The Barbarian by ~XiaMan via Deviant Art

Image by ~XiaMan via Deviant Art

This week’s Aurora Awards edition of Fiction Friday changes gears from alternate Earth primate assassins to sword and sorcery fantasy. Before I get into the review I’ll offer one quick disclaimer. I’m not the biggest reader of fantasy stories. Moreover, I thought the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring (book) and the entirety of Peter Jackson’s movie of the same name were boring as sin. Those formative experiences have, for good or bad, shaped a lot of how I evaluate fantasy stories.

What’s it about?

The Legend of Gluck was originally published in Dragon Moon Press’ When the Hero Comes Home anthology. As such, the story centers on events that occur after Gluck the Barbarian, ninth of his name, has fought with an alliance of elves, dwarves, and fairies to defeat Klar the Dark. The story’s opening scene sees Gluck dragging the decapitated head of Klar the Dark back to his ancestral homeland.

For Gluck, defeating Klar was never about saving the world from the forces of evil. Gluck’s motivations were much more personal. Among his people, Gluck the Seventh, Gluck’s grandfather, was believed to actually be Klar the Dark. Therefore, Klar’s festering inhuman cranial remains were to be the proof that absolved Gluck’s family line from the shame that had been heaped upon them. Unfortunately, Lurp the Seventh, chieftain of the barbarians, refuses to acknowledge Klar’s maggoty head as acceptable proof of Gluck the Seventh’s innocence. When Klar’s head comes back to life, things really get bad.

Why it works

First and foremost it tells a story in a fantasy setting without having a word count that is best conveyed in scientific notation. (I’m talking to you, George R.R. Martin.)

There’s also the fact that Marie Bilodeau has eschewed every awful stereotype of barbarians in her construction of Gluck and his tribe. These aren’t the sort of barbarians who include lamentations of widows among the things that are best in life. Gluck’s people have a well developed class structure and vicious internal political squabbles. The few lines of text that shed light on this reality make Gluck’s people seem more akin to Florentine nobles than any sort of Sumerian gimmick.

While there’s an inevitable pathos that comes with stories about war veterans, regardless of the genre, war is hell, The Legend of Gluck draws upon it with the utmost in subtle brushstrokes. In doing so, Gluck’s return home contrasts the difficult relationship between people of worldly perspectives and those who are more provincially minded.

Gluck’s people cling to ancient racial stereotypes of elves as sneaky and dwarves as lazy, despite the fact that those people fought a war, which in the case of the fairies was a genocidal affair, on behalf of the isolationist barbarians. In the hands of a lesser writer, a scenario such as this would lend itself far too easily to a pro-military propaganda piece disguised as fantasy. Such is not the case with this story. Gluck may see his people as narrow minded cowards when they turn on his elven comrade in arms, yet he also recognizes that his sense of self, as well as his personal honour, has grown beyond his tribe’s limited definition. In that realization, going home does not mean returning to the place he was born, but the place for which Gluck took responsibility: the world at large.

The Most Memorable Part

This bit, right here.

Gluck grabbed his axe – the double edged weapon was covered in nicks, but still sharp.

““Wait,” Alara shoulted, but Gluck ignored her, rushing forward. He embedded the axe in both Klar’s eyes with a cross hit. Dark liquid gushed forth.

If I live to be one-hundred twenty years old, I will never, ever be able to get that image out of my head. Awesome.

The Bottom Line

Marie Bilodeau’s The Legend of Gluck might work within established fantasy confines, but it tells a tale that imagines the barbarian as a character who is as sharp as the weapon he wields. There’s a persistent appeal to emotion, but reason is the dominant motif that carries the narrative. Unburdened by excessive world building, the plot is fast paced yet remains suitably complex. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Marie Bilodeau simply fixes horse to cart and lets the story happen. This is exactly what every fantasy story ought to strive for.

The The Legend of Gluck was originally published within the When the Hero Comes Home anthology. Joining the CSFFA allows for access to this story, as well as many other great works of Canadian fiction.

Next week, Randy McCharles’ One Horrible Day.