Gunthar: Lord of the Black Throne
by Steve Dilks
Steve Dilks’ latest novella was originally published as part of his earlier Gunthar collection, Warrior of the Lost World, which contained three other novellas featuring the same character, all originally published separately. I read ‘Warrior’ at the height of Covid and it was certainly the kind of escapism the situation needed.
There’s a lot of grumbling about ‘Clonan’ characters in the New Edge movement, and certainly you can have too much Conan. But in the hands of a skilled writer, barbarian heroes work, and Dilks’ mastery of Howard-esque prose is part of his secret. Like Scott Oden and one or two other authors, Dilks does REH so well, I hope Titan Books see the sense of commissioning a Conan novel from him!
Gunthar is blonde and comes from the steppes, so has something in common with the original Klonan, Brak, and also Brian Lumley’s barbarian, Tarra Kash. The world he lives in is ambiguous as to setting and time period. Technology exists, the remnants of an ancient civilisation, and the world has a post-apocalyptic feel, but nothing so cheesy as to be a post nuclear world that just happens to be like Hyboria meets Middle Earth. Perhaps the high tech civilisation was Atlantis or something similar. I prefer it to the kind of world building that exhausts all possibility for development by fixing definite rules right from the outset: such settings tend to stagnate and grow tediously self-referential. Gunthar’s world has yet to reach that point.
Gunthar himself is most certainly a mighty barbarian, and Dilks’ REH-style renders him a close cousin to the Cimmerian:
The nape hairs rose stiffly on the back of his neck and he leaped quickly to his feet, eyes widening in fear.
"Yod the Accursed!" he swore.
Change ‘Yod’ to Crom and this could be straight out of a Conan story—but, a Robert E Howard original, not a pastiche.
There’s a difference in tone between this novella and the three that preceded it: the first three are set in hot Southland environments, Lord of the Black Throne is definitely closer to the Northern Thing. Some reviewers have compared it with Gemmell, a writer I never got on with, but I hope no one will think me a show-off if I say that LotBT, with its mishmash of Norse, Saxon, and Celtic reminds me of the first of the Richard Blade sword and planet/soft porn novels from the seventies. Pseudo-Welsh placenames such as Caerdruhn rank alongside characters with Norse names like Runatyr (bearded, one eyed, rune casting wanderer—three guesses which Norse god this is).
I mentioned Oden earlier, Scott, that is, a writer who has attracted the odd bit of flack for including orcs in his sword and sorcery—there’s a notion doing the rounds that anything Tolkien related can’t be sword and sorcery. Funny that when Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock were discussing ‘putting a tag on it’, Moorcock, (despite being an inveterate Tolkien-basher), referenced The Lord of the Rings, alongside The Worm Ouroboros and The Once and Future King as an example, as well as the likes of Conan, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. It’s the reaction against fat fantasy novels in the Tolkien-derivative Shannara mould that has damned Tolkien rather than anything else. So it’s refreshing to see that Dilks includes a pipe-smoking dwarf who could easily have stepped out of the pages of The Hobbit, or even an 80s teenager’s Dungeons and Dragons campaign. And Var is a great character. Interestingly, the author never explains whether he’s a member of some warrior race of dwarfs, Tolkien-style, or a warrior suffering from dwarfism of some kind. Much like the vagueness about the setting, this seems more effective than hard and fast world building with definite rules. It leaves you to make up your own mind, while other authors might spoon feed, or even drip feed, the reader.
All you Keats fans will remember what he had to say about ‘negative capability’: the ability of a writer, “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously,” to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I think that may be what we’ve got here, too.
Now I can’t stand critics who retell the story so you’ve got no reason to read it, but I suppose I’d better stop waffling and give you some idea of what it’s all about. Ahem. Caerdruhn has fallen, an army of savages is bearing down on the northern kingdom, and one man, egged on by Runatyr the druid, must fight for the blind sorceress Julinna, donning the ancient armour of power in a last ditch attempt to vanquish the might of Xomith the faceless one.
But never mind me, dog, read it! And, in the name of Yod the Accursed, read the rest of the Gunthar saga too! You won’t regret it.
Gunthar: Lord of the Black Throne by Steve Dilks is available from Amazon.