3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

Not too long ago I expressed my ambivalence regarding Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever stories. The guy is a heel, and as such he’s not always fun to follow for me. Still, the tales are demonstrative of Vance’s cleverness, if not always that of their titular protagonist.

I already suggested this, but it’s worth expanding upon: for those DMs and GMs and writers out there, much can be gleaned!

There are indeed ransomware-inspiring ratmen to be found in Vance’s Dying Earth, as well as an enchanted, slumbering giant ever-ready to destroy the town at its feet should the villagers slacken their vigilance. Those are but two examples. Here are three more you might want to filch for your game or else draw inspiration from in some form or other:

1. Gems are boring

Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, zzzzzzzzzzz. It’s fun to loot precious stones from baddies, that’s true. But when your players are just picking’em up and basically auto-selling them in the first city they come to, eventually the jewels cease to sparkle.

Why not spice things up, then? At one point, Cugel briefly joins the employ of a small company that sends divers into a slime pit to retrieve the scales of a godly denizen of the Overworld. These scales, depending on the body region they originated from and their condition, are worth hefty sums to a wizard who is buying them up as artifacts. You may not need the weird slime-diving or vague origin story of said scales. They don’t even need to be scales (though they can be fun as they may be shiny and colorful and can vary greatly in value) – you may use ivory or monster bones, rare crafting materials like ironwood or mithril (which is overdone but people recognize what it is), or some other artifacts or uncommon goods.

 

2. Do the Worm

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Another job Cugel takes up at one point is that of “worminger” for a vessel upon which he wishes to procure passage. What is a worminger? Well, this ship is carried forth by great sea worms. They must be carefully tended to and managed by wormingers, who clean them, feed them, bait them, and steer them among other things. Maybe the winds have died in your campaign world, or maybe you just want a cool boat that’s towed by worms or some other giant aquatic creatures.

 

3. Geas some palms

One popular way to coerce players or NPCs into undertaking quests or tasks they normally wouldn’t is by means of a geas. This is basically a high level charm spell that forces the target to do or not do something.

But how about spicing that up a little bit and building a little character or adding some roleplaying options (besides a boring wisdom saving throw) into the equation?

In Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel is burdened with an alien parasite named Firx. Basically, Firx’s job is to make sure Cugel does the job he was sent out to do. There are times when the creature suspects Cugel is shirking his assignment or dawdling. When this happens, the little beast flexes its barbs, which are wrapped around Cugel’s guts. At these times, the protagonist either has to give in to Firx’s wishes in order to stop the pain, or else convince it that he’s pursuing the best (or only) course of action available.

And so I’ve come to find this – that even if you don’t like Cugel and don’t particularly find his stories fun, there’s still a lot to draw from them and a lot of good ideas and quality storytelling to appreciate.

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-Bushi

bushi

3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

PC Koshinbun – Anime, Appendix N, and Strong Women

Cirsova reviews Cute Knight

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Cute Knight, for PC, looks to be a quirky anime-style RPG with a number of tried and proven mechanics (e.g. dating sim style stat and money balancing activities). Alex shares his thoughts after three play-throughs, and though this particular one won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it does sound worth a look.

Getting to know the Man(ly)

In what looks to be a multi-part series, Oghma tells of how he became acquainted with the works of  Manly Wade Wellman – a great blend of personal anecdote and appreciation for another great writer we’d do well to check out. “Silver John” – what a cool-sounding character!

Sizzling hot princess, beef

In honor of Women’s Day, Jon M. decided to highlight one of SFF’s most underappreciated (and hottest) strong women – Dejah Thoris. *Trigger warning: this post contains a delicious steak sandwich recipe. You may not want to read if you’re hungry and have no steak on hand.

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Get a’writing (via Seagull Rising)!

Indie publishing seems to have really taken off, especially among the Pulp Revolution crowd. But outlets like Cirsova can only fit so much. What’s an aspiring short fiction writer to do? Well, there are other outlets out there. Jon shared one recently – StoryHack Action & Adventure is currently accepting submissions, and it’s worth checking out if you’ve got something you can send in by April 1st!

(Japanese) picture of a good “strong female” character

Over at SupervisiveSF, Anthony looks at Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky and concludes that Sheeta is a much more attractive and effective strong female character than many in contemporary storytelling. As he points out, a well-done woman character can be brave, competent, and feminine. Humility is an attractive virtue, not a weakness, and a good woman should be complementary to a man, not overtly usurp his role or compete with him. Double thumbs up for the Rey-bashing.

