Friday, June 30, 2017

Forgotten Books: Kothar--Barbarian Swordsman - Gardner F. Fox

I must have read hundreds of comic books written by Gardner Fox when I was growing up, but at that time I had no idea he was also a novelist. The only books by him that I read were his sexy spy novels in the Lady From L.U.S.T. series, which he wrote as Rod Gray. I figured Rod Gray was a real guy and never dreamed he was the same person writing all those issues of THE FLASH and JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA I read. Anyway, I've since learned that Fox was a prolific paperbacker and wrote quite a bit of science fiction and fantasy under his own name, including a couple of sword and sorcery series. I've seen these books around for years and finally read one of them, KOTHAR: BARBARIAN SWORDSMAN, the first book in the Kothar series.

Kothar is a mercenary swordsman from the northern land of Cumberia (any resemblance to Cimmeria is totally coincidental, I'm sure), although he wasn't born there. He was found as an infant in a boat that washed up in a bay, and his true origins are unknown, at least when this book opens. Maybe his history will be revealed later on. This volume consists of three related novellas, which as far as I can tell were written for it, instead of being published elsewhere and then collected here.

In the first story, "The Sword of the Sorcerer", Kothar is working as a captain of foreign mercenaries in the land of Commoral, which is engaged in a civil war between the witch Red Lori, who has claimed the throne through sorcerous means, and Elfa, the rightful queen. Both women, of course, are breathtaking beautiful. After a battle against Lori's forces in which he's the only survivor, Kothar stumbles over the crypt of an ancient wizard who gives him a magic sword and commands him to help Queen Elfa regain the throne. The only catch is that whoever possesses the enchanted blade Frostfire can't own anything else valuable, which amounts of a vow of poverty. With that in mind, off Kothar goes to battle a sea monster, rescue another wizard who's on Elfa's side, and hack and slash with a bunch of Red Lori's soldiers before finally battling the witch in a final showdown. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that Kothar wins and Elfa's kingdom is restored to her.

The second story, "The Treasure in the Labyrinth", finds Kothar being hired by a wealthy merchant to penetrate to the center of a labyrinth filled with deadly traps and steal the treasure that's supposed to be hidden there. No one knows what that treasure is, but everyone believes it's something immensely valuable. Kothar, naturally enough, battles his way to the center of the labyrinth, taking on several different supernatural menaces including a giant spider, rescues a beautiful girl, and eventually recovers the treasure. There's a twist, of course, but it's not too obvious and turns out to be fairly satisfying. Even more than the first story, this one shows a lot of Robert E. Howard influence.

"The Woman in the Witch-Wood" is the Lady Alaine, a sorceress who's been trapped there by an evil warlock who has taken over her castle. When Kothar meets her, of course he agrees to defeat the warlock and lift the spell holding Alaine in the evil woods. This leads to Kothar battling all sorts of mystical dangers that the warlock throws at him, then squaring off against the wizard himself. This final story in the book has a very nice twist at the end that I didn't see coming.

Kothar makes one big mistake in this book: he leaves Red Lori alive, and although she doesn't really play a part in the other stories, I have a hunch she'll show up again in later books in the series to cause more trouble for Kothar.

So what did I think of KOTHAR: BARBARIAN SWORDSMAN? Well, starting out, it struck me as generic, derivative, and downright silly. And really . . . it is. But somehow Fox won me over. His writing is vivid and fast-paced and has plenty of action, as well as being appropriately creepy when it needs to be. And the plots, while very typical of the genre, take an interesting turn here and there. Plus Kothar is a likable protagonist, not the smartest guy around but not exactly dumb, either, and certainly stalwart when it comes to battling evil. Novellas like these are the perfect antidote to the enormous doorstopper endless series that have come to dominate heroic fantasy. I had a lot of fun reading this book. I have the other four books in the series and suspect that I'll get around to them, too.


Charles Gramlich said...

I read these when I was a teenager and was just absorbing it all. I loved 'em. I'm the opposite of you with Fox. I only knew him as a novelist up until maybe ten years ago when I found out he was also a comic book writer.

Adventuresfantastic said...

I remember references to his comics work and read a number of reprints of his stories. I've not read his novels. The Kothar series is one I've thought about reading, but I've never seen one in a bookstore. I've been too lazy to try to hunt them up online, mainly because I've heard they're derivative.

From what you've written, they sound like fun.

Chap O'Keefe said...

As well as being a writer of comic book scripts and paperbacks, Fox had a very respectable career in the pulps of the '40s and '50s (PLANET STORIES, WEIRD TALES, RANCH ROMANCES, etc). The FictionMags Index has a respectable list of stories, novelettes and novellas, many of them Westerns I've never come across in the UK or NZ.

George said...

I liked Fox's BRAK THE BARBARIAN series better than the KOTHAR series.

Colby Jackson said...

The ebooks of the series are up on Amazon.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Thank you for the pointer to the Megapacks. John Betancourt/Wildside Press's introduction to these ebooks at Amazon describes Kothar as being Gardner Fox's "first sword and sorcery hero" and created in the 1960s. I wonder it that is right. Fox's Crom the Barbarian appeared in a couple of stories in the pulps in 1950 (OUT OF THIS WORLD, STRANGE WORLDS).

James Reasoner said...

Brak the Barbarian was by John Jakes, not Gardner Fox. I read the Avon paperback collection of the original Brak stories back in the Sixties and liked it, but when I tried to read some of the later stories and novels I didn't really care for them. I'm not much of a Jakes fan overall, though.

Unknown said...

The first paperback I ever bought (well, I picked it out, but my Dad paid for it) was Fox's novelization of FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (Pyramid, 1962). I knew Fox's name then from his DC comics stories.

Andy Bow said...

Thanks, Chap, for the tip on Fox's Crom the Barbarian stories in the 1950 OUT OF THIS WORLD pulp. As we all know, Crom was Conan's god in REH's tales.

I went to the Luminist Archives Periodicals web site and found 2 editions that contained these Fox stories. They are actually in comic book format and in color!

Here is the link.

Scroll down to the OUT OF THIS WORLD section for the 2 editions.
Right-click the hi-lited date for the desired date and select "Open in new tab".
A new tab will appear with a spinning red cursor.
When the cursor stops spinning, a new screen will appear.
Click "download to your own browser".
The selected edition will appear as a pdf.

The Crom tale is listed in the TOC, but with no page number, for some reason.
The tale is located around pages 80-100 or so, along with 2 or 3 other comic stories of other genres.

Go to the next edition and do the same thing above.

Dark Worlds Club said...

I believe the lich creature from that first Kothar tale inspired the Lich in Dungeons & Dragons. I always thought it was Lin Carter's crypt thing from the Conan pastiches. One of the novels was adapted in Conan the Barbarian comics too. Fox was such a part of Sword & Sorcery history, first writing "Crom the Barbarian" in 1950, then in the B&W comics of the 1960s and 70s with Warren and then his 1970s novels, which I believe he wrote because he had walked away from DC who refused him health insurance. His last contribution is sometimes missed: "Niall of the Long Journeys" story series in Dragon Magazine.


Dan Nelson said...

Kurt Brugel is doing some neat stuff with Fox stuff including Kothar ebooks, He also has collected the Crom Comics and written some new ones.

Paul R. McNamee said...

If you haven't already looked, the KOTHAR series is available dirt cheap as ebook omnibuses from Wildside Press now.