Sunday, January 12, 2014

What I'm Reading: The Seven Altars of Dusarra

One of my favorite books growing up was a fantasy novel called The Seven Altars of Dusarra, by Lawrence Watt-Evans. It's been out of print for a long time, and for whatever insane reason I discarded it at some point. But it's available in ebook, which I began reading last night.

It's a sword-and-sorcery novel in the vein of the early pulps, and the second in a quartet called The Lords of Dus: The Lure of the Basilisk is the first (which I read last and thought of as a light prequel), The Sword of Bheleu the third, and The Book of Silence the fourth. I remember the third and fourth volumes being really good too, but none fired my imagination like the second.

The story's hero is Garth the Overman, morally ambiguous like all the great pulp-fantasy heroes. His personality reminds of Conan; his world is like that of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser (Lankhmar/Newhon); the sword he steals from one of the altars -- and which possesses him to wreak devastation in the third book -- calls to mind Elric's Stormbringer. Yet I don't remember any of this seeming like copycat formula or pastiche. Here is a reader review at Goodreads, written just last year, a lot of which targets how I felt about the book 32 years ago:
Watt-Evans sends Garth, via the Forgotten King, to another portion of the map, this time with the job of stealing "whatever lies upon the seven altars of Dusarra." Soon Garth arrives in Dusarra and discovers that this job is, in fact, a hell of an undertaking.

What is a straightforward, fearless overman to do? How about throwing himself into any situation or opportunity that arises without forethought or strategy, relying on his martial prowess and gumption to get him through? Seriously, this guy fails in the planning department, and there were many times I wondered just how he was going to get out of the shit.

This frequent uncertainty -- combined with an eerie city that is obsessed with the "dark gods" of the national pantheon -- made for good reading, and I enjoyed paging through this in a day. The setting and plot reminded me of Leiber's Lankhmar stories, especially all of the scenes set in ill-lit temples devoted to perverse deities. The story takes a violent turn in the last act, and some of the gore surprised me; brutal as George Martin may get in Westeros, Garth and his warbeast do not hesitate to spill mass quantities of blood to achieve their means. The finale sets the stage for bigger things, and I remain interested in seeing where this all goes.

I gotta say: this series hit me from nowhere, and now I wonder what other fantastic tales are out there, hiding behind the wind namers and dancing dragons and black prisms and smart-mouthed city wizards that dominate the genre.
Not only did Dusarra remind me of Lankhmar, I actually ended up liking the stories of Garth better than those of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. I dare say The Lords of Dus, and The Seven Altars of Dusarra in particular, will remain my favorite pulp fantasy after all these years. Back to reading.


Blogger Jeff B. said...

I was in middle and high school when these were first published, and I stumbled on them quite by chance. Seven Altars was the first one I found, and it took a while to find the first. It also went a while between succeeding volumes, which were still to be published. I remember them as being tons of fun, and you're right that Garth wasn't much for planning - I recall him essentially just bulling his way through his obstacles. I have a set of the series that I plan on re-reading sometime just for the nostalgia.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

That's about how it was for me. I was given Seven Altars as a birthday or Christmas gift, eventually acquired the third and fourth books when they came out, and then I believe I read a friend's copy of the first which I found to be relatively uninspired. But I loved books 2-4 and can't believe I got rid of them.

Blogger Jeff B. said...

I almost forgot to mention that these books were where I first became aware of the King in Yellow. It took me years to track down a copy of Chambers' book, but I'm glad Watt-Evans put it on my radar.

Blogger Joe Kushner said...

Nice recap! I ran across one of his books at Half Price a while ago and got two blog posts out of it: I'll have to think about picking up those other books again but so many others to read.


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