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Literature / The Pusadian Series

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The Pusadian Series is a group of stories written by L. Sprague de Camp in the 1950s and then taken up again in the 1970s. The intent of the series was an attempt to take the basic premise of Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age series of a prehistoric setting with lost civilizations full of magic and adventure, and frame it in a more realistic manner, avoiding all the pseudo-anthropological Unfortunate Implications of Howard’s work, while at the same time trying to come up with a more historically and geologically plausible explanation for those lost civilizations.

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The series is set during the last Ice Age, when the sea level was much lower, resulting in a different geography for the world. Europe and Africa are joined into a single land mass, whose coastline extended far out onto what is today the flooded continental shelf. The Atlantic Ocean features a number of archipelagos and a small island continent called Pusad or Poseidonis, which gives its name to the series.

Civilization was based in the Euskerian lands, which were dominated by the Tartessian Empire centered in what is now Spain. To the south was the mountain range of Atlantis, inhabited by savages, beyond which lay the realm of Tartaros, and to the north Aremoria, a land of Celt-like barbarians. The northernmost known land was Thulê, a snowy land, and the southernmost Blackland, a swampy one. To the west were the islands of the Hesperides, including the island kingdom of Ogugia, beyond which lay the small island continent of Pusad, home to a patchwork of small states, of which the strongest was Lorsk. To the south of these were the Gorgades, a group of three isles inhabited by corsairs. East of Euskeria was the realm of Phaiaxia, a non-Euskerian country subject to Tartesia near the Thrinaxian Sea, and to the southeast Lake Tritonis, home to the warring Tritons and Amazons.

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In de Camp's scheme, the legend of this culture that came down to classic Greece as "Atlantis" was a garbled memory that conflated the mighty Tartessian Empire with the island continent of Pusad and the actual Atlantis, a barbaric mountainous region that is today the Atlas mountain range.The setting is infested with sorcerers, monsters and meddling gods who are all gradually losing their powers as the use of iron becomes more widespread, as iron counteracts magic. This environment must be navigated by De Camp’s heroes, who are most often than not natives of the Kingdom of Lorsk, in Pusad.

The series is made up of one novel and seven short stories:

  • "The Tritonian Ring" (1951) – The only novel in the series
  • "The Eye of Tandyla" (1951)
  • "The Owl and the Ape" (1951)
  • "The Hungry Hercynian" (1953)
  • "The Stronger Spell" (1953)
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  • "Ka the Appalling" (1958)
  • "The Rug and the Bull" (1974)
  • "The Stone of the Witch Queen" (1977)

