It feels like I was working through this book forever, but I finally finished it. This statement, along with our title here, will probably hint as to my overall impression of the story, so let’s get the rating out of the way first again.
Hiero’s Journey: 2.5/5
Let’s add a qualifier to that, though – if you’re interested in the evolution of SFF or perhaps doing your own read-through of Appendix N, I’d bump it up a half notch to 3/5.
Ok, let’s back up a step before we proceed. Hiero’s Journey, published in 1973, tells the story of a warrior priest in the distant, post-apocalyptic future. It’s a world that’s been ruined by “the Death” and is now peopled by scattered human societies laboring to rebuild civilization; mutant, often monstrous, animals of various shapes and sizes; and Leemutes – deformed humanoid creatures that often appear to be some sick blend of man and animal. Psionics are heavily featured, which is a cool change-up from and stand-in for magic.
Hiero, our hero, is assigned a perilous and important task by the Abbey – the theocratic unified Church that presides over matters both spiritual and scientific in what used to be Canada.
It’s a good setup and Lanier’s got plenty of cool, far-out ideas and critters to play with. Unfortunately the execution just fell flat for me. Despite packing in plenty of action, the pace felt slow. In between battles and chases, the author spends pages describing forest or swamp travel. I couldn’t help thinking that a master like Robert E Howard would never spend so many words repeatedly talking about a moose chewing cud or insects annoying the protagonist and his companions.
Another, perhaps related problem I had was with Lanier’s failure to properly modulate the story’s tension. Literally every enemy Hiero encountered was “evil,” “malignant,” “unnatural,” and something that should not be. When you start off your story fighting Lovecraftian-level antagonists, you’ve set a pretty high bar for yourself. Near the end of the book he encountered a whole ‘nother “faction” (if you can call it that) of evil, but the concept had been diminished by that point since everything else he fought was the worst, too.
It’s also very plain that this story is a product of the 70’s. At first I was psyched that the main character was a warrior priest (a “Killman,” actually), but as things progressed it became clear that whatever Christianity had survived in Lanier’s future world wasn’t a version I identify with.
Before getting to spoilers, in summary I’d say that I really appreciated what Lanier was trying to do, and I think he put out some solid and inspirational ideas. He had trouble pulling off a great story, though.
To expound a little bit, I think Jeffro’s remarks about Luchare are dead-on. She starts off as a promising character. The manner in which Hiero encounters her made me think of Howard, actually, for there’s a Solomon Kane story in which the heroic puritan saves a native girl from flying beast-things, if memory serves. And yes, Howard is now my measuring stick for all SFF. But after saving Luchare and some initial awkward courting, she really serves no purpose to the story. Same with Gimp and his sailers, who are conjured up as a vehicle for some minor threads of plot that could have been reworked. When nameless sailors #5 and #6 are killed, we don’t care. They haven’t been fleshed out at all, except for some half-assed explanation about how they were so impressed by Hiero’s duel that they will now follow him anywhere without regard for life or limb.
We’re told many times that Hiero is a great leader, but he never really doesanything to convince me of it. Events kind of sweep him up. Sometimes he gets people killed but they’re just sailor NPCs so, you know. Lolz. The one time he feels bad about it, the sailors’ captain basically just tells him it’s no biggie.
The nature of Hiero’s vocation is also somewhat of a mystery for those who stop to think about it. He’s a Killman, yes – some combination of ranger and warrior (I think we’re told there’s an “assassin” component in there, but that part was never evident). But what is his function as a priest? He says a few prayers, but he never offers mass or gives blessings. Priestly celibacy is not dogmatic, so it’s easy to see how priests would once again be allowed to marry in a fallen, rebuilding society, but Hiero doesn’t marry. He is perfectly content to bang his girlfriend because, hey, they’re as good as married and he’ll get to it when their quest is done. He’s not even conflicted about it! And then Luchare dupes him into playing stud for the strange queen of the plant women, and of course he doesn’t really get pissed or see anything wrong with that. Not very clerical behavior at all.
Then there’s Brother Aldo and the Eleveners. Ugh. Aldo himself is likable enough, though throughout the whole story there’s kind of an undertone of “is he going to sell out the party and humanity to save Gaia?!” He never does, in this book, anyway. But as Jeffro pointed out, Aldo is too powerful. It’s kind of like if Obi-wan had escaped with the group off the Death Star and continued to go on Luke’s adventures. That would have overshadowed Luke’s growing Force abilities.
But the Eleveners and the Brotherhood. Ugh! Basically we’ve got two secret societies lurking in the shadows, infiltrating humanity’s budding outposts and pulling strings. The Brotherhood represents the evil physicists and hard scientists. They’re just so darn evil that they breed orcs and craft lightning guns and stuff. The Eleveners are some kind of next-level ecologist cult that has chosen to eschew technology in favor of oneness with Nature, and indeed will forsake humanity when necessary for the greater good of “Life.”
Thankfully Lanier doesn’t push and push with his Malthusian narrative, but the explanation about how Earth was thrown into chaos and death because of overpopulation, capitalism, and religious fanaticism, and scientific advancement is…well, stupid. So there was at least one big eye-roller.
Was there anything I did like? Well, I was initially partial to Klootz, Hiero’s intelligent mutant moose. But he was quickly overshadowed by Gorm the bear and was mostly relegated to chewing swamp vegetation.
Hiero’s Journey pretty clearly had an impact on succeeding SFF. I’ve never played Gamma World, but I hear this book played a big part in inspiring that game. I’d also be surprised if there weren’t threads connecting the Fallout series to Lanier’s tale. At the very least I must give multiple props and a single kudo for that.