Monday, November 16, 2009

The Unforsaken Hiero

Sterling E. Lanier's novel The Unforsaken Hiero (1983) is as you might expect a sequel to his earlier novel, Hiero's Journey (1973). An adventurous yarn like the first, it's told in the same simple, straightforward prose. The narrative picks up almost immediately where the previous book left off in a short prologue that leads into the main narrative.

Hiero has managed to outwit both the Unclean hordes and the malevolent House. Thanks to Luchare he has the manuals necessary for the Abby to make a computer. But Brother Aldo has other ideas. He tells Hiero he must go south with Luchare to face the Unclean threat there. Brother Aldo will travel north with Gorm and take the manuals to Abbot Demero, who he suddenly reveals is his friend. Hiero doesn't question why he kept this secret until now. He accepts Aldo's plans, hands over the manuals, and heads out to the southern kingdoms.

The tale then leaps forward to Hiero's life in the feudal lands. As Luchare's husband, Hiero is literally being given the royal treatment. He has ingratiated himself with her father, King Danyale, and is now an heir to the throne. The feudal kingdom of D'lwah is very different from the theocratic Metz Republic from whence he hails. Here the church is separate from the state, and he's aghast at their practice of priestly celibacy. He also discovers for the first time members of different faiths, the Mu'amans (Muslims) and the Davids (Jews), though we learn little about them other than that they exist. He has managed to pick up the skill of riding the hoppers, the huge mutant kangaroos that are used as cavalry mounts.

Yet Hiero hasn't been able to get a lead on the Unclean. His only suspects are those who are able to shield their minds from his formidable telepathy, which had increased to superhuman levels in the last book. These are the priest Joseato, and court favorite, Duke Amibale Aeo. There is no evidence of wrong doing on either one's part, and as such mind shields can occur naturally Hiero must wait and watch. But evil plots are underway, and Hiero soon finds himself kidnapped and given a drug which robs him of his psi powers. By a stroke of fortune he escapes his captors and embarks on an odyssey back to the North if only he can survive the perils along the way.

Lanier is an able story teller and this book is a good complement to the previous installment. As in the earlier work he finds occasion to give a convincing account of boating, and later in the book paints a persuasive picture of a massed fighting force. The descriptions of the hopper cavalry are as picturesque as they are implausible. The book suffers from similar flaws as the first as well. The narrative bogs down in exposition at times, and Lanier's reliance on giant animals to populate this future landscape seems uninspired. The manner in which Hieiro's telepathy is restored was also overly convenient if undeniably unconventional.

The characters are again reasonably well drawn, but as the bulk of the novel involves Hiero trekking northward on his own we hear far too little of them. The allies he makes along the way, the Children of the Wind, and the old friend he reunites with in the final chapters stand out in this regard. Hiero behaves in a relatively more priestly manner this time around, saying prayers and orisons that were noticeably lacking from the previous book. We are also given a glimpse inside the councils of the Unclean, but they are little more than stereotyped two-dimensional villains.

And as evil as they are it's hard to stomach the response of Hiero and his allies to them. At one point some Unclean are unceremoniously condemned and killed because they had just killed helpless captives, yet in this book as in the last Hiero himself orders the killing of a helpless prisoner of war. When the forces of the north deliver their first blow against the Unclean it's by shelling the port city of Neeyana despite the absence of any sizable body of enemy troops and without any regard for the civilian population. These are priests that know nothing of mercy, only ruthlessness. Add to this that Hiero is fighting in the name of a patriarchal theocracy and it makes it difficult to sympathize with his cause.

There's also an unnecessary amount of repetition in the story. Several times during his wilderness trek we're assured that Hiero's skills as an outdoorsman are compensating for his lack of psi abilities, as if Lanier recognized he was straining the reader's credulity. And twice during the story we're treated to emotional reunions between Hiero and his trusty mount. And there are strange inconsistencies in Hiero's character. As mentioned earlier he prays regularly, but he no longer applies the face-paints he wore in the previous book, something that isn't even commented on until near the end of the story. And despite his contempt for celibacy among priests when he is later introduced to an noble young priest he instantly and approvingly recognizes him as a celibate. This strange incongruity is never addressed.

There is a sense that Lanier was running out of steam. There was a gap of ten years between the first book and this sequel. The novel ends on a cliff hanger with Hiero preparing to go to Luchare's aid. There are indications that a powerful evil being, the source of the Unclean, is present in the south and must be defeated. A climatic confrontation between Good and Evil is clearly in the offing. But no concluding book was ever written. The trilogy is left incomplete and we can only wonder at the ultimate fate of Hiero and his world.

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