The great highway stretched out before them. The miles flew underneath the wheels of the iron horse as they rode. Mortu the Kinslayer, Mortu the Merciful, scion of the north, where warriors were once bred like princes breed their race horses. Kyrus the Wise, a man of faith, of sacred vows and probing intellect, sharp tongued and sure of himself. Sometimes too much so, as a conflict with an evil sorcerer has resulted in his imprisonment in the body of a small monkey. Our heroes cross the wasteland in search of a cure for Kyrus, seeking magics and wisdom from the east.
Thus begins the newest adventure of Schuyler Hernstrom’s motorcycle barbarian Mortu and the monkey monk Kyrus, found in The Penultimate Men. The heroes race through desert plains and deserted relics from the alien Illilissy. But the heart of the great steel beast they ride is failing, and their next pit stop brings peril. For the cult of Daganha has settled in the nearest city, worshiping the giant scorpions that vexed Mortu and Kyrus’s recent travels. And the bright iron needed to repair Mortu’s iron steed can only be found by Oram, the merchant who controls the cult.
When Oram’s granddaughter is taken with the talking, chess-playing monkey Kyrus, he poisons Mortu. When that fails, he arranges for Mortu to be a sacrifice for Daganha’s giant scorpions. Mortu, of course, has other plans:
“Gods, protect my friend and I will spill oceans of blood in your names.”
Imprisoned with him is Ulkya, a now ex-mistress of a scorpion priest who knows the secret behind the sacrifices. Before the sacrifice, the priest blesses the doomed, anointing them with pheromones. With the right oil, the doomed are spared, but with the wrong, they are eaten by the scorpions.
While they plot, Kyrus must endure becoming a child’s plaything:
“I am wrestling with the notion that I have passed away and awoken in perdition.”
“I assure you that you haven’t.”
“That’s a pity.”
He manages to escape and finds Mortu and Ulkya’s prison. Now the monkey monk must find a way to free Mortu before the scorpions awake for their feeding, while Mortu marshals his strength and fury for a last stand if Kyrus fails.
But the big question is how the axe and sorcery of Mortu and Kyrus fares when not bloodily refuting one of science fiction’s most famous and inane moral dilemmas. Quite well, actually. Mortu and Kyrus compare well to fantasy duos such as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Gotrek and Felix, and Mongoose and Meerkat. Turn to educated and clever Kyrus to find out why a mystery is happening. Release the dour Mortu to make it end. And if the main conflict is compressed into a bloody second half of the story, it gives room for Hernstrom to weave the post-alien apocalyptic world his heroes live in.
It is hard not to repeat myself from my “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” review. Hernstrom shows off his ability to imply entire civilization’s worth of history in only a couple sentences. Compared to paragraphs of exposition used by other writers, a mere line here and there among the descriptions of strange men and stranger customs at a bazaar shed more light to the history of Mortu and Kyrus’s world and to that of the heroes themselves. As a result, the world feels as vast as the wide deserts Mortu’s iron steed rides across.
The dialogue continues to be an exemplar of best form speech, with an ear for oration instead of quick quips. The responses are more idealized and formal, but they carry more intent and sincerity as a result. Twenty years ago, there was a warning for artists to abandon irony for sincerity. Hernstrom’s speechs are muscular examples of what can be accomplished in that vein.
Honestly, the main question at the end is simply, “When can we have another?” Hopefully, the answer is soon.