Monday, February 07, 2011

Sword Woman and Mistress of Death

The uncompleted story Mistress of Death, featuring Dark Agnes de Chastillon, is a story I've been waiting a long time to read. Dark Agnes is a red-haired she-devil actually created by Robert E. Howard, unlike Marvel Comics Red Sonja, who is often credited to Howard, but was really the creation of Roy Thomas. (Though loosely based on REH's Red Sonya of Rogatino, who appeared as a supporting character in a single short story, The Shadow of the Vulture.)
I first came across Agnes in a used copy of Sword Woman, a Zebra paperback from 1977 with a cover and interior illustrations by Stephen Fabian. This slim volume contained the two Dark Agnes tales that Howard had completed, Sword Woman and Blades For France. It contained Mistress of Death too, but the story had been completed by Gerald W. Page and I had reached a point in my reading of REH where I didn't want any posthumous collaborations unless I had first read the original fragment unaltered. So I skipped that version of Mistress of Death.
Now, several years later, thanks to the publication of Sword Woman and other Historical Adventures, Del Rey's latest quality volume of the works of Robert E. Howard, I was able to read the unadulterated Mistress of Death. MoD is something of a departure from the previous two Dark Agnes yarns. Sword Woman and Blades For France were pure historical fiction, taking place in 16th century France, with no supernatural elements, whereas Mistress of Death features a sorcerer, thus taking the story into the realm of historical sword & sorcery. Since the other two stories had failed to find a market, perhaps Howard was thinking of sending his third Agnes yarn to Weird Tales and wanted to make it more attractive to editor Farnsworth Wright.
Dark Agnes is a fascinating character for several reasons. One is that she's ahead of her time in terms of feminist attitudes. Mistreated by her father and about to be married off to a man she despises, Agnes is given a dagger by her sister, a woman beaten down by life, who hopes her younger sister will take her own life rather than be made the slave of her brutal husband. But Agnes sees another use for the dagger. She stabs her groom through the heart and escapes into the night. Later she learns to use a sword and becomes a mercenary. Hardly the cowering female clinging to Conan's leg that those unschooled in the works of Robert E. Howard often think is a typical REH female character. In all the Agnes stories, she is the best fighter. The toughest, the fastest, and the most skilled. Her blade work is "like summer lightning". Dark Agnes is a true REH hero, just like Kull or Solomon Kane.
Another thing I've always found interesting about Dark Agnes is that Howard chose to tell her stories in the first person. I've always steered clear of female viewpoints in my own writing, figuring I'd best stick to what I know. Not Two-Gun Bob. Howard writes Agnes with the same sort of intensity he displays in other, male point of view first person narratives and he does a great job. Dark Agnes lives on the page.
Anyway, the Del Rey Sword Woman collection features mass quantities of Howard's historical fiction, including the Cormac Fitzgeoffrey stories, which are some of my favorites, and such classics as The Sowers of Thunder, The Shadow of the Vulture, and Spears of Clontarf. Plus fragments and other extras, an introduction by Scott Oden, and a nifty afterward by my pal Howard Andrew Jones, looking at Howard's historical fiction and REH's influences. Rumor has it that this is the last of the Del Rey Volumes. I hope that's not the case, but if so, they're going out on a high note.

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