Jane Gaskell’s Atlan Saga: 4 – The City


JG - City

As The Dragon was to The Serpent, so too is The City to Atlan: a shorter book (approximately 200 pages) to follow a longer one (300 pages). There are two substantial differences, however. The City has not been formed by hiving off the last 200 pages of a once-larger book, and for all its other failings, The Dragon did not feel or read so slim and insubstantial as the original last book of the series.
Those expecting something different for a finale deserve to be disappointed for their naivete. The fourth book is nothing more than further episodes in the directionless life of Cija, our narrator and dissatisfied Demi-Goddess, only this time she has come full circle, and the City of the title is the City of Cija’s birth, where her unnamed mother is Dictatress, fighting an ongoing battle for power against Cija’s unnamed father, the supposedly celibate High Priest.
Not that we or Cija are aware of this for the first quarter of the book, and nor does she proclaim herself as being a Princess of the City until nearly the end of the book, when her father and her incestuous lover, Smahil, half-brother via said High Priest, are about to execute her, only for her to be saved by her mother’s troops, the Dictatress having won her long rivalry against the daughter’s other parent when Cija gets his pet crocodile to turn on him and eat him, with exactly the same lack of impact as every other death of a known character in the whole series.
How we get there is more of the same. When we left Cija at the end of Atlan, all she wanted to do was get out of the fabled continent with her hysterically-mute daughter Seka, having completely lost contact with her first child, Nal, the son of her half-brother, who is the only lover Cija’s had who she still wants to fuck, but it’s wrong. Her passage back to the mainland (of South America) is paid for by Ael, the Atlan bandit-chief, but no sooner does the ship dock in the worse-than-slums of the unnamed City than the ship’s captain is going to auction her as a slave, and chuck the little girl off the side to drown.
The only response to this by now is, Here We Go Again. Cija is befriended by a 14 year old boy gang leader who kidnaps her from the cart of her buyer, Gurul, and takes her back to his mother’s home. Which turns out to be a brothel. Which is only apt since that was what Gurul bought her for himself.
By now, Cija has a great deal of sexual experience (I can think of five lovers without going back and re-reading any of the books), though what she’s mostly done was be raped by all and sundry, but it turns out that she really cannot go through with being a whore. When she decides this, she’s with a naïve young soldier of the Northern Army, who promptly gets all noble about her, and calls his mates to get her out, though this then unfortunately coincides with the arrival of Gurul and his men to take back his property.
The upshot is that Cija manages to get away without being beholden to anyone, and falls in with a boy and his two sisters, who take her and Seka back to their house and con their mother into letting her stay by pretending they don’t want her anywhere near the house. This covers a large part of the book, though the three girls run into trouble when their brother is taken by the all-powerful Priests.
They trespass in the Temple to try to get him back (he will be released untouched, the purpose for which he has been taken left unclear) but in the meantime they are caught, deep underground in a kind of swamp presided over by some kind of witch woman, who claims everything underground for her alligators, but lets them get away whilst Gurul is chewed up.
The next problem is that Urga, the elder sister, is sweet on this pale-haired Major in the Army, who Cija has already recognised as, you guessed it, Smahil. She manages to keep well clear of him, even running away when he finally sees and recognises her and, in his by-now fixed despotic stalker manner, claiming her for his own, now and forever, since she – according to him but then her own Diary does rather support his point – has no idea what to do without him.

