I have a number of well-worn anthologies on my shelves. It has been said that shorter fiction is the proper length for Swords-and-Sorcery. Maybe so. At least in an anthology the reader has access to multiple imagined worlds in a single volume instead of the single world of a novel. I thought I’d investigate this somewhat, revisiting these collections. And what better volume to start with than Flashing Swords #3?
I’ve written before about Avram Davidson. Might he not have graced the list of an alternate Appendix N? If I recall correctly, Gary Gygax was a Christian. Whether observant or not. But it is possible that he might find Avram Davidson’s rather acid and frequent criticism of religion distasteful and thus did not consider him an influence upon D&D. Pure speculation on my part.
The point is, I’m writing about Avram Davidson again. I just finished “Peregrine: Primus,” a short novel by Davidson, published in 1971. It is an interesting and entertaining read. It is in part a bildungsroman and in part a picaresque. A picaresque as composed by James Branch Cabell and John Myers Myers writing in tandem, if that gives you an idea of the style and quality. Funny stuff, droll, learned, rife with wordplay and bawdy innuendo.
Today’s post comes rather late. I don’t apologize. I was busy desecrating the game of golf with some old friends, too seldom seen. Later the day involved overcooking meat on the grill and sweating off a pound or two adjusting the crib so that my hyperactive offspring doesn’t crawl out of it in the night.
Tonight, after scrubbing burnt barbeque sauce from the grill, I’m reviewing Ursus of Ultima Thule by Avram Davidson. In previous posts I’ve commented on some of the authors and titles from Appendix N of the Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. It’s not a bad list, Appendix N. Sometimes I read something I think ought to be in some sort of Appendix N supplement, a few loose leaves of paper distributed periodically to those of us with a DMG that we can fold in between the covers, appending Appendix N. Avram Davidson is one of those authors I think fits.
Davidson is perhaps less well known than his talents deserve. I know him primarily for a historical fantasy character, a hardcase sort of character from the sword-and-sorcery school whose adventures are set around the turn of the millenium Mediterranean. I picked up Ursus on the strength of Davidson’s short story writing.
I wasn’t disappointed. He’s written an early iron age fantasy, in the lost civilization tradition of stories set in Atlantis or Mu. He employs a highly stylized narrative voice. I can see that being off-putting for some readers, but it worked for me. Ursus is a short novel, far from the expected massive word count of today’s books. Probably for the best, the poetic style might have worn out its welcome had the book ran on much longer.
Ursus is tbe coming-of-age story of a man who – Conan fashion – becomes a king. The eponymous Ursus is a boy by the name of Arn who discovers his heritage as a shape-shifter, a were-bear. He lives during a time when wooly mammoths still roam the far north, a time during which non-human races still exist. A dying king is dealing with ‘iron-sickness,’ a sort of chronic plague of rust. Arn finds himself caught up in the matter, meeting his father, learning something of his heritage, questing for a cure to the iron-sickness, and becoming a man.
I can see the book serving as inspiration for a game involving late ice age characters and/or shapeshifters. I can also, as I said, see readers putting the book down after the first chapter, unwilling to engage with the voice the author chose for the story. Me, I liked it and I’ll keep my eye out for more of Avram Davidson’s fiction.