Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review: Images of the Goddess, From Cirsova 2

P. Alexander is the guy behind the Short Review series posted at Castalia House, in which he reviews tales originally printed in classic pulp magazines such as Planet Stories.  His series, along with Jeffro Johnson’s Appendix N series and repeated warnings not to read anything written before 1980 inspired my own recent jaunts into the less fantastic ‘sweats’ and ‘slicks’ of the first half of the 20th century. 

P. Alexander is also the crazy bastard behind my new favorite short fiction magazine, Cirsova.

His new magazine means that somebody can now do to him what he’s been doing to the old writers – that old grinding wheel of Karma just keeps on a-turning – so let’s see if he can take what he dishes out. 

The cynical imp that lives in my mechanical heart wants to stick it to Cirsova good and hard, but he doesn’t make it easy.  It’s hard to find a story in either issue that deserves a bad review.  Instead, we’ll just have to start with my favorite story from Issue #2, the novella, Images of the Goddess, by Schuyler Hernstrom. 

Aw yeah.  I'll be in
my niche in the wall
of the cave, baby.
Images of the Goddess doesn’t start out very promising; the first few paragraphs set the stage from a third person, omniscient point of view, and briefly explain the founding and operation of the remote monastery that eventually serves as the catalyst for the following adventure.  From there, the story moves into the tale proper by introducing Plom, a humble acolyte in service to the Goddess, hanging from a rope above a thousand foot drop.  Now that’s the start of an interesting story.

The tale of the monastery is written in an engaging style with a wry sense of humor, and it includes the sort of dry humor that doesn’t hold your hand the way a Discworld joke does, so this is another case of me praising something with faint damnation, but it’s worth pointing out that this story starts out fun before it kicks into second gear and things get really interesting. 

Plom, the young and pious acolyte uses a bit of chicanery to save his best friend from being assigned a dangerous mission to recover a valuable artifact from a distant and dangerous jungle.  It’s a great introduction to the character as it shows him as an innocent young man who isn’t as pious as he’d like to believe, and one with a natural devious streak. 

Within a day of setting out on his quest, Plom rescues a wizard named Drur of the Blue Orb from a barbarian tribe and secures his support in the quest.  Drur turns out to be a flamboyant shyster cut from the same cloth as Cugel the Clever.  His loyalty is driven primarily by avarice and an inadvertent oath enforced by the magic artifact from which he draws his title.  Although these are the primary drivers for Drur’s actions, later events seem to indicate that he develops a soft spot for the young and na├»ve Plom. 

A day after the wizard’s rescue the two men are recaptured, and find themselves assigned a female barbarian named Sihma who is to serve them as a warrior slash chaperone slash prison guard.   Like Drur, she is pressed into the quest, but this time by her chief, and her honor and pride require her to do everything she can to see the quest through to completion. 

The quest carries the trio through the slave pits of a decadent city, down a dangerous jungle jungle river, and into the depths of an ancient ruin.  Along the way they contend with massive beasts and the world’s greatest swordsman, Wim Tid.  Or swordsthing.  Wim Tid is actually a swordsinsect – a man sized, four armed insect gladiator, to be precise.

The character of Wim Tid, a man/thing with his own way of thinking and alien, but understandable, motivation serves as a great excuse to mention that the world of Images of the Goddess is filled with numerous small touches that constantly remind the reader that it takes place in an alien world.  It may be our world flung far into the future, hints of this are sprinkled throughout the tale, but if so then it is our world changed in ways that make it much like, but in small ways, very different from our own.  These little touches provide constant little surprises that make reading this story a joy. 

As if those little touches aren’t enough, the constant jockeying for position among the trio, and among those that they meet, forces a number of compromises and deals that are fun to watch play out.  This constant back and forth reminded me of the film version of Maverick in that even people who genuinely like each other are always looking for an angle to get a better deal.  These are great methods of adding complications and small scenes of conflict that seamlessly flow along with the greater story of the quest for the artifact, which itself serves as a hilarious reversal of expectations. 

You're not going to get any more detail out of this review.  There are just too many twists and surprises that you need to read for yourself.  As with the best of anything, if you really want to know how good this story is, you're just going to have to experience it for yourself.

Long story short: Images of the Goddess reads like a Dying Earth tale without the oppressive atmosphere or Cugel the Clever’s constant malicious conniving.  Hernstrom’s prose harkens back to Vance, but the descriptions lack Vance’s frequent vagueness, and have a much lighter touch.  On the whole, this tale is even better than Dying Earth.  And that’s really saying something.

1 comment:

  1. Hernstrom's stories have been my favourites from both issues (in fact, almost all the reviews I've read say the same.)By the way,I recommend his anthology, Thune's Vision, it's also great.