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Comparing Heinlein

I must confess I haven’t read either of these books, but HP does a commendable job looking at two Young Adult SF stories – one very recent, and one over half a century old. The bottom line seems to be that while there are many imitators, it’s hard to match Heinlein at his best. Lest you think that’s all there is to HP’s review, though:

“Have Space Suit—Will Travel and Martians Abroad couldn’t be more different.  The former is emphatically blue SF and the latter is emphatically pink SF.  They aren’t even in the same sub-genre.”

Princess Monomoke – BEST MOVIE EVER

I must confess I was a little skeptical at first; I’m a fan of Princess Mononoke, but it might not even be in my top 10 animated film picks. Still, Malcolm makes a great argument for the depth and supervisiveness that many viewers may miss. Game of Thrones grayness but hopeful instead of nihilistic? That’s actually some pretty potent stuff.

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Some…different…monsters

There’s a great post over at Tribality with twenty ghosts and spirits from various cultures that don’t get much play (literally). Some time ago Jeffro noted an observation by game designer James Raggi:  “Because monsters should be unnatural and hopefully a little terrifying, using stock examples goes against the purpose of using monsters to begin with.”

So why not spice up your game with some more obscure or unique demons and specters? Of course we’re most likely all familiar with the banshee, but personally I had never heard of most of these.

Potentially great inspiration for writers, too!

Getting fired up by Anderson

Poul Anderson is another awesome old SFF writer that I had never heard of before diving into the pulp scene. It’s great to see him getting some play! Jon Del Arroz recently read Fire Time, and shares his impressions.

Castalia House sweeps the scene

It’s hard to cover everything, so I don’t even try! Be sure to check out Jeffro’s latest sensor sweep over at the Castalia House blog for some more noteworthy articles. There may be one or two overlaps, so feel free to read those particular posts twice!

The Kaiju

Also if you’ve been following Kaiju’s sword and sorcery tale, be sure to check out his latest installment. Plenty of action and gore in this one!

-Bushi

bushi

PC Koshinbun – Anime, Appendix N, and Strong Women

The Overworld and the Undertale

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As I make my way through the Dying Earth stories, Jack Vance remains one of my newly discovered favorite authors. And yet, I didn’t enjoy Eyes of the Overworld overmuch, and I find Cugel’s Saga thus far to be the same. Still, there are multiple layers to this.

First off, why am I not a big fan of Vance’s Cugel stories? Jesse (in a separate conversation) puts it nicely:

Cugel is a dick. And not one of those guys who’s a dick but then actually has a heart of gold, a ‘la Han Solo. For example, in one incident, Cugel is interacting with some clam-men (yes, they’re dudes who live in clams). They play a trick on Cugel by “gifting” a shirt made of water, which holds together initially, and then…falls apart and drenches him. He retaliates by killing one of the clam guys, who places a curse upon Cugel with his dying breath.

Cugel also abandons smoking hot babes to servitude and death, and murders (or arranges accidents) for various wayfarers he encounters when he can profit by doing so. And he is remorseless for all of these misdeeds.

Now admittedly there is some good fun in some of this. It’s satisfying to see Cugel outsmart even bigger heels than himself. But it does get tiresome to follow the adventures of a d-bag. He often gets some form of comeuppance, but I’d be happy to see him finally bite the dust. Vance’s first Dying Earth book contained several interesting and heroic (or at least sympathetic) characters. I’d have preferred to read more about them. Cugel is all well and good for a few tales, but two novels all about him just feels excessive.

Why do I keep trudging through, then? Well, why did I make myself read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series? Maybe I’m an idiot.

Actually, there’s still a lot to appreciate in the Cugel books, even without really liking the protagonist. Vance’s writing style and technique remain masterful throughout, and I love reading through his descriptions and dialogues. I haven’t learned so many new words in ages! Furthermore, the Dying Earth itself remains a fascinating setting, full of wondrous and memorable characters, artifacts, and situations.

For any DMs out there, these books are just overflowing with ideas ripe for the plucking. How about Magnatz, for example? A small town sits beside a mountain range and a lake. Long ago, a wizard cast an enchantment to protect the town from the terrible giant Magnatz : so long as a Watchman is posted to look out for the return of monster, the town will be safe. The townspeople don’t realize, but Magnatz is actually asleep at the bottom of the lake. You can probably guess what happens after Cugel (thinking he is being Clever) accepts the role of Watchman.

