Ask the Dust: “Reavers of the Dead” by Benjamin Singer

I must admit that I do have a love/hate relationship with e-books. This statement may be a tad hypocritical of me, due to the fact that much of my reading is done on my Kindle and/or related devices. Yet there is a part of me that has a deep love of actual, physical books. The heft in my hands, the ability to turn pages and especially with older novels, that yellowed paperback smell; this sequence of actions and sensations brings me a sense of comfort and satisfaction that to me is akin to taking that first swallow of coffee first thing in the morning or sipping on my favorite libation on a Friday evening. But as much joy as collecting old books brings me, I have come to the harsh realization that I only have so much room for physical books. If money and space was no object, my personal library would overrun the entire home, much to the chagrin of my better half. The beauty of e-books are that they are physically non-existent, thereby consuming no space. Also, many e-books are significantly cheaper than their dead tree counterparts. Another advantage of e-books is the ability to discover works by authors that I would never have had the ability to read in book form. Such is the case with the short story that I purchased on my Kindle entitled “Reavers of the Dead” by Benjamin Singer for a whopping ninety nine cents.

I am a huge fan of the ‘dying earth’ subgenre as personified by such writers as Jack Vance and Clark Ashton Smith (and to a lesser degree, the Barsoom series of E.R. Burroughs). Both Smith and Vance created worlds that were on the verge of a final collapse; technology has reverted to that of the ancient Bronze Age, the operating system of the universe has shifted from laws of causation to magic, societies are highly decadent and the sun is a swollen, red orb. “The Reavers of the Dead” is a story that was slated to appear in a defunct anthology entitled Tales from the Red Earth! Judging from that title, it is a safe assumption that the collection was a tribute to Vance’s Dying Earth and Smith’s Zothique cycle. Singer’s story certainly succeeds in this regard. Lorn is part of a contingent of fighting men who have crossed the depleted continent of Khabor, sacking the remnants of once great cities under a black banner. This nameless city state is their final stop in a winding road of rapine and conquest. The invading horde is a mounted cavalry (on dromedaries no less), while the defenders of the city are assembled in a phalanx formation, kitted out in their bronze panoplies. The horns are sounded and the battle is engaged; the description of the mounted cavalry skirmish against the hoplites reads like an excerpt from a Steven Pressfield novel at his prime (think Gates of Fire, Last of the Amazons or The Virtues of War).

Lorn flowed amongst it. The rider before him went down, transfixed, the spear impaling both mount and rider. His killer was crushed by his victims. Lorn filled the gap. All was a sea of heads and arms and swords. One face, then another, blurs beneath helmeted brows. His falchion fell. Bronze dented inwards, cheek-plates were cut clean to the jaws beneath. Red dust clung to blood smeared blades as brains smattered all. The feet of their mounts beat the wounded and dead into a pulp. Some beasts screamed as they went down to lucky blows. Louder were the screams of men.
Arab on Camel.jpg

Pretty intense stuff; Singer certainly seems to be channeling and writing in that intimate, veterans account on the field that Pressfield made so famous in his 1998 heart wrenching, breakout novel, Gates of Fire. And if you have not done so already, I encourage you to read any of Pressfield’s early works; from 1998 to 2006, all of his books are set in the classical Greek and Hellenic world, containing lots of heart, blood, swords (spears and sarissas) and absolutely no sorcery. But I dare you to stop reading any of those books and just walk away for an hour or two once you’ve started in on them. A near impossible feat, in my opinion.  

The raiders are able to punch through the phalanx and route the defenders. Panic sets in and the remaining hoplites flee the field. They are mercilessly cut down by the cavalry.  Lorn and his comrades have seized the city. When the victors enter the gates, they are surprised to find that the streets are empty. Plazas, markets, temples and barracks are all empty, the homes deserted. When the invaders breach the royal palace, much to their shock, they find a nasty surprise. Continuing in the tradition of those two cynical pulpsters, Benjamin Singer completes the story with an ironic twist ending. Not as fatalistic as a typical Zothique finale, the conclusion is more in line with Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld. After crossing a continent bereft of natural resources, contending with an ever present dust laden sirocco and running low on supplies, gold and jewels tend to lose their luster; much like Pyrrhus against the Romans, Lorn and his soldier’s victory rings hollow. The setting of Khabor could seamlessly fit into Vance’s deep history of the Dying Earth or be a long forgotten era in Zothique’s long timeline. I certainly hope that Singer continues to write stories set in this milieu. He pays tribute to those old pulp writers, while adding his own original twist. And at ninety nine cents, you get a cool little story for less than the price of a small cup of coffee.

Greek Hoplites.jpg