Epic fantasy. No. EPIC fantasy. Really big. Epic. Fantasy. Look, it’s 1180 pages long. You get the idea…
Urban fantasy with a twist and a tough moral centre.
While I don’t particularly want to get into the brouhaha surrounding this year’s Hugo Awards, I will admit that it’s piqued my interest in a number of authors of whom I had been only dimly aware. Sarah Hoyt is one of them and Draw One In The Dark is the first in a series of novels set in the Colorado town of Goldport.
The central character is Kyrie, a young waitress working in a cheap diner who just happens to have the power to shapeshift into a panther. Hoyt makes the quite sensible choice of not making this an origin story. Kyrie already knows (or at least suspects – she’s sort of in denial) that she can shift. This self-awareness is a trait shared by the two other main characters – Tom, a troubled young runaway who works at the same bar as Kyrie and Rafiel Trall, a local police officer who has been shifting for a good while and whose shapeshifted form is that of a ferocious, majestic lion. In refusing to tell a story that is exclusively about how Kyrie or either of the other two characters discover their shapeshifting abilities, Hoyt shifts the focus onto how the characters discover each other, how they learn to trust one another and, eventually, how they work together. That focus on character interaction is one of the novel’s real strengths.
That said, there is a mystery to unravel. Although the world of the shifters appears at first to be fairly straightforward, there is quite a bit of depth to the book’s mythology, particularly during conversations in which some older shifters are discussing the origins of the book’s apparently ancient antagonist. Hoyt doesn’t reveal all the details but instead keeps enough back to hint at a much wider shadowy world – a world that is dangerous, violent and just plain weird. (I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet that this book is the first urban fantasy novel to feature shapeshifting pheromone-flinging beetles.)
Although the plot starts slowly, it soon picks up pace and, I must say, never once did I feel that it dragged. The book’s action sequences are exciting and well-described and unusual coincidences early on in the novel are explained satisfactorily towards the end. It’s the unfolding relationships between the central characters, however, that make the novel so entertaining. The will-they-won’t-they of Kyrie and Tom (which is complicated in a very entertaining way by the tempting presence of Trall), the very well-realised relationship between Tom and the father who kicked him out of the family home several years ago – these have an air of authenticity about them that makes the book eminently readable, even as the reader’s (well, this reader’s at any rate) mind is coming to terms with the more fantastical and outlandish sections of the narrative.
In addition, Draw One In The Dark is a novel with a clear sense of morality. Characters are aware of the potential consequences of their actions and often seek to do the right thing, despite that choice appearing to be less convenient. Perhaps more significantly, characters are offered the chance of redemption and, by and large (and with one or two hiccoughs along the way), they take them. Call me an old-fashioned romantic, but I kind of like that.
Overall, then, Draw One In The Dark is a fast-paced, well-crafted novel, populated with a relatively small cast of mostly three-dimensional characters (I’m a little unsure about Keith, but Hoyt writes him with such panache, I’ll forgive him his quick acceptance of the madness into which he’s been plunged) who are genuinely engaging and with whom it is very easy to identify. The story hangs together really well, while leaving a few background threads dangling free to be picked up in later volumes. Speaking of which, I read this book on my Kindle. It is part of Baen’s free e-book initiative which puts out a selection of the initial novels in some of their authors’ series for free, which demonstrates an impressive confidence in the skills of the company’s authors. Well, Baen’s cunning ploy worked on this occasion, because the second book in this series, Gentleman Takes A Chance, is purchased, downloaded and ready to read. And if that isn’t a recommendation, then I don’t know what is.
We like comics in our house. I am, of course, entirely to blame for this. My obsession with comics, particularly those of the American variety, began in the early 80s and has continued on-and-off into my adult life. My younger son seems to have inherited my comic geekery. He’s just turned 18 and celebrated by spending a sizeable amount of money on some very nice comic collections from the ‘big two’. I’m kind of jealous, actually. He has way more disposable income than I do and two very sturdy sets of shelves in his room stocked liberally with trade paperbacks, original graphic novels and, most impressive of all, a smattering of those over-sized omnibus editions that look so beautiful it almost makes you want to weep.
