tl;dr version: 9/10, buy the damn book.
Recommended for: People who enjoy good and strong writing, those who want to go back to the real roots of fantasy, pulp fans, and people who like to think about what they read. For fans of R.E. Howard, Burroughs, and Jack Vance this should be a no-brainer.
Not recommended for: Spineless cowards, soviet agents of International Communism, people who enjoy being laughed at, and lovers of young adult fantasy fodder.
When I reviewed the first issue of Cirsova, I mentioned that The Gift of the Ob-Men, by Schuyler Hernstrom, was one of its best stories. Fortunately, it is not the first thing Hernstrom has written, so I got my hands on his book (Thune’s Vision) as soon as I could. I wanted to discover if the quality of that short story was an isolated or lucky example (not that there is anything wrong with that) or proof of his talent and skill. Now I’m pretty sure it’s the latter, and I have to say it’s criminal that he isn’t a more read author.
There are four short stories and one novelette in Thune’s Vision. The short stories are The Challenger’s Garland, Athan and the Priestess, The Movements of the Ige, and The Ecology of the Unicorn.
In its Amazon page, the book description says
“In the tradition of authors like Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard comes an anthology of wonder, adventure, fantasy, and the strange. Schuyler Hernstrom brings fantasy short fiction back to its roots […] Each story is a paean to the genre from the days when lurid paperbacks called to us from rickety spinner racks, Burroughs reprints alongside Moorcock and Jakes and many others. “
That is not vain boasting since that description fits well (even the word “paean”) and the influence of those writers is evident, especially the first two. On the other hand, the stories in Thune’s Vision are not mere copies or half-baked attempts at aping a writer’s style, mythology, or themes (like the hundreds of pseudo-Tolkiens out there.) For example, while Robert E. Howard is a master at conveying force and raw power in fantasy, Hernstrom’s writing also has, for lack of a better word, a stronger purpose (or, at least, a more overt one.)
That was already clear in The Gift of the Ob-Men, a story not just about a barbarian battling bizarre beasts (well, bizarre humans) but about something more. It is a story about the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations (and why,) not as the story’s background or scenography, but as its main reason and driving force. It could have even worked without the magical or fantastical elements -although it would have been much more difficult to explain- because those elements, like prophecies and visions in ancient sagas and mythology, exist to explain and illuminate what harsh realism could not.
Except The Ecology of the Unicorn, all the stories in the anthology have, as a hidden or overt theme, an epic subject. Epic not as in “OMG this is SO epic” in a Youtube comment, but epic meaning the (usually ancient) lyrical tales whose plot and meaning transcend the actions of the individual actors. For example, the Illiad or the Njáls Saga are not just stories about a bunch of dudes killing each other for outrageous reasons (that helps, though;) they are about something more, something deeper. For that reason and others, although the roots of Hernstrom are clearly the pulps, I would not describe his stories as just pulpish. Nobody can write this without first having thought a bit about certain things:
They would war amongst themselves under a hundred banners. They would make symbols to record their deeds and art to display their vanities. They would raise great cites [sic] of metal and temples of mirrors and forget again the names of the gods. They would become lost in the labyrinths of their own minds.
From The Gift of the Ob-Men
(1) The first short story in Thune’s Vision is The Challenger’s Garland, whose protagonist is basically this guy:
He is Death’s Champion (not a symbolic Death, but a literal, speaking, anthropomorphic Death with a talking crab as its servant), and follows his orders without understanding them. Although you can see the plot twist from a certain distance, I don’t think that diminishes the quality of the story.
(2) The second story returns to two subjects that Hernstrom seems to enjoy: the degenerate barbarians and the role of the mythical barbarian-conqueror as the founder of a future civilization (that, inevitably, will decay or break up.) In this case, this feat will be accomplished by a lone warlord who, impelled by the prophecy of a shaman, will have to cross the magical blue barrier that separates their decaying lands with that of their ancient enemies of Ullin. His goal is simple as is it peculiar, he has to find the High Priestess of that nation and have sex with her. Ok, well, “become one with her,” but that’s basically the goal. According to the shaman’s vision:
“The scion of your union will sunder both lands and bring light and dark together again so that mankind is whole!”
