Zebra Books edition published 1977
Berkley Books edition published December 1979
Blades for France
Mistress of Death
The King's Service (fragment)
The Shadow of the Hun (fragment)
(out of 5)
This was one of the Robert E. Howard collections put out by Berkley in the late '70s, and which I think were pretty faithful to the original texts. Some others in the series were Black Vulmea's Vengeance, The Vultures of Whapeton and the three Berkley Medallion edition Conans, which, as I have said elsewhere, are all dear to my heart. C. W. Kelly (Ken Kelly) did the cover illustrations both for this series and for the more recent Robert E. Howard Library put out by Baen Books, and, while both are pretty good, I think I prefer Kelly's earlier art to the more recent stuff.
Robert E. Howard only wrote two complete stories about Dark Agnes de Chastillon -- "Sword Woman" and "Blades for France" -- neither of which was published during his lifetime. A third, "Mistress of Death", was completed after Howard's death by Gerald W. Page. "Mistress of Death" is quite different from the other two, which I think is probably attributable to Page, more than to REH.
I confess to having mixed feelings about Dark Agnes. As a kid, it didn't like these stories at all. I found them too slow and talky and, for something with a cover blurb reading: "Would you a warrior or a woman be?", not very sexy. But, reading them again, I've somewhat warmed up to Dark Agnes, although these stories still won't make my top ten list -- and they still aren't sexy.
The weakest of the three is "Sword Woman", basically an origin story in which Agnes hits the ground running by skewering the groom at her own shotgun wedding. Fleeing, she befriends Etienne Villiers, who turns around and tries to sell her to a brothel, for which she, understandably, beats the shit out of him. Nonetheless, she manages to forgive Villiers, then befriends another fellow, who teaches her how to swordfight, but who is promptly dispatched by brain-trusts who have mistaken him for Villiers. Agnes and Villiers ride off into the sunset, headed for further adventures.
What is interesting about this story is how seriously Robert E. Howard seems to be taking the Agnes character. For one thing, the story is written from the first-person point-of-view, the woman's point-of-view. More important, there is a subtlety of characterization here which, as a kid, I didn't pick up on. We all know the standard swordswoman cliche -- the frigid, man-hating, ready-to-pick-a-fight- at-the-drop-of-a-wolf-whistle stereotype. Here, though, Agnes is neither frigid nor a man-hater -- she simply wants to be taken seriously. When she rebuffs her male cohorts (as she frequently does), it is a perfectly reasonable response to an unreasonable situation. In fact, one feels that, when Agnes makes a speech about wanting to be treated as the equal of any man, Howard is not just speaking about women, but is expressing a general desire shared by both men and women -- the desire to be able to fullfill one's full potential unhindered by prejudice.
Dark Agnes makes an interesting contrast with Red Sonja, a swordswoman created in the '70s as a female version of Conan. Red Sonja's swordfighting abilities were given to her by a supernatural entity, whereas Agnes' prowess was basically innate. Then, too, the whole idea that Red Sonja could never love a man until he proved he was her master with a sword...the less said the better. Another thing: clearly, REH wanted Dark Agnes to be taken seriously by his readers. Repeatedly, male characters comment that it is nothing strange to find a woman swordfighter in their time.
"Blades for France" is a somewhat better offering. No longer concerned with detailing Agnes' origins, Robert E. Howard can get on with story-telling. Still partnered with Villiers, Agnes finds herself foiling an assassination attempt involving lots of running about in the dead of night, midnight meetings of masked men, swordplay, and all that good stuff. Still, it doesn't have the panache of Conan, nor the thrills of "pulp". But, reading it more recently, I realized that REH wasn't trying to write a Conan-type adventure; this story is more of a costume drama, with the odd swordplay tossed in here and there. Taken on that level, it's actually pretty good.
The third story, "Mistress of Death", is much closer to a pulp adventure, as an evil sorceror rises from the dead after his execution and seeks revenge on the woman who turned him in. Agnes beards the knave in his lair, in a climax involving a bottomless pit, a naked woman, and some sort of furry whosit. Of the three stories, this is probably the best -- but I say that guardedly. The problem is this. The Dark Agnes character is quite different from the Dark Agnes of the previous two stories, particularly in the climax, which was written by Gerald W. Page. She is much more vulnerable and...well, wimpy. This makes her more fetching, certainly, but that fetchingness (!) is at the expense of that indefinable something which made her interesting in the earlier offerings. When, in the climax, we are told:"I whimpered like a child", we know something vital has been lost.
The two fragments -- "The King's Service" and "The Shadow of the Hun" -- have nothing to do with Dark Agnes. "The King's Service" concerns the Briton, Donn Othna, and his encounter with Constantius, a Roman empire-builder in India. It is only notable for a fairly sexy scene involving the taming of a female assassin through hypnosis. "The Shadow of the Hun" involves the Gaelic pirate Turlogh Dubh O'Brien -- who appeared in Gods of Bal-Sagoth and The Dark Man -- and doesn't even have a taming-the-female-assassin scene to recommend it.
Leigh Brackett, in the introduction, notes that Robert E. Howard may have been influenced by C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry swordswoman stories. Howard had read Moore's "Black God's Shadow" and sent her a copy of his "Sword Woman", which she liked. In my humble opinion, though, there is very little similarity between the two swordswomen, except that both are women and both have swords.
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