From 1999-2006, noted historical fantasist Keith Taylor wrote a series of nine short stories for Weird Tales magazine about the adventures of Kamose, high priest of Anubis, set in ancient Egypt. Taylor has described himself as being heavily influenced by pulp notables like Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, with those influences in clear evidence here. I would describe the Kamose stories as a blend of horror and dark fantasy; the setting of ancient Egypt, its culture, religious practices, and magic are all so foreign to the modern reader that I found them reminiscent of the dark fantasy and exotic settings of authors like Tanith Lee. Taylor plays it straight when it comes to the magic and religion of ancient Egypt. The Egyptians believed that their gods were active in human affairs, monsters prowled the wastelands, and magic could be wielded by devoted practitioners, usually in service to the gods. We see all those things in evidence here. Kamose is a powerful sorcerer who stole the god Thoth’s magical secrets to become the preeminent magician in Egypt. This knowledge cost Kamose the undying enmity of the god, along with Kamose’s unfortunate wife and children. For all this, he is still a loyal servant of the pharaoh, and works as a kind of mystical troubleshooter and investigator of plots and schemes that threaten Egypt’s interests.
Some mild plot spoilers follow.
SERVANT OF THE JACKAL GOD reprints all nine of the original Kamose tales, adding two entirely new stories. They are each stand-alone stories, but collectively build a larger narrative. Indeed, several encompass Kamose’s efforts to discover who has stolen an emerald scarab from inside the chest of the recently deceased pharaoh during his mummification rites. This collection includes (original publication dates parenthetically noted below):
“Daggers and a Serpent” (1999)
“Emissaries of Doom” (1999)
“Haunted Shadows” (2000)
“The Emerald Scarab” (2001)
“What Are You When the Moon Shall Rise?” (2002)
“The Company of Gods” (2002)
“The Archpriest’s Potion” (2003)
“Corpse’s Wrath” (2006)
“Return of Ganesh” (2012, only found in this anthology)
“The Shabti Assassin” (2012, only found in this anthology)
The stories contained in SERVANT OF THE JACKAL GOD are full of traditional Egyptian mythology, magic, monsters, and folklore, with schemes by rival priesthoods, assassins, and the gods themselves commonplace. Vengeance, greed, and lust for power are common themes, with Kamose often acting as a stern dispenser of justice. Throughout, Kamose is a fascinating character: he is at once a powerful, nigh-immortal sorcerer, but he is by no means omniscient or omnipotent. Kamose’s mystic powers have limits, but his clever use of magic usually allows him to stay one step ahead of his many enemies. Secondary characters, including his enemies, servants, and two paramours (a lamia and a she-sphinx, though the latter is only referred to in passing), all add to the layered setting. A few of the stories are told from other perspectives, including “Lamia,” told from the perspective of Kamose’s monstrous and barely controlled lover; and “The Archpriest’s Potion” and “Corpse’s Wrath,” following the adventures of Si-hotep, a thief and agent of Kamose. I appreciate that in some stories Kamose appears only in another guise (e.g., as the elderly gem merchant Ganesh) who interacts with his agents similarly to the pulp avenger the Shadow.
The only aspect that could have improved this collection would have been a final tale (or two) that wrapped up the mystery of who had sought to steal the dead pharaoh’s emerald scarab. This is a long-standing mystery in the series, and while Kamose has made some progress in his investigation of the plot, by the end of SERVANT OF THE JACKAL GOD, he still has no idea who the real malefactor is. Let’s hope that Taylor is hard at work writing that wrap-up story.
SERVANT OF THE JACKAL GOD is a refreshing collection of dark fantasy stories set in a world with which most readers are likely to be unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity and, dare I say it, alienness of the setting and magic add a great deal to these stories; these are by no means the all too common tired rehashes of western European folklore from the Middle Ages that populate much of the fantasy genre. Highly recommended.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers