The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun is the first novel in a probable trilogy called The Wrath and the Athenaeum. Erik Allen, a former child star, comes into his divine super powered inheritance and finds himself a soldier in a war to save Earth. Lil, an apprentice librarian, similarly finds herself thrust into the effort to save her world of Zebub. The threat to both worlds is the same. Can the heroes and their allies save both worlds? Or will the incompetence of those in power lead to doom for all?
I really want to like The Root. The novel has a lot going for it. But the novel also has serious flaws that frustrate me to no end. So, in the end, I am disappointed.
The Root is an epic fantasy with a split narrative featuring two different genres. The narrative starring Erik is urban fantasy, and the narrative starring Lil is new weird.
The biggest selling point for the novel is Tilahun’s imagination. Zebub is an amazing construction deeply indebted to the New Weird. That world is deeply strange, monstrous, and awe inspiring. The imagination extends to the less “human” of the descendants of the gods called either Angelics or Antes depending on world. Many of the descriptions of those characters are amazing.
The Root is also noted for the diversity of its characters. Erik is a gay teen among several lgbtq characters, people of color outnumber white characters, and there are about equal representation along gender lines.
Erik’s character initially sold me on the novel. He is a compelling mix of guilt and rage. I love the chapters from his perspective.
Lil is more conventionally a fantasy protagonist but no less compelling than Erik.
Now, I have to get into the negatives.
I love Erik’s character. I want more chapters from his perspective. Hell, I want all the San Francisco chapters from his perspective. Pity, he has to share with practically every other character.
And that is the biggest problem with The Root. The narrative is hopelessly muddled by too many point of view characters that do not add anything to the narrative. I almost bailed on the book sixty or so pages in because of this. And I think that was the character’s only chapter.
The Root would be a stronger novel if Erik and Lil are the only point of view characters. But the epic genre tends to require multiple points of view even if they, in the end, add nothing to the overall story.
Another major problem is Tilahun’s tendency to exposition. Telling trumps showing. The most glaring example is Erik’s awakening his power. The reader is told what happened. Never shown. Even though a lot of authorial soap boxing would be enhanced if he described the event rather than relate it in conversation.
The plots are individually quite good. But the two strands do not cross. I expect they will though in book two.
In the end, I want to love The Root. But I just can’t. The excessive points of view and propensity to exposition wreck the pleasure of the reading. Maybe if I give the book a third go in the new year I will change my opinion. I hope so.
If I am honest with myself, the portal fantasy will not be the first of the four projects I wrote about last October to be completed. That honor will, more than likely, go to Black Magic (which has a new and better working title). The frustration is that the portal fantasy is one of my oldest ideas. I really want to write a portal fantasy. But, in the end, I have no satisfactory idea where the hell I’m going.
The earliest iteration of the project was sword and sorcery. The series of stand alone novels followed the adventures of Leo Crowley (Tyler’s antecedent) after he became trapped in a fairly standard Bronze Age inspired world. The main difference between this older version of the portal fantasy is that Leo became merged with a demon shortly after he is summoned to the fantasy world by an evil wizard. At the time, I liked the idea. It was a decent juvenile effort, but too derivative of traditional sword and sorcery. (I want to write a sword and sorcery series, but I want to make it my own). So I abandoned the project for years.
Gradually, I began to wonder what would happen if a fantasy city intruded onto present day Earth, thus was born Two Cities. Characters from the present day (at least at the time of writing) travel through time and to other worlds for an adventure or two (or more), but characters from fantasy worlds rarely return the favor (that I know of). It is time, I think, to change that. I like this idea. There is a domesticity and literariness that calls to me. But where is the conflict (or one that I don’t feel is needlessly stupid)?
Finally, I returned to a modified form of my original idea with two leads, Jett Drake and Tyler Spang. As I wrote in my series of posts on the portal fantasy in October, Tyler had all the action and Jett just hung around. I’ve recently hit upon in interesting arc for Jett, but now Tyler is in the lurch. I don’t want Tyler’s adventures to amount to nothing more than sex tourism. The idea is strong and I like it. But it needs work.
