It was back in 1985, I think, that I discovered the art of Chris Achilleos in a book called Beauty and the Beast, originally published in the late ‘70s.
As a graphically inept individual, I was always fascinated by art, and fantasy art in particular.
The cover of that volume was graced by a picture that, I found out reading the book, was the cover for a series of novels about a character called Raven.
I was rather curious about the whole thing – based on the covers, it seemed the series was some kind of sex & violence fantasy filled with weird monsters and scantly-clad women. Cautious inquiries about the books revealed the author to be one Richard Kirk. In the end, I decided the series was not worth the expense of ordering in those pre-Internet days.
But I was still curious.
And then there was the fact that Kate Bush, no less, had used the Raven costume in her video for Babooshka.
Curiouser and curiouser.
My curiosity was further stimulated when later I discovered Kirk to be the a house name, and the alias behind which hid two excellent British fantasists, Angus Wells and Robert Holdstock. Given that I had greatly enjoyed the work of both, once again I tried to get my hands at least on one of the books published by Corgi in the ‘70s, but at that point the prices for the used paperbacks had become simply crazy.
And finally last week a fan of this blog checked some long-forgotten Amazon wish list and sent me a very used, but perfectly serviceable copy of the first book in the series – Raven, Swordmistress of Chaos, Corgi Books, 1978.
It took me 33 years, but I finally satisfied my curiosity.
The novel is a straightforward sword & sorcery thing, in which a slave girl escapes slavery and ends up with a band of outlaws, where she is trained as a “swordmistress” (the female version of a “swordmaster”), because she is actually the herald of chaos to come.
Her work to upturn the vaguely Mediterranean secondary world in which she lives to bring about a new era begins with Raven taking her revenge on the man that raped her when she was a slave.
Is it any good?
Well, it is a book that on page 3, while still in the Prologue, hits me with the adjective armageddic, so it can’t be all bad, right?
And indeed it is not.
Granted, the plot is simplistic, and the characters – with the possible exception of Raven herself – are cardboard, and yet this 170-odd pages book packs enough ideas, action and worldbuilding that reading it is not an unpleasant experience at all.
Even the required sex scenes, one every 40 pages (these were the 70s, after all), are elegant enough all things considered.
It is formula writing, and the formula is certainly there and plain to see – my mind does get into “writer mode” pretty easily these days – but if this is the work of two great writers slumming, they remain great writers.
The language in particular is intriguing, the right mix of clear, no-frills prose and archaism that sets the mood.
In the end, Raven is a fun character, a strong woman caught in events bigger than her that despite this rides the wave of chaos, mayhem and bloodshed with grim glee, and her first adventure is good entertainment.
The action is good, the magic sinister, and the mood grim without being too dark (or vice-versa). It has the flavor of what I usually recognize as British sword & sorcery, like early Michael Moorcock or, indeed, Angus Wells.
Extra points, and a laugh-out-loud moment, for the introduction of a character called Titus of Ghorm, a wink at Mervyn Peake Gormenghast and at the more sophisticated readers in the audience.
Cheap entertainment, and maybe even a little vulgar, but the Raven novels might well become a new guilty pleasure for me, should I find the time and the money to get the remaining volumes. Or maybe I’ll exercise my patience – that has served me well where Richard Kirk and Raven are concerned – and wait for the announced Gollancz omnibus somewhere in the future.
Or I might get me the French-language paperbacks… now that would be perverse.
And now, as a bonus, a gallery of original Raven covers by Achilleos, thinking back at my 17-years-old self.