City

Matters get worse. The girls having gone down to the beach, Cija recognises her old Tower, the one she was imprisoned in, in complete ignorance, for her first seventeen years. Urga and Bronza want to explore it. They find it has become a colony for a tribe of primitive, hairy man-apes, who fight a battle with the City’s troops who come to the girls’ rescue. But Cija has been seen and noted by the apes, for no necessarily apparent reason than the obvious one, that she’s the star of the books. She’s kidnapped by them out of a dinner party at Smahil’s and taken back to the Tower, where she’s going to be killed and eaten.
This is Cija’s assumption, and indeed there comes a moment when that’s imminent, but given that she’s pretty skinny, and wouldn’t provide much sustenance, it’s a dodgy notion (contradicting all previous descriptions of herself, though I’m not necessarily going to accuse Gaskell of sloppy editorial control here, tempting though it is). When the tribe hunts animals in the jungle, why kidnap one girl? Besides, they’ve got her but they make no attempt to kill and eat her: is that just because they want to fatten her up, though she refuses to eat anything and they never try to force her?
Before long she’s adopted by one of the man-apes, who she believes is called Ung-g. He feeds her surreptitiously, treats her as his pet, and is rejected from the tribe because he won’t let her be eaten. Ung-g and Cija take off into the jungle for a perfectly lovely time, fighting off Tyrannosaurus Rex’s, learning to communicate and basically having the same kind of fun young lovers do.
Lovers? Oh yes. The pair are ambushed by the tribe’s hunters who, having been pretty unsuccessful, make it plain that Cija’s for the pot this time. Ung-g fights them all off with the aid of a T-Rex bone thrown him by his pet, after which he has sex with her. Since it’s plain he isn’t going to take no for an answer, and Cija has no more ability to fight him off as anyone before him, technically it could be considered yet one more rape, except that Cija fudges the very question of whether it is or not by going into raptures over how this hairy neanderthal-equivalent is the first of all her lovers to treat her with tenderness.
I’ve said before, this series is a nightmare of psychosexual encounters.
Anyway, Ung-g doesn’t get to turn this into a long-term relationship. He and Cija are found in the jungle by the High Priest’s soldiers and driven to the Temple where both are captured and bound and Ung-g is taken away, no doubt to be executed as some kind of blasphemy. Cija pleads for him not to be harmed but we neither see nor hear any more of Ung-g so we can only assume as to our inner natures, and in this Saga…
So Cija’s going to be sacrificed. Smahil seems prepared to take her instead, out of hatred rather than lust, but betrays her. Fortunately, Smahil’s other regular shag, who’s a bit worried about Cija, shops her to the Dictatress (who promptly has her slaughtered as, get this, a tattle-tale!) and her mother sends her forces to rescue her daughter.
And she gets a little spin-off prize for recognising Cija’s potential political value when her daughter manages to lead her unsympathetic father to his death by being eaten by the ceremonial alligator that is his official bride…
All’s well that ends well, and if there has to be an ending to what has been nothing but a series of barely connected episodes, then the wheel turning full circle is as good as any other, and capable of giving a pseudo-conclusion. Except that Gaskell rejects even that. Mother is all full of how well Cija’s reappearance will suit her plans, since Cija’s husband, General Zerd, will be here in less than a month, marching against his Northern Emperor, his first wife Sedili back under his thumb, and not anything Cija can say about not wanting Zerd ever again, ever, not never, is even audible to the Dictatress, so the story isn’t even over in the least respect, it’s just going to wind on interminably.
And the only last line Gaskell can up with, on which to conclude, is to have Cija wonder about Seka (and Zerd’s) reaction to her presenting her daughter with a half-brother even less human than Zerd… Yes, Ung-g made her pregnant.
Originally, this was the end of the Saga, both when it was first published as three books between 1963 and 1966, and again in the mid-Seventies, when it was re-published in paperback, in the four volumes I previously bought. In the absence of any other information, I’m going to assume that the reissues prompted Gaskell to write a fifth book, published in 1977, eleven years after The City, but not discovered or read by me until at least five years later.
I have only read the last book once, but there are certain aspects to it that I remember vividly. I have not been complementary about the series to date. If my recollections are in any way accurate, I will have a great deal more to say about the belated sequel.

2 thoughts on “Jane Gaskell’s Atlan Saga: 4 – The City

  1. The 1968 mass market paperback US 1st edition had a nice Jeff Jones cover, but it was reprinted in 1970 with a Frazetta cover – a really, really bad Frazetta cover. It looks like a kid took Frazetta prints, cut out the figures and pasted them on orange construction paper with Elmer’s Glue. Do they have Elmer’s in the UK?

    1. I’m sure I could find that cover very quickly using Google Images but after that wonderful description, why would I want to? I’m pretty sure we’ve never had Elmer’s Glue over here, though since I grew out of Airfix model kits (you should have seen my ceiling, planes swooping in every direction) I’ve never had much truck with glues generally: we used to have Prittsticks, I know that.

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