King Khan is a novel by Harry Connolly, author of Child of Fire and other stories in the Twenty Palaces universe. I've reviewed Child of Fire elsewhere, and as I said there it was an excellent read, but riding my tolerance for dark material closely, presenting a gritty, horrific universe where even the protagonist can't avoid getting his hands … and the rest of him… dirty in more ways than one.
King Khan is almost the polar opposite of the Twenty Palaces universe. While Harry's deft mastery of language is still evident, and there are still individual scenes and phenomena whose nature and horrific momentary imagery remind us just who it is that's writing this thing, overall, King Khan is exactly what it sets out to be – an exuberant romp that distills all the best of pulp fiction adventure into one single ludicrously entertaining masterpiece.
Professor Khan is well-traveled, exceedingly well-spoken, kind, and wise – all told, the ideal gentleman of adventure, whose combined backstory adventures remind us of all of the classics of the historical literature from John Carter to Quatermain to Doc Savage.
Khan also happens to be a gorilla. A very well-dressed and undoubtedly civilized gorilla, but a gorilla nonetheless, from a family of super-apes which attempted to conquer the world at one point. Despite some considerable prejudice against him, he is nonetheless a full professor in England, a respectable citizen with no major ambitions, it would seem, beyond imparting his knowledge to others and living a more peaceful life than he had.
And then a golden arrow flies out of nowhere, nearly impaling him, and carrying a note in what appears to be his own handwriting.
I won't detail the plot; that would be both difficult and terribly spoilery. Suffice it to say that this is pulp fiction as it is best remembered, and very seldom truly was – steadily building suspense and mystery with dashing heroes, last-minute escapes, super-science of a dozen different flavors and all as preposterous as the 1930s ever managed (infra-violet lights, shrinking rays, super-stilts, and many more), set against the backdrop of the burgeoning film industry, and nods to everything from the luchadore tradition of Mexico to the alternatives in sexuality and outlook which would never have made it to the original pulps.
I love Professor Khan; he is the type of main character I tend to like – clearly a superior specimen but never the sort to rub anyone's face in it, yet with some weaknesses others may not suspect. Some of these come from being a gorilla; Harry's clearly looked up some aspects of gorilla physiology and habits which point up some particular limitations of the otherwise frighteningly superior creatures; Khan's sort of gorilla is also clearly enhanced in some ways, since a regular gorilla not only doesn't have a genius intellect, but also isn't physically capable of human speech or writing.
Khan of course picks up various associates and sidekicks along the way – Bertie, son of one of his colleagues and the classic "earnest young man" who's rather feckless but serves as a sounding board for Khan; Sylvia, the Damsel in Distress who is of course far more capable than she looks; and Officer Cross, a crooked cop with a penchant for violence. Together this unlikely crew is pitted against forces that turn out to threaten, not merely Professor Khan and Sylvia, but the entire world.
I loved this book. I see there is a prequel (Khan of Mars) but written by another author, which does make me slightly hesitant to pick it up; Harry did this one so letter-perfect I'd be severely disappointed to find the other didn't live up to it.
In any case, this is a great book for any fan of classic pulp adventure; while there's an occasional gentle dig at the original material, it's all done with great affection and understanding. Pick this up… and, if you're a roleplayer, pick up the game Spirit of the Century which was the reason that Harry wrote it in the first place!