Was the 1930s the last great period of adventure fiction in the modern era? There’s Indiana Jones, Tales of the Golden Monkey, Robert E. Howard’s oriental and boxing tales, to mention a few examples. And then there is Jack Williamson’s Golden Blood.
What captured my attention was the tank on the cover. And then the first couple of chapters sold me completely. The concept of a (then) modern military assault on a mysterious, perhaps magical stronghold of a lost civilization couldn’t have been better designed to appeal to me. I was all ready for something reminiscent of Brian Daley’s Doomfarers of Coramonde. That anticipation, I think, is the genesis of the very minor disenchantment I experienced during my reading of Golden Blood, and that is entirely my fault. Williamson was telling a different story, not catering to a future generation.
And that story was vintage 1930s, with a dash of lost world, a shot of reincarnation, and tip of the hat to H. Rider Haggard’s She. The protagonist is out of central casting, a rich, world weary veteran of the great war. He is recruited to mount a military campaign to retrieve an unimaginable treasure from a legendary lost city in the heart of the Arabian desert. As you might expect, that lost city isn’t so legendary after all. A beautiful woman arrives at the camp at one point and utterly upends our hero’s goals. We get a glimpse of the modern versus magical/psuedo-scientific warfare that I had hoped for, but much of it occurs outside the protagonist’s POV. Meanwhile the story begins to follow the more traditional tropes of the period adventure tale. Our hero get repeatedly knocked out, imprisoned or left for dead, is rescued or finds a way to extricate himself. Meanwhile the villain gloats, provides background history, explains some of the gobbledygook pseudo-science behind the miracles and his apparent immortality, and fails to kill the hero multiple times when he is at the villain’s mercy. As expected. Also, as expected, is the villainess’ reaction to seeing the hero, and this ties into the reincarnation angle. The hero perseveres, doggedly pursuing his goal of rescuing the girl through seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. Along the way, we get lots of hand to hand mortal combat, gigantic beasts, lost tombs, golden palaces, caverns deep in the heart of an ancient volcano, freeze rays, camel cavalry charges, tanks, machine guns, cinematic mirage projections, seductions.
A lot of good stuff. And yet, while I do recommend it, it left me unmoved. If I were to re-read some Williamson it would probably be the stirring re-imagining of the Theseus myth The Reign of Wizardry, or the utterly bonkers The Legion of Space. Golden Blood is a fine exemplar of 1930s fantastic adventure. But it feels by the numbers, as if the components had been purchased off the shelf then assembled with competence but without any real passion or genius. Still, it is probably worth your time. I am glad I read it. I’m on record as a Jack Williamson fan and I haven’t changed my mind.
The 2020s perhaps cannot compete with the 1930s for romance and adventure, but I have given it a shot. Check out the Semi-Autos and Sorcery series for some contemporary fantasy adventure.