Comedians tend to make good actors (or so the cliché goes) and it strikes me that the same thing could be said about writing. Whilst Chris J. Randolph's Vengar in The King, His Son, Their Sorcerer, and His Lover is an unashamed parody of pulp fantasy - particularly the writing of the godfather of Sword & Sorcery, Robert E. Howard - Randolph has such a familiarity with the genre that he actually writes it extremely well.
The humour in Vengar is fully of irony, exaggeration, innuendo and subtle asides. Vengar is the stereotypical Sword and Sorcery barbarian, tall, thickly muscled, long-haired and with the heightened senses of the "noble savage" so beloved by Howard. He also has an unfeasibly big sword. He's everything Conan, Kull and Thongor would be if we weren't drawn into a suspension of disbelief by the story-telling of masters of the genre (besides Howard, I'd include Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp). He also has shades of Thrud the barbarian from the old White Dwarf comic strip. Like his predecessors, Vengar swats aside enemies in their hundreds and finds battle so natural that he's almost apologetic for decapitating a couple of cultists almost before he'd given it any thought.
And Vengar does actually think. A bit. He has a sporadic internal dialogue going on between the two dominant aspects of his psyche: the wild animal and the tiny hero with a penchant for terrible alliteration ("a bevy of brilliant baubles to be burgled"). There's a wonderful confrontation between these two aspects when Vengar locates a sleeping buxom maiden and the wild animal begins to assert control over his loins. The hero valiantly tries counting to ten, and when that doesn't work recites the names of the one hundred and twelve hells until he tames the beast. These hells crop up in all manner of curses that lend a nice touch of "Blackadder" type humour that goes beyond the typical Cimmerian "Crom!"
Randolph captures the clichéd (but often effective) language of Sword & Sorcery: lots of obsidian hair, inky clouds and spectral moons. Vengar is often described as the "mighty barbarian" and there's more than a hint of "Stygian sorcerers". The weather and scenery is often personified ("weary sun") and wonderfully over-written:
"Inky clouds of smoke issued forth from round chimneys to stain the molten
sky, their gibbous puffs breaking apart into limp threads like the decaying
clothes of a dead man tossed out to sea, until finally the blue-black veil of night fell and erased them from sight."
I once counted the word "sullen" seven times on a single page of one of Howard's Solomon Kane stories (and sombre was there four times). Randolph doesn't descend into word repetition - he's far too meticulous for that. Indeed, I think he barely uses the "s" words. I was a tad disappointed not to find descriptions of "mighty thews" (Thongor) but it was nice to see Vengar compared to an oak on a couple of occasions which recalled Arnold's old nickname.
My favourite use of humour in Vengar is when Randolph makes a statement of something familiar in the genre and then subverts it with a little aside or follow-on:
" Her performance was all too practiced, and he reckoned he'd better keep a watchful eye on his drinks this night, lest he find himself drugged and dragged away into slavery... again."
These moments work because they're thrown into the middle of otherwise typical pulp fantasy passages. The reader starts to feel they're on familiar ground and then the suspension of disbelief is whipped away. It reminded me of Moliere's use of humour to pave the way for a punchy moment in his dramas.
Vengar has a nice pace, always moving forward and with a good balance of bawdy humour and parodic action. Randolph has a strong voice as a story-teller and a good eye for comedy. There's a great scene early on when Vengar demonstrates his own rather dramatic style of story-telling. We are treated to nuances of tone, mimicry and declamation that show Vengar may have missed his vocation. For a moment he was transformed (for me) into the Mighty Thor recounting his Asgardian exploits (both in the Eddas and the excellent Marvel animated Avengers films).
The length is just about right. Parody seems to work best in small doses but there's definitely scope for more Vengar tales in the future.
The editing is of excellent quality. I didn't catch single typo or awkward sentence during my read-through and the text is nicely formatted.
It's hard to comment on characterisation when the author is imitating a style that is rife with stereotypes and not at all interested in psychological realism. Suffice it to say that I warmed to Vengar immediately and enjoyed the warring sides of his nature (even if they did start to converge by the end). The women were, as you would expect from a Sword and Sorcery parody, buxom, doe-eyed and clinging to the barbarian's thighs whilst he protects them with his mighty sword.
Chris Randolph has achieved what he set out to with Vengar: it pokes fun at Conan etc but it's a fun tinged with fondness for a genre that's having a bit of a revival in the dark and Stygian world of indie fantasy.