Some Books: Douglas Wolk’s ‘All of the Marvels’


Marvels

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
Towards the end of last year, there was a lot of fuss going on about Douglas Wolk’s book, All of the Marvels. Wolk is an American author and critic who specialises in music and comics. All of the Marvels is, as it says on the tin, about reading the entire output of Marvel Comics since Fantastic Four 1 in 1962, a matter of 27,000 issues.
My first reaction was, rather you than me. By history and temperament, I align with DC Comics, having never really taken to Stan Lee’s bombastic hucksterism, which, mutated in multiple ways, still forms the basis of the Marvel Universe. Or it did, the last time I paid any attention to it, which was admittedly several decades ago. My modern Marvel Collection consists of only three Graphic Novels, two of them written by Neil Gaiman, the other being Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels.
But that doesn’t stop me being curious. The Marvel Universe has existed for sixty years now and is constantly held up as a Marvel in itself, a complex, interweaving affair that’s constantly growing, expanding, discovering more and more intricate connections between each and every one of those 27,000 comics, to create a fictive structure beyond anything else ever done before.
The question of Why? comes to mind but, like Number 6’s question to the General in The Prisoner episode of the same name, that’s the one that totally gums up the works.
Having collected DC Comics, as an adult, for almost fifty years now, I’m relatively familiar with its Universe’s structure and development throughout that period, at least until the advent of the New 52 eleven years ago. I can’t say the same of the Marvel Universe. If Wolk had read every Marvel Comic since 1962 then he was in a position to see the whole picture, to understand the tapestry like few others. What I hoped for from All of the Marvels was some kind of attempt to explain the Universe in a cohesive fashion.
I should have known better. I have quite a retentive memory, though unfortunately it only works organically. I read things, I absorb them, I recall them. Usually unimportant things as opposed to stuff that matters. I remember what I remember of DC’s comics because I read them over that great expanse of time. Had I devoted myself to the project of reading them deliberately, for the purpose of understanding them as a whole, I wouldn’t have been able to remember half of the things I can bring to mind any time I want.
In fact, I would say it would have to be either an exceptional mind, or one trained in the Art of Memory, to read 27,000 comics and mentally sort them into a comprehensive and consistent whole, especially when, ipso facto, they are not and cannot be a cohesive whole, given the hundreds of creators whose conflicting interests have gone into shaping the thing in the first place.
Give Wolk credit, he understands that and doesn’t attempt to write anything of the kind. Instead, he hopscotches around eras and series and characters, tracing lines of development, and not always in a chronological manner. He’s obviously an enthusiast – you have to be – but equally obviously he’s beglamoured of the very idea, and treats it as the best thing since sliced bread.
So what we’re reading is part an admirable attempt to create a skeletal structure upon which his readers can then build a wider knowledge of the Marvel Universe in their own time and fashion, but also part hagiography. By that, I don’t mean that Wolk is uncritical. He’s certainly ready to point out some of the crap that Marvel has spewed out down the years, but it’s no more than a drop in the ocean compared to the praise he’s prepared to hand out, just because the whole thing exists and is not a completely hideous mess.
If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. Part of this is my indifference, indeed apathy, towards Marvel Comics as a whole. I have no interest in poking the bear. It’s just that Marvel Comics have only rarely been made for me, and the vast majority of them leave me cold, or work me up in frustration at the sheer, boneheaded arguing that goes on. Yes, it’s more natural that members of a team, especially the intense kind of people who face such fantastic conditions, shouldn’t always get along like they’d all meet up for dinner every night of the week.
But the problem with Marvel, and everywhere else, having been influenced by their success, is that this then becomes fetishised. A cliché. A boring-after-fifty-years-of-it cliché.
The other part of this is my age. I’m on my way out of comics, growing out of them at long last. Or should I say modern comics: what already exists still entertains and sparks my imagination. But as I write this, there are only two remaining ‘floppies’ I intend to buy and, depending when this post is put up, that may be down to only one.
I can’t help now but ask that fatal question: Why?
A shared Universe, in which things can be related, in which characters operate, in tandem and in conflict, where things cross over normally and organically, is fun and fascinating. But Marvel’s Universe, and DC’s, got too big, too long ago, out of the same fetishising. Everything can connect so everything has to connect. If two people have the same surname, they have to be related, they can’t just possibly have the same surname.
Very rapidly, it gets stupid and, in attempting to portray itself as sharing the form of the real World, it severs itself from the real World by exterminating coincidence, accident and disconnection.
So, ultimately for me, All of the Marvels could only really have been satisfying if it had been nothing like what Douglas Wolk wanted to write. In that respect, this post has been less abut the book than about my ongoing drift from comics in general, though I don’t apologise for that. Everything is or can be a learning curve.
As a parting note, I shall simply mention that this is the first book in this occasional series, indeed of the whole blog, that I have reviewed from a digital copy, downloaded to my Kindle, as opposed to my preferred holding-in-the-hand. I don’t think that had any significant bearing on my opinions though.

A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘Marston – Master Spy’


