"Beyond the Phoenix" from Elak of Atlantis
Planet Stories - Paizo Publishing
Trade Paperback, $12.95, 2007
Kuttner's version of Atlantis seems to be a rather large place, with a number of kingdoms on the continent. When this story opens, we find Elak and Lycon working as sell-swords for Phrygior, ruler of the small kingdom of Sarhaddon in western Atlantis. All is not well in Sarhaddon, for the high priest Xandar is plotting againt Phrygion, and has arranged for Elak and Lycon to be sent on a diversionary errand to the kitchen while his henchmen do away with Phrygion.
Elak figures out they've been duped in time to return to the king's chambers, but not before the king is mortally wounded. When Elak kills the guards who are assassinating the king, a battle ensues between Elak and Xandar, with Elak driving Xandar off but not defeating him. The dying monarch warns Elad that Xandar is in the service of Baal-Yagoth, a god of evil. He also charges Elak with protecting his daughter Esarra and places a bracelet about Elak's arm that can only be removed by the Phoenix.
The rulers of Sarhaddon claim to be descended from the phoenix and to have come from another realm, one not of this world. Upon their deaths, all monarchs and their children are sent on a bier along the river and through the Phoenix Gate to be returned to their homeworld.
Fleeing Xandar and his forces, Elak, Lycon, and Esarra take Phrygion's body to the underground cavern where the funeral barge lies waiting. They manage to evade their pursuers when the Phoenix Gate opens, but it's a case of from the frying pan into the fire. There are factions beyond the Phoenix Gate, some of whom are in league with Xandar.
This is the second shortest story in the Elak series, just slightly longer than "The Spawn of Dagon." But of the ones we've examined so far, this is in many ways the best. None of the characters have much depth, but that's not surprising, considering the length of the tale; neither are they completely cardboard cutouts, either. Esarra is not the warrior Velia becomes in "Thunder in the Dawn," but without her aid Elak and Lycon would have died before leaving the castle. The final battle, in which Elak has to use sorcery as well as sword to win was a departure from the stock ending of hero trouncing villain by means of the hero's brawn.
Once the adventurers find themselves on the far side of the Gate, things get decidedly weird. I'm not sure what it is about fantasy written by certain of the Weird Tales writers, but some of the descriptions they wrote were just flat out bizarre in ways that most authors of the past couple of generations don't come close to. Kuttner's descriptions in "Thunder in the Dawn" and here in "Beyond the Phoenix" where he's describing what Elak encounters upon leaving this world are of that type. Maybe we've had too much of a diet of generic quest fantasy and aren't seeing that sort of thing written anymore. Or maybe I just haven't found it.
The thing I noticed most, though, was the writing itself. When a reader notices the writing, it's often a sign that the writer is failing in some way to draw the reader into the story, or else the writer is doing something experimental in the way he or she is using words. In this case, I noticed the writing because I wasn't able to finish the story in one sitting due to interruptions. When I returned to it, what struck was how much better written this story was than "Thunder in the Dawn." Kuttner is one of those writers you can see evolve (and in a few examples later in his career, devolve) as an artist from one work to the next. The prose in "Thunder" had a purple tint to it. In "Phoenix" the prose is leaner and crisper than in the two earlier Elak installments.
Overall, this was a good, entertaining piece of sword and sorcery adventure. While it will never be considered one of the great classics of the field, it's definitely worth investing the time to read.