If you have read any Samuel R. Delany, you know he is a complex dude, and even his simplest stories are complex in some way. Tales of Nevèrÿon is no exception. Largely branded sword-and-sorcery, it’s actually an attempt to deconstruct this subgenre and provide commentary on the relationship between capitalism and slavery. And, for bonus points, if you read closely enough you start to see patterns and echoes from some of his other work, including Triton and Dhalgren.
I picked up what appear to be first editions, or near enough, of the first three Return to Nevèrÿon books from my used bookstore a year or so ago. This version of Tales of Nevèrÿon lacks the preface by Delany’s fictional K. Leslie Steiner, though I do get the afterword, “Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus, Part Three by S. L. Kermit” (love the play with the initials there). Apparently later editions/printings have corrected errors? So there’s that. But I love collecting old, used editions of classic SF&F like this, so I will suffer in satisfaction.
Longtime readers of my reviews will know I’m never quite satisfied by short story collections. That being said, Tales of Nevèrÿon fits into the loophole of one story deliberately structured as a series of related shorts. Indeed, the stories in this collection are even more related than most. Characters and settings overlap, with characters from one story reappearing, often older (but not necessarily wiser) and in different capacities than they once did. Each story tends to focus on a particular theme, which Delany might then rebut or reinforce in later stories. Overall, the stories form a kind of tapestry of tales that provide us with an understanding of Nevèrÿon, its cultures, and the changes underway in this empire.
This might be one of those rare situations where briefly looking at each story would genuinely be helpful!
“The Tale of Gorgik” is the first and pivotal story, since Gorgik goes on to play important roles in most of the subsequent stories (and, I am given to understand, later books in the series). Gorgik is a light-skinned man in a land ruled by darker-skinned people. He becomes a slave and works in the mines until a high-ranking government bureaucrat pulls him up out of that position to use as her sex buddy. He lives on her sufferance at the imperial residence for a while, then she gives him an army commission and sends him packing. Eventually, Gorgik strikes off on his own, becoming a kind of adventurer. Yet his experiences have left him with a taste for freedom and a distaste for slavery, and we’ll see that later. All in all, “The Tale of Gorgik” is mostly a reflection on how one’s fortunes are often out of one’s control and depend upon the will and power of other players.
“The Tale of Old Venn” takes us across the land to an archipelago off the coast of Nevèrÿon proper. The peoples of these islands trade with Nevèrÿon but otherwise exist outside its influence. That is changing, however, because money is making its way through the land. Although comprising several stories told by the eponymous Venn, the protagonist of the frame story is actually Norema, who will later emigrate to Nevèrÿon and one day meet Gorgik. Through Venn’s stories, Norema is exposed to the potential problems with the introduction of money, as well as different ideas about gender roles. This story might be one of the most confusing to follow, simply owing to its structure.
“The Tale of Small Sarg” concerns a young man, little more than a boy, who is kidnapped from his people and sold into slavery (are you sensing a theme yet?). Sarg was revered as a prince among his people, which seems to mean he wasn’t responsible for doing all that much, because in his society women had most of the responsibility. As a slave, Sarg gets sold to Gorgik. The relationship between these two forms the core of this story, as they navigate complicated matters of sexuality, kink, and the power dynamics of master/slave—which might not be what you would expect, not that I want to spoil it. Basically, if you are familiar with Delany you shouldn’t be surprised that so many of his characters are super queer, and this is book no exception. This story advances Gorgik’s character development, setting him on the path on which we encounter him in subsequent books.
“The Tale of Potters and Dragons” returns once more to this idea that money could be a saviour of society or the root of all evil. A potter educates his apprentice in the virtues of money before sending him to conclude a business deal. On the voyage, the apprentice meets Norema, also dispatched by her mistress to secure the same contract he is after. Unfortunately for both, they never reach their destination, falling victim instead to a much more massive and older deception. Norema meets Raven, a woman from the matriarchal society of the Western Crevasse, who tells her a very detailed myth about the creation of women (and then ’men). I really like this story for its plot, the craftiness of some of the characters we never meet, and because I get to see Norema again!
“The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers” brings together Norema and Raven with Gorgik and Sarg. The best way I can describe this is that Sarg basically yells, “RAMPAGE!” and runs into a castle and kills as many guards as possible, kind of like Sir Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The scenes are literally kind of cinematic in that way. But anyway, this is the story that sees the culmination of the narratives on slavery, power, and economic revolutions. It’s a short but powerful tale amplified by the reader’s awareness of the previous narratives.
Lastly, we have “Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus, Part Three”. This is where I’ll state the controversial opinion that you could, indeed, just skip this entire part if you wanted. I think it’s possible to enjoy Tales of Nevèrÿon on the strength of the stories alone without worrying too much about what Delany is doing here. However, if you’re into considering the deeper implications of Delany’s work, then it is worthwhile reading and trying to parse this last entry. This is “part three” of these informal remarks; the first two are in Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (the main story is “part one” and an appendix to that story is “part two”).
So Delany is trying to link his works, trying to create a common thread throughout them. I don’t have the energy or memory to really compare Triton with these stories. But I can see some similarities between Dhalgren and these stories. In both cases, Delany makes much of the deconstruction and semiotic analysis as pioneered by Derrida. Language and symbols have huge significance in Tales of Nevèrÿon: in “The Tale of Gorgik”, Curly lectures Gorgik over the depth and significance of the few words the Child Empress utters to him; in “The Tale of Old Venn”, the rult that Venn describes from her time among the Rulvyn is a potent symbol, and this story also examines the utility of writing; in “The Tale of Small Sarg”, the slave collar that Sarg wears plays an important role in the relationship between Sarg and Gorgik beyond denotation of who is the slave … and so on.
And so, this is how Tales of Nevèrÿon transcends the sword and sorcery genre from which it takes its setting and inspiration. Delany transforms the setting into a meditation on the shape and scope of language, of writing, of money—the intersection of language and economics. It’s a slim volume that should not be underestimated; it reminds me a lot of the anthropological science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t know if this is a good entry point to Delany’s writing, but I’d also argue it isn’t a bad one.