The first of these stories is a novella called "Thunder in the Dawn," which was long enough to split into two parts and published in the May and June 1938 issues. This story introduces us to the swordsman Elak and his sidekick Lycon. Not long after he appears in a tavern in the seaside city of Poseidonia, an assassin sets upon Elak, using both magic and blade in his task. Elak escapes death because of the unexpected arrival of yet another man, a druid by the name of Dalan, whose own command of fire magic defeats the assassin. Together, they interrogate the would-be killer and learn that he was sent by a warlock (unimaginatively) named Elf.
Lycon, like the reader, is left confused by this turn of events. Why does Elf wish to slay Elak?
Elak shook his head. "Tell him, Dalan."With Elak's true identity revealed, the trio set off on a quest to save Orander and defeat the warlock Elf. Along the way, they are joined by Lady Velia, Elak's one-time lover whom they free from her abusive husband. There are giant spiders, humanoid monsters, elementals, and more. The result is something that feels remarkably like a D&D adventure. There are even frequent references to the Nine Hells and the fiendish entities that dwell there.
"Cyrena? The northernmost kingdom of Atlantis?" Lycon asked. "I know Orander rules it, but that's all."
"A dozen years ago Norian ruled Cyrena," the Druid said. "He had two stepsons, Orander and Zeulas. Zeulas killed him."
Elak moved uneasily.
"Zeulas killed him," Dalan repeated, "in a fair fight, and both men had provocation. Because of this Zeulas, though he was the elder, did not assume the crown. He left Cyrena to wander, a homeless vagabond, through Atlantis."
Lycon turned to stare at Elak. "By Ishtar! You don't mean--"
"He is Zeulas," the Druid said. "His brother, Orander, rules in Cyrena. Or -- did rule."
"Thunder in the Dawn" is a quick, fun read, but, beyond escapism, it lacks much in the way of lasting value. Compared to, say, many of Howard's Conan yarns, it's amazingly shallow and "fluffy." Indeed, there are times when it feels like an attempt at a pastiche of Howard, with its evocation of a pseudo-historical past age and its appropriation of names of real-world places and cultures (the Vikings and the Picts) to lend verisimilitude to its narrative. Kuttner isn't much of a stylist either; his descriptions are often cursory and his plotting simple. However, his dialog can be quite effective, especially in its use of humor and irony. He's no Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance, but I think he is superior to Howard in this regard. It's largely for this reason that I found myself enjoying "Thunder in the Dawn" despite its many inadequacies. There were even times when I was reminded of Fritz Leiber in the interactions between Elak and Lycon -- and that's never a bad thing.