Honestly, I should step back from portal fantasies for a while and figure out fully what the hell I want to do with these projects. What is it, ultimately, that I want to write?
I have an answer. I want to combine both Two Cities and The Journey (for lack of a better name) with a few more ideas into a grand epic fantasy that spans Earth and two or three fantasy worlds. I want to explore how Earth would react to real life fantasy worlds. I want to imagine what types of diplomacy, trade, and tourism could develop. And I want to see how Earth characters would deal with other worlds facing epic conflicts, moments, events, etc.
This is very ambitious stuff. Creating two to three worlds would strain my world building to the breaking point and beyond. I don’t know if I can do it. Nor, honestly, do I know how to make it all work at the moment.
I have a lot to think about.
Epic is a staple of fantasy literature, whether it is prose, comics, or film. But what is epic? An epic, in the context of fantasy literature, is a narrative of great import to the world of the text. The Lord of the Rings is about the quest of Frodo Baggins and his companions to destroy the One Ring and consequently save Middle Earth from Sauron’s tyranny. That is epic storytelling. But sometimes, a narrative isn’t clearly epic, at least not in the beginning. Indeed, it sometimes takes a while before the narrative begins to take on an epic scope. This is what I call a discovered epic.
The most obvious example of a discovered epic would be Naruto. Originally about a young boy’s dreams of acknowledgement, the series has morphed into a battle for the fate of humanity. And this has really only been true for the past four years of the series.
Another series that is in the process of becoming a discovered epic (from being originally heroic fantasy) is Fairy Tail. If one reads ahead, one will know that the final conflict of the series will be an epic showdown with the Black Wizard, Zeref. The results of that showdown will, no doubt, change the face of Earth Land.
Even some series that are already called epic might be a type of discovered epic. Take Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire. Harry Potter doesn’t become epic until around the fifth book of a seven book series. And, so far, A Song of Ice and Fire seems to be a collection of historical fantasy novellas rather than an epic. But that, too, may change as the various narrative threads come together.
So, what makes a discovered epic? Serialization. In a narrative disjointed by serialization, there is a lot of room for “growing” the narrative. It is unlikely that there are solid plans for the narrative as a whole from the beginning.
Becoming epic, however, fundamentally changes the nature of the work. And not always for the better, I think.
Take Naruto, for example, The heart of the series is Naruto’s relationship with Sasuke. All of this epic prophesied messiah crap just gets in the way of the real story: trying to bring a prodigal friend/ brother home. That is why I argue that Sasuke is, in many ways, the actual main antagonist of the whole series. Until his most recent heel face turn that completely ruined the whole thing. (Okay, let me calm down before I go on another Naruto rant).
Another series that likely is damaged by moving into a more epic mode is Naturo’s sibling series Bleach. One epic story is enough. But two? I don’t know. . . But in all fairness to Bleach, I haven’t read the series in a long while.
So far, I’ve only looked at how becoming epic changes a long running shonen manga series. But I’m sure other long running forms have similarly been changed when the epic part of the narrative begins. But, to be honest, I really want to do more research on this. I really need to read more manga. And find good academic analysis of manga.
As a series grows larger, it is tempting to give the narrative an equally larger scope. It is only in reading that one will discover if this increase in size/ scope is a good or bad thing.
I have three reviews to get through: 1. The Green Hornet 2. Nights in Villjamur and 3. Firefly.
The Green Hornet (2011, dir. Michel Gondry) is a disappointment to say the least. The movie itself is okay, if you ignore the plot holes or plot idiocies (take you pick).
What most crystalizes the problems in this movie is Seth Rogen. He simply fails at portraying Britt Reid. What he plays is a gregarious buffoon pretending to be a hero. Yes, by the end of the movie, he gets over his daddy issues and becomes a much better super hero. But having to go through an hour and thirty five minutes of Rogen’s roaring juvenile antics is too much.
