Perhaps because Jack Williamson was named the second science fiction Grand Master, in 1976, and managed to cop both the coveted Hugo and Nebula Awards, it is easy to forget that the Arizona Territory-born author did write in other fields than just sci-fi. For example, I have already written here of his marvelously scary novella “Wolves of Darkness” (1932), as well as his now-classic lycanthropy novel Darker Than You Think (1948) … two works that doubtless helped him win the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement, conferred on him by the Horror Writers Association in 1998. And I have also written here of one of Williamson’s early forays into the field of fantasy, 1933’s Golden Blood, which surely conduced to his being given the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1994. Williamson, to be sure, was hardly a one-trick pony. Well, now I would like to tell you of another one of Williamson’s infrequent visits outside of the sci-fi genre; namely, his highly regarded fantasy creation entitled The Reign of Wizardry.
The Reign of Wizardry originally appeared as a three-part serial in the March – May 1940 issues of Unknown magazine, editor John W. Campbell’s fantasy-oriented companion to his Astounding Science-Fiction. Unknown only lasted for four years, from 1939 till 1943, when wartime paper shortages led to its premature demise; still, it remains one of the most respected fantasy-geared publications of all time. (The author’s early, shorter version of Darker Than You Think would appear in the December 1940 issue, incidentally.) Williamson’s fantasy offering would then go OOPs (out of prints) for 24 years, till Lancer Books opted to reprint it in paperback form in 1964. Lancer, which would shortly hit it big with reprints of Robert E. Howard’s Conan and King Kull stories, would reissue the book in 1968 (the edition that I was fortunate enough to nab; a typo-riddled, large-print affair) and 1973. Phantasia Press would come out with its own hardback edition in 1979, featuring some beautiful cover art by Stephen Fabian, and most recently (well, in 2012, anyway), an ebook edition was released by the publisher Gateway/Orion. Williamson, who lived to the age of 98, an active writer to the end of his long life, was only 32 when The Reign of Wizardry was initially released. At that point, he’d already come out with over 50 short stories and a dozen novels, including the first three salvos of his LEGION OF SPACE series (1934’s The Legion of Space, 1936’s The Cometeers, and 1939’s One Against the Legion), and The Reign of Wizardry, as it turns out, was still another impressive feather in his young cap.
In his introduction, the author tells us that the Minoan civilization on Crete was at one time the envy of the world, its sailing fleet and cultural attainments unmatched by those of any other empire. But then, this Bronze Age island empire suddenly and spectacularly collapsed, and Williamson’s book purports to show us what happened. Thus, the reader is introduced to the legendary Grecian hero Theseus, the redheaded son of the Achean king Aegeus. After Athens’ vanquishment by the hordes of Crete, Theseus had run away from home, vowing to defeat Minos, the king of the Cretan empire, as well as the wizards who kept the populace of Crete subjugated in fear. Most especially did Theseus wish to cause the downfall of The Dark One, the wicked god of those wizards. And so, when we first encounter Theseus, he has assumed the leadership of a Grecian pirate ship and is known to his men as Captain Firebrand. After pillaging a vessel owned by the world’s richest man, Amur the Hittite, and sinking its two Cretan escorts, the men find on board the beautiful Princess Tai Leng from distant Cathay, whom Cyron, Theseus’ right-hand man, claims as his own. But Cyron is infuriated to discover that the princess is, in actuality, a diminutive Babylonian wizard named Snish; a wizard of small abilities whose main power seems to be magically appearing as someone else. After a run-in with the Cretan fleet, commanded by one Admiral Phaistro, Theseus and Snish bring the captured merchant ship to Crete, crashing ashore and making their way inland after a confrontation with Talos, the 12-foot-high man of bronze who guards the island. (Talos, twice as tall as a man and distressingly hot to the touch, as if powered by internal fires, is surely an intimidating proposition, but not nearly as intimidating as the 50-foot-tall Talos in the wonderful 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts.)