Marston – Master Spy, which has just been published in paperback for the first time, is the last of Malcom Saville’s artistically and commercially unsuccessful series of Marston Baines Thrillers, aimed at an older audience than those he usually attracted. It was the penultimate novel of his career, with only the final Lone Pine Club book to follow. It is the 39th book of his that I have bought since being re-awakened to the Lone Pine Club books almost exactly five years ago and, unless I develop an unlikely interest in his books for younger readers, the last I shall buy.
A quick refresher for those who need it: the Marston Baines series was conceived by Saville in 1963, shortly after Not Scarlet But Gold, the book that finally allowed David Morton and Peter Sterling to grow into young adults and admit their true feelings towards one another, a book which he hoped would allow him to bring his most popular series to an end.
Instead, he wanted to write for older readers, readers who, hopefully, had grown up with him, and to whom he could express his concerns about changes in society that he hated and feared and that he hoped his books would help turn back.
This is repeating myself but it has to be remembered that Saville, who was born in 1901, was a deeply Christian and deeply Conservative man, who was far from at home with the changes that were starting to escalate in the Sixties, and who sought to warn young readers against these. His new series was, he hoped, what he would be remembered for, was being written for posterity.
I’ve already described the series as being written out of fear, and I don’t think I’m being overly fanciful if I suggest that the root of that fear was young people thinking for themselves, and not blithely following the mores and principles he had grown up with throughout his entire life. All and any change, but especially those that cast older people’s wisdom aside, was wrong, and damaging.
What’s worse is that, if the books represent his true feelings in all their depths, he could not give these young people any credit for thinking for themselves. All these new notions were the product of manipulation, of being misdirected, or brainwashed, or seduced by people who didn’t want a potentially better, or fairer, or more accepting society to emerge from change, but who wanted to destroy society, to profit from its ruination by taking personal power.
All that I knew of this story before I read it came from the rather scarce Illustrated Bibliography, which told me that it involved Marston being kidnapped, and that it’s ending was completely different from any other of Saville’s series. And the cover reproduction told me that this was by far and away the worst cover for a Malcolm Saville book I’d ever seen, and there have been some truly awful ones. Indeed, now that I can see it ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, it is truly abysmal, something that amateur artists would have torn up rather than allow other eyes to see it.
Now: eight years have passed since the penultimate Marston Baines book. Stephen Biggar, whose Introduction is considerably more neutral than the last few, refers to Ian Fleming identifying himself with James Bond and suggests Saville did so with Baines. Taking this at face value, that ‘unexpected ending’ takes on a greater psychological depth that it might have with a different writer.
There are two storylines going on. To begin with, Marston Baines – who is now in his fifties and is being retired, not just on age grounds but more practically because it is believed too many opposition agents have penetrated his double-life – is kidnapped out of England far too easily for such an experienced agent, and although there’s a suggestion later in the book that he allowed it to happen because he wanted to find out who he was up against, the way it happens is certainly not to his credit.
Worse still, he’s been kidnapped by amateurs, good guy amateurs but still amateurs, an underground organisation known as La Promesse, run by a Belgian Consulting Engineer called Jan Schmidt, who are dedicated to preserving Western Civilisation from those seeking to overthrow it and diminish both its morale and its morals. Saville goes for the authentic espionage paranoia in posing the questions: are they a KGB front? Do they know Marston is more than merely the thriller writer they want to help direct their PR? But no, they are as straight as they seem.
The other story concerns Marston’s nephew, Simon, and his fiancee Rosina Conway, and brings back Charles Hand and Kate Boston, or rather Kate Hand, for this pair have now been married for eighteen months, not that marriage seems to have changed Kate one whit. I mean, we all know that Rosina is still a virgin even in 1978, but you get the suspicion that Kate might be as well.
Simon is now an editor at Pendant Press, a branch of British Intelligence owned by Peter Pendant, assisted by his wife and secretary Elizabeth (not that Saville can conceal that Elizabeth Pendant is herself a singularly intelligent and highly capable woman, and an Agent: not bad for a secretary. Incidentally, she’s very attractive but then all the females in the Marston Baines book are beautiful before they’re anything else).
Everyone from Schmidt to Pendant is interested in high-power photographer Paul Schengen, who’s suspected of being a KGB Agent, as well as mixed up in Satanism and Black Magic, not to mention the usual plans to violently overthrow Western Democracy. They’re also credited with being absolute experts in undermining foreign countries through all manner or propaganda and ploys, which calls into question why they need to set up spectacular but easily disruptable attacks.
Anyway, Simon is to go to Luxemburg to find out the truth about Schengen and, as part of his cover, he’s encouraged to take three civilians, namely Rosina and the Hands with him, as part of his cover.
To be honest, I have no wish to go any further into the plot. It is not very different from the previous books in the series and I am sure you can anticipate most of the twists and turns from here, especially as although the story has its twisted elements, its turns are not very sharp ones.
I’ve criticised Saville time and again for his chauvinist attitude to his female characteristics, emphasising first their attractiveness to the male stare and their feebleness, in that order, as their primary characteristics, and of course this continues. Saville even has Rosina play up a bit about the way Simon treats her both as a mere girl AND his withholding of even unimportant information about what this mission she’s accompanying him on. What’s worse is not that Simon tells her not to be bitchy but that she admits to being bitchy.
(Actually, that scene could have been much better handled by a very minor change of words: Rosina does say something petulant and then goes out to apologise to Simon, but if she’d said something like, ‘that time I was bitchy’, it would have been perfect.)
But despite all that, Saville cannot help but depict Rosina as displaying considerable intelligence, courage and capability, not to mention dedication that places her on a level with Simon. It is worth the wait for him to do so much for one of the loyal, steadfast, women who do so much to support the men they love.
I was warned in advance that this series ended in a way that never happened in any other of Malcolm Saville’s series. I had my suspicions as to what that might be, but found the obvious thought to be completely uncharacteristic of someone who was not merely a writer of children’s fiction, but whose work was so simplistically black and white. No, that doesn’t change in this book, indeed Saville is as strong as ever on Good vs Evil, and how there can never be even the slightest mixing of shades, or the suggestion of nuance.
The book’s climax is in keeping with its predecessors, a mass attack on the citadel of the enemy by a determined force. Simon is in peril, forced to attend a Black Mass that is to conclude with human sacrifice, and he the sacrifice. Once more, his Uncle Marston leads the invading force that will overpower evil. And evil is indeed overpowered, but this time there is a price to pay. In defending his nephew, Marston Baines is shot. Shot dead, through the heart, instantly.
Initially, I was too surprised about Saville going for that kind of ending at all, and despite my opinion of the series overall, I was saddened and, to a degree, disturbed at his killing off the hero. The books have been about black and white, Good vs Evil, without compromise, shading or, sadly, nuance. A step like this, allowing Evil to win in even a single respect, was out of character.
What’s worse is how little impact it had. The actual death scene was so casual, but also oddly perfunctory. Marston steams in to break up the Black Mass, heads towards the handcuffed Simon, calling that he’s ‘On my way.’ He then gets hit over the head by a candlestick wielded by a very minor character, knocked unconscious and shot dead. It’s not much of a death scene. Like the kidnapping that starts the book, it’s a bit insulting to a man of his experience and skills. I intuit that, though Saville intended to do it, his heart was not in the actuality to any serious degree, and he just wasn’t able to write a dramatic death. Given his writing career, that’s both entirely understandable sand, in a left-handed way, laudable.
Malcolm Saville was 77 when he published Marston – Master Spy. He was almost at the end of his career as a writer of fiction. That would follow later the same year, with the last Lone Pine book, the one that had to be written before he put down his pen. The high hopes he had for the Marston Baines series had long since been dashed. This re-publication is not just the first paperback edition but only the second ever edition. And he chose to end this series by killing off his leading character, with whom he identified, and for whom he’d had high hopes that had never materialised.
Crude psychology as it may be, I find it impossible not to attribute this ending to a combination of Saville’s awareness of failure and the end, or ‘death’, of the writing career that had been so important and meaningful to him.
The psychological aspect of this conclusion is deepened by the effect it has on Simon Baines, who has been much more the hero of this series than its title character, the youngster who echoes the life Saville wished to proscribe for his readers, his Uncle’s shadow and disciple. The loss of that Uncle, who had been so much a friend to him, as well as a guide and mentor, led Simon, the Intelligence Agent of such promise, to renounce the fight, leave it to others, dedicate himself and his life to Rosina only. In terms of the series and its purpose, and the much quoted epithet, ‘for evil to triumph it is only necessary for good men to do nothing’, this is nothing but a betrayal, a reneging, a compromise, but for Simon the cost had proved too great. No doubt, in that moment of loss, he saw only too clearly the possibility that one day Rosina would undergo it over him, and cared too much for her to ever expose her to that risk?
And in Simon’s renunciation of the great task before him, I see Malcolm Saville renouncing the great task that lay behind him. Taken together with Marston’s death, and the revelation of the great secret that he was a devout Christian, it makes for an ending that suggests a deep and painful experience for the author. I’ve criticised the Marston Baines series, and my position remains unchanged on that, but it leaves me very sad to think of the emotions going through Leonard Malcolm Saville’s mind when writing a conclusion of such defeat.
Anyway, that’s an end to it. GGB have sent out feelers about possibly re-publishing the Nettleford series which, from what I know of Saville’s series for younger readers, is the only one I might consider reading, but for the moment they owe me three more Jillies books to complete that series. Unless someone can magic an unwritten Jillies or Buckinghams book out of the ether, this is where I reach the end of the road that began when I casually tossed the word ‘Acksherly’ into a post of a social forum and a friend from Gainsborough who I’ve never met responded in gleeful reaction, went on to buy an old Lone Pine book cheap off eBay and posted it to me to read… Thanks, Rebecca!

