FICTION / FANTASY /GODS
Centuries ago, it seemed that the gods had deserted humanity. But, now, suddenly they are back. Not only the sun god Apollo, but his unrelenting enemy--dark Hades, lord of the Underworld, greedy for human bodies and souls to gather into his domain. And others, including Thanatos, the personification of Death; the enigmatic Trickster; and Hephaestus the Smith, the wonderworker of magical technology. The past meets the present in a struggle of wills, and life will never be the same for young Jeremy Redthorn. Jeremy, a young farm laborer, is unwittingly caught up in the clash when he pledges to deliver a mysterious mask given to him by a beautiful wounded stranger.
Rural youth Jeremy Redthorn puts on a
mask that imbues him with the power and nature of Apollo.
Consequently, he is chased by the avatars of Hades and Thanatos and
aided by friends of his who have taken on the identities of the
forge-god Vulcan and the trickster Hermes (sometimes called Coyote).
This energetic novel, which kicks off Saberhagen's fourth series
(after the Berserker, Dracula and Swords series), explores both
Jeremy's growing understanding of the gods and the war of the gods in
which he finds himself a participant. The world laid out by
Saberhagen is like yet unlike our own, somewhere between classical
and medieval but also inhabited by "mutant' animals and hints of an
ancient technology beyond modern accomplishments that may have
produced the gods themselves. The characterization is about average
for a fantasy series but the action is invigorating. Saberhagen has
proven himself a reliable--and popular--author for many years, and
his latest offering proves no exception. --- Publishers Weekly
First of a new series from Saberhagen--your choice whether you call it fantasy or far-future science fiction--an offshoot of, or prequel to, his Lost Swords yarns (The Last Book of Swords, 1994, etc). In a terrible battle inside Mount Olympus, Hades the god of the underworld kills Apollo the god of light. Some days later, a severely wounded young woman, Sal, begs help from 15-year-old field-worker Jeremy Redthorn. Soon, soldiers seeking Sal--and the mysterious object of power she carries--attack and destroy Jeremy's village. Jeremy, though, manages to escape after recovering the object and promising Sal he'll take it to either Professor Alexander or Margaret Chalandon of the Academy at distant Pangur Ban. Jeremy later examines the object: a strange, translucent fragment of a modeled mask. He puts it on, and it sinks into his head! Moreover, the mask, or Face, contains the memories, personality, and powers of the god Apollo. Slowly, as Jeremy becomes accustomed to this Intruder, he realizes that his--Apollo's--battle with Hades is far from over. With new friends Carlotta and Amobius, Jeremy reaches the Academy, but Alexander is murdered by an avatar of Thanatos, god of death, and Margaret Chalandon has gone missing on an expedition to Mount Olympus. Hoping to capture the oracle of the gods, Pangur Ban's Lord Victor sends a force to Olympus, which Jeremy joins (nobody yet suspects he's also Apollo). Testing his powers, he acquires allies: Carlotta relinquishes her Face of Loki the Trickster to Jeremy's beloved, Katy, and his soldier friend Andy Ferrante becomes the god Vulcan. Matters build toward the inevitable confrontation with Hades and his minions.
Another winner for Saberhagen--like his Swords, the possibilities and permutations seem endless --- Kirkus Review
This was in fact a very minor birthday party. Aunt Lynn had sung him a song--and poured Jeremy a second glass of wine.
Tonight gray-bearded Uncle Humbert had emptied somewhat more of the wine jug into his own cup than usual, and had started telling stories. On most nights, and most days, Jeremy's uncle had little enough to say about anything. But tonight the birthday occasion had been melded with the prospect of a good harvest, now in late summer already under way. For the latter reason Humbert was in a good mood now, refilling his clay cup yet again from the cheap jug on the table.
Tonight was going to be one of the rare times when Uncle drank enough wine to alter his behavior. Not that Jeremy had ever seen him take enough to bring on any drastic change. The only noticeable effect was that he would start chuckling and hiccuping, and then reel off a string of stories concerning the legendary gods, gradually focusing more and more on their romantic encounters.
Months ago Jeremy had given up expecting ever to be thanked for his hard work. He had to admit that the old people worked hard too, most of the time. It was just the way things were, when you lived on the land.
As a rule, the boy consumed only one cup of wine at a meal. His uncle was stingy about that, as about much else. But tonight Jeremy dared to pour himself a second cup, and his uncle looked at him for a moment, but then let it pass.
The boy was not particularly restricted in his consumption of wine, but so far had not been tempted to overdo it--he wasn't sure he liked the sensations brought on by swallowing more than a little of the red stuff straight.
Earlier Aunt Lynn, contemplating the fact of his turning fifteen, had asked him: "S'pose you might be marrying soon?"
That was a surprise; he wondered if the old woman really hadn't noticed that he was barely on speaking terms with any of the other villagers, male or female, young or old. The folk here tended to view any outsiders with suspicion. "Don't know who I'd marry."
