Sunday, January 6, 2013

With a Twinge of Embarrassment - "Raven - Swordmistress of Chaos" - by Richard Kirk

    There are five Raven books by house author Richard Kirk (at times Angus Wells or Robert Holdstock or both.  Despite starring a heroine plucked from the slave pits and tutored in all styles of killing, I suspect the target audience for these books was a male one.  From the artwork to the really bad "erotic" passages, I don't think anyone was fooled into thinking these belonged side-by-side with Marion Zimmer Bradley or Jessica Amanda Salmonson's female-centric S&S anthologies.
   Let's start with the covers.  The original cover on the 1978 Corgi edition is one of Chris Achilleos' barely dressed Amazons (I don't know whether she was inspired by the original painting or the cover, but Kate Bush got all dressed like the picture for her video for "Babooshka").  The cover by Royo for the 1987 edition is less revealing but cheesier.  It's got a real, and terrible, Sandahl Bergman as Valeria thing going on.  
   Clearly there's a bit of fan servicing going on with both these covers.  It's that damnable Red Sonja and her chainmail bikini influencing every other Amazon's depiction.  Or the fact that, like Red Sonja, the target for these books appears to have been a certain type of male reader.
  "Raven - Swordmistress of Chaos", is first in the series.  As I wrote earlier, Kirk was actually at times Angus Wells or Robert Holdstock and sometimes both.  This one was co-written by the pair of them.  It stands firmly in the trashier wing of seventies swords & sorcery.  From cover to contents, despite having a tough female protagonist, this was clearly written for a male audience.  I'm not saying there mightn't be some feminist barrier breaking going on here but I am saying that if it is it's only a by-product.
   Raven's a young woman who was taken prisoner as a child and later raped by one of her captors.  The novel opens with Raven escaping after several years of imprisonment in the slavepens of the Southern Kingdom.  Only the attack of some mysterious, dark figure streaking out of the night sky that kills the hounds tracking her prevent her immediate recapture.  The next day, while free, she falls into the hands of a slave caravan bound for kingdom of Karshaam.
   Soon she's rescued from that predicament by the mysterious Spellbinder and a bandit gang led by one Argor.  While the bandit leader, Argor, is smitten by the blonde beauty, he's told to leave her alone by the mysterious (and black-clad) Spellbinder.  He makes it clear Raven's fated for great things stands to be a weapon in some great future conflict.  As she's informed later by a magical stone, "(she is) one of this world's pivot points, you rests the destiny of the future".
   After Spellbinder sets Raven to training in all manner of martial skills (the Kassamian sabre, the scimitars of Xandrone, etc.), he leaves the outlaw band on some private mission.  Soon she is being schooled in all sorts of martial arts by She also falls into his bed fairly quickly.  Have I mentioned, there's a fairly high, and often silly, sex-quotient to "Raven - Swordsmistress of Chaos?"  There's titillation aplenty throughout the story.  Fortunately, while much of it's gratuitous, it's never sadistic (the rapes all happen off-camera and serve as revenge motivators), and it all happens with Raven pretty much in control of the situation.
   Following her rescue and training, Raven is taken on a long series of travels and adventures.  After visiting the Temple of the Stone, she and Spellbinder learn they must recover the Skull of Quez.  From there come ocean voyages, duels with pseudo-vikings and magical ones with evil wizards.  Later, during the actual search for the skull (as opposed to simply journeying from one place to another), there's an ambush by and battles with beastmen.  Naked beastmen.  We know that because there's at least two mentions of enormous, swinging genitals.
   Perhaps the book's funniest, or at least dopiest moment, comes when the lustful altana of Kharsaam practically assaults Raven in her bedchamber.  Only if she accepts the altana's attentions will she help rescue an imprisoned and slated for execution Spellbinder.  Drawn by power of the altana's "great green eyes" she submits.  Fortunately, she discovers a love, or at least lust, like she's never felt before, even with Spellbinder.
   And still, I can't bring myself to totally dismiss this book.  Despite the quotes I've used, the writing's not all bad and there's an enjoyable inventiveness to the world and its inhabitants.  Raven isn't anyone's doormat and her ability to defeat stronger and more experienced men is sometimes even believable.  If you decide to take the risk just be ready for poorly done, teenage boy level lubriciousness.
   At some point I will read the rest of these books.  Mostly because Robert Holdstock was the author of "Mythago Wood", one of the best "Matter of Britain" stories.  He collaborated on the next Raven book, "A Time of Ghosts" and did the fourth one, "Lords of the Shadows" solo.  Part of me holds out hope that there's something good to be discovered in between those covers.  A lot of what I'm doing here is trying to uncover those hidden nuggets of S&S greatness I've somehow missed.  Fingers crossed.

11 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I've always liked these books. They are simple, fun, and unlike Red Sonja whose powers are defined by her relationship with men, Raven will fight and screw whoever she wants, whenever she wants and it does nothing to effect her fighting powers.

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  3. Definitely, a good selling point for the books. They're such an interesting mix of the progressive and regressive strands of S&S. I'm hoping to get to more of them in the next few months.

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  4. I'm reading the fourth in the series now.

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  5. Yeah, I've gotta finish them at some point. Interesting as artifacts of the times as well as for the storytelling and character.

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  6. GOT FREE COPIES OF THE SERIES SOMEWHERE?
    BEEN LOOKING FOR 'EM FOR YEARS.

    LAST I READ THEM WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL!!!

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    1. No such luck, pardner. Got mine years ago in long defunct used bookstores.

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  7. I keep reading about how these books are soft-core porn etc etc. By today's standards they would be in the kid's section of the bookshop. I really enjoyed the series and was disappointed that the authors never finished it. I so wanted to read about the final chaotic battle. I mean Gondar Lifebane took Spellbinder's hand off.

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  8. I've still only read the first one and, sure, by today's standards it's pretty tame. I disappointed to learn the series ended unfinished.

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  9. I just started the first one and, although I skipped some of the above post as it appeared to contain spoilers, I did manage to read the comments...and knowing that the series went unfinished is a bit of a pisser. Oh well. I also note you've listed Chuck as what you are currently watching. Well done. I'm in the middle of a re-watch of the series myself, having just knocked off season 3. It's one of those shows that, for me, is a bit like comfort food.

    Love the blog, by the way. It's interesting how often I hit on it when Googling. Well done. Enjoy the reviews at Black Gate as well.

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    1. Thank you for the compliments. I only learned about the non-end myself to an it's indeed a bummer.
      As to Chuck, comfort food's exactly right. I'm rewatching 1-3 before I finally watch the last two without being totally lost.

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