Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review - Servant of the Jackal God: The Tales of Kamose, Archpriest of Anubis by Keith Taylor

Stories included:
Daggers and a Serpent
Emissaries of Doom
Haunted Shadows
The Emerald Scarab
What Are You When the Moon Shall Rise?
The Company of Gods
The Archpriest's Potion
Corpse's Wrath
Return of Ganesh
The Shabti Assassin

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Servant of the Jackal God is, as the title indicates, a set of stories originally published in Weird Tales about Kamose, a powerful priest in the service of the god Anubis sometime during the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties of Egypt. Kamose is a powerful sorcerer who gained his arcane knowledge by stealing the got Thoth's scrolls of magical knowledge, earning Thoth's enmity in the process. Ironically, the knowledge Kamose gained by doing so is what allows him to fend off threats from Thoth's supporters, although even Kamose's considerable abilities were unable to prevent the deity from exacting revenge upon Kamose's wife and children. The individual stories are all complete self-contained tales, but they are at the same time interconnected in a manner that builds a narrative that threads through the entire volume.

Although the stories build a more or less coherent narrative, they don't do so in a linear fashion, hopping back and forth between different viewpoint characters and different time periods.  The opening story Daggers and a Serpent, shows Kamose at the height of his powers as a master sorcerer in the servant of the lord of death. Raiders attack and ransack one of Anubis' temples, killing its priests and their attendants and then carting off its wealth. Confronted with this insult to his patron, Kamose goes into action, using his powers to track down the offenders and extract terrible revenge. This opening story serves to set the table for the rest of the pieces in the book, establishing Kamose as a powerful and ruthless master of arcane magic. In effect, Taylor throws down the gauntlet with this tale, casting Kamose as, essentially, the anti-Conan. While Cimmerian was generally seen as heroic in his thieving exploits aimed at foiling and defeating the evil wizard who guards it, Kamose is essentially the flip side of that equation - any evil wizard to be sure, but a somewhat sympathetic one charged with guarding the treasures of a deity to ensure the passage to the afterlife for his countrymen. And he handles the intruders in this story almost effortlessly, showing his power and his lack of mercy at the same time. From there, the remaining stories paint a patchwork quilt of Kamose's life, and showing how even a sorcerer as powerful as he could be hampered by politics and misfortune. In Emissaries of Doom a Kushite challenge to the authority of the Egyptian Pharaoh requires the archpriest to defend his nation's ruler. After the Kushite magician threatens the life of Pharaoh Setekh-Nekht, Kamose tries to defend him, but the jealous priests of Thoth, implacably opposed to the Anubian priest's actions due to his insult to their own deity, manipulate the court with petty politics to exclude Kamose's demons from their vigil. This meddling allows the Kushite to kill the ruling Pharaoh of Egypt, and results in a grievous injury to Kamose himself. In the end, Kamose is able to put the Kushites in their place, at least temporarily, but the cost paid is high.

In Haunted Shadows, the persona Ganesh is introduced, a jewel merchant and also the confidante of Amenufer, a young priest of the temple of Thoth. Amenufer is obsessed with gaining magical prowess, and seeks to locate the fabled Forty-Two Scrolls of Thoth, which are supposed to hold all magical knowledge. Unfortunately, they are also forbidden to men, and anyone who reads them will forever earn the ire of Thoth. To dissuade Amenufer, Ganesh tells him the story of Kamose's search for the scrolls, and the terrible price that was exacted from him for finding them and learning the knowledge they contain. The story is a fairly straightforward quest story until after Kamose acquires the scrolls, at which point it becomes a cat and mouse game between a human and a deity, which the human cannot hope to win. The story serves to add interesting background about Kamose's character while avoiding getting bogged down with exposition in the middle of another story. In the end, Ganesh' s cautionary tale falls on deaf ears, but everything changes when Ganesh reveals yet another secret that chastens Amenufer and ensures that he will crop up in further stories in the book. Taylor returns to Kamose's background later in the collection in the story The Company of Gods, which details the magician's return to Egypt from exile following his unpleasant encounter with Thoth. Knowing that he has earned the displeasure of such a powerful divine being, Kamose is in the market for a godly patron to protect him. This story doesn't have much in the way of plot, being almost entirely character development for Kamose. It is a testament to Taylor's skill as a writer that he can make a "story" that is almost nothing but exposition work. The narrative is mostly a set of vignettes as one by one the various Egyptian deities present themselves to Kamose and make their case for his service. In quick succession Set, Ma'at, Osiris, Hapi, and Hathor all show up, give their spiel, and are spurned as being too weak to serve Kamose's protector. Finally, Anubis arrives to claim the priest as his own, filling in the reader as to how the Jackal God's archpriest actually became the archpriest, and at the same time explaining the scrupulous attention to his patron's desires displayed by the otherwise generally impious magician.

