Jane Gaskell’s Atlan Saga: 3 – Atlan


JG - Atlan

The first point of interest about Atlan, which is either the second or third book of the Saga depending which publishing iteration you’re following, is its back cover blurb. Previously, we’re told that General Zerd, the blue-scaled half-serpent leader, has become Emperor by acclamation of the fabled hidden island of Atlan, its inhabitants welcoming him enthusiastically, before he goes on to militarily conquer all the continent, i.e., the future South America.
Equally, our narrator, the young and inexperienced demi-Goddess, Cija has married Zerd, become Empress and, despite his cheating on her, is still very much in love with him and very happy. The blurb contradicts practically every piece of this. Now Read On.
Of course, that situation doesn’t last for long. Nothing in Cija’s life lasts long, and certainly not contentedness, which never really ever happens. She’s the original ‘pushed from pillar to post’ girl, with no agency in her own life. It was so in the first two books and it does not change here.
Where we start is about eight months on. In contrast to how matters were left at the end of The Dragon, Zerd has not conquered the continent and subjected everyone to his command. Instead, he is ensconced in Atlan – which we will learn, almost in passing, is not merely an island but rather a vast continent in its own right – but everyone else is massing to attack him and take Atlan for themselves. These everyone are, in ascending importance, the Southerners (Atlan is the only country to be given a name), the Forest bandits, who provided Zerd with his second wife, Lara, and the Northern Empire Zerd comes from, under the command of the Emperor’s daughter, his first wife, Sedili.
They massively outnumber Zerd’s Army, and they’ve got the air-injector with which they can force air into the vacuum with which Atlan has surrounded itself for centuries. Which they do use, but on the other hand the Forest Army is actually coming to support Zerd, his father-in-law aiming to see Lara restored to the General’s bed as the ‘rightful’ Empress.
But enough of the politics, for this is not what the book is about. It’s about Cija, little Cija, Cija for whom no situation or place can ever be satisfying, she being a demi-Goddess, nor any people around her fit to accompany her, and completely incapable of learning to accommodate to her circumstances from time to time.
Surprisingly, for a story supposedly taken from Cija’s fastidiously maintained Diary, the book begins with a prologue from a new figure, a red-headed Northern Army deserter called Scar. Scar has decamped with stolen medals. On the road, he meets a young officer who does a deal with him to swap their clothes. In the Capital, he takes up with a buxom, red-headed servant girl, Yula, whose mistress is Cija. This inserts Scar into Cija’s life, later on, where he is significant. Actually, he’s rather special, as he’s the only man so far who tries to rape Cija but doesn’t actually get to do so.
The officer, whose name Scar doesn’t know because he has no reason to know it, is clearly Smahil, Cija’s half brother, with whom she has already committed incest, albeit unknowingly. Now he sets things in motion by invading her bedroom, invading her bed and having semi-consensual sex with her: now she knows it’s incest, she doesn’t want to do it but in the end she does. And on this occasion, he makes her pregnant.
This changes things. It re-awakens Zerd’s interest in Cija now that she is to bear his heir. She is the first of his wives, concubines, whores and the rest to have conceived, so she and her baby are suddenly very special. The problem is that, not only is the baby not Zerd’s but it is so long since Zerd last joined her in bed that by the time Cija comes to term, it will be bloody obvious that it can’t be the General’s.
To avoid this unpleasant and probably terminal discovery, Cija obtains the aid of a wise-woman, a representative of what she will go on to describe as Ancient Atlan, the secret, unconquered, quasi-mystical heart of the continent, to induce premature labour, producing a sickly, weak child who is fair and pale and in no way blue or scaly. He’s also named Nal. Nevertheless Zerd dotes on his Heir, suspects nothing. For the protection of Cija and the Heir, they are to be sent under escort to a distant Castle, away from any possible fighting.
He also leaves Cija with a second bun in the oven, this one really his.
Once Cija is in motion, the book becomes exactly the same as its predecessor. Cija drifts from place to place and situation to situation, moved on each time by matters beyond her control. Whilst awaiting the next of these, Cija is almost wholly passive, making little or no effort to change her circumstances, and having no idea of what she wants, where to go or how to do it. This, as well as her mostly sullen discontent at her lot, is what makes her such a dull and uninteresting character. She is completely passive, a continual victim of ‘fate’ and incapable of saying or doing anything to enlist the aid, or even sympathy, of those she finds herself among.
Nor is there any pattern or reason to these disparate episodes, such as there might be if Cija either had some goal in mind, or else was engaged on some kind of learning curve. Instead, things go up and down. Cija’s escort is ambushed in the forest (another one) by wolves from Ancient Atlan, and slaughtered. She escapes to a nearby Inn where she becomes a scullery maid under a grasping, sadistic, gross Landlady. She’s amusedly befriended by two bandits, Madfist, who’s screwing the Landlady’s daughter and seemingly has no interest in Cija (yeah, right) and Goat, who’s enthused about medicine and takes over Nal.
Unfortunately, Madfist knows she’s the Empress and plans to sell her to Sedili’s forces, well, both sell her and keep her, except that Zerd’s men turn up at the right time, Goat’s killed, Madfist taken and Cija reaches her Castle after all, where she has a stay long enough to bear and raise her daughter Seka to the age of about two.

