Monday, April 16, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Eyes of Mavis Deval

The fifth (of ten) short stories featuring Gardner Fox's Niall of the Far Travels appeared in issue #33 (January 1980) of Dragon, in a short story entitled "The Eyes of Mavis Deval." Interestingly, this is the first short story in the series that didn't receive the cover image. I'm not sure much can be made of this, since some of the subsequent short stories do get cover images (though not all of them), but it's worth noting nonetheless.

This installment in Niall's saga begins, as so many of its predecessor did, with a girl, the Mavis Deval of the title, whom Niall first spots on a dais in a slave market and to whom he is inexplicably drawn.
It was her eyes that drew his stare as he sat astride the high-peak saddle of his stallion, there on the edge of the huge slave market. They were a brilliant green, those eyes, and it seemed to Niall of the Far Travels as he looked, that there was a tiny flame glowing in each pupil.

Niall stood in the stirrups, lifting his giant body upright. Clad in the silver chainmail of his rank as High Commander of the armies of Urgrik, with the scarlet cloak hanging from his wide shoulders, he was ignorant of the men and women who turned to regard him.

All he was aware of was the girl.
This story continues the tradition of Fox's previous ones in that, while not necessarily a direct sequel to the previous story in the series, it nevertheless follows it in clear chronological order, unlike, say, Howard's Conan tales, which bounce back and forth across the whole of the Cimmerian's life. Speaking of Conan, Fox's description of Niall's actions toward the slave girl and of the barbarian's lifestyle sets him apart from his inspiration.
Niall paced the black stallion slowly over the cobblestones of the city, wondering at the eldritch impulse that had made him buy this girl. He owned no slaves, he did not believe in slavery, though it was practiced everywhere in his world. Well, that was easy enough to handle. He would free the girl, give her some gold, and send her on her way.

And yet—

There was something about her that appealed to him. He had never paid much attention to women, except for a tavern girl now and then, to assuage the hungers of his flesh. Perhaps it had been the sort of life he had, wandering here and there across his world, that had made him lead this almost monastic life.
To read of any pulp fantasy character as having led an "almost monastic life" is unusual, all the moreso when the character in question is a mighty-threwed barabrian. It's little things like that endear these stories to me, despite their lightness. Gardner Fox may not be the most original of writers, but he nevertheless imbues his pastiche work with imagination, playing with one's expectations and reworking familiar characters and plots into things that somehow transcend their origins.

Hating slavery and having "no room in [his] life for a girl," Niall intends to free Mavis Deval, after he has given her some decent clothes and some money to make her way in the world. Oddly, Mavis has no desire to leave Niall's side, which arouses the barbarian's suspicion. She attempts to use her considerable charms to win his affection but to little avail; he still wishes to free her and have her out of his life. Realizing this, the girl then reveals that she knows the location of "a very big treasure," whose location she learned from men speaking on the caravan on which she traveled with the other slaves.  

This piques Niall's interest, but, even so, he is wary and decides to consult with a wizard of his acquaintance, Danko Penavar. When he tells the old man about the treasure Mavis mentioned, Penavar warns him against seeking it.
“It is not good, that treasure, Niall. Be advised. Forget about it.”

Niall grinned. “But there is a treasure?”

“Oh, yes. But it is cursed. Sisstorississ himself lays claim to it, and Sisstorississ is a jealous god.”
Niall had run afoul of the snake god Sisstorississ in an early story, which inflames his curiosity about the treasure rather than dissuading him from seeking it. After consulting with the wizard, he then sets out, with Mavis Deval, to the hills of Kareen, where she claims the treasure lies. Niall fully expects a nasty surprise to await him, but he is at least prepared for it -- or so he thinks.

As I said earlier, "The Eyes of Mavis Deval" isn't a particularly original story, at least in terms of its basic ideas. Yet, Gardner Fox does a superb job of taking a well-worn plot and stock characters and imbuing them with lively interest. Like the previous entries in this series, this is a fun story engagingly told, displaying more than enough cleverness to hold my attention. I liked it a lot.

5 comments:

  1. Is there any way to read these stories without owning the early Dragon magazines?

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  2. Not to my knowledge. The first story was anthologized in Year's Best Fantasy #3 (1976), edited by Lin Carter, but I believe that's the only Niall story that appeared outside the pages of Dragon.

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  3.  Somewhere I have the controversial Dragon CD set tucked away. I should dig it out and reread these.

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  4. Why controversial?

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  5.  There were serious questions about the company's right to reproduce the material in electronic format, especially the fiction pieces, as I recall. Caused quite a furor at the time.

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