A woman with retractable claws like a cat, fleeing from a territory where an obscure power changes everything that lives, and where everything that dies rises again, hostile and unstoppable. A vast city, in which men and gods live side by side, and once a year the dead gods roam the streets in search of revenge on humanity that has abandoned them. A shadow that stretches slow and inexorable over the world, no longer opposed by those who were charged with preserving the order.
God Stalk, by P.C. Hodgell has been called one of the best fantasy of the last thirty years. Surely it was the best fantasy I happened to read in 2015 – quite the latecomer, considering God Stalk was released in 1982 for Berkley Fantasy.
It was God Stalk that got me thinking about what I call The Interregnum, that has been a side interest of mine these last three years.
Let me explain.
In 1982 the fantasy template was not yet the standard.
The Sword of Shannara was released in 1977, it’s true – creating the standard model of Tolkienoid fantasy that still haunts us. But Shannara’s second novel, Elfstones, which actually signals that the Tolkien clone produced by Brooks is about to turn into a cycle, comes out in 1982. We’ll have to wait until 1985, with the release of Wishsong to have a Shannara Trilogy, sort of sealing the coming of Template Fantasy.
At the same time, between ’77 and ’79, Dungeons & Dragons evolves in the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. And it is undeniable that the roleplaying game of TSR would heavily influenced – at least as much as the success of Brooks novels – the development and the affirmation of the fantasy template.
But there is this moment, let’s say between 1977 and 1985 (the actual time frame can be somewhat flexible – let’s call it a decade astride the ’70s and the ’80s), when fantasy fiction is rapidly changing and is becoming a high-paying field, but it is not yet dominated by a standard model – the band of heroes, the elves, the dwarves, the orcs, the quest, the Dark Lord, the pseudoceltic names – and the authors can still do what they like without being clobbered by their editors.
What I thought in 2015 – and I still think now – is that this period of interregnum, a time which fantasy is becoming hugely popular, but it does not yet have a single and repeatable, sure-fire model to be applied in a pedestrian way, would be really worth exploring.
God Stalk is a great starting point for this exploration.
Written with an elegant language, full of action, with a well-defined and credible female protagonist, the first novel by P.C. Hodgell is millions of miles away from the forests where the elves hang out, and from the smelly armies of the orcs.
The main model is probably the Fritz Leiber of the Lankhmar’s stories, but there is no shortage of Dunsanian elements and a touch of C.A. Smith.
And to cite Leiber, Dunsany or Smith is profoundly wrong – because it might lead us to imagine that the novel of Pat Hodgell is derivative and not very original, but it is not at all like that.
It is precisely the freshness of the ideas that makes God Stalk such an enjoyable read.
What a wonder: from the now distant past, an unpredictable novel, which takes its time to create its own universe, to let the characters grow. And there is a deep story, there is a complex intrigue, there is a war going on. And the worldbuilding is simply masterful, and fresh, and seductive.
The author drops us in the world without giving us directions, and leaves us to fend for ourselves – similarly to what the main character, she of the clawed hands, does.
And while we might be tempted to think of high fantasy because of its presentation, God Stalk is a good, straightforward sword & sorcery book. One of the best, in my personal opinion.
God Stalk was followed by Dark of the Moon, in 1985 – right on the border of that interregnum mentioned above.
Then P.C. Hodgell got her doctorate and devoted her time to teaching (developing, among other things, a course on science fiction), and only came back to her characters and series ten years later, in ’94.
To date, the God Stalker cycle (properly known as the Kencyr Saga) includes eight novels.
And it is ironic enough that the series is being kept alive – after the death of several small publishers who originally carried it – by Baen Books, an independent publishing house traditionally devoted to more commercial template fantasy. True, the new covers are not up to the weird standard of the old ones, and they feature boobs, because… well, because boobs.
But what matters is the text – and the text is extraordinary.
But careful there, at being dismissive of the new art: after all, it’s an illustration by Clyde Caldwell, who did so many covers for the Dungeons & Dragons books (both straight and Advanced), and for Dragon Magazine, some of which have become truly iconic.
We come full circle.
After reading God Stalk in 2015, the world of the Kencyr remained with me as a cherished memory, and last week – here being a gift coupon on Amazon burning a hole in my virtual pocket – I went and bought me the two paperback omnibuses collecting the first four novels The God Stalker Chronicles and Seeker’s Bane. They are mass market and cheap, thick and slick, and they look and feel like the fantasy books on which I cut my teeth in the ’80s.
I wanted to have these in paperback: P.C. Hodgell sits high on my shelf with the best fantasy authors I know, and I plan to get the whole series.
And in the meantime, I will report here on Karavansara my further explorations of the Interregnum of Fantasy. I will dig in my collection and look around.
My thesis: there was a brief time, between the twilight of Hyboria and the rise of the scions of Shannara, when commercial fantasy was wild and creative and fresh and different and diverse.
These lost books I will seek. It will be fun, and I am sure I’ll find a lot of treasures.