Saturday, February 26, 2011

John Jakes Brand of Sword & Sorcery

John Jakes is best known for his historical fiction, prominently his Kent Family Chronicles and his North and South trilogy; however, before he gained fame for his historical fiction, he was best known for his Sword & Sorcery stories.

Born in Chicago IL March 31, 1932, Jakes sold his first stories to pulp magazines. It was his character Brak the Barbarian that first brought him to my attention.

First off, I want to admit that it was not until recently that I read a single John Jakes story. I was ignorant of his contributions. It was through my gaining interest in Lin Carter in 2010 that I Jakes even came across my radar. Prior to reading about him while researching Carter, I passed him off as a historical novelist that held no interest for me. Ironically, he is my father-in-law's favorite author for his North and South Trilogy.

When Lin Carter formed the Swordsmen and Sorcerers Guild of America (S.A.G.A.) in the 1960's, John Jakes was included in the roll-call amongst fantasy greats such as Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Andre Norton, Jack Vance and of course Carter himself. Other then being a loose-knit social club with a drinking agenda, Carter set forth to publish the works of the founding members in the Flashing Swords anthologies. Later on other authors were added to the roll-call, C.J. Cherryh, Katherine Kurtz, Tanith Lee and Roger Zelazny just to name a few.

The premise of S.A.G.A. was a love and respect for the fantasy sub-genre of Sword & Sorcery tales first made popular by Robert E. Howard's Conan, Kull and Dark Agnes stories. Thus S.A.G.A. was a club for like minded authors that shared an enthusiasm for tales of blood, guts, honor, mystery and adventure.

By the 1960's, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was gaining massive popularity. Riding the coat tails of this popularity was a new found love for the Conan yarns of REH. Conan was most likely saved from obscurity by the editorship of L. Sprague de Camp in the Gnome Press hard cover editions of Howard's tales. Later, Lancer publications would join with more affordable paper back editions and Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyberg would join de Camp as co-conspirators. Some fans have never forgiven the three of them for "finishing" many of Howard's unpublished tales and converting non-Conan tales into Conan tales; however, in my opinion, if they had not done these things, perhaps Sword & Sorcery would not have survived Howard's death. At least, not with the popularity which Conan did, eventually spawning popular comics with Marvel and leading to the making of a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Because of the Conan popularity "boom" of the 60's and 70's, it was not uncommon to see many titles featuring a "Clonan" type character and bearing the inscription: in the tradition of Conan. It was these sorts of stories that Jakes set out to write with his Brak the Barbarian tales.

I'm not sure when and to whom Jakes sold his first Brak the Barbarian tale, but according to Lin Carter, Jakes began writing Brak tales in 1963 and sold most of the earliest to the Ziff-Davis magazine Fantastic. The cover to the left is from the 1980 Tower publication of Brak the Barbarian. In its introduction, Jakes states that the title of the first Brak story was "Devils in the Walls" and he also freely admits that it was "...a Howard pastiche". Brak the Barbarian was Jakes first of five collections of Brak stories and first saw print in 1968 with Avon Publishing. It is currently out of print and it took much haunting of used book stores for me to acquire a copy.

I was curious about them for Lin Carter stated his admiration of them more then once. I respect and follow Carter's recommendations; after all, the man was the editor of the fabulous Ballentine Adult Fantasy series, which I have not yet read a bad volume of.

Brak the Barbarian proved to me that Carter's opinion is not infallible. I did not hate the book, but it was not worth the time it took me to find a copy. Brak is a collection of five stories: "The Unspeakable Shrine", "Flame-Face", "The Courts of the Conjurer" , "Ghosts of Stone" and "The Barge of Souls". The edition pictured above that I read is illustrated by Thomas O. Miller, whose art I am unfamiliar with. The stories are loosely connected in the sense that they are sequential, but they could easily be read separately. I gained the sense that Jakes performed much post-editing in an attempt to join them into a weak serial.

In this book, Brak has recently left his home in the north for the fabled land of Khurisdan based upon a flimsy notion that he is destined to do so. In each of the five stories, our hero - who differs from Conan because he has blond hair kept in a braid, and always wears his lion skin pelt (how did a barbarian from the north come across a lion skin pelt?) - in each story he encounters adventure. In the opening story "The Unspeakable Shrine" he does battle with an ancient evil sorcerer named Septegundis and the sorcerer's evil daughter Ariane; both worship the evil Yob-Haggoth. He defeats them, but it is promised that Septegundis and he shall meet again, perhaps in Khurisdan or before. Four more adventures follow and the fifth ends with Brak continuing his journey to Khurisdan.

I expected Brak to be a Clonan. With that I take no umbrage; however, the lack of originality was banal. These stories are in the vein of Conan with Lovecraft imagery thrown in for spice, but they read like the poorest of pastiche. I am not against Conan pastiche. I used to read lots of them in my younger reading years and every now and then I get a yearning to buy one at a used book store, check my brain at the door and read for pure pleasure. They are perhaps a guilty pleasure for me, but I stopped feeling guilty long ago. In hopes that the Brak stories grow stronger, not weaker, I will probably continue to look for them. At the very least, they read quickly. This one was great "airplane" fodder. I like books I can read in entirety on a two or three hour flight, and this one fit the bill.

A much more enjoyable read by Jakes is Mention My Name in Atlantis, 1972 Daw SF Books. From the back cover blurb:

The continent of Atlantis had troubles enough before Conax the Barbarian washed ashore. The king was on his last legs, his generals were plotting, there were those scary lights in the sky, and Hoptor the Vintner's favorite girl was being put up for auction on the slave block.

Then Conax, the self-styled king of Chimeria - a place nobody ever heard of - turned up at the auction with broadsword, his barbaric manners, and his hair-triggered temper.

John Jakes, author of Brak the Barbarian and many fast-moving novels of past and future, has written an uproarious cliffhanger that even Robert E. Howard would have approved...not to mention his legion of readers.

This book was as entertaining as its blurb led it to sound. It clocks in at 142 pages and reads in its entirety easily on a long afternoon sitting, or again on a two or three hour flight. I actually read this novel prior to Brak, and based upon it, I had higher hopes for Brak. In Atlantis, Jakes sets out to satirize the numerous volumes of Howard pastiche that were being published at the time. Note his dedication:

To the memory of the real Robert E. Howard who has been kept spinning in his grave for the last decade by the new antics of his favorite character's overactive ghost, not to mention his busy and admiring imitators.

Jakes' attempt makes for an enjoyable read. It is obvious from the get go that Jakes is even making fun of himself here. Note his description of Conax the Chimerical:

he was young with eyes of brighter blue...A mane of yellow hair reached well below his shoulders.

"Yellow hair", just like Jakes' own creation Brak. I liked Conax, perhaps because I am a fan of Conan pun characters such as Groo the Wanderer; however, it is the main character Hoptor the Vinter that is the real entertainment. Hoptor is a weasel always one step ahead of the law and his creditors. He makes his living by brokering deals, in fact his name is his livelihood. he often gets himself out of a sticky situation by convincing others that he can get them a great deal if they visit X merchant and "mention my name" (hence the title).

Based upon the enjoyability factor of Mention my Name in Atlantis, while I may or may not be done with Brak tales, I am not done with John Jakes.

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