What he doesn’t have, though, is a copy of Arak: Son of Thunder issue 2. First published by DC in 1981 and written by Roy and Dann Thomas, Arak: Son of Thunder was a sword and sorcery series set in the Dark Ages. Its titular hero is a Native American who, as a boy, finds himself marooned in the middle of the Atlantic where he is discovered by Vikings one of whom ends up adopting him. While Arak has some superficial similarity to a certain dark-haired Cimmerian whose adventures Thomas had been chronicling for much of the preceding decade at Marvel, the comic’s nominally real world setting, its growing band of recurring characters and, perhaps most importantly, the more reflective character of Arak himself meant that the title was never going to be a straightforward Conan clone.
That said, issue 2 gives us a tale that could, with just a little tweaking, have appeared during Thomas’ run on Conan the Barbarian. The issue starts with Arak, having set off from the Northumbrian monastery that was the setting for much of the first issue, running aground on rocks off the coast of France. It’s a moody, dramatic opening which successfully establishes the tone of the story while giving away nothing whatsoever as regards its main plot. It does, however, serve as a useful reminder of the storytelling skills of both Thomas and co-creator Ernie Colon (who would go on to create the Amethyst comic for DC), whose artwork, embellished with some generally very impressive inking from Tony DeZuniga, is, as we’ll see, one of the highlights of the early Arak run. (DeZuniga would later take on the art duties all by himself; artists such as Ron Randall and Adrian Gonzales also had stints on the title.) The opening page’s narration (remember those heady days when narration in comics was still a thing?) takes the form of a fairly simple Native American fable. Along with the art, though, it’s not only an economical piece of storytelling but it also reminds the reader of Arak’s Native American heritage while also reinforcing how integral the symbolism of the storm is to his character. It’s clever and relatively subtle.
On page 2, Thomas’ narration settles into a more familiar tenor. It’s present tense, slightly overbearing and somewhat melodramatic, although there are nice flashes of more poetic description that remind us that Thomas is actually a very fine comics writer. “Beneath the breakers, jagged rocks lurk, like the furtive daggers of assassins” is particularly good and the “dawn-flecked boot” that prods him awake at the bottom of the page possesses an unexpected gentleness that, it turns out, is entirely appropriate, given that the aforementioned boot belongs to a beautiful young woman who just happens to be out walking the beach with her silent armour-suited guards.
The mysterious beauty in question is, we find out, Corinna (I do love fantasy names. Whether she ever goes a-maying is, sadly, never divulged) the daughter of Lord Hessa, owner of the large castle near the shoreline that Arak initially mistakes as belonging to Charlemagne, the focus of his current quest. The conversation between them establishes her as being somewhat haughty with a hint of flirtatiousness and Arak as being naïve, direct and, at the bottom of the page when he grabs Corinna’s cloak in order to emphasise his point, socially inept bordering on the point of rudeness. (Well, he is a Viking – sort of. And he has just been shipwrecked.) Needless to say, Corinna looks on this with some disapproval and one of her silent guards intervenes. And then we have our first fight.
I’m not sure who it was who pioneered the technique of figures ‘breaking out’ of the panel borders during action sequences (I’m tempted to say it was Kirby, but don’t take my word for it), but Colon uses it effectively here. While the guards are lumbering iron brutes, Colon draws Arak fighting with speed and ferocity. He takes down two of the guards but is knocked unconscious by the third and taken to the castle. So far so straightforward. That said, the final piece of narration on page 5 (“All in all, it’s been a most unusual morning for everyone.”) is jarringly whimsical after such an energetic and violent scene.