Aunt Lynn sat thinking that over. Or more likely her mind was already on something else--the gods knew what. Now Jeremy sat drawing little circles with his finger in the spots of spilled wine on the table. Often it seemed to the boy that there must be more than one generation between himself and the two gray people now sitting at his right and left. Such were the differences. Now Uncle Humbert, tongue well loosened, was well into his third tale concerned with the old days, of a time when the world was young, and the gods too were young and vital beings, fully capable of bearing the responsibility for keeping the universe more or less in order. He supposed the old folk must have heard the stories thousands of times, but they never seemed tired of telling or hearing them yet again.
Many people viewed the past, when supposedly the gods had been dependable, and frequently beneficent, as a Golden Age, irretrievably lost in this late and degenerate period of the world. But Uncle Humbert's view, as his nephew had become acquainted with it over the past several months, was somewhat different. A deity might do a human being a favor now and then, on a whim, but by and large the gods were not beneficent. Instead they viewed the world as their own playground, and humanity as merely an amusing set of toys.
Humbert derived a kind of satisfaction from this view of life--it was not his fault that the world, as he saw it, had cheated him in many ways. Certain of the gods seemed to spend a good deal of their time thinking up nasty tricks to play on Uncle Humbert. Jeremy supposed that seeing himself as a victim of the gods allowed his uncle to have a feeling of importance.
The other half of Humbert's audience, on most nights for the past five months, had been his weary, overworked nephew. Tonight was no exception, and the boy sat, head spinning over his second cup, falling asleep with his head propped up in one hand, both his elbows on the table. Nothing was forcing him to stay at the table--he could have got up at any moment, and climbed the ladder to his bed. But in fact he wanted to hear the stories. Any distraction from the mundane world in which he spent the monotony of his days was welcome.
Now Jeremy's eyelids opened a little wider. Uncle Humbert was varying his performance somewhat tonight. He was actually telling a tale that the boy hadn't heard before, in the five months that he'd been living here.
The legend that Jeremy had never heard before related how two male gods, Dionysus and one other, Mercury according to Uncle, who happened to be traveling together in disguise, made a wager between themselves as to what kind of reception they would be granted at the next peasants' hut, if they appeared incognito.
"So, they wrapped 'emselves up in their cloaks, and--hiccup--walked on."
Aunt Lynn, who tonight had hoisted an extra cup or two herself, was already shrieking with laughter, at almost every line of every story, and pounding her husband on the arm. Silently Jeremy marveled at her. No doubt she had heard this one a hundred times before, or a thousand, in a quarter-century or so of marriage, and already knew the point of the joke, but that didn't dampen her enjoyment. Jeremy hadn't heard it yet, and didn't much care whether he heard it now.
Uncle Humbert's raspy voice resumed. "So great Hermes--some call'm Mercury-- 'n Lord Di'nysus went on, and stopped at the next peasants' hut--it was a grim old man who came to th' door, but the gods could see he had a young and lively wife . . . she was jus' standing there behind the old man, kind of smiling at the visitors . . . an' when she saw they were two han'some, young-lookin' men, dressed like they were rich, she winked at 'em . . . "
Aunt Lynn had largely got over her latest laughing fit, and now sat smiling, giggling a little, listening patiently. She might be thinking that she could have been burdened with a husband a lot worse than Humbert, who hardly ever beat her. And Jeremy was already so well-grown that Uncle, not exactly huge and powerful himself, would doubtless have thought twice or thrice before whaling into him--but then, such speculation was probably unfair. In the boy's experience Uncle Humbert had never demonstrated a wish to beat on anyone--his faults were of a different kind.
The story came quickly to its inevitable end, with the grim,
greedy old peasant cuckolded, the lecherous gods triumphant, the
young wife, for the moment, satisfied. Judging by Uncle Humbert's
laughter, the old man still enjoyed the joke as much as the first
time he'd heard it, doubtless when he was a young and lecherous lad
himself. The thought crossed Jeremy's mind that his father would
never have told stories like this--not in the family circle,
anyway--and his mother would never have laughed at them.
That was the last joke of the night, probably because it was the last that Uncle could dredge up out of his memory just now. When all three people stood up from the table, the boy, still too young to have a beard at all, was exactly the same height as the aging graybeard who was not yet fifty.
While the woman puttered about, carrying out a minimum of table-clearing and kitchen work, young Jeremy turned away from his elders with a muttered goodnight, and began to drag his tired body up to the loft where he routinely slept. That second cup of wine was buzzing in his head, and once his callused foot-sole almost slipped free from a smooth-worn rung on the built-in wooden ladder.
Now in the early night the tiny, unlighted loft was still hot with the day-long roasting of summer sun. Without pausing, the boy crawled straight through the narrow, cramped, ovenlike space, and slid right on out of it again, through the crude opening which served as its single window. He emerged into moonlit night, on the flat roof of an adjoining shed.
Here he immediately paused to pull off his homespun shirt. The open air was cooler now than it had been all day, and a slight breeze had come up at sunset, promising to minimize the number of active mosquitoes. To Jeremy's right and left the branches of a shade tree rustled faintly, brushing the shed roof. Even in daylight this flat space, obscured by leaves and branches, was all but invisible from any of the other village houses. In a moment Jeremy had shed his trousers too.