Some Books: Tom King’s ‘A Once Crowded Sky’


Sky

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
I was in two minds as to where this review would best fit in, whether under books or comics. It’s by Tom King, of Batman fame and more, and it’s about superheroes but, on the other hand, it’s a book: 322 pages of prose, interposed with a couple of dozen pages of black and white art. King left his post as a CIA analyst to write and publish this novel in 2010 before starting to write actual comics.
So it’s a book. Books about superheroes do not come with a decent pedigree, superheroes having found their perfect form instantly in 1938. A picture is worth a thousand words is a not-necessarily true cliché but when it comes to impossibly sculpted men and women in skintight clothing, a single panel substitutes for a far higher amount of prose.
A novel about superheroes starts on a hiding to nothing. A Once Crowded Sky doesn’t even begin to come up to that barrier.
The story is set in the fictional Arcadia City. It begins six months after an event known as The Blue, some kind of force devouring the world. The only way to stop it was for all the heroes to surrender their powers into the form of the greatest of them all, Ultimate, The Man with the Metal Face, a robotic Superman-analogue, who can then use all that power to seal off the rift that is allowing The Blue to escape into the world. It will kill him. But he and they accept that.
Except that not all the heroes surrender their power. One refuses. And that one is PenUltimate, a cyborg, the former sidekick to Ultimate, who has gone beyond heroing, has left the game, fallen in love, married, only wants to commit to his wife. They think he’s a coward. Maybe he is, King’s writing is so convoluted and sprawling that even after dozens of chapters from Pen’s POV (all chapter titles are comic book series issues) we really have no idea about that.
Which means that Pen is the only person with powers left in the world. And people keep telling him that there’s a way for it all to come back, all the powers, the whole game, they always come back.
And, to be frank, that’s as far as I am prepared to go in describing the plot, because this book is a mess. Its story is as carefully constructed as a plate of spaghetti, and contains enough sustainable ideas for less than a hundred pages of this book. King clearly has very little interest in concocting a narrative either representative or satirical of superheroics – Julius Schwartz would have brought in Gardner Fox to re-plot this halfway down page 7 – and substitutes pages upon pages of analysis of motivation and response, none of which reads as if he has any real insight into the metaphysics of a superhero Universe.
Indeed, the whole story is full of metafiction, but none of it entertaining, enlightening or even unpredictable. The best bits of it are those where the story is laid out in an oversized handwriting font in the form of comic book scripting, and that only because these pages skim by faster.
No, buying this book was a colossal mistake, and serves only to further undermine my enjoyment of King’s work in comics. I can only hope to recoup some of the cost of it on eBay before very long.

Some Books: Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’


Curious

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was published in 2005. Haddon had written it as a children’s book, but it was published and marketed simultaneously to both children and adult’s markets. The book was a phenomenon, winning nearly every Award for which it qualified, selling massively, acclaimed on all sides.
At the time, I was married. My mother-in-law, with whom I got on very well, lived on Mallorca, and through her influences we were able to holiday there at very good rates. Whenever we went over, she would ask us to bring some things, mostly certain foods, that she couldn’t get over there. Sometimes these were books. One of them was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I took the opportunity to read before we travelled. I’m not usually very big on books that are a public phenomenon, but this time I thought that everyone got it right.
But that was then. Before Xmas, the book caught my eye on eBay, and I bought it for myself. Does it stand up to the passage of time? Does a tree stand up, straight, tall and proud? Oh yes, it stands up. It is still nothing less than breath-takingly good.
Technically, the story is a murder mystery, but the victim is a dog, staked with a garden fork, and the ‘murderer’ confesses his guilt halfway through the book, but that’s not the point. The point is the voice, the voice of Christopher Boone, a fifteen year old boy with a talent for advanced mathematics, but also with, let’s call it, ‘behavioural difficulties’.
That’s how Haddon preferred to describe it. Most people rushed to the words Autism, and Asberger’s Syndrome, and as someone with a niece who is severely autistic, and a nephew who is mildly Asberger’s that’s where I went, and still go now, frankly. But Haddon wanted to avoid such simplistic tags, so as not to limit Christopher’s thinking, or our response to being inside a head so different from the ones we usually occupy, to one point.
The story itself can be summarised fairly easily. Chris has lived for the last two years with his Dad, Ed, a boiler engineer, in Swindon. His mother died of a heart attack two years ago. When Christopher discovers the dead dog on Mrs Shears’ lawn, opposite, he decides to detect who has done it, and write a book about it. He causes disruption doing so, because of his inability to understand human emotions. Ed orders him to stop, confiscates his book. Searching for it, Chris discovers letters from his mother, weekly ones, from London. Ed admits that she’s not dead, that she went off with Mr Shears opposite and he didn’t tell Chris the truth. He admits killing the dog. This places Chris into great fear of Ed. He decides to go and live with his mother in Willesden. Despite being completely unequipped to do so, on every level, and with the Police looking for him to return him to his father, he gets there. His arrival causes massive upheavals for everyone, but Chris ends up taking his Maths A-level and getting an A-grade. He is confident about his future, because he got to London so he knows he can do anything.
Every little bit of this we see through Chris’s eyes. We see far more than he does, of the world about him: it is as if Chris is looking through a pinhole, seeing only the actions, but we see the meanings and the implications. And it all feels so natural. Without once ever feeling forced or artificial, Haddon places us very quietly inside Chris’s head, leaving us our understandings but restricting us to only what he sees and feels. The things he does, and how impossible it is to deal with him from our seemingly wider perspective, are alien: we don’t understand why Chris acts that way but we do see them as being him within.
From the very start there’s a strangeness to the book. We sink into its atmosphere as if it is a bubble, and see through the curvature of its surface. It’s all slightly unreal, because we don’t think that way, and we keep trying, ineffectually, to force things into our own perspective which, from within here, has ironically become the limited viewpoint.
In short, this is an astonishing book, and an astonishingly good one. I can’t think why I didn’t just buy a copy for myself after we got back from Mallorca that time, and have kept it since, but I will be keeping hold of this book from now.
Incidentally, when reading the book the first time, I didn’t realise until afterwards that I had already been familiar with Haddon’s work. For about a year, in the mid-Nineties, he wrote and drew the weekly satirical cartoon strip, Men – A User’s Guide, for the Guardian’s Women’s Page, copies of several of which I cut out or photocopied, and which I have re-located for the first time in a decade or more – the strip demands to be reprinted, if only for me. Haddon’s ideas then were more directly caustic but also sharply pointed. The two really can’t be compared: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is much more restrained.
But it truly is a work of genius and I am so glad to re-discover it.