The bright point of the film is Jay Chou, who does a good job as Kato. While the character has to be goofy to match the silliness of the film, I think that Chou manages to hint at the absurdities within the film.
The plot itself is rather tiresome, though it does not rehash the murdered parent casus that many super heroes go through, but wait, it does! The sudden reveal is interesting, but should have come earlier. But then, there wouldn’t be the joke.
The saving grace of the film is really the action sequences, the thrill and comedy of explosions and fighting. One can almost forgive the film its flaws because of the action sequences. But almost.
And the racial, class, and homoerotic tensions between Reid and Kato make for at times funny, troubling, and annoying moments. Kato really should have beaten the crap out of Reid given all of the indignities that he had to endure. And don’t even get me started on the “not-a-gay” joke that peppers the film.
In the end, The Green Hornet, is ultimately a forgettable blockbuster.
Nights in Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton is honestly even more disappointing than The Green Hornet. I had been looking forward to reading this book, and am bitterly disappointed at how it turns out. Newton attempts to marry the New Weird style of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with a more traditional epic narrative. In this way, elements of Nights in Villjamur are reminiscent of Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains. But Nights lacks both Mieville’s imagination and the raw emotional power of Morgan’s grittiness. Instead, what you have is a rather standard epic fantasy.
I will admit that part of the reason I wanted to read the novel is because of the inclusion of a gay protagonist (although not the lead) named Brynd. His story is done rather well, and I can agree that he is one of two well realized characters (the other being Randur). But the rest of the cast are rather dull.
The plot is confused and varied. Where Newton fails, I think, is that he does not have a clear focus, despite the fact that all of the plot lines are connected. Perhaps that could be because the over all plot is so over used. Who hasn’t seen an evil chancellor plot to overthrow the legitimate royal family? And in this case, did he really need to? There is such a thing as the Glorious Revolution. . .
The world itself is well done, the approaching Ice Age is an interesting concept, and the design of Villjamur the city is interesting. Pity the world is hampered by the plot.
Firefly, Joss Whedon’s cult classic, is an amazing series. The marriage of the western with space opera, of action with light comedy, is very well managed, although for some, perhaps off putting. I have come to admire this series greatly. However, I am not certain that it could have maintained itself had it had more of a chance.
My problem is the film Serenity. While the film is great in its own right, there are numerous problems that do not quite connect with the series itself. Simon and River are integrated into the crew, but in the film, their place is more tenuous. It really does not connect well, I think. However, does the film really indicate how the series (had it continued) would progress? I don’t know.
Anyway, the acting is generally pretty good, by science fiction television standards. Summer Glau’s one liners are well delivered, Gina Torres is amazing, and Jewel Stait is delightful.
There is not much bad I can say about the series. Watching it over the past week has been a delight.
That’s three reviews down. I am still disappointed about Nights in Villjamur, but I may come back to it later. Don’t know if my opinion will change however. My next post will cover Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and maybe John Keegan’s A History of Warfare.
This past week has been rather tough when it comes to my reading. I think I mentioned a few posts back that I had tried to read Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows and just could not get into it. I have to admit that of the five books on my plate, the only one I have enjoyed is volume 49 of Naruto. The Way of Shadows just annoyed me (and I didn’t care for the characters), Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover is, despite its lyricism, not very good fantasy or science fiction. I wanted to like it, but Jane’s problem is so silly and idiotic that I just could not get into it. And that brings me to Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. Lee and Weeks can take comfort in that I got further in their novels than I did with Abercrombie’s. Why is that? Why did I not like it?
The question of Abercrombie’s artistic merits, style, and vision have been talked about enough lately. I’ve participated in the debate and I find that I may be forced to reassess my position.
I still disagree fundamentally with Leo Grin’s take on Abercrombie (okay, his royally stupid insertion of politics into the essay), but I find that Theo over at Blackgate may have more points than I had originally given him credit for.
