The mighty Prester John, aka Hurricane John, whom the Mongols call Wan Tengri, is a red-bearded champion from the Roman gladiatorial arenas. He seeks fortune and glory in the lands of the East, while also spreading Christianity by way of conquest. His wanderings bring him to the edge of the Karakorum Desert where lies the mysterious city of Turghol. Turghol is said to have many riches and a beautiful princess, but is controlled by seven evil Wizards of Khasimer who are the masters of the Flame Winds, a deadly storm that burns any who challenge them to cinder.
As is stated on the beautifully illustrated cover, Flame Winds is a heroic fantasy in the CONAN tradition. Norvell Page’s author’s note explains that he was fascinated by the medieval tales of the heroic Catholic priest Prester John who may have actually been a famous gladiator. Flame Winds is an old school, or more accurately put, original school, sword & sorcery pulp fiction, which I usually have affection for. However, in the first few chapters, I was under the impression that Prester John or Wan Tengri (he seems to be called more often by the latter) is what those who haven’t actually read Robert E. Howard’s tales assume Conan to be like.
Wan Tengri is absolutely fearless, extremely strong, and near unbeatable in combat, to the point of being boring. He has the self-confidence and dialog that would rival any WWE (that’s World Wrestling Entertainment, for the unaffiliated) pro wrestler. Seriously, Mr. Page’s rendition of Prester John makes Rick Flair or The Rock seem humble. Wan Tengri makes an excuse for every time he doesn’t simply over-power his enemies with brute force, as if twenty-some to one odds isn’t reason enough to avoid a fight.
I’d just about had all the chest-beating that I could stand (I really can stand a lot, I do my own share of it) and was ready to call it quits, when Wan Tengri’s plans to single-handedly divide and conquer went horribly awry. Then Page’s story-telling genius finally started to shine.
Retaliation for Wan Tengri’s actions is taken out on his loyal Mongol companion, Kasser, and Wan Tengri is also imprisoned in a dank, dark dungeon. Left alone with his thoughts, he starts to question the wisdom of his plans and begins to see the foolishness of his overconfidence. Just when all seems lost, Wan Tengri does what most of us would do. He prays to Christos, and that’s not a Norse or Greek deity of war, but the Christian God, Christ the Father. He promises Christos a hundred thousand new followers if only he will see him through. Just like that, the invincible Prester John becomes a human being. Once it’s realized that Wan Tengri really doesn’t take all his boasting seriously and he admits to himself that just maybe he’s been a little foolish, the humor of this tale is revealed. Concealing that element until the reader is well into the story is like Norvell Page is telling us to not take his character or tale too seriously and just have fun.
The writing has its fair share of faults and is highly theatrical (it’s full of thees and thous) but is in keeping with the genre and style of its time. Flame Winds was originally printed in the late 30s in the pulp magazine, Unknown, so the story is true to its form. In a way, too, this style does lend some credibility to the tale, just as it’s believable that the dramatically told ancient legends of King Arthur, Beowulf, or the Trojan War could have stemmed from real-life characters or events.
While Flame Winds is in the tradition of CONAN, Prester John doesn’t hold-up to any of Robert E. Howard’s stuff. So if you’ve got a hankering for some classic sword & sorcery but haven’t read any before, Howard is who you should look to. But if you’re already an aficionado, Flame Winds is an entertaining book to add to your collection.