Thursday, March 11, 2010

Forgotten Fantasy: Along Came A Spider...

Today, Jim of the Flashback Universe, a friend of mine and player of Brother Gannon in my current game, steps up to offer a defense of a book from an era in fantasy literature I usually dismiss...

Back in February, when Trey posted his nice Forgotten Heroes of Sword and Sorcery, I somehow reimagined the singular article as a new series of posts and quickly promised to contribute something the series.

Trey was quick to bring to my attention that the article was not a new series, but was simply a standalone post. Still, that didn't keep him from accepting my offer to contribute to this site. So, I present today a sequel to a post that didn't really need one: an examination of another Forgotten Hero of Sword and Sorcery – Dar elLan Martak, the champion of Robert E. Vardeman's Cenotaph Road series.

March 2010 marks the 27th anniversary of Robert E. Vardeman’s Cenotaph Road – not necessarily the type of anniversary one makes note of typically. You can either call me early to the 30th anniversary or late to the 25th, but be that as it may, the first book in the series was originally published in March 1983, so there you go.

Prior to the Cenotaph Road, Vardeman’s main claim to fame was that he was co-author on the War of Powers series with Victor Milan. While I can’t really tell you how will War of Powers series sold,  it seems it’s modest success during what many consider a lean time in the Fantasy genre, coupled with a resurgence of interest in the genre was a enough to convince publisher Ace to green light a series of books on which Vardeman would be the sole author.  In total the Cenotaph Road series runs over five novel , and Vardeman used the series to revisit two characters he had first presented in a short story called "The Mating Web" in the Offutt-edited Swords Against Darkness III back in 1978. These characters were the previously mentioned Dar, a sort of reckless ranger type of character and a huge 12-foot spider named Krek.

While this pairing of adventurer and giant spider had been seen before in the pages of Piers Anthony’s Castle Roogna, Vardeman’s original short story presenting the idea predates Castle Roogna by a good five years. Interestingly enough, the hero in Castle Roogna is named Dor. Make of that what you will.

"The Mating Web" was not the only story Vardeman reused in the making of the first Cenotaph Road novel, as chapters one and two were appropriated from a short story called "The Road to Living Death" that appeared in Shadows Of in 1982. As one might suspect, the weaving together of old short stories into the larger framework of a novel was not entirely successful, with the first two chapters introducing characters and information that seem unnecessary at best and incongruous at worst.

At its best, the book had the light breezy feel of an author exploring concepts he had long thought about over years of crafting short stories. Once one gets past the haphazard first two chapters wherein the hero's paramour and sister are raped and killed in different circumstances, the story slowly starts to find its true tone, which is a sort of cross between the Robert Asprin Myth Adventures series and the Dragon Knight novels of Gordon Dickson, with maybe a little of the driving pace one might see in the works of Jack L. Chalker. The primary plot of the first books is a bit simplistic, but it belies a more intricate and insidious subplot that will unfold over the course of the series.

Why has this series never been republished?  I don't think we have to look any further than the inscrutable character of Dar. While the story is told from his point of view, I’ll be damned if you ever really get to know the character. Mostly that’s because he seems to sort of just act as a plot device to move you from one scene to another rather than be a fully fleshed out character.

Early on we are told he is good natured and the local sheriff views Dar like his own son. Yet in the same chapter, it is suggested Dar is not only no stranger to violence but that he has no trouble killing his opponents. I guess the sheriff could come from a really bloodthirsty family, but the two descriptions still seem a little at odds to me.

We are also told Dar possesses unparalleled woodsman skills honed from years of experience in the woods, but within the same chapter we are told Dar was able to decipher ancient runes on crypt which have escaped interpretation by scholars for ages.  Again, this seems like an unlikely pairing of character traits.

Possibly his worst sin is that Dar is just sort of boring. Despite him being the hero of the novel, you hardly care when at the end of chapter one he has been framed for murder.

I’ll be honest, if it weren’t for the promise of a giant spider that appeared on the cover, I doubt my 20 year-old self would have ever finished the series.

Fortunately, if you hang tough for another chapter, you will be rewarded when Dar resigns himself to a life traveling to distant worlds via the dimensional gateways that mystically appear at unmarked gravesites, from which series takes its name. For it is on the Cenotaph Road that Dar meets the real star of the series, Krek, the giant spider from the Egrii Mountains.

The character of Krek is just flat out awesome. Too chicken to stay and provide a meal for his mate, the monsterously huge Klawn, Krek has fled his beloved mountain home in search of adventure but throughout the series, he suffers from a bouts of guilt for having betrayed his arachnidian nature. Of all the characters in the first book, Krek feels like the best fleshed out. He is a nice combination of whiny Doctor Zachary Smith from Lost in Space and appalled Spock from Star Trek. His constant indignation at the fraility of humans and their inability to comprehend spider cultural bugaboo are the best thing in the book. He also makes for an interesting action character as all of the best battle scenes center around Krek.

On the flip side, there are times when seems like Vardeman doesn’t quite understand the enormity of Krek as a character, and because of this, some of the humor bits fall a bit flat. In one scene where in Dar is lamenting his inability to penetrate a huge fortress, he fumes when Krek finally reminds him that as a spider, he can easily scale the castle walls. Ha ha! Of course! How could he forget!

Taken as a stand alone story, the first book ends well enough, with some nice plot twists and character moments. If Vardeman’s weakness was cardboard characterizations, his strength was his well thought out plot, sense of humor and innovative ideas. As the series progresses, with the exception of some rather awkward sexual situations in the third book, it builds nicely on the character of Dar and his relationship with Krek. That the series has never been republished in some collected edition is a crime.

For while I can’t really blame you for never having heard of Dar elLan Martak, that you have never enjoyed the witticisms of Krek is a shame.

Turns out Vardeman's second Cenotaph Road novel was titled The Sorcerer's Skull!  Small world.

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