Stealer of Flesh is a… well, I am not exactly sure what it is. It’s not quite a novel, nor quite a series of short stories, but something inbetween. Written by William King in 2011, Stealer of Flesh tells the first major adventure of Kormak, a Guardian of the Order of the Dawn who hunts the ancient creatures of the night. It consists of four stories that are very closely linked together but each have their own distinct character and take place in four very different locations. Calling them “episodes” feels very appropriate to me.
The story follows Kormaks hunt of a demon from the ancient past, who has returned to haunt the world, but is yet too weak to face a seasoned hunter of monsters and spirits all by himself. Several times does Kormak come face to face with the demon, but each time it manages to escape from him, keeping the hunt going for what seems like several weeks, though three of the stories all seem to take place within a single day.
King obviously is writing to capture the classic spirit of Sword & Sorcery. The stories are full with mentions of the Elder Sign and Old Ones, there is black lotus and Kormaks homeland is distant Aquilea, which surly doesn’t sound almost exactly like Aquilonia by coincidence. And to disperse any remaining uncertainty, King explicitly lists Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, and Smith as the people who inspired him in his introduction. You couldn’t make a stronger commitment to the genre than this. Which is why I think it entirely appropriate to not only judge Stealer of Flesh on its own merrits, but also on how well it manages to capture the spirit of the genre.
Unlike many other genres, Sword & Sorcery has pretty clear boundaries on which most people who use the term generally tend to agree. Joseph McCullough identified three defining elements of a Sword & Sorcery story, on which I completely agree with him: They protagonists “are self-motivated, outsiders, of heroic stature.” Kormak fits all those three criteria pretty well. He is a big warrior with great strength and a magic sword and possesses extraordinary skill as a swordsman. He also travels the lands very far from his home all by himself, seemingly without any companions or other attachments, and people regard him both with awe and uneasiness. His quest to search for evil creatures that prey on innocent people may seem very selfless at first, but once you have spend some time with the character it becomes increasingly obvious that it is not compassion that drives him. “It is what I do.” is all the answer he will give to those who ask, and not only is he frequently called out on that, he also is perfectly aware that it is a very flimsy justification for his quest himself. But while I agree that these things are fundamentally parts that make Sword & Sorcery tick, they are not the full essence just by themselves. They are the How, but not the Why. When Fritz Leiber originally coined the term, I think he was spot on: The Sword and the Sorcery are two strong symbols for nefarious magic and eldritch creatures, and for thrilling action and passion about larger than life heroes. King is certainly delivering in the Sorcery department and there is a quite unique and interesting background to his monsters. But where Stealer of Flesh is unfortunately lacking is in the regard of Swords. Kormak is not a character in the tradition of Conan and Bran Mac Morn, of Fafhrd or even the Gray Mouser. He is not a character of strong emotions, and to be frank, of any emotion at all really. Many of the fight scenes are very short with not much interesting happening, and when you look back at the whole story and are honest, Kormak as a character is rather dull. There is neither fury nor joy, no excitement, anger, or grief. At some point there seems to be some glimmer of hurt pride, but that is it. However, many of the secondary characters don’t suffer from that flaw at all and King seems to be quite capable at writing emotions. It’s just Kormak with his stoic indifference to everything, who doesn’t really work as a character.
After having finished the book, I just can’t shake the feeling that King both knows Andrzej Sapkowskis Witcher stories and also took them as a major inspiration for Kormak. The similarities between Kormak and Geralt are too striking to be mere coincidences. Kormak is a warrior of an ancient but dying order of monster hunters, who is a master swordsman who carries a special monster-slaying sword on his back, special amulets with the Elder Sign around his neck, and has been trained in special techniques to defend against magic. And his stoic calm and bleak oppinion of his profession also match Geralt perfectly. In the 70s we got a small horde of Conan-Clones, here we are obviously having a Geralt-Clone. The difference between Geralt and Kormak is that Sapkowski makes it work, while King ends up with a character who is a lot more dull and gloomy rather than badass.
