The American pulp magazine Weird Tales was instrumental in the creation of the swords and sorcery genre. In addition to H. P. Lovecraft, whose tales of cosmic horror have spawned a literary cottage industry in recent years, other alumni of this magazine included Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and C.L. Moore. These three writers in particular were laying the foundations, shaping the first iteration of a new subgenre; creating stories brimming with adventure, dark magic and exoticism.
Lavie Tidhar is a writer of speculative fiction and fantasy, who, in many ways, is paying tribute to the memory of those writers (and their works) from that bygone era of Weird Tales. Tidhar’s series protagonist Gorel of Goliris is a culmination of those old pulp traditions, executed in a modern style that is geared for consumption from a 21st-century audience. To this end, Tidhar’s British Fantasy Award-winning novella, Gorel and the Pot Bellied God is an amalgamation of the old with the new. The author has even made a slight distinction, a small tweak in the genre itself; instead of swords and sorcery, Tidhar has correctly christened his work a ‘guns and sorcery’ novella.
For readers who are familiar with the character and are concerned with internal chronology, Pot Bellied God takes place right after the events chronicled in the short story “Buried Eyes” (from the collection Black Gods Kiss). Gorel and his sometime road/crime partner Jericho Moon are in the city of Ankhar during carnival season with the dual purpose of recreation and to fence several sorcerous gemstones, the titular Buried Eyes of the short story. Once the business is conducted, the pair goes their separate ways; Gorel intends to follow the river Tharat deeper into the frog-tribes territory towards the city of Falang-Et. He is on a quest to procure the fabled Mirror of Falang-Et, a mythical artifact that may aid him in returning to his lost homeland, and the kingdom of Goliris. During his trek towards the city, he acquires two traveling companions (and lovers) Sereli, a female thief who is a mixture of falang (frog-tribe) and Merlangai (aquatic humanoids like Moon) and Kettle, a male Avian (bird-like humanoids) spy for a mage’s invading army. The plot accelerates into high gear once the trio enters the city, putting their larcenous machinations into play in order to steal the artifact. This places the group onto a collision course with the Mothers of the House of Jade.
The worldbuilding exhibited in Pot Bellied God is highly exotic and full of wonder. Tidhar utilizes a variation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince” as the frog-tribe’s foundation and creation myth. However, this being a world in which gods and goddesses live cheek by jowl with their mortal worshipers, Tidhar adds a sinister spin on this fairy tale; he takes this foundation myth and extrapolates it to its logical (and tragic) conclusion, reinforcing the idea that in this world, sorcery, magic and the divine are not to be trusted.
When dealing with the gods, the law of unintended consequences is de rigueur. In addition to these sorcerous aspects, Tidhar portrays this world as a place that is biologically diverse; along with the previously mentioned falang, Avian and Merlangai, the author exposes readers to other humanoid species including Nocturnes (who exude a veil of darkness about them) and the insectoid Ebong mercenaries. Even the riding beast that Gorel utilizes for transport is distinctly non-mammalian; graals are multi-legged desert insects that shift colors to match their surroundings and absorb sunlight directly through their carapaces. The cities of Ankhar and Falang-Et, coupled with the life-giving river of Tharat gives this area of the world a distinctly South East Asian flavor. Gorel’s world (to me) is reminiscent of China Mieville’s setting of Bas-Lag, with its highly diverse biology coupled with the dark magic and fatalistic decadence of the far future (last) continent of Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith.
The character of Gorel is molded in the longstanding tradition of the outsider as the hero (or at least as the protagonist). This character type is a cornerstone within the genre of swords and sorcery fiction. Taken away from his family and kingdom of Goliris through sorcerous means at a young age, Gorel wanders a world not his own, ever searching for a way back home. Tidhar peppers hints throughout the series that the kingdom of Goliris may not even exist on the same plane of existence in which Gorel is trapped upon, making his quest even more daunting and desperate.
Characters such as Kull of Atlantis, Conan of Cimmeria, Corum Jhaelen Irsei and Elric of Melnibone are infused within Gorel’s literary DNA; all are outsiders who function in environments and worlds in which, at the best of times, the populous is highly suspect of them and in many cases are met with unrestrained hatred. This lost heir of Goliris is a pragmatic gunfighter for hire, armed with a matched pair of revolvers emblazoned (in silver) with the Golirian symbol of the seven-pointed star upon each of the grips. He is a hybrid of Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name (as portrayed by a young Clint Eastwood), Prince Elric of Melnibone with a touch of Jerry Cornelius thrown in as well.
“‘On the contrary’, Gorel said, the gun steady in his hand, pointing directly between Kettle’s eyes, ‘I believe you can always resolve an argument with a gun.'”Gorel and the Pot Bellied God, 2011. Kindle Edition.
Especially when said guns are pitted against sorcery. Time and again throughout the novella, Gorel always puts his faith in his pistols when going against threats both mortal and supernatural. Gorel is an especially Moorcockian protagonist in that like many of that elder statesmen’s characters, they act in very human ways; neither good nor evil, but operating in a morally relativistic way, within the spectrum between two extremes.
In addition to having wide-ranging and fluid sexual appetites, Tidhar’s character is also a drug addict (much like Elric and Cornelius). Gorel requires regular doses of the narcotic gods dust to keep him alive (the goddess Shar cursed him with her addictive and corrosive black kiss). In Tidhar’s world, gods dust, that particulate matter that comprises the myriad deities is a highly addictive substance to all of the humanoid races. Addiction in this world (as in ours) is all too commonplace.
“The dust of the gods was everywhere in the carnival. It was even in the air Gorel breathed. It was in the water in which he bathed himself. When it rained, the drops touched his skin like sensuous fingers tracing a lover’s pattern on his arms and neck… with the power of the black kiss Gorel was helpless to refuse.”Gorel and the Pot Bellied God, 2011. Kindle Edition.
It is also quite common in this world brimming with divinity, for individuals to have access to weapons that are blessed by a certain deity or another. Near the story’s conclusion, the thief Sereli utilizes the Merlangai Drowned God’s Gun, a combination holy relic and projectile weapon against supernatural enemies (Moon also utilized a variant of the same weapon in another tale). These outré details and flourishes only add to the bizarre alien mystique found within the pages of this novella. Gorel and the Pot Bellied God is a story written in the tradition of Weird Tales by way of the ‘New Wave’ movement in science fiction as exemplified by the influential magazine, New Worlds. This story makes no apologies for its pulp sensibilities, while simultaneously exploring questions of human sexuality, chemical addiction and the loss of home and purpose; all subjects that are regularly grappled within modern, mainstream literature (as opposed to classic genre fiction).
In addition to this novella, Gorel has appeared in the aforementioned short story collection, Black Gods Kiss. In 2017, after several years of absence, a new Gorel story, “Waterfalling” appeared in Gardner Dozois’ The Book of Swords, followed in 2018 by “Widow Maker” in Dozois’ The Book of Magic. Hopefully Tidhar will continue to pen new tales of the lost and wandering heir of Goliris. Or barring that, a complete collection of all of the Gorel tales under one cover would be a nice consolation prize.
Lavie Tidhar’s ‘guns and sorcery’ novella Gorel and the Pot Bellied God is a highly entertaining and exotic piece of genre fiction. This tale proudly wears its pulp influences on its sleeve, while at the same time exploring certain aspects of human nature and providing readers with morally complex characters. Gorel and the Pot Bellied God is an excellent example of pulp fiction written with a dose of depth and nuance.