The Pusadian Series contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Anachronic Order: The stories were not written in any chronological order, but at least those that have Gezun of Lorsk as protagonist can be put in some kind of order depending on how old Gezun is in them. Also "The Tritonian Ring" is set several generations before all the short stories.
  • Anti-Hero: All of the series’ protagonists have a tendency to lack an overabundance of scruples.
  • Anti-Magic:
    • Iron has the power to negate magic and unravel spells, in particular meteoric iron. This property extends even to blocking the power of the gods themselves.
    • Vakar has the sobriquet 'Zhu', which means ‘one who lacks supernatural perceptions, meaning that he lacks the powers of telepathy, prescience, or spiritual communication that are completely normal for everyone else in the setting. Not even the gods visit him in dreams and he is incapable of performing magic.
    • The Eye of Tandyla is the most powerful anti-demonic artifact in the world. Even the arch-demon Tr'lang cannot get near it. Regular magic works just fine on it though.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: While in other lands aristocrats can be jerkassess, the nobility of the land of Belem is positively hated by the common folk, as they’re accomplices in their sorcerer-king’s project to turn all the non-noble population into headless automatons.
  • Badass Bookworm: Prince Vakar of Lorsk would love nothing better than to spend the rest of his life studying philosophy and pondering the mysteries of the world. But when the situation calls for it, he kicks an ungodly amount of ass.
  • Badass in Distress: Over the course of his quest Prince Vakar finds himself prisoner with distressing frequency.
  • Book-Ends: "The Tritonian Ring" begins and ends with the gods of the world arguing about what to do about the threat of star-metal.
  • Cain and Abel: Prince Vakar and his brother Kuros hate each other’s guts, and they don’t bother to hide it in the slightest.
  • Cold Iron: The mere touch of an object made of iron is enough to break any enchantment. Holding an iron object allows one to see through glamour and illusion. Wearing iron on your person can prevent the gods themselves from communicating with that mortal.
  • Determinator: Prince Vakar will let nothing get in the way of completing his quest, if for no other reason than to prove his brother wrong.
  • Complexity Addiction: The plan to usurp King Vuar's throne in "The Eye of Tandyla" failed because it was so needlessly complicated it sabotaged itself. To wit, Ilepro, sister of the High Chief of Lötor, pretends to be widowed and goes to Lorsk to become Vuar's concubine, accompanied by her husband (who is disguised as a woman). After Vuar becomes infatuated with her, she convinces the childless king to name her son his heir. Then she asks the king to send his court wizard to steal the gem in the statue of the goddess Tandyla from her temple in Lötor (a theft which the priests of Tandyla will let him get away with), so that once the she has it, she will summon the arch-demon Tr'lang to have him kill the king while she uses the Eye of Tandyla's demon-repelling powers to keep Tr'lang from killing her for summoning him. Since the priests of Tandyla were in on the plan, one has to wonder why they didn't just give her the Eye instead of going through all the pantomime of having Derezong the sorcerer steal it, which is what eventually gets them all caught.
  • Diamonds in the Buff: Attractive women wearing nothing but jewelry are a common occurrence.
  • Eldritch Abomination: A curious case in that the majority of the deities in the setting qualify both in terms of power and looks, but their motivations, personalities and behavior are distinctly humanlike.
  • Ethnic God: Each nation in the Pusadian world has its own distinct set of deities looking over them, and they are very jealous of other gods interfering in their turf.
  • Exact Words: One really needs to be careful about phrasing agreements on this setting.
    • Ximenon of Tritonia makes a habit of this.
      • He swore the Tritonians' most sacred vow that if Vakar managed to negotiate a peace treaty between the Tritons and the Amazons and get their Queen to marry Ximenon, he would give Vakar the Tritonian Ring. After Vakar delivers on his promise he gives Vakar the ring... and promptly has his seized to be sacrificed, since he never agreed to let Vakar go with it's his live after giving him the ring.
      • How Ximenon got the ring in the first place. He took the fallen star he had recovered to the master smith Fekata of Gbu and offered him enough gold and ivory to break a camel's back if he would fashion a ring from it. After the ring was completed Ximenon took off telling Fekata he could have his payment if he came to Tritonia to collect after Ximenon had made himself king.
    • The Gamphasants consider killing an unconscionable breach of their strict moral principles, so the penalty for breaking the law in their country is to be locked in an arena with a man eating lion, which then just so happens to eat the prisoner. Everyone involved at least admits that it’s a Distinction Without a Difference:
      Vakar: Quibbling! If you force a man into a pit with a lion you are responsible for his death as if you had sworded (sic) him personally.
      Abeggu: True. We Gamphasants, being an honest folk, admit it, but what can we do? Our ethical standards must be maintained at all costs, or at least so think most people.
    • Fekata has another run-in with this trope when Vakar visits him with the Tahakh. After bargaining, Vakar swears an oath that Fekata can have all the leftover star-metal after making one item for Vakar. Vakar promptly demands a whole sword big enough for him instead of the ring he had originally come asking about. Fekata is pissed, but at least he manages to keep half the star-metal.
  • Evil Prince: Vakar’s brother Kuros is conspiring with the Gorgons to kill his brother and seize the throne of Lorsk.
  • Evil Sorcerer: You can’t swing a dead cat in this world without hitting a wizard, witch or sorcerer. And with few exceptions, they are not the nicest of people to be around.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Although not as transparently one-on-one as in Howard’s work, there are still recognizable matches between the civilizations in the setting and historical ones:
    • The Tartessian Empire is supposed to be a remote ancestor of the Tartessian civilization that existed in southern Spain.
    • The Aremorians are Celts.
    • Typhon stands in for Ancient Egypt.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Zigzagged. "The Stronger Spell" revolves around a prototype musket which is used very effectively during the story, but is thrown into the ocean by the end by an armorer who fears such things would put him out of business. It is the only time a firearm appears in the series.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: The gods derive their power from the worship of the followers. This is why the star-metal represents such a danger to them. It blocks their means of direct communication with their worshippers and their ability to directly affect them with their powers. If the use of iron became widespread the people would stop believing in the them and the gods would perish.
