Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review: Zorachus

Book Review: 'Zorachus' by Mark E. Rogers

5 / 5 Stars

‘Zorachus’ (298 pp) was published in December 1986 by Ace Books; the cover illustration is by the author. 

I first learned about this book at a Retrospace website ‘Vintage Reads’ post devoted to cover artwork from vintage sf and fantasy paperbacks. The Retrospace post featured cover art to  ‘The Nightmare of God’, the sequel to 'Zorachus'.

The Retrospace caption to ‘Nightmare’ stated: “Rumor has it that this was too dark and twisted to stay in print, so Ace let it go under....” which piqued my interest.

[Mark E. Rogers died on February 2, while hiking in Death Valley. He was 61 years old, and a resident of Newark, Delaware.]

Rogers was multi-talented, being both an artist and a writer. 'Nothing But A Smile: The Pinup Art of Mark Rogers'  (2001), and 'The Art of Fantasy' (2005), collect his girlie / pinup art. 

Rogers's fiction work included his first novel, a zombie apocalypse story titled 'The Dead' (1989). The six 'Samurai Cat' illustrated novels (1984 - 1998) which parodied sf and fantasy themes, fetch high prices on the used-book market.

Rogers's sword and sorcery fiction works included, besides the two volumes of the Zorachus series, the 'Blood of the Lamb' trilogy (1991- 1992), published by Ace Books. 

His subsequent titles all were self-published, featured his own illustrations, and included the 'Zancharthus' trilogy (1999 - 2002), a sequel to the Zorachus series. Also associated with the 'Zancharthus' trilogy is 'Lilitu' (2010). 'Yark' (2010) is a satire of epic fantasy novels.     

As ‘Zorachus’ opens, our hero, still an infant, is spirited away from the city-state of Khymir, his father the target of a palace coup. Zorachus is reared to adulthood in the southern land of Qanar-Sharaj by the warrior monks of the Sharajnaghi Order.

Under the tutelage of the monks, Zorachus grows to manhood, steeped in the pantheism and morally upstanding religious values of the Order. He attains the level of Master, adept at both spellcasting and combat, at an unprecedentedly young age. 

Just as he is celebrating his achievement, a delegation from Khymir arrives at the Order. They have a request from Kletus, the mage now ruling Khymir: will Zorachus return to the land of his birth, and assume a position as a loyal nobleman and supporter of Kletus ?

Zorachus is reluctant to entertain a return to Khymir, for the city-state is notorious throughout the land for the violence and depravity exhibited by its people. But Ghaznavi, head of the Sharajnaghi order, pleads with Zorachus to undertake a return to Khymir….not to support Kletus, but rather, to ally with his enemies in the Traders Guild. For Kletus secretly has plans to raise an army and invade the lands surrounding Khymir for victims for the sacrificial altars that sustain his power and the favor of the God of Khymir, Tchernobog.

If Zorachus and the Khymir Traders Guild cannot find a way to overthrow Kletus, the northern lands will be drenched in the blood of countless innocents…..with Qanar-Sharaj inevitably next in line to fall.

The gist of ‘Zorachus’ can be summed up in a scene taking place about midway through the novel:

Our hero, having taken up residence in his ancestral home in the city-state of Khymir, has stunned the populace with his acts of generosity, kindness, and self-restraint. A crowd of thousands of diseased, starving beggars assembles outside the front gate of his estate, pleading for him to bless them and provide them with alms.

Zorachus agrees to address the crowd, and mounts the balcony overlooking the front gate. He promises to provide the beggars with a daily meal, paid for with the riches from his inheritance. The beggars weep for joy and cheer with approval. And then….

“What else do you want ?” Zorachus asked. “Medicine, lodging….”

“Entertainment !” the beggar answered. “Open the whorehouses ! Give us children with pretty backsides and fresh faces to slice ! Let the arenas swim with blood !”

The others roared with enthusiasm, and at once the pity Zorachus had felt for the crowd deserted him. Until then he had seen the beggars as fellow human beings, wretches trapped and decaying in the Great Mother’s mazy, incubating womb. Now he saw only twisted monstrosities, filth-caked demons, beings delighting in evil….he had a chilling thought:
This is what it’s like to be God, to see men as they really are.

Zorachus uses a fast-moving plot, and splatterpunk-friendly depictions of violence and depravity, to answer the question: what happens to an idealistic, morally upright, but naïve young man, who finds himself Kingmaker in a society that makes Mordor look like Disneyland ? How many times can he turn his cheek, show mercy to the defeated, when such actions indirectly lead to yet more atrocities ?

At what point will Zorachus lose his self control and belief in humanism….and open up a can of whoop-ass that Khymir has never before seen ? !

'Zorachus' succeeds first and foremost as an entertaining, action-filled sword and sorcery novel.

The novel provides vivid descriptions of duels between Zorachus and evil mages that are the prose equivalent of the spellcasting battles that take place in Dr Strange comics: bolts of azure energy streaking from fingertips to sear the flesh of screaming victims, or conjured demons that shred their victim's flesh with crimson talons, while the bleeding victim frantically tries to recall the appropriate counter-spell.......
But along with the action sequences, ‘Zorachus’ adeptly uses a traditional sword and sorcery action narrative to address some complex philosophical and moral issues, and does so in a way that makes most other entries in the sword-and-sorcery genre - and indeed, the heroic fantasy genre as a whole - seem superficial and shallow. Indeed, I think 'Zorachus' deserves to stand alongside Ian Graham's 2004 novel 'Monument' as an example of a fantasy novel that brings something new and imaginative to a genre that has been, in many ways, over-exposed by shallow commercialism in the last few decades.

All this make 'Zorachus'  well worth getting.

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