Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Raven #01 - Swordmistress of Chaos

As I cited in prior genre reviews here at Paperback Warrior, the 1970s was a fertile time for sword-and-sorcery to dominate pop-culture. The British publisher Corgi took advantage of the marketing explosion to offer a five-book series of genre titles called Raven. These aren't to be confused with the men's action-adventure series of espionage titles also called Raven, authored by Donald MacKenzie. Instead, these were bonafide sword-and-sorcery novels authored by Piccadilly Cowboy writer Angus Wells (Breed, Hawk) and horror and fantasy writer Robert Holdstock (Berserker, Night Hunter) using the pseudonym Richard Kirk. The first novel, Swordmistress of Chaos, was published by Corgi in 1978 with a cover by Chris Achilleos (Conan, Heavy Metal). Beginning in 1987, the series was published in the US by Ace using new covers by Luis Royo (Conan). 

Like the 1960s Conan paperbacks published by Lancer and edited by Lin Carter, the Raven books have a handy map at the front indicating a large body of water with two islands in the center, surrounded by places called The Frozen Peaks, The Lost Mountains, The Ice Wastes, The Lost Lands, etc. This sprawling kingdom is where the Raven novel takes place. In the far south is a tiny shoreline village called Lyland, lying in the Southern Kingdoms. It is here where the Raven origin story begins.

Su'an was a young girl when a large gang of Karhsaam slave-raiders invade her village. Her father is brutally tortured and killed and her mother is raped and murdered. Su'an is hauled off to a slave-pen that will be used for prostitutes in Karhsaam. These slave-raiders are led by a cruel warrior named Karl ir Donwayne. Thankfully, Su'an escapes her bonds one night and escapes the pen. As she's running across the tundra to flee her captors, she runs into a trap led by vicious snarling hounds. Just before she's re-captured, a band of outlaws led by a man called Spellbinder sweeps in to save her with the help of a large raven. Soon, Su'an is renamed Raven and told by the outlaw gang that she has a great destiny awaiting her. 

By page 40, Raven has spent over a year with Spellbinder and the outlaws perfecting her fighting skills. Her weapons of choice are sword, shield, and throwing stars that she keeps hooked to her belt. While she makes love to Spellbinder, readers quickly learn that Raven belongs to no man or woman. She is fiercely independent, making her character similar to that of Red Sonja

Over the course of this 170 page paperback, Raven's goal is to hunt down and kill Karl ir Donwayne. She discovers that he has joined forces with the Kraggs, the larger of the two islands sitting in the large body of water shown on the map. To get to him, the narrative takes Raven and Spellbinder on a ship to join a gang of Viking-esque raiders called Sea-Wolves. Raven has a sexual relationship with the Sea-Wolves leader, a cunning warrior named Gondar. Teaming with the Sea-Wolves, Raven must locate a sacred skull to gain access to Donwayne's location. The search for this skull makes up a large portion of the book's narrative, with the ragtag group journeying through a desert, navigating a harsh mountain pass, and ultimately fighting hideous Beastmen in a sweltering jungle. When the skull is found, the narrative switches to Raven and the group fighting the Kraggs. There is a side-story of a rival magician wanting revenge against Spellbinder as well as a number of one-on-one battles between Raven and various other combatants. 

Swordmistress of Chaos is an adult-oriented sword-and-sorcery novel that does feature some R-rated sex scenes. These are never as graphic as an adult-western like The Trailsman or Longarm, but still possesses some mature content. Raven not only has romantic encounters with Spellbinder and Gondar, but also two sessions with another female. While I've read that these Raven books are pure porn, nothing could be further from the truth. None of this is what I would consider particularly provocative. 

As a sword-and-sorcery novel, this Raven debut is chock-full of action and adventure complete with nautical exploration, sea battles, sword-fighting, magic wielding, political strife, and the obligatory revenge-plotting. While I think the last 20 pages were disappointing, the “big baddie boss-fight” was extremely rewarding and vividly violent. While the main story is wrapped up in this book, I'm anxious to discover what adventure is awaiting Raven and Spellbinder next. I'm all in on this series and you should be too. Recommended!

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

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