Monday, 19 January 2015

Raven: Swordmistress Of Chaos

Raven was a sex, sword & sorcery book series that was about as derivative as they come, even for the mostly generic field of literature that was '70's heroic fantasy.
It's main selling point were the gorgeous covers by Chris Achilleos of our barbarienne heroine repeatedly popping out of her not especially practical outfits.

The series was also reprinted later on, with suitably 80's art from Luis Royo, Raven looking not unlike Brigette Neilsen or indeed, the singer in a Hair Metal band. I prefer the original covers to be honest.
It's kind of a mildly dirty Red Sonja ( or a less dirty Ghita Of Alizar if you prefer ), and, yes, Kate Bush clearly saw that original illustration before filming the Babooska video.

'Richard Kirk' was actually two writers, Angus Wells and Robert Holdstock, and you can tell there were two, as Raven is so overly wordy, it should've won some kind of purple prose award, so keen it is to ape Robert E. Howard's style. At times, it's like they were outdoing each other to see who could come up with the most strangled language and metaphors. And there's other problems.

The origin story introduces soon-to-be-Raven, runaway slave Su'aan, as she escapes lifelong captivity, only to fall in with a gang of outlaws, and male lead Spellbinder.
Spellbinder is actually the main character in the first book, the story beginning with him narrating the saga of Raven years after she's passed into legend.
He's spends most of the story dropping heavy hints about Raven's mysterious future destiny, becoming her lover in some reasonably raunchy sex scenes, and explaining the plot whenever we get a bit lost, leaving Raven for a good portion of the story relegated to second-string status.
It's Spellbinder who provides Raven with her weapons training ( including some Killraven-esque throwing stars ) and her new name, as well as the spooky black bird that helps her out in tricky situations, but who then seems to get completely forgotten about for huge swathes of the narrative.

Once forged into a sexy killing machine, Raven thirsts for revenge on her previous master, Karl Ir Donwayne ( one can only assume one of the writers had, as has been noted elsewhere, three friends called Karl, Don & Wayne who wanted to be in the book ).
Spellbinder, however, is all about the quest, and drags her, and a bunch of pirates they fall in with, all over the place in search of the mystical Skull of Quez because, well, if they don't they'll all just be standing around for the next 80 pages.
And still, at this point, Raven is just sitting there watching everyone else get on with stuff. There's a ludicrous scene where, to get the skull, Spellbinder has to fight the king of the Beastmen. So he goes into a hidden temple and does it offscreen. Inbetween chapters. While we read about Raven and the pirates waiting for him. Did they put the right cover on this book?

All in all, Swordmistress Of Chaos is quite a dull read, only really livening up towards the end, where Raven finally gets her revenge in a brilliantly gory duel with Karl Ir Donwayne, and Spellbinder has an equally fun fight with bad wizard Belthis.
It's all rather like someone taking the surface language of a sword and sorcery novel, and writing one without any of the excitement, drive or insanity the best ones have. The world it takes place in never for a moment feels as real as The Hyborian Age or Middle-Earth, and even at a mere 120 pages, it's a slog to get through.
Hilariously, by the way, my second hand copy comes autographed by 'Richard Kirk'. If you're going to get a fictional character to sign their book, why not go the whole hog and have Raven sign it herself?
But there are those covers. Let's try the second book A Time Of Ghosts, and see if things improve.

Book 2 begins again with Spellbinder, years after the fact, telling another audience the legend of Raven. It starts strongly, with her rescuing a group of slaves, and various complications and bad guys from the first book returning. Already, Raven is a more take charge character, suggesting this book might actually be about her, rather than her male lead.
Pretty soon, Raven and her enlarged supporting cast, including fellow woman warrior Karmana, chirpy soldier of fortune Silver, and even-more-mysterious-than-Spellbinder-wandered-in-from-a-Michael-Moorcock-book-spooky-albino Moonshadow, have forged themselves into a ( fairly small ) mercenary army, and they soon get involved in the kidnapping of one Queen Krya, who seems to have been abducted by Raven's old pirate friend Gondar Lifebane, but is actually in the hands of old enemies Belthis and the resurrected Karl Ir Donwayne.

