Last month I noted that I’d picked up my first Offutt book on the strength of Cirsova and Jeffro’s recommendations. On review of my previous post, I erred in calling Jeffro’s post a “review” exactly. He calls the novel his favorite of Offutt’s scifi works. Still a solid endorsement, to be added to the Cirsova write-up.
I’m slightly embarrassed that it took me a full month to finish given its slender form and economy of words and plot. I did enjoy it, and I’m satisfied with the purchase and the time spent reading. Still, I think I lean towards agreeing with my Twitter crony Nathan Alexander here.
While I don’t see barbarian protagonist Valeron as a Conan clone per se, both physically and temperamentally he does bear uncanny resemblance. Beyond that fact I do have a few nits to pick with the story and the writing. I don’t mean this as a refutation of Alex or Jeffro; I would still judge this a worthy read and a good addition to an Appendix N or pulp scifi collection. So how about I scatter in some laud with the more negative critiques?
**Heavy spoilers to follow**
I’m not sure when the “post-apocalyptic world thrown back to feudalism” became a popular setting, but when done right it can make for a fascinating universe that leaves open nearly limitless writing directions and plot opportunities. I enjoyed Offutt’s implementation here, and even though I had read Cirsova’s review (and forgotten key parts, apparently), it took me a while to realize that the god Siense was actually “science.” Little things like the bastardization of words we know throw you into the fiction.
The flip side of that for me was that Offutt really didn’t spend much time developing any settings outside of the Imperial castle (and underground secret). This may not bother all readers. Personally I’m not all that big on writers spending numerous pages on extraneous information for worlds that the reader doesn’t need to know about. In the case of My Lord Barbarian, however, we hear about 7 artificial worlds and learn to some degree about their leaders, but little to nothing about the planets themselves. By the end of the story we know that Branarius is a rocky, warlike world with mountains and salt. But what of the others? Much of the story takes place on the capital world, but what kind of a world Carmeis is we know not. Barren? Lush? Super urban? I remember very vague, general description being supplied of how the Ancients placed the planets equidistant from their shared sun. But little else.
Another little “world building” element that alternatingly grated and amused me was the mechanics of the universe’s language (which extended beyond dialogue to narration). Rather than murdering someone, a person “does murder” upon another. Death and rape and slander are “done.” Kinda reminded me of the Japanese language, actually, with all kinds of nouns attached to する to “verbatize” them.
I remember someone comparing My Lord Barbarian to Game of Thrones, but with a streamlined plot. I must disagree there. There is definitely some politics involved, but this is a sword and sorcery (or sword and science) story. If you’re a politico who enjoys turnabouts, secret alliances, betrayals, and plots that you didn’t see coming, this isn’t the story for you.
I’ll admit that the last chapter or so had the wheels in my head turning. Valeron’s decision to give up the Imperial throne and the empress in favor of the sexy fighting slave girl wasn’t surprising. It was perhaps noble and may have been in keeping with his character, but even on that count I’m not 100% sure. So much of the story was spent on his battling and sexing that I didn’t really have a strong feel for what kind of man he was. Several times he debated with himself about his ambition. And hell, there’s nothing wrong with being a king. But I wonder that he would think so highly of himself as a leader and resent the condescension of his peers and yet give up his chance to make himself ruler of them all. He does anticipate that the other kings may not peacefully and willingly bend the knee, but would the great Warlord of Branarius blanch at such a prospect? I don’t know. Perhaps we was just satisfied to accept his gains and rule his own planet, but doesn’t sound like many conquerors I’ve heard of.
Speaking of characterization, I found many of the cast to be thinly fleshed out, which I suppose isn’t surprising given the book’s length. Darcus Cannu, our story’s villain, manages to assassinate the Emperor, yes. We are told many times how crafty and cunning and self-controlled he is. But then when his trap is sprung and Valeron is fighting to escape, Cannu simply stamps and yells. “You idiots, I want him alive!” he cries in typical cartoonish form. Controlled, indeed. Why do you need him alive? If the plan is to frame him for the death of the emperor, it’s extremely plausible that the royal guard would cut him down as soon as the deed were done; not capture him. Why leave his death to chance or let him speak out and cause some doubt as to what really happened? Because despite the great potential of the right-hand man or close advisor turned traitor (See Jafar or Iago – the Shakespeare character, not the bird), the Cannu character was kind of wasted. He made a good “hook” for Valeron’s adventure, but was too easily foiled. And then when captured at the end of the book, instead of zapping his enemies with his ray guy, he merely admits his guilt, monologues about how he was justified, and then then tells everyone he’s about to shoot Valeron, giving Jallad ample time to intercede. For such a clever guy he really doesn’t anticipate much.
That brings me to Jallad, and Valeron’s ultimate decision not to pursue the crown and Aleysha. Jallad really intrigued me, and I think there was a lot of squandered potential here. Towards the later parts of the book, we learn that all of the kings have joined Valeron – except Jallad, the scholar-boy-king, who had traveled to the capital. To borrow Offutt’s style for a moment, nervousness is with Valeron and his peers. What does this mean? Has Jallad joined Cannu? Is he privy to the conspiracy, and where do his loyalties lie?
Even once Cannu is dead and things are wrapping up, Jallad is a mystery. What was he doing at the palace for two weeks? Wooing Aleysha, presumably. But what was his game? Cannu intended to marry her. Was Jallad just hanging out? Was he biding his time and plotting his own conspiracy against Cannu? Granted Valeron isn’t portrayed as being politically savvy, but this should give him pause in his decision not to claim the throne. Jallad’s motives, and what kind of emperor he will be, are suspect.
The other various officers and kings are also somewhat lacking. Aleysha is a girl struggling to become an empress; that much is achieved. Jheru is a buxom slave warrior with sass. Fine. King Vidul is adequately done; at least he and Valeron become friends as kindred spirits. The other rulers…meh.
We’ve got the homely woman king, the priest king, and the leader king, in addition to Vidul, Jallad, and Valeron. Lexton at least seems honorable, if bland. Narran and Eshara? I don’t know, they struck me as kind of dumb plot tools. When Cannu is pleading his case, he asserts that the assassination and attempt to place himself on the throne were done out of a selfless desire to do what’s best for the Empire. To this Narran and Eshara each reply “Ah yes, that makes sense. I believe this guy was just trying to do the right thing.” Then Jallad steps in and points out that motive hardly matters when you commit empericide and then attempt to frame a king. Narran and Eshara are swayed back. “Oh yes, good point.”
For all my criticisms, this was a world I wanted to see more of, and I was disappointed that this was a standalone and not part of a series. I would have liked to read more of the various worlds and their peoples, and to see what would become of the Empire. Would Valeron be called back to serve and fight, or would Jallad prove a capable and worthy emperor? Alas, we shall never know. For all the merits of shorter novels, I wish there were more meat to this one; not because it sucked, but because I was intrigued.