Book Review: Mark E. Rogers’ Blood & Pearls
Being a completist can be rough.
It starts well enough, as you discover an artist/writer/director/whatever you like, and then you naturally start gobbling up as much of their work as you can find. Even still, Sturgeon’s Law (“90 percent of everything is crud”) is still a thing, even with your favorite artists. And so, as you dig deeper and deeper, you find an artists’ … less than stellar works. And yet, your inner completionist compells you to keep going, because, well, that last book was just a fluke, right?
I’d already been down this path with Mark E Rogers’ The Dead, a disappointing zombie novel that got bogged down too much with unlikeable characters having religious debates. But, since I was still curious, I thought I’d take a look at Blood & Pearls (or is it an equation? Blood + Pearls?) since it was something different.
Blood & Pearls is set in the same sword and sorcery setting as a bunch of his earlier books– the same setting in which he did a fantasy pastiche of the New Testament only with mongols and kung-fu wizards. I mean, he called the trilogy Blood of the Lamb, even, just in case you missed the glaring thematics.
Where Blood of the Lamb is the New Testament, Blood & Pearls owes a lot more to the Old. Particularly the parts right before God starts sending plagues down on people for being horrible and wicked and what have you. Though honestly, there’s nothing biblical in Blood & Pearls: it’s a gritty, sleazy, ultra-violent swords and sorcery adventure. And, well, I guess I can at least appreciate that?
So yeah. Blood & Pearls is set in the fantasy city of Khymir, a horrible and violent place where everyone is chaotic evil by default. For example, the book opens with Jagutai, an envoy from the not-Mongol empire, being invited to the city’s obligatory coliseum to watch the death matches. For the pre-show, the Khymirians put slaves and criminals onto a catapult, and then launch them at a wall of spikes to see if they’ll stick.
This is pretty indicative of the book as a whole.
Mark E. Rogers goes out of his way to think up new and horrible ways for people (usually nameless thugs and goons, for the most part) to die. The book is full of violence, and explicit sex, and occasionally explicitly sexual violence. All and all, reading Blood & Pearls is kind of like watching a sleazy horror movie. You KNOW there’s a lot of problematic stuff going on, but it’s still fun anyway. Thankfully, I knew a little bit about how exploitative the book was going to be going in, which made things a little better. And Rogers never gets bogged down in theology like he did in The Dead, and there’s enough going on besides the gratuitous sex scenes to keep the plot rolling (unlike that Fritz Leiber book I read awhile ago).
So yeah, the plot. Jagutai soon meets Zancharthus, a power-hungry priest-wizard (he’s the beardy dude on the cover), along with Torrisana, a super-sexy priestess of a lust goddess, and her ‘body servant’ Lilitu. The lot of them get caught up in a conflict between a merchant’s guild and the super-evil Black Priesthood that runs the city. The Black Priesthood is run by one of the more impressively named villains I’ve come across in awhile: Serrator Dessicatorius. Dessicatorius is a pretty memorable villain, due to just how freaking insane he is. He’s obsessed with spiders, which is honestly pretty standard as far as villainy goes. But the REAL kicker is that Dessicatorius obsessively hates ‘fluids,’ to the point where he’s pretty much embalmed himself alive, and schemes to cut off Khymir’s water supply as part of his evil plan. On the one hand, I kind of wonder how someone so obviously nuts would get put in charge of anything, but on the other, it’s a fun, moustache-twirling kind of villainy.
Thing is, while Dessicatorius is a horrible monster, this doesn’t make Zancharthus a ‘good guy’ per se. The dude’s a murderous sociopath, but at least he’s kind of snarky so maybe we’re supposed to appreciate that? To Rogers’ credit, he never presents Zancharthus as someone to be admired. This is one of those books where EVERYONE is a horrible bastard.
In another interesting note, Rogers self-published Blood & Pearls, along with its two sequels. This makes sense, as I could easily see a publishing exec staring at the gore and sex filled manuscript, and immediately going “nuh uh.” Unfortunately, Blood & Pearls is riddled with errors. Nothing major, but Rogers never decides if italics are for emphasis and underlining is for a character’s thought, or vice versa. Hell, sometimes he even gets this mixed up in the same sentence. (Or should I type same sentence?)
Manuscript errors aside, it’s obvious Rogers put a lot of work into the book. Not only did he write it, but he illustrated it as well. So every chapter or so, there’s either a picture of some dark forboding landscape, something gory and actiony, or a sexy lady pin-up. Seriously, for the first half of the novel, almost every scene featuring Torrisana and/or Lilitu winds up with them getting naked. Like I said, the book’s pretty sleazy. Then again, Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories were full of naked women as well– Rogers is really just making explicit what was only implied in older swords & sorcery stories.
Blood & Pearls is not high literature. Heck, it’s not even high fantasy. Everything is presented in such an over the top, often ridiculous manner, that the book’s enjoyable. It’s interesting to see Rogers just go all out, writing whatever the hell he wants. Problematic? Yeah. Blood & Pearls isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. On the other hand, with the rise of self-published extreme horror and splatterpunk, Blood & Pearls might just have an audience out there waiting for it.
Just, uh, good luck finding a copy. I had to order mine online from a used bookstore, and it looks like the sequels are going for like 17 bucks a pop. Not insurmountable … but still kinda pricey for a cheesy fantasy novel full of boobs and blood.
But hey, as a pleasant surprise, the used copy I got was signed.