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Blood and Pearls: Zancharthus Book 1

Written and illustrated by Mark E Rogers

(Infinity Publishing, $17.95, 317 pages, paperback; 2001.)

I came to this book with no expectations at all, which is good, since none were fulfilled. cover scanIt's an adolescent male fantasy, awash in gore and lesbian sex, with little else to recommend it -- if "recommend" is the word.

The protagonist (one cannot call him a hero) is one Zancharthus (let's call him "Zan" for short -- more about these names later), a "priest of Tchernobog". He teams up with a son of the Khan, Jagutai ("Jag"), and together they fight demons, bandits and roving gangs for some purpose or other which, despite my having read the book, remains shrouded in mystery. This could be because the plot is so convoluted as to be nonsensical, making it impossible to assign logical motivation to any of the characters, or it could be that there is no purpose, period. However, since these people are one-dimensional stereotypes, it's perhaps not necessary that they have any motives at all. And since the object of the book is to string together as many scenes of bloodletting and various types of sex as is possible, perhaps the lack of a plot should not enter into our consideration of whether or not the book is worth its price.

Oh, there's plenty of sex and violence; readers who want to wallow in sensuality and gore will not be disappointed. People die in an amazing variety of ways: burned to death in oil, hacked to death by swordsmen, beheaded, poisoned, strung up and eaten alive by spiders, or having a spider stuffed down their throat: the author's imagination runs riot when it comes to ingenious means of inflicting pain and death. Too bad it doesn't also run to better storytelling.

Interspersed between bouts of bloodletting are bouts of sex, usually lesbian, particularly between Torrisanna (let's call her "Tori"), the female protagonist (one cannot call her a heroine) and her slave Lilitu ("Li"). Slave? I didn't mention it? As seems to be the case in these books, slavery is an accepted part of the culture and here, also as usual, the slaves are women: naked, sensual, and willing partners for lovers of either sex.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is what it tells the reader about the psychology of the author. Who or what Mr Rogers may be in real life, in his fantasies he's a huge, hulking brute of a man who betrays his religion, kills without mercy and with a great deal of pleasure (more about that as well), and treats women like doormats yet is somehow irresistibly attractive to them. He's also bought into that male fantasy that lesbians are only confused, and that once they get a look at the real thing, they'll see the error of their ways and become helpless, writhing, heterosexual beings ready to service men at the drop of their pants.

As anyone who has studied psychology even briefly will tell you, that's not the case -- but it remains a persistent myth in our culture, particularly among men, and it certainly is apparent here. So too is the male predilection for watching lesbians make love, for we are shown what seem to be endless couplings between Tori and her slave Li; and between Li and other women. It's mind-numbingly dull, except for men like the author who apparently get off on this nonsense.

Of course, despite her fondness for women and her status as the High Priestess of a cult that is devoted to lesbianism (I guess -- I don't really know, since Rogers is a bit vague on the actual belief system behind the lesbian "religion" of the "Double Goddess") Tori melts the moment Zan touches her, comes three times and emits what the smug, self-satisfied lout refers to as "copious" amounts of moisture. No, I am NOT making this up.

He does this in her temple, which is dedicated to female love, thereby humiliating and demeaning her before her Goddess. He also refuses to allow her to touch him, thus completing the degradation: he is the master, she the slave, and that's the way it is, honey. But as we all know, she secretly wants him (just like women secretly long to be raped) and so he's justified in humiliating her in order to make her face her feelings. Oh, give me a break!

Like all such cults, Tori's Double Goddess outfit is extremely sexual in nature, with orgies disguised as "services" -- a term which rather fits, come to think of it. Any excuse will do to have a sex scene. The lesbianism is finally interrupted at one point by the spectacle of one man relieving his brother's sexual tension with his mouth, thus adding homosexual incest to the stew. The entire book is nothing more than a series of battles, either sexual or martial, alternating with one another in a stupefying daisy chain.

The illustrations also show us the author's fantasies quite clearly: women are drawn either as nude, or with diaphanous garments through which we can see their bodies; the genitalia are rendered explicitly as well, right down to the rings many wear in their labia. Of course, there are no such illustrations of men as sexual objects. When men are portrayed, they're hacking each other to bits.

Perhaps the ultimate objectification of women is an illustration near the end of the book, at which point Tori and Zan have finally gotten together (like we didn't know this was going to happen all along). In this illustration, Rogers depicts Tori's torso only, from her chin to the top of her thighs, with Zan's hand on her stomach. Her breasts are prominently displayed, but she has no head. She is defined entirely by her breasts and genitalia, an object for Zan's pleasure, not a woman at all.

It's apparent that the author is deeply conflicted about his feelings for women. At one extreme he seems to revere them: the illustrations reveal an endless parade of gorgeous fantasy women; women idealized and more beautiful than is possible, and the drawings are well done, even if the subject matter is often gruesome. But he peppers the text with the word "cunt", the worst epithet one can apply to a woman. (One guard asks Torrisanna, "Are you that much better than ordinary cunt?")

