Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown debut authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.
This one’s a little different. I’m still reading a debut novel (and in fact only novel) by an unknown author. But Hogar, Lord of the Asyr was published way back in the antediluvian age of 1987. While you and I were busy writing Duran Duran lyrics on our scrunchies, John Rufus Sharpe III was busy writing the greatest pre-Renaissance pulp fantasy of all time.
Your experience begins in the border fortress of Grimmswold, where Hothir Longtooth, Hogar Bloodsword’s uncle, is about to become King of the Asyr. When Hogar’s father Helmer died mysteriously, Hothir took the young lad in and married his mother Ermengard. Now the eldest brother Thorodd Fairhair lies dying, putting Hothir close to the throne of Nordgaard. To the surprise of no one, Hothir is poisoning Thorodd with the help of an evil priest from an evil religion, because apparently they have those. A drunken emissary reminds us of strife with the neighboring Vandir Kingdom, and the history of warfare that has devastated parts of the country since Ragnarok, the death of the old gods. Since Hogar is a loose thread in Hothir’s plans, the new king finds an excuse to put the strapping young man in trouble and banish him under pain of death.
“Tha guided Hogar, so that they settled together on the ledge of the open-air Temple of the Flame. Overhead, the sky was crimsoned by the glow of the sacred fire that rose from the Doom Ring below.”
That’s chapter one. Other chapters include “The Chamber of Goom,” “Berserkers!,” and “The Smell of Dungeons.” Obviously our hero receives a portentous quest, but to my delight this one has a table of contents: lion, dragon, eagle, warlock, cauldron, stone, spear, sword, ring. How is this not standard literary practice? Do they not teach school anymore? I won’t run through too much of the plot, because you already know it. It’s everything. This book is a repository of every fantasy trope ever penned. I can spoil details of the story all day and only scratch the surface. You know that scene that would show up in Abbot and Costello movies, where a lady gorilla would fall in love with Costello and not let him go? Yeah, that’s in here. I may occasionally make reference to the glossary, because of course there is a glossary, what kind of book do you think this is? This isn’t your typical kitchen sink fantasy amalgamation. This is what happens when you put every book with a barbarian fighting a lizard over a lady in a metal bikini on the cover into a blender and push “surprise me.” The one thing this book sorely lacks is a map, so I made one. We are told that the story takes place in a fictional distant past of our own world, a la Tolkien, so theoretically we should be able to match places to their approximate equivalents on a boring, normal map.
The story revolves around Hogar’s quest, so what kind of person is this Medieval Gigachad? There are four basic facts about Hogar that dictate his role in every situation. Women will always like Hogar, Lord of the Asyr, no matter what. It doesn’t matter how they met him, what he’s done for or to them, or what species they are. But men? Specifically men in positions of authority? They don’t much care for Hogar, Lord of the Asyr. You see the pattern that’s emerging. Also, anytime Hogar finds himself in a situation, place, location, or time, he’s gonna have to do some fighting. Visiting father’s grave? Time to fight. Enjoying a nice meal? Get ready to fight. Already fighting? Fighty fight! No wonder he says “He who walks apace from his sword is a dead man.” The violence is constant and brutal, but casual, which kind of makes it even harder to read. The final detail that you need to know about Hogar is that his destiny is not his own. The old gods, supposedly long dead, have bestowed upon him a quest, a journey woven by the fates to retrieve the Makkjuffyn. This is a handy way to avoid having to explain coincidences as the plot rolls along, and absolves Hogar of whatever Nuremberg-level crimes he must commit along the way. He has a responsibility to the gods to take no responsibility for his actions.
“She no longer feared what was to come. Still laughing lightly, she said ‘It is but poor, simple fare from my saddlebag that I have to share with you, my lord.'”
A parade of increasingly absurd supporting characters appears alongside Hogar, or arrayed against him. The battle maiden Ragnahild must boink the first man who bests her in deadly combat. There is the evil vampy sex-queen who can turn herself into a sex-tiger, presumably for sex purposes. Yoda is in this book, along with some kind of swashbuckling bard. As I said, men with some authority consistently hate Hogar. But humble, hard working tax payers love him, without question. Even when they should probably have questions. Hogar earns the loyalty of the hale and hearty Svadi by shooting him in the back with an arrow. Some of the Welsh pirates (there’s no time, just read the book) survive for the express purpose of learning to love Hogar. The worldbuilding is quite elaborate. Ermengard (who loves berks) comes from Skaane, the lands (so says the glossary) of the white boar blazon, ruined by the wars of the Vandir and the Nord, home of the aging hero Starulf and the Rhenish race. Skaane (not to be confused with Skona, which is not to be confused with Thone, etc…) hardly matters to the plot, yet even casual mentions of it are dripping with lore. From the fire-worshiping lizard people to the mammoth and tiger frozen in a glacier mid-combat, every page of this book feels like it’s resting on top of ten pages of notes.
