a novel by Sterling Lanier
While Dungeons & Dragons has become a genre unto itself, it was initially informed by a whole host of influences, primarily pulp adventure, weird fiction, sci-fi and fantasy novels. The first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide had a handy Appendix N detailing the authors and stories that fed the development of the game. Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey, initially published in 1973, is one of those novels and its presence in the appendix is the primary reason I wanted to read it.
Its setting is unusual. Per Hiero Desteen, the main character, is a Catholic priest and soldier from Kanda in the year 7476. It has been five thousand years since The Death, a grim holocaust that laid waste the old world and created a new one, filled with savage mutant monsters, deadly irradiated lands, and fractured polities. The Metz Republic and Otwah League of Kanda are among the most civilized that remain, and they are under threat from a group that calls itself the Dark Brotherhood and their foes call the Unclean. The Dark Brotherhood seeks to dominate and destroy, harnessing the powers of the Death (atomic, genetic, pandemic, climatic what have you, the book doesn’t claim any one source for the holocaust) to conquer, and they are led by powerful telepaths who can take over your mind and force you to stand still while they kill you. Luckily, Hiero is himself telepathic (indeed, everyone in 7476 appears to have the capacity, if not the aptitude, for psychic powers) and after an initial encounter that goes badly but which he survives, his powers improve and Hiero is better able to defend himself.
Hiero is initially accompanied by his morse mount, the battle moose named Klootz, with whom Hiero shares a telepathic link, but in due course he acquires a number of other allies, including a highly intelligent bear named Gorm, the lost princess Luchare, and the monk Brother Aldo. Both Luchare and Brother Aldo are black and Hiero himself is pureblood Metz, descended from the Metis of Canada (a group whose named indicates they are of mixed race, in a neat bit of irony), and its honestly refreshing to see a novel from the 1970s that informed D&D so strongly and starred a cast of people of color.
The impact on D&D from this book is readily apparent. Hiero himself seems a model for the cleric class, given his mix of martial skill, mental abilities, and devotion to the Church (although in five thousand years, it appears celibacy has been thrown out and priests can now marry, and “thou shalt not kill” is handily ignored). The mental powers everyone possesses would become D&D’s psionics. Brother Aldo is clearly a druid and acts as though he has a True Neutral alignment. The monsters, both animal and humanoid, are plentiful and imaginative. Hiero’s goal, to find a computer (which his superiors tell him might be as big as a house), even leads him into a subterranean complex, i.e. a dungeon.
Beyond that, Hiero’s Journey is a rip-roaring adventure full of peril and romance, fun characters, weird monsters, daring escapes, brutal combat, wonder and terror. Hiero and his allies must travel across the Northern wilderness, including the vast freshwater ocean that used to be the Great Lakes, contending with irradiated mutations as well as the dogged pursuit of the Unclean, traveling through swamps and jungles and plains on their quest.
Its not all perfect. Hiero is 36 and his love interest Luchare is about 17, so that’s problematic, although 1973 probably had more leeway for such skeeviness. Lanier makes the strange assumption, as to be fair most genre authors did, that anything of the present world would still exist in five thousand years. Modern pollution is destroying the pyramids of Egypt, and they’re not even five thousand years old. Give a modern skyscraper five thousand years on top of a nuclear engagement and by golly, the Earth is going to reclaim all that pretty quickly. The idea of a computer as big as a room and imagining what processing power it might possess is also comical in this day and age; I’m pretty sure my phone is more powerful than a circa 1973 room-computer and its punch cards. But a lot of that can be overlooked based just on how fun and action packed the novel is, and for having great concepts like telepathic battle moose and intelligent, malevolent fungi.
This one is worth a perusal, in particular if you’re a table top RPG person, or just enjoy post-apocalyptic genre adventures. There’s at least one sequel, which is in my too-read pile, and I’m eager to give that a go as well.