[Booktalk] The Godblade by J. Christopher Tarpey

There is no genre of fantastical fiction more fundamental to Dungeons & Dragons then that of Sword & Sorcery. It is perhaps ironic that the days of D&D’s ascension also oversaw the near extinction of the genre that inspired it. The genre that was born from the pens of Howard, Lovecraft and Smith and was refined by the likes of Lieber, Wagner and Moorcock now guttered out and all but died, replaced by an endless deluge of Tolkien clones. Recent attempts to ressurect the genre under the banner of the New Weird by mainstream publishers have met with mixed results; the compelling mixture of heroic mythology and frontier spirit of that fired the original tales are watered down with trite political messaging to appease the critics and result in stories that, not entirely without exception [1], are tepid and uncompelling.

Pictured: All of this is in the book

Fortunately recent years have seen the ressurection of the genre by a cadre of enthusiastic amateurs, small time publishers and self-published authors, not the least of which is DMR books, an entry of which we will be discussing today. THE GODBLADE by J.Christopher Tarpey, blacksmith and vocalist for the band Eternal Champion, is just the type of earnest entry we need to get the genre back on its feet, even if there is still some way to go before the new heroes can match blades with the likes of Fafhrd, Conan & Elric.

Clocking in at a meaty 160 pages that are more appropriate to the format then the gigantic doorstopper format popular in the high fantasy epoch, The Godblade follows up on the short story ‘Vengeance of the Insane God’ and propels us headfirst into the continent of Arginor. It is Sword & Sorcery at its most archetypal; There are bronze-thewed fighting men, comely naked Frank-Frazetta wenches with enormous breasts [2], evil sorcerers also with enormous breasts, demon-worshipping cults, mountain crags to climb and ancient tombs that hold the remnants of hideous gods. Whatever faults may follow (and there are faults), its heart is in the right place.

We begin in medias res (good!), with world-building being delivered as part of the plot, eschewing thick, girthy paragraphs of exposition, and follow the exploits of Raennon, Guard Captain of the Guards of Lourn, on his quest to retrieve the ashes of Farick, smith-god of the Aelbrond, so he may “pyre-forge” [3] them into a Godblade, fulfill the prophecy and kill the Insane God Brakur, thereby freeing him from his bondage to the Arrhai. There are fascinating concepts; The Arrhai, a cult of demon-worshipping fanatics, care nothing for Brakur, the Creator of the Physical Universe, but seek to use his dreams to live forever after death. The idea of a world where all the gods are inhuman horrors only depicted as human by corrupt priests. There are compelling set-pieces: The Demonic Adyrtun who eschew steel and wear armor and weapons of obsidean. The accursed plain of Othra, with its demonic W’aarkesh (featured on the cover). There is even, at times, the proper language of S&S: Battle-starved, A City Turned Pyre, berserker rage known as The Armor of Ire, people swear with the epithet ‘Ylar’s Tits!’ and there is a company of half-feral barbarian warriors called The Shattered Shields that will later show up.

The first half of the story is probably the strongest, and covers Raennon’s quest, with 9 companions, to climb the peak of Shunned Aelbronn and find the tomb of Farick to recover his ashes. This unfolds in archetypal fashion, with the companions facing down a party of assassins that clue the reader and the characters into the nature of their opposition, in this case an alliance between Kynara and demonic Nitaar, and getting picked off by the monstrous W’aarkesh until they are seven. There is an old tutor of Raennon with the party, two hotty archers, his companions in the Guards of Lourn, and some Axemen that exist to quibble and argue and die. The section ends with them recovering the ashes and escaping the tomb of Farick in a steel boat on an underground river, only to have Raennon suffer betrayal from his comrades of the Guards of Lourn, wound one of the archers, take the other, kill Rhaennon’s mentor, kill his dog and steal his car in a scene that brought to mind dimly the betrayal of Elric by his evil coursin Yrkoon.

Characterization is on the level of a S&S B-movie. Raennon is a high-spirited muscular brawler in the mould of Conan with atheistic undertones that serves as protagonist, the archers are there to be kidnapped, be naked and fire arrows, the motivation for the treachery of Murk and Balan (Guards of Lourn) is threadbare considering the loyalty onto death of the company and Narila is cruel, lusts after ladies and showcases her massive tits while delivering evil exposition. We are missing a bit of finesse or banter. S&S was never a genre for particularly complex character motivations (nor should it be!), but somehow Narila does not rise to the level of Queen Salome [4] and King Unvon, the Sorcerer lord of Il-Nitaar, is captured without further problems once his 30 armed retainers have been killed by Raennon and his archer girlfriend. Yimsha [5] he is not. Rhaennon does not have anyone to riff off of and thus he remains constrained to yelling cool shit while chopping mostly effortlessly through hordes of enemies.

