Arzenia, that weird and terrifying beam of purple light which had originated, according to some accounts, in the Constellation of the Mantichore.

For one eternal instant in time, the space ray had bathed red-and-golden Ruxor in its uncanny purple radiance: then it flashed on to strike, perhaps, another distant world.

Whatever the nature of the weird purple light, it struck everything in Ruxor to stone in the same instant.

… And no one knew how or why it happened.

As well as some brief (intentional?) flashes of humor:

“they were attacked from all sides by furious, squalling bands of little bowlegged no-noses”

“Here roamed immense flocks of lumbering cattle called nerds. For a time the Ximchaks reverted to the ways of their nomadic forebears, and hunted the nerd herds day and night … Decimating the nerd herds, the Ximchaks passed on. For the three weeks it took them to traverse the Ongish plains, they ate heavily, although monotonously, of nerd steaks, nerd cutlet, nerd stew, spiced nerd, pickled nerd, minced nerd, and nerd soup.”

Which brought me to the insight that had Carter truly developed this semi-hidden sense of humor, he could have beat Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels to the punch by several years. But perhaps Carter’s love of the genre congenitally forbade him from delving too deep into satire and parody.

I can’t grade it any higher than a borderline C+ / B -, but I will tell you one thing – I will probably read another Lin Carter, most likely a gnarled and aged lean-and-mean science fiction tale found on a dusty bookshelf, and maybe more than just one, over the next forty or fifty years.

* What pleased me most, mostly, were the names. Ganelon Silverman, the eponymous hero. Also the name of the barbarian tribe – the “Ximchak Horde” – and some of the warrior’s names, such as Wolf Turgo and Black Unggo, names that nestled firmly in the valleys and recesses deep within the medial temporal lobe of my brain, marinating unknowingly over those long five decades of existence.

** Two of those five books I found in that drawer, A Small Armageddon by Mordecai Roshwald and Red Tide, by D.D. Chapman and Delores Lehman Tarzan, I also re-read and had similar ambiguous feelings. Barbarian fall directly between Armageddon (which I liked) and Red Tide (which I found terribly disappointing).

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