Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of the late Ben Haas, who wrote Westerns as John Benteen, Thorne Douglas, Richard Meade, and possibly other names, in addition to historical and mainstream novels under his own name. Some of you may not be aware, though, that he also wrote three sword-and-sorcery novels, two as by Richard Meade and one under the name Quinn Reade. One of the Meade novels is our Forgotten Book this week.
By the time EXILE’S QUEST was published in 1970, the Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and J.R.R. Tolkien booms had been going on for several years, and editors were looking for those sorts of action-packed fantasy novels. EXILE’S QUEST actually has some science-fiction trappings to it, because, like Robert Silverberg’s CONQUERORS FROM THE DARKNESS from several weeks ago, it takes place on Earth. In EXILE’S QUEST, it’s a barbaric Earth thousands of years after a nuclear war. Civilization has worked itself back up to a medieval level, so there are kings and barons and lots of swordplay. The hero of this one, a young nobleman named Gallt, is the Baron of the Iron Mountains and swears his allegiance to Sigreith, King of Boorn and Emperor of the Gray Lands. (About where Germany used to be, I’d say.) In a fight with another nobleman over a woman, Gallt accidentally kills his opponent, and so the king strips him of his title and sentences him to death . . . only there’s a way out for Gallt. He just has to agree to lead an army of prisoners from the king’s dungeons on an expedition into the Unknown Lands, discover what happened to a previous expedition that never came back, and retrieve a mystical and mysterious Stone of Power.
I’m well aware that this is a pretty stereotypical plot, but I don’t think it was quite as much of a cliché nearly forty years ago when Haas wrote this novel. What elevates it to a level worth reading is his ability to craft a gritty, fast-moving story using those traditional elements, just as he does in his Westerns. There are some vividly bizarre images as Gallt and his men encounter several different sorts of mutants left over from the nuclear war, and as always in a Haas novel, the action scenes are good, especially the one-on-one battles.
When it comes to heroic fantasy, EXILE’S QUEST is nowhere near the level of Robert E. Howard, but I’d say it’s as good as John Jakes’ Brak novels and better than Lin Carter’s Thongor and Gardner Fox’s Kothar and Kyrik novels. Haas’s Westerns are better than his sword-and-sorcery novels, but EXILE’S QUEST is well worth reading. Had he lived longer (he died of a heart attack just a few years later at a relatively young age), and had Signet put a better cover on this book and the other Meade fantasy novel, THE SWORD OF MORNING STAR, Haas might have developed into a much bigger name in that field. That wasn’t to be, but we can enjoy the books of his that we do have, and this isn’t a bad place to start if you haven’t sampled his work.