Monday, November 2, 2015

The Song of Kwasin (Philip Jose Farmer and Christopher Paul Carey, Meteor House 2015)

We have a very special treat today, readers, in that Mike Croteau of Meteor House was kind enough to send me a digital advance reader copy of this book, the next in the Khokarsa series, for review before the book goes to the printer.  Having finished The Evil in Pemberley House and not having committed to anything else just yet, what else could I do but immediately dive deeply once more into the inland seas of prehistoric Africa?

The Song of Kwasin takes place concurrently with the events of Flight to Opar, following the bellowing man-mountain Kwasin, cousin of Hadon, as he makes his own escape from the dungeons of King Minruth the Mad and decides to return to his home city of Dythbeth, intent on finding out if the oracle there will lift his exile and allow him to return to life as a Khokarsan citizen.  He finds the city besieged by one of Minruth's armies and fights his way to the king of Dythbeth's side, standing proudly in defense of his city.

Once within Dythbeth's walls, Kwasin is given a reserved hero's welcome by those who remember his past misdeeds, and then is hurled headlong into events he is in no way prepared for - being forced to help organize the city's defenses, worry about food shortages, becoming king of Dythbeth once the old king is slain by traitors, becoming a symbol of the resistance against Minruth's blasphemous rule...

For my money (and you better believe that I'm putting my money where my mouth is - next paycheck I'm preordering a copy of this book!) The Song of Kwasin is the best book yet in the Khokarsa series.  If I had a time machine and a few million dollars, I'd go back and pay Farmer to drop everything and produce a Hero With a Thousand Faces that isn't unreadable and doesn't twist myth and legend to suit the author's hypothesis. The entire Khokarsa series echoes with mythic resonance, and nowhere is that more clearly on display than in The Song of Kwasin, rich with allusions to Biblical events and Hellenistic myth-cycles that give a sense of timeless grandeur to the proceedings, as if we're seeing the curtain drawn back and revealing the truth behind stories of Hercules, Samson, the Tower of Babel, and more.  Learning that Farmer had a background in anthropology from the introduction to this volume, the richness of his vanished cultures is explained; just as Tolkien built Middle-Earth from his background as a linguist, so too has Farmer translated his educational background into literary fantasy.

In his appearances in Hadon of Ancient Opar, Kwasin came across as a thundering, muscle-bound clown, a figure to be ridiculed for his inability to control his passions.  Truth be told, he reminded me greatly of a guy I went to college with, who on one hand was an EMT, and on the other was a thundering drunkard with no concept of his own size or strength in relation to other people.  I had thought that knowing this guy gave me a handle on Kwasin.  Farmer and Carey gleefully prove me wrong with this book, however, treating me to a Kwasin with a rich internal life - yes, he's a lover of drink, red meat, battle and women, but he's dealing with a whole host of issues on the inside, not least of which being the conflict between his powerful faith in the goddess Kho and his fury at being ordered around and treated like a meat-head by Kho's priestesses.  Farmer and Carey have turned a character that could have very easily been the Incredible Hulk with an erection into a nuanced and somber character whose great mirths are equaled by his great melancholies.

I purposefully echo Robert E. Howard with that line, because The Song of Kwasin feels as inspired by his works as by Edgar Rice Burroughs and classical lore.  Kwasin's kingship reminds me very much of that of Howard's Kull of Atlantis, who at one point notes that being king is simply being a slave bound by heavier chains.  King Kwasin would undoubtedly agree on that point, and I would not be shocked to learn that this was Farmer's intent.

The battle scenes, likewise, have a raw energy that is rarely equaled by any but Howard, and written with a degree of visceral fervor that the editors of Weird Tales would not have let Howard get away with.  You can practically smell the corpses and feel the splash of hot blood against your face, and the inky, toxic smoke of the Khowot almost rises from the pages.

Where Farmer and Carey showed restraint is even more impressive; there are references early on to a giant serpent captured and penned in the base of the Tower of Kho and Resu, and later in the book Kwasin sees it briefly, as a rustling glimmer of scaled reflection in his torchlight.  He does not engage in an epic, life-or-death struggle with the reptile - but smelling its musky, crocodilian odor as he approaches its lair, and seeing that brief reflection, lends the beast an ominousness unmatched by any other literary dragon I can think of.

The cover by Bob Eggleton is a masterpiece, showcasing the giant Kwasin dwarfed by forces both natural (in the form of the volcano Khowot) and political (the rising ziggurat known as the Tower of Kho and Resu) that he must nevertheless struggle against.  Can I get a tryptich of Bob's Khokarsa cover paintings for my wall? Flight to Opar, this and Hadon, King of Opar all have such beautiful covers, and I've been a fan of Bob's work for over a decade now.  For my money, forget Thomas Kinkaid.  No one understands painting with light the way Bob Eggleton does.  Likewise, Bob did a frontispiece depicting Kwasin with the meteoric Ax of Victory, a companion-piece to the image of Hadon in Flight to Opar.

As with Flight to Opar, The Song of Kwasin is packed with extra material, including maps of the Khokarsan Empire, Farmer's notes on the plants of Khokarsa, their calendar system, and overall series notes, two different outlines for what would eventually become The Song of Kwasin, Christopher Paul Carey's guide to Khokarsa, and previously-unpublished correspondence between Farmer and Frank J. Brueckel and John Harwood, whose essay "Heritage of the Flaming God" set Farmer on the road to creating the Khokarsa series.  While much of this will not be of interest to the layperson, it does provide an invaluable look behind the curtain and showcases just how much thought and care went into the series.

The biggest treat among the bonus material, for me at least, is the novella Kwasin and the Bear God, completed by Carey from notes left behind by Farmer.  The story can either be read on its own or placed between chapters 1 and 2 of The Song of Kwasin, and gives us another glimpse into Kwasin's psyche and a deeper understanding of his motivations and emotional drives, along with a couple rousing good fight scenes and one of the possibly most supernatural sequences in the entire saga.  Personally, I prefer it as a stand-alone piece, rather than inserting it into Song -- I think it breaks the rhythm of Song and provides a long side-quest too early in the novel to really work for my tastes.

All in all, The Song of Kwasin is a triumph, a work of literary achievement that stands above your average fantasy novel or adventure tale, delivering a story that feels, if not true, then at least real.  Khokarsa is alive in the way Middle-Earth and Westeros are not, with a richness and fullness that extends beyond being backdrop to heroic escapades, and the fact that Christopher Paul Carey has been able to expand upon Farmer's original work and extend the legacy of Khokarsa is a treat not to be missed.  I'll be upfront with you, readers, I began reading this book Saturday afternoon, and finished it today, Monday afternoon, staying up extra late on Saturday and Sunday night because I could not bring myself to put this book down.  Meteor House is accepting pre-orders now, with an unlimited paperback edition and a limited-edition hardcover signed by Carey being made available.  As I said, I'll be ordering myself a physical copy as soon as I get paid this week.

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