Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Brak vs. the Sorceress: A really bad read
Ever the optimist, I managed to find a silver lining in the extreme suckiness of John Jakes’ 1977 novel Brak vs. the Sorceress, though I struggled mightily to do so.
If nothing else, it proves how talented Robert E. Howard was as a writer.
Howard could take the raw elements of a sword and sorcery story and make them come alive in unforgettable tales; in the case of Brak vs. the Sorceress one learns that muscled warriors in loincloths rescuing damsels in distress can also make for really, really bad camp.
I wish I had something good to say about this book, but I don’t. It’s not just derivative and lazy (though it is that, in spades), but it also serves as an instructive example in the art of bad writing. Brak vs. the Sorceress opens with a four-page infodump of cliché fantasy that is probably a recap of the previous book in the Brak series. I can’t be bothered to look it up and figure out whether that’s the case. Regardless, it proves utterly unnecessary to the remainder of the thinly plotted story. Here’s the description of the plot from the back of the cover, a poorly done run-on sentence that still makes the story sound much better than it actually reads:
Making his way south toward the golden
, Brak must first traverse the
desolate territory of the Manworm—a land gripped by terror of things unknown
and awful—a land of unseen watchers and horrifying riddles—a land ravaged by
the evil of Nordica Fire-Hair, the beautiful, hypnotic sorceress whose occult
experiments include human sacrifice. To save the land and its terrorized
people, Brak joins forces with the ailing Lord Stann and begins one of his most
incredible adventures. land of Khurdistan
Basically the whole story is about how Brak accepts a mission solely to avenge the slaying of his pony and to teach a spirited woman a lesson in humility. I’m not making this up. From the book: To her the life of a pony was a small thing, and therein lay her evil. To him the pony’s life mattered much. His choice was clear-cut. He would not slink away. He would punish her. He was Brak, a man.
Got that? He’s a man, and she’s a wicked pony-killing woman. She must pay the price!
The action scenes are leaden, dull, and plodding, and rife with passive tense, an utterly unforgivable quality in a work of swords and sorcery. Here is an example:
Finishing the goatskin of wine, Brak rose. He meant to go out and converse with the soldiers. He had just reached the doorway when the army horses, already stabled out of sight, began to stamp and whinny. Instantly the commander jumped up. He pulled out his sword. There was a ferocious splintering of timber somewhere. Then one of the military geldings thundered into the courtyard, apparently having smashed out of his stall.
The most inspired verb in this sorry paragraph is “thundered”; Jakes apparently couldn’t think of anything better than “pulled out his sword.” The uncertainty in the descriptions (“splintering of timber somewhere”; “apparently smashed out of his stall”) accomplishes no purpose whatsoever, as the novel is not written in the first person and there is no reason why the reader should be left to puzzle out these insignificant details. A more careful writer wouldn’t have made the mistake.
The dialogue is similarly laughable, at points descending into the infamous depths of “The Eye of Argon.” Here’s a particularly awful exchange, so bad that it nearly goes full circle to good with unintentional hilarity.
“My name is Brak. I’m newly come to this kingdom—”
“From where?” A cursory glance. Then Iskander’s eyes returned to the inn building. “The north, eh…”
“Aye. And I’m curious about the man and woman. Who are they? Why do they frighten everyone?”
“Begone, outlander. I’ve no time to waste on idle—”
Then, abruptly, Iskander took a good look at the hulking barbarian. At the harsh set of his face. His powerful stature. His thick-muscled sword arm. The commander’s eyes narrowed a little.
“On second thought, I’ll answer your questions.”
I love the image of the guard suddenly taking note of Brak’s beefcake body and thinking “hmm, I’d better not piss off this dude. I’ll take it out on the peasants later.” Here’s another memorable exchange between Brak and the evil sorceress Nordica:
“I’ve decided I don’t like you, barbarian.”
“Nor I you, woman.”
“I dislike anyone who stands against me.”
His face remained sullen with defiance. Nordica laughed.
“But, as I said, there is a certain refreshing quality about your boldness.”
I dislike anyone who stands against me too, but I take comfort in the fact that I don’t kill ponies.
Jakes constantly resorts to the clichéd device of Brak taking spear butts and other blunt instruments to the head, knocking him out so that he can be imprisoned and free himself in a series of forgettable, page-padding escapes.
In summary I give Brak vs. the Sorceress 1.5 stars. It might not the worst thing I’ve ever read … but then again it might be. Stay far, far away.