He drained his bladder over the edge of the roof, saving himself a walk to the backyard privy. Then he stretched out naked on the sun-warmed shingles of the flat, slightly sloping surface, his shirt rolled up for a pillow beneath his head.
There, almost straight above him, was the moon. Jeremy could manage to locate a bright moon in a clear sky, though for him its image had never been more than a blur, and talk of lunar phases was practically meaningless. Stars were far beyond his capability--never in his life had his nearsighted vision let him discover even the brightest, except that once or twice, on frozen winter nights, he'd seen, or thought he'd seen, a blurry version of the Dog Star's twinkling point. Now and then, when Venus was especially bright, he had been able to make out her wandering image near dawn or sunset, a smaller, whiter version of the moon-blur. But tonight, though his eyelids were sagging with wine and weariness, he marveled at how moonlight--and what must be the communal glow of the multitude of bright points he had been told were there--had transformed the world into a silvery mystery.
Earlier in the day, Aunt Lynn had said she'd heard a boatman from downriver talking about some kind of strange battle, supposed to have recently taken place at the Cave of Prophecy. Whole human armies had been engaged, and two or more gods had fought to the death.
Uncle had only sighed on hearing the story. "The gods all died a long time ago," was his comment finally. "Fore I was born." Then he went on to speak of several deities as if they had been personal acquaintances. "Dionysus, now--there was a god for you. One who led an interesting life." Uncle Humbert, whose voice was gravelly but not unpleasant, supplied the emphasis with a wink and a nod and a laugh.
Jeremy wanted to ask his uncle just how well he had known
Dionysus--who had died before Humbert was born--just to see what the
old man would say. But the boy felt too tired to bother. Besides, he
had the feeling that his uncle would simply ignore the question.
Now, despite fatigue, an inner restlessness compelled him to hold his eyelids open a little longer. Not everyone agreed with Uncle Humbert that all the gods had been dead for a human lifetime or longer. Somewhere up there in the distant heavens, or so the stories had it, the gods still lived, or some of them at least, though they were no more to be seen by any human eyes than Jeremy could see the stars. Unless the stories about a recent battle might be true . . .
Others of that divine company, according to other stories, preferred to spend their time in inaccessible mountain fastnesses on earth. High places, from which they sometimes came down to bother people, or befriend them . . . at least in the old days, hundreds of years ago, they had done that.
He wondered if the gods, whatever gods there might be in reality, behaved anything at all like their representations in Uncle's stories. People who were inclined to philosophy argued about such matters, and even his parents had not been sure. But Jeremy preferred to believe that there were some gods in the world. Because magic really happened, sometimes. Not that he had actually experienced any himself. But there were so many stories, that he thought there must be something . . .
. . . his mind was drifting now. Let Dionysus and Hermes come to the door of this house tonight, and they'd find a crabbed old man, but no young wife to make the visit worth their while. Neither gods nor men could work up much craving for Aunt Lynn.
From down in the dark house, the rhythmic snores of his aunt and uncle were already drifting up. Wine and hard work had stupefied them; and in the real world, what else could anyone look forward to, but sleep?
Weariness and wine quickly pushed Jeremy over into the borderland of sleep. And now the invisible boundary had been passed. Bright dreams came, beginning with the young peasant wife of Uncle Humbert's tale, as she lay on her back in her small bedroom, making an eager offering of herself to the gods. Her husband had been got cleverly out of the way, and now she wantonly displayed her naked body. Between her raised knees stood the towering figure of jolly, bearded Dionysus, his muscles and his phallus alike demonstrating his superiority to mere mankind.
And now, in the sudden manner of dreams, the body of the farm wife on her bed was replaced by that of a certain village girl of about Jeremy's age. Her name was Myra, and more than once this summer the boy had seen her cooling herself in the river. Each time Myra and her younger girl companions had looked their suspicion and dislike at the red-haired, odd-looking newcomer. They'd turned their backs on the intruder in their village, who spoke with a strange accent. Whichever way Myra stood in the water, however she moved, her long dark hair tantalizingly obscured her bare breasts, and the curved flesh of her body jiggled.
The boy on the shed roof was drifting now, between sleep and waking. Something delightful was about to happen.
Well, and what did he care if some ignorant village girl might choose not to let him near her? Let her act any way she liked. Here, behind the closed lids of his eyes, he was the king, the god. the ruler, and he would decide what happened and what did not.
And even in the dream, the question could arise: What would Dionysus, if there really was a Dionysus, do with a girl like Myra? How great, how marvelous, to be a god!
But in another moment the dream was deepening again. The fascinating images were as real as life itself. And it was he, not Dionysus, who stood between the raised knees of the female on the bed. Even as Myra smiled up at him and reached out her arms, even as their bodies melted into one . . .
Groaning, he came partially awake at the last moment, enough to know that he was lying alone, had spent himself on wooden shingles. Real life was messy, however marvelous the dreams it sometimes brought.
Less than a minute later, Jeremy had turned on his back again, once more asleep. This time his dreams were of the unseen stars.
END OF CHAPTER ONE