Reviewed by James La Salandra
Ben Bova is a unique figure in the world of science fiction. Though he has authored well over a hundred titles—his sprawling Grand Tour series representing his most prodigious effort for its size and scope—Bova is perhaps best known to fans of the genre for having helmed Analog magazine following the sudden death of founder John W. Campbell in 1971. Bova garnered six Hugo Awards during his time at Analog, but more than these he also acquired a wealth of experience with science fiction’s roots in the pulp stories of the Golden Age. The essence of the pulp era is on prominent display, shining brightly throughout his latest work, Orion and King Arthur.
The first novel in the Orion series to be released in over 15 years, Orion and King Arthur is at once a continuation of Orion’s story, as well as an introduction to those who may be less familiar with previous works.
John O’Ryan is no mere man. Called Orion, as the hunter, he was created (rather than born), by The Golden One, known to humanity as numerous gods such as the Egyptian deity Aten, the Greek Apollo, Ormazd to the Zoroastrians. Aten has programmed into the fiber of Orion’s being strength and powers that elevate him far above the abilities of even the greatest of mortal men. A blend of Hercules and Quantum Leap’s Dr. Beckett, Orion is sent by Aten to various points in time and space to do the self-made god’s bidding. Sometimes an assassin, always a warrior, previous novels explore battles and struggles throughout history and legend. Orion has fought alongside Alexander the Great, played a part in the siege of Troy, waged war among Mongols in the time of Genghis Khan, and battled aboard spaceships in the far-flung future. Many times he has died, and every time he is recreated by Aten for a new, bloody purpose.
In Orion and King Arthur, Orion finds himself translated to the British Isles, as the native Celts and Britons wage wars with each other, all the while contending with frequent assault at the hands of the invading barbarian Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. As is always the case, Orion has little memory at the beginning of the tale, though soon his task is made clear to him by Aten: Arthur must fall, and Briton with him. However, remembering enough to recall his hatred of Aten, Orion resolves to thwart the god’s goals at every turn. Taking on the mantle of protector, Orion devotes his latest incarnation to defiance of Aten and all other Creators. All of them, that is, save for Anya, known to men as Athena, Artemis, Isis…and known to Orion as beloved.
Comprised of three books that span the life of Arthur as he quests to unite all of Briton, Orion and King Arthur shares much in common with other notable pulp series, such as Robert E. Howard’s Conan novels. Chapters are broken down into numbered sub-chapters, and there is an episodic feeling to each chapter that is at once compelling and frustrating. Bova revisits several descriptions and themes as if each chapter were meant to stand alone, and this repetition at times thwarts the otherwise gripping pace of the story. Very little of the relationship between Orion and Anya is expressed through action or dialogue, relying largely on Orion’s repeated review of the fact of their relationship. However, though this does leave the reader wanting for a bit more depth, it is very much in line with the novel’s pulp sensibilities.
Bova is careful to include many of the elements integral to Arthurian legend, while at the same time offering his own version of events. Orion fits well into the established storyline, and the legend is brought down to level of realism without losing any of its mythical status. Majestic castles are rare, replaced instead with rudimentary timbered structures more befitting the era, for example, and yet many aspects of the legend remain, such as Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, and even the Sword in the Stone. The execution is commendable, creating a seamless blending of the two story lines. As Arthur’s story progresses, so too does Orion’s.
For all its bloody battles and captivating imagery, fans of hack-and-slash pulp fiction will be most pleased with this effort. Those familiar with the previous novels should be more than satisfied by the story, as secrets to Orion’s existence are revealed, and the character’s role and powers begin to transcend that of Aten’s mere pawn. Though far from high fiction and not always as fast-paced as one might hope, Orion and King Arthur is nevertheless an exciting read. Fans of Bova’s, as well as those with a yen for Arthurian fiction, will find to be quite entertaining. As the epilogue leaves the door open for still more Orion novels, it’s hoped that the author won’t wait another 15 years before crafting another.