Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ayesha: the Return of She Reviewed

[from 2004]
Ayesa: the Return of She is the sequel novella after She, written years after the first for closure. It begins with a framing device of the fictional version of the real publisher explaining how he came by this manuscript, the deathbed "confession" of his old friend, L. Horace Holly. It may serve to ground the accompanying narrative in reality or explain the real gap between publications, or some combination of both.

The story begins 20 years earlier in 1885 wth Holly, already an old man, and his adult, adopted son Leo Vincey, having retired from their African adventures and returned to England. Leo is despondent -- for 2,000 years of reincarnations he was the love of the immortal Ayesha, but she died in the Caves of Kor (in the last story). Despondent to the point of suicide, Leo ha a vision showing him a journey he can take to see Ayesha again. The vision is clear enough that they know the location is in Central Asia. Both men -- for both love Ayesha, in their own way, as they love each other -- vow to take the journey. Unless you are a big Latin buff, you will come to despise the term "crux ansata" by novella’s end, considering how often it is used to describe an element of both the vision and their destination.

Sixteen years of travel are quickly summarized at the beginning of chapter two, only hinting at their adventures in T(h)ibet and China. The important points are that they learn many dialects and much of Buddhism on the journey. The rapid travel log slows down (relatively -- they do spend six months there) when Leo and Holly reach a Buddhist lamasery near the end of their journey. It is important for Hagard to draw parallels between the Ayesha back-story and the beliefs of Buddhism, as more than one character does for him, as if to say, "This is a story about religion, not magic." I hazard a guess here, as I have not researched it, but I suspect Hagard was intentionally distancing himself from the spiritualism movement of his times. Of importance to the plot is that Leo and Holly find corroboration for Leo’s vision in the lamasery library. Also, their new friend Kou-en (the falsest sounding note amongst the Asian details – perhaps an inside joke for a friend named Cohen?) relates an experience from one of his past lives about how he encountered "She" and how she made him worship her, foreshadowing (or, if you read the earlier book, reminding) both the power of Ayesha and the evil purposes she will put it to.

Chapter three resumes the travel log, with Leo and Holly crossing the desert beyond the lamasery and reaching the mountain range where Ayesha is supposedly hidden. The detail is complete, but fails to build atmosphere. The chapter literally ends with a cliffhanger, but the suspense is marred by heavy-handed symbolism – Holly is kinda, sorta crucified before they both fall into the abyss.

The first three chapters are fairly lackluster, but chapter four is when the going gets good. It initially begins with more symbolism – Leo and Holly’s fall into the abyss ends with them being "reborn" in water (not unlike a Christening) and then being rescued. Their rescuers are the beautiful Atene, Khania (a female Khan; Hagard just makes up titles as he needs them) of Kaloon, and her ancient great-uncle, the shaman Simbri. Kaloon is one of Hagard’s hidden lands. If the size of the armies fielded later are any indication, Kaloon and its environs must boast a population of at least 600,000. The people of Kaloon are mostly of Mongolian descent with a trace of Macedonian. Two thousand years earlier, an army fielded by Alexander the Great traveled this far and, instead of conquering, settled down and mixed with the indigenous people. Kaloon’s people are primitive agrarians, having forgotten all other deities save the spirit of the volcano, Hes. The Khan seems a savage madman, but he is in fact a victim of his wicked bride. Their wedding was a political union and, although the Khan loves Atene, she does not love him. So she has solved that problem by administering a poison to her husband that makes him not love her, and their estrangement is what has driven him mad – particularly sense he is fully aware of her conspiracies, which also include wanting to see her husband killed. The Khan is introduced to us as a villain, hunting down one of his own relatives and letting his hounds kill the man, but before his death becomes the most sympathetic character of all.

The politics of Kaloon lead to much of the book’s most successful suspense, but also suspenseful is the "fatal attraction"-like relationship between Atene and Leo. By an amazing coincidence (said to be destiny at work, but still…), Atene and Leo were husband and wife in an early incarnation and Ayesha had come between them.
Atene is irresistably drawn to Leo and yet at the same time jealously angry at Leo's insistence that he loves the spirit in the volcano instead. Whether or not Atene is willing to kill him to keep him from Ayesha is suspenseful right up until the climax of the book.

This section runs through chapters four, five, and six, culminating in Leo and Holly's harrowing escape from the vengeful Khan Rassen. This is the climax to "act one," and the book gets no better until the climax to "act two."

The novella does not actually use the term "acts," but the book has clearly begun a new section when Leo and Holly reach the volcano. The pace slows back down, Leo and Holly are exploring again, and a new "mystery" appears. It actually isn't much of a mystery to guess who the shroud-wrapped guide is who leads Leo and Holly up the side of the volcano, but it is atmospheric -- not unlike the Ghost of Christmas Future with color and gender inverted.

There is an odd scene on the mountainside where Leo rushes to the rescue of a local girl who's about to be burned alive by a witchdoctor with a cat on his head. Perhaps Hagard felt his heroes had been escaping dangers too often and did not seem heroic enough, though by now it's very clear in the story that no harm can befall Leo and Holly because Ayesha is protecting them. Perhaps the scene is only meant to introduce the priesthood of the College of Fire, the servants of the Hesea, high priestess of the goddess Hes.

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