1965’s Atlan is the third volume in Jane Gaskell’s sword-and-sorcery Atlan series … unless you purchased 1963’s The Serpent before it was divided into The Dragon (1975) and The Serpent (1975), in which case Atlan is the second volume. It was followed by two other volumes in the series, The City (1966) and Some Summer Lands (1977).
Naïve, cosseted Cija, having survived many unpleasant educational experiences, has married man-serpent Zerd, now Emperor of Atlan. One might think this would confer on Cija a measure of security, but no, Cija is beset on all sides.
Zerd’s pressing problem is that his realm is surrounded by predatory neighbors. If he can conquer Atlan, why shouldn’t they? Zerd’s forces would be outnumbered were his enemies to combine. He also has to keep his supposed allies happy. His marriage to Cija has complicated the situation. He set aside two wives to wed Cija and both ex-wives have ambitious fathers with large armies.
Cija does manage to present Zerd with a son who may well be his. Then she is separated from her retinue when traveling and must flee wolves. Cija and her son find their way to an inn deep within the forest, where Cija languishes as a mistreated drudge.
Zerd does eventually track Cija down and retrieve her. But rather than return her to his palace, the warlord stores his disaster-prone bride in an isolated, run-down, poorly mapped castle. As one does. This should keep her safe, while keeping her far enough away for him to skirt-chase out of sight of his wife’s hurt looks. It is a cunning plan without a single flaw.
The castle turns out to host an undocumented mad scientist. Oh, and at least one supposed guard would like to send Cija and her children to their deaths at sea. Yes, and there’s a jealous ex-wife whom Cija displaced. She’d be happy if Cija were gone. Her doting father and his army are willing to help her extinguish her rival. This shouldn’t sour relations with Zerd, who needs the support of that army. He’d might even turn a blind eye should Cija die.
Cija is also facing trial for infidelity (of which she is definitely guilty) and witchcraft (which she is probably not). If she’s convicted of witchery, she might be killed. Certainly nothing good will come her way.
But then, nothing ever does.
I’m fairly sure that this series influenced Tanith Lee.
This novel is history-reminiscent rather than properly historical. It’s set in a past that seems very unlikely to have led to our present. It is also a past uninhibited by known history, geology, biology, and physics. So, no worse than Howard’s Hyperborean stories.
Those new to the Atlan series may find Cija a bit naïve. She was raised in a tower, brought up to believe she was divine, and until she was seventeen, she was ignorant of the very existence of men. The only reason her mother finally told her the facts of life was that she was to seduce Zerd before killing him. As you may guess from the facts that Cija has two kids and Zerd is alive, she did not exactly fail but she wasn’t completely successful.
The story is for the most part told as a series of diary entries. One can guess, therefore, that Cija will always survive her adventures long enough to jot them down. The final book, if follows the same format, will have to end on a cliffhanger unless someone else makes that final diary entry. (No, I haven’t yet read the next two books in the series.)
Cija is not only unworldly but also fairly dim. Both characteristics are key to her adventures. In addition, her poor track record about which man to trust is not helped by the apparently total lack of men she can trust. All of the men around her have their agendas and when they are not “sleep with Cija,” they are often “kill Cija.” In fact, the general impression left by the books is that when Atlan finally falls into the waves and all drown, few innocent people will die.
The plot structure is episodic, the protagonist not bright, and her adventures rather lurid. I am therefore a bit surprised that Atlan appears to be out of print.