Jane Gaskell’s Atlan Saga: 5 – Some Summer Lands


JG - Summer

In one sense, and one sense only, Some Summer Lands stands in the same relationship to the Atlan Saga as The Urth of the New Sun does to The Book of the New Sun. Even then, the comparison is tenuous, consisting of the fact that both are later one volume epilogues to completed four volume stories. This link begs the question, firstly, of whether the Atlan Saga was ever actually finished in any conventional sense, and secondly, as to how far removed the later book is from its parent volumes.
Because whilst The Urth of the New Sun takes place both ten full years after Wolfe’s original tetraology, and almost immediately after its final page, Some Summer Lands is a more direct continuation of the Saga, commencing an unspecified number of months after The City finished. How many is not given: my initial impression is six months but internal evidence means it can’t be much more than two months, if that.
Anyhow, the biggest difference is that whereas Wolfe’s sequel continues to be narrated by Severian, Gaskell has done with Cija as diarist. We now get to see her externally, in the words of her daughter, Seka.
Another difference is that Seka is not writing these ongoing episodes on the run, so to speak, but many years later, when she is adult and has had access to her mother’s diaries (in the Tandem books set?) How old she is when the book begins is just as impossible to tell as anything concrete in the entire series, leaving the reader to try to make a reasoned deduction. My impression is that Seka is seven, though she could be a year older, or even nine at a pinch, but it’s hardly credible that she could be as much as ten.
Whatever age she is, Seka is very difficult to fathom. From her adulthood, she draws out her own memories as if she was then fully grown and highly intelligent, a precise judge of human nature. But, and this is where the book starts creepy, and will go on to be both creepy and disturbing for all its length, Seka is already an almost fully-sexualised human being.
Not in terms of participation. But in terms of understanding her mother and grandmother’s sometimes quite crude conversations about sex, and she is already (already!) experienced at giving herself orgasms of a kind, by holding a door between her thighs and rubbing herself on it.
Ladies, I confess that I have never had occasion to discuss that particular form of masturbation with anyone I was intimate with, so could anyone confirm to me , or otherwise, if that is a practical practice?
By the time that comes up, we are about three pages into a 358 page long book: three pages. And it’s not the first time sex has come up. Nor the second.
I haven’t even got onto the story yet, but there is more of this stuff at every turn. Seka is none too impressed with her mother’s body, and especially not by how small her tits are, though she’s quick to notice when Cija pulls down the top of her dress and starts rubbing her own breasts, or her thighs. When the pair are briefly taken in by Sedili, Seka not only compares her sexual appeal favourably to Cija’s but seems to spend all her time looking up Sedili’s skirt, where a boy is painting her thighs purple.
In fact, Seka’s whole attitude to her mother is one of quasi-amused contempt for her silliness, her hopelessness, her haplessness, her indecisiveness, indeed everything. It’s nothing that I haven’t said about Cija when reviewing the first four books, but it begs the question of just how much Gaskell regards her own heroine as a basic waste of space. It’s not even fifty pages into the book and already Seka is deciding that she has to find someone competent to get her off her hands, so that she – this seven year old, still-mute girl – doesn’t have to do it for the rest of her life.
I must admit to having a sliver of sympathy for Cija when the book begins. She’s back where she began, in the Tower, wanting nothing more than to be left alone to have her ape-baby and not to be re-united with her is-he-isn’t-he-still-husband Zerd. Her mother isn’t listening: Cija is still just a useful political tool to her and anything else is dismissed. She’s pregnant: get to his bed tonight and ‘conceive’ it. It’s an ape: abort it. Cija is rigidly determined to have her hairy baby, as a reminder of the only lover who treated her nicely. Not that she can have her way and she’s pretty immediately kidnapped by her half-brother Smahil, father of her first child, Nal, who may or may not be dead.
Smahil is still the perfect example of the Twenty-first Century stalker, convinced that he and only he knows what is good for Cija, not that he’ll touch her with his cock whilst she’s carrying anybody else’s child (other people’s babies are just a waste of his emissions, he says, if that makes any sense) so he has the best back-street abortionist scrape out the ape-baby: so much for that. Seka gets her mother out, only to be captured by Sedili, but then Zerd’s subordinate Clor appears, for the first time since The Dragon, to return Cija to her mother. Zerd himself is not far behind.