Some of Sharpe3’s research seems to have been into efficient cliché packing algorithms. It seems like every tavern in this world has a sign out front reading “Help Wanted: Busty and Bodiced Only,” and every stretch of woods has its shapeshifting demon. The bad guys all kick dogs, and the good guys never kick dogs. I’ve read cliché-heavy books before, but this is on another level, because the disconnected nature of the quest makes it easy to Tetris every last trope into the narrative. Sure, have a sea monster for no reason. And wash it down with airships, why not? Absolute right and wrong with no gray area? Check. Power fantasy hero with no morals whatsoever? Also check somehow.
“Hogar’s point was pressed against the Vandir’s throat, poised for the thrust home. Drakko cravenly threw his sword onto the rushes and extended his empty hands above his head. Cold sweat beaded his pallid brow.”
Not that I’m complaining. Hogar, Lord of the Asyr is written with obvious love for the genre and its antecedents. There is a strong influence from pulpy Burroughs-esque “Shirtless Barbarians of Jupiter” adventure serials, as well as the pseudo-Germanic medieval aesthetic perfected by Tolkien ripoffs. Sharpe really commits to the aesthetic, at one point telling us that something “stinks like an uncleaned hawk mew.” Ah, yes. I think we all know what that smells like. Words I found frolicking up and down the pages of this book include embrangle, sough, fane, sennight, and slumgullion. We’ve got an, ere, and anon instead of if, before, and soon. Things are ensorceled, byrnie-clad, and Daedalian. And of course no one has ever heard of a contraction. Sharpe is best known for writing lyrics, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a trip to his personal word zoo is a delight. The book feels like all the elements of a parody of mid-century pulp arranged instead into a loving homage.
The date of publication for Hogar, Lord of the Asyr is part of why I think it became so quickly forgotten. 1987 was the very end of the Dark Ages of fantasy. You see, in the beginning there was Tolkien. Not literally, of course. Some Brit with too much time on his hands laid out how we got from Ivanhoe to Isengard. But during the 70s and most of the 80s the world of fantasy literature operated on the same principle as Hallmark Christmas movies. Sure, there was the occasional Le Guin or Zelazny, but mostly you had endless regurgitations of J. R. R., and occasionally Burroughs or Lewis. The type fossil of this era is David Eddings. A man so devoid of ideas he could make you stupid by passing his hands over you like Tom Cruise, so disdainful of his own reader that it feels like he’s beating you up for your lunch money from beyond the grave, David Eddings is to the written word what cat puke is to expensive carpets. Here’s a brief aside about one time David Eddings was so racist it broke the story. 1987 marked the end of this inter-dynastic period. This is when Daughter of the Empire came out, and Terry Pratchett was just starting to hit his stride. By the early 90s we had The Eye of the World and some of Terry Brooks’ better stories, and by the mid 90s the fantasy renaissance was in full swing with authors like Nix, Martin, and Hobb. Hogar, Lord of the Asyr is like a beautifully carved crown on the statue of Ozymandius, now buried somewhere in the sand, forgotten in the new world of better fantasy. Maybe that’s why I, a person quickly becoming a historical relic herself, gravitate to these sorts of books. If I’m lucky, some of the other debut novels I read on this blog will turn out to be eloquent speakers for their moment in time.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to go buy this book if you can, but it hasn’t been in print for years. There are a few used copies floating around the internet, and I urge you to commandeer one by any means necessary, so long as it doesn’t involve kicking a dog. In the mean time, spread the word. Share this review, or ask your friends if they’ve ever heard of Hogar, Lord of the Asyr. Make it sound like we’re in a cult and this is our holy scripture, because it should be.
Quiz: What’s Not In This Book?
Which adjective is not used to describe Hogar?
Which of the following is not a fictional place mentioned in the book?
Which is these techniques does not successfully get Hogar laid?
I learned about the greatest work of fiction yet penned, and it has changed my life.Tweet