Many fantasy books are set in a fantastical past, like Conan‘s Hyborian Age: a time of magic and high adventure before recorded history.
What if someone wrote a novel using fantasy adventure tropes–a powerful hero fighting wild creatures, spanning different environments–and set it in the actual historical period before recorded history?
Now imagine it was written by a Pulitzer-nominated author who beat out William Faulkner for a literary award. Manly Wade Wellman, besides having the greatest name for a fantasy writer, was that author.
Battle in the Dawn collects the handful of short stories that Wellman wrote about Hok the Mighty. But rather than write random “adventures,” Welmman advanced every story further in Hok’s life, starting with his adolescence and leading through the establishment of his tribe and his explorations across his world. While this book barely qualifies as a novel, there is a constant progression from story to story.
But more interestingly, Hok is Cro-Magnon, an early modern human. His people have achieved sentience, but they have no technology to rely on (besides stone and spear). Savage–but historical–beasts dominate Hok’s world, from sabre-tooth tigers to mammoths. Neanderthals serve as an orc-like menace, as brutish sub-humans who only know how to kill and eat.
Wellman wrote Hok in the breathless style typical of early sword-and-sorcery fantasy, mostly during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. I found that charming. The stories feel exciting and adventurous and big.
A reading of Battle in the Dawn is a fine way to spend an evening.