Monday, August 16, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Hero at the Gates

Tanith Lee is one of those fantasy authors whose existence largely escaped my notice during my younger days. This is in spite of the fact that one of her short stories, "In the Balance," appeared in the third volume of the celebrated Swords Against Darkness series edited by Andrew J. Offutt – the only one included in Gary Gygax's Appendix N. I remember very well reading that volume, several of whose stories made a lasting impression upon me, yet, for the life of me, I can't recall Lee's own contribution. I find that particularly odd, because, if nothing else, Lee is an exceptional stylist; even if one does not like the tales she tells, there can be little doubt that she tells them with aplomb.

Later in life I corrected this lacuna in my literary education and read several collections of Lee's short stories, including one, published in 1982, entitled Cyrion. Cyrion is the name of the protagonist of all the included stories, including "A Hero at the Gates," first published in the pages of the Summer 1979 issue of Shayol, a science fiction and fantasy periodical about which I don't know a great deal. In any case, "A Hero at the Gates" takes place, like all of the adventures of Cyrion, in a fantasy version of the medieval Kingdom of Jerusalem (Heruzala) at the time of the Crusades. I say "fantasy version" primarily because sorcery and the supernatural are incontrovertibly real; in most other respects, the world Cyrion inhabits is simply the 12th century Levant with the names swapped out – "Remusans" for "Romans" and "Hesuf" instead of "Jesus," for example.

"A Hero at the Gates" begins with the arrival of Cyrion at a city in the midst of the desert in which he has been traveling, alone, for some time. 

Cyrion stood and regarded the city. He was tempted to believe it a desert too, one of those hulks of men's making, abandoned centuries ago as the sands of the waste crept to their threshold. Certainly, the city was old. Yet it had no aspect of neglect, none of the indefinable melancholy of the unlived-in house.

Before long, Cyrion recognizes that he is being watched by the inhabitants of this unnamed city.

What did they perceive? This: a young man, tall and deceptively slim, deceptively elegant, which elegance itself was something of a surprise, for he had been months traveling in the desert, on the caravan routes and the rare and sand-blown roads. He wore the loose dark clothing of a nomad, but with the generous hood thrust back to show he did not have a nomad's pigmentation. At his side was a sword sheathed in read leather. The sunlight struck a silver-gold burnish on the pommel of the sword that was also the color of his hair. His left hand was mailed in rings which apparently no bandit had been able to relieve him of. If the watchers of the city had remarked that Cyrion was as handsome of the Arch-Demon himself, they would not have been the first to do so. 

As descriptions of a character go, it's a good one and representative, I think, of Lee's luscious style. At any rate, Cyrion is soon met by a man with "a hard face, tanned but sallow, wings of black hair beneath a shaved crown, and a collar of swarthy gold set with gems." The man, who identifies himself as Prince Memled, explains that he and his subjects "await a savior. We await him in bondage … You, perhaps, are he." 

Cyrion, naturally, is skeptical but nevertheless asks Memled to explain what he wants from him. 

"We are in the thrall of a monster, a demon-beast. It dwells in the caverns beneath the city, but at night it roves at all. It demands the flesh of our men to eat; it drinks the blood of our women and our children. It is protected through ancient magic, by a pact made a hundred years before between the princes of the city (cursed be they!) and the hordes of the Fiend. None born of the city has power to slay the beast. Yet there is a prophecy. A stranger, a hero who ventures to our gates, will have the power."

Upon questioning, Memled admits to Cyrion that other would-be saviors have preceded him – "upward of a score," he explains – and they have all "met an early death." The prince tells him that no one will think ill of him should he refuse to undertake this enterprise. He also adds:

"I can reveal no more. It is a part of the foul sorcery that binds us. We may say nothing to aid you, do nothing to aid you. Only pray for you, if you should decide to pit your skill against the devil."

Despite this, Cyrion accepts Memled's offer to attempt to save his city, in exchange for coin. The prince readily agrees to this, saying, "We crave safety, not wealth. Our wealth has not protected us from horror and death."

I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that things are not quite what they seem. Fortunately, Cyrion is exceedingly clever, a keen reader of others and an eye for small details. These traits all serve him well in a story that, ultimately, is less a traditional sword-and-sorcery yarn than a mystery. Indeed, Cyrion himself feels less like a Conan than a street-smart pulp detective. There's even a scene, toward the end of the story, where Cyrion explains how and why he was able to discern something that no one else seemingly could. It reminded me of similar scenes in Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories or those of his many imitators, which I rather suspect was the point.

In any event, "A Hero at the Gates" is a good read and a nice change of pace from more traditional pulp fantasy tales. I suspect anyone reading it will soon wish to read more and I heartily encourage that – if you can find them; like so much of Lee's oeuvre, they are currently out of print. 


  1. One of those authors I was always aware of but have never actually read...maybe time to do something about that

  2. That's a great adventure hook. Complete with a reference to dungeons and catacombs beneath the city. It could easily be a mega dungeon.

  3. Cyrion is one of my all-time favorite books. 'One Night of the Year' and 'A Lynx Among Lions' are masterpieces of S&S.

  4. I recently read this story in Appendix N: The Eldritch Roots of Dungeons and Dragons. I was so intrigued I tracked down a copy of Cyrion which collects the short stories and a novella with linking episodes. I probably haven't enjoyed a new-to-me fantasy novel so much in 20 years.

    Probably not to everyone's taste. Imagine if Agatha Christie wrote a fantasy novel inspired by the Canterbury Tales.


  5. The premise with a warrior arriwing at a place where the locals ask him to get rid of a monster that is causing trouble sounds like Beowulf transported to a near east setting. But turning the story into a detective mystery is certainly a new twist!

  6. I really liked that collection. I'm a big fan of hers but I think that has to be her most approachable work.