My own personal take on the matter is that I generally dislike medieval secondaries (secondary worlds with a medieval European culture/ civilization). I’m more enamored of new weird works rather than the traditional fantasy.
That and character. I just didn’t find any of Abercrombie’s point of view characters interesting at all. In the end, The Blade Itself is a big meh (all of the thirty eight pages I read).
Even though I can’t be said to have really read the book, I think I can see more of what the attacks on Abercrombie’s work is about. He’s writing in an ironic mode in Northrop Frye’s formulation of the term.
The ironic mode is a form in which the characters are weaker than, less powerful than, more pathetic than the average reader. These characters are debased, cowardly, silly, and have little hope of redemption. I think this is what Abercrombie is writing, and I don’t like it much. Morgan writes in this vein too in his The Steel Remains, but I think that Gil and his comrades are greater than the average reader. They are genuinely heroic in a horrific world. Or it could be that Gil’s character captured my interest from the start while Abercrombie’s left me cold.
I can also see Theo’s objection to much of this type of fantasy. If you are going to utilize a medieval setting, use as much authenticity as possible. From history, religion, culture, psychology, etc. be as authentic as possible. The problem with this approach is that unless the writer (and the reader) is passionate and even a scholar of the period, then being completely accurate may not be the best option. A professor of mine said that most readers prefer the Romantics because their way of writing, their psychology, is closer to ours than those of other periods. And I think that is true of fantasy. I know I don’t want to read a novel of five hundred pages about Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, or any of those others. And I suspect most fantasy readers don’t either. That’s why so much of these novels are being written with “modern” point of views, I think.
I admit that I may be wrong about this. It could just be I don’t like Abercrombie’s style nor Weeks’s nor Rothfuss’s. So I may revisit this later (maybe). But for now, I have research to do.
Okay, this post is going to be rather scattered as there is a lot to cover today in criticism and news/ announcements.
For the past few weeks, there has been an extended debate over nihilism and morality in fantasy, a dearth of definitions, and questioning who gets left out of the discussion. I’ve been interested in the debate (even wading into) and I want to get some of my thoughts down.
After a lot of thought, I think that when it comes to “realistic” or “nihilistic” (would some one please actually define what you mean when you use it!) a more appropriate term would be “dystopic.” A dystopia is a fantastical place where life is a mess- it is brutal, cruel, sadistic, depressing, etc. TV Tropes also uses the term “crapsack world” for it. I think this works better than either realism or nihilism. Realism makes one think of mundane fantasy while nihilism is just a pejorative with little real force. A dystopic fantasy is, I think, the best descriptor (until a better one comes along).
I’ve also been intrigued by Matthew David Surridge’s essay from last week trying to define “epic” fantasy. I agree with parts of his arguments, but I’m not totally with him. I think a good definition is “a work of fantastic literature that 1) Features a prominent ‘great conflict’ against a great, undeniable evil 2) usually lasts for over a thousand pages either in a single volume or across several and 3) typically, but not necessarily, being set in a secondary world that is annoyingly like Medieval Europe.” Now, not all of the definition has to be met although a consensus is that part one should be met.
Postmodernism has been brought into the debate, which I feel is problematic to say the least. Personally, I don’t trust postmodernism that much, especially with fantasy. I like some of the stylistic innovations that postmodernism has brought, but I don’t think that the wider philosophy of postmodernism is all that helpful in appreciating or understanding fantasy. What I mean is that often times postmodernism reflects on the text as an artificial construct but this, I think, damages the enjoyment of fantasy. And challenging everything before anything has been set is rather like knowing Cthullu. Enough of this.
I just finished read Naruto vol. 49, and I am debating whether I want to do a review or tackle it when I do my Naruto analysis project. I think I may do that then. I also attempted Brent Weeks’s novel The Way of Shadows and did not make it too far (only about 117). Not impressed with that one. Next is Tanith Lee, Joe Abercrombie, and Glenn Cook. As for my own reading projects for the blog, I’m either going to do Naruto in the coming weeks or do a Clark Ashton Smith project. Or I could do both!
