Fantasy reads – God Stalker

As the cool wet British summer slithers on, I thought I’d choose a novel that I first read somewhere very hot. Years ago, I spent two months in Singapore where the choice was between icy cold air-conditioning indoors or sauna-like heat and humidity outdoors. Books were my escape route from the temperature extremes and the ones which worked best were two Fantasy novels written in the 1980s by P.C.Hodgell – `God Stalk’ and `Dark of the Moon’.  When I recommend a book giving the title is normally the easy part. Not this time.  These two novels were later republished as one volume called `The Chronicles of Kencyrath’  and then by another publisher under the title of `Dark of the Gods’. They are currently available from Baen Books as `The God Stalker Chronicles’. Confused? Me too. I am grateful to Baen Books for publishing the whole Kencyrath series. There are six volumes so far and the story is on-going. Don’t let the trashy covers – all knife and cleavage – put you off discovering one of the coolest heroines in Fantasy fiction.

`God Stalker’  (as I’m going to call it) is set in Rathillien, a world threatened by the universe-devouring entity known as Perimal Darkling and centres on twin sister and brother Jamethiel (Jame) and Torisen (Tori). The spreading darkness is opposed by the Three-Faced God who is said to have formed three races into the Kencyrath – the self-styled Highborn (the leader class) who include Shanir with strange powers; the Kendar, warriors and craftspeople bound to serve individual Highborn; and the mysterious cat-like Arrin-ken (who sadly don’t appear very often). At the start of the story, injured Jame emerges from the haunted lands in search of her brother. She only has hazy memories of who and what she is.  In the Holy City of  Tai-tastigon she saves an old man called Penari from attackers and survives the Feast of  Dead Gods.  She is given refuge by the kindly inhabitants of an inn and becomes the apprentice of Penari, who turns out to be a famous thief.  During her time in Tai-tastigon Jame has to survive many dangers – ruthless rival inn-keepers, deadly feuds within the Thieves’ Guild, the `Lower Town Monster’ , and the terrifying night when the gods leave their temples. After learning more about her own remarkable fighting and dancing skills, Jame is forced to leave the city.  Part Two of the story begins a few days later. Jame, her blind ounce-cat, Jorin, and a Kendar friend, are lost in a snowstorm and threatened by wolves and an evil shape-changer. Even after she has been helped by an Arrin-ken, Jame has to undertake a perilous journey, encountering brigands, monsters and ghosts from her own mysterious past. Meanwhile, her brother Tori is struggling to establish himself as Highlord of the Kencyrath but Highborn families are plotting against him and a barbarian army is about to invade. Only his lost sister,  and the treasures she has brought out of darkness, can help him but will he trust her?

These plot summaries probably make `God Stalker’ sound like standard Fantasy fare but the books themselves have a unique flavour. As you read them you get a strong sense that you are entering Dr  Hodgell’s private universe. The writing has a visionary quality and the author seems to have an intense bond with Jame, her main viewpoint character. The down-side of this is that Hodgell largely ignores the fact that her readers are not as familiar with Rathillien and its complex history as she is.  The plot is often hard to follow, especially as there are peculiar shifts in time (which leave Jame ten years younger than her twin), much of the action takes place in dream or trance states,  and many dead characters remain surprisingly frisky.  Without the background and  plot summary provided in an appendix to Part One, I’d have become hopelessly confused. Even now, I often finish a scene in one of Hodgell’s books thinking, `that was great but what the hell was going on?’

So, why bother with `God Stalker’ ? Well, there is plenty of suspense and action. Hodgell is as good at building up a creepy atmosphere as she is at describing  the fights her heroine is always getting into. She is also brilliant at inventing complex cultures complete with weird but convincing customs, legends and religious beliefs. Her Holy City of Tai-tastigon, with its five courts of the Thieves’ Guild, its `Kingdom in the Clouds’ among the roof-tops, and its thousands of petty gods, rivals anything in Lord Dunsany’s work (see my June 20th blog). Hodgell creates some wonderful deities (the frog-like Gorgo the Lugubrious is my favourite) and ingenious rules and reasons for their existence.  The relationships between her three races are well worked out, with Hodgell’s sympathies very much with the oppressed Kendar.

Above all there is Jame, the honourable young woman who seems to put everyone she meets in danger. She has the ultimate in dysfunctional families. Mystery surrounds the identity of her mother. She has appalling memories of an abusive father and she has long been separated from her beloved twin whom she fears will despise her for her Shanir powers. She’s a natural leader who refuses to live the constricted life of a Highborn lady. Jame has retractable claws and can fight like a tigress , she can dream-walk to other places and times and her dancing can suck out men’s souls. She also has a warm empathic relationship with the cat she rescued and becomes the only person able to ride a rathorn, a kind of ferocious unicorn encased in living ivory.  In spite of  all her troubles, I’d love to be Jame. She’s a heroine worth sticking with. Until next week…