Sword and (yawn) Sorcery? Don’t get me wrong, I love the whole S&S package: Elves, Unicorns, Dragons, Warlocks and steel-shod young swordswomen of the Celtic Twilight or Nordic Dammerung–I love the whole package as much as anyone. I devour that mainstream Warrior-and-Wizard stuff like jellybeans.
At five hundred, six hundred pages a volume, I gobble them up by the tril- and tetra-logy!
But there’s so much of this front-shelf, mainstream kind of S & S!
The sheer abundance of it is sometimes wearying to contemplate. At these times a mere glimpse of cover art with a gnome or intrepid swordsperson in it is enough set my eyelids a-sagging.
It’s in this mood I remember that there exists a different kind of Sword and Sorcery. This rarer species summons not sleep, but sleep’s opposite; it makes even the reader’s skin restless with tingles and pricklings and delicate shivers. It seems few people write this species of S&S any more.
Or perhaps more precisely, there are never more than a few people writing it at any time. I refer to that kind of Sword and Sorcery which is itself actual sorcery. It can really fly, because its words are wings; its language sings like the crossbow’s quarrel, delivering visions that pierce to the brainstem, and graft new vistas on our imaginations.
It can be midnight black as Macbeth, or moonlit and madcap as a Midsummer Night. It can be a metrical maze of allegorical monsters with a Faery Queen at its center, or a harsh-rhythmed tale of a knight’s winter journey to offer his neck to the axe of a green-bearded demon. Clark Ashton Smith wrote it. Burroughs and Howard proved more than once that they knew what it was. Vance has proved likewise again and again, and Lieber more whimsically. Borges wrote it without the swords, and Stevenson without the sorcerers.
Michael Shea can write it too when he buckles down to it. He did it to the hilt in Nifft the Lean, which garnered one of the best-deserved Howies yet given.
Now comes a second Nift novel–The Mines of Behemoth. The first time I picked it up I marvelled that Shea could write a second anything. His stories and novellas can’t even stay in the same genre for two tales running, and each of his three previous S&S novels was written on a clean slate–new characters, new cosmos, new concept. Not the trilogy type, this Shea–I was sure of it.
And after reading The Mines of Behemoth, I’m still sure. Granted, Nifft and his friend Barnar Hammerhand revisit the Primary subworld, where they went in the Demonsea segment of Nifft the Lean. This is a different part of that subworld, though, and now they’re its plunderers, not its prisoners. In all other aspects, their adventures have nothing to do with the first book. The key point is what is blessedly absent from this second Nifft novel: that comfy tone–faintly flat, faintly droning–that you start to detect in the author’s voice halfway into book two (or early on in book three) of the Dark Elf Trilogy.
All I will say of the plot is that it features our heroes riding into the subworld on the back of a demon-eating giant. Shea’s outrageous inventiveness flows onward from there. For sheer, brute strength of imagination, no one matches him. No one lavishes more invention, more eerie, odd beauties on a tale. Most writers of mainstream S&S would eke a tetralogy out of the visions, the verse (like cut gems!), the terrors and tingles, the ardor and awe he haspacked in the three hundred pages of The Mines of Behemoth.
So What’s this Behemoth?
Let the author describe the beast he has created for the new Nifft the Lean adventure… Down in the subworlds the demon hosts seethe, waging cannibal war without end, all against all, each on each.
Humankind in their sunlit lands owe grateful thanks to those wizards–long dead now–who dungeoned the demon multitudes so deep in earth’s bowels, and imprisoned in stone their sleepless malice, their greed for our pain.
Their mightiest tools of tempered steel are powerless to chip one sandgrain from the ensorcelled stone of their subworlds’sky.
Let the guard-spells fail, however, or falter even one and apocalypse follows! Then would a fiend-swarm burst blizzard-like out of the soil. From plowed fields and prairies, from hilltops and valley floors, tumulting gargoyles like sandstorms, like locustclouds would mantle our cities as thickly as corpseflies cover the sunripened slain that pave battlefields.
Such are the demon hosts. And yet, all their wrath and their strength notwithstanding, there lives nearly neighboring them a race of Beings whose sole and daily food is demon flesh! Beings to whom the subworlds are pastureland, and the demons themselves blades of grass.
This is the race of Behemoths, who nest in the bones of the mountains. Theirs is a nation of giants. Their nests are past numbering, and past numbering too is each nestful of giants, and each countless nestful comes rivering out of one womb, the womb of the Nest’s royal mother, its Queen.
Life, the least life, is purest miracle! How far beyond utterance are the wonders unwombed by our all-mother Earth in her eons of labor!
But greatest among these is surely Behemoth, whose jaws scythe the hell-flor, and harvest its horrors!