Trying to prove this to the queen's husband M'rystal involves lots of sailing around the ocean, and hearing about places and people like the Conil Nachta, the Viikrach, the Dowfraich and the Wiafrach. As well as the Gobbledeegook and the Poppycock.
I'm no big fan of maps or glossaries in S & S novels, but if ever the reader needed a few pointers, it's in this book, where the nonsense names come at you thick and fast, and even somebody used to this sort of thing, like I am, was struggling.
For instance, there's the Kli, a unit of measurement used repeatedly. Everywhere is several kli's from everywhere else, but I've no idea what a kli is, because I haven't been given enough information about it. It's like Wells & Holdstock thought just using made-up words is enough to instill a sense of otherworldness. But it's not. Robert E Howard, for instance, made up words for his people and places, but he took the time to ground them in enough reality that you actually understood the world you were in. Mind you, he was an insane genius.

Anyway, back to the story. Drawing King M'ystal away from his kingdom, by tricking him into chasing after Raven, the bad guys' army invade and take over what passes for civilization on this world. Meanwhile, Moonshadow ( who does everything bar shout at the reader: I'm Elric, everybody! ) reveals he's come from another dimension to find a mysterious demon called The Crugoan, who might be either of the villains, or maybe either of the writers, for all I know.

Realising that Belthis' army is made up of two warring tribes in an uneasy alliance, Raven and chums decide to set them against each other, manipulating them into warring amongst themselves, causing Belthis and Donwayne to flee for their lives, and getting a grateful M'ystal his kingdom back.
So we're set up for lots of excitement, battles and intrigue.....all of which happens offscreen. At the end of one chapter, Raven starts to set her plan in motion. At the start of the next chapter, it's all over, and she's riding into M'ystal's capital city, a conquering heroine. What the @?#! Have these guys got a problem with action scenes? Every time you think this book's about to kick in, they move away from the stuff you want to see, and go back to the characters standing around talking about what they're going to do.

Eventually tracking down our two bad guys, who've yet to actually appear in any meaningful way in the story, to the Frozen Peaks at the edge of the world, Raven and her supporting cast find a lost city, and enter a chamber containing an indoor rainbow and an old man called Roblak the Rainbow Dreamer, which is easily the best nonsense name yet.
Roblak helpfully gives directions to where Belthis & Donwayne are hiding, and our inaction heroes are off again, sailing through yet more faraway places with strange sounding names. Honestly, a great part of this book is simple travelogue, when is something going to happen, for Crom's sake?

Well, with the last couple of chapters heading towards us, A Time Of Ghosts finally comes alive as, following a brief battle with some Ice Warriors, our heroes reach the top of the mountain where the bad guys are lurking, and Raven and fellow she-devil Karmana finally get to fight a zombie-fied Donwayne. Unfortunately, both girls want revenge on him, and Karmana repeatedly blocks Raven's sword strokes so that she can deal the killing blow. Tch. Chicks, eh?

There's a genuinely brilliant sequence where The Crugoan, who's been possessing Belthis, literally pushes it's way out of his body, concertinaring him into a crushed lump on the floor, while underneath mashed flesh and splintered bones, his hands still feebly wave around, casting futile spells, like Wile E. Coyote at the bottom of the canyon.
The half-dead Donwayne escapes again, presumably in time for the next book, and everybody else except Raven, Spellbinder and Silver fall off the cliff at various points. It's an exciting, action-packed ending. If only the rest of the book was as good.

I really wanted to like Raven, but when I read the fifth book, A Time Of Dying, as a kid, I was bored senseless. And trying these novels again, all these years later, is a genuine grind through acres of flat, uninspired writing, with none of the action the covers promise. Raven, far from being a sword-swinging, sexy superwarrior, does practically nothing for the whole of both books.
So if you ever see a Raven novel in a second hand shop, and it's cheap enough, buy it. But buy it for the cover.


  1. That's well spotted. I've seen that Chris Achilleos illustration and that Kate Bush shot a zillion times before but it had never occurred to me that the costumes are virtually identical.

  2. That video got a lot of people through puberty, I reckon, Steve...

  3. Speaking of Kate Bush check out the intro page to Vampirella 106 The likeness is obviously intentional.


  5. I must be an outlier because I liked the books and the world. It did not make sense in any geographical sense but as a fragment in a sea of chaos it worked for me. I did a map for this.