Summer

The Dictatress wants to send her daughter and granddaughter to accompany the General on his march north. Cija has no intention of going but is manipulated into doing so. She’s not just in his party, she’s in his bed, though Seka doesn’t tell us too much about that. No, Seka becomes an object of fascination for the Atlan bandit chief, Ael. In fact, it’s more a mutual fascination. First she watches him wank himself off in the saddle. Then he fiddles with her parts at a banquet. And then she wanks him off, twice, and lets his come dry on her belly.
Remember, this is a child, age unknown but very much pre-puberty. What I’ve said before about a twisted psychosexuality running through the Saga should now be discarded: how this book didn’t fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act can only be down to its obscurity.
Eventually, my patience with this overall story just snapped. Cija and Seka are separated from Zerd’s Army during… during what? A battle, a skirmish, a victory, a defeat. Sedili’s tried to poison Cija again, but instead she gives birth, telling Seka only now that the abortion was botched. She names her ape-girl Despair, but she winds up in a cheap and nasty peasant area, full of mud, shit, chauvinism, cruelty and subhumanity, at which point I was dragging myself to read any more.
It was just more disaster after disaster, without rhyme or reason. Others have suggested that Seka’s contemptuous attitude to her mother indicates that Gaskell has lost patience with and interest in Cija, and the way she mechanically piles crap after crap on her supports this notion. If the writer only keeps a character around to heap shit on her at implausibly short intervals, why should I have any interest in her? Or in her mute little snotty cow of a daughter?
Apart from my personal response, the mud-and-shit sequence is allowed to go on too long, without progress or development. The debased humanity of the peasant community rapidly gets very wearying: they deny and defy anything remotely describable as good in people. Cija is ‘courted’ by and marries a peddler who ends up using his dying breath to have Seka emphasise to her mother that he doesn’t love her, he never did, he just did it to save her, he knew what was best for her.
Shades of Smahil, and of course he pops back up. Cija and her children have finally moved on, just when it looked as if they were stuck there for good, the book doomed to die but keep on going forever. This is thanks to the unnamed officer that Seka only calls Beautiful or The Saint, who has quite frankly gone off his head and become a religious revivalist of more than usual stupidity. He moves the peasants as his ‘army’ to the Northern capital, Northstrong, which inevitably draws out Smahil.
He hasn’t changed. He still knows what is best for Cija. Nevertheless, she refuses to come and live with him, so he visits practically every day and semi-rapes her. It revives Seka’s interest in the subject after a long period in which she seems to have forgotten about even masturbating.
The book, and the series, moves into its end-game with the reappearance of Juzd, the former Regent of Atlan, a man from whom golden light emanates, and who is some kind of spiritually superior person. He is able to deflect Smahil, indeed override his worst instincts. Cija and Seka go with Juzd, into the Palace, where they become captives of the Northern King, but Juzd leads them clear in the midst of an attack by Zerd.
And things change out of all recognition over the last sixty pages, as Gaskell turns away from everything she’s done before now, leading her Saga towards, what else, but the Fall of Atlan, Atlantis. This is accompanied by much quasi-spiritual philosophising, conducted primarily in heavy and undigestable platitudes, as Juzd takes Cija and her daughter – who discovers her voice en route – back to the island continent, to an all-too-brief non-reunion with Cija’s oldest child, Nal, and to the destruction of the land by an earthquake, caused by Juzd ‘pulling the plug’. It appears that the world was not ready yet for Atlan, that the world is not the world God planned but a precursor and…
But all this is unstructured and incoherent. Gaskell is trying for a heavy ending, some sort of overarching significance to a story that has never really risen above that of a travelogue. She is insufficiently clear as to the ideas she is trying to express as to cast doubt upon any honest belief in them, or belief greater than is necessary to suggest significance. The ending fails. Seka continues to express her love for her mother by analysing her manifold failings. We are given some skeletal hints as to the long future ahead, at least insofar as they affect the little family of Cija, Zerd and Seka, but to be honest it’s all about counting off pages until the book stops.
Some Summer Lands is, make no bones about it, a bad book, and bad in a way that makes it different from the original Saga, which at least offers a semi-comprehensible, though pointless, fantasy of a prehistoric world through which the ineffectual Cija moves, even if that’s only from rape to rape. Even if you were to excise the disgusting episodes of pre-pubescent sex, which disappear about halfway though, alone, unmourned and unloved, this tail-end book fails on that basic level.
So thank you, but no thank you. By the time you read this fifth post, I shall know whether the set is sellable on eBay*, or whether I shall just have to sneak into a Charity Shop and run away before they stop me leaving these books there.

*They sold, for 1p less than I paid for them: hoorah!

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.

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.

Jane Gaskell’s Atlan Saga: 2 – The Dragon


JG - Dragon

The usual phrase for a book like this would be ‘more of the same, only different’, but that’s misleadingly elaborate. The Dragon is simply ‘more of the same’, which is only to be expected from a book that was first published as part of its predecessor before being split off. It is the same as The Serpent.
Just as the one book ended abruptly, with a sense of things being cut off without resolution, so too does The Dragon start again immediately. So, fresh from being raped in the rain by the young Northern Army Officer and fellow ex-hostage Smahil, our diarist Cija (Kee-ya) is taken back to Smahil’s quarters where she is kept prisoner whilst being treated roughly, without sympathy or any warmth by her captor, and is allowed to be beaten up and her back lacerated by Smahil’s official mistress, the dancer Terez. Until she manages to get away one day.
I’m going to say this now, long before Smahil returns to the book, with his angry hatred towards Cija and his intent to re-possess her, just as one would re-possess a car sold under a Loan Agreement that’s been defaulted upon. Smahil is a psychopath but worse, he is a ‘gaslighter’. He’s always on at Cija about how she’s so ignorant and immature, doesn’t know what’s best for her or anything about the world, doesn’t even know she’s in love with him or that he’s the best thing that’s ever going to happen to her (oh, Jesus) to the point where you are expecting to hear him call her My Precious.
Far too many ladies know exactly what I’m talking about here, the controlling abuser. And there’s something more about Smahil that won’t be revealed until much later on. The worrying thing is that Smahil is just another part of Cija’s pattern. She gets away from him by stowing away on a river boat, but it’s just another stage. Cija winds up in the Southern capitol, as a protege of the High Priest Kaselm, right hand man to the Southerner’s God-King, His Superlativity, where she enjoys the upper class life of decadence, without having sex with anyone, but blows it all for herself by acting stupidly, according to her situation, for no discernible reason.
By this I mean that she starts talking to a man called Kond (oh, the names!), a bandit’s second-in-command held prisoner in an underground cell under a courtyard. She’s disdainful of him but provides him with food and drink. He wants her to procure him a knife, so he can kill his gaoler and any others who might interfere with his escape. Virtuously, Cija refuses, until the day she relents, because the girl can’t keep a consistent thought in her head for more than a dozen pages.
Except that the cell is empty as Kond has been taken off for execution, by hanging in the woods. Cija follows, seeing that he’s one of four, of which one is a Priest of the old religion who she’s met in the ‘first book’ and been impressed by. Which of the other three is Kond she has no idea. Nevertheless, she helps all of them escape, with all the guards killed. And since the Priest is a spy for Atlan, you remember, the fabled paradisial island sealed off from the world by its quasi-magical surrounding vacuum, that Zerd is going to flood with air to enable its conquest and rapine for all its resources, that Atlan: well Cija is arrested as just such a spy when the one executee who didn’t get away dobs her in. Yeesh.
But Kaselm rescues her, gets her away through the sewers, where he is revealed as the leader of a ragtag, filthy, crude but effective underground army of ne’er-do-wells and sewer rats. Still, he puts Cija back on her bird, Ums, and sends her off to catch up with Zerd’s Northern Army, marching towards the coast but planned to be destroyed by the superior-in-numbers-and-experience Southern Army…
If you have got the impression by now that there is no comprehensible structure to this book, then I have done my job.
Let’s turn back to Smahil, even though he’s not due to reappear until much later. Whilst she’s still in the Southern Capitol, Zerd and his Army arrive, and he is celebrated. Cija’s idyllic but useless existence is only troubled by terrible nightmares. On speaking to Zerd, she asks after her former handmaiden Ooldra, who was supposed to get her back to her distant mother after she’d killed Zerd, but who turned out to hate the Dictatress, Zerd and Cija, in no particular order. Cija thinks Ooldra will have betrayed her intention to assassinate the General and wants to explain about that, but discovers Ooldra never got the chance, having been killed for her failure to keep Cija to hand. So that’s where all these nightmares are coming from…
Ooldra, we know, was married to the High Priest, and had many children. As these could not be acknowledged as being the High Priest’s, they were all fostered, anonymously, at birth, but with a mark on their back by way of branding. Smahil has a mark on his back…
Rather than try to follow the story, I’m just going to concentrate on a few points of interest. Cija catches up with the Army, becomes Zerd’s companion but still not yet mistress. One night in the jungle a snake swallows one of her legs to the top of her thigh and has to be cut and peeled off. This leaves her limping through most of the rest of the book and, when Zerd does a deal with Ael’s bandits – the lot for whom Kond was second-in-command – for them to run interference on the pursuing Southern Army, Cija is left behind to heal.
It’s agreed that she will be returned, unharmed, but since Kond is now back in the fold, the definition of unharmed is decided not to exclude Kond raping her along the way.
This is now Cija’s third rape of the book and I’ve got to make a point about how all this is being treated. I mean, something like 90% of Cija’s sexual experience so far has been forced on her against her will. In a sense, it’s inevitable: she is a young girl/woman, travelling alone, far from home, with no appreciable self-defence skills, in a primitive land beset by Armies, and who by her own description has long lithe legs and big tits, well, she should expect to be raped, shouldn’t she?
And as for Kond, by then Cija has got so blasé that she even comments that she can hardly call it rape if she enjoys it so much.
Alright, yes, this is 1963, years before Women’s Lib, but this is coming from a woman writer, who you might expect to have a reasonable sensitivity to forced sexual intercourse, but no. It’s like so many things that happen to Cija throughout these two books: they just happen, but they seem to have no impact on her, do not affect or change her. They just happen.

