FORTRESS, by R. Paul Sardanas and Iason Ragnar Bellerophon
— review by Grace Ximenez
This book is going to be enormously challenging to review. And this is far from my first rodeo…I’ve been reviewing books and films for over two decades, and have even reviewed works in the Talos universe (having done a review of the splendid anthology Rickie in 2022).
Fortress, however, is literally beyond assessment or criticism of a pulp yarn. It is brilliant, mystifying, moving…it is either an utter anomaly to the world of pulp fiction, or a blueprint (albeit an impossible blueprint to re-create) of what pulp fiction can be in the 21st Century.
God, where do I begin?
The Doc Talos stories — now something like a dozen books and still going strong — have from the beginning been…well, something never seen before. I love pulp fiction…it can be so exciting and fun, it can be trashy in the best definition of the word, it can take you on adventures, put you in a state of tingling peril from the safety of your easy chair. The sixteen year run from 1933-1949 of the Doc Savage pulp was a blast.
That is not the Doc Talos experience.
I can only refer to the Doc Talos mythos as a pastiche because the English language lacks for an adequate descriptive. We ain’t in Kansas anymore Toto…we’re not even hanging out for simple, glorious fun on the 86th floor of one of Manhattan’s most famous skyscrapers.
The Talos stories feel like astonishingly erudite mainstream fiction whose topic is a lurid subterranean world. Yes, they are for mature audiences. There is explicit sex and sometimes shocking violence. But they are truly mature because you need to use your brain in reading them. All of your brain. Your intellect, your perceptive qualities, your human insight. These tales are not going to let you off easy.
Case in point: Fortress.
On the surface, this is a pastiche re-telling of arguably the second-most famous (after The Man of Bronze) Doc Savage pulp story, Fortress of Solitude.
The original is one of the wildest rides in the mad world of Thirties pulp storytelling. It reveals the secrets of Doc’s titular fortress (shamelessly appropriated as a concept by Superman comics)…it introduces John Sunlight, who became one of the most iconic villains of the pulp age…it has a diesel-engine rush of action…it has goofy, quirky elements like two spies who are immensely strong women with a weirdo, princess-bitch of a sister named Fifi. It is a Lester Dent tour-de-force.
Forget all that when reading Fortress. Yes, the basic elements are there. Doc’s mysterious, remote sanctuary…the Sunlight character (renamed Sergei Marakov and known as “Illumus”)…
It chronicles the penetration of Doc Talos’ sanctuary by Illumus, and the momentous experiences thus triggered.
But holy shit, this becomes Doc Savage written by some ungodly-brilliant savant. My head began to spin literally on Page 1 (wherein Illumus is being interrogated while imprisoned in a Russian Siberian gulag).
There is no pulp bad-guys-plot-to-take-over-the-world stuff. The content is a brutally sophisticated discussion about idealism, despotism…the terrors and despair of totalitarian imprisonment…it’s about hope and dreams and what can either preserve or crush them.
And there will be no let-up for the entirety of this story. James Talos — Doc — never physically appears. He is presented (and grippingly illuminated) through streams of thought layered over the books he reads when in solitude (which include Thomas Aquinas, Sun Tzu, and much much more).
Explicit sex, yeah…but so psychologically complex and compelling I didn’t feel a single molecule of prurience. Both Doc and Illumus are driven by undercurrents of erotic obsession as well as their intense idealism, and that is all laid bare for us to see.
History is meticulously channeled…from the gulag to 1930’s Russia…I felt as if I was looking behind the scenes at the hidden shaping of the 20th Century world.
The personalities of the story — from Doc and Sergei, to the interrogator, on down through a clutch of purged Russian scientists, to figures out of the shadowy corners of history — are all so finely drawn I felt like I personally knew them all. And the climax, when it comes, is devoid of pulp extremes or melodrama.
The artwork (some of which decorates this review — the book contains dozens of full color paintings by fine artist Iason Ragnar Bellerophon) somehow manages to be visceral and visionary all in the same stroke.
I put down this book (which I read in a single, nonstop rush), literally stunned by it.
Do not enter Fortress looking for a pulp romp. Do not look for adolescent thrills. But be prepared to think as you have not thought in a long time, and prepare to be changed by characters and creators who have not settled for anything less than a harrowing — and ultimately inspiring — trip into the heights and depths of being human.
(Grace Ximenez hosted a noir/story/roleplay/film site for almost a decade, and headlined three pulp-peril short-story collections called The Grace X Anthologies. She is the author of the Doc Talos fan fiction story “Esperanza”, and was the primary inspiration for the character “Grace X” in The Talos Chronicle.)
3 thoughts on “Review of Doc Talos “Fortress””
great review, Grace!
Yes, many thanks, Grace! Your review leaves me utterly speechless. The fact that the books have reached a reader like you makes all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile.
Thanks guys! If I keep reading the Talos books (which of course I will), I am either going to become the most literarily enlightened person on the planet…or my head is going to explode. Probably both. R. Paul, how you and Iason keep doing this is frankly astonishing. Keep on raising that bar…you’re taking us to heights undreamed.