The story then sags a bit, although there’s some very nice artwork to lift things. Arak is questioned by Lord Hessa, an interrogation that continues at the prompting of his daughter. (Note, incidentally, that on page 7, her throne is drawn as being just a little higher than his. Significant, that.) Arak gives a truncated account of his origin before the narrator gives the reader a much fuller account via an internal monologue-flashback that is mostly unnecessary given all of this only happened one issue ago. Hessa is unimpressed with Arak’s tales (his comment that Arak “weave[s] tales like tapestries” seems odd given that he hasn’t heard the more outlandish aspects of Arak’s story like we have) and orders him thrown into his castle’s donjon, because he thinks our hero’s a spy for Carolus Magnus. Needless to say, Arak’s not particularly taken with that idea and a scuffle breaks out which unintentionally reveals one of our first big clues as to what’s really going on. Hessa, who has been wearing some very nice white gloves (a la Olaf Pooley in the Doctor Who story Inferno) throughout the interrogation, actually has (also like Olaf Pooley in the Doctor Who story Inferno) a very hairy hand (the left one, naturally). A monstrously hairy, wickedly clawed hand, in fact. Goodness me. What on earth is going on here?
Hessa is all for killing Arak outright – or, as he puts it, raking his monstrous hand “lovingly” across Arak’s unusually red skin – when his daughter stops him. This is the second time Corinna’s intervened in this scene. Hmmm. Our attention is nicely directed away from the issue of who’s really in charge in the castle, however, when it’s revealed that those big suits of armour don’t have anyone in them. They appear to be animated by some malign magical force. Hey, this is getting pretty good.
When Arak is thrown into the castle’s dungeon, he (and we) meet the next significant character – Malagigi, a wizard from the court of Carolus Magnus who can make fire appear in his hand, but, whenever he gets close to revealing what’s really going on, breaks into a fit of coughing. Either he’s suffering from the most convenient case of consumption in all of fiction or… something weird is going on. In any event, Arak reveals a bit more about his background via his story-telling belt. And then things get interesting. Corinna shows up to help Arak escape because, well, I’m sure you can work it out for yourself. “Did you really doubt I would come for you, wayfarer? I took you for one who could read a woman’s eyes.” along with “Do you know what it means, Arak, to grow from maidenhood to womanhood without ever truly knowing a man till tonight?” are the salient pieces of dialogue, the latter being a great example of a question that is both leading and utterly rhetorical.
But this is a sword and sorcery comic. It’s not going to be this… ahem…easy for Arak, is it? No. Even Arak’s noticed that Corinna’s not exactly been acting like a lovesick girl and, indeed, the come-on above is far too studied to be delivered by an innocent. And in any case, we need some answers to questions like ‘What’s going on with those magical soldiers?’ and ‘Why does your dad have a weird hand?’ So, Corinna gives us the kind of answers that make you wish you hadn’t asked the questions in the first place. It’s a tale of a woman, her grandmother, who, tired of being the sexual plaything of ugly men of power, decided to get some power herself by entering into a pact with a devil which is sealed in a carnal union that resulted in Lord Hessa. That, however, is only the half the story. We get the rest of it after a fight between Arak, Hessa and his magically animated armour-guards in which a defeated Hessa refers to Corinna as… ‘mother’. The ‘grandmother’ in the story is actually Corinna. The devil has granted her immortality in return for her not being able to leave the area around the castle. Ah, this all makes sense now. There is no Lady Hessa because Hessa is Corinna’s son. This also explains why Hessa was always so ready to defer to Corrina earlier on in the story. And it also explains why Corinna’s attempts to play the innocent lovestruck girl were so rubbish. She’s been out of practice. Like fifty years out of practice. Now, devilish pacts are meat and drink for comics like Arak, but this one is unusually focused on the physical nature of the transaction. In that sense, it reminds me very much of the Warren comic magazines of the late 60s and 70s and not just because Colon did a lot of work for titles like Vampirella and Creepy. There’s a prurient tinge to the storytelling here that feels a bit out of place in a DC title. I’ll return to this later.
In any case, Corinna’s setting foot outside the area prescribed by the terms of her agreement with the devil Belial has some interesting consequences. Firstly, in his cell Malagigi stops coughing and, suddenly finding himself free of whatever spell-retarding force Corinna’s been employing against him, begins to use some serious magic. This results in the ground opening up half way through the battle between Arak and Hessa. This is not just any old fissure in the ground, though. Oh no. This, as Thomas and Colon delight in showing us on page 22, is a portal to Hell. (Or at least some weird timeshare satellite of it.) That’s impressive enough, but, for Corinna, there’s more bad news. She starts to age. Her leaving the plateau on which the castle has been built releases her from the enchantment that had conferred eternal youth onto her and she becomes a withered parody of her formerly beautiful self.
