1978’s Shadowfire, second book in the Birthgrave trilogy, was originally published by DAW Books under the more lurid title of Vazkor, Son of Vazkor . Lurid “because the DAW in DAW Books stands for Donald A. Wollheim and if he could have, he would have published the Bible as an omnibus of War God of Israel and The Thing with Three Souls .” Shadowfire isn’t exactly an informative title, but Vazkor, Son of Vazkor is only informative if you’ve read The Birthgrave and if you happen to know that this book is a sequel to The Birthgrave .
This book is about Vazkor’s son, but Vazkor isn’t the name of Vazkor’s son. That’s just the name of the book. That’s why DAW called the book Vazkor, Son of Vazkor .
And gave it this cover:
The son of Vazkor is actually named Tuvek. Whereas his late father was an ambitious warlord whose grand schemes left cities in ruins all across the continent of his nameless world, Tuvek is but one of a number of sullen, violent youths in an unremarkable barbarian tribe. He does not know that Vazkor was his real father, though he does have something of an inkling that he is not quite like the people who have raised him. His suspicions fall far short of the truth.
And then comes the day of the Boys Rite.
Like every other boy in the tribe, Tuvek submits to extensive and painful tattooing. Enduring the pain of the Boys Rite proves he is worthy to be a man. However, his tattoos vanish overnight. For some reason, he heals miraculously quickly. Tuvek does not know why this is so, but he does understand that means he will be extremely hard to kill, a definite asset to a barbarian career of raiding, rape, and murder.
The healing power comes in handy when his tribe is attacked by city-folk slavers with firearms. The tribe’s spears are no match for distance weapons. Tuvek is left for dead, but heals and launches a one-warrior retaliatory strike on the raiders. He returns from his raid victorious, with a beautiful city woman to add to his harem and a growing inkling about his origins.
Tathra, the woman he reveres as his mother, is, in fact his adoptive mother. His biological mother was a woman revered by many as a god, a woman who took advantage of a brief sojourn with Tuvek’s tribe to swap her living baby for Tathra’s dead one (which, if you’ve read The Birthgrave , you suspected from the beginning of this novel). He further learns that he looks amazingly like the late Vazkor, the warlord who brought civilization down to its present lamentable state; they could be brothers or more likely, father and son. He begins to suspect … the obvious.
The face he inherited from his father makes every grudge-holding city-dweller his enemy. The powers he inherited from his mother mean he is something more than a mere mortal. The values he learned from his tribe ensure that he will squander his gifts perpetuating the cycle of violence and revenge.
This is basically a lost princess story, except the princess is a man. And thanks to his upbringing, a fairly unpleasant one (which I guess gives more room for character growth). Not that the barbarians are uniquely, um, barbaric. The city folk fancy themselves superior to the tribes, but their superiority is purely technological, not moral. In this novel, the only society that doesn’t engage in abuse of power, casual violence, and sexual exploitation is an isolated community of black people.
Tuvek has never felt any affection for the barbarian who was his adoptive father, but he does love his adoptive mother, the one who nurtured and loved him. It’s one point in his favour that Tuvek never loses his affection for her, despite the revelation of his true parentage.
(It seems to me orphaned or abandoned children have made previous appearances in this review series. I wonder if that is a running theme in Lee’s books 1.)
The thread that runs through the episodic violence of the plot is Tuvek’s bumbling progress toward enlightenment as to his parentage and life goals. The road to enlightenment is nasty and violent, It is also pretty rapey, as seems to be the pattern for this period in Lee’s fiction. There is some hope at the end: Tuvek doesn’t resolve to become an even badder bad-ass than he is already. There are better, kinder futures for him, if he can only envision them.
The book concludes as Tuvek sets out on a grand quest. People who have read The Birthgrave will know that Tuvek’s quest isn’t just ambitious … it’s also doomed to failure. The failure of its initial goals, at least. Oh, well. More room for character growth. I am looking forward to reading the third book in the Birthgrave trilogy.
Shadowfire is available in a shiny new edition from DAW Books2.
1: Lee also plays a lot with love is difficult except when it’s doomed , whether it’s Tuvek sabotaging his own romantic relationships, or the young woman who spends a certain portion of the novel trying to convince her One True Love he shouldn’t be so hung up on the fact they are siblings.
2: It’s a pity that DAW consistently misspelled Tuvek’s name as Turek on the back cover of the new edition.
I wondered if perhaps someone at DAW was a fan of a certain dinosaur-hunting Native American, but I checked and found that the Native American was Turok, not Turek. Oh, well.