Enough for now. I need to get to writing.
The penultimate part of The Scar, “Morning Walker,” references, obviously, the flagship of the New Crobuzon fleet that attacks Armada halfway through the part. “Morning Walker” actually has two battles- the Crobuzine attack and the capture of Silas Fennec.
Silas Fennec is a rat. He used whatever he stole from the Gengris (what everyone assumes to be the magus fin, and in reality in Fennec’s notebook) to entice, to blackmail New Crobuzon into mounting a rescue mission thousands of miles from home. And results in the loss of, allegedly, half the entire Crobuzine Navy.
What I find interesting about this whole thing is that the conflict did not need to happen. I understand why it happened, pirates never trust the authorities. And many of Armada’s Remade citizens would face brutality and renewed enslavement if New Crobuzon captured the city. Also, New Crobuzon has attacked Armada in the past when the two were on opposite sides in the Pirate Wars (which saw New Crobuzon completely annihilate the rival city state of Suroch (as mentioned in Perdido Street Station and here in The Scar). So, it is natural for Armada to distrust New Crobuzon intentions (even though the Pirate Wars occurred several centuries ago). And add to that the fact that the leaders of Armada (especially the Lovers) are highly aggressive. So a battle seems inevitable, and it creates a moment of tension that briefly threatens the completion of the Lover’s quest to the Scar.
About the battle itself, I am to a degree unsatisfied, unconvinced by it. I am not a military historian or any kind of expert, but I have a hard time seeing New Crobuzon actually losing the battle (as they do). It is clear that New Crobuzon has to lose the battle for the story to continue. But I don’t quite buy it. I can see that the cobbled together ship bombs would be effective, but that sudden introduction still does not satisfy me. And don’t even get me started on Uther Doul. Whenever he enters a battle, there is little chance of excitement because he always wins. And it gets rather boring.
But he does raise a question that struck my fancy. Was the fleet that attacked Armada really almost half their Navy? For the premiere power in Bas-Lag, the relative smallness of their fleet seems shocking. This raises more questions about New Crobuzon that I raised in my earlier series on Perdido Street Station– how powerful is New Crobuzon?
New Crobuzon is a city-state. And it seems that the city-state is the dominant political entity on Bas-Lag. When nations are mentioned, it is always uttered in terms of the core city. This may imply that all are city-states. A city-state has less resources than a larger state, but at the same time, the city-state does not have the same expenditures that a larger state would entail. So perhaps, my vision of a British comparable navy is off base.
Moving on from the battle, I want to focus more on Bellis Coldwine. Her confidence in herself, her comfort in her actions faces a devastating assault during the Crobuzine attack and the resulting events as she accepts her punishment for her unintentional treason (if you can even call her actions treasonous since she has no loyalty to Armada).
Coming so close to power in Armada, Bellis becomes “drunk” on her connections to Fennec, Doul, the project, and the Lovers. And she hopes to use those connections to foment dissent against the journey to the Scar. Her hopes are dashed as her usefulness is ended as Kruach Aum can understand Salt, Fennec’s betrayal, and Doul’s uncertain relationship.
Of course, as Bellis hopes to play Armada, she is played like a violin by Fennec and Doul. And she doesn’t even realize it until it is too late. That is Bellis’s sin though, her self importance and desire to see herself as special.
I have three The Scar posts waiting for editing, and I’m hoping to have them out over the next two weeks (of course I should finish the novel itself by the end of this week). But this whole debate about “realism” in fantasy just keeps dragging me in. Hopefully, this will be my last word and I can go back to talking about Mieville.