Most significantly, he refers to a garbage-packed chasm as the "Cleft", also known as "the Offal Slash or the Glutted Cunt". Obviously what we have here is a man who believes women's sexual organs are filthy, disgusting, open sewers of disease; unfortunately, he's chosen to do his psychological self-analysis in public: it will cost you $17.95 to read about his problems with the opposite sex.

Like most adolescents, whatever their age, he also is transfixed with bodily processes of elimination. Thus the words "shit" and "piss" -- usually used to describe people rather than actual excreta -- abound:

"What does Morthond call his servants?"

"His piss-pigs," the man answered.

"What about when he's angry?"

"His shit-pigs."

Or how about this:

"You'll never see him again."

"Good," Skapti said. "He used to sit on my face and fart -- "

Not to belabor the subject, but it's instructive, I think, that Rogers congratulates himself for having invented a new epithet: "a yard and a half of eunuch shit." Such eloquent prose; I'm moved almost beyond description.

In addition to bodily excreta, the author is also fond of mutilation and its best friend, torture. He introduces us to two gangs, the Left Sockets and Right Sockets, whose members have put out the appropriate eye depending on which gang they wish to join. Boy, and we thought the Hell's Angels initiation was tough! And just to round things out, he also describes in great detail the deaths of animals, particularly horses, which are slaughtered in great numbers along with their riders. In one charming incident, Li is wounded and loses control of her horse, which stops; she threatens it with her dagger but it still won't move. Then:

Lilitu drew a shallow slice across its right thigh. The horse neighed and leaped, proceeding at a good canter.

'There's a good fellow,' Lilitu gritted, almost wishing it would slow down so she could cut it again.

Such nice people; such a pleasure spending time with folks whose first instinct is to rip out your throat. Why bother with all that namby-pamby stuff like talking things out, or working toward a reasonable compromise when you can just cut off your opponent's head?

Let's look at some more specifics. Zan is most assuredly not a hero, because he fights only for himself, not for good, not for others, and because he loves to shed blood. It's difficult to work up any enthusiasm for someone who is seen as heroic only because everyone else around him is so much worse:

"You enjoy slaughter?" [Jag asks.]

"Unreservedly," Zancharthus said, with considerable gusto. "I revel in it. Unlike you southern hypocrites, I feel no need to pretend that I love my fellow man. Experience has taught me that human beings are vile, vicious, and untrustworthy. I love killing them."

Yes, well. We all feel like that from time to time, but adopting it as a life philosophy is somewhat questionable.

The author displays unintentional humour in one passage, in which he describes the favorite game of one of Zan's bodyguards: this hulk, named Hoskuld, allows others to whack him in the forehead with swords. The blade, mind you, not the flat. Over the years, in addition to giving him tremendous headaches, this practice, which is apparently the sword-and-sorcery equivalent of the frat-boy game of braining yourself with a beer can, has built up a huge mass of scar tissue in the middle of the man's forehead. The reader, if still conscious at this point, will probably wish for some similar means to deflect the blades of bad writing Rogers is driving into his skull.

The reader also has to swim upstream against a tide of multi-syllabic names: Zancharthus, Jagutai, Torrisanna, and Lilitu are the main characters, but then whole hosts of strangers arrive (usually to be slaughtered), and we're introduced to people such as Sotor Rathariman, Dessicatorius, Sarpandor, Thagranichus Ordog, Ghorchalanchor Kletus and others. These names do not have the elegance of Tolkien's creations, for instance; they are merely clunky and difficult to remember. Someone should tell Rogers that simply coming up with strange names is not enough to make a book worth reading; it is possible to write fantasy without indulging in these difficult monikers.

Finally, here are two passages that illustrate exactly how violent this book is:

Shaving a blond lock from the top of Gudmund's head, his sword slashed through the captain's upper arm and into his mailed ribcage, taking his shoulders clean off his torso.

Even as the blow connected, a man bounded up beside the victim; blood washed him like a splash from a bucket, painting the whole front of his body. He simply stopped.

And:

Hoskuld stepped forward and swung his sword up. The guard's feet lifted from the floor; opened like a fish, he described a long tumbling arc through the air, entrails spilling out behind him. Sailing across the room, he struck the wall beside the door to the bunkroom and seemed to explode, a riot of splattering red.

Technically, this mess is as wretchedly produced as it is written. There are numerous spelling errors and grammatical missteps, and the typesize varies in spots, with words occasionally jumping out in 18-point type; there are words omitted as well. For instance, a sentence that should read "He turned to go" says instead "He turned go", forcing the reader to back up and figure out what's missing. Perhaps the publisher reckons it's one way to hold our attention.

In addition, Infinity Publishing cannot seem to agree on what convention to use to indicate thought. Most people use italics these days; the older method is to underline the line, as in "The idiot, Lilitu thought." However, this book does both, underlining some thoughts, italicizing others, and doing both on the same page! It makes an already confusing book even worse.

In the last analysis, I'd have to say that the book exerts an awful fascination despite its many flaws. It's like watching a train about to crash into another train. You know it's going to be horrible, but you can't look away. And so I've read it, and will read its sequel -- yes, I'm sorry to say there is one -- but neither will remain on my bookshelves or in my memory. This book is definitely the sort of thing for those who like this sort of thing. You know who you are. No one else need bother.


Review by Karla Von Huben.


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