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Vassal of El
Gloria Oliver
Zumaya Publications, 285 pages

Martine Jardin
Vassal of El
Gloria Oliver
Gloria Oliver was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico in 1964 and moved to the United States in her teens and finally ending up in Texas. She originally entered the University of Texas in Arlington to obtain an Aerospace degree, but eventually moved over to the University of Texas in Dallas to gain a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies. Through the Amateur Press Association she honed her writing skills and developed her interest in Japanese manga and anime. In her spare time she studies Japanese, translates manga and maintains a site devoted to it. Her first novel In the Service of Samurai was published in early 2003, and was an 2004 Eppie finalist. Her short story "The Bubbas of Troy County" appears in the Yard Dog Press anthology The Four Bubbas of the Apocalypse: Flatulence, Halitosis, Incest, and... Ned. Married for 20 years she is the mother of a very independant daughter. She currently works in the finance/accounting field.

Gloria Oliver Website
Author's Manga page
Publisher's website Reviews:
Vassal of El: 1, 2a, 2b, 3

In the Service of Samurai: 1, 2, 3a, 3b, 4

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Gloria Oliver's Vassal of El (originally titled Wings of Angels) is an entertaining and fast-paced tale of Torren, a loner mercenary with a past and of an innocent young maiden, Larana, who is far more than she knows. He rescues her as she is running from soldiers bent on her capture, and together they make their way north to where he seeks to offer his services as a mercenary. There he discovers her identity and returns her to the Winged people or Flyers for which, as Aen, she represents the living embodiment of their God. But not all is well upon the floating islands of the winged people. When Aen falls into a comatose state -- the previous Aen having been murdered -- Torren must return and ferret out the bad seed amongst the Flyers.

While Vassal of El, the author's second published novel isn't mired in clichés, and the story is clearly and competently described, it isn't however terribly original, and certain elements of the story certainly don't enhance its plausibility. For example, when Torren returns with the teenage Larana to her home, burned to the ground by those seeking her, and she runs into the ruins to discover her adoptive parents burnt to death, to the point where "pieces of the corpses had come away with [the debris]" she is initially in shock, virtually unconscious of his presence, but within minutes she is discussing local geography with him, and within a few days she appears to have completely forgotten these highly traumatic events. Certainly she in no way exhibits any psychological disorders resulting from post-traumatic stress. Within days, she is capable of bargaining for lodging and taking care of animals, without the least hesitancy. Certainly Torren is far more believable as the archetype of the man with a past who has shut himself out to women.

The story of a seemingly lower caste outsider who enters and saves an upper caste society from itself is nothing new (e.g. Thomas Temple Hoyne's 1934 Intrigue on the Upper Level), but here the story is much more one of mystery and intrigue than one of social commentary, particularly as Flyer society is little described, beyond very broad strokes. Similarly, there is no description of how it feels to be a Flyer, as opposed to a Lander, what does such an ability bring to the life experience of a Flyer? Edmond Hamilton's "He That Hath Wings" (Weird Tales, July 1938) is perhaps the best story to explore this experience. As for any mystery regarding the bad seed among the Flyers, what mystery is there? Very little: as the traitor amongst the Flyers is obvious early on with his "knowing smiles" and the fact that Larana/Aen shivers when in his close proximity -- amongst other clues.

Stories of winged humans date back to Daedalus and Icarus, but have made numerous appearances in fantasy literature, particularly in lost race tales, from Robert Paltock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751) set in Antarctica to Stanton Coblentz's When Birds Fly South (1945) set in central Asia. Unlike these works, the Flyer's ability to fly is not exploited, either in terms of what they are physically capable or of any symbolism. Certainly the sense of wonder and desire that Paltock's and Coblentz's male protagonists exhibit before winged humanoids, is not matched by the Landers of Vassal of El, rather the Landers are mostly jealous and resentful of the Flyers. Even if Vassal of El's original title was Wings of Angels, there's very little of an angelic nature in the Flyers, a number of them being rather elitist not to say outright racist towards the Landers or "grubs." What is perhaps interesting is the parallels one might draw between the character of Larana/Ael, a wingless Flyer, and the flying women whose wings are clipped by men in the early (1914) feminist lost race novel Angel Island by Inez Haynes Gillmore (both authors coincidentally having been born in Iberian cultures, Oliver in Puerto Rico and Gillmore in Brasil), but I'll leave that to those better versed in such studies.

For an entertaining, don't ask too many questions read, Vassal of El delivers, and is suitable for readers young and old, which for a new author like Oliver is already a significant attainment. However, if you want your fantasy with something below the surface, perhaps some socio-political commentary, then look elsewhere.

Copyright © 2004 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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