The faltyn flits through the streets, eventually leading you out of the north gate of the city along a rough track into the hills. There you see a jewelled door set in the side of a massive boulder. ‘What you seek lies beyond that door,’ says the faltyn. ‘As agreed, you will experience neither difficulty nor danger in obtaining it.’ With these words, it vanishes.Why ‘faltyn’, incidentally? Doctor Strange fans, don't all shout at once. And how about this moment from Doomwalk for a typically Vancean way to get from A to B:
As soon as you have closed the cage door, the creature reaches down to seize an iron ring attached to the top and then launches itself into the sky. Despite its bulk and the burden of carrying you, it rises swiftly on its huge black wings. You are flung to and fro in the cage, but you manage to fight back your nausea until it has gained enough altitude to glide on the air currents.(The picture here is from Pelgrane Press's superb Dying Earth RPG. Don't even read on until you've bought a copy.)
Now, I ought to warn you there are a few songs in this book. Not too many; don’t get alarmed, I didn’t go full Tolkien or anything. But you get a burst of the 14th century poem “Dou way, Robyn”, the Trickster gets to con some wights into thinking summer’s come to the underworld by singing a few lines paraphrased from Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and a character greets his lover’s cruel rejection with a lament penned by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Blimey, you not only get heads rolling and demons ripping out guts, you get bloomin’ culture as well, eh?
The bridge that Modgud guards (or Móðguðr, if you must), which you need to cross to get from the nasty region of Sheol to the really nasty, is from Norse myth. You knew that. But the reason I included a covered bridge in the first place is because Roy Thomas and Gene Colan sent Karen Page across just such a bridge when I was at an impressionable age, and Gene the Dean was my first love in comics, so I had to build in a reference to his work somewhere.
But, raking over all these old influences and homages, I’m completely stumped by where these two oddities sprang from:
Forewarned that something inhabits the hill, you make use of the cover afforded by some thorn bushes to approach the summit unnoticed. Two odd creatures wait there beside an enormous treasure chest. One is a giant bat with crimson antlers sprouting from its head. The other is a dog the size of a warhorse, with white fur and a long beard flowing from its chin.The Horned Bat and the Bearded Dog seem to be genuine originals and, my earlier reference to Afghan Black aside, I have no idea what chimerical vacuum spawned them. I know that I specifically didn’t want an illustration of them because I was trying for something like the encounters you get in dreams: elusive, ill-defined. Funny and creepy and odd at the same time. Are they characters animated by Disney or by Švankmajer? Would the movie be directed by Burton or by Spielberg? I know which version I see in my mind's eye, but reading is democratic. Having bought the book, how you choose to visualize it is up to you.
Just in case you're thinking this all sounds like serious stuff, let me assure you that there's a good lacing of humour through all the Blood Sword books, even when you're slogging through hell or counting down the minutes till Doomsday. Case in point: the talking boat figurehead whose conversation is limited to weather forecasts and continual re-estimates of arrival time. That example is unusual, in fact, because mostly I don't go for humour that pokes fun at fantasy tropes - too easy a target. Instead I take my cue from Vance, who always remembers that however desperate the situation - and often precisely because it's desperate - human beings will find something to laugh about. So next time you get on the wrong side of a bargain with a faltyn, try to see the funny side.
In the next "Making of Blood Sword" I'll be looking at the writing of the fifth and final book in the series, The Walls of Spyte - otherwise known as "The One Where They Blow Up the Universe". But that's still a month or so away. Next week we'll have Jamie's latest series and after that some really big Way of the Tiger news. Don't miss.