Today's fantasy isn't perfect. Far from it. There's sexism and racism and cultural appropriation and homophobia and rapiness and torture-porn and wankily pretentious pseudo-philosophy and ill-thought defenses of genocide... but... even with all that, the genre is so much better than it was.
That's really important to keep in mind.
When we think about the fantasy fiction of the 1980s, we tend to remember two types of book: the stuff that's genuinely good and the stuff that we appreciated personally. The former, God help me, is pretty starved of examples. John Ford's The Dragon Waiting, perhaps? Fevre Dream? Early Discworld?!
The latter category, for me at least, overflows with genial rubbish. David Eddings' Belgariad, the Dragonlance Chronicles, the Shannara books, really, damn near everything else on this list. Stuff that I'll secretly re-read on a regular basis, but wouldn't feel 100% secure about recommending to strangers. Or my mother. These are the books that hit me at the right time in the right place. We've all got them.
But for every Mort or Pawn of Prophecy, there were hundreds, nay, thousands of other fantasy books. And they were awful. The chainmail bikinis, the nymphomaniac witches, the mulleted barbarians with names like Throg and Brak, the moonlit landscapes with wolves and dragons... We feel safe now, but only because we're safely hidden behind a successful HBO series, Peter Jackson's Academy Awards and a half-dozen China Miéville Guardian profiles. But our loinclothed past still lurks in Oxfam bookshops, library sales and in a thousand basements. Oh, we laugh now – but also we fear.
And, taking Robert Vardeman and Geo. W. Proctor's To Demons Bound (1985) as one example of our disastrous history, we've a lot of which to be afraid.
Davin Anane and his companion Goran are adventurers in the land of Raemllyn. In between jobs, they're spending time in the city of Bistonia. Davin's keen to spend some quality time with the lady Belatha, and Goran's got some money to spend gambling. Alas, the plot, she has hooks. After a night of thoroughly-described passion, Davin's dragged to the sewers for an audience with Velden, the Emperor of Thieves. Velden's got Goran (nailed to a wall) and an offer. He'll swap Davin his best friend for his niece, Lijena, who is currently held hostage by another thief-king.
Davin's got little choice in the matter and takes the commission. But as the adventure unfolds, he learns that things aren't all as they seem. Lijena's no one's niece, she's a sacrificial pawn (gasp!). And Davin might not be rescuing anyone at all.
That's really the best spin anyone could put on the structure of this ridiculous book. To spare you the agony of ever actually reading it, either accidentally or as the result of some sick dare, here's the entire thing from start to finish:
- Plot! A few atmospheric introductory pages courtesy of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar.
- Sex! Words and phrases actually used: upthrusting, writhed, quaked, satiny, downy, "tight mounds of her backside".
- Plot! Quest unlocked! Note: if you were playing a "Lifted from Lankhmar" drinking game, you'd be passed out on the floor by now.
- Fight! Words and phrases inflicted upon the reader: bloodlust, berserker, "deadly arc", "burning rage", honed, "'Die, damn you, die!'", asquish. [Admittedly, "asquish" is kind of awesome - especially since there was a log involved]
- Plot! A chapter of foreboding. Believe it or not, Davin is the last descendant of a mysterious noble lineage! But he's rejected his heritage to spend years in the wilderness, honing his skills and being unkempt. Cheers, Mr. Tolkien.
- Rape! And lots of it! I'll spare the vocabulary, but, eew.
- Fight! More phrases penned in cold blood: "the golden cord of his life had been severed", "oozing flow", "a howl straight from the bowels of Hell"
- Sex! This time with magical gypsies! To Demons Bound: the Rule 34 of high fantasy stereotypes! Davin enjoys "the evening of complete sensual pleasure". The reader, however, does not.
- Plot! A "withered old crone" is magical.
(Meanwhile, Lijena is sporting this season's latest fashion - "Leia goes to Gor": "Nude, except for halter and loincloth fashioned from strings of gold... about her neck was a slim chain of gold that ran downward to golden manacles about her wrists. From wrists to waists ran another chain, and two more streamed down to cuffs of gold about her ankles." That's nice.)
- Fight! Phrases used: "Thunder, booming like a thousand storms", "a ball of flaming death", and, best yet, actual references to a "shield spell" and "a simple fireball spell". Because if you can't find the answer in Leiber, Brooks or Tolkien, you might as well steal shit from Dungeons & Dragons.
- Sex! "Undulating rhythm"
- Plot! On the last two pages, an epic quest bursts into the room and announces itself. Apparently To Demons Bound isn't just your everyday tale of rape and asquishing, it is an epic for the ages. There are Faceless Ones (you know, hooded undead riders on black horses that serve the ancient evil one...) and a Prophecy and... and... oh thank god, CURTAIN.
There. If To Demons Bound ever pops up on a pub quiz, you can send me a thank you note.
Special thanks goes to Andrew (@mygoditsraining) for sending this our way after we admired the cover from afar... In his defense, I'm not sure he ever meant us to read it.