While the lack of action and passion are the main flaws of Stealer of Flesh, the writing is otherwise mostly quite good. King manages to be genuinely witty in many of the dialogues and brings up several quite interesting thoughts throughout the story. The one that struck me the most is how Kormak is thinking at two or three points how strange it is that he is hunting creatures that are older than the mountains and could continue to keep on living for much more than that, because they are killing people who would die after just a few decades anyway. It doesn’t cause Kormak any doubts about what he is doing, but it’s an interesting thing to think of anyway. And there is a good share of similar moments like that in the book.
While King tries to hide it in dialogues, he’s still guilty of doing obvious infodumps. Three characters musing about the philosophical implications of things they all know can be interesting, but in this case it ends up mostly being statements of basic facts about the history of the world and its magical creatures, with the occasional “yes, it’s quite sad” thrown in to make it seem like the characters are actually involved in some kind of discussion or debate. This could have been handled a lot better. At other times, the dialogues become a bit repetitive, bringing up the same arguments and observations we already discussed one or two scenes before. In some cases I had the feeling that these were oversights rather than intentional, and that these parts could easily have been improved with some editor input. Perhaps the weirdest parts of Kings writing are the sex scenes. King either doesn’t want to, or isn’t capable of writing sex scenes, which usually wouldn’t be anything objectionable at all. Yet it seems like he feels that there must be some sex scenes in a story like this, and the result is just strange. Quite often, it all happens within just two sentences. One sentence flirting, one sentence kissing, and then it’s straight to the next scene on the next morning. Generally there isn’t any buildup at all, and the first time it happens the woman just drops her dress in the middle of a conversation and Kormak immediately guides her towards the bed, out of complete nowhere. I am quite happy with keeping out unneccessarily long sex scenes as they are frequently popping up in movies that are about something entirely different. But if you do it like this, why bother in the first place. Conan and Geralt pick of lots of women on their adventures, but that’s part of their character. With Kormak it just seems completely random.
It’s not all bad, though. Yes, Kormak is a bit dull as a character and the story tends to be a bit gloomy and lacking action at many times. Now the only Moorcock story I’ve read is Red Perls, and I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of him based on that. But what reading Stealer of Flesh most reminded me of was this story. Yes, that’s right: I am comparing William Kings writing to that of Michael Moorcock. What writer of Sword & Sorcery wouldn’t be happy about that? Another thing I do quite enjoy about Stealer of Flesh is the format. It was written to be published as an ebook, which means King had no required length for the story, so that it looks like a full sized novels when standing in a bookstore. At about 60,000 words, it would be very short for a novel, but also far longer than any short story. It’s a relatively long adventure, but packaged into four individual stories that are each quite densly written. I think the 15,000 to 25,000 word length is excelent for adventure stories but with the change from magazines to books from the 40s to the 60s, this is a format that has become pretty much lost to us. You can write very great stories that way, but there just wasn’t any good way to get them into stores for a very long time. With digital publishing, writers can write their stories as long as they need to be, with no arbitrary numbers of pages to be filled to meet certain standards in the printing industry. I am always happy to see more fantasy written on this scale, and since it’s much easier to get into that a trilogy of novels, I hope to be seeing a lot more new writers in the future, who bring some new ideas that publishers would not consider profitable to print. (Also, the book is simply called Stealer of Flesh, and not The Stealer of Flesh. I think that is a lot cooler.)
With all that being said, in the end it does not come down to a percentage or a number of stars, but to a simple Aye or Nay? Was it worth to read this book or was it a waste of time?
Aye, I say!
Reading Sword & Sorcery, particularly modern one, has not always been a pleasure. While I was reading Swords & Dark Magic and Sword & Mythos, there were plenty of moments where I just groaned and really felt like getting a big red pen and marking all the terrible writing mistakes. Those two books were ordeals, and even reading Fritz Leiber I was making a lot of faces the whole time. The worst I had with Stealer of Flesh were occasional small sighs when a dialog was starting to repeat some of the arguments that had already been a page before. Stealer of Flesh is a story with its fair share of dents, but from what I’ve been able to tell completely free of any cracks or holes. While this may not be the most glowing of verdicts, I still recommend to any fan of Sword & Sorcery to give it a look. Especially because King has put it up on his website for free. (As well as Guardian of the Dawn, the first appearance of Kormak.)