REVIEW: Tales of Nevèrÿon by Samuel R Delany

A boy of the bustling, colorful docks of port Kolhari, during a political coup, fifteen-year-old Gorgik, once his parents are killed, is taken a slave and transported to the government obsidian mines at the foot of the Faltha mountains. When, in the savagely primitive land of Nevèrÿon, finally he wins his freedom, Gorgik is ready to lead a rebellion against the rulers of this barely civilized land. His is the through-story that, now in the background, now in the foreground, connects these first five stories, in Tales of Nevèrÿon—and, indeed, all the eleven stories, novellas, and novels that comprise Delany’s epic fantasy series, Return to Nevèrÿon, where we can watch civilization first develop money, writing, labor, and that grounding of all civilizations since: capital itself.

Warnings: slavery, trauma, oppression, discussions of sexism, mention of suicide, graphic violence

Category: M/M, F/M

Tales of Nevèrÿon is the first in a series of fantasy novels comprised of collections of connected short stories and novellas. Published in 1978, this is a novel series that uses the vessel of fantasy and speculative worldbuilding and lore, to explore philosophy, the intersectional effects of capitalism, and the effects of power imbalance on social issues as well as sexuality. It depicts a world where civilization is barely beginning to form, with some areas more developed than others, and humanity is just beginning to create systems of governance, writing and language, money and trade, and all the high concepts that come with those innovations.

While this is categorized as “sword and sorcery”, it is really an intersectional dissertation on society and social hierarchies that takes the form of a piece of fantasy fiction. As such, it’s prose is dense, and at times rather difficult to parse. A large amount of it’s writing will make the reader stop to think, reading a section several times to catch all the nuances of the ideas that the author is conveying and exploring. It is comprised of multiple connected stories, in which the main characters move through the world of Nevèrÿon, introducing the reader to it’s various locales, cultures and ideologies. This makes it not exactly an exciting read, it’s not an epic quest or an adventure book, but a quieter sort of collection. One of it’s consistent themes is in the mirroring of concepts and the reversal of social roles, and it delves into the subjects of social growth, slavery, social hierarchies and structures that contribute to systemic injustice, capitalism and the introduction of money to civilization, misogyny and misandry and a host of other social subjects. This makes it both a daunting read as well as an incredibly compelling one, and if you have the time and the mental energy to parse it’s prose, it is very much worth the effort of doing so, as it is an absolutely enriching experience to delve into it’s ideas.

While the book is intellectually stimulating to a fascinating degree, it is not as much an emotionally stimulating narrative. It reads very much like a text dissecting the lives of it’s characters, with a narrator/historian’s voice. And, while the characters are all very interesting and do recur in each story to make up a more linear narrative, the reader is less invested in who they are as people and more invested in them functioning as lenses through which to understand both the world and the ideas the author is exploring. And yet, for all that the characters are not directly emotionally connected to the reader, the author still does a fantastic job of working with narrative tension and creating an atmosphere in which we do care about what befalls them, however distant from ourselves they may feel. It is a fascinating journey to embark on, in which your points of entry into the world are people so strange and unknowable that you feel apart from them, but yet are still individuals for whom you have an investment in following.

As this book is essentially purely worldbuilding at it’s core, it would be difficult to say enough about it’s worldbuilding. There is less in the way of an exciting plot (few swordfights or action, no epic battles against dragons or evil dark lords) and much more slow meandering through various places and cultures within it’s world, all of which feel like distinctly different places with very different ideas on life and social structure. What makes the book perhaps as interesting as it is is the representation of various ways of thinking without any in-text assertion of who is right about it’s subjects. The characters speak their mind, espouse a lot of complex ideas, often times at odds with each other, and the author allows the reader to draw the implied conclusions without any hand holding. This gives the world a rich feeling, as diverse as a real one might be at the dawning era of cultured civilizations, from the mountain tribes to the “more developed” nations that introduce so many of their societies ideologies to the “less developed” barbarians, and how those new concepts effect change in the cultures they touch. I adored it, as it’s world is such a beautiful and at times heartwrenchingly ugly, mirror of our own, or what ours might have once been (and perhaps still is). From the political climates of those in power to the day to day lives of peasants, barbarians and slaves, this is a book that is about something larger than it’s characters.

While this book is not explicit (the first one at least, though I have heard that the later books do delve more into sex), it does contain some thoughts on sexuality and the development of sexual kinks. One of our main characters, Gorgik, is an ex-slave, emancipated in one of the early stories and leading an active revolt to free other slaves and destroy the institution of slavery by the last one. Despite these experiences, or perhaps because of them, he explicitly has a slavery kink, and has a few frank conversations with both his lover and others about the fact that he can’t “perform” unless either himself or his partner is acting in the role of a slave. Essentially, he is a switch who goes back and forth in his moods, and the first time we see him bed Sarg, he insists on being the “master”, though the next time we see them together he is the one acting in the role of “slave”. This is a rather fascinating text, then, on the subject of kink, BDSM, and the development of kinks during our formative years. It is not at all uncommon for people who have experienced trauma to develop kinks surrounding those very same things, and the author going out of his way to explicitly include that kind of developed sexuality in a book that is about fighting back against systemic injustice is really quite an interesting and well designed spin. Gorgik is also a queer protagonist, who despite having bedded women in early stories, seems to lean more towards attraction to men, and there are some discussions about sexual orientation as well that make this a very compelling piece of queer literature.

Although I do feel like the experience of reading any book, no matter how silly or pulpy, will enrich you in some capacity, there is something special about a book that feels like it truly changes you. This was a breathtaking read, and is one of those books that will stick with me for years. I had to read it slowly to truly absorb all of it’s details and ideas, and I feel as though the journey through it was a very rewarding one. I can’t possibly recommend it enough, as it’s a fascinating and stunning piece of speculative and philosophical fiction far beyond the typical scope of a “sword and sorcery” novel.

Have you read Tales of Nevèrÿon? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!


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