THROUGH THE GROANING EARTH: A TALE FROM THE CITY OF BATHOS
By Joel Jenkins
I suspect a lot of you reading this that were around in the 70’s got turned onto the sub-genre of heroic fantasy called sword and sorcery the same way I did: The re-discovery of Robert E. Howard thanks to the Lancer Conan paperbacks with the exquisite Frank Frazetta covers. I devoured all the Howard I could get and once I was through gobbling all of his stories I quickly moved onto Charles R. Saunders, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance and Lin Carter. Carter was a little bit too slavish in his homage to Howard with his Thongor series, though. But still, at that age I didn’t care. If it was sword and sorcery, I wanted it.
Never got into J.R.R.Tolkien, though. To me, Tolkien was all about the world building and creating a mythology and he’s certainly done that as “The Lord of The Rings” is still going strong to this day. Not that I have anything against that kind of fantasy. I would just rather read about working class barbarians and warriors who hack and slash their way through the day and spend their nights wenching and partying.
Which is probably why my interest in sword and sorcery dropped severely once the popularity of Tolkien style heroic fantasy seemed to me to have taken over. Nobody really was writing meat and potatoes sword and sorcery and the trend appeared to have swung over to what I call, for lack of a better way to put it; more ‘literate’ high fantasy. None of which appealed to me as I simply can’t slog through 1,000 page books that really have just enough story and plot for 150/200 pages.
Knowing Joel Jenkins as I do I think he misses that kind of straightforward, testosterone laden sword swinging tale. And Joel’s the kind of guy who doesn’t lay back and wish somebody would write the kind of story he wants to read. He goes ahead and writes it himself. And in his two books set in the legendary City of Bathos that’s exactly what he’s done: write about blue collar, working class barbarians and warriors in “Escape From Devil’s Head” and THROUGH THE GROANING EARTH.
Both books, but especially THROUGH THE GROANING EARTH aren’t ‘novel’ novels. Instead, they’re like a sword and sorcery version of that old television series “Naked City” that always started off with the narrator saying that “there are eight million stories in the naked city”. I don’t know how many inhabitants of Bathos there are but they include courtesans, thieves, disgruntled godlings, out-of-work mercenaries, farmers, innkeepers, outlaws, priests, schemers, cowards, cutthroats and they all have their own stories to tell.
And by this method of telling various stories set within this city, with some characters occasionally crossing over from one story to another, Bathos itself becomes a character in its own right. A marvelously decadent city that at once and the same time is wonderfully sleazy as well as gorgeously thrilling.
A large part of adding to the City of Bathos taking on a life of its own and becoming a character is Joel’s lush descriptions and dialog. One thing that turns me off from a lot of modern day fantasy is that the writers will have the most amazing characters populating their stories but those characters talk as if they’ve been watching MTV and CNN for the past 10 years or so. Joel’s characters have a richness to how they speak and how they phrase their sentences that immediately let you know that you’re reading about people who live in a mythical place and time.
And these are people, no doubt about it. Nobody’s going on some impossible quest to save the world from an all-powerful wizard or to save the world from an ancient evil. Bathos isn’t that type of city and the people who inhabit Joel’s story are just trying to get through another day without getting killed. For the most part, a lot of the characters in THROUGH THE GROANING EARTH are minding their own business when they get caught up almost without knowing it into a wild adventure. And they rise to the challenge with an enormous amount of well written fight scenes in which Joel runs riot with the description. I strongly suspect Joel has just as much fun writing those scenes of carnage as I did reading them.
And Joel does go in for world building just as much as Tolkien or Stephen R. Donaldson or Robert Jordan. But he doesn’t give you these honkin’ huge pages and pages of back history or have characters relate what you need to know through info dumps. Joel weaves and integrates the geography, history and political dynamics of Bathos into the story and into the dialog of his characters. It’s an effective technique that I really like to see writers use. All too often with a lot of fantasy writers the story itself is put on hold while the writer attempts to impress with how much effort he’s put into thinking out this imaginary world. And in fact, I’m of the school of thought that says if you’ve put enough into this imaginary world then the information can’t help but find its way into the mouths of the characters. Which is where it should be in the first place.
So should you read THROUGH THE GROANING EARTH? I don’t see why you shouldn’t. If you like Old School sword and sorcery like Robert E. Howard used to make then I heartily recommend this book as well as “Escape From Devil’s Head”. Joel has a sincere love and respect for this genre and if you’ve read Joel’s other books set in the modern day then here’s an excellent chance for you to experience another aspect of the marvelous talent of Joel Jenkins.
THROUGH THE GROANING EARTH is available from Amazon.com as a paperback or ebook for your Kindle or through Pulpwork Press http://www.freewebs.com/pulpworkpress/