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 land of Khurdistan, 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.

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.

16 comments:

Talysman said...

It might help if you pictured him (and imagined him speaking) like this Brak. I can particularly hear him saying "Nor I you, woman" in that Brak's voice.

Will Mistretta said...

I dunno. As an animal lover, I kind of dig Brak's motivation. She murdered his pet pony, AND THAT S*** SHALL NOT STAND!

Hehe.

Will Duquette said...

I remember reading many years ago that Jakes completely loathed the Brak stories. They were pot-boilers, pure and simple, and in later years he had nothing good to say about them.

I've got a book of his called The Planet Wizard that I remember reading a number of times with pleasure, though.

Anonymous said...

I have fond memories of Mention My Name in Atlantis but it has been since years since I have even seen a copy.

Pericles said...

I read MENTION MY NAME IN ATLANTIS as a kid. Like Anonymous, I have fond memories of that one.

David J. West said...

You got me laughing tonight Brian-hilarious, all the way through. I have a copy of this (for the Frazetta cover on mine) and had never brought myself to actually get through more than a page before putting it down for something else that would grab me.

Anonymous said...

HEY SPACEGHOST!

Paul R. McNamee said...

I have all the collected and novel Brak tales except Fortunes of Brak. If Jakes was that uninspired in the heyday, I can only imagine what a plod Fortunes of Brak might be, as that was the last (I think.)

I've only read a few of the Brak tales in Lin Carter's Flashing Swords. They weren't bad, but they weren't anything phenomenal.

I guess Jakes truly found his calling when his historicals took off.

These are exactly the kind of out-of-print books I'd like to see as e'books for $1 so I could justify dumping my paperbacks and saving the shelf space.

Andy said...

I can't say I have a pony, but if someone messed with my dogs or cats, I'd kick their ass, too!

Brian Murphy said...

It might help if you pictured him (and imagined him speaking) like this Brak. I can particularly hear him saying "Nor I you, woman" in that Brak's voice.

I should have tried that, it might have made the book more palatable. I always liked Space Ghost...

As an animal lover, I kind of dig Brak's motivation. She murdered his pet pony, AND THAT S*** SHALL NOT STAND!

Maybe a ghostly pony on the cover with Brak looking on with a tear in his eye would have better captured the spirit of the story...

I remember reading many years ago that Jakes completely loathed the Brak stories.

I wouldn't want to be associated with this book either, though as Paul also mentions below, I have read another Brak story in a collection (it may have been Flashing Swords) and it was solid, if not particularly memorable. I think Brak vs. the Sorceress was artificially padded out into a novel which made its flaws even more noticeable.

Charles Gramlich said...

I read these years ago and have generally fond memories. Not that they were very good in quality, although the short stories were better than the novels. I remember being irritated at Jakes for saying how bad they were and I was thinking, then why the hell did you write them. If you weren't doing the best you could do then to heck with you. It made me sure not to try any of his historicals, and I haven't to this day.

The Wasp said...

I've struggled to finish the first book, "Brak the Barbarian" and it's just a fix-up of lightly connected stories. I've struggled to imagine how lousy the novels are(and now I know), but I'll still have to read one at some point (curse my self imposed blogging goals!).

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Like most other sword and sorcery, Brak's adventures always seemed to work better as short stories. I enjoyed some of the short tales but could never finish any of the novels. Jakes writing style just never appealed to me much. I preferred Gardner Fox's Kothar to Brak and Lin Carter's Thongor to Kothar. I will note, concerning Jakes' take on Brak, that when I interviewed him a decade or so ago he was happy to talk about Brak and didn't seem to have any issues with the stories or the character, simply noting that he wasn't interested in writing fantasy anymore.

Taranaich said...

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.

So what you're saying, Brian, is that John Jakes' Brak is the world's mightiest brony?

Brian Murphy said...

I had to look up brony and am now feeling rather disturbed. Now we know Brak's true Raison d'être.

Taranaich said...

Like most things, the Brony phenomenon started off fun and innocent, and then became... something else. Something... else.