The Sorcerer's Ship by Hannes Bok was published as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series in 1969 after initially appearing in a 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds. The BAF series included some of the first adult books to catch my eye as a kid, particularly the gorgeous Barbara Remington covers for Lord of the Rings and The Worm Ouroboros. This series also inspired me up my reading game enough to grasp the nearly impenetrable prose. I currently own about two-thirds of the series and I plan to collect and read my way through the entire run.
Because Hannes Bok as an artist was responsible for some of the most iconic and bizarre illustrations of the pulp era,
I had hopes that his prose would compare favorably to the Gormenghast books (by another BAF author/artist, Mervyn Peake). Unfortunately Bok does not seem to have been as gifted a writer as Peake and the world in Sorcerer's Ship mostly feels like a low-grade Barsoom.
The book opens with a Brooklyn office worker named Gene being fished from an unknown sea after falling through a transdimensional hole in the ocean off Coney Island. The protagonist has no trouble believing this happened because it's just the sort of thing that Charles Fort writes about in his books of strange phenomena. He's been hauled onto a boat that's on a joint diplomatic mission between two warring kingdoms and he is quickly asked to choose sides. Nanich is a country that wants to educate and improve its entire populace (and just happens to be ruled by a gorgeous and available princess). In contrast, every citizen of Koph openly says they care only about money and personal power. Not a lot of grey area.
"Koph" and "Nanich" are also good examples of the author's lack of a gift for naming. Most of his proper nouns (Froar, Gogir, Kaspel, Orcher, Marza) were completely interchangeable--one or two non-memorable syllables without any flavor or consistency--and I quickly tuned them out.
For nearly the entire length of the book, the title ship is pulled back and forth between these two countries that we barely see. Meanwhile Gene and his dopey princess are pawns of two rival wizard advisors who are constantly trying to bribe, manipulate, or clumsily murder them. The proceedings have an enjoyable (though probably not intentional) slapstick quality.
There are a few real highlights in some of the descriptive passages, particularly around one location. A dusty abandoned city of gigantic proportions, populated by artificially animated clay figures and a chubby lizard man is highly evocative of Lovecraft’s cyclopean architecture in Call of Cthulhu. And the book's finale features a fleshy and grotesque monster that feels like something out of Akira or a Miyazaki film.
All in all Sorcerer's Ship is an interesting period piece and an earnest pastiche of elements from pulp-era authors that Bok undoubtedly brilliantly illustrated.
My copy of this book is a VG first printing and a duplicate which I'll happily trade for another BAF title not yet in my collection. Email me your trade list if interested.
William Smith was cosmically doomed to the book business when he skipped school to read HP Lovecraft in an abandoned cabin in the woods. He's worked for barnesandnoble.com, Tor Books, and Warner. Now he sells dodgy books and freelances to make a "living."