The warlord, however, isn’t very impressed:
“It is a pretty vision. And no doubt false, as all the gods are liars.”
Finally, he reluctantly accepts and sets off on his quest, a marvelous adventure that first will send him to an underwater journey, one of the bests written scenes I have read in a long time, by the way. That’s also where Hernstrom shows his Lovecraftian skill at describing the monstrous, and how sometimes not telling and not showing is the best description.
I’d quote more, but I don’t want to spoil anything. However, I will mention that I chuckled when Athan (the protagonist) asks a group of women if their men are far away at war, and a woman answers:
“I do not know what those words mean. Do not speak to me. Your voice is like violence.”
(3) The third story, The Movements of the Ige, follows similar themes, but in this case it’s not just the dance of nations and how they rise and fall, but a more literal dance.
The Ige are two tribes of bloodthirsty saurians whose reproduction cycle seems to require corpses (the males being sterile and the females immortal.) Therefore, they have developed a very ritualized and brutal form of warfare around which their whole cultures revolves. In the story, the lizardmen are ready to start their deadly dance when the ritual is interrupted by an unidentified flying object.
The Ige’s way of speaking is amusing and peculiar, almost in a Vancian way. For example, when a few of the creatures go to investigate the fallen object, they see that it looks like an egg. Then they have this charming exchange about its origin:
Ruj pondered. “Perhaps the egg dictates their movements.”
“I do not think so. I sleep in a hut. The hut bears no intelligence. I think the egg is a hut.”
“That fell from the sky?”
“Perhaps they are demons from the red moon. Their domicile became dislodged and they fell to this world.”
Ruj shrugged. “The theory is sound.”
The Movement of the Ige is, I think, the shortest story in the anthology but it’s also the most unique of them. Properly speaking, it’s a science fiction narration, and unlike the others, here the gods are “false” since they would accomplish no purpose by being real. You could describe it as an anthropological tale, a veritable clash of bizarre civilizations and their beliefs.
(4) If the third story has a few hints of Jack Vance, the fourth short story, The Ecology of the Unicorn, is pure Jack Vance. It’s also the most lighthearted of the stories, and one of my favorites. It also shows that Hernstrom can write outside his usual style and themes, something that is always a challenge for even the most skilled writer.
The story follows the centuries-old mage Malathikos in his latest attempt at evading death. To accomplish that unholy goal he interrogates an imprisoned fae (a fairy folk) since those beings are immortal and the mage wants to know how they do that. The fae doesn’t seem to know how or why their kind is immortal, but in the end (and after a few promises of torture) he accepts to help the wizard.
This one is a short story, but it’s worth it, so I won’t spoil anything and will let you read and savor it.
(5) The last and longest of the stories is The Saga of Adalwolf. Here, the word saga isn’t one of those gratuitous buzzwords that fantasy writers add to the titles of their stories to convey a feeling of epicness, like The Trilogy of the Buttered Sword or The Saga of the Misplaced Codpiece. The novelette IS a saga in the most literal sense of the Norse sagas. It follows the tragedy, pain, revenge, and hubris of Adalwolf, a warrior with many inner demons.
As in other of Hernstrom’s stories, there are cycles, symmetry, and a certain rhythm in the narration. It’s a bit like that “it’s poetry; it rhymes” of George Lucas, with the exception that here it actually works.
Almost from the first line the main theme of the saga is displayed, and everywhere are signs and warnings of what is to come:
“And be wary. Victory will test your iron in ways defeat cannot. Remember your brothers, your kin, your fealty to the gods.”
But like in a classic tragedy, you know the hero will not -cannot- listen, even when the warnings come from his own mouth:
“It is known the gods are cruel. We shall see how cruel.”
They are cruel indeed, although ultimately the hero is his own worst nemesis.