This is also in the book

The second half of the story is weaker mainly because it unfolds it entirely predictable fashion without the twists and turns, sudden reversals and unforeseen complications that define the genre of heroic adventure. Raennon washes up on a river, injured but not dead, finds out his master was killed, has retained the ashes of Farick (he kept these with a clever trick because he felt something was off, good!), makes his way back to Aelbrond and there forges his sword Voidcaller. Then all the armies of Arginor gather to fight the Arhai, with many having joined them, so it is about two to one. Everyone is high spirited and chuckles at the numerical disparity. That’s badass but it also means that we, the audience, don’t take the threat seriously either. Raennon and the archer and 400 Splintered Shields, who join the alliance because they are cool, must now go to Il-Nitaar and rescue the other archer chick, fuck up the two villains and kill Brakur. Normally they would have some ruse or perhaps a stolen sorcerous object to gain eggress to the otherwise impregnable obsidean-walled fortress of Shar Kut and its (somewhat lengthily described) tear-drop shaped towers of black-glass, but in this case he just gets in and we get a fight scene, then Raennon and the archer get seperated and face down Unvon in the throne room, and Narila with the captured archeress commanding Brakur, now in the shape of a giant wyrm.

Critical for an S&S yarn: the action in Godblade is uneven. There are tense moments; the flight from the W’aarkesh is momentous, leaves multiple companions dead, and gives the idea that these things are not to be trifled with. Real tension is created when the heroes must scramble to find a way into Faruk’s tomb with the W’aarkesh on the way. Raennon’s confrontation with Brakur is somewhat tense, he wounds the creature with his enchanted blade as it roars with the ‘sound of thousands of souls living the nightmare of a god driven mad’, you don’t often get the idea he is out of his depth fighting a fucking god but it is at least established he is one mistake away from getting smeared across the marble floor. He finds openings when his companion distracts the creature, he gets knocked off and dazed when he bissects its wing etc.
Most of the fight scenes are far more effortless, and the idea of sudden reversals, the desperate cast of a weapon while the villain gloats, a dirty handful of sand to overcome a hated foe, these are few and far between. After the destruction of both Brakur and Narila, the actual war against the Arrhai, now leaderless, feels like a mop-up operation, with everyone shouting cool shit. Yeah pile the bodies of the dead so we can have a ramp to climb the city wall. Yeah burn the whole fucking city while the hungry gods are reaching down from the heavens to devour the worshippers that failed them.

I posted this again, the image holds a strange fascination. I don’t know why.

I am reminded of something like the Ramajana, or perhaps Berserk, or even Star Wars, where a sort of dynamism is injected into the action by introducing new complications or throwing a curveball every so often. Perhaps the Arrhai unleash some sort of monstrous behemoth and Raennon must rush to kill the sorceror that is keeping it tethered on this mortal plane? Perhaps one army that has joined our heroes is secretely beholden to the Arrai and turns on the heroes, just as victory seems within grasp? When Raennon finds the deserter Balan, arrests him and then kills him in single combat in excruciating fashion (which is badass btw), does Balan perhaps resort to some sort of treachery? some sort of concealed poisoned knife? Let’s see if you are proof against poison. Ring a bell?

The book ends on something of a light cliff-hanger, where Raennon, after having destroyed absolutely everything Arrhai, decides to track the second traitor, Murk to avenge the honor of the Lourn Guard, with his overpowered God-Sword having become even more overpowered after it has taken the life of Brakur.

Godblade is a fun, at times atmospheric, at times painfully juvenile [6] romp to the land of Sword & Sorcery, and serves to whet the appetite for greater things to come. It is written with more enthusiasm then craftsmanship, more Gardener Fox or Lin Cartner then Robert E. Howard, but it does not make me sick to my stomach, a rare feat for a book written after 2010. And yeah, I did like it when Archer lady 1 went into battle fully naked, shot the kynaran desert mystic off of its reptillian mount, and Raennon proceeded to mount it and use it to demolish the ranks of the Adyrtun, or when the Shieldbreakers, when confronted with the teeth and claws of the Adyrtun, matched them by also resorting to claws and teeth.

