Saturday, October 17, 2015

Flight to Opar (Philip Jose Farmer, Meteor House Restored Edition, 2015)

I gave up on A Voyage to Arcturus.  Tormance fails utterly to hold me as a planetary romance, and even moreso as a philosophical treatise.  As a palate cleanser, I picked up the next book in Farmer's Khokarsa series, and I can't tell you how relieved I am to have done so.  With the next book in the series, The Song of Kwasin, hitting this month, I'm delighted to continue on with the adventures of Hadon, Lalila and the rest of the cast.

Picking up immediately where Hadon of Ancient Opar left off, Flight to Opar opens with Hadon single-handedly holding a mountain pass against a small detachment of the mad King Minruth's guardsmen, buying time for Lalila, Paga, Hinoklys and Queen Awineth to escape.  Regrouping in a Temple of Kho, Hadon learns that Lalila is pregnant with his child.  He also learns that it is prophesied that if her child is born in the Temple of Kho in the city of Opar, then she will have a great and glorious destiny ahead of her.  While Awineth tries to twist the prophecy to separate Hadon (who by rights should be her husband) from Lalila, a friendly priestess lets Hadon know the real deal, and he sets out with her and a few handpicked companions to return to the city of his birth.

Their voyage there is beset by plague, pirates, religious fanatics of several flavors and of course the ticking clock of Lalila's pregnancy - but that's a cakewalk compared to the powder keg Hadon walks into upon entering Opar...

I cannot get enough of Khokarsa.  It is, simply put, the single most deeply thought out and elegantly delivered "fantasy" setting I've ever encountered.  Compared to the Hyborian Age (real world history with not even the whole serial number filed off), Middle Earth (English county squire fantasy, joy), Westeros (England the size of a continent, yay), even fantasy gaming worlds like Greyhawk or Tekumel don't deliver as much so concisely as Farmer does with Khokarsa.  With just a few words here and there, Farmer paints an incredibly vivid picture of a wholly unique culture existing in Ice Age central Africa, with attention paid to such matters as religion, clan affiliation, architecture, even fashion and food and drink (hibiscus coffee, anyone?).

The result is impressionistic; from hundreds of tiny word-brushstrokes, a grander picture emerges that absolutely knocks my socks off.  Khokarsa is rich in a way that nobody else's fantasy worlds are.

As far as the story itself goes, Flight to Opar feels like the Empire Strikes Back of the Khokarsa series; in one sense, it's a bridge-piece, linking the first and third acts without having too much in the way of huge battle sequences or world-changing events to call its own.  But that's fine - because like Empire, it's more of a character study, focused on showing the readers the growth of the characters, especially Hadon.  We've watched him here grow from a youthful athlete who won and lost a kingdom in a single day to a confident leader of men, putting the needs of the many before the needs of the few or the one (my favorite kind of hero, incidentally), and now watching him grow into the responsibility of fatherhood - not only of his own daughter, but his fostering of Abeth, Lalila's daughter by a previous lover and taking her in and caring for her as his own.

Continuing the Star Wars analogy, as a kid I was all about Return of the Jedi, with its crazy alien criminals, speeder bikes and bloodthirsty Ewoks; it took me a long time to appreciate what Empire Strikes Back has to offer.  I'm glad it didn't take me as long to recognize what Flight to Opar brings to the table.

Meteor House has done an amazing job with their reissue of Flight to Opar, restoring over 4,000 words of Farmer's original text excised by the editors at Daw, with a beautiful new cover illustration by one of my favorite painters, Bob Eggleton (along with a snazzy frontispiece depicting Hadon, tenu-sword drawn) and scans of Farmer's original manuscript included in the back.  The book is a joy to behold and heavy with the care that went into bringing it to the world.  If you buy an old DAW copy instead of this version, you're doing yourself a huge disservice.

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