Last month, HP (over at Every Day Should Be Tuesday) and I agreed to read the same book for Vintage Scifi Month and do our respective write-up things. Well I’ve finished, and I think once again my feelings diverge somewhat from HP’s. It’s ok, though; he’s an attorney, so I’m sure he’s used to friendly disagreement.
So before delving into my impressions, I recommend you go check out HP’s review, which was first published over at Castalia House.
I also invite you to read what Fletcher Vrendenburgh had to say at Black Gate. I think his feelings skew closer to my own, though I probably fall somewhere between him and HP.
If you’re aching for more and can still stomach reading my thoughts afterwards, there’s a great review at Grognardia from a few years ago, too.
Let’s try doing things a little differently this time — I’ll lead with an overall rating and then dig into the spoilery detailed thoughts. Here we go:
3/5 – recommended with some qualifiers
So calling the Tritonian Ring a “ringer” isn’t really fair, I suppose. I don’t think it’s a bad book, and it certainly falls in the SFF category. It’s popularly considered to be a “sword and sorcery” entry, though I’m not quite sure that’s accurate. It’s kind of heroic fantasy, but without the heroic element. If a book could be categorized as “sword and sandal,” Tritonian Ring would fit into that box.
De Camp is a somewhat controversial literary figure for his treatment of Robert E Howard’s Conan property. For my part, I have thus far limited myself to reading only original, name-band REH Conan stories (accept no substitutes), so I can only repeat what others have alleged: namely that while de Camp loved the Conan stories, he also found them lacking and disagreed with the underpinnings of REH’s storytelling.
In the Tritonian Ring, we get de Camp’s version of what a Bronze Age fantasy yarn should be. If you’re looking for a wondrous, weird, action-oriented tale in the vein of the Hyborian Age, well…there’s some of that. But this doesn’t quite hit the mark.
*Beware: There Be Spoilers Here*
Let’s start with my two major complains about the Tritonian Ring, which aren’t unique ones:
1. De Camp was a scholar and and a pedant. This isn’t an entirely bad thing (I’ll come back to this), but it makes for some tedious and confusing world building at times.
2. Despite his association with Fantasy, de Camp was a materialist. As a result, he seemed unable to restrain himself in poking fun of his own fantasy world. We’re left with a setting and characters that are alternatingly brutal and silly.
Unfortunately these issues became apparent immediately. Actually I wasn’t at first sure whether de Camp was making fun of the genre or was just info-dumping (like an academician, not a skilled fiction writer).
On the first two pages, the following are introduced or namedropped:
Drax, the Tritonian war god
Entigta, the Goronian sea god
The continent of Poseidonis
The kingdom of Lorsk
Okma, the Poseidonian god of wisdom
Pusad, an alternate name for Poseidonis
King Zhabutir of Lorsk
Prince Kuros of Lorsk
Prince Vakar of Lorsk
Tandyla, another god of Poseidonis
Lyr, another god of Poseidonis
The city Sederado
The nation of Ogugia
A man named Vancho
Now I’m just a simple man of humble intellect, but I’m a relatively experienced reader. And my head was spinning after reading of all these people and places. Where the hell was the narration going? Which of these names were important? Was I supposed to remember them all for later?
This wasn’t just an early bump in the road, but a recurring trend. Take a look at this page below:
After a while, I started to ignore the names of people and places and languages unless I noticed them repeating (and then I sometimes forgot their initial context). I understand that de Camp was trying to build a full, cogent world here, but it often wasn’t very skillfully executed. A good writer shows us his world through his characters; he doesn’t read us maps and almanac entries. Or if he must, he spaces it out and lets his readers absorb.
Now so far as the story goes, we’ve essentially got a “McGuffin quest”, as HP puts it. A gamer might be more familiar with the term “fetch quest.” Vakar, our royal protagonist, must set out to identify and obtain a mysterious magical item feared by the gods in order to save his nation. Well and good.
