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Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg

Lord of Darkness (1983)

by Robert Silverberg

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Take an obscure and brief report from a mostly unknown historical individual, flavor it with some styling reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson, throw in a dash of H. Rider Haggard and a sprinkling of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the end result is Robert Silverberg's foray into historical fiction about Africa: Lord of Darkness. The story contained in the book mostly takes the form a travelogue that follows the central character Andrew Battell as he endures his existence as an English privateer taken prisoner by the Portuguese and transported to Africa, where he doesn't so much adventure as he merely struggles to survive on a continent made doubly dangerous by the national animosity between himself and his captors that is coupled with the wild and inhospitable African landscape as well.

In the forward to the book, Silverberg recounts how a children's story titled The Three Mulla-Mulgars featuring three traveling monkeys entranced him as a child. That story included a brief interlude in which the monkeys came across a lone Englishman named Andrew Battle living by himself in a hut in the African jungles. This would have been little more than a childhood curiosity but years later Silverberg learned of a short first-person account from a seventeenth century Englishman named Andrew Battell giving a short overview of his extended sojourn in Africa. Connecting the dots, Silverberg concluded that the man in The Three Mulla-Mulgars and the historical Battell were one and the same, and also decided that Battell's story needed to be told. But, given that the only records of Battell's experience were he own brief account coupled with a handful of passing references by his contemporaries, leaving Silverberg with scant material to work with, meaning most of the story that came out of the effort was an invention built on a skeleton of truth.

The story that Silverberg came up with is that of a man who sets out for fame and fortune, but in the end only aspires to survive. Battell is a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth and a veteran of England's fight against the Spanish Armada. After a brief marriage ended by his wife's untimely death falls in love with a pretty young girl named Anne Katherine, and decides to sign on as a privateer to plunder England's enemies and secure a nest egg for himself and his intended. The expedition goes badly, and Battell and some of his shipmates are captured by the Portuguese in Brazil and find themselves transported to the colony of Angola in West Africa. And from there, the rest of the story is dominated by Battell's decades long effort to secure his freedom and return to England. Most of the story follows a fairly predictable pattern: Battell overcomes odd that are stacked against him, manages to eke out an existence and almost win his freedom, and then, because there is more book left, events around him conspire at the last possible moment to deny his liberation, resulting in Battell returning to square one, often in a worse position than he started in.

But to a certain extent, Battell's efforts to escape from Africa are not the main plot of the book. Rather, the main plot of the book is Battell's changing relationship with the Dark Continent. As a character, Battell engages in a lot of action, but makes relatively few actual decisions rather than merely being buffeted about by the winds of fate. The only decisions Battell really makes in the course of the book are deciding to turn privateer, purchasing the slave-girl Matamba, refusing Dona Teresa's continued advances, attempting to escape with a Dutch trader, and betraying Calandola to the Portuguese. Every other action Battell takes in the book is spurred by a desire to save his own life, in short, these were the only choices in the book where the alternative would not have been Battell's death. And because the primary character trait for Battell is that he is a survivor above all else, he almost always chooses the path that keeps him alive, making these other "choices" really non-choices. The plaintive cry of "I had no choice, what else could I do" is almost a mantra of Battell. One has to wonder how much of this sentiment was drawn from Battell's original narrative that inspired the book, and how much was the result of Silverberg being unable to figure out any other plausible way to continue keeping Battell trapped as a quasi-prisoner of the Portuguese in and around Angola.

The real meat of the story is Battell's four significant relationships with the women in his life. Anna Katherine spurs Battell to embark upon his career as a privateer, leading to his capture and the events of the book. And while Anna Katherine is offstage for much of the book, and is clearly idealized in Battell's memory, she serves as a reminder for him of his love for England as a whole: As Battell's memories of Anna Katherine fade, so do his memories of England. Once he is in Angola, Battell meets the exotic and duplicitous Dona Teresa, a half-Portuguese half-African beauty who takes up with Battell for fairly inexplicable reasons while he is being held as a prisoner in the Portuguese dungeons. Leaving aside the implausibility of the scenario in which a beautiful scheming social climber would jeopardize her affair with one of the most powerful men in the colony in order to have trysts with a prisoner she barely knows on the floor of a fetid dungeon, Dona Teresa serves to illustrate Battell's growing acceptance of his enforced exile and the rationalizations he makes to accept working with the Portuguese. Teresa, with enough European heritage to appear familiar, but still alien enough that it takes some time for Battell to warm up to her, is a transitional figure in the book, bridging the gap between the "normal" and the "alien". As a side note, there is a lot of sex in the book. Anyone coming to this book hoping for a rehash of Stevenson or Haggard should be aware of this fact before diving in and being shocked by the numerous references Battell makes to his "yard", a woman's curly "three-pointed patch", or the "starfish mouth" within it.

