Paperback Punk

One of my favorite past times is haunting used bookstores, looking for out-of-print and forgotten classics. My taste in literature tends to run toward fantasy, science-fiction, and horror, and I find modern novels too often weighed down by bloat and too much world-building. As a consequence, I tend to seek out older books that tend to focus more on ideas and action and move along more quickly. I always liked the “Box of Paperbacks” series at the A.V.Club, so I thought I’d take a stab at something in the same vein.


Web of Wind

by J. F. Rivkin


web of wind

Conan the Cimmerian casts a long shadow in the genre of sword & sorcery. Robert E. Howard’s barbarian adventurer is the archetypal protagonist in S&S fiction, spawning countless imitators, most of whom lack Howard’s propulsive, breathless prose and thus end up more of a parody than an homage. Fritz Lieber, undoubtedly a fan of the Conan stories, decided to split Conan in two for his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales, thus creating the second most common archetypal protagonist in sword & sorcery fiction: the barbarian/thief duo. It’s not difficult to see the benefits of that style. For one, it makes dialogue possible, something missing when your hero is a lone brooding, sullen barbarian, and it also partitions out the strengths and weaknesses. Lieber’s characters have their specialties, but they also have their weaknesses and blindspots, something that is sorely lacking in Conan stories.

The Silverglass novels (there are four of them, I am covering two here) are in the Lieber tradition, with some differences. “J. F. Rivkin” is the pseudonym shared by two women authors who remain otherwise anonymous even today, who wrote these books together in the late 1980s. The protagonists are two women, Corson Brenn Torisk, a mercenary and former soldier, and Lady Nyctasia Rhostshyl, a noblewoman and wizard. These books have been described as “fantasy fiction by women, for women.” But then there are those covers.

Luis Royo, a Spanish painter, has done the cover art for a lot of fantasy fiction over the years. And I admit, as a 12 year old boy the lurid covers were what first attracted me to this series. Yet they also kept me from buying them, lest they be discovered by my parents and lead to a lot of uncomfortable explanations. But when I found the first two and fourth books (still have my eyes out for the third) in a used bookstore earlier this year, I knew I had to finally buy them. I owed it to that 12 year old. And as it happens, that 12 year old would have been sorely disappointed. While the covers of both novels do actually illustrate scenes that take place in each respective volume, they do not otherwise reflect the world of the interior. Within the novels, the physical characteristics mentioned about Corson, who takes center stage on both, are her height, her strength, and the length of her hair, which she takes fastidious care of throughout. Not a word about her bustline. And, interestingly, everyone is bisexual (including Corson’s boyfriend, who will warm his bed with another man when she is off adventuring), but the book uses the time-honored method of Fade to Black when the love-making occurs.

There is nominal swordplay and some sorcery in the books as well, but these are details, not really the focus. The focus is entirely upon the friendship that springs up between these two women after Nyctasia hires Corson to get her out of the city they call home safely, and escort her to a port where Nyctasia can take passage to rendezvous with her exiled boyfriend. Silverglass, the first novel, is basically a Road Picture, as it follows Corson and Nyc on a series of episodic adventures. Each of them saves the other’s life several times, and each time they reach a location where it would make sense for Corson to take her pay and head home, she decides to stick around for the next leg, until ultimately she is able to rescue Nyc from the sorcerous prison in which her boyfriend traps her.

I imagine the two Rivkin’s picked a character and wrote for each, trading off chapters and/or dialogue as the two bicker and bond over the course of their adventure. They may even have had a relationship similar to the one that Corson and Nyc have in the books, but that is probably just projecting.

The second novel, Web of Wind, is even more of a “hang-out” book as the two companions, now in possession of a treasure map, reach a long separated branch of Nyctasia’s family. These cousins are vintners and own a large parcel of land that includes an ancient monastery that may or may not contain a fabulous treasure. But again, the treasure is mostly an afterthought, something to give the book a little peril and spice. The bulk of the tale concerns Corson and Nyc visiting and interacting with the cousins and their wine-making operation. It was at this point that I realized that the Royo covers had also fooled me as to when and where these books take place: I was assuming some kind of Hyborean Bronze/Iron Age setting, but it quickly became obvious that Corson and Nyc spend all their time in Fantasy Renaissance Italy, and that in this volume they are basically in Tuscany.

So the covers lie a lot. I wonder how the authors felt about them. I’ve no doubt that the heaving bosoms sold books, but I’m not sure how deftly they targeted the audience that the Rivkins were trying to serve. The Silverglass novels sold well enough for them to finish the series, at least, but the books didn’t stay in print.

I intend to finish the series once I locate a copy of the third book and may cover them here. They’re not at all what I was expecting when I picked them up, but they are enjoyable so long as one knows what they are getting into. I was expecting rip-roaring adventure with a bit of sex, and I got a meandering character-study with a sword & sorcery backdrop and only a hint of sex. The protagonists represent a type more common on the bookshelves today, with a greater proliferation of women authors, but in the 1980s a pair of confident, accomplished, bad-ass, bisexual lady adventurers were all but unique.