Probably a light recommend, something you read on the train, at the pool, or when making love to your girlfriend. Not a nourishing gourmet meal but a spicy burger with fried onions and jalapenos. You’ve got heart kid. Now start levelling up that craft.

As an aside, the album Ravening Iron, with lyrics based on the book, is absolutely worth checking out. The book might still be available here, along with many other such works. The ressurection of S&S fiction is absolutely worth supporting, and DMR seems to be one of the chosen few that have taken up the task. Here’s hoping.

[1] Though it suffers from the same trite pseudo-moralistic nihilism that blights much of contemporary western fantasy, it cannot be argued the works of China Mevielle, the aspiring Dr. Frankenstein to the New Weird’s Monster, is devoid of merit. In a similar vein, Andrzej’s Sapkowski’s Witcher stories, while somewhat derivative of earlier Moorcock’s Elric, nevertheless rise far above the thin gruel of licenced fantasy novels that have become the ghetto for sword & sorcery fiction, and Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie is a nonpareil work of shlock science fantasy.
[2] From the actual text, the gigantic breast-size of the sorceress Narila is such that it could be spotted from dozens if not hundreds of metres away. “Raven-hair fell over her shoulders but could do nothing to hide her massive, heavy breasts.
[3] I have not read the earlier story where perhaps it is explained in more detail, but Pyre-forging is a secret technique of the Aelbrond where the ashes of the deceased are used to make charcoal to forge a steel blade for the descendants. Raennon seeks a blade imbued with the remains of a god.
[4] A Witch Shall be Born, R.E. Howard, 1934
[5] A very awesome thousand year old evil sorceror from People of the Black Circle, R.E. Howard, 1934
[6] The two archers getting naked and doing a threesome with Raennon before the Eve of battle would have been appreciated by my 17 year old self

13 thoughts on “[Booktalk] The Godblade by J. Christopher Tarpey

  1. Eternal Champion cover = AD&D2E as imagined by Venger Satanis.

    (a concept I find strangely compelling as well)

    ; )


      1. Funny thing is, it’s not necessary to have lascivious, puerile fantasy to be “good” fantasy, or even proper S&S…just finished Moorcock’s “The Jewel in the Skull” (been a looong time since I read a non-Elric book of MM, but Appendix N references had me checking it out) and the thing is entirely devoid of anything so sleazy as, say, what one finds in the most recent “Game of Thrones” offering on HBO. And yet, the action/adventure ain’t watered down either.

        The bucolic Shire-esque fantasy of 2E…an even as the kid-scrubbed Mystara of BECMI…isn’t TERRIBLE. It just isn’t GOOD. But amusing as it would have been to see old TSR double-down (or triple-down) on the minute bits of smut found in 1E (and its source material), I doubt that it would have made any of it “better.”

        Now, please excuse me while I grab a sandwich and work on my NAP2 adventure…


  2. I dig DMR Books. I discovered them a few years ago, and enjoyed their Renegade Swords collections and Worlds Beyond Worlds. Their catalogue is impressive and I’m planning to buy more from them, but I’m both slow with books and reading more of them at once – currently the Hungarian pulp fantasy classic Káosz Szíve, a collection of Kuttner’s Elak stories, and re-reading Moorcock’s The War Hound and the World’s Pain.


  3. Bleakwarrior FTW!

    _The Swordbearer_ from Glen Cook is an excellent S&S effort, especially considering it was published in 1982. More stuff happens in its 288 pages than in the entirety of the GoT books. It also outshines the accumulated detritus of Elric content (I’m especially thinking of the Elric stories released in the last 30 years).

    DMR published the collected fantasy stories of one Nictzin Dyalhis, thought for many years to be born from a Mexican (Native) mother and a Welsh father or somesuch (explains his name). The genuine story seems to be akin to something more, ahem, grifty… This book has _The Sapphire Goddess_, one of the earliest portal stories I read; it is also an exquisite proto-D&D story, pulpy AF.


  4. I’ll have to read that part again, but I think the ashes are used to case harden the blade
    Not something you’d normally see for a steel blade, but for iron, that would be an effective method to have it keep an edge


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