  • His Name Is...: Söl the spy gets a poisoned dagger thrown at his back just as he is about to tell Vakar that Prince Kuros is the traitor selling out Lorsk.
  • Honey Trap: King Awoqqas tries to use one of these to capture Vakar when he comes to believe him to be a powerful sorcerer.
  • Human Sacrifice: Many of the peoples in the setting like to sacrifice people to their gods on special occasions.
  • Implacable Man: Qasigan, the Gorgonian priest and sorcerer sent to stop Vakar’s quest, chases him across half the known world and every time Vakar thinks he’s lost him Qasigan always manages to almost catch up with him. Later subverted when it’s revealed that Qasigan was able to accomplish this because his Coranian servant could read people’s thoughts from miles away, allowing them to always be able to tell what direction Vakar was going. Once the Coranian gets killed Qasigan promptly gives up the chase and heads back for home.
  • Jerkass Gods: With the possible exception of the Pusadian gods, all the deities in the setting tend to treat their votaries like crap.
  • Low Fantasy: "The Tritonian Ring" is the only story were the events of the plot have any world changing repercussions, but even there all the events have a decidedly Low Fantasy flavor.
  • Machiavelli Was Wrong: Being a royal himself, Prince Vakar sees nothing wrong with oppressing peasants, but he points out that making them hate you to the point that they try to kill you on sight is a very bad idea.
  • The Magic Goes Away: As iron weapons become more widespread, magic and sorcery begin to weaken all over the world.
  • Mineral MacGuffin: "The Tritonian Ring" starts as a quest to get the titular ring, but eventually it becomes apparent that what Vakar needs is more of the weird grey metal the ring is made off.
  • Mistaken for Granite: The throne of the island kingdom of Ogugia is made of stone and shaped like a coiled serpent. Rumor has it that the throne is an actual giant snake enchanted to remain petrified, a rumor that is confirmed when the wizard Qasigan breaks the enchantment and the serpent attacks.
  • The Napoleon: Vakar speculates that one of the reasons why King Awoqqas wants to turn all his subjects into izzuni has to do with his height.
    "In a flash of insight Vakar realized why Awoqqas sat upon a throne six feet up, and why he was beheading the entire commonality of his kingdom. He could not bear to be smaller than his subjects, and therefore was employing this drastic method of reducing their stature so that they should no longer look down upon him in any sense of the phrase."
  • Necromancer: King Awoqqas of Belem, who has found a way to have an air spirit to possession and animate a recently decapitated body, which then stops aging and becomes an obedient servant. Such being are known as izzuni and Awoqqas intends to subject every one of the common subjects of his kingdom to the treatment.
  • Normal Fish in a Tiny Pond: Prince Vakar is positively tiny by his homeland's standards, as the average Lorskan is 6'6" but Vakar is only 5'10", making him the continual loser in wrestling and other sports competitions. But in the rest of the world he is considered a tall and powerfully built man, as well as a fearsome warrior.
  • Off with His Head!: The first step to create an izzuni is decapitation.
  • Planet of Hats: The people of the Gorgon Isles are all pirates.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The people of the Pusadian nations see themselves as warriors first and foremost, which makes the bookish Vakar the odd man out.
  • Random Events Plot: The stories in the series have barely any connection to each other, and even within the only novel-sized one, Prince Vakar’s quest keeps running into weird random problems.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The entire plot of "The Tritonian Ring". The gods foresaw an existential danger to them arising from the Kingdom of Lorsk and it's royal family, so they plotted a Gorgonian invasion to destroy Lorsk. This in turn caused Prince Vakar to go on his quest and discover the star-metal that would become the bane of the gods. If they had left things very well alone, they would've been perfectly safe. This is lampshaded at the very end of the novel by the Pusadian gods.
    Lyr: What matters it whether we perish by the spread of the star-metal or by the extermination of our worshippers? Why could you not leave well enough alone? If we had not caused Entigta to stir up his Gorgons, the Tahakh would still be a mere lump of meteoric iron, a harmless curiosity in the hands of Awoqqas of Belem.
    Okma: No doubt all this was fated from the beginning.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!:
    • Once Vakar kills all their medusas with his star-metal sword Qasigan and the other priests of Entigta decide to get back on their ships and get the fleet the hell away from Lorsk, incidentally abandoning King Zeluud and the entire Gorgonian army in the process.
    • At the very end of "The Tritonian Ring" Prince Vakar realizes that there really is no reason for him to stick around and fight a civil war to get the Lorskan throne back from his usurping brother when he doesn't even like his kingdom or its people... and he has the gorgeous queen of a far more pleasant island kingdom waiting for him back in Ogugia. He picks up his stuff and simply leaves.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: The standard way the gods communicate with their followers is to visit them in their dreams and talk to them.
  • Thunderbolt Iron: The titular Tritonian Ring is made from iron recovered from a falling star.
  • Tulpa: The gods of this setting were brought into existence by the belief of their followers in them. This is demonstrated in "Ka the Appalling" when the titular deity is created by an attempt to scam money out of the people of Typhon with a fake new religion that went a little too well.
  • Ultimate Blacksmith: Fekata of Gbu, the greatest metalworker in the land of Tartaros and a powerful wizard to boot. The figures out a way to work meteoric iron without ever having seen the metal before.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: King Ximenon of the Tritons and Queen Aramnê of the Amazons. After Vakar successfully negotiates a peace treaty that will put an end to their war and reunite both kingdoms, they both decide to sacrifice Vakar to their gods rather than let him keep the Tritonian Ring, which they gave him as payment.
  • Warrior Poet: Prince Vakar is prone to start quoting epic poems and songs at the drop of a hat, even in the middle of a battle.
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