Review Round-up: Gods and Boy Scouts
Monday, December 05, 2011
Two books with very little in common. Lavie Tidhar's Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God and George Ralphson's Boy Scouts Beyond the Arctic Circle.
Lavie Tidhar's Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God (2011) is a self-styled "guns and sorcery" novella. Mr. Tidhar, as previously noted, is one of the great masters of the pastiche. In this instance, however, Mr. Tidhar has created something uniquely his own - a delightfully Weird pulp tale that could easily sit on a shelf alongside Leiber, Vance and Moorcock.
The titular Gorel is a gun-fighting mercenary of the haunted and close-mouthed persuasion. As the story begins, Gorel has just closed the book on another mysterious campaign, and is returning to his core mission of finding his lost homeland. Gorel's adventurous past is hinted at in a hundred different ways - references to old battles and dead gods among them.
In this particular case, Gorel is off hunting for a particular sort of McGuffin, a magic mirror that, of all things, ties into the (reinterpreted) fairytale of the Frog Prince. Gorel must penetrate an entire culture of frog-people and steal their most venerated artifact. If that wasn't hard enough, he's saddled with untrustworthy allies, a drug habit and the ticking timebomb of an invading army.
Mr. Tidhar's world-building is a joy to read. Starting with a simple folk story, the author has extrapolated a complex mythic tradition and, from there, an entire society. The underlying tale is familiar enough to make the results (however surreal) approachable, rather than overbearing. Gorel himself is a familiar archetype (deliberately so, one suspects), although his companions are much more bizarre - a close-mouthed bird-man and horny batrachian hybrid amonst them. There's a wide variety of sexual hijinks involved (also reminiscent of Leiber), which is somehow more romantic than prurient. Mr. Tidhar uses sex as a means to create emotional bonds (occasionally reluctant ones) between characters, a sort of emotional realism that's often lacking in the fantasy tradition.
The real fun of Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God is just that - the fun. This is an excellent planned and exuberantly executed fantasy about a gunslinging god-slayer in a land where fairy tales transcend anthropology to become biology. At no point does the story veer towards the ponderous or worthy, instead it stays true to its pulp literature antecedents and keeps the pace up throughout. The dialogue is sparse, the description errs on the side of tantalizing and the action is undeniably heroic. This is a story about sex, drugs and frog people - what more could you ask for?
George Ralphson's Boy Scouts Beyond the Arctic Circle: The Lost Expedition (1913) lacks sex, drugs and frog people. It does, however, have boundless enthusiasm, international intrigue and the occasional use of an unironic "aw shucks!".
Ned, Frank, Jimmie and Jack are members of the Bear and Wolf Patrols of the Boy Scouts of America. By the time BSBtAC: TLE comes about, the four of them have already had a dozen or more wild adventures - gallivanting through South America, Asia and Africa. As this book begins, the four boys are all hanging around in Jack's father's club room, suffering through a particularly hot summer in New York City.
They're wondering what to do with themselves when another Boy Scout turns up. (Mark that sentence - it actually describes every plot twist in the entire book.) In this case, the new Scout is Sailor Green, cabin boy/Boy Scout/sole survivor of an Arctic expedition. The four original lads gape a bit at Sailor Green's tale of polar woe. Ned, who also doubles as a member of the US Secret Service, realises that Sailor Green's incomprehensible story is a matter of national security. Without further ado, the five of them must leap into their motorboat and head up to the north pole, to excavate the frozen body of Sailor Green's dead captain.
I'm not making any of this up. Boy Scout bodysnatchers, ahoy.
The five unsupervised Scouts have no problem taking a motorboat up past the Arctic Circle. A few spies (of unknown origin) take potshots at them, but they largely go ignored. Between dodging bullets, the Boy Scouts pass the time by putting their wilderness lore to use. This includes my favorite new travel game - "Let's explore the quick-moving ice floe".
Fortunately, their Beaverish enthusiasm overrules the laws of nature (and good sense), so ideas like "wading through the water to get from one ice floe to another" don't come back to haunt them. Even when they spend the rest of the day stomping around the Arctic in soaking wet clothes, their natural bouyancy wards off hypothermia. "Golly gee!" Not "I can't feel my feet" or "Oh god, my thumbs just fell off".
Eventually they make it to the dead captain's cairn, where they hang about for a little while and mingle with a crazed dynamiter, some foreign agents and more polar bears. There are also a lot of Boy Scouts involved - as mentioned above, a new one surfaces in response to every chapter-ending cliffhanger. Initially, the newcomers show up bearing maps and a mastery of the Inuit tongue. By the end, they're encountering folks like Sawyer, the Boy Scout that lives alone in an polar ice cave, with his convenient team of sled dogs and an army of tame bears.
I quickly lost track of who was who, as the Arctic was awash in freckled enthusiasm by the third chapter. From what I can tell, the enemy agents all drown horribly, with the Boy Scouts standing idly by. The rogue dynamiter (he sort of makes sense in context, but not really), dies as well. A century before the current post-apocalyptic YA trend, the Boy Scout series was cheerfully exterminating the world's adult population. The documents (for that's what this was all about) are recovered from some dead body or another, and Ned returns them to his superiors in the Secret Service. Apparently they were copies of 'secret treaties' between the US and other foreign powers, ones that would be used by a different foreign power to smear the good name of America. Imagine Wikileaks, with a team of Boy Scouts storming Julian Assange's Arctic citadel.
I know I'm not a ten year old from 1913, but seriously, this book made no sense at all.
Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing, 2011) is available as signed and unsigned hardcovers from PS Publishing. It can also be purchased as an eBook for the princely sum of £1.99.
Boy Scouts Beyond the Arctic Circle: The Lost Expedition by George Ralphson (M.A. Donohue, 1913) is available for free via Archive.org.
By Jared (@pornokitsch), who is neither gun-slinger nor Boy Scout.