Dragon

Which leads me back to the point I made about The Serpent, which is Gaskell’s inability to bring intense moments to life. Cija seeks the Priest whose execution she prevented, to rid her of her haunting. He removes Ooldra from her but charges her with a task – at last! a positive course! – that of warning Atlan of its imminent invasion. She’s is awe of him, treats him as a truly holy man. Then she bumps into Smahil again, who immediately starts slagging her off in the usual way, intent on dragging her off for more fucking, which is the only thing he wants her for. And no, he doesn’t care that she’s his half-sister, that it’s incest, just makes it more interesting that all.
Then when Cija says she’s going with the Priest, Smahil just walks over to him, runs him through with his sword and kills him. All matter of fact. In passing, as it were. Just like that, only not in any Tommy Cooper fashion.
So Cija has to work out how to get to Atlan through its vacuum. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to, because she bumps into a group of Atlanteans which includes the 13 year old God-Emperor and Juzd, his Regent, who show Cija how to get there through a transparent sea tunnel. And she doesn’t even need to warn anyone now. Yeesh.
For once, Cija shows a degree of intelligent perception, when she realises that Atlan has locked itself away for so long that it has not only forgotten fear or the need to be cautious about others but cannot even remember such things. Nor is it the fabled land of super-science and elaborate, sophisticated weaponry but regards the very word weapon with utter distaste: they are going to get creamed.
Except, not even that. Cija gets to Atlan, regarding it with awe, but rapidly realising that it instantly rejects her for the innate evil she carries, by being from the outer world. Not that she has to worry because, 24 hours later, she’s picked up by the Northern Army. Who have marched in down the tunnel and had the island handed to them on a plate, with prawn crackers on the side. Because entirely voluntarily the 13 year old boy and his Regent have given Atlan to Zerd, he to be Emperor of their own free will.
As endings go, that’s a bit on the flat side, even if it has a certain ironical aspect. It’s not what you want as the climax to a 500 page book. Even more so than Cija with Kond it’s less a rape than a mutually agreed sado-masochistic session, with the infliction of pain.
So what does Cija do now? Well, she decides it’s finally time to fuck Zerd (I’m sorry about all this crudity but there’s no other honest way of describing the proceedings), which gets her to be Empress. And finally happy, because she loves her husband. Once more, Yeesh!
That’s it but for a very short and fast Epilogue in which years are shot past as if by a slingstone. Zerd conquers the continent, both the Southern country and the Northern one, plus that little one that Gaskell goes to incredibly awkward lengths to avoid giving it a name, whose Dictatress approves of Cija not killing Zerd, since he’ll undoubtedly support his mother-in-law against her political opponent, an aim Cija finds petty. Of course, Zerd starts cheating on her within the first year, but hey, she’s the Empress, you know? And he still fucks her. It must feel very strange to be having sex because you want to, I wonder how long it took her to adjust to that?
All round the Internet, if you look up the Atlan Saga, you’ll find nothing but high praise. I may be unique in finding the books ill-structured, archaic and frustrating in tone, and with some very dodgy ideas in them. But of course these two books are only the first. We have three more to read yet. There is still hope.

