The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb

I’ve read a lot of books, probably hundreds, spanning a wide variety of subjects and most genres. I love reading, and usually carry a book with me wherever I go, which obviously makes doing anything a lot more difficult. I also like recommending books to people and just in general discussing them with anyone. That’s why I’m writing this particular review: as a warning.

The Fifth Sorceress is a terrible book. Probably one of the worst I’ve ever read. The ideas, characters, and most everything else are either cliches or originally awful. I found nothing to like or recommend about this in any way, and regret the time and money wasted on buying and reading any part of it.

The plot is thusly: A group of three evil sorceresses (and ONLY women are evil magic-users in this world) tried to take over the kingdom and were only defeated after a long war. Instead of simply killing them, they were abandoned on a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. Apparently five are needed to take over the world, and one got away.

Thousands of years later, a young prince named Tristram (who is called the “Chosen One” at birth.  No, I’m not kidding.) is the target of the plot by another sorceress to take their revenge by kidnapping his twin sister and turn her to evil. After Tristan is forced to kill his father by an unmemorable bad guy, he sets out with his wizard friend Wigg(!?) to get his sister back.

There’s a lot of weirdness and bad ideas in these books. For example, magic is divided into two parts: the good Vigors and the evil Vagaries. Only men use the first, of course. Discovering the evil magic turns the sorceresses into sadistic constantly-horny pansexual villains. An oft-quoted line from the book describes it thusly:

“And then, surprisingly, the acute unfulfilled desires had come. One day, while struggling to understand one of the more arcane passages of the Vagaries, she and the others had all felt the unexpected stirrings of their loins. The hugely sexual, needful longings had been intensified by an insanely irresistible desire to inflict those same sexual needs upon others.

Of both genders.”

Oh, the horrors. Normally I’d hesitate to use the word “misogyny’ without good cause, but here there’s a great deal of evidence to support the label. The author seems to have some real issues about women, and isn’t shy about sharing them. I’d write more about it, but the utter lack of of good writing in general has basically acted on my interest or concern for this review the same way a drunk’s urination will destroy a child’s sandcastle, and with the same level of style and taste. Even that tortured and disgusting metaphor is better than The Fifth Sorceress.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

H. P. Lovecraft had a particular style-lots of weirdly descriptive words, edging right up to the description of horrors without ever giving us a clear picture. He also had several themes that he kept coming back to: vast, uncaring beings of inhuman aspect and hidden abominations that lurk in the dark places of our world, but who may be summoned by unspeakable acts, and racism. He had real issues with miscegenation pretty much everyone who wasn’t a white man, including Jews, black people, and people of low class. This fear and influence creeps into almost everything he wrote, and can be a nasty shock to people reading them for the first time.

Author Victor LaValle (who has a pretty Lovecraft-y name himself) grew up reading Howard Phillip Lovecraft, and he didn’t absorb the issues that obsessed the author at first. However, as a young black man it was difficult to overlook. This inspired him to write a story of his own: The Ballad of Black Tom. It deals with vast, uncaring beings of inhuman aspect and hidden abominations that lurk in the dark places of our world, but who may be summoned by unspeakable acts, and racism. Set in New York in 1942, it follows the story of Tommy Tester, a young man who makes his money by making secret deliveries all over the city, as well as by pretending to be a “bluesman” by carrying a guitar  and pretending to play in parts of the City where the sight of a black man is a rarity. On the hunt for a good spot, he is approached by a strange old man, and the real adventure begins.

“Ballad” is not a long book-92 pages, but LaValle packs a lot into it-Tommy is a fun character, and the story does manage to create a feeling of cosmic horror around each corner of the City. It’s not a story about that per se and LaValle doesn’t write in the same florid style as Lovecraft, but the flavor is the same, while also delivering a picture of the prejudice and police brutality of the time, issues that we have happily overcome in our own century.

Check it out if you like Lovecraft, historical writing and want to meet an intriguing  writing talent.