“Come then, try my steel and I will send you to hell where you belong. The gods of my people look down upon those that prey on the weak. There is no honor in it. There is no honor in you. I will enjoy killing you.”–Mortu
In Mortu and Kyrus in the White City, Schuyler Hernstrom returns to sword and sorcery, blending Dying Earth, Mad Max, and even a little Shaw Briothers kung fu into a future Earth recovering from the heavy hand of an alien overlord. The namesakes Mortu and Kyrus, a pagan motorcycle barbarian from the North and a Christian monk from Zantyum respectively, are on a quest to break the sorcerer’s spell that chains Kyrus into the form of a monkey. On the long road, they find a caravan attacked by nomads and a wayward Christian knight. Mortu and Kyrus intervene with a few sharp strokes of Mortu’s axe, and in gratitude, the caravan invites the duo to their White City. Within moments of their arrival, Mortu and Kyrus are swept up in the dark secrets beneath the foundations of the City.
Following in the well-worn path of sword-and-sorcery duos inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Mortu and Kyrus split the questing responsibilities in the traditional way. When presented with a mystery, Kyrus, as befitting a trickster or a thief, discovers why the mystery happens, while dour Mortu is called in to make sure the mystery ends. But Mortu is more in the mold of Conan than Fafhrd, a barbarian suspicious of civilization, not infatuated with it. Kyrus is a blend of Eastern and Western monk archtypes, a true believer, but a wandering monk nonetheless, full of the trickery and misfortune that such monks herald. Laudably, Hernstrom does not take the easy route and make Kyrus a hypocrite.
But then Hernstrom refuses the easy path throughout Mortu and Kyrus. None of the Christian characters are treated as hypocrites and monsters, a rarity in a genre that has long been hostile to Christianity (as E. Hoffman Price’s The Book of the Dead reveals). He treats the Cross as a civilizing force and a general good, although one Mortu still remains skeptical if it is an absolute good. While this is the first adventure available to readers, this is not an origin story. Mortu and Kyrus’s relationship is presented as established, and we are not forced to follow detailed stories of how Mortu and Kyrus met, how Kyrus got turned into a monkey, or of Mortu’s earlier life as a solo adventurer. At best, we see quick mentions, no more than needed in the course of brief conversation. The departure from current fashion is refreshing, and it hints at a greater world beyond the White City. Hernstrom deftly balances the mysteries of his wider world with the immediacy of sword and sorcery action. He accomplishes more worldbuilding with a few scraps of description than most writers accomplish with paragraphs of exposition. The effect is reminiscent of Vance’s The Last Castle, where entire swaths of human history are revealed in snatches of description and custom.
If Mortu and Kyrus seems a bit more predictable than Hernstrom’s previous works, it is because he has stepped up to the Great Conversation, “the ongoing process of writers and thinkers referencing, building on, and refining the work of their predecessors.” Here, readers can see the outlines of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, a particularly notable short work dealing with the dilemma of a hedonistic Eden fueled by the suffering of one innocent. The ones who cannot accept that their paradise requires the intentional suffering and neglect of a child walk away from the city, unwilling to benefit from his suffering, but unwilling to rescue the child. Omelas has been a popular parable in science fiction, revisited time and again, and by such notable shows as Doctor Who. At best, the protagonists rescue the child, but leave the society intact. Few, if any, render judgement against the people who benefited from the abuse of the child, nor prevent that society from finding a new child to torment for their pleasures. Mortu settles the Omelas dilemma with an older, more satisfying approach:
“You may talk of cities and justice all you wish. Tonight, the pagan wins. My anger will be sated and these wicked people brought to ruin.”
It is the approach of the hero, the pagan barbarian, and the Christian knight, illustrated in blood and adrenaline. One where actions matter more than intentions, and honor has meaning.
Fortunately, Mortu and Kyrus in the White City promises to be the first of many adventures for the barbarian biker and the monkey monk. Whether Hernstrom sets out to gore more sacred cows or just let Mortu gore more villains, I eagerly await the next.