Jane Gaskell’s Atlan Saga: 1 – The Serpent


JG - Serpent

Back in the mid-Seventies, in the first flush of my discovery of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I read an awful lot of books and, the inevitable joke, a lot of awful books that nowadays I wouldn’t give house-space. A great number of these books stayed with me for many years, whilst Fantasy et al was my main source of reading, only to be moved on once I realised that what attracted me to them in the first place was long dissipated.
Amongst these was the once-popular Atlan series by Jane Gaskell. The series consisted of four books, telling a single story, which I owned in a set issued by Tandem Books, with striking and sexually oriented painted covers showing the series’ narrator, Cija (pronounced Kee-ya) as a lithe, long-legged, bronze-skinned, scantily-clad barbarian woman with long dark hair. Your surmises as to what first caught my teenage eye to these books are undoubtedly accurate.
Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the series had actually been written by Gaskell between 1963 and 1966. A fifth book was written eleven years later, which I read once from the Library and found very peculiar in certain respects.
I have never read anything else by Gaskell, who during this period was a Daily Mail journalist and who later became an astrologer. She was very well regarded as a writer, her debut novel Strange Evil, written when she was only 14 and published in 1957, being very well-received. Her early books were highly-praised, and her 1968 mainstream novel, All Neat in Black Stockings, was a Swinging Sixties story adapted into a film starring Susan George, which I have seen on TV, many years ago.
In the Eighties, the Atlan series, including book 5, was reprinted in a matching edition by Futura. Last year, on a trip to Southport, I found the Eighties set in a second hand shop at £5 the lot, and couldn’t resist buying them, to re-read after such a long time, and to see if my opinion of them that led me to get rid of them has changed. After only one book, it has not.
Nevertheless, I will explain why this is in a bit more detail, for the benefit of those who might be intrigued to know something more about a long-ago-but-not-forgotten fantasy series.
The series starts with The Serpent. It is narrated by Cija and takes the form of her diary, making the structure of the books akin to Gene Wolfe’s Soldier series, without Latro’s lack of long-term memory. The story is set in prehistoric times, in South America, in the period between Earth’s first moon having been drawn down into the planet, and before our current Moon first rose.
We meet Cija aged seventeen, spoilt, self-centred, ignorant and hopeless. She is the (illegitimate) daughter of the Dictatress of a small, un-named country, prophecied to bring ruin to her country. Because of this she has been kept effectively prisoner, in an isolated tower, by nurses and handmaidens, and has never seen the world outside. Cija has been led to believe that men do not exist, that they died out long ago, and that women are born out of eggs (a neat little set-up, none too different from the way seventeen year olds in 1963 were kept ignorant of sex). She also believes herself, like her mother, descended from Gods
Suddenly, Cija is released and thrust into both society and a plot, for both of which she is ill prepared. The country has been invaded and effectively taken over by an Army from a larger country to the North, under its General Zerd, who is the first man Cija ever sees. Zerd is supposedly half-man, half-serpent, and has dark-blue, scaly skin, though whether that’s over all his body or just some of it is never satisfactorily indicated.
The Northern Army is heading south, where it will go into alliance with the armies of the Southern Empire, to attack the fabled paradisial island of Atlan. Atlan is protected by a vacuum that cannot be crossed, except that the Northerners have invented a means to inject air into a vacuum, which will enable Atlan to be attacked and conquered. In the meantime, Zerd is taking hostages against the good behaviour of Cija’s country, eight of them, six young and two elders. Cija is to be one of them.
It’s very noticeable that Atlan – which is what it is obviously intended to be – is the only country to be named in the entire series. The Northern and Southern countries are only ever referred to by that geographical relation, and Cija’s own country is equally, but in places much more awkwardly, anonymous, but clearly nearer the North than the South.
The matter of Atlan is for later, much later in the saga: we won’t get to it in this book. Nor is any of this known to Cija at first, but she and we learn it, in dribs and drabs, over the course of the book, which covers the Northern Army’s long march over thousands of miles of jungles, deserts and mountains, until it reaches the Southern Capitol and is billeted there whilst negotiations and preparations for the attack on Atlan are advanced.
But Cija has a mission, one for which she is spectacularly inept. Cija is to worm her way into the attentions of Zerd, marry him if need be, but end up in his bed where she is to use the concealed but ultra-sharp dagger her mother gives her to wear around her neck. A chosen handmaiden, the cool, collected, grave and serious Ooldra, will help her escape and return to her country, where she will be received joyfully, having expunged her curse, not to mention secure her mother’s triumph over her only political rival, the High Priest who happens to be Cija’s (equally illegitimate) father.
If you’re wondering if Cija is dumb enough to believe all this from a mother who only comes to see her every now and then and manifestly doesn’t love her, yes, she is. How else could she be, after her seventeen years? With her innate belief that she, being a Goddess, is superior to absolutely everyone, not to mention having virtually no social skills whatsoever.

Serpent

The main problem is twofold. First, that Cija is irritating. She is slow to learn, and given that practically all of it is directed to making her both more egalitarian and more useful, when she dislikes the very idea of both, is full of opinions that put up peoples backs for far far longer than she should. She especially doesn’t take kindly to being put to work once Zerd points out that as a hostage, neither she nor they are of any use once they’ve travelled a certain distance from their home country, i.e., too far to have any influence either way on its conduct.
Nor has she the slightest idea of how to attract the General’s eye, especially as he has a professional mistress that Cija can only refer to as the Beauty: there is no competition.
But the main problem, and this goes for the saga as a whole, is that Cija is almost wholly passive. She has no means of working towards her task, so all that happens is that she goes along with the army, being put to various uses, doing nothing and becoming nothing.
Of course things happen en route, but each and every one of these is initiated by someone else, often but not exclusively Zerd.
Cija is forced to mingle with her fellow hostages, who soon get the impression she is whoring with the General. Everybody disapproves of her, especially the two elders, and the two young women, who both want to become Zerd’s mistress for the prestige it will gain them. There is a young man, Smahil, who is first introduced as pale and skinny, seemingly ineffectual, but growing in force throughout the book, sometimes in absence. Smahil is attracted to Cija. She does not want him, though bodily he arouses her passions, especially when he forces on her her first kiss. He refuses to accept her denials that she is shagging Zerd every night.
For as long as this continues, the book feels aimless. Gaskell researched prehistory for its writing, and even includes a bibliography of her sources, but rarely makes the story or its surroundings real in any way. It doesn’t help that she is an over-explainer: far too many times, such forward motion as there is is halted for long paragraphs piling descriptions on top of each other, the worst example being a point at which she describes one person – who is of no significance to the story – with eleven successive adjectives.
Things do, however, change. The Beauty loses her position when Zerd ‘marries’ the daughter of a jungle chief across whose land the Northern Army needs to cross. Cija becomes first Lara’s maid then, when she is insolent, her wine-girl. This brings her more regularly into Zerd’s company and when he wants a change from a woman who enwraps herself in pink, summons Cija. It’s her chance at last.
They’re staying in a provincial capital in quarters supplied by a brutish and dictatorial Governor. Cija arrives to find a bed and no Zerd. Lara arrives first, tipped off about her. Zerd is amused by the pair, to the point where the exasperated Cija blows her top, tells Zerd she hates him in unmistakeable tones, and storms off back to Ooldra to invoke the escape plan. Unfortunately for all concerned, Ooldra only happens to be the High Priest’s actual wife, and mother of his legitimate but ultra-secret children (and the Dictatress didn’t know this?!), who hates Cija only slightly less than Zerd or her mother. Her escape plan was to alert the soldiers of the General’s assassination and have Cija slaughtered.
Which brings me to another problem with the book. That’s a very elegant twist, unhinted at in any way in advance, and the suddenly obvious answer to just what this magic escape plan was going to be. But it has no impact. This will be the same at other points in the Saga: things just happen and they read flatly. We should be shocked, and eager to learn what this all implies, but we are not, or I wasn’t, neither then nor now. Something similar will happen very shortly.
Cija obviously has to go on the run. She takes her fighting/riding bird Ums (presumably some kind of hostile ostrich) and her friend and maid, eleven year old Narra. She prays in the assistance of Blob, one of her betrayers, a former groom she’s recently had whipped, to help her get away. She trusts him, ye Gods. She trusts a man whose name is Blob. Seriously, Blob. And is then surprised when Blob leads her directly to, not Zerd but the Governor. Who rapes her.
At least we get no details of that. We also don’t get any great trauma arising from it, but this was 1963, even with a female writer.
Cija is trapped, and helpless, that is at least until the Governor tires of her and decides he’s going to rape Narra next. Narra who is only 11, and skinny and narrow with it, who will suffer unimaginably. So Cija releases Ums, leads him to the Governor’s bedchamber and instructs him to kill. Which he does, very efficiently. But in striking at the Governor, his hooked beak glances across Narra’s chest and tears her heart out, killing her instantly. As with Ooldra’s betrayal, Gaskell cannot make this death have any impact, nor invest it with any lasting point in the book.
Still, at least Cija has a purpose now, which is to get away. She heads south, following the track of Zerd’s Army. On the way, she finds she is being pursued as the murderess of the Governor. In one remote village she is helped by pretty-boy Lel, a cross-dresser and, eventually, a homosexual (we are not using gay for that purpose in 1963). Lel gives Cija boys clothes to escape in the pretence of being a boy (and an underdeveloped one, aged about 14) whilst he mends and rearranges her girl’s fripperies to attract the attention of the homosexual element of the Northern Army.
Basically, Cija gets there. No-one sees she is a girl through her boy’s clothes, except for Lel. Zerd does not recognise her, even after she’s taken on as Lara’s stew-girl. Even Smahil, now a Lieutenant in Zerd’s Army, doesn’t recognise her. At first.
Smahil’s turned into a forceful, dominant character, a reckless man spoiling for fights and arguments. He has a mistress, Terez, a golden, gorgeous, utterly sexual dancing girl, against whom Cija, again, can’t compare. Nor does she want to compare, and certainly not compete with her for Smahil.
But the book ends abruptly. Tensions between the two Armies steadily rise, until the Southern attacks the General’s headquarters, under orders, intent of either capturing or killing Zerd. Smahil gets Cija away, warns the barracks, then rides off with her into the hills, to a little secluded dell, where he rips her clothes off her and, basically rapes her as well. A few more details of this, because Cija’s supposed to find this a bit more acceptable, coming from Smahil… and that’s it. He book ends, unresolved in any way. Except for the rape.
There is a reason for that. When The Serpent was first published in hardback, in 1963, it was approximately 500 pages long. When the paperback editions were published in the Seventies, the last two hundred pages or so were hived off, and published separately as The Dragon, which became the second book of the now four-book Saga. This format was retained for my current set in the Eighties.
So the next post will cover The Dragon, as both a book in its own right and as a detached portion of The Serpent.

