Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CVIII

The Bells of Shoredan by Roger Zelazny

Zelazny follows Moorcock and trumps him in matter of pacing over elegance.  His dialog sounds even more like a pastiche and his naming faculty is even weaker (ie. the "green boots of elfland").  Nevertheless, the pacing is so well handled that once you start reading its almost impossible to put down.  Short stories, lacking time for minutely developed plots and characters, seem the ideal form for this style of writing.  If this wasn't a short story I think that I might have burned out on mere pacing or that the thinness of the world would have overcome my interest and credulity in Dilvish's daring-do.

Speaking of Dilvish (sounds like devilish?), Zelazny, as with Moorcock, Vance, and Howard, continues in the sword and sorcery tradition of creating anti-heroes.  This is something we don't see very much in earlier pulp writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs (or do we?).  Howard is a bit ahead of the trend, but the other writers seem to be situated squarely in the mid to late 60s, and that may explain a good deal.  Still, it may be an American quirk, brought over from frontier stories and general American antipathy for respectability, refinement, and authority.  Whichever it is (or both), this point transitions nicely to Tanith Lee and her unique way of toying with the anti-hero in "A Hero at the Gates."

A Hero at the Gates by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee sets us up almost from the beginning of her story to believe that we've stumbled on another mercenary anti-hero.  She also sets us up to believe that we're reading another run-of-the mill fantasy adventure.  I have to confess that I was fooled on both counts.  Form follows function, and just as nothing within the story is as it seems, so the story itself is not what it seems either.  The hero Cyrion is really a hero, but his proper genre is Noir and the story's proper genre is crime fiction.

"A Hero at the Gates" sets us up for a traditional "kill the bad, get the girl, get the shiny" story.  We are presented with a mysterious desert town whose inhabitants are plagued by a bloodthirsty monster that stalks the each night ala "Beowulf."  The prince of the city, like a desert Hrothgar, is impotent in face of the evil.  He begs Cyrion to rid him of the monster and promises gold in return.  Cyrion walks carefree and haughty through the whole opening and has us pretty quickly convinced that he is an urbane but mercenary thug who merely wants to take advantage of these poor people for his own benefit.  We then have a twist.  While resting in his room, Cyrion hears a voice calling his name and discovers a small hole in the floor.  Through the hole in the floor, he can see a beautiful woman.  The woman tells Cyrion that he has been trapped and that the inhabitants of the city intend to capture him and sacrifice him and the woman to the monster.  His only apparent hope of escape is a secret door in the wall which leads to the monster's cave.  If he can defeat the monster now, he may be able to rescue the girl and escape.  Cyrion hears all this and makes several heartless responses that drive the poor woman to tears.  Nevertheless, he brave the secret passage and effortlessly kills the beast.  So far, so good.  Now things begin to become strange.  Instead of rescuing the maiden, he hacks off her head and presents it to the prince.  The prince is instantly relieved and informs Cyrion that the woman was really a witch that was holding the entire town hostage.  Cyrion then boasts that he knew this and proceeds, ala Hercule Poirot, to list all the things that had tipped him off.  He the goes to the treasury and claims the finest things he can find for his reward.  The grateful prince offer him the rule of the city, which Cyrion declines.  On the way out of the gates, the citizens stage a celebration.  Upon seeing the faces of two children, however, Cyrion throws his bag of treasure at the prince and promptly beheads him.  The astonished guards ask how Cyrion knew that the prince was also an evil enchanter.  Cyrion lists his observations and then scatters the treasure to the people showing himself to really be the traditional hero of fantasy and fairy tale.

This was a great little piece that made amends for some of the artistic defects of the last two writers.  Maybe it was reading Moorcock and Zelazny back to back before this story, but I was not expecting all the clever little twists, and was taken completely by surprise.  I don't want to denigrate Moorcock and Zelazny, who have proven themselves to have real talent, but I think that Lee was able to achieve a superior effect without making the artistic sacrifices of the other two authors.

Next Up: Lady of the Skulls by Patricia A. McKillip and Sunlight on the Water by Louise Cooper  

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