Although the stories thus far have seemed more or less unrelated, when Taylor gets to The Emerald Scarab, it becomes clear that he is weaving a longer tale through the shorter individual installments. This story centers around the preparation of the body of now-deceased former Pharaoh Setekh-Nekht for its final journey through the afterlife. While conducting the lengthy embalming procedure designed to turn the body into a preserved mummy, Kamose discovers that the priceless emerald used to represent the departed's heart has been stolen and replaced with a fake. He quickly determines that this switch was made in order to discredit him politically, and despite still being weakened by his encounter with the Kushite priest's demons in Emissaries of Doom, sets about finding the thief. Kamose occupies his unwilling and dangerous servant lamia Mertseger in a trivial diversion with a minor priest who might have had opportunity to commit the crime, and uses his considerable talents to unravel the felonious conspiracy. The story ends with the gem recovered, and the direct culprits unmasked, but the architect of the duplicitous scheme as yet unrevealed, with the denouement of Kamose's quest put off until a later tale.

Following The Emerald Scarab, the story Lamia is the first in the book primarily told from a viewpoint other than Kamose's own, as the lamia Mertseger takes center stage. During the events of the previous story the lamia had become aware of Kamose's injury induced infirmity and, chafing at her unwilling servitude to him, tries testing the limits imposed upon her. She takes up with Remi, the minor priest she seduced in the prior story, and tries to indulge her rather murderous appetites. But as this series of stories is ultimately about Kamose, the tales has a twist in the end that turns out to be not at all to Mertseger's liking, but also shows just how many challenges the archpriest had taken on, and which threaten to overwhelm him while he is still recovering from the injuries sustained in Emissaries of Doom. The truly fragile nature of Kamose's position is further explored in What Are You When the Moon Shall Rise?, a story in which his life is threatened directly by those loyal to Thoth. Because of Thoth's association with the moon, once a month Kamose makes it a practice to curse the moon when it is full, so as to confound the attempts of Thoth's priesthood to use magical means to destroy him. In this story, he and Amenufer (who had been moved from the priesthood of Thoth to the priesthood of Anubis back in Haunted Shadows) must deal with a rather clever attempt to insert a magical threat into Kamose's house. But Kamose once again proves to be too crafty, too powerful, and too paranoid for the plan against him to succeed, and in the end, the reader learns yet one more means by which Kamose's secrets are so closely guarded, and at the same time learns even more about Kamose's own character. It is in these sorts of revelations that Taylor shows his talents, exposing the nature of his characters bit by bit as an organic part of the story, drawing the reader inside the paranoid nature of his protagonist's mind without having to resort to tedious exposition to do so.