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This is just one interesting situation of many. And so I’ll keep reading. But I’m looking forward to being done with Cugel.

In other news, I was able to breeze through Undertale pretty quickly the past ~week. In case you aren’t familiar with this one:

The creator is a big Earthbound fan, and it shows. The music, graphics, and tone of the game are largely reminiscent of the SNES SMAAAASH-hit. It may not look it, but Undertale is able to adeptly hit alternatingly silly, serious, and creepy notes and that really makes nailing it down a challenge. On the surface I suppose I’d call it an RPG, but many of the traditional RPG elements are stripped away or turned on their heads. I don’t want to give away too much here, as I think the discovery involved in this one is a big part of the fun, but I got through it without gaining any EXP or LVLs. Also there are a lot of dogs, if you’re into that.

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The bottom line is that Steam and the opening up of the indie game market has been a tremendous boon for gamers. If you’ve got any interest, I highly recommend Undertale.

-Bushi

bushi

 

The Overworld and the Undertale

PC Koshinbun: Castalia House and the PulpRev scene are bustling!

Jeffro’s been doing Sensor Sweeps for a while now, and I highly recommend checking them out from time to time for some good highlights of what’s been going on with the pulp/classic SFF crowd and some tabletop gaming commentary.

Back at my old blog, I used to do periodic roundups or features of interesting Japan-related content in that corner of the web. One of the things I really like about this neck of the woods is how much support there is for budding bloggers and other aspirants who want to get their thoughts out there and contribute to the scene. When I was starting out, I remember how exciting it was to get a plug from Jeffro or Cirsova (not that it’s not still exciting). Or getting a retweet from Daddy Warpig (11k followers and he noticed me…!).

Now that we’ve built a small but awesome audience, I hope to contribute in bringing light and eyes to some of the more excellent content I’ve been discovering. Unfortunately I can’t cover everything and everyone, but I’ll try to make sure these aren’t too infrequent. Also I beg your indulgence if I shamelessly highlight some of our own content, too.

Before I get to the meat – what’s a koshinbun? Well, shinbun (新聞) is the Japanese word for “newspaper.” During the early to mid Meiji period (mid-late 1800’s), there were two major types of papers in J-Land: the oshinbun (大新聞), which were the big, usually political publications, and the koshinbun (小新聞), which were more focused on “pop” topics, like local news or fiction.

Anyway, here we go:

Castalia House blog is booming!

Jeffro brought several new writers onboard this year to bolster an already strong stable of columnists. Daddy Warpig (Jasyn Jones) and Morgan have been stirring the pot with Jeffro in some sharp criticisms of Campbellian SFF. Worth reading, even if you disagree. For my part, here are the three pieces I’ve contributed so far:

Mount and Blade and the spirit of roleplaying
Man’s Best (SFF) Friend
Solomon Kane: The Original Dark Knight

 

Geek Gab is GREAT

Before straying too far from Daddy Warpig, I have to mention this podcast. I’d seen links to it before, but I don’t listen to much talk stuff on the computer. The other day it occurred to me that I could look for it on iTunes, as I do a lot of listening during my daily commutes. Hey – there it was! I’ve listened to two episodes so far and really enjoyed them both. It’s basically a bunch of intelligent, enthusiastic, nerdy guys sitting around talking about nerdy stuff. It’s a lot of fun! Daddy Warpig, along with Brian Niemeier and John McGlynn and their guests, are definitely worth a listen if you’re into SFF (and not just literary).

 

Here be dragons

I’ve been following Oghma on Twitter for a while now, and his blog has gotten off to a roaring start. His stuff has been very thoughtful and thought-provoking. He’s shared some very candid life tales as well as some lighter nerd fare. To start, I’d draw your attention to:

In RPG’s do we even need races? – what do Hobbits bring to the table?
Props in Narrative Gaming – some great music and how-to’s on making a super cool scroll and other props that may liven up your pen and paper sessions.

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Edgar Rice Burroughs on fiction

Over at the Pulp Archivist, Nathan reminds us of some wise words from Edgar Rice Burroughs – that “entertainment is fiction’s purpose.” We would all do well to remember this!