Some Books: Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’


Curious

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was published in 2005. Haddon had written it as a children’s book, but it was published and marketed simultaneously to both children and adult’s markets. The book was a phenomenon, winning nearly every Award for which it qualified, selling massively, acclaimed on all sides.
At the time, I was married. My mother-in-law, with whom I got on very well, lived on Mallorca, and through her influences we were able to holiday there at very good rates. Whenever we went over, she would ask us to bring some things, mostly certain foods, that she couldn’t get over there. Sometimes these were books. One of them was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I took the opportunity to read before we travelled. I’m not usually very big on books that are a public phenomenon, but this time I thought that everyone got it right.
But that was then. Before Xmas, the book caught my eye on eBay, and I bought it for myself. Does it stand up to the passage of time? Does a tree stand up, straight, tall and proud? Oh yes, it stands up. It is still nothing less than breath-takingly good.
Technically, the story is a murder mystery, but the victim is a dog, staked with a garden fork, and the ‘murderer’ confesses his guilt halfway through the book, but that’s not the point. The point is the voice, the voice of Christopher Boone, a fifteen year old boy with a talent for advanced mathematics, but also with, let’s call it, ‘behavioural difficulties’.
That’s how Haddon preferred to describe it. Most people rushed to the words Autism, and Asberger’s Syndrome, and as someone with a niece who is severely autistic, and a nephew who is mildly Asberger’s that’s where I went, and still go now, frankly. But Haddon wanted to avoid such simplistic tags, so as not to limit Christopher’s thinking, or our response to being inside a head so different from the ones we usually occupy, to one point.
The story itself can be summarised fairly easily. Chris has lived for the last two years with his Dad, Ed, a boiler engineer, in Swindon. His mother died of a heart attack two years ago. When Christopher discovers the dead dog on Mrs Shears’ lawn, opposite, he decides to detect who has done it, and write a book about it. He causes disruption doing so, because of his inability to understand human emotions. Ed orders him to stop, confiscates his book. Searching for it, Chris discovers letter from his mother, weekly ones, from London. Ed admits that she’s not dead, that she went off with Mr Shears opposite and he didn’t tell Chris the truth. He admits killing the dog. This places Chris into great fear of Ed. He decides to go and live with his mother in Willesden. Despite being completely unequipped to do so, on every level, and with the Police looking for him to return him to his father, he gets there. His arrival causes massive upheavals for everyone, but Chris ends up taking his Maths A-level and getting an A-grade. He is confident about his future, because he got to London so he knows he can do anything.
Every little bit of this we see through Chris’s eyes. We see far more than he does, of the world about him: it is as if Chris is looking through a pinhole, seeing only the actions, but we see the meanings and the implications. And it all feels so natural. Without once ever feeling forced or artificial, Haddon places us very quietly inside Chris’s head, leaving us our understandings but restricting us to only what he sees and feels. The things he does, and how impossible it is to deal with him from our seemingly wider perspective, are alien: we don’t understand why Chris acts that way but we do see them as being him within.
From the very start there’s a strangeness to the book. We sink into its atmosphere as if it is a bubble, and see through the curvature of its surface. It’s all slightly unreal, because we don’t think that way, and we keep trying, ineffectually, to force things into our own perspective which, from within here, has ironically become the limited viewpoint.
In short, this is an astonishing book, and an astonishingly good one. I can’t think why I didn’t just buy a copy for myself after we got back from Mallorca that time, and have kept it since, but I will be keeping hold of this book from now.
Incidentally, when reading the book the first time, I didn’t realise until afterwards that I had already been familiar with Haddon’s work. For about a year, in the mid-Nineties, he wrote and drew the weekly satirical cartoon strip, Men – A User’s Guide, for the Guardian’s Women’s Page, copies of several of which I cut out or photocopied, and which I have re-located for the first time in a decade or more – the strip demands to be reprinted, if only for me. Haddon’s ideas then were more directly caustic but also sharply pointed. The two really can’t be compared: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is much more restrained.
But it truly is a work of genius and I am so glad to re-discover it.