Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: Kothar, Barbarian Swordsman

As stated on Friday, I've begun re-reading the Kothar series of fantasy novels by prolific comics and fantasy/sci-fi author Gardner F. Fox. I read a few pages Thursday night, about a third of the book Friday, another eighty pages or so yesterday, and I finished the book Sunday morning. At 153 pages of not terribly tightly-set text (say that five times fast...), someone with decent reading speed could easily get through the whole book in a lazy afternoon.

Kothar, Barbarian Swordsman is actually three short stories; The Sword of the Sorcerer, The Treasure in the Labyrinth, and The Woman in the Witch-Wood. Any of the three could easily be read in an hour or so, with Sword of the Sorcerer being the longest at 68 pages.

The Sword of the Sorcerer is Kothar's "origin" story. Fleeing a disasterous battle between the forces of Queen Elfa's Guards (led by Kothar as their Captain) and the army of King Markoth. Kothar is the only man on his side to flee the battle, and as he seeks to hide from his pursuers, he finds himself (or is somehow guided?) to the tomb of the ancient wizard Afgorkon, dead now some fifty thousand years. Afgorkon has arisen from his undead slumber to give Kothar his ancient sword Frostfire, a magic-forged blade that surpasses any sword in Kothar's day. Afgorkon gives the sword to Kothar so he may defeat Markoth and his sorceress, the wicked Red Lori, because Afgorkon was awoken to aid Queen Elfa, herself a sorceress of some power. Before handing off his blade, however, Afgorkon warns Kothar that the sword carries with it a curse; as long as he carries Frostfire, wealth will slip through his fingers no matter how hard he tries to hold onto it. Enthralled by the magnificence of the blade, Kothar takes the sword and risks living the life of a perpetual pauper as he goes forth to give battle to Elfa's enemies.

What follows is a pretty entertaining quest. After meeting up with Elfa in exile, she gives Kothar a warhorse and sends him out to save her court wizard, the only ally she has with the power to defeat Red Lori (Afgorkon is willing to dole out his broadsword, but apparently he's not willing to fling a few spells - go figure). Elfa's wizard, the sorcerer Kazazael, has been flayed alive by Markoth's torturers and kept alive and hung suspended in the air by Red Lori's magic. Kothar must fetch a magical cloak from the lair of the Sea Beast Iormungar, in order to save Kazazael and begin turning the tide against the power of Markoth and Red Lori.

I won't give away any more of the first story. Suffice to say, it's a fun little quest romp, Kothar travelling from challenge to challenge, becoming increasingly more annoyed that he's the plaything of wizards and warlocks, and constantly trying to score with the ladies. That's right, Kothar's a bit of a hound, but in true PG-13 fashion, all he ever manages to catch (at least that we see) is a kiss and a cuddle here and there before fate flings him into battle with some abyss-spawned hellbeast. Kothar's also a bit of a Foodie; he's always carrying on about jacks of cold Midlands Ale or a flagon of chilled Thosian red wine, savory cuts of meats and barley bread and hunks of sharp cheeses, bowls of seafood stew or fire-roasted rabbit. I actually start to get hungry reading these passages.

Anyhow, I digress. The second story in the book, The Treasure in the Labyrinth, involves a merchant buying penniless Kothar a feast and talking the poor fellow into diving headlong into the labyrinth of some powerful local, who keeps his supposedly jaw-dropping treasure in the center of this magical flytrap that's killed or otherwise dealt with every thief or adventurer who's ever gone into it. Kothar, happily fed and fueled by ale and wine and given a handful of silver just to hear the merchant's pitch, declares that he's afraid of no man or clever trap, and agrees to dive headlong into the labyrinth in search of this treasure.

A good GM could mine this story as the basis for a pretty neat dungeon. It's got a number of fiendish guards and magical traps, and Kothar battles or toughs it out through them all to get to the prize at the center of the labyrinth. However, Kothar is shocked to discover that treasure comes in many forms, and means more to some than to others (how clever!). Ah, go figure. Remember Frostfire's curse? Mhmmm, I thought so...

The third, and shortest, story in the book is The Woman in the Witch-Wood. Kothar, riding to find employ with the robber-barons of the nearby territories, comes across the campfire of a mysterious and beautiful woman, the lady Alaine, who feeds him (step one) and tells him that she once was the ruler of this land, but a powerful curse laid on her by the current ruler, the Baron Gorfroi, has banished and sequestered her in this dark and forbidding wood. She would be eternally and ever-so-grateful (wink wink, step two) if Kothar could break into Gorfroi's tower and steal back the single strand of her silver hair upon which Gorfroi has placed his enchantment, so she can free herself and "thank" Kothar properly. But she cautions Kothar that it is a VERY perilous undertaking, and if he finds it too dangerous, she will not hold it against him if he decides to forego the quest and ride on (step three...). Kothar, "afraid of no man" etc. etc., takes on the quest, and rides out to do battle with Gorfroi and his host of undead and demonic minions and allies. But is the mysterious Alaine all that she seems, or does she have another agenda? I'm sure the answer will shock (SHOCK!) you...

All in all, a pretty damn fun read. Although a lot of those cheesy 80's sword & sorcery movies are supposed to be "Conan-inspired", or that's what a lot of people feel (and they are probably right), Kothar is a much closer in spirit than anything Howard wrote. It's light, it's fun, it's filled with action and hot babes and magic and monsters and gold and jewels and drinking and feasting. As I mentioned in the previous post, much like Lin Carter, Gardner Fox obviously had a great deal of love for the genre he was writing in, and while he was no literary great, what he might have lacked in originality and prosaic skill, he makes up for with his infectious enthusiasm.

Now, to read the next book in the series. This is a little bit difficult, as not all the Kothar books I have are published by the same printing house, and the sources I find online differ as to the order in which the books are supposed to follow each other. For the purposes of these reviews, I'm going to follow the order laid out by the Fantastic Fiction Website. This means that Kothar and the Magic Sword is next in line. Time to start guzzling ale, fondling wenches, and slaying demons!

1 comment:

Martina said...

Thanks for this review.I like to read the fantasy novel.I read it sometimes before.I like it for its bond between three stories.I think writer has done great job.