Book review: Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg is a prolific and award-winning science fiction author, of whom I’ve read only a handful of short stories. They didn’t leave me much impressed, but when I found out he had written an historical fiction novel that was being reprinted for the first time in thirty years, I was intrigued, and I was fortunate enough to win a copy for review.

The new edition of Lord of Darkness by Nonstop Press contains a great introduction by Silverberg about how his book came to be. Long story short, it was inspired by the true story of 16th century English mariner Andrew Battell, who was captured by the Portuguese while pirating in South America and shipped to Africa as a prisoner, where he spent twenty years of his life—including some time living in the African interior with a cannibal tribe and their powerful, dangerous leader, Imbe Calandola, the titular “Lord of Darkness”.

The book did not do well domestically, due to the fact that bookstores shelved it alongside his science fiction works; sci-fi fans weren’t interested in a historical fiction novel, and historical fiction fans (who didn’t know to look for an historical novel in the SF section) never discovered it.

That’s a shame, because it’s an absolutely amazing book.

Much of the appeal comes from Battell’s story, which is fascinating in itself; though obviously by the time Silverberg had expanded it to novel-length, it had become more fiction than fact, but still true to the events detailed in Battell’s original account. But perhaps more than even that, what kept me engaged from the first page to the last was the narrative voice employed by Silverberg. It’s a first-person account, naturally, but Silverberg attempts to present it as if it might have come from the pen of a 16th century English Protestant man, while still keeping it comprehensible to the contemporary reader. It’s done masterfully, with an old-fashioned biblical cadence that is just wonderful. Here’s the opening paragraph:

ALMIGHTY GOD, I thank Thee for my deliverance from the dark land of Africa. Yet am I grateful for all that Thou hast shown me in that land, even for the pain Thou hast inflicted upon me for my deeper instruction. And I thank Thee also for sparing me from the wrath of the Portugals who enslaved me, and from the other foes, black of skin and blacker of soul, with whom I contended. And I give thanks too that Thou let me taste the delight of strange loves in a strange place, so that in these my latter years I may look back with pleasure upon pleasures few Englishmen have known. But most of all I thank Thee for showing me the face of evil and bringing me away whole, and joyous, and unshaken in my love of Thee.

I don’t know a thing about Silverberg’s own beliefs, but Battell’s come through clear as day; his dialogue is full of philosophical asides on almost every conceivable subject. This is a thoughtful book. It’s also not an easy one. Battell makes choices of a questionable moral nature, from working in the employ of his captors and nation’s enemies, to living as a member of a cannibal tribe. This is not a book for the squeamish: there are some disturbing scenes here. At one point Battell, determined to leave nothing out of his narrative, remarks that what he is about to reveal will make the reader hate and condemn him, and certainly that’s an option. Battell’s awareness of his choices and actions, and his analysis of them at the time as well as after fact, add depth both to said scenes and to his character.

A final word of warning: There is a lot of sex in this book, and it’s fairly explicitly described, though couched in sixteenth century language as it is, it loses a little of it’s, shall we say, vulgarity. If that’s the kind of thing that’ll turn you off a book entirely, you might want to give this one a pass.

That said, part of the triumph of the novel is bringing you, the reader, to places that make you uncomfortable (sometimes extremely uncomfortable) and then bringing you through them—not entirely unchanged, but perhaps now seeing the world around you in a different light. That’s one of the marks of Great Literature, and Lord of Darkness is an absolute masterwork. Kudos to Nonstop for bringing it back into print. [5 out of 5 stars]

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