Taylor introduces another protagonist in The Archpriest's Potion in the form of Si-hotep, a professional thief who does occasional work for Kamose, although Si-hotep's contact with Kamose is the jewel merchant persona Ganesh. This doesn't just appear to be a convoluted relationship, it is, although it seems natural enough in the book. In this installment, Kamose has returned to the task of discovering who had stolen the emerald in The Emerald Scarab, and to continue the pursuit, the archpriest needs the assistance of a skilled thief. But it turns out that Si-hotep's natural skills will not be sufficient for the task, so Kamose has prepared a magical potion that will allow him to see through walls and also walk through them. Not one to let an opportunity pass him by, Si-hotep quickly realizes that the fact that Kamose provided three doses of the potion means that he could engage in a personal foray to acquire some of his own plunder. After enlisting the aid of Ganesh's scribe Wesu, Si-hotep sets out to steal the treasure from the impregnable vault of Khentau, a wealthy and paranoid noble. After this adventure which introduces and describes the thief, Si-hotep still has to track down the rogue responsible for purloining the emerald, a task taken up in the story Corpse's Wrath. The trail leads Si-hotep down to the Nile docks, where he finds his mark in a cheap tavern, a jeweler named Perkhet. His task of returning the man to Kamose is hampered by the presence of an angry walking corpse. It is in this story that we are also introduced to Kiya, Si-hotep's lover, who serves to humanize the thief and give his character a little more depth. The story itself is fairly straightforward, with Si-hotep locating his quarry, and then bundling him back to Kamose while overcoming the impediments that crop up. The story wends its way back to Kentau in Return of Ganesh when Perkhet is induced to divulge the name of the man who commissioned him to create a fake emerald. It turns out that the wealthy noble was behind the creation of the paste replacement, so Ganesh instructs Si-hotep to act as a specialist in exorcisms and present himself to Kentau with an offer to get rid of the ghost that had been causing him trouble. A ghost that had been originally summoned and put to the task of harassing Kentau by none other than Kamose, which should come as no surprise to anyone who had read this far in the book. The plan works reasonably well for most of the story, but as usual, the pursuit of the conspirators who tried to set up Kamose runs into a dead end, keeping the plot thread open for further stories.

The final story of the book, The Shabti Assassin, takes a sharp left turn away from the fake emerald plot and has Kamose on the trail of a set of seemingly inexplicable murders. The archpriest turns his considerable talents to uncovering the culprits, and after some twists and turns the killers are revealed. At the end of the story, the culprits are brought to justice, but instead of a sentence of death they are exiled, leaving open the possibility that they could return and seek vengeance against those that foiled them. And this development highlights one of the traps that this kind of story telling can fall into if an author is unwary: plots that never resolve, giving the series a feeling almost like that of traditional episodic television. In The Fugitive television series Dr. Kimball could never find the One-Armed Man and get a confession out of him, because if he did, the series would end (and it is exactly what happened when Kimball did catch up with the One-armed Man). In a similar way, once a mystery is solved in a series of short fiction like this, that plot line is dead. But unlike a series such as The Fugitive which was dependent upon the single conflict, in a story like Servant of the Jackal God the author could come up with new plots and new characters to replace those that have ended or left. Instead, Taylor never seems to end a plot. The Kushite magician seen in Emissaries of Doom escapes and still lurks out there. Si-hotep doesn't die, but rather decides to take a trip out of Egypt for a while. The killers in this story are not condemned but are instead exiled. And the fake emerald plot remains unresolved. Eventually, the reader starts to feel the weight of all of the unresolved plot threads that are left hanging, and starts to wonder if they will ever be resolved, or just left open for an endless series of stories.

Leaving aside the fact that major plot elements never seem to get resolved, this is a pretty good set of sandals and sorcery fiction stories told from the perspective of a character that would normally be the villain in such tales. Kamose himself is an interesting character, and the fantasy version of Egypt that serves as the setting for the stories is both intriguing and well-detailed. While some of the supporting characters are a bit one-dimensional, most of them are more substantial than that and fill their narrative roles well. On a slightly unfortunate note, there is a decided lack of female characters in the stories, and one of the two notable ones is actually a murderous sex-demon that is banished to an underworld prison halfway through the book. This lack of female characters would seem to limit the possible story lines, possibly explaining in part why Taylor seems so reluctant to bring any plot threads to a conclusion in the series. Even with these flaws, however, this series of darkly magical interwoven stories is fairly good, and is definitely a fun read.

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