De Camp’s Bronze Age setting is interesting when we are shown and not exposited at. Technology and civilization are primitive. Military tactics are all but undeveloped, the chariot seems to be the height of transportation, and iron for all purposes undiscovered. A note on that last part — I never put together that the “star metal” was in fact iron, and so iron is the death of magic and old gods. I’m a little disappointed that I missed this interesting and layered element of the story, but glad to have come across the observation in the Grognardia review linked above.
This is de Camp at his best – the creation and populating of a historically plausible (except for the magic) world in an underutilized prehistoric setting. His scholarly, pedantic nature serves him well in this regard.
Unfortunately, I think de Camp’s strength (in his book anyway) is that world creation, and not the technical execution of his story, nor the development of his characters.
It’s been pointed out, but Vakar is not a particularly heroic hero. He owns a slave, who he beats and berates. Though of course he’s built like a truck (as all of his people are), he’s more of a lover and a scholar than a fighter, and he comes out of his many scrapes mostly through luck. And he doesn’t shrink from dishonorable deeds like sneak-skewering a kid to steal a village’s horses and make his getaway. He does possess some likability, though. He’s no coward. Although he is a spoiled rich kid, over the course of the story he learns to do with less, and he develops empathy for his servant.
Fual, Vakar’s slave, has some moments, but was largely unimportant. Too often his main two roles were – carry around Vakar’s stuff, and give voice to stuff that de Camp wanted to say. I mean this humble servant was supposed to be a simple thief when he was free. Yet he knows some things about poetry (why the hell does he know what “triolets” and “rhythmic alliterative verse” are?) and he seems to know a lot about sailing just from having looked at boats in port before.
De Camp wasn’t a bad writer, but he lacked the flourish and style of the Grandmasters. Robert E Howard’s prose was usually impeccable, and his poetry was effective, too. The likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Vance, and Poul Anderson (I know I’m jumping around a bit) knew not only how to craft together beautiful sequences of words but how to economize. I simply didn’t get that from de Camp.
I also found the unevenness of his story somewhat jarring. There were scenes later in the book that struck me as well-done. The death of Fual was sudden, morbid, and final. Likewise I found the sacrifice of Abeggu to be poignant and indicative of what the Tritonian Ring could have been. I wanted more of this – brave, heroic sacrifice; selfless deeds; fights against injustice. De Camp had painted a dark world with petty gods and evil men (in one town an innkeeper tries to pimp out his daughter to Vakar). All it needed was a proper champion! But alas, we only received glimmers of this much-needed hero.
And interspersed, we got all kinds of lighthearted half-silliness. The plot point with the Amazons was superfluous; a war over the fact that a nation’s men wanted its women to stay in the kitchen and the wives were willing to fight and slay over their womyn’s rights! And the climactic barge scene where Vakar flees the women’s boat, kills the king, and then escapes to the men’s boat and tells them that they were betrayed. This was another of those scenes that I just couldn’t process in my head. Why was the men’s ship so far away that they couldn’t see what had happened? Why couldn’t the women yell to the men that Vakar had killed their king and escaped? Why did the strong, brave warrior women run around the boat screaming and waving their arms like cartoon characters?
I will give de Camp points for being unafraid to be irreverent. I’ll reserve judgement on whether or not it helped the story, but we’ve got plenty of nudity and some good old rape and rape-related japes. By today’s standards, this kind of thing could be highly problematic.
The Tritonian Ring was an interesting and educational look at some older fantasy writing, and for all its faults it wasn’t unentertaining. So far as satisfying, action-oriented, heroic fantasy, this introduction to de Camp’s Pusadian series doesn’t hold a candle to anything of Robert E Howard’s that I’ve read so far. Still, I’m interested in reading Lest Darkness Fall, which is probably de Camp’s most famous work. For the foreseeable future at least, though, I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to read any more of his fantasy stuff.