But Battell's life is one of constant change, and eventually he is required by his captors to pilot one of their ships northward, eventually finding himself purchasing the slave girl he calls Matamba. Battell's motivations for purchasing Matamba aren't fully clear, mostly because the idea is not his own, but is rather spurred by Matamba herself, who asks him to buy her to she may escape the slave pens. And although he doesn't purchase her with the intent of having a sexual relationship with her, eventually he does. While Silverberg tries to paint this relationship in the best light possible, and it is probably the most "equal" relationship Battell has with a woman in the entire book, it is still a thirty year old slave holder having sex with his sixteen year old slave girl. Perhaps it is a commentary on the society of the time, but I admit I did find it somewhat disturbing that the most balanced and loving relationship between a man and a woman was the one between Battell and Matamba, mostly because of the clearly exploitative aspects that Silverberg tries so desperately to explain away. To a certain extent Matamba is better off with Battell then she would be otherwise, a point made starkly clear when Battell is separated from her when he is sent away for punishment after an escape attempt and returns years later to find her in an abjectly miserable condition, but this only mitigates the situation, rather than justifying it. But Matamba is, in this regard, a perfect metaphor for the "mainstream" of Africans who spend the book being exploited by European powers beyond their control and only hope to emerge with as little suffering as they can.

The book reaches its climax during Battell's final significant relationship, with his Jaqqa wife Kulachinga. Except that Battell's relationship isn't really with Kulachinga, but rather with the ruler of the cannibalistic Jaqqa tribe the Imbe-Jaqqa Calandola. Abandoned by his Portuguese companions and fearing for his life, Battell finally throws aside the final vestige of his civilized European identify and joins the dreaded Jaqqa tribe, where his musketry skills earn him a place by Calandola's side as "Andubatil". Kulachinga is assigned to Battell by Calandola, and neither she nor Battell has any choice in the matter. She is wholly alien, covered with ritual scars and tribal decorations, and symbolizes the truly alien nature of where Battell has gone, and what he has become. But Kulachinga is almost not a character in her own right, and is merely the extension of Calandola's will. It is through Battell's relationship with Calandola (that becomes more than merely symbolically sexual) and some of the other leaders of the Jaqqa tribe that Silverberg makes his boldest statements, and although they are probably not historically accurate, they are interesting. The Jaqqa, for all their destructive and cannibalistic ways, turn out to be much more than merely mindless locusts swarming across the land, but have a philosophical bent that informs their actions. While they are foreboding and have a somewhat terrifying outlook, they are understandable. And making a tribe of marauding cannibals understandable and even somewhat relatable is what makes this book ultimately interesting. If Silverberg had merely jumped from Battell as a privateer to Battell living among the Jaqqa, they probably would have been too foreign to the reader's experience for any amount of explanation to be effective in making them human rather than monsters. But by taking his time to get to them, Silverberg was able to both increase the terror the Jaqqa engender and ease both Battell and the reader into being able to accept them on their own terms.

