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.
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.