Sunday, November 11, 2007

Short Review of Shadow Kingdom -- Robert E. Howard

Kull of Atlantis is one of four major characters which sprang pantherine from the pen of sword-and-sorcery author Robert E. Howard. In this first of the Kull series of stories, we find a barbarian king come to the throne of Valusia: a task not quite suited to the wild and unpredictable Kull of Atlantis. A once-rival comes to him as a friend to reveal a great web of evil lurking in the shadows of Valusia, and together they seek a way to root out the pervasive reek of inhuman treachery that has seeped from the depths of prehistory too ancient for contemplation:
Kull sat upon his throne and gazed broodily out upon the sea of faces turned toward him. A courtier was speaking in evenly modulated tones, but the king scarcely heard him....The surface of court life was as the unrippled surface of the sea between tide and tide....As he sat upon his throne in the Hall of Society and gazed upon the courtiers, the ladies, the lords, the statesmen, he seemed to see their faces as things of illusion, things unreal, existent only as shadows and mockeries of substance. Always he had seen their faces as masks, but before he had looked on them with contemptuous tolerance, thinking to see beneath the masks shallow, puny souls, avaricious, lustful, deceitful; now there was a grim undertone, a sinister meaning, a vague horror that lurked beneath the smooth masks. While he exchanged courtesies with some nobleman or councilor he seemed to see the smiling face fade like smoke and the frightful jaws of a serpent gaping there. How many of those he looked upon were horrid, inhuman monsters, plotting his death, beneath the smooth mesmeric illusion of a human face?

A compelling story from early in the career of Robert E. Howard. It is easy to see Conan as naturally developing out of the raw stuff in Howard's imagination, though Kull is hardly the proto-Conan, as he is very well developed and unique in his own right. In this story, the brilliantly rendered Brule makes his first appearance also, Kull's stalwart right-hand man of Pictish descent. Brule is the roguish counterpoint to the shadowy dreams of the brooding Kull. A truly classic sword and sorcery tale with much to offer the jaded fan.

Cross-posted at fantasticfictions.

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