11 October 2016

The Sea Lord Unsheathes His Sword

Sea Lord [The Swordsman]
William C. Heine
Don Mills: ON: PaperJacks, 1984

William C. Heine's The Last Canadian is one of the worst novels I've ever read; its ending stands as the stupidest.

God, it's awful.

You'll understand then why I so much wanted to read Sea Lord, the author's only other work of fiction. I hunted for years, scouring used book stores, thrift shops and garage sales, but never saw a single copy. It shouldn't have been such a challenge. A former editor of the London Free Press, Heine was a local author, and the novel had enjoyed a couple of good mass market paperback runs. The first, published as The Swordsman (Toronto: Seal, 1980), had the better cover, but I wasn't picky.

In the end, I resorted to one of those "weedy companies" that sell books for a penny.

A bargain at twice the price.

Sea Lord – the Swordsman, if you prefer – is Mirand, slave of Tehemil, born of a fallen Greek noblewoman in ancient Tyre. The first page is nearly his last as he suffers a near-fatal knife attack at the hands of a hired assassin. In the first page of The Last Canadian, hero Gene Arnprior stays up late watching TV in his suburban Montreal home.

On the surface, Heine's two novels seem very different, but they're not. Both adolescent fantasies, in the first, Gene Arnprior wanders a post-Apocalyptic world, beds some babes, and is remembered as one of the greatest figures in history; in the second, Mirand wanders the ancient world, beds babes, and is remembered as one of the greatest figures in history. In his own time he's considered a god.

Mirand is very much mortal. The slave owes his life to ironworker and renowned swordmaker Elisha, who hides the injured slave in his house. Beautiful daughter Naomi slowly nurses Mirand back from near-death as he stares at "the swelling lines of her dress, straining to hold her full breasts":
He amused himself as he sipped the broth with the thought that on [sic] day he would possess her. As a spasm of pain burned across his torn body, he choked on a half-laugh of self-pity and amusement. "If I live," he amended his promise to himself, "if I live I will lie with her one day."
Ah, classic Heine.

When the spasms subside and hearty laughter returns, Mirand becomes Elisha's apprentice, all the while fantasizing about his saviour's beautiful daughter:
Now he indulged himself in his daydream while his arms and hands methodically shaped hot iron under a hammer. "She is beautiful, and she is strong, too. I saw her practicing on the beach with bow and arrow and she could split a plank better than her father. Those arms are strong but her breasts are soft and someday I'll lie in her perfumed bed, with linen cloths like Tehemil had, and cool wine waiting in a flagon, while I kiss the ironworker's daughter and stroke her breasts and slide into her. I'll rouse her out of her coolness... she will beg for more..." and he gave the rod he was hammering a blow that snapped it in two. 
Not only do Mirand and Naomi lie together, they marry and have children. With papa Elisha and a mother-in-law who barely exists, he amasses immense wealth trading goods throughout the Mediterranean. A mistress, a kidnapping and an attack by pirates bring excitement to what would otherwise be a rather mundane existence. The biggest and longest of Mirand's adventures begins with a voyage to the western coast of Africa made without Naomi and the in-laws. The ship is caught in a violent storm and, a couple of months later, he and his crew wash ashore in South America.

There Mirand finds favour and more with an Aztec king known as Iximhunti. Owing to Mirand's blond locks, the monarch determines that the newcomer is a god, showers him with gifts and insists he sleep with his beautiful daughter.

And yet, Mirand longs for home.

Using all they've managed to salvage from the Minnow, he and his crew construct a ship unlike any the world has ever seen, and set off in the expectation that they will find a current that will take them home.

Will they make it?

Did I care?

Heine learned something working on The Last Canadian. The writing on this sophomore effort is better, and yet I was bored to tears. All has to do with the fact that The Last Canadian takes place during Cold War, a time I remember well. Heine's take on the geopolitical world of Pierre Trudeau, Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev is so absurd as to be entertaining, but I have no idea what to make of his depiction of ancient Tyre. Accurate? Astute? Silly? He didn't make me care enough to find out.

The only thing that kept me going was the hope of another stupid ending.

I wasn't disappointed.

Favourite passage:
It was as pretty a fight as Carthage had seen for many moons. It lasted as long as it takes a man to make a woman desperately anxious, which depends greatly on the skill of the man and the experience of the woman, but is measured by each in different terms.
Object: An entirely unattractive 256-page mass market paperback with cover art by Martin Visser. At first glance it looked to be one of PaperJacks' more competent productions, then I noticed this:

The Swordsman? But, um, we're calling it Sea Lord now, right? Remind me again why we're keeping the title of his book on historic sailing ships a secret.

Access: Library and Archives Canada has the novel in its collection, as do four of our universities. C'est tout.

As The Swordsman, used copies of the Seal first edition range in price from US$1.50 ("Very Good") to US$78.54 ("Good"). PaperJacks' butt ugly Sea Lord edition is far less common. As of this writing, just two are being offered online: US$6.25 ("Fair/Good") and US$12.00 ("VG+").

In 1984, Robert Hale published the first and only British edition (right). A hardcover, the only copy I've ever seen – indeed, the only copy listed online – is offered by Attic Books, mere blocks from Heine's old newspaper office. A Near Fine signed copy, it's being offered at US$100.

Just the thing for the Heine collector.

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  1. A vendor on Amazon UK has a copy of the Robert Hale hardback for a keener GBP6, before p&p. No signature though.

    1. Thank you, Anon. Still a deal. Paperbacks will only fall apart with repeat readings.