While on the wizard-ruled island of Crete, Theseus allows himself to be arrested and thrown into the arena. It is the time of the contests, held every nine years; any winner of the nine trials in the arena will supplant Minos as king, with Minos exiled into the underground lair of The Dark One. Appearing in the guise of a blonde Norseman, thanks to Snish’s arts, Theseus miraculously survives the nine trials, to the consternation of Minos, his archwizard Daedalus, and his beautiful daughter Ariadne. Ultimately, however, Theseus still finds himself in a very unfortunate position: locked in the underground caverns of The Dark One, with the fearsome Minotaur lurking somewhere about. But as might be imagined, this is hardly the end of the redheaded pirate warrior’s adventures on the accursed isle…
The Reign of Wizardry, you may have noticed, is very much Jack Williamson in full Robert E. Howard mode, emulating here the Texas-born father of the sword & sorcery genre who had tragically suicided at age 30, four years earlier. Lovers of fantasy fiction in that particular mode should find much to enjoy here, although, with Campbell as editor, even the fantastic trappings in the book are somewhat grounded in realism. Happily for this reader, whose high school readings in the Greek myths were a very long time ago, no previous knowledge of such lore is required here for a full enjoyment of Williamson’s work; such background material as is necessary is quickly sketched in along the way. The book is wonderfully well written, as might be expected of this author, and sweeps the reader resistlessly along. It is a nicely detailed affair, but not abundantly so; the story’s sweep and drive are never allowed to take a backseat to overly verbose descriptions. And, of course, the author peppers his story with some tremendously exciting set pieces, skillfully well placed throughout. Among them: the battle between Firebrand’s pirate ship and the two Cretan vessels, employing a novel battering beak of Theseus’ own design; the naked and half-starved Theseus’ nine battles in the arena, versus three bulls, three armed men, and three flights of arrow, boomerang and slingshot; the lengthy exploration of The Dark One’s subterranean maze; the slave revolt that Theseus and his band of pirates engage in; and the hopeless, single-handed battle that Theseus wages against Talos underground. It is all tremendously exciting fare, violent and occasionally gruesome. Howard himself might have smiled on with approbation.
Williamson also gives his readers a wonderful roster of secondary characters. Theseus’ allies – the bearded Cyron, the one-eyed Tirynthian cook Vorkos, the constantly shivering and timorous cobbler-turned-wizard Snish – are men whom anyone would wish for in a desperate pinch, while his foes are a nicely variegated bunch: the foppish Phaistro, the venal Amur the Hittite, the dimpled and roly-poly Minos, the skull-faced (and sadly underused) Daedalus, and the lovely, mysteriously motivated Ariadne, seemingly never seen without a white dove perched upon her shoulder. Not to mention Talos, as monstrous and implacable an opponent as any hero of myth could ever encounter.
For the rest of it, let me add that although the magics of the wizards in Williamson’s book are quite legit, and hardly shams, they are here confined to a manipulation of the weather, the ability to shoot lightning bolts, a suspension of the aging process, those aforementioned identity illusions, and Talos itself, whatever it might be. There is also a neat reference to the tragic Icarus, when Ariadne shows Theseus a flying craft that Daedalus had designed, and mentions that it is “safer than the first, fragile machine, that killed his son.” And in a book that features but a single main female character, Ariadne, how nice to see some of the female slaves participate in that revolt, too, and handle their weapons with some literal vengeance. It is a pity, actually, that Williamson could not have used this novel as a stepping-stone to an entire sword & sorcery series, a la Conan, centered on Theseus and his buddies Cyron and Snish. As it is, however, we are left with this one outing, and it is indeed a fine one.
Fine, but hardly perfect, and as a matter of fact, I ultimately came away with several major problems here. For one thing, The Reign of Wizardry wraps up a bit too abruptly for this reader’s tastes, almost crying out for a sequel. I was also a bit disappointed with how the expected confrontation with the dreaded Minotaur played out here. Perhaps what Williamson presents to us is a tad more realistic than what we’d been anticipating, but that hardly makes it more satisfying. I could also not understand why Theseus’ sword belt becomes uncomfortably tight when Snish gives him the seeming illusion of being the more muscular Norseman. Is his body physically changing or not? Similarly, I was a bit confused by Talos himself/itself. Is Talos supposed to be a mechanical man, a sort of prehistoric robot, or what? Some brief word on its background and nature would have been appreciated. But perhaps my biggest problem with Williamson’s work here rests on the four or five big surprise twists that he shoehorns into his novel’s final 20 pages; twists that, besides being wholly unnecessary, just don’t work, serve only to add confusion, and undermine much of what had come before. Those last 20 pages, let me tell you, really disappointed me; a more straightforward culmination would have worked so much better for this reader. But really, who am I to argue with a future Grand Master?
I suppose the bottom line here is that The Reign of Wizardry is a terrifically entertaining yet ultimately disappointing novel; one that will nevertheless provide a few evenings’ worth of rip-roaring fun. It’s certainly not up to the quality of that same year’s Darker Than You Think, but then again, how many books are?