What do I think is going on? Part of the problem is certainly a lack of definitions, of a consensus of what is meant when we throw around terms like “realism” and “fantasy.” My definition comes from my edition of Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literature. In that book, “realism” is defined as a genre that attempts to explore middle class life in the nineteenth century. It is highly mimetic and emphasizes character and psychology over plot. From the late nineteenth century, realism has largely, in various permutation, influenced most of mainstream literature. One can say that there are elements of realism in fantasy, as I said in various comments, that verisimilitude and character are important (read the writing blogs that I read). The idea is to make the secondary world as believable as possible so that the readers are not lost at the beginning (or at the first sign of the fantastic).
But I think that “realism” and “realistic” are being misused when other terms could be more appropriate. I posited that Comedy and Tragedy (as Aristotle and the Elizabethans understood it) and Northrop Frye’s theories might be better terms to explain the issues at hand. But I am not so sure right now (of course, they do work to explain fantasy in general).
Taking a cue from science fiction, I would like to posit the notion of “mundane” fantasy. Mundane fantasy, like mundane science fiction, is about secondary worlds in which little or no magic exists. And the magic, the supernatural, and the fantastic, might just be illusions or parlor tricks if it exists at all. And if we are talking about this mundane fantasy, then I agree with the naysayers, I don’t like the idea of it.
Now, if we are talking about the new violent, explicit strain in fantasy, I think that this strain has existed since Howard and the pulps (just not as explicit- hell read the old epics). I would posit you to take a look at SF Signal’s sword and sorcery mind meld from a few months ago. What we are seeing is, perhaps, a diffusion of sword and sorcery influence on the wider body of the fantasy genre. But if you still are not convinced or happy with that, then how about we posit a style rather than a genre- the “brutal” style of fantasy.
Now with this in mind, I think that for a lot of those who dislike Martin, Morgan, and Bakker for the explicitness of their work, you can rage about the brutal style and not bring in clunky old realism. And if it is a lack of fantasy, then tear apart the mundane secondary genre.
I won’t say categorically that there will be no more posts on this issue. But for now, I want to get back to Mieville. However, I do see the potential for a new series of posts where I hash out an analysis of fantasy. Unfortunately, that means I still can’t get rid of my monstrous theory anthologies! Augh!
As an early aside, I have parts two and three of my Bas-Lag Reading Project: The Scar awaiting editing. I’ll try to get them up next week.
But for now, I want to discuss a flurry of posts over the past week or so that has caught my attention. Brian Murphy over at Blackgate’s excellent website posted “Why Realism does not Equate to Adult (or even Good) Fantasy.” I read that post and didn’t get it, unsure of what Murphy was trying to say because I don’t think he really proved his case. Now I think Michal Woljcik of One Las Sketch and Al Harron of The Blog that Time Forgot make far better cases. Still, I am not convinced that there is a problem.
I agree with some of the comments that argue that the “new” “realist” strain of fantasy is a reaction against the dominant/ dominating presence of Tolkein’s clones. Fantasy didn’t have a New Wave like Science Fiction did in the sixties. The New Wave was a loose group of younger writers who brought new methods, styles, subjects, etc. to a genre that needed a breath of fresh air. Fantasy needs a breath of fresh air too, if you ask me.
In this maybe revolution where steampunk, new weird, sword and sorcery, mythpunk, etc. come to more prominence (or too much prominence), there will be fights fought. Battles waged in a Bloomian contest of young writers trying to overthrow their elders. Tolkein is the one of the Two Towers of Fantasy, Barad-ur in fact. As many of the new crop of writers come into their own, they will attack Tolkein because that is how it is done. While being influenced, one rebels for originality.
Yes a lot of the “new” fantasy is only new in that it is violent, sexy, dirty, gritty, and largely dystopic. And yes Howard and Smith did that over seventy years ago. And they did it damn well.
But who has actually read Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith or C.L. Moore besides the fans, the readers willing to take the time to scour old shelves in used bookstores for treasures? There is a Renaissance brewing, but that is a recent and still tentative thing.
