Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book Reviews: The Scythe, Saint Camber

The Scythe
by Balogun Ojetade
I am continuing my research into modern pulp, especially pulp that seeks to redress or rectify some of classic pulp's shortcomings around race and other hot button topics. So I read this book shortly after finishing the Black Pulp collection reviewed here. Anyway I enjoyed this book but not as much as the Black Pulp collection. The Scythe is a short novel, (novella?) that tells the story of the title character, a black doctor in 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma. Well if you know your history you know that the 1920s saw the Harlem Renaissance and ever so slight halting black progress. However it was also very close to the nadir of American racism. White supremacy was unquestioned in almost every facet of American life. Many whites were only vaguely aware that some black people didn't care for this state of affairs. You can read about the so-called race riots of Tulsa here. I say so-called because a) it was actually a pogrom and b) unlike our modern conception of race riots it was actually whites running amok, killing, shooting, looting, robbing and raping. The interesting thing about the Tulsa attack, if anything can be considered "interesting" when detailing such an atrocity is that it showed that the strain of "do for self" black political thought, that is "run your own businesses", "don't beg for government assistance" and "hire and work for your own people" which was shared and promulgated by people as politically diverse as Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Dr. Claude Anderson, Zora Neale Hurston and some modern black conservatives, had some very real limits and drawbacks. It's good to do for self and be self-sufficient whenever possible. But if racist whites decide that your success is a threat or intolerable insult and you must be literally beaten down into economic dependency or even eliminated, then what do you do? Unless you're ready, willing and able to meet fire with fire you will lose everything you hold dear. Economic success without political progress and the ability and willingness to defend yourself and your property is meaningless.

That concept of self-defense permeates the book, primarily expressed via the author's deep knowledge of martial arts. The titular hero is a black doctor named A.C. Jackson, who in keeping with his oath to serve all, regardless of race or status, is murdered during the Tulsa riots. This is no spoiler as it occurs in the first few pages. It's also no spoiler to reveal that the doctor is resurrected, well at least somewhat resurrected, by the spirit Ikukuklu, who is the scythe of the Grim Reaper or Death. Ikukulu is fascinated by how grimly humans cling on to life. He has decided that he would like to experience life for himself, at least for a while. So he offers to bring back Dr. Jackson from death as long as Ikukulu can hitch a ride. The side effect is that Dr. Jackson will have access to many of Ikukulu's abilities, which are extensive and of course paranormal. When Jackson comes back from the dead he starts calling himself The Scythe and of course seeks revenge on those who murdered him. But he doesn't stop there with his do-good actions. Jackson finds himself entangled in conspiracies that include the Klan, vampires, gangsters, ancient African gods and demons and a sexy Haitian femme fatale. This book was ok. I thought that it had a bit too much dialogue. There's very little in The Scythe that's not dialogue. There are some writers who tend to be all about setup and description and atmosphere. That's not an issue here. It's is a pulp novel so I wasn't expecting too much exposition or description but I think I wanted a little bit more. I wanted to feel the era of the twenties more than I did. The large print book is about 150 pages. You also get an additional origin short story of a character in The Scythe as well as some interesting author explanation of why he writes and how he understands his genre.

Saint Camber
by Katherine Kurtz
This is the second book in the Legends of Camber series. This series is a prequel to the Deryni Rising series. It was published after the Deryni Rising series although I read it first. I actually like this series better than the Deryni Rising series because the characters here were a little more, oh what's the word? I wouldn't say well rounded because that certainly wouldn't be the case. There's more of a sense of danger. Additionally I appreciated the various moral dilemmas. There's some serious questions on what makes a person good. If someone enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act asks if you are hiding any slaves what would you answer? Assuming that they are indeed hiding slaves, many "good" people would lie and say no with a clear conscience. That's a pretty easy question. But what if you're an undercover agent somewhere? To keep your cover and save the lives of your countrymen you must engage in activities that are unethical or illegal. How far can you go in breaking the rules before you're no better than whatever evil you're facing? To bring it back to the Fugitive Slave Act example you might well kill the racist law enforcer who discovered that you were hiding slaves in your home. After all he's an adult and signed up for his wicked job. But what if he brings his seven year old daughter along and she's the one who notices the hidden door in the kitchen? What then? Things may not be so clear cut. That's the place where Saint Camber spends most of its time. Just like George R.R.Martin did years later Kurtz brings us the story of what happens after the evil king is overthrown. As it turns out not everyone lives happily ever after.

As discussed in a review of the first book in this series, the Deryni are a race of humans who are visually indistinguishable from normal humans. However they have both inherent paranormal mental powers and a genetic affinity for externalized "magic" powers. They take these abilities for granted the same way a fish doesn't think about its gills. The Deryni are a significant minority. The evil Deryni King Imre ruled the Kingdom of Gwynedd until he was overthrown in a coup led by the powerful Deryni noble Camber of Culdi. Camber got involved in the revolution for both ideological (he's a patriot who hates bullies) and personal reasons (the Deryni King murdered his son). Camber found a scion of the previous human dynasty, a human priest named Cinhil, and placed him on the throne over the man's feeble objections.
Unfortunately Queen Ariella, the dead king's sister (and lover and mother of his child) escaped Camber and fled to a different kingdom, where augmented by her Deryni Gwynedd loyalists, renegade business interests, foreign relatives and mercenaries, she's preparing an invasion of Gwynedd.

To his chagrin Camber finds that humans in general and King Cinhil in particular are not exactly grateful that Deryni rebels overthrew the evil Deryni ruler and handed power back to a human regime. In fact they're not grateful at all. Cinhil profoundly resents Camber for pulling him from his previous career as an ascetic and celibate monk. Cinhil thinks that he's betrayed God by becoming king. Cinhil has little appreciation for the bigger picture or for doing the necessary to produce an heir.  If not quite a bigot Cinhil is well on his way to becoming one. The depressed king vacillates between bitter "why can't you make the decision and leave me alone"  and "oh you Deryni all think you're so f****** smart" moods. Other humans are starting to feel entitled as the newly empowered majority to request more concessions from Deryni. Some requests are more akin to demands. 
When the one Deryni whom Cinhil semi-tolerates is killed in the battle with Ariella, Camber has a choice to make, one which will determine the fate of the kingdoms, the Deryni and his own legacy. Unlike works by Abercrombie and Martin, Kurtz posits a world where religion and the church are extremely powerful. But it's not just religious temporal power which informs the world Kurtz has created. People actually believe in God. People try to do the right thing. Even people who make mistakes or commit evil acts attempt to justify them by appeals to God. Faith matters. So there's a realism here that is occasionally missing in other fantasy novels. Not everyone is a cynical self-interested scoundrel. Anyone remotely familiar with Christian (primarily Catholic) doctrine, ritual and organization will find all of that echoed in this book. Mass is both a religious and political event. There are orders of religious knights. My small print edition was around 375-400 pages.
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