Babb writes with a finesse that bridges the gap between epic adventure-writing and poetry…
Skallagrim - Book One - In the Vales of Pagarna
Stephen R. Babb
Stephen R. Babb’s novel, Skallagrim - In the Vale of Pagarna, is a deep dive into a world of epic fantasy. The book is a tale steeped in all of the classic elements of the Sword and Sorcery genre and will no-doubt delight fans of the work of Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis (with maybe even a hint of H.P. Lovecraft for good measure).
Babb wastes no time plunging the reader into the story. From page one, we identify strongly with Skallagrim, the hero of the piece, already in a fight for his life as the tale begins. From the start, Skallagrim’s memories of what brought him into his predicament have been wiped clean, putting the hero and the reader on equal ground. We learn the what and why of what’s happening as he does - a wonderful story-telling device that pulls the reader deeply into the adventure from the first sentence. And what an adventure it is!
The action in chapter one takes Skallagrim, driven only by a vision of a nameless girl that he knows that he loves (and that he has also put in danger), on a quest through regions in Andorath to the dreaded Vales of Pagarna. On the way, we meet a variety of wizards, scoundrels, mercenaries, and monsters (remember - the reader meets them just as our hero does). Skallagrim is driven by his task to save his nameless love from the evil sorceries of Forneus Druogorim. To achieve his obsession, Skallagrim endures a marathon of ghastly encounters. He does this with the aid of a questionable ally named Erling Hizzard and, especially, a sentient sword called Terminus that descended from the heavens to bond with Skallagrim mid-battle.
Babb describes the horrors of Skallagrim’s nightmarish encounters vividly, every parry and thrust, every horrifying contact with monstrous flesh, every mis-step into putrid slime. Without giving too much away, there’s even a Frankenstein-like scenario in the mix. The dangers and unpleasantness of this barbarian landscape are made viscerally real, pulling the reader deeper and deeper into the tale. Equally engrossing are Babb’s descriptions of more romantic and hopeful moments. Skallagrim’s encounter with the mysterious and seductive nymph, Swanhild, is carefully but enticingly rendered, and the hero’s moments of inspiration and renewal are often poetically and beautifully stated.
“...The air was chill but calm. Dawn was at least two hours away, and the silver disc of the moon rode high
in the sky, unwilling to yield up the heavens. Like Skallagrim, it seemed a lonely thing—for it rode the
firmament in solitude, its light drowning even the brightest of stars. ...”
In the hands of a lesser writer the story could become just a series of pulp-fiction blackouts but Babb writes with a finesse that bridges the gap between epic adventure-writing and poetry. Even our protagonist, Skallagrim, the thief/lover whose quest we’re following, isn’t the typical Conan-based character. He’s a warrior that has no real desire to kill, but has to cooperate with a mysteriously aggressive sword to do the task when it’s called for. Skallagrim’s inner motivation isn’t simply to smash and hack his way through life - there seems to be much more of a romantic soul beneath the scarred exterior, making it easier for the reader to relate. The main joy of the way Stephen R. Babb has constructed this story, though, is that - just like Skallagrim - we have no way of knowing what lies just around the corner, at the end of the tunnel, behind the half-opened door... on the next page.
I wouldn’t think of including a spoiler in this review, but I’ll just say that there’s a reason that this is Book One. Babb has created quite an engaging introduction to the world of Skallagrim. All of the elements that make up engaging sword and sorcery fantasy are in the story: a hero we can relate to, violent battles, horrifying monsters, magic, love, a mysterious landscape housing rivers, mountains, valleys, and castles full of foreboding, and - of course - that good old stygian darkness (no cursed vale should be without it)!
Elements of the story have been incorporated in Babb’s recent music projects with the band Glass Hammer (by all means, look into this) and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Skallagrim’s adventures could translate well into graphic novel or film. Until then, there’s Skallagrim in the Vale of Pagarna - Book One.
A quest worth taking.
- Bert Saraco
You can see Bert’s concert photography at www.facebook.com/express.image