How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Voidal
by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Ten years ago, I had largely given up on fantasy, swords-and-sorcery in particular. Fortunately, I discovered a few writers that pulled me back in, among them several veterans of Tales from the Magician’s Skull: Milton Davis, Howard Andrew Jones, and Adrian Cole. Kicking me right between the eyes with his stories of accursed interplanar wanderer, the Voidal, Cole, more than anyone else, broke me of a certain literary snobbishness I had developed.
The Oblivion Hand (Wildside Press, 2001), is a fix-up of several published and unpublished Voidal stories. When I first reviewed two of them on my blog, Stuff I Like, a decade ago, I was less than kind. While I appreciated Cole’s inventiveness, I took him to task for some of his nomenclature and the cranked-up-to-eleven intensity of both stories, “Well Met in Hell” and “The Lair of the Spydron.” In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, editor John Clute dismissed the series as “not serious.” While I didn’t dismiss them, I definitely agreed with that assessment more than I disagreed. As if fantasy could be considered acceptable only if it wasn’t too fantastic and if it took itself seriously.
When I started a weekly book review column for Black Gate eight years ago, I made an effort to read as wide an assortment of sword-and-sorcery as I could, even if it meant picking up books I assumed I wouldn’t like. That led me back to The Oblivion Hand. This time I didn’t read only two stories, I read the whole thing, and it blew my mind. One of the things about fantasy, it would seem obvious, is that the only limits are those of the author’s imagination. Halfway through The Oblivion Hand, it became clear Adrian Cole’s imagination has no limits. None.
By not reading all of The Oblivion Hand in the first place, I missed out on the full range of what Cole was doing. Instead of using just one more mock-medieval setting, he had, like Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance before him, wove something of whole cloth, new and original. Not only did he create one unique setting, he created one for each story; some bonkers, some beautiful. My impression that the stories were over-amped was a false one; Cole could bring the volume in the Voidal stories down as low as he wanted, creating scenes shimmering and enchanting as well as he could ones violent and horrifying:
“Yet there was a solitary god who dwelt in Nyctath, loath to leave, being convinced in his dotage that one day the gods would come again to his shunned realm. This lonely god, whose years equalled in number the very stars of the omniverse, burned and tended the light in Nyctath, and by its ever-dimming radiance set the false dawn and dusk of the scattered worlds. This ancient god, Ozbaak Underaak, dwelt in the mountainous retreat of Nacramonte on a clinker world that had lost its own name; here he sought to restore light, dreaming that one day he would make incandescent the heavens and spread a celestial glow throughout the entire dimension of Nyctath.”
Don’t confuse out-of-the-ordinary for outlandish; the Voidal stories are a superbly crafted epic cycle that should not be missed by any fan of sword-and-sorcery. They’re also incredibly fun, something my original myopic reading had missed. Allowing the entirety of The Oblivion Hand to wash over me was a revelation.
The first volume, The Oblivion Hand, serves to introduce the Voidal and his sidekick, the batrachian Elfloq. The Voidal has been stripped of his memory by the mysterious Dark Gods for some unknown transgression. In addition, his body has been disfigured and his right hand removed, replaced with the titular Oblivion Hand. The latter is a tool of the Dark Gods, detaching itself from his wrist and delivering their punishment in assorted terrible ways. In one story it helps a ghost visit revenge on its murderer, and in another it changes into a huge, black thing that scrambles along the hallways of a horror-haunted fortress killing everything in its path. Hints of his past gradually, partially come to light, and by the book’s end, he is actively seeking some way to restore his memories and regain his freedom.
The Long Reach of Night (Wildside Press, 2011), continues the hunt for the Voidal’s past. For most of the book, another fix-up, the Voidal is lost somewhere in the Omniverse and the focus is on Elfloq. The imp spends most of the book hunting for his master, searching through one bizarre world after another, including a magical library housed in a pocket dimension built inside a wizard’s severed head.
The final volume, The Sword of Shadows (Wildside Press, 2011), brings the Voidal back to center stage and into battle against the war god, Ubeggi. By the end, a world is broken beyond repair and the Voidal finds himself face to face with absolute evil and the truth of his past. Like the two preceding books, it is fast-paced and replete with some of the most inspired and original world-building I’ve ever read. Too much fantasy these days seems intent on being as unfantastical as possible. That is assuredly not a problem with the tales of the Voidal.
There was a time when I rejected fantasy as exuberant as Adrian Cole’s Voidal stories, but I’ve come to realize that that’s nuts. I don’t read sword-and-sorcery to prove some point, literary or otherwise, but for fun and to get a short respite from reality; a story that speaks to the heroic and adventurous urges that lurk inside me.
Adrian Cole and the Voidal led me back to the pulpiest of pulp roots of swords-and-sorcery and they can do it for you, too. If you long for stories awash in planet-cracking magic, endless swarms of demon warriors, and the magic sword to end all magic swords, then read the tales of the Voidal. They will not let you down.