My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an absolutely glorious collection of short stories centered loosely around the doings and goings-on in the lost land of Hyperborea, which lies in the general vicinity of Greenland not long before the last ice age buried the place under the snow, but while the country is still covered with forests and jungles and men and women capable of the most extraordinary passions and obsessions and adventures. Now, be mindful–you won’t hear a lot about those passions and obsessions in this story cycle–not the passion or the obsession part, anyway. You’ll see them, but you won’t feel them, if you take my meaning. Watching characters anguish is not what the Hyperborean cycle is really all about.
The series of stories fits comfortably in alongside Robert E. Howard’s Hyborean stories about Conan and his gang, but Smith’s wizards and forlorn lovers and minor deities are playing a different game, and in many cases for much higher stakes than Howard’s. For Smith’s mystics, and they pretty much are all mystics, the wizards and the warriors and the lovers alike, hacking and slashing and the glory that comes from it and a good bard to make sure everyone hears about it just isn’t enough. To some extent, that affects his characters, who tend to be passive, often more acted upon than acting on their environment. Modern readers may chaff at the lack of anguish the victims of his horrors express.
But Smith’s Hyperborean cycle isn’t really about the characters. Although several of these stories share characters, there’s not really very much progression to their story–they don’t evolve, they don’t grow, they don’t follow much of an heroic or anti-heroic arc. Finally, the stories aren’t really about them. The stories are about Hyperborea, and what it means to you, the reader. Because Smith’s greatest contribution here reminds me more of Rowling’s than Howard’s in one important respect. The chief attraction of the Potter universe is the place itself. It’s a marvelous sandbox, one of the few alternative reality stories that I’ve seen in years that was actually interesting, and not just another tiresome dystopia. Who wouldn’t want to hang around Hogwarts for a bit? Same thing with Smith’s Hyperborea. If you are immune to the urge to stand in the chill breeze that blows across the summit of some Hyperborean peak and gaze out under the golden sun towards the violet horizon that stretches across a plain dotted with lost cities filled with cursed treasures and wizard’s towers and haunted forests, then these stories are not for you.
But if you like a good sandbox, you won’t find a better one than Smith’s Hyperborea.