Most people read Tolkein and Lewis and maybe some others (and Rowling too). And then they drop fantasy for other things- “real” literature (like anyone reads that), video games, etc. So when an example of the grittier fantasy is successful (particularly when it is being adapted- A Game of Thrones) then it is declared “one of a kind,” “original,” and all that drivel because the writers are not as informed as they should be. The whole body of Harry Potter criticism can tell you that.
But that said, I like the grittier fantasy, the violent fantasy, the dystopic fantasy. I like Howard, Smith, Mieville, Bakker, and Morgan. Yeah, of the three recent writers, only Mieville can claim to be original in his work. But so what?
So, in the end, I predict that by the time this gritty, bloody revolution is over, that we won’t be returning to the boring old Tolkein clone.
I had planned to get this written and posted later this week, but I decided to tackle this first before getting down to revisions for my short story. But I also plan of hitting The Hour of the Wolf and my review of X towards the end of the week or during the weekend.
This is it. The final wizard of my Conan’s Wizards project. And for this final installment, we have Howard’s strongest, most powerful sorcerer: Xaltotun of Python.
Xaltotun appears in the only Howard written Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon. Here, Xaltotun is resurrected by a conspiracy of four men who would see King Conan overthrown and Valerius, a relative of the deposed king, installed in his place. Haven’t we seen this before? To further their plans, they resurrect the ancient and mummified sorcerer Xaltotun using the Heart of Ahriman. After his resurrection, Xaltotun aids the conspiracy until he is strong enough to implement his own plan, the restoration of Acheron itself.
I asked, though, if we have seen this before. And we have. The Hour of the Dragon is the product of cannibalizing “The Phoenix on the Sword,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” and “Black Colossus.” Indeed, Xaltotun is a merger of Thoth-Amon, Tsotha-lanti, and Thugra Khotan. While combining all three sorcerers, there are a few things all his own.
Xaltotun is as feared as Thoth-Amon (and as unreliable an ally), the true power behind his erstwhile “masters” (like Tsotha-lanti), and is undead (like Thugra Khotan). But he is much more powerful than all of them. He was centuries old at his original death, and he had the power (or knowledge) to allegedly turn back time.
Xaltotun is of Acheron. Now if you know anything about the Hyborian Age, you should know Acheron. Acheron is the millenia fallen empire of wizards that dominated the lands that are (in Conan’s time) inhabited by Hyborians. The elite (if not the entire population) were wizards. The sole magocracy in Howard’s constructed pseudo-history (that I know of). And Xaltotun was the greatest of them, though he reigned at the very moment of Acheron’s fall.
I am certain that a case could be made that Xaltotun was infact the King of Acheron. While he is described as a great sorcerer and a high priest, those exalted positions likely position him as a noble. And likely a king given his image on ancient coinage. Beyond that, he know little of him save his greatest weakness is the Heart of Ahriman.
Xaltotun is clearly powerful. He easily bested Conan on their first encounter, he brings down a cliff, summons a flood (which failed), and planned to use a giant blood sacrifice to restore Acheron itself to life. He is clearly very powerful and does not seem to rely on a magical object to increase his powers (like Thoth-Amon). I am therefore tempted to say that Xaltotun may very well be of a similar status as Tsotha-lanti’s alleged parentage. He comes from a race of wizards, so who knows how much demonic genes are present?
Xaltotun is cool, but I also have a problem with him. When it is clear that he is now in charge of Nemedia and Aquilonia, why not press his advantage? Why does he go along with their attempt to crush Conan? Mind you, he did not know that he lacked the one thing that could defeat him. Or that Conan had it.
But that is my real complaint. I wanted to see the attempt to restore Acheron. After Orastes reveals Xaltotun’s objective, nothing more is said. It is dropped. And I feel that the Heart of Ahriman is a sort of Deus ex Machina in that it provides a too simple way of getting rid of a powerful sorcerer after an obligatory quest.
In this, my final comment on Howard’s wizards, I am a little disappointed. I don’t think Howard took his sorcerers as far as he could. But, it does lay the foundations for some great inspiration.