 

The Mixed GM schools his players 

I’ve written before about how there’s merit to newer editions of D&D, which afford players more room to be awesome (or overpowered, as the case may be) and is less punishing when it comes to player character death. Many old hands resent this approach to dungeon crawling, but it is what it is. Just because I’ve advocated for the more recent style of play doesn’t mean I’m in favor of coddling players when they play stupidly. The Mixed GM illustrates a good example here of where and how to draw the line.

 

HiLo Brow’s top adventure stories of 1907

Very specific! This one caught my eye because I’m an Oz fan, and Joshua’s number 2 pick is Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz. Baum was actually mentioned on Geek Gab recently as one of the more underrated fantasy authors of his time. Other names you may recognize on the list – H Rider Haggard and William Hope Hodgson.

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Legends never die

In what’s shaping up to be a series of posts, Kestutis Kalvaitis has been writing about Timothy Zahn and his Thrawn trilogy – arguably some of the best work of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. He also mentions some of Zahn’s other scifi work in passing. I never did explore anything he did outside of Star Wars, but sounds worth a look.

 

Defending the screwdriver guys

Keith West expounds on how many of us enjoy both the pulps and Campbellian SFF, and lands on the fact that there’s room for both subgenres. I’ve argued this point myself, recently, and I think Keith’s voice strengthens my own view of the matter.

 

Howard out-Lovecrafted Lovecraft!

Alexandru Constantin puts forward a somewhat provocative idea –

“I think Howard writes Lovecraftian fiction better than Lovecraft. I like the idea of Lovecraftian more than I actually like Lovecraft’s writing. I find all his crap boring as all shit, filled with idiotic purple prose.”

He goes on to talk about how Howard manages to get that sense of weird and horror, but employs exciting, competent protagonists who take it to the unspeakable evil. Alexandru also brings up Howard’s pioneering of the “weird western” subgenre!

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Some homegrown SFF for ya

Our own Kaiju and Gitabushi have been working on some sweet stories, both as of yet untitled. Feel free to check’em out:

Kaiju’s sword and sorcery-type: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Gitabushi’s zombie outbreak: – Part 1, Part 2

 

-Bushi

bushi

 

PC Koshinbun: Castalia House and the PulpRev scene are bustling!

Into the Dying Earth

It’s been a long time coming – I’ve finally gotten underway on Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth.

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Having sampled the first entry of his Demon Princes series and the standalone the Gray Prince, and noting that he’s perhaps best known for Dying Earth…well, I’ve wanted to read it for quite a while, and it’s been perched near atop of my queue for some time now. But I kept veering off to read something less widely-reviewed or topical of conversations being had within the online SFF community. No further delay can be abided!

Tales of the Dying Earth is a collection of Vance’s four Dying Earth books – The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rialto the Magnificent. The contained stories take place on an ancient, decaying Earth far in the future. Although related to and maybe overlapping with the “post-apocalyptic” tag, these tales properly fall into a subgenre named after Vance’s creation – “dying earth.”

Vance’s Dying Earth draws heavy inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith’s contribution to the genre in the Zothique cycle. I haven’t read any of his stuff yet, but soon enough.

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What I have read of CAH’s work suggests that he’s another one of the greats that’s fallen into unjust obscurity. Together with Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was a contributor to the Cthulu Mythos and one of the “big three” of Weird Tales magazine. If cosmic horror is your jam, he’s required reading.

I believe Kaiju is going though some of Smith’s material now. For my part, I’m hoping soon to dig into Zothique – the tales of an earth on its last legs. Technology has been lost, the sun has dimmed and reddened, and horrors roam the world. Sounds fun.

So far this is also the flavor of Vance’s Dying Earth. Ghosts and demons abound, and men scrape for wealth and power. Technology is lost and magic, while common, is on the decline. As for horrors, well.

Chun the Unavoidable is a scary guy.

The Dying Earth and Zothique make me think of Final Fantasy VI. Though the SNES classic initially presents more of a post-apocalyptic world than a dying one, there are many similarities.

FFVI’s protagonists encounter all manner of terrible and demonic creatures; abominations; cultists; crazed sorcerers and evil horrors. So too is the world littered with bits of forgotten and ruined technology and proofs of lost magic and powerful artifacts. Espers take the place of gods and demons, though ultimately in a sadder, more servile role.