So far so predictable, but there’s a final – and let’s be honest, really unsettling – twist in the tale. Belial, the demon who had made the original bargain with Corinna all those years ago, having just toasted his son, appears to offer Corinna a second deal. He’ll restore her youth if she’ll consent to go with him back to Hell and set up house with him there. And she says… yes. There is to be no redemption, or sense that she’s learned anything from her original bargain. Just more naked ambition and vanity. Which is very human, actually, but, I think, unexpectedly dark for a fantasy story published by one of the big two at the start of the 80s. Malagigi shows up to explain everything (as plot expositors go, I’ve seen worse, but I’ve definitely seen better, too) and Arak – and perhaps the reader – is left wondering what the hell that was all about.
Arak: Son of Thunder #2, then, is an interesting comic mostly because it is a narrative produced by a number of not always complementary imperatives and influences. At the end of this issue, alongside a handy map of Europe and the Middle East in the time of Arak, there is a page long essay by Thomas in which he explains what his thinking was when making decisions like setting the series in a pseudo-historical rather than purely fantastical milieu. A couple of sentences jump out:
“[The Sword and Sorcery genre presented] limited roles for both men and women, especially the latter, who seemed all to be either luscious maidens, beauteous warriors, or astonishingly lovely witches.
“Eventually, as I got into the genre, I began to realize that this could all be fun in its way – and that, besides, its limits could be stretched, played with, even expanded here and there.”
In one sense, it could be argued that here Thomas has expanded on the clichéd role of women in fantasy fiction. While Corinna is superficially ‘lovely’, Belial (and, by extension, Thomas) gives her a choice of fates. Not much of one, admittedly, but it is a choice nevertheless. Her origin, too, highlights her desperation at an explicitly misogynistic and unequal society. That origin is not presented, however, in a way calculated to engender sympathy for Corinna (for one thing we don’t understand she’s talking about herself at the time and, when we do find out, the focus is on her lust for power); similarly, Arak’s astonishment at her choice both during and after the story’s denouement ensures that we don’t feel much sympathy for her then either. To what extent she ‘expands’ the stereotype of ‘astonishingly lovely witches’, then, remains to be seen.
Another imperative that influences the writing is the need to differentiate the setting from that of the Conan adventures that Thomas had spent so long penning. Again, to what extent the story succeeds in doing so remains to be seen. The action taking place in and around a seaside castle on an isolated plateau makes the story feel quite divorced from its historical setting despite the frequent references to the court of Carolus Magnus. Compared to the first issue in which Vikings, Christian monks, Northumbria and Native American culture all play an integral part in the story, the setting of “The Devil Takes A Bride” is less specific and consequently feels more dislocated from the wider setting of late 8th century Europe. Arak is not Conan here (for one thing he’s much less proactive), although his directness and ferocity certainly contain echoes of Robert E Howard’s most famous creation. The supernatural elements, the character of Corinna and the less defined setting all contribute, however, to the sense that this is a more generic story. (And when the genre is sword and sorcery, Conan probably is the benchmark at this point in time.)
That said, the story on the whole works well, not least because of the Colon/DeZuniga art team. While their backgrounds are somewhat sparse, their character work is impressive; Corinna is suitably vampish, and Arak is well-proportioned and, when called to action, a dynamic heroic figure. Adrienne Roy’s colours are, though, somewhat mixed. There’s impressive subtlety in, for example, the reflections of flame on Arak’s face when he stares horrified into Belial’s pit, but Arak’s leggings change colour at times as does Corrina’s dress.
On the whole, though, Arak: Son of Thunder issue 2 is an enjoyable comic book. If it wears its 70s influences a little too obviously and feels at times a bit too indebted to its illustrious barbaric competition at the House of Ideas, it can perhaps be forgiven. Its function as a vehicle for the introduction of Malagigi (who will become a regular companion of Arak for the next year or so) weighs it down somewhat, but there is a lot to like here and it does act as an interesting example of the small but popular sword and sorcery niche of the DC universe of the 1980s.