The Song of Kwasin by Philip José Farmer and Christopher Paul Carey. Book review

The Song of Kwasin by Philip José Farmer and Christopher Paul Carey, Meteor House Press, h/c, $33.00 / p/b, $22.00, Website

Reviewed by Dave Brzeski

This novel was previously published in the omnibus volume, Gods of Opar, which collects Farmer’s Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar and this long-awaited third volume. This, however is The Song of Kwasin’s first stand-alone book edition.

In a fascinating new preface, Christopher Paul Carey tells how the book came about and corrects the commonly-held belief that he completed the book after Farmer’s death. He also tells us of a second possible outline Farmer wrote for the book, which, while it didn’t quite work, did contain notes for what Carey later reworked into a separate 20,000 word novella, ‟Kwasin and the Bear God”, which is included in this volume. ‟Kwasin and the Bear God” actually takes place chronologically between the first two chapters of The Song of Kwasin, and Carey leaves it to the reader to decide whether to read it separately, or between those chapters. Having previously read both this novel and the novella separately, in their original publications, I decided to take the latter option this time and read them together.

For the benefit of those who haven’t read the first two books, or read them too long ago to remember every detail, there’s a useful précis of the story so far, followed by some nicely drawn maps.

In The Song of Kwasin, the series takes a divergent path. We leave Hadon and Lalila in Opar and instead follow Kwasin, a secondary character in the first two books. In the first chapter, Kwasin evades capture by the soldiers of Minruth, meets the archer god, Sahhindar, and eventually decides upon his path…

Which leads us, nicely into ‟Kwasin and the Bear God.” My favourite heroic fantasy stories have always been the sort that feature a flawed hero—a character who has no intention of behaving in a heroic manner. Kwasin is definitely cut from this cloth. He’s already exiled from his homeland, due to having committed certain unforgivable crimes on the person of a priestess of Kho. When written well, the defining moment—that experience that finally changes a selfish character into a hero, can send tingles down the spine. The passage in this story, where Kwasin encounters something that changes his path from that point on, is a classic example. He doesn’t change completely, overnight. It’s a gradual process, and he often pines for his earlier, less-complicated life. As I read, I found Kwasin reminded me of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, perhaps with some of H. Rider Haggard’s Umslopogaas thrown into the mix. In the bonus material, it is mentioned that Farmer was originally planning on naming him Khonan, although Farmer’s notes reveal that the character was from early on inspired by Kwasind from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.

One of the strengths of the entire series is that there are no clearly delineated good and evil sides. Many of the characters united in fighting the mad king Minruth actively despise each other. Farmer and Carey tell a realistically complex tale of a religious war in which whichever side ultimately wins, countless people lose and their world is left devastated. I particularly liked the way it’s left to the reader whether or not to put any credence in the beliefs of the characters, or their gods. That there’s just enough of the inexplicable going on to make one wonder is very clever.

Anyone lucky enough to own a copy of Gods of Opar is naturally going to want to know if there’s any special reason, beyond completism, that they should want to buy this book too. Rest assured, this volume comes with enough extras, many previously unpublished elsewhere, to make it worth your money. As well as the aforementioned ‟Kwasin and the Bear God” we have several addenda, in two sections. In the first, there are informative essays on: ‟The Khokarsan Calendar”, ‟The Plants of Khokarsa” and ‟A Guide to Khokarsa”. The second is given over to Farmer’s notes and correspondence for this book and the series as a whole. They consist of: ‟Notes on the Khokarsa Series”, ‟Philip José Farmer’s Original Outline”, ‟Philip José Farmer’s Alternate Outline” and ‟Correspondence on the Khokarsa Series”.

Meteor press have already published Christopher Paul Carey’s fourth book in the series, Hadon, King of Opar, and the fifth volume, Blood of Ancient Opar is due out sometime next year. Many readers will have already come across the ancestor and namesake of the daughter of Hadon in a book Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote back in 1913, but there are some 12,000 years of the history of Opar yet to be filled in. What of Sahhindar, the time traveller? He was around for some 2000 years, before the events of Hadon of Ancient Opar, but when did he finally die, if indeed he did? Was it before he was born some 10,000 years later? Hopefully many more of these stories will follow, with the kind permission of Farmer’s Estate.