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Image Source

 

After the collapse of the floating continent and Kefka’s rise to small “g” godhood, the world is changed. The seas become blighted and the land wastes and new terrors are unleashed upon the earth. Strange cults arise. A horrible demon even roams the skies.

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The reach of the dying earth subgenre extends far and is observable in all manner of succeeding media.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Jack Vance and the Dying Earth are cool. Clark Ashton Smith is cool. Final Fantasy VI is cool. And you, friends – you are cool.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Into the Dying Earth

Solomon’s key

 

A fun little NES game, to be sure. But I only mention it because it sprung to mind when thinking about the real topic at hand.

A holy man may or may not have once said “[T]he [K]ane is the remedy for every passion.” In other words, Solomon Kane is a kickass character whose stories can cure what ails you, if what ails you is a lack of sweet fantasy stories.

Last week my first post for the Castalia House blog went up. Jeffro had asked me if I’d be interested in joining the recently exploded cadre of talented writers over there by contributing a biweekly post on my SFF meanderings. I’ve long held to the proscribed wisdom of surrounding yourself with people smarter than you are, so I gladly signed on.

Largely at Kaiju’s prompting, I’ve circled back to Robert E Howard of late. As if I don’t have enough unread authors to get to! But the gift of  the Savage Tales of Solomon Kane was on point, as is usual from my friend. I’m nearing the end of the volume now, and savoring each story about our grim hero.

One thing that’s become clear to me is the error of Tor’s 2008 piece on Kane. While it’s true that the crusader is tortured and cursed, describing him as a “functioning madman” just doesn’t do the character justice. It’s true that what we see of Kane’s attitude towards evil does seem to change over time. In the jungles of Africa, Kane picks up a powerful ally – the sorcerer N’Longa.

This “blood brother” gifts him a mysterious staff, which has the power to vanquish evils that cannot be harmed by steel or other mundane weapons. For a time Kane is conflicted on both N’Longa and the stave.

Of N’Longa, Solomon at first thinks that he is conspiring with a Satanic wizard, but is resigned to do so in order to fight a darker evil. After a time and the ju ju man’s assistance in slaying a horde of vampires, however, Kane reassesses:

Kane listened unspeaking, seeing for the first time in N'Longa's
glittering eyes something stronger and deeper than the avid gleam of
the worker in black magic. To Kane it seemed almost as if he looked
into the far-seeing and mystic eyes of a prophet of old. - "The Hills of the Dead"

It seems that there is more to the old magic man. Perhaps something divine or divinely guided.

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Similarly, Kane has misgivings about the staff, but determines once again that it may take evil to defeat evil. It ultimately turns out that the wood is the very same wielded by Moses and Solomon in the Bible. Kane’s faith and determination is vindicated once again.

Though I originally compared our dark avenger to Batman, Tor’s evocation of the Punisher also seems apt. Or Judge Dredd, perhaps? Yes, Kane sees a divine purpose in his “just murder.” But the tales seem to indicate a sort of providence both guiding and vindicating this belief.

The fact that he clearly wrestles with these issues, though, and that he acknowledges that someday he may be punished by God for his deeds, indicates that he is both sane and morally driven. He doesn’t know for a fact that what he does is right, but that’s what faith is about – living out your beliefs without ever being presented with ironclad proof.

Were he mad, he would likely not suffer doubt or regret, nor would he grapple with weighty decisions. It’s true that Kane is resolute; a man of action. But he is also introspective.

No, Kane is not a madman. His sanity has not slipped away. Rather, he’s seen some shit. Horrors of both fantastic and human nature. Call it PTSD; call it age and countless unwanted, haunting memories. But Conan and Kull could take it, and Solomon Kane is no less a mensch than they. These are Howardian men; men of valor and blood. This strikes me as key to understanding our dark knight.

 

-Bushi

bushi

 

Solomon’s key

De Camp’s Tritonian Ringer

 

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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

Imhotep

King Zoser

The continent of Poseidonis

The kingdom of Lorsk

King Ximenon

Okma, the Poseidonian god of wisdom

Pusad, an alternate name for Poseidonis

King Zhabutir of Lorsk

Prince Kuros of Lorsk

Prince Vakar of Lorsk

The Coranians

Tandyla, another god of Poseidonis

Lyr, another god of Poseidonis

The city Sederado

The nation of Ogugia

The Hesperides

Queen Porfia

Minister Garal

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.

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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.

-Bushi

bushi

 

De Camp’s Tritonian Ringer