As a work of historical fiction, Lord of Darkness seems to be more or less equal parts history and fantasy. The broad strokes and most of the elements of Battell's own personal story are accurate, but it is fairly clear that everything else is a fantasy put forward by Silverberg to make a compelling and interesting narrative. And Silverberg succeeds in that effort, taking the bare bones of a historical account and fleshing it out to describe one man's journey from the familiar to the wholly alien, and taking the reader along for the ride. To a certain extent, Silverberg's efforts are so successful that the final chapters are required to bring Battell back from the wilderness and to allow the reader to take that part of the journey with him as well. While the journey might not be particularly true to the reality of sixteenth century Africa, it is an engrossing tale of survival against mountainous odds filled with interesting characters. And because of that, it is a story that lovers of historical fiction should find interesting and which should have gotten more notice when it was first published.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds. ( )
2 vote StormRaven | May 5, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I got this as an early reviewer and was thrilled to see something "new" by Robert Silverberg. First off it's not new, second it's nothing like Lord Valentine which I loved. This is based on a real life character while filling in and fleshing out his life and adventures in a full length memoir. To say it was a long journey would be an understatement, I felt like I was right along there with him wondering over and over again would we ever reach the end. It was long and tedious reading but just when I was ready to toss the book, it would draw me back in again. Sex, yes indeed, gore, you betcha. Not the usual things I think of when reading something by Silverberg. ( )
  beeg | Apr 17, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
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] ( )
2 vote saltmanz | Mar 28, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I have enjoyed many of Robert Silverberg's Sci Fi books, but this is the first in a different genre that I've read. Not surprisingly, I was not disappointed. It is a captivating and enjoyable story, and, like all well-written historical fiction, I found myself constantly looking up factual information that pertained to the plot. Both fun and educational. Highly recommended. ( )
  willowcove | Mar 24, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Robert Silverberg writes an excellent introduction in this new edition of what is a rather extraordinary novel. Silverberg
takes a short 61 page narrative memoir of an englishman, Andrew Battell, who was born in 1558 and expands it through his
imagination into a really large expansive story that is captivating. Silverberg states that he incorporated nearly every word of Battell into his own nearly 900 page manuscript when he first wrote this in 1982.

I've read a lot of Silverberg stories over the years - he's a prolific author with a very long career. I've really enjoyed his
short stories published in magazines and anthologies, as well as a number of his novels. Although he is primarily known as a science fiction writer, I have liked his historical fictions where I felt I learned something about history even though it is totally imagined with adventures of characters such as Prester John and Gilgamesh. This story however I do not believe I had ever heard of before and it is unusual to say the least. Reading this I couldn't help but feel I was reading an authentic centuries old memoir of Andrew Battell and the amazing story of his life. This is a very long novel and not a quick read. There are parts that are not for the faint of heart, more than a bit depraved - a journey to the heart of darkness in darkest Africa. It would be the rare person who doesn't have a few vivid dreams (I won't call them nightmares) while reading.

We meet Battell as a young man, the youngest in his family of sailors, who has been groomed for a clerk's job. His older brothers however bring home tales of adventures having sailed with Francis Drake and others, pirating the spanish and exploring. Despite his training he still falls rather slowly into the life of a local sailor working the river trade and then a bit further, earning better money than he could as a clerk. It is a rather subdued life compared to the adventures of his brothers. He buys land and takes a wife who dies of smallpox while pregnant with their first child and he falls into despair compounded by the death of his father. He loses his land. His life doesn't "pick up" till he nears 30 years of age and is smitten with another young woman. He wants to earn money to buy a freehold and signs on to do some pirating, and thus the real story of his life begins when he is captured and held in Portugese Africa, eventually losing just about all trappings of a civilized englishman. There is some shocking stuff in here.

One does not rush through a read of this. This is a powerful story that I doubt one would ever forget. I certainly won't. I must give credit to Silverberg for writing something that feels so authentic, yet is easily readable. This will certainly be one of my best reads of 2013. 4 to 4 1/2 stars ( )
  RBeffa | Mar 22, 2013 |
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Almighty God, I thank Thee for my deliverance from the dark land of Africa.
There are true unseen forces, but not nearly so many as we believe, nor would they rule us so sternly if we did not admit them to our souls. We would not be assailed half so often by devils, had we not taken the trouble to invent so many of them.
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Set in the 17th century and based on a true-life historical figure, this novel is a swashbuckling tale of exotic lands, romance, and hair-raising adventures. Andrew Battell is a buccaneer on a British ship when he is taken prisoner by Portuguese pirates. Injured and ailing, Andrew is brought to the west coast of Africa where his only solace is Dona Teresa, a young woman who nurses him back to health. Once his health is restored, Andrew's only hope to return home is to first serve his Portuguese masters, but it is a hope that dwindles as he is pu.… (more)

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