Atlan

Along the way, she and Scar are attacked and taken prisoner by a mad scientist who has a hidden laboratory in the recesses of the Castle, and who is building a homunculus from bits of other people’s bodies. She gets out of that though without the scientist being taken. But when she takes the kids on a picnic to the beach, with Scar as escort, he tries but, as I said, fails to rape her (what is this obsession with getting Cija raped at every turn?) and when her resistance proves too much, he dumps all three of them into the rowboat and sets then adrift.
Frankly, it’s getting silly now. Cija is reunited with Madfist, with whom she has consensual sex, once, before they are captured by Sedili’s troops, who use her to storm the Castle without loss of life. Enter Sedili, who claims to still be in love with Zerd and to have saved herself for him throughout the whole seven years they have been separated, who intends to return to his bed and his Empress’s throne, and will pervert her father’s Army to throw it behind Zerd.
In the meantime, she is going to play a cat and mouse game with Cija, who is expecting to be killed at anytime, she being so completely helpless, as always. Actually, Sedili has more complex plans. Cija is first to be humiliated, by a public proclamation ostensibly from Zerd, that she has been accused of adultery (with Scar!) and associating with witchcraft (the mad scientist). Cija is to be taken back to the Capitol for trial.
Madfist helps her get out of the Castle temporarily and even plots to get her and the kids out for good. He wants her for himself. He also wants to fuck her again but she won’t let him. Resignedly, she allows him to pull one tit out and start sucking on that, which is how they’re found by Sedili’s guards and Sedili. It’s all a set-up. Cija can choose her own method of execution, poison or strangulation by the mad scientist’s homunculus, Seka will be thrown off the battlements, Nal, the Heir, will accompany Sedili back to Zerd, oh, and Madfist will be tortured and castrated.
But that’s Sedili’s mistake. Ancient Atlan rouses itself, the wolves attack the Castle. The mad scientist’s laboratory is destroyed, his constant abuse of his homunculus backfires when it strangles him, and Madfist, having been freed, attacks Sedili and has his cock in her before two of her guards cut off his head, outraged at the Empress’ defilement and so too is she, being suddenly no longer the pure wife who has waited faithfully.
This bit is seriously weird. Madfist has previously claimed to Cija that he’s been providing sexual satisfaction to Sedili, though we only ever have his word for it, and here he is, effectively committing suicide by rape, fucking the would-be-Empress in front of her own armed guards. It’s the first suggestion of a twisted psychosexuality in the book, and I’m sorry to say it won’t be the last in the Saga. Coming on top of the multiplicity of times Cija’s been raped, it may not be altogether surprising.
Anyway, there’s not much left. Nal’s disappeared but Cija gets away with Seka, who is traumatically dumb. She’s had it with Atlan, had enough of even its fabled but ripe to the point of being spoiled purity, and wants out. She falls in with Scar (again) and accepts his guidance through a swamp. Against his will, they rescue a man trapped in an underground mud lair by a giant serpent. He turns out to be one of Ael’s bandits. Three years ago, when she was last in his hands, Ael wanted to fuck Cija. She’s so tired and downtrodden by now she’ll let him fuck her in exchange for safety and security, but he no longer wants her, he neither wants nor needs someone with a mind of their own (what a pity they didn’t have fleshlights in prehistoric times). So she begs for and gets a boat on which she and Seka can sail to the mainland. Bye bye Atlan.
If I’ve made this book sound like a confusing mess, that’s because that’s what it is. It’s one thing to conceive of a fantasy epic, and to research comprehensively prehistoric periods in order to write a story convincing in its detail and its fabulous – in the strict sense – environments, flora, fauna and constructions.
But that, at least, produces a travelogue. Stories need more than that. They need a point, a purpose, some progression that will, at some point, lead to an ending that leaves the reader satisfied with something complete. The Atlan Saga is just a succession of episodes, related by a character who not only cannot command sympathy but who also cannot lower herself to understand that sympathy, whether that of her fellow characters or, more importantly, her readers, is necessary.
There would be one more book written in the Sixties, to ‘complete’ the Saga, which comes next. And then one sequel, a decade later, which structurally might be an Urth of